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’s like 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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22nd Sunday C: Friend, Come Up Higher

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Meals of every kind are described in the New Testament. Jesus begins his ministry at a wedding banquet in Cana in Galilee, John’s gospel says. Before his death, he has a meal with his disciples and after his resurrection he has some meals with them again. Martha and Mary and his friends in Bethany celebrate the return of Lazarus from the dead at a meal. His enemies say he ate too many meals with tax-collectors and sinners. Some of Jesus’ most profound teachings and actions take place at a meal.

Today in our reading from Luke’s gospel Jesus is invited to a Sabbath meal at the home of one of the leading Pharisees, but this meal is different from those just mentioned. They were carefully watching him, the gospel says. At a Sabbath meal God is thanked for his gifts, which he gives to all, but at this meal Jesus is being watched. He’s not an ordinary guest as he enters this home. He’s there to be measured and grilled by his hosts and put in his place.

At the time of Jesus it wasn’t unusual for a symposium to take place at a meal, especially in the home of someone like the leading Pharisee in today’s gospel. A symposium was an occasion when there would be a discussion of issues: questions would be raised, controversial matters would be debated. It was a time for people with quick wits and sharp tongues to show off how smart they were.

At this meal Jesus was going to be discussed; questions and controversies about him would be brought up and he would be disposed of. So we might imagine the guests at the Pharisee’s home on that occasion were like spectators at a prize fight, looking for the best seats to watch and maybe even take part in the contest themselves.

If this meal was a symposium, and I think it was, listen carefully to Jesus’ words to those who were there. He doesn’t just tell his hearers about common etiquette; he reminds them what this meal should be all about. This is a Sabbath meal. It’s a time for thanking God for the gift of life. It’s a time for rejoicing, not for showing off how smart you are. This is time when God calls us up higher. “Friend, come up higher.” From our small places here on earth, from the smallness we might consider our lives to be, God calls us up higher. It’s not a time pulling people down with your smart words.

For that same reason, this is a meal where everyone should have a place at the table, not just the wealthy and the privileged, the smart and the powerful, but “the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.”

Now, that’s what our Mass is about, isn’t it? Our Mass is our Sabbath meal where we give thanks for the gift of life. We give thanks to God. It’s right and just, our prayers say. We do this at all times, “always and everywhere,” but now we do it as disciples with Jesus our Lord. We listen to his word, we come to him in the bread and the wine, and through them he comes to us.

“Lift up your hearts.” “Friend, come up higher.” We lift up our hearts to the Lord. God calls us to come up higher, to see our gifts and the destiny we’re promised, to recognize our relationship with one another, to let go of the fears and doubts that cloud our minds, to feel the peace and hope God wishes us to have. The Mass prepares us for the life beyond this time. . “The Mass is ended. God in peace.” “Thanks be to God.”

Our Mass is a wonderful teacher, and we’re meant to take what it teaches and make it part of the rest of our lives. Let me give you a simple example, since we’re speaking about meals. Suppose we could make our meals, our eating together, Sabbath meals, where we enjoy the gifts of God we find in food and in one another.

That may sound like a strange suggestion. It sounds strange because eating together is becoming a endangered practice today. For one thing, a lot of people eat alone today, or if they come to a meal they might as well be eating alone.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all our meals became times when we experienced those words of the gospel: “Friend, come up higher,” when we build each other up instead of tearing each other down, when we all feel welcome by others, even the stranger and the outsider, when we enjoyed the gifts of God in food and human companionship.

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Friday Thoughts: Flight Into Egypt

Flight Into Egypt Henry Ossawa Tanner American 1923 Met

Henry Ossawa Tanner, “Flight into Egypt”, (1923) (Metropolitan Museum of Art)


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A young lady and a good man. A tiny precious child. A tired donkey. An angel of God leading them by the lantern in his right hand.

You are one of them. You travel by night. Your party is small. But you are not alone.

The streets are empty. At least as far as you can see. Strange lands this side of the Red Sea.

Jesus is with you. He sleeps in your arms. He takes your family name. He rides upon your back. You walk a few feet ahead of Him to ensure the right and safe path.

You too are Jesus. Born a few days before. Completely wrapped up. Yet totally exposed.

Beyond the frame an onlooker more than watches. He paints the picture. He steadies the easel. He knows exactly where the finished work will hang.

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—Howard Hain

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http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/16947

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Blessed Dominic Barberi

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Tomorrow the Passionists remember one of their great missionaries, Blessed Dominic Barberi, who was born in Viterbo, Italy, in 1792. Early on, God gave him a desire to be a missionary, especially to England.

He dedicated himself to work for Christian unity, and in 1842 he went to England hoping to bring the English church and the Catholic church together as one. Blessed with a good mind Dominic wanted to engage the leading religious scholars in England to persuade them to unite with the Roman church.

The Industrial Revolution was changing the face of that country, however; thousands of poor Catholic immigrants from Ireland were flocking to the great English factory towns looking for work. They needed priests and Dominic, though he never mastered the English language, tirelessly preached and ministered to them. He shared the Gospel with them and his very self as well.

Dominic never got his wish to engage the learned scholars of England as a lecturer at Oxford but he was noticed by them all the same. One of the England’s greatest intellectuals, John Henry Newman, was attracted to Dominic, not by the tracts he sent to him, but by his zeal and humility. Newman was looking for those qualities in the Roman church.

“If they want to convert England,” Newman wrote earlier, “let them go barefoot into our manufacturing towns, let them preach to the people like St Francis Xavier–let them be pelted and trampled on, and I will own they do what we cannot…Let them use the proper arms of the Church and they will prove they are the Church.”

Dominic, humble, zealous and faithful, used “the proper arms of the Church.” When Newman decided to enter the Catholic Church, he asked for Father Dominic Barberi receive him.

“All that I have suffered since I left Italy has been well compensated by this event,” Dominic wrote later, “ I hope the effects of such a conversion may be great.”

And they have been.

 

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Bartholomew, the Apostle

 

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Today’s the feast of the apostle Bartholomew. Tradition says Bartholomew, also identified as Nathaniel, came from Cana in Galilee. Cana was only a few miles from Nazareth and the two towns had a major role in Jesus’ early life and the beginning of his mission. Many, no doubt, looked down on Cana, like Nazareth, and wondered if any good could come for there.

Yet, John’s gospel claims the miracle Jesus performed there, turning water into wine at a wedding, was the first “sign” of the promised kingdom to come. (Jn 2, 1-12) The family, probably farming people working the rich land of the plains of Esdraelon, faced a nightmare at the wedding: the wine was running out and embarrassment was sure to follow.

Was the family related to Jesus? At least they were friends. Jesus, his mother and his disciples were at the celebration.cana carol rothstein 7

 

The miracle has special meaning, John’s gospel says. More than an act of relief for a family’s embarrassment or a firm endorsement of marriage, it was a sign from God to this ordinary town and its ordinary people–and to ordinary places and people everywhere– of God’s great love. God delights in them. Words from the Prophet Isaiah often accompany the account of the Cana miracle in the liturgy. God loves poor Israel with all the ardor of a “young man marrying a virgin,” the prophet says. God’s love is bountiful, restoring, overflowing with delight.

Jesus performed two miracles at Cana, according to John’s gospel, two “signs” of the coming kingdom. Besides changing water into wine at the wedding, Jesus cured the son of a government official from Capernaum. The boy was “at the point of death, and his father came to Cana because he heard that Jesus was there. (John 4.46-54)

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Like Nazareth a humble little town, Cana declined further afterwards. In the late 19th century, a visiting English vicar commented on how poor it was:

“ (Kefr Kenna) lies on high ground, but not on a hill…A broad prickly pear led to the group of houses which perhaps represents the New Testament Cana. Loose stones were scattered around the slope. There may be, possibly, 150 inhabitants, but one cannot envy them their huts of mud and stone, with dunghills at every corner. Huge mud ovens, like great beehives, stood at the sides of some of the houses.

“ In one house a worthy Moslem was squatting on the ground with a number of children, all with slates on which verses of the Koran had been written, which they repeated together. It was the village school, perhaps like that at Nazareth eighteen hundred years ago.

“ A small Franciscan church of white stone with a nice railed wall, with a beautiful garden at the side, had over its doorway these startling words in Latin: ‘Here Jesus Christ from water made wine.’ Some large water jars are shown inside as actually those used in the miracle, but such mock relics, however believed in by simple monks, do the faith of other people more harm than good.”

Cana is still a poor town. You wonder why Bartholomew, one of its famous sons, hasn’t done more to bring it up in the world. Maybe it’s waiting for the time when all the poor places of the world are raised up to share in the splendor of the heavenly Jerusalem. Surely, they will because God loves them.

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“On the foundation stones of the heavenly Jerusalem the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb are written; the Lamb of God is the light of that city.” (Antiphon, Feast of the Apostles)

 

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Morning Thoughts: Stench of the Cross

Rembrandt Begger Seated on a Bank (1630)

Rembrandt, “Beggar Seated on a Bank”, (1630)


 

For we are to God the sweet aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing...

—2 Corinthians 2:15


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We see so many images of Christ Crucified. Museums and churches are full of them. And they should be. It is the greatest paradox ever told.

And to go along with the abundance of visual representations, there are of course also many artworks in written form depicting the Passion of Jesus Christ. Shelf after shelf can be filled with books containing the seemingly endless repertoire of poems, plays, and musical compositions based on the subject.

But none can capture the stench of death.

Smell moves us like no other sense.

It is so powerful. So quick. So nauseating.

Think of that the next time you’re riding the subway on your way to a museum. Think of that when a homeless man enters your subway car. Think of that when you’re tempted to switch trains at the next stop due to the stench.

Breathe deep instead.

Think of the stench. Think of that poor man—that poor sorrowful man dying right in front of you. The stench of rotting flesh. The stench of death.

No artwork that you’re on your way to see will bring Jesus and His Cross more to life.

Take a deep breath, and pray. You’re on holy ground.

Pray for yourself. Pray for the man. Pray for all those on board. Pray for the entire world.

Pray that that particular stench, that stench of death, right then and there, brings life.

That it brings life to hardened hearts.

That it brings life to senses numbed to the utter poverty of human suffering—suffering that manifests itself in oh so many ways.

That it brings life to what the world says can’t and shouldn’t be redeemed.

And give that gentleman a few bucks.

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The Metropolitan Museum of Art recommends an entrance fee of twenty-five dollars. Do you know how much consolation that poor suffering Christ riding right next to you would receive if you gave him that much?

Do you know how cheap a price that is to pay to be able to get so close to a living breathing masterpiece of sacrificial life?

Dig in deep. Dig into your pockets. Dig deep into the reserves of your heart.

You will be amazed how such a prayer, such an act of compassion, such a “living faith”, will transform the stench of death into the aroma of life.

Breathe deep. Pick up your cross. Die daily.

Get over yourself.

What a breath of fresh air!

Now that’s truly an entrance fee.

And it’s worth every drop.


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Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

—John 12:3


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—Howard Hain

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The Queenship of Mary

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“We live from feast to feast.” (St. Athanasius) The feasts of the church feed our faith; they’re linked together and we celebrate them one along with the other, one after the other.

The Feast of Mary’s Assumption, August 15, is one of the major feasts of Mary and it’s closely linked to the Resurrection of Jesus (Easter) and to her other feasts. The feasts of Mary always return to the mysteries of her Son.

The Queenship of Mary (August 22) is linked to the Feast of the Assumption. It originated in 1955 and points to a privileged place in heaven for Mary. She “was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory when her earthly life was over, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things.” (Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium 59)

The Old Testament commonly gave royal titles to God and those specially anointed by God; Christianity continued giving titles of royalty to Jesus and Mary. Mary, the Mother of Jesus, is called Queen in prayers like the Salve Regina and Regina Coeli.

However sublime her title, though, Mary on her part proclaims the greatness of her Lord, as she does in the portrayal of this mystery by Fra Angelico. (above).“May soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior. He who is mighty has done great things to me; holy is his name.”

She does not seek honors for herself. “Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.”

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