Monthly Archives: March 2009

St. Joseph

For awhile, I’ve been studying a television preacher on one of the cable stations we get– Doctor Harold Camping, who is predicting the end of the world on May 21, 2011.  He’s found this news in the Bible, he says, and tries to prove it through fast and far-fetched calculations. He’s against churches and their services and their sacraments, like baptism. The age of the churches is over, according to him, just believe in the bible, it’s all there.

Questioners call in and he ends the session thanking them for sharing, but there’s not much sharing going on. It’s Dr. Camping’s monologue.

He’s not interested in recent biblical scholarship either. His main point is to get ready for May 21th by living a good life, otherwise you’re going to be burned to a crisp.

Today’s the feast of St. Joseph and I’m sure Dr. Camping isn’t interested in saints either. In fact, when he talks about the bible, he pays little attention at all to the people in it. The bible is just for us, waiting for the world to end.

But a world of witnesses produced this book, and Joseph was among them. He’s a guide, not only to the bible but the faith it represents. He’s a “son of David,” whom God calls from the small village of Nazareth to play an intimate part in the birth and life of Jesus.

In fact, in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth, Joseph is more prominent than Mary. He provides Jesus with a genealogy going back to Abraham. He is told by the angel not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife; he shouldn’t divorce her as Jewish law called for, and he should name the child, Jesus, “for he will save his people from their sins.”

After the visit of the Magi, he’s told to take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt. Then, the angel tells Joseph to return to Israel after Herod’s death. Finally, he makes his home in Nazareth in Galilee, where his family would be safer away from Herod’s heir, Archelaus, who ruled in Judea.

Clearly, according to Matthew’s gospel, Joseph has a major role in the birth and early life of Jesus Christ. Is that role over?
“Whenever the divine favor chooses someone to receive a special grace, or to accept a lofty vocation, God adorns the person chosen with all the gifts of the Spirit needed to fulfill the task at hand,” says St. Bernardine of Siena in the readings for today’s feast.

“This general rule is especially verified in the case of Saint Joseph, the foster-father of our Lord and the husband of the Queen of our world, enthroned above the angels. He was chosen by the eternal Father as the trustworthy guardian and protector of his greatest treasures, namely, his divine Son and Mary, Joseph’s wife. He carried out this vocation with complete fidelity until at last God called him, saying: ‘Good and faithful servant enter into the joy of your Lord.’”

St. Bernardine goes on to say that the church today honors Joseph as the fulfillment of the “ noble line of patriarchs and prophets” of the Old Testament. Christ honors him in heaven as he did on earth.

“Remember us, Saint Joseph, and plead for us to your foster-child. Ask your most holy bride, the Virgin Mary, to look kindly upon us, since she is the mother of him who with the Father and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns eternally.”

Joseph was blessed with a wonderful interior faith. I don’t think he was too interested in calculating the end of the world.

Prayer, Fasting and Mercy

The sermon on prayer, fasting and mercy in today’s reading by St. Peter Chrysologus, the 5th century bishop of Ravenna, is a reminder not to forget what this season is about.

Prayer, fasting and mercy are joined together; they are one, the saint says. “They give life to each other…Prayer knocks at the door, fasting obtains, mercy receives…Don’t separate them; they can’t be separated. If you have only one and not all of them together you have nothing.”

Prayer knocks at the door of an ever-present God, whom we so easily forget. We must keep the God who made us and saves us before our eyes and let God inform how we live and act.

Fasting reminds us our common human condition. We are all poor.  Fasting is an effort we make to experience the human condition, especially as it’s reflected in the poor of this world. It counters our tendency to independence and isolation.

Too often today, I feel, fasting becomes a self-help project.  Maybe we can lose a few pounds and be a healthier person, and so in the end it all comes down to us.

That’s why mercy follows prayer and fasting.  It’s the gift of life and love that we give to others.
Without mercy–a better way to describe almsgiving, I think– prayer and fasting are ineffective.

“Give to the poor and you give to yourself. “

The Cleansing of the Temple

I developed my homily yesterday about Jesus cleansing of the temple using some of the material from my previous post, and I began by inviting the people to see what the temple area is like today.

“If you were fortunate to go to Jerusalem today–maybe “fortunate” isn’t the way to see it, given the upheaval there now– you would see where the Jewish Temple, the place described in our gospel today, once stood, where Jesus once prayed and where, as our gospel today says, he drove out the buyers and sellers.

A guide would surely lead you to the “wailing wall,” the ancient temple’s western wall, where Jews today pray according to their religious traditions. That wall was part of the platform for the former temple.

A guide would surely point out what an engineering marvel Herod the Great, the temple’s builder, achieved. How did he quarry these immense stones and put them in place!  This place was a wonder of the ancient world.

Your guide would lead you up to the temple mount itself where the ancient temple buildings once stood. He would point out some of the stones from the building burned and leveled by Roman armies in the year 70 AD, when the Romans destroyed the city.

You would also see the great golden domed Moslem shrine that stands in the place of the Jewish temple and the mosque that stands on the platform where the temple once stood.

You would see firsthand some of the tightest security in the world in place. This is a sensitive area where the least incident could lead to a political explosion heard around the globe.

Then, your guide might take you to the southern part of the temple area, where archeologists have uncovered the stairs that Jewish pilgrims took to enter the temple in the time of Jesus. You would see the baths where they purified themselves with water before entering this sacred place.

Surely, your guide would tell you. “Jesus walked up these stairs.” And as today’s gospel says, he walked towards the place where people were buying and selling and created an incident.”

A number of people after Mass remarked that they had never realized what consequences the cleansing of the temple had for Jesus. It was the act that decided his fate.

Some asked also about the role of the Jews in his death.  There are recent stories in the media about this. Is the Catholic Church holding the Jews responsible?

No. It isn’t. I wonder if an analogy can be drawn from our present involvement in Iraq. Should the American people be held responsible for the barbaric torture of people in our war there? I hope not.

I think the temple incident clarifies that question. I believe the guardians of the Jewish temple, the elite who benefitted economically and politically from this important religious place, who were tied to the Roman establishment of the day, were the prime movers who brought Jesus to his death.

It’s important not to lose sight of the fundamental reason Jesus wanted to cleanse the temple. It signified God’s presence and guidance of his people.  First, God is present in us as individuals : “Don’t you know that you are the temple of God and his Spirit dwells in you.” Jesus himself recognized this usage.

But God is present in our world and all its institutions too. The psalms often proclaim that God is king of all the earth. That doesn’t mean just the physical world. Our businesses, our schools, our political structures, our cities and nations are God’s too; he wishes them to be holy and just and true.

It’s a temptation today to give up on our institutions, to criticize and blame them.  We as individuals and the institutions that make up our world are always in need of reform.  We are not perfect, but we must strive to be, guided by God and his grace.

3rd Sunday of Lent

In Jesus’ time, the temple was the center of Jewish life and worship. Its long history began when King Solomon built the first temple in Jerusalem in 960 BC,  in the city founded by his father, King David. Within it he placed the Ark of the Covenant, containing the stone tablets on which the commandments given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai were inscribed.

The temple was a holy sign of God’s presence and continual guidance of his people.

Solomon’s temple suffered a grave blow when it was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC. Rebuilt by the Jews under the Persian ruler, Cyrus, it was threatened again in 167 BC when Antiochus Epiphanes tried to end Jewish worship in it and substitute a cult of his own. A fierce Jewish revolt under the Maccabees regained its possession and the temple was rededicated to the worship of God in 164 BC.

In 20 BC Herod the Great began a massive rebuilding of the temple on a grand scale as a sign of his own Jewish piety and to impress his overlords, the Romans. Herod’s temple — its ruins can be seen today in Jerusalem — stood till its destruction by the Romans in 70 AD. Jesus worshipped there, while it was still being built.

Jesus’ cleansing of the temple, which three gospels report, was a startling and provocative act. Certainly, his words about destruction triggered an alarm for the guardians of this venerable place and caused them to take steps to stop this trouble-maker from Galilee. If he overturned the tables in the entrance way and drove people out, what would he do next?

But Jesus claimed that he himself was the new temple; he was the new lawgiver who came to fulfill God’s command of love. He is God’s presence; the Word dwelling among us and in whom we dwell.

Lent calls us to personal reform, but doesn’t it call for reform and rededication of institutions as well? We may think right away of some of the world’s secular institutions that need it–like banks and governments. But how about our churches, parishes, our religious communities–don’t they need reform too?

Is this action of Jesus a reminder that God sees the whole world as his temple, and wants it to be a place of  justice and truth?

As once you came into the temple, come to us, Lord Jesus,
and cleanse us from all that makes us unholy.

Silence the noise that prevents us hearing you,
and help us see when we are blind.
Turn over the barriers that block your word,
drive away the distractions that stop our awareness of you.

Give us the wisdom of your commandments.
For you command only what is good,
We are temples of the living God,
help us to know who we are.

How we go to God

One saint I want to meet someday is St. Irenaeus, the 3rd century bishop of Lyons, because I like the way he thinks. Let me change slightly some of his words from today’s reading.

“God keeps calling us to what is primary by what is secondary, that is, through things of time to things of eternity, through things of the flesh to things of the spirit, through earthly things to heavenly things.”

The saint offers the example of Moses striking the rock and water comes out. People drank and were refreshed, but something more happened–they knew through the water, though dimly, a generous God who slaked their thirst.

No demeaning of creation in Irenaeus. Don’t neglect it, he says.

I’ve just come from a good meal and good company–things of time, things of flesh, earthly things. And it was more than eating and talking.

Lord, I cry

“‘Lord, I have cried to you, hear me.’ This is a prayer we can all say. This is a prayer  of  the whole Christ.”
In the selection from his great commentary on the psalms found in today’s readings, Augustine sees them as universal prayers. They’re not just prayers of an anonymous person from long ago, or prayers that have become part of Jewish worship or Christian worship, or even prayers I make my own today.

“This is not my prayer, but the prayer of the whole Christ.”

The psalm he calls a prayer of the whole Christ is a cry of pain, of fear. Hardly any words to it at all.  Christ prayed like this in the darkness of the garden of Gethsemani, the saint says, when his sweat became drops of blood. His prayer was not made of well-framed thoughts, it was the groaning of his heart.

All the cries of human heart are in that cry of Christ, Augustine continues, and his prayer does not end.  The story of the Passion of Jesus does not end. The garden is an everywhere, a timeless place, and his cry embraces all.

But the cries of Jesus are heard, the saint concludes, his pain and fear are taken away. Resurrection came for him, and it comes to those who are united to him.

What does the Pope really think?

We need more opportunities to hear the Pope when he lets his hair down (and a good head of hair he still has),  One place to hear him is in his informal meeting with the priests of Rome, usually at the beginning of Lent.  Rome is his diocese, after all, and he doesn’t  mind exploring questions with the priests who work its streets.

John Allen has that dialogue translated from Italian at the National Catholic Reporter site:

The Transfiguration of Jesus

The glorious transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain before his disciples came after he predicted his suffering and death and told his followers they must follow him.
Undoubtedly they found his sayings hard to hear. He had to go to Jerusalem, endure great suffering and be put to death, Jesus told them, adding: “Anyone who wishes to be a follower of mine must renounce self, take up his cross and follow me.”

Peter, as usual reacting for the others, protested “Heaven forbid! No, Lord, this shall never happen to you.” Most likely he was also thinking: “Nor should it happen to me, either.”

Yet are we less disturbed to hear about carrying a cross and losing our life?

In answer to his disciples’ misgivings, Jesus took Peter, James and John up a high mountain and was transfigured before them. They saw his face shining like the sun and his garments brilliant white.

They were filled with awe as they realized his glory was also theirs, a glory not only to be experienced in his future kingdom, but also here on earth.
The New Testament Letters of Peter, influenced by Peter’s experience, promise we will share God’s glory even now, in this present life. Even now, the dark places here and now can shine if we hold them up to the light of faith. ( 2 Peter 1:16-19)

It is not God’s will that the Cross burden us too much.

Even now, Jesus reveals his glory to us wayfarers, that we may rejoice. Even now, we can see intimations of God’s glory in our earthly lives, brief encounters, transitory moments, transfigurations of a lesser kind, as Jesus leads us to the mountain to see his glory.

Lord Jesus,
lead me to that mountainplace
of stronger light
and surer sound
where I may see your glory.

The mountain pilgrims climb,
up steep valley paths,
their clothes covered with everyday dust,
and tired in their bones.

The mountain of truth:
“Come, let us climb the Lord’s mountain
to the house of the God of Jacob,
where God instructs us in his ways
that we may walk in his paths.”

The lovely mountain
where lowly sparrows feast,
and one day outshines
thousands elsewhere
because you are there, my God.

The mountain close by,
that I climb everyday;
the holy ground I stand on

Light and truth,
bright as blinding snow,
whom Peter, James and John saw,
“Lead me on,
and bring me to your holy mountain,
to your dwelling place.”

For more,  see “lent and easter” at

Gospel stories: Mirrors for seeing ourselves

The gospel stories are like mirrors that help us see ourselves and what we should be, St. Asterius says in today’s readings. (Can’t find anything about him in my limited dictionaries of the saints). He’s reading the parable of the Good Shepherd, who leaves the sheep at pasture to search for the stray.

“He crosses many valleys and thickets, he climbs great and towering mountains, he spends much time and labor in wandering through solitary places until at last he finds his sheep.

And when he finds it, he does not chastise it; he does not use rough blows to drive it back, but gently places it on his own shoulders and carries it back to the flock. He takes greater joy in this one sheep, lost and found, than in all the others.”

The hidden meaning of the parable? “It teaches us that we should not look on people as lost or beyond hope; we should not abandon them when they are in danger or be slow to come to their help.”
God does not look on people as lost or hopeless. Neither should we.

Praying from the heart

The Lenten season calls us to pray. But prayer, Jesus teaches, is more than saying words. “Go into your room, and close the door, and pray to your Father in secret.”

Praying means entering the inner room of your heart, shutting the door to the noise, the trivialities, the cares that grab our attention. Put them aside.

I pray. But I’m not a lonely individual isolated in the dark. A gracious God is there with me, who loves me and knows my cares and needs. God, who “makes one tiny room an everywhere,” is in the room of my heart, giving me the gift to speak. “Lord, open my lips,” is my first prayer.

And God does. It may not be to speak a lot, words get in the way when multiplied. We believe that lent is a season of grace when God helps us to pray. He gives graces for praying  to those who have stopped praying. He stirs up desire in those who pray with little fervor.

Are we making a good lent? We are if we are praying again.

I pray from a human heart, made from the earth, tied to flesh and blood. The  human heart is meant to reach far.

I watched a wonderful PBS program last night on the monarch butterfly, which makes a spectacular  journey from the far reaches of Canada to a small breeding ground in Mexico. It’s an unlikely creature for such a journey–beautiful to look at but  poorly designed for flight, so frail that rain and winds can beat it to the ground. It doesn’t seem up to it at all.

Yet it makes the journey, no one knows how, in a world where mysteries abound.

For more on how to pray, see  “Lord, teach us to pray,” at