Monthly Archives: December 2010

Love in Ruins


The playwright Stephen Sondheim in a recent interview on The Newshour said that playwrights should listen to their audience and know who they are and what kind of world they live in. Preachers have to do that too.

You can see St. Peter Chrysologus of Ravenna, in a homily today in the Office of Readings, doing that. He’s describing a fearful world falling into ruins. It’s the Roman Empire coming apart as barbarian tribes invade it in the late 5th century.

The bishop of Ravenna uses biblical images, not current events, to describe what’s happening. It’s a deluge, like that experienced by Noah in his time. But notice how he sees God working lovingly through it all:

“Thus, when the earth had grown old in evil, God sent the flood both to punish and to release it. He called Noah to be the father of a new era, urged him with gentle words, and showed his trust in him. He instructed him about the present and reassured him about the future. God did not just issue orders but shared in the work of shutting into the ark all that was to be born into the world in the future. Thus by sharing in love he took away servile fear, and he protected with shared love whatever their shared labour had saved.”

So God works lovingly, and not at a distance, but side by side with Noah as the deluge goes on, taking away his fear.

It’s a world such as Abraham experienced, unsettling, calling for change. But a loving God is also at Abraham’s side as he journeys into a strange world:

“Thus God called Abraham out of the heathen world, lengthened his name from ‘Abram’, and made him our father in faith. He accompanied him on his journeys, protected him in foreign lands, enriched him with possessions, and honoured him with victories. He made promises to him, saved him from harm, accepted his hospitality, and astonished him by giving him the offspring he had despaired of. Abraham was favoured with so many good things and drawn by God’s sweet love so that he would learn to love, not fear: love, not fear was to inspire him to worship.”

Mosaics in the ancient churches of Ravenna often feature Abraham.

The bishop of Ravenna goes on to describe Jacob wrestling with a loving God and Moses called to lead a people into a new land. The God who works in ruins and challenges does not lead to fear and despair but love and promise.

As we discover God in the deluge, on the journey, in desperate situations, we say with Moses: “If I have found favor with you, show me your face,”  the bishop says. “Love cannot accept not seeing the thing that it loves. That is why the saints counted whatever they deserved as being nothing if it did not mean that they could see the Lord.”

Experiencing the mystery of the cross, finding a loving God in our sufferings, leads us to seek the face of God.

Peter, the bishop of Ravenna , spoke golden words, that’s why he was called “Chrysologus.” The Empress Galla Placida, who had her share of suffering and exile, heard him speak and probably gave him that title. He’s one of the patrons of preachers. They say he was always afraid of boring people when he spoke. Would that we were all fearful of that!


Drink Plenty of Water

“Drink plenty of water if you want to get rid of that cold” they told me yesterday. And here’s St Ambrose, one of the doctors of the western church, saying the same thing today:

“Drink, then, from Christ, so that your voice may also be heard. Store up in your mind the water that is Christ, the water that praises the Lord. Store up water from many sources, the water that rains down from the clouds of prophecy.
Whoever gathers water from the mountains and leads it to himself or draws it from springs, is himself a source of dew like the clouds. Fill your soul, then, with this water, so that your land may not be dry, but watered by your own springs.
He who reads much and understands much, receives his fill. He who is full, refreshes others. So Scripture says: If the clouds are full, they will pour rain upon the earth.
Therefore, let your words be rivers, clean and limpid, so that in your exhortations you may charm the ears of your people. And by the grace of your words win them over to follow your leadership. Let your sermons be full of understanding. Solomon says: The weapons of the understanding are the lips of the wise; and in another place he says: Let your lips be bound with wisdom. That is, let the meaning of your words shine forth, let understanding blaze out. See that your addresses and expositions do not need to invoke the authority of others, but let your words be their own defence. Let no word escape your lips in vain or be uttered without depth of meaning.”

Looking for a Guide?

Look to Jesus Christ, St. John of the Cross writes:

“Therefore if someone were now to ask questions of God or seek any vision or revelation, he would not only be acting foolishly but would be committing an offence against God – for he should set his eyes altogether upon Christ and seek nothing beyond Christ.

God might answer him after this manner, saying: This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; listen to him. I have spoken all things to you in my Word. Set your eyes on him alone, for in him I have spoken and revealed to you all things, and in him you shall find more than you ask for, even more than you want.

I descended upon him with my Spirit on Mount Tabor and said This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; listen to him. You have no reason to ask for new teaching or new answers from me because if I spoke to you in the past then it was to promise Christ. If people asked questions of me in the past then their questions were really a desire of Christ and a hope for his coming. For in him they were to find all good things, as has now been revealed in the teaching of the Evangelists and the Apostles. “ (Ascent to Mount Carmel)


Where’s John the Baptist preaching today?

Where are our John the Baptists today? I was watching Fr. Corapi on television last night on EWTN, preaching before a large appreciative audience. His talk was about Why Catholics Leave the Church. They leave because of pride, he said.

They don’t recognize the truth of the Church or the authority of the pope. By missing Mass and the sacraments they cut themselves off from sanctifying grace. Pride is their downfall.  Fr. Corapi comes down hard on “lousy” seminaries and liberal schools, Catholic and secular. His world is black and white; he doesn’t like grey.

In today’s readings, John the Baptist speaks from the wilderness and with sharp eyes looks at the world of his day. They come from Jerusalem and Judea, from everywhere to hear him. No one is excluded from his call to repent, not even himself.

He’s especially hard on the Pharisees and scribes who think they’re safely home:  “When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees
 coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers!
Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?
Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.
And do not presume to say to yourselves, 
‘We have Abraham as our father.’
For I tell you, 
God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones.”

When a John the Baptist preaches, no one is left out, including himself.  Try this one out as a John the Baptist sermon for today,





Tuesday Night at the Mission

Praying from the Gospel of Matthew: Chapters 1-16

Matthew’s gospel gives important information about the origin and birth of Jesus Christ, so it’s an important gospel to read in Advent. We’re also going to read it most Sundays this coming year.

Matthew’s gospel is the Church’s first Catechism, the most popular gospel read in the early Church.

Where and when was it written?

It was written probably around 90 AD scholars suggest, and they offer three possible places: Antioch in Syria, Sepphoris near Nazareth and Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee. When the gospel was written, these cities had become centers for Jewish leaders who had fled from Jerusalem after the destruction of the city and its temple in 70 AD.  From these cities, they were trying to rebuild Judaism after the tragedy of 70 AD.

In their efforts to rebuild they came into conflict with the followers of Jesus Christ who saw him as the new hope for his people and for all the world. The Gospel of Matthew reflects the deep conflict between these two groups. The sharp critique of the scribes and pharisees in the 23rd chapter of Matthew is an example of the contentious spirit that must have existed on both sides.

Galilee and Judea

Matthew’s gospel focuses on two places of Jesus’ life and ministry: Galilee and Judea. He was raised in Nazareth of Galilee. Joseph tells the story of his origins there. After his baptism by John, Jesus spent some years in Capernaum, along the Sea of Galilee; he called others to follow him, and taught and performed great wonders in that region.  Matthew’s gospel recalls the origins and ministry of Jesus in Galilee in the first 16 chapters of his gospel. His sources are the tax-collectors and fishermen who followed Jesus during this period. Peter speaks for them all as he calls Jesus “the Messiah, Son of the Living God.” (Chapter 16)

In the remaining chapters, Matthew’s gospel recalls Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, to Judea, where he will die and rise again. Afterwards, he sends his followers into the whole world to preach and baptize.

In Jesus’ time in Galilee, Herod Antipas (4 BC-39 AD), son of the infamous Herod the Great, who put the children of Bethlehem to death at the time of Jesus’ birth, ruled the region from his newly-built capital of Tiberias, only a few miles from Capernaum. His influence is important in the Gospel of Mattew even though he is mentioned only a few times in the New Testament. He ordered John the Baptist beheaded and later wondered if Jesus might be John come back from the dead. Jesus called him “that Fox.”

Later in Jerusalem, Herod came to celebrate the Passover and Pontius Pilate sent Jesus to him before passing the death sentence, but Jesus wouldn’t say a word to him. One interesting connection to Herod: Johanna, wife of Herod’s steward Cusa, was a follower of Jesus who stood with Mary and the other women at his cross.

Like his father, Herod the Great, Herod Antipas loved to build, and his splendid Greco-Roman city of Tiberias arose from 20 and 27 AD, while Jesus lived in Nazareth. It was a typical Roman city, with a Roman gate, stadium, spacious squares with marble statues, a grand palace with a golden roof and a large synagogue. To pay for it, and other big building projects in Galilee –Sepphoris, Caesaria Maritima– Herod sent his tax-collectors into the cities and towns of Galilee–places like Capernaum and Nazareth– to squeeze the fishermen and farmers for whatever they could get.

Herod was intent on exploiting the rich resources of Galilee and building up its economic potential, but for that  he needed money. Herod and his tax collectors weren’t popular among the people.

Highlights of the Gospel of Matthew

The highpoint of Matthew’s Gospel is found in chapter 16. At Caesaria Philippi  Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” “Some say you are John the Baptist, some say you are Elijah,” they answer. “Who do you say that I am?” he asks them. Peter answers “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Peter’s strong confession would be fiercely disputed by the  Jewish authorities from Tiberias in the year 90, and others before them during the time of Jesus himself.

We recognized some of their objections. Jesus came from nearby, inconspicuous Nazareth where his own neighbors rejected him.   Did he really rise from the dead? Rumors were that his disciples stole his body from the tomb. Perhaps he resembled Elijah, or John the Baptist, or one of the prophets, but he could be a false prophet too.

The Jewish authorities would also question the credentials of the chief followers of Jesus– uneducated fishermen and unpopular tax-collectors. How could they be authentic teachers in Israel?

Modern scriptural studies, by pointing out the real life situations that influenced the creation of our gospels, help us  understand them better. Our gospels  didn’t drop down from heaven, they came from people struggling over the questions Jesus asked  Peter: “Who do people say that I am?” “Who do you say that I am?” The gospels were written to answer his critics then;  even now,  we can appreciate these old disputes.

For example, Matthew’s gospel speaks to questions about the origins of Jesus, born of a virgin and conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Matthew’s gospel begins with a genealogy tracing Jesus back the David. He is a son of David. Joseph attests to his davidic origins, inspired by an angel. He testifies to Mary’s virginity. He guards the Child and Mary against the powers of darkness

Matthew’s Jesus speaks to the crowds from a mountain, like Moses, not just in a synagogue like the Pharisees. The gospel is filled with Old Testament references and miracles backing up his claims. Matthew’s gospel challenges the story that after his resurrection his body was stolen by his own disciples.

Matthew’s witnesses are ordinary people like Joseph, the just man, Peter, the fisherman, and Matthew, the tax-collector. “Flesh and blood” hasn’t revealed Jesus to them, but the Father in heaven. He has made them his star witnesses.

Did the Christians Lose in Galilee?

I think the followers of Jesus lost the battle with the new Jewish establishment in Galilee at the end of the 1st century, and many moved on to other places. Only some  remained in Galilee. The final words of Jesus to his eleven disciples in Matthew’s gospel seem to indicate a call to other places.

“The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them.  When they saw him they worshipped, but they doubted. Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”  Mt 28, 16-20

Our church is ever on the move, but  we are empowered to go with it to wherever the Spirit leads.

Here are two biographies of leading characters in Matthew’s gospel: Joseph and Peter.

Joseph, the Foster Father of Jesus

Peter: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”