Monthly Archives: July 2011

Martha

Martha and Mary were not just related  by blood, St. Augustine says, they were related by the same holy desire.  “ They stayed close to our Lord and both served him harmoniously when he was among them.”

Martha served him as the “Word made flesh,” who was hungry and thirsty, tired and in need of human care and support. She longs to share what Mary enjoys, his presence, his wisdom and his gifts. And she will find her desires fulfilled.

“You, Martha, if I may say so, will find your service blessed and your work rewarded with peace. Now you are much occupied in nourishing the body, admittedly a holy one. But when you come to the heavenly homeland you will find no traveller to welcome, no one hungry to feed or thirsty to give drink, no one to visit or quarrelling to reconcile. no one dead to bury.”

“No, there will be none of these tasks there. What you will find there is what Mary chose. There we shall not feed others, we ourselves shall be fed. What Mary chose in this life will be realized there in full.  She was gathering only fragments from that rich banquet, the Word of God. Do you wish to know what we will have there? The Lord himself tells us when he says of his servants, Amen, I say to you, he will make them recline and passing he will serve them.

Jesus in the Temple, 2

It’s important to remember that Jesus, as well as being a humble native of Nazareth, was also was a regular worshipper in the temple at Jerusalem and was nourished by the great ideas and vision that radiated from this holy place.

Indeed, the Second Temple was admired throughout the world of his time. Whatever the Jews thought of Herod the Great, the unpredictable ruler of Judea, most would be proud of the magnificent temple he built. It was one of the world’s wonders.

Yet, when some spoke to Jesus about its beauty, how adorned it was with gifts, he replied “As for these things you see,  the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” (Luke 21,6)

The temple was not just a cause for national pride for the Jews; it nourished their spirituality. God, who was honored here, was no household god with limited power, or a national god concerned with one people. The Divine Presence honored here was the Lord of heaven and earth, the God of the nations.

That belief was expressed in the psalms that Jesus and his disciples would have prayed. Two psalms we pray in the Liturgy of Hours Wednesday and Thursday of this week (week 1) are prayers from the temple and its worship:

Psalm 47

All you peoples, clap your hands; shout to God with joyful cries.

For the LORD, the Most High, inspires awe, the great king overall the earth,

Who made people subject to us, brought nations under our feet,

Who chose a land for our heritage, the glory of Jacob, the beloved.

God mounts the throne amid shouts of joy; the LORD, amid trumpet blasts.

Sing praise to God, sing praise; sing praise to our king, sing praise.

God is king over all the earth; sing hymns of praise.

God rules over the nations; God sits upon his holy throne.

The princes of the peoples assemble with the people of the God of Abraham. For the rulers of the earth belong to God, who is enthroned on high.

Psalm 48

Great is the LORD and highly praised in the city of our God:

The holy mountain, fairest of heights,

the joy of all the earth,

Mount Zion, the heights of Zaphon,

the city of the great king.

God is its citadel, renowned as a stronghold.

See! The kings assembled, together they invaded.

When they looked they were astounded; terrified, they were put to flight!

Trembling seized them there, anguish, like a woman’s labor,

As when the east wind wrecks the ships of Tarshish!

What we had heard we now see in the city of the LORD of hosts,

In the city of our God, founded to last forever.

O God, within your temple we ponder your steadfast love.

Like your name, O God, your praise reaches the ends of the earth.

Your right hand is fully victorious.

Mount Zion is glad!

The cities of Judah rejoice because of your saving deeds!

Go about Zion, walk all around it,

note the number of its towers.

Consider the ramparts, examine its citadels,

that you may tell future generations:

“Yes, so mighty is God, our God who leads us always!”

The temple proclaimed God who rules over creation and the nations, but as Jesus reminded his disciples a place can pass away but the God proclaimed there does not pass away. In fact, Jesus spoke of himself as the new temple, who replaces this building and who cannot be destroyed,

Isaiah offered a similar message, which we also read today (Thursday morning, week 1)

“Thus says the LORD: The heavens are my throne, the earth is my footstool. What kind of house can you build for me; what is to be my resting place?

My hand made all these things when all of them came to be, says the LORD. This is the one whom I approve: the lowly and afflicted man who trembles at my word.” (Isaiah 66,1-2)

After the destruction of Jerusalem, Jews who had been banished from the city by the Romans were allowed at set times to stand on the Mount of Olives and mourn for the temple and their great city. Christians also would go there to remember that cherished institutions and human  endeavors can pass away, but Jesus Christ does not pass away.

I was with the people in the picture above, who looked out  from the Mount of Olives to the temple mount and Jerusalem across the Kidron Valley. Good place to put things in perspective these days.

Jesus in the Temple

Where did Jesus teach and pray and live when he was in Jerusalem? That’s hard to figure out today because the city was thoroughly destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, and since then earthquakes, wars, political and religious forces have hammered away at the old city.

Jerusalem destroyed: 70 AD

Archeologists try their best to reconstruct ancient Jerusalem and they’ve produced a wonderful model of the city from about the time of Jesus, which can be seen today at the city’s Israel Museum.  As the model indicates, the Second Temple built by Herod the Great dominated the city then. Jesus must have taught and prayed in this splendid place–still being built during his lifetime– as he came to celebrate the Jewish feasts.

His activity here triggered his condemnation to death.

Can we say more precisely where he taught and when he began teaching there? Luke’s gospel offers the interesting story that his parents, after missing him on one of their usual visits to the Holy City,  “found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” (Luke 2,46) This probably took place in the Court of the Gentiles, the extensive space that surrounded the temple itself, which we can see in the model. We can surmise that, as observant Jews, his family brought him to Jerusalem for the major feasts.

The name, Court of the Gentiles, indicates an area open to all, even though the temple building itself was open only to the Jews. In the Court of the Gentiles,  young Jewish children like Jesus and adults looking for a greater understanding of their faith were able to listen and ask questions of the Jewish teachers. At the same time, even those who did not share the Jewish faith were welcome here,  namely,  non-Jews, gentiles, who could speak to Jewish teachers, inquire about the Jewish faith and even pray to the unknown God.

The Court of the Gentiles was an important part of the temple area; it proclaimed Jewish openness to the world.  The psalms and the prophets spoke of the God of all nations and looked to the day when all peoples would be counted among the children of Abraham:

“In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house

will be established as the highest mountain

and raised above the hills.

All nations shall stream toward it;

many peoples will come and say:

‘Come, let us climb the Lord’s mountain to the house of the God of Jacob,

that he may instruct us in his ways

and we may walk in his paths.” Isaiah 2,1-5

The Court of the Gentiles was the place where Jesus proclaimed a new age that would fulfill these promises.  As he grew “in wisdom and age and grace” Jesus continued to go to the temple with his family from Galilee to celebrate the Jewish feasts, still “listening to the teachers and asking them questions.”

But after his baptism by John, Jesus’ visits to the temple changed. During the feasts he made extraordinary claims about himself and his mission, as John’s Gospel records.  His claims, along with healings he worked in Jerusalem– his cures of  the man born blind and of the paralyzed man, above all his raising of Lazarus from the dead– alarmed the temple authorities.

The gospels all record the disturbing incident that took place in the temple during the final stages of his ministry. According to Mark’s gospel: “He entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold  and those who bought, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. And he taught and said to them, “Is it not written, “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations?’ But you have made it a den of thieves.” (Mark 11,15-17, Matthew 21,1017; Luke 19, 45-46; John 2,13-17)

Not only was the Court of the Gentiles a place for teaching and prayer, it was also a place for exchanging money, getting advice from priests about where and how to pray and make your offerings,  buying food and animals for sacrifice. In a prophetic gesture, Jesus upset this traditional apparatus and called for renewing the temple so that it could fulfill its destiny as “a house of prayer for all the nations.”

The Gentiles would no longer be excluded from experiencing the Divine Presence;  Jesus signified he came to break down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile and reconcile both to God through his death. He himself would be the new temple and the sacrifice of reconciliation for all peoples.

No wonder that a major accusation made against him later at his trial before the Jewish leaders was based on what witnesses claimed were his threats to destroy the temple. “We heard him say ‘I will destroy this temple made from human hands and I will build another not made by human hands.” (Mark 14,58)

Some picture Jesus as a hapless Galilean peasant caught in a government net to catch and destroy potential revolutionaries, like Barabbas. Jesus went to his death for more reasons than that. His activity in the temple is an important part of his life and mission, and it led to his death.

Learning in Bad Times

I usually get up in the morning early listening to the news on National Public Radio. These days the news on NPR isn’t good. Today, the USA space shuttle program came to an end as the last mission landed on earth; the weather is going to soar to over a 100–another day locked in the house.  Congress too is locked in battles over the budget and the economy. There’s a famine in Somalia that will take the lives of thousands of the children.

Someone told me recently, he’s stopped listening to the news in the morning on the radio or reading the papers. It’s too grim.

So we turn to the Good News.

I must say I’m finding the Gospel of Matthew, which we’re reading these weekdays and on Sundays, surprisingly helpful. It was written to help people struggling with bad times.

As I mentioned in my last post (July 20), the bad times were around the year AD 90 when the followers of Jesus in Galilee were reeling from the attacks of a resurgent Judaism. Those attacks are described in Chapters 10-12 of Matthew’s gospel.

Instead of closing their eyes and hanging on tight, Jesus tells his disciples to open their eyes and their ears, because there’s something for them to learn. “Blessed are your eyes, because they see and your ears because they hear. Many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it and hear what you hear and did not hear it.”  (Matthew 13,16-17) He says that as he teaches them in parables.

Bad times can be the best times to learn. Some of the best things we know; some of the best insights we have;  some of the most creative thoughts may come to in bad times. God doesn’t stop speaking or teaching in bad time; God sows seed and opens new avenues. New treasures, new pearls are there to be discovered in the ground we walk over and the jumble of things that seem to overwhelm us.

That’s the message of this Sunday’s gospel, I think, which offers us the parables of the treasure hidden in the field and the pearl of great price and the net that pulls up a bewildering variety of things from the sea.  It’s a message continued in the mystery of the Passion of Jesus.

We don’t have to turn away from bad times. They’re times to keep your eyes and ears open, Jesus says. Like Solomon, in the first reading for Sunday, we should pray, not for blinders, but for “understanding hearts.”

Seeds on Tough Ground

We read the scriptures in our daily lectionary bit by bit. For example, today’s readings at Mass are:

Ex 16:1-5, 9-15
Mt 13:1-9

Over the year we read a lot of the scriptures this way, but it seems to me that we can miss what they’re saying if we don’t see the picture overall. In other words, the big picture behind our readings helps us to read them bit by bit, and modern scripture studies are helping us do that.

For instance, in the next few days we’re going to be reading in our lectionary a series of parables from the 13th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, beginning today with the parable of the Sower. Can the gospel as a whole help us understand what we’re reading ?

Way back in the 5th chapter of Matthew, Jesus called his disciples up a mountain and promised them a blessed life by living the beatitudes. Sublime teaching. We like it. He performed great miracles as a sign of his authority.  In chapter 10 he sends disciples out to proclaim his life-giving message.  “Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town. Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, make this proclamation: ‘The Kingdom of heaven is at hand.’”

Don’t go to tough places, pagan territory, the Samaritan towns, Jesus tells them.  Just go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

They did and found them the toughest of all; they met stiff opposition in Galilee, more than they possibly expected.  Jesus himself faced opposition there too, but Matthew’s gospel, written around 90 AD (possibly in Galilee or nearby) is describing a situation that has worsened considerably.

After Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, the Pharisees moved into Galilee in force and sought to rebuild Judaism. They saw the followers of Jesus of Nazareth as their strongest opponents. Matthew’s gospel reflects the increasing Jewish resistance to Christians in his day.

Why doesn’t our world believe in Jesus of Nazareth, they said? And we do too.  Is the kingdom of heaven really at hand? What’s happening? Jesus’ followers then must have asked questions like that, as their position deteriorated.

“A sower went out to sow. some seed fell on the path, and birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep, and when the sun rose it was scorched, and it withered for lack of roots.Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it.”

Finally, after all that, we hear some seed fell on good ground.

The parable describes one of the mysteries of the Kingdom: it’s not always welcomed.

Is that a hard lesson for us to recognize today? It sure is.We’re in the same boat as those who heard this parable originally. I think that helps us to hear it and understand.

Ignatius and Polycarp

Years ago I visited Izmir, Turkey, with a classmate of mine. We were searching the city, formerly Smyrna, for traces of St. Polycarp, one of its first Christian bishops, who was martyred there in AD 153. With difficulty, we found a small Catholic church named for him surrounded now by a large Muslim neighborhood, and also the ancient agora where he was condemned and put to death.

I think of him today because today’s Office of Readings offers St. Ignatius of Antioch’s  “Letter to the Magnesians,” which was written in Smyrna early in the 2nd century and mentions Polycarp, its bishop.  Under arrest on his way to Rome where he will be executed in the Colisseum , Ignatius writes to the Magnesians urging them to be faithful disciples of Christ and imitate him. Polycarp gave him support on his way to death.

One sentence of his letter caught my eye. “Be moved by his goodness,” he writes, “for if Jesus were ever to imitate the way we behave ourselves, we would be truly lost.”

For Ignatius, then, when the scriptures say Jesus “ was like us in all things except sin” they do not mean that he embraced our mediocrity, our compliance with evil, our pursuit of success and fame–all temptations he faced in the desert. He was uniquely human. A unique messenger from God.

Human goodness as we know it is weighed down by weaknesses in the best of us. Human behavior as we experience it suffers from their presence.

Christ came that we might imitate him, the “way, the truth and the life.” He offers an example of what we as human beings should be.

Ignatius’ letter indicates a certain forgetfulness of Jesus Christ taking place in his day. The apostles and other eyewitnesses have passed on, and other teachers are taking their place. They have rivals: some are traditional Jews, who are enticing Christians  back to the ancient wisdom and practices of Judaism. Others are from popular religious and philosophic groups, like the gnostics,  a rising power who taught then.

What Ignatius’ time needed were Christian leaders with links to the first followers of Jesus and could vouch for him and pass on their witness, especially through the gospel writings that reported what he said and did. “What was he like?” “What did he say?” “What did he do?” The gospels had recently been written.

“Be convinced of the birth and passion and resurrection which took place at the time of the procuratorship of Pontius Pilate; for these things were truly and certainly done by Jesus Christ, our hope, from which God grant that none of you be turned aside.”

Polycarp of Smyrna and Ignatius of Antioch are key figures in our Church. Both not only taught about Jesus Christ but imitated him in their deaths. Later Christian writers recognized their importance. In the late 2nd century, Irenaeus wrote:

“Polycarp was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna by apostles in Asia…He always taught what he had learned from the apostles, and the Church has handed down that teaching which alone is true. His successors testify to this. ( Adversus Haereses. Book III, Chapter 4, Verse 3 and Chapter 3, Verse 4)

Tertullian wrote about AD 208:

“Heresies are novelties with no connection to the teaching of Christ. Some may claim they come from apostles. We say: where did your church come from? Give me a list of your bishops from now till the apostles or to some bishop appointed by him. The Smyrnaeans go back to Polycarp and John, and the Romans to Clement and Peter; let heretics come up with something to match this.” (De praescripione heret.)

It was a dangerous century, a transitional time, when big changes were taking place. Maybe we’re facing something like it today?

Putting in the Seed

In one of his poems, “Putting in the Seed,” Robert Frost describes a farmer’s love affair with the earth. It’s getting dark and someone from the house tries to fetch him from his work to come in. Supper’s ready on the table, yet he’s a

 

“ Slave to a springtime passion for the earth.

How Love burns through the Putting in the Seed

On through the watching for that early birth

When, just as the soil tarnishes with weed,

 

The sturdy seedling with arched body comes

Shouldering its way and shedding the earth crumbs.”

 

Can’t you see that farmer in his fields zestfully casting seed on the waiting earth? Is he an image of God, the Sower, who casts saving grace onto the world in season and out, because he loves it so much?

Our readings for the 15th Sunday of the Year seem to suggest it. If you have ever been to Galilee and seen the lake where Jesus spoke this parable and the surrounding lands abundant with crops. you know this is a blessed place. It was in Jesus’ time too. In a place like this, the sower scatters his seed with abandon, hardly caring where it goes: on rocky ground, or amid thorns, or on the soil which gives a good return.

God the Sower sows blessed seed, no matter how badly our human world appears, or how badly it receives. The gospel passage from Matthew (Mt 13,1-9) is preceded by accounts of growing opposition to Jesus and his message. John the Baptist is arrested and killed (Mt 11,1-18), the cities where he preaches reject him (Mt 11, 22-24) the Pharisees say his miracles are done through the power of Satan (Mt 12, 22-38).

In the parable Jesus acknowledges that the seed is rejected and well as accepted. But the sower still sows. The seasons bring snow and rain; grace is never withheld. And that makes us hope.

And is it just the  human world God loves? Does his love extend to all the earth God finds “good,” as the Book of Genesis says. We worry about our planet earth, and with reason.  How fragile our environment has become, what damage we careless humans do!  We are concerned rightly for its future.

These readings tell us to hope for our earth too. Though it is not immune from the threat of destruction and degradation, God loves it still. He’s a Sower at work, who deeply loves  the world he has made. Blessed be the Lord God of all creation, may you sow your blessings on all.