Monthly Archives: November 2013

Black Friday and Christmas

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Now that Black Friday is over maybe we can get down to thinking about Christmas. For four weeks we prepare for that feast in the season of Advent.

The best place to look for the meaning of Christmas is the scriptural readings for these next four weeks. A timely source I suggest we add to them is the recent Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Francis, “The Joy of the Gospel.”

The Old Testament readings for today and all through the 1st Week of Advent are from Isaiah. Even if you can’t get to Mass, take a look at them, they make wonderful readings for Advent.

Isaiah promises salvation for all people, and one of his favorite images to describe God’s promise is found in this Sunday’s reading: Isaiah 2:1-5. All nations will stream to God’s mountain for instruction. “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” Wars are no more; a fragmented humanity becomes one.

Quite a claim, considering that Assyrian armies were laying waste the towns and cities of Israel and Judea as Isaiah spoke. But God’s promise trumps all human conquests.

For Isaiah, the mountain of the Lord is Jerusalem, on which the Jewish temple is built. All nations will come there; they will be fed a rich banquet (Wednesday), the poor will be welcomed there (Thursday), the blind will see there (Friday); it’s the rock where people will dwell safely, where children play around the cobra’s den, and the lion and the lamb lie down together (Tuesday). The prophet’s imagery in these readings is strikingly beautiful.

The Gospels for the 1st week point to the fulfillment of the Isaian prophecies in Jesus Christ. The Roman centurion humbly approaching Jesus in Capernaum represents all the nations that will come to him. (Monday) Jesus praises the childlike, who will enter the kingdom of heaven. (Tuesday) He feeds a multitude on the mountain.(Wednesday) He affirms that his kingdom will be built on rock. (Thursday) He gives sight to the blind. (Friday)

Remember, too, that Matthew’s gospel, source of many of our Advent readings, portrays Jesus teaching on a mountain (Isaiah’s favorite symbol) and working great miracles there that benefit all who come. He is the new temple, the new Presence of God, Emmanuel, God with us.

Prophets like Isaiah were brave people, brave enough to speak when all seemed lost. They’re strong people, strong enough to hope when hope seems gone. And something of that prophetic spirit is in Pope Francis, I believe, who last week issued an important exhortation to the church.

He says that we can’t bring the gospel to the world if we don’t know what our world needs. We can’t bring greater human life to our world if we don’t realize what disfigures human dignity now.

What disfigures human dignity today is social inequality. Money had become our god. He speaks of the “tyranny of the financial markets.” We pay attention to a 2% drop in the stock market and ignore the death of a homeless man who dies in the cold. We’re a throw-away society. Not only do we discard things, we discard people. We tend to exploit immigrants and then throw them away. We ignore the economically unproductive, who may be without jobs or skills or socially deprived through sickness or being displaced.

The pope’s message is a hard-hitting restatement of traditional Catholic social teaching. It’s interesting to see a papal document quoted so freely on Tweeter, Facebook and the social media. It’s because he’s touched on something we need to hear.

The front page of the Asbury Park Press this morning seemed to echo the picture the pope painted in his recent address. There’s the big picture of smiling shoppers fresh from the stores on Black Friday holding their precious treasures. Next to it is a story of a homeless man who died in the cold yesterday.

No picture of him at all.

Christ, the King

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Luke’s gospel for the Feast of Christ the King presents Jesus, not in a royal palace, but on a dark desolate hill. He’s not surrounded by cheering crowds, but by people cursing his name. He has no crown of gold, but a crown of thorns. His robe lies torn from him, heaped on the ground soaked in his blood. His throne is a cross, and over the cross is the inscription: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.

We are tempted to see not power but failure here. But listen to the gospel. One of the criminals calls out to the wretched figure hanging next to him: “Jesus, remember me when you enter your kingdom.” And power goes out from him. “This day you will be with me in paradise.

The thief is an interesting figure in the gospel. He has no name, nothing is known of his life or his crime. There he is, desperate, thinking all is gone. Powerless, no one would take a chance on him. Who would bother with him? Who would come close to him? Only a God who in the person of Jesus Christ would come so low as to share a cross with him.

The thief has no name. Christian tradition says he bears everyone’s name. In the thief we see ourselves, our desperate, poor, powerless selves. Yes, that is how much Christ loves us. He will always be close to us.

The Gift of the Old

All this week our first readings at Mass are from the First and Second Books of Maccabees which describe the Jewish revolt against Antiochus Epiphanes, one of the successors of Alexander the Great. The revolt took place over a hundred years before the time of Jesus and it’s behind the Jewish Feast of Hannukah, which recalls the rededication of the temple by Judas Maccabeus after its profanation by foreign invaders.

The revolt also explains why the times of Jesus were so politically sensitive. As he headed towards Jerusalem, some “thought that the kingdom of God would appear there immediately.” (Luke 19,11) Perhaps it would be brought about by an armed uprising, like that against Antiochus Epiphanes?

Our selections this week from the Books of Maccabees, though, center more on two older Jews from the earlier Jewish revolt: Eleazar, an older scribe, who was among the prominent Jews pressured to give up his Jewish ways and assimilate to the larger Hellenistic culture, and a mother who inspired her seven sons to resist the invaders.

All Eleazar had to do was to pretend to eat the meat of sacrifice, but the ninety-year old chose to die rather than go over to an alien religion and give bad example to the young.
“I will prove myself worthy of my old age, and I will leave to the young a noble example of how to die willingly and generously for the revered and holy laws.” (2 Maccabees 6. 30-31)

The mother, seized with her seven sons, saw them tortured and put to death. Still,she urged them strongly to keep their faith and persevere.
“I do not know how you came into existence in my womb; it was not I who gave you the breath of life, nor was it I who set in order the elements of which each of you is composed.
Therefore, since it is the Creator of the universe who shapes each man’s beginning, as he brings about the origin of everything, he, in his mercy, will give you back both breath and life,
because you now disregard yourselves for the sake of his law.” (2 Maccabees 7,1, 21-31)

Pope Francis in his comments on these readings this week said the two older people remind us how powerful the wisdom and influence of the elderly is. Today we don’t pay enough attention to the gifts we have in them.

Salvation Comes To Our House

If you follow Pope Francis– and many people are following him these days–you notice that since the pope has moved downstairs to the guest house in the Vatican he’s making the daily Eucharist there one of his most important sources for learning and teaching God’s word. Some of his best insights are found in his daily homilies at morning Mass.

These are not elaborate sermons but simple remarks that usually come as he reflects on the scripture readings or the feast that’s being celebrated. He’s reflecting on the “daily bread” God gives him, and all of us.

This morning we read the story of Zacchaeus, the tax-collector in Jericho, whom Jesus calls to salvation as he makes his way to Jerusalem. How many times we’ve heard his story from Luke’s gospel, yet I noticed today something I didn’t see before: Jesus doesn’t call Zacchaeus to follow him, as he told another tax-collector, Matthew.

Jesus doesn’t tell Zacchaeus to give up his job and go somewhere else. No, salvation comes to his house, Jesus says. As far as we know, when Jesus left, the chief tax-collector stayed in Jericho, doing what he was doing, probably still wealthy, but now a changed man.

Does salvation come to us too like that? Does it come to our house, where we live and for what we do? Does it make us see things differently? Does it help us do things more justly and lovingly? Does it enable us to be the presence of Jesus where we are?

And Don’t Look Ahead

Strange thing to say, isn’t it? We want to see what’s ahead. But in Luke’s account of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem–which we read from this Sunday– Jesus warns his disciples as he nears the Holy City to be wary about what they see coming.

First, some disciples like James and John thought the journey would bring about the kingdom of God on earth and they wanted a big place in it. Their dream didn’t come true. Then, other disciples as they entered the city saw the temple itself, “adorned with costly stones and votive offerings,” and believed something so beautiful would go on forever. They were wrong too.

Jesus said, “All that you see here–
the days will come when there will not be left
a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.”

We have to be wary of messianic claims from those who claim to know the future. “Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he,” and “The time had come.’ Do not follow them!” Jesus says. The future is in God’s hands, not in ours.

The journey Jesus makes does not end in Jerusalem, according to Luke, it’s completed in his resurrection, and that will surprise us. Luke’s account of Jesus’ death in Jerusalem offers the surprising promise he makes to the thief crucified on his right, whose only hope is in him. “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”

That’s the future we trust in.

I Will Bless The Lord At All Times

I’m reading a biography of Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president of the United States from 1913 till 1921, who led the country through the brutal years of the First World War, which we remembered yesterday, November 11, Armistice Day.

Wilson was a deeply religious man, the son of a Presbyterian pastor, a wonderful writer and an eloquent speaker. Biographers today tend to use the tools of psychology to explain their subjects but the biographer of this book explains Wilson mostly through his religious beliefs– a refreshing approach.
{ Woodrow Wilson, A Life for World Peace, Jan Willem Shulte Nordholt, Berkeley. Ca. 1991}

Wilson believed that God was good, that people were good, that God was calling all nations to live in peace, and that God had given our country, the United States, a providential role among the family of nations, as a beacon of goodness and righteousness.

He was too much of an optimist, his biographer says. He didn’t see the dark side of humanity or the dark side of our own country. He thought that if you appealed to the better nature of people they would do the right thing. He couldn’t believe people would throw themselves into an awful war, or America could exploit other nations. He saw the world as the beautiful world described by Wordsworth in his poems, not a world devastated by storms (like the one that just struck the Philippines}. He was too optimistic, a Christian without the cross.

And that caused him to underestimate evil and to overestimate political solutions and possibilities. He saw the world incompletely. How many Christians are like him today?

“I will bless the Lord at all times.” (Psalm 34) The psalm is the response to our reading from the Book of Wisdom at today’s Mass; God is with us at all times, good and bad, it says. No need to be blind to evils like death and destruction, the psalm continues. “The Lord has eyes for the just, and ears for their cry… The Lord confronts the evildoers…The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.” The Lord is with us in bad times as well as good.

We can “bless the Lord at all times.”

An Electrifying Image

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Last Wednesday in St. Peter’s Square, the Pope embraced and kissed a man suffering from a rare disease called neurofibromatosis, which causes his skin to be covered with awful tumors and sores. Most people would find it hard to look at him; much harder to embrace him.

A writer in the New Yorker Magazine said “The image was electrifying, in a way that mercy can be.”

That phrase is also true of the image at the center of our faith.