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.

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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.

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The Temple of God

Our readings today from the 1st Book of Maccabees and the Gospel of Luke bring us to the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. Three years after its profanation by Antiochus Epiphanes, about the year 167 BC, the Jews under Judas Maccabeus re-conquered Jerusalem and restored the temple, which was at the heart of their religion. Our first reading describes the rededication of the temple to its former glory. The Jews continue to celebrate it in the feast of Hannukah. (1 Maccabees 4,36-61}

The New Testament writers were certainly aware of this historic event when they wrote about Jesus cleansing the temple. Entering Jerusalem after his journey from Galilee, “ Jesus went into the temple area and proceeded to drive out those who were selling things, saying to them, ‘It is written, My house shall be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.’” Then, “every day he was teaching the temple area” until he was arrested and put to death. (Luke 19,45-48)

It was a symbolic act. Jesus himself is the presence of God, the Word made flesh, the new temple of God. Luke says he taught in the temple “every day.” He intercedes for us, he teaches us, he is our high priest uniting us to his Father and our Father, “every day.”

He is the temple that cannot be destroyed. At his trial before he died, witnesses gave testimony that was half right when they said he spoke of destroying the temple. When Jesus spoke about the destruction of the temple, he was speaking of the temple of his own body. Death seemed to destroy him, but he would be raised up on the third day.

We share in this mystery as “members of his body.”

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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.

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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?

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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.

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Don’t Look Back

We’re reading at Mass from the long portion of Luke’s gospel that describes Jesus’ journey from Galilee to Jerusalem–chapters 9,51-18,14. One sentence dominates this part of Luke’s gospel. “Follow me,” Jesus says. Another sentence we hear repeatedly is: “Don’t look back.”

Notice how Jesus’ miracles on this journey help people stuck in one place move on. For example, he cures the ten lepers confined outside a village in Samaria and sets them free. “Stand up and go,” Jesus says to them. (Luke 17,11-19) The blind man begging beside the road outside Jericho looks like he’s doomed to sit there forever. Jesus not only immediately gives him his sight, but getting up the man “followed him, giving glory to God.” {Luke 18, 35-43)

“Follow me,” Jesus says on his way to glory, but not all hear. Leprosy and blindness aren’t the only things stopping them. In Luke’s journey narrative, a lot of things can get in the way. Today’s reading serves up some of them.

In Lot’s day, Jesus says, “they were eating, drinking, buying, selling, planting , building on the day Lot left Sodom.” It was time to see beyond these things and get going, but Lot’s wife looked back instead of looking ahead. Fixed on the life she knew, she was frozen in it. She isn’t the only one.

Jesus gives other examples like this in Luke’s journey narrative. The rich fool building bigger barns, (Luke 12,16-21) the rich man absorbed in himself and his riches, (Luke 16, 19-31) the man absorbed in a lawsuit with his brother, (Luke 12,13-15) the disciples absorbed in maneuvering politically for first place.(Luke 18,15-17) How can they make the journey with him?

Yet, Jesus returns often to another theme on the journey that offers a remedy for our lack of faith. Pray constantly, he says. Never stop praying, for prayer opens your eyes and your mind and your heart. Prayer gives us the grace to take up our cross each day and follow him.

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