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.

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.

Feast of the Dedication of the Church of St. John Lateran

Today, is the feast of the Dedication of Church of St. John Lateran in Rome. It seems to me you can see much of the history of the Roman Catholic Church here in this building, one of the great pilgrim churches of Rome.I wrote about this ancient 4th century church, the “mother of all churches” elsewhere.

In a homily for this feast, St. Caesarius of Arles says that this church, like all churches, reminds us we’re temples of God. “And if we think more carefully about the meaning of our salvation, we shall realize that we are indeed living and true temples of God. God does not dwell only in things made by human hands, nor in homes of wood and stone, but rather he dwells principally in the soul made according to his own image and fashioned by his own hand. Therefore, the apostle Paul says: The temple of God is holy, and you are that temple.”

The ancient baptistery at the Lateran church, pictured above, is an entrance to this church. Through baptism we belong to the great church whose Lord, Jesus Christ, shares his life with us.

The beauty of a church reminds us of the beauty of our souls, Caesarius says: “Whenever we come to church, we must prepare our hearts to be as beautiful as we expect this church to be… Just as you enter this church building, so God wishes to enter into your soul, for he promised: I shall live in them, I shall walk through their hearts.”

The Bread of Christ

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Besides being one body, the Body of Christ, we are also one Bread in him. When we celebrate the Eucharist, we listen first to God’s word and then offer bread and wine. The prayer over the bread points to its meaning:

“Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you; fruit of the earth and work of human hands, it will become for us the bread of life.”

We receive the bread, “fruit of the earth and work of human hands,” from our Creator. St. Augustine calls the bread we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer and the bread we offer at Mass “the bread of everything.” The gift of everything is acknowledged at Mass through the bread and wine; we’re blessed with everything, we’re reminded, and through them, we give thanks to the God of goodness for it all. “What do you have that you have not received?”

The greatest of God’s blessings is Jesus Christ who, on the night before he died took bread into his hands, the “bread of everything,” and gave himself to his disciples through this sign. “Take and eat, this is my body which will be given up for you.” In a similar way, he gave them the cup of wine that signifies his blood “poured out” for us.

“Do this in memory of me,” he said.

A mystery of faith, we say in our prayer. We believe through these signs. We can’t let their humble circumstances– the place, the people, the simple acts and words dissuade us. We’re called to wonder at what’s hidden here.

LOST, ALL LOST IN WONDER
Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore,

Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more,

See, Lord, at thy service low lies here a heart

Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.



Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived:

How says trusty hearing? that shall be believed;

What God’s Son has told me, take for truth I do;

Truth himself speaks truly or there’s nothing true.



On the cross thy godhead made no sign to men,

Here thy very manhood steals from human ken:

Both are my confession, both are my belief,

And I pray the prayer of the dying thief.

I am not like Thomas, wounds I cannot see,

But can plainly call thee Lord and God as he;

Let me to a deeper faith daily nearer move,

Daily make me harder hope and dearer love.

O thou our reminder of Christ crucified,

Living Bread, the life of us for whom he died,

Lend this life to me then:
feed and feast my mind,

There be thou the sweetness
man was meant to find.

Bring the tender tale true of the Pelican;

Bathe me, Jesu Lord, in what thy bosom ran—

Blood whereof a single drop has power to win

All the world forgiveness of its world of sin.

Jesu, whom I look at shrouded here below,

I beseech thee send me what I thirst for so,

Some day to gaze on thee face to face in light

And be blest for ever with thy glory’s sight. Amen.

(translation of Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.)

The Body of Christ

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“We, though many, are one Body in Christ
and individually parts of one another.” {Romans 12,5-16}

St. Paul often uses the term “Body of Christ” to describe the union of Jesus with his followers. Those who follow Jesus are never isolated, self-sufficient individuals, sent off on their own. They’re united with him and with one another, and the gifts each has are to be shared with all.

Paul offers a lists of these gifts in the Letter to the Romans, read today at Mass:

“if prophecy, in proportion to the faith;
if ministry, in ministering;
if one is a teacher, in teaching;
if one exhorts, in exhortation;
if one contributes, in generosity;
if one is over others, with diligence;
if one does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.”

We may see one or other of these gifts in ourselves, but we also need to see them in others too. The danger in our individualistic age is to not recognize our dependence on others and look at someone and think: “I don’t need you,” or “I’m more important than you.” Being in the “Body of Christ” means we need each other.

St. Charles Borromeo (1538-84)

Charles Borromeo was born into a rich aristocratic northern Italian family. His uncle was Pope Pius IV. In those days, having the pope as your uncle was a sure way to get ahead. Only 23, Charles was made a cardinal and moved to Rome to be the pope’s Secretary of State.

But Charles wasn’t interested in a privileged life; he wanted a simple, holy life, and so he went to Milan as bishop and put all his strength into reforming the church then in decline and weakened by the Protestant Reformation.

A supporter of the Council of Trent, he backed especially its catechetical and liturgical reforms. He helped draft the Catechism of the Council of Trent and was a promoter of good liturgy and church music. He founded a Confraternity of Christian Doctrine and he himself went about his diocese tirelessly teaching its people and encouraging its priests. They say he had a bad speech impediment, but that didn’t stop him from preaching God’s word.

He was only 46 when he died, worn out by his efforts to bring the gospel to his people.

We pray for bishops like him for our church today. But how about us? Can we give an answer for the faith we believe in? It all starts from there. Do we know our faith and can we tell others about it?