Monthly Archives: February 2014

The Mystery of the Cross

We’re reading the Letter of James and the Gospel of Mark these weekdays at Mass, writings going back to the 60s, from Jerusalem and Rome respectively. Three important Christian leaders were put to death in that decade: James, Peter and Paul. We see their deaths now as the glorious death of martyrs; Christians then were probably more aware of losing three religious leaders they depended on for guidance.

The Letter of James and the Gospel of Mark (traditionally acknowledged as the spokesman for Peter) were voices for these disciples in the churches they left behind.

In the 60s a growing turmoil engulfed the church in Jerusalem, as Jewish Christians faced growing opposition in the city. The death of James, their leader, at the hands of Jerusalem’s Jewish leaders is evidence of this antagonism. Because of it, many Jewish Christians left Jerusalem and went into exile. The destruction of the city by the Romans in 70 AD canceled any plans they had for returning home.

In the 60s, the Christians of Rome experienced persecution of another kind. It was a sudden, unexpected persecution by the Emperor Nero that followed the fire that destroyed most of the city in 64 AD.

The Disciples' Unbelief

The Disciples’ Unbelief

It’s good to keep the background of these writings in mind when reading them. In today’s reading, Mark emphasizes a theme that runs through his gospel. “Do you still not understand?” Jesus asks his disciples. (Mark 8,21) What the disciples, led by Peter, don’t understand especially is the mystery of his passion and death.

Writing for the Christians of Rome, Mark wants them to see in the incomprehension of Jesus’ first disciples their own incomprehension before the vicious suffering inflicted on them at the hands of a powerful and unjust emperor.
They don’t understand. It’s a mystery slowly understood.

And they wont be the last to not understand the mystery of the cross. We’re seldom ready for it and slow to recognize all the forms it takes.

Watch the Way You Think

David penitentMatthew’s Gospel contains many indications of the Jewishness of Jesus. In today’s reading at Mass (Matthew 5, 17-37), we can see him as part of the Jewish world in which he lived. A loyal, practicing Jew, he participated fully in his religion and culture. He kept the Jewish feasts and observed the Jewish laws; he was in the synagogue every Sabbath.

Yet, Jesus was not uncritical of the Jewish world in which he lived. That’s what we hear in today’s gospel.

Some of his words seem harsh to us– “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away…And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” But this is Jesus speaking as the Jewish prophets spoke. They used harsh words to make their point. Like them, he spoke strongly when religious standards were neglected and not being fulfilled. “I came not to abolish the law or the prophets but to fulfill them.” His criticism extended to the Jewish leadership of his day– the scribes and Pharisees.

Jesus criticizes especially a way of living that focuses on externals–and sometimes just a few externals– and doesn’t focus enough on inner thinking and inner judgments. For example, he mentions a commandment “You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.” But there are other ways you can destroy people. You may not go to jail for them either, but you can destroy people by anger or demean them by looking at them as fools. Strong words, but he’s making a point and his point isn’t just for his time and place.

“ ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Again, you may not go to jail for your thinking, but your thoughts can poison your appreciation of people. I think that’s what pornography does. It poisons your mind and lessens your respect for others.

By the way, that picture above is King David. You know where his thoughts got him.

Watch your thinking and your judging, Jesus says. The way you think is critical to the way you live. The way you look at things within is crucial to the way you do things without.

The final parts of our gospel are about divorce procedures and taking oaths. Some people in his time loved to see life in terms of law; some today still do. All you have to do is keep within the law, be law abiding, live legally and that’s enough. As we see in this gospel, Jesus never saw keeping laws enough. They’re just a start.

We’re Not Statistics

healing crowdsIn Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ initial ministry in Galilee, starting with his miracles in Capernaum, brought excited crowds to him looking for healing for themselves or those with them. So great were the crowds that Jesus looked for rest for himself and his disciples. That’s probably why he went into gentile areas, like the Decapolis and the regions around Tyre and Sidon, where some Jews lived, but where he would be less known.

But they came to him there too, not only Jews but also gentiles, like the Syrophoenician woman who came to him around Tyre. In today’s gospel, the deaf man brought to him isn’t identified as either Jew or gentile. He’s just deaf and can’t speak. What’s significant about this miracle is the way Jesus heals him. “He took him off by himself away from the crowd.” (Mark 7,33)

The deaf man was not to be a public exhibit of Jesus’ power, a statistic to be added to list of the healed. Jesus takes him aside privately, he meets him personally, face to face– and is deeply touched– “groans”–at the deaf man’s plight. He touches the man, putting his finger in his ears and his spittle on his tongue. When the deaf man speaks, Jesus says to him and his friends not to tell anyone. One reason may be that Jesus doesn’t want to be typed simply as a healer. But they went and proclaimed it anyway.

What can we learn from the story? Is the healing of the deaf man a reminder to treat others personally, each with a face of their own and a human story that’s unique? That’s hard to do. It’s easier to deal with people as statistics, numbers, people next in line.

For Jesus people were not statistics, one of a crowd, next in line. That’s not God’s way.

How Lovely is Your Dwelling Place, O Lord

Mt.olives
How is God present to us? That’s a question prompted by the Old Testament readings at Mass these days about the temple in Jerusalem.

When David builds a splendid palace in Jerusalem after his conquest of the city he decides that God also needs a beautiful temple to dwell in. But God tells David through the Prophet Nathan that he doesn’t need a place to be in. ( 2 Samuel 7, 4-17) He dwells in a tent so he can move with his people wherever they are. A beautiful reminder that God goes with us wherever we go.

But then David’s son, Solomon, builds a great temple for God on the threshing floor he buys in the upper city in Jerusalem, and God makes his dwelling place there. A dark cloud fills the Holy of Holies of Solomon’s temple, the Book of Kings recalls; it’s so awesome that the priests can’t remain in the place. “… The priests could no longer minister because of the cloud, since the LORD’s glory had filled the temple of the LORD.” (1 Kings 8,22-30)

You can hear Solomon wrestling with this mystery of God who is transcendent and yet immanent. “Can it indeed be that God dwells on earth? If the heavens and the highest heavens cannot contain you, how much less this temple which I have built!”

But the king accepts God’s presence in this place and prays to God there and asks for God’s blessing there. “Listen to the petitions of your servant and of your people Israel which they offer in this place. Listen from your heavenly dwelling and grant pardon.”

These are good readings to reflect on the presence of God in our lives. God has promised to be with us, yet God’s presence will always be mysterious, beyond our understanding. He goes with us wherever we go, but then there are also holy places where God meets us– sacraments, signs where he’s promised to be.

Jesus fulfilled these Old Testament realities. As God’s Word, he dwells among us, accompanying us on our journey of life and, as he said himself, he’s also the new temple of God who dwells in signs and sacraments. His presence is “a dark cloud,” the mystery of his death and resurrection. Awesome, mysterious, beyond our understanding. Yet we draw close and pray and ask that he listen and bring us life.

Father Theodore Foley, CP

theo 3

I mentioned recently the Passionist Saints. Someday, I hope Fr. Theodore Foley, whom I knew and lived with in community, may take his place among them. Here’s a summary of his life.

He was born in 1913 in Springfield, Massachusetts into a devout Catholic family.  He went to Catholic schools and experienced a vibrant Catholic life in Sacred Heart parish in the north end of Springfield.

As a young boy of 14 he was attracted to the missionary spirit and spirituality of the Passionist community. Entering the Passionists, he was ordained a priest in 1940 and became one of its best spiritual guides and teachers of theology.

In 1958 Father Theodore went to Rome to be a general consultor for the worldwide Passionist community. In 1964 he became its superior general. He led his community through the turbulent decades of the 1960s and 70s when social unrest, political confrontations, assassinations, anti-establishment and anti-war demonstrations began shaking the western world and the Catholic Church.

As traditional values came into question and church membership (including membership in his own community) began to decline, he was a rock of hope to those shaken by the times.

A participant in the Second Vatican Council, Father Theodore took up its challenge and worked tirelessly to bring the message of Jesus Christ to the world. Seeking new opportunities to do God’s will, he traveled to Asia and Africa to extend the missionary outreach of his community. He also promoted the study of the Passion of Jesus as a remedy for a world in danger of forgetting God.

For him a perilous time like ours was not a reason to do nothing. It’s a time for “God’s purification in our lives and we have to accept it and do our best for the future of the congregation and our church.”

While furthering new ventures in Africa, he contracted a deadly virus which on his return to Rome caused his death on October 9, 1974.

A gentle man, faithful to prayer and unfailingly kind to others, Father Theodore believed that God is always at work in our world, even in bad times. The mystery of the passion of Jesus, which he kept constantly before his eyes, nourished in him a steady hope that God leads us on, no matter how dark life seems to be.
https://vimeo.com/19438932

A hope like his is a hope to pray for today. Father Theodore is a candidate for canonization, and here’s a prayer that his cause succeeds:

Prayer for the Beatification of Fr. Theodore Foley, CP

 

Lord Jesus Christ,

You called Theodore Foley to follow you to Calvary’s heights as a Passionist priest and through your Immaculate and Sorrowful Mother taught him to fulfill your Father’s will by loving God and neighbor.

Let his life inspire us to a life of deeper virtue.

We humbly ask you to glorify your servant Father Theodore according to the designs of your holy will and through his intercession, grant the request I now present to you. (here mention  your request). Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

 

Evil Doesn’t Have Its Way

Beheading JohnToday we read a long narrative from Mark’s Gospel (Chapter 6) describing the death of John the Baptist at the hands of Herod Antipas. It’s been called a “Passion Account before the Passion of Jesus.”

Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee, had his capitol in Tiberias a short distance from Capernaum where much of Jesus’ ministry took place. He certainly knew what Jesus was doing and what people were saying about him. Some said he was Elijah, or a prophet. But what caught Herod’s attention especially was talk that Jesus was John the Baptist raised from the dead.

Herod had arrested John and imprisoned him, probably in his fortress at Macherius near the Dead Sea. Then, influenced by his wife Herodias, who resented John’s criticism of their marriage– which violated Jewish law– Herod had John put to death.

The story told in great detail in Mark’s Gospel is an example of evil, oppressive power at its worst. Herodias’ daughter Salome dances at one of Herod’s bloated banquets and elicits his promise to do anything she asks for. “What shall I ask?” Salome asks her mother. “The head of John the Baptist,” is her answer.

Later in Mark’s gospel, Jesus identifies John the Baptist with Elijah. “I tell you that Elijah has come and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.” (Mark 9, 13) Like Jesus, John suffers and is treated with contempt.

The story of John’s beheading by Herod prepares Mark’s readers for the story of the Passion of Jesus. Both stories were meant to help Mark’s first audience, Roman Christians, face the sudden, absurd persecution inflicted on them by the Emperor Nero in the mid 60s. Like Herod, Nero seemed supremely powerful. They could not see it yet, but evil would not have its way. The Son of Man would rise from the dead and be glorified. So would they.

That’s the lesson we should take from this story too. Evil doesn’t have its way.

The Scandal of the Incarnation

Nazareth, Annunciation ch


The four gospels take a dim view of Nazareth, the hometown of Jesus Christ. Early in his gospel, John says that Philip, one of Jesus’ first disciples, invited Nathaniel to meet “Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth.” “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Philip replies. (John 1,46).

The other gospels recall the sad rejection of Jesus by his hometown after his baptism by John the Baptist. According the Matthew, it takes place after Jesus has spoken to a large crowd in parables. Then, he goes to Nazareth and speaks in the synagogue to his own townspeople, who are at first astonished at his wisdom, but then wonder where did “the carpenter’s son” get all this. They know his mother and his family, and they reject him. (Matthew 13,54-58)

Mark’s gospel puts the event after Jesus has raised a little girl from the dead. Going to Nazareth with his disciples, he’s greeted in the synagogue with astonishment because of his wisdom; they’ve heard of his mighty deeds, but then they ask where did this “carpenter” get all of this? He’s “Mary’s son” and they know his family. Jesus “was amazed at their lack of faith.” (Mark 6,1-5)

Why do they reject Jesus? The reason seems to be that they know his family and what he’s done for a living, and they can’t believe someone like him could be a messenger of God to them. He’s just a carpenter. What does he know? He came from an ordinary family, some of whom may not have been nice people at all. So they dismiss him.

At Nazareth we see an example of what’s called the “scandal of the incarnation.” People can’t believe that God could come to us as Jesus did.

That scandal still continues. One obvious instance of it is when people claim to be “spiritual, but not religious.” They want God and not the human ways God comes to us. They want God to be in the beauty of a sunset, but not in a church. They want God as they would like him to be, and not in the messiness of humanity.

I think of that line from one of the English poets:

“I saw him in the shining of the stars, I marked him in the flowering of the fields, but in his ways with men, I knew him not.”

The scandal of the Incarnation is always with us.