Monthly Archives: August 2015

Where did Mary die?

assumption, Dormition Abbey, Jerusalem
Different Christian traditions point to two places where Mary may have died and was buried– Jerusalem or Ephesus. I lean towards Jerusalem since Mary was part of that church from its beginning. We don’t know how long she lived or other details of her life, but her role as mother of Jesus and her memories of him assured her of an influential place in the Jerusalem church. She had an important role in its development.DSC04013

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Today two shrines in Jerusalem recall her passing. The Church of the Dormition on Mount Sion, where the first Christian community met, recalls Mary’s death, her “falling asleep.” The Tomb of the Virgin at the base of the Mount of Olives next to the Garden of Gethsemane contains her empty tomb.

(cf. Jerome Murphy O’Connor, The Holy Land: An Oxford Archeological Guide)

Her tomb is empty, as visitors can see who go down into the dark church near Gethsemane. Like the tomb of Jesus in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, it contains no bodily remains. God has taken her body and soul into heaven.

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“We believe in the resurrection of the body,” our creed says. The Kidron Valley and the Mount of Olives have been vast burial grounds over the centuries. This was where the Messiah would come to raise up the dead, Jews believed, (Zechariah 14,4) and so Mary’s burial there places her among those who hope for resurrection. Here Mary in her Assumption becomes a sign  that Jesus , the Messiah, the “first fruits of those who have fallen asleep,” is calling all humanity to share in his resurrection.

Significantly, Mary is buried close to Gethsemane where her Son entered into the mystery of his passion and death. She follows him into this mystery, as she does through all the mysteries of  his life.

The eastern church beautifully expresses this belief in its icons and its liturgy for the Dormition of Mary on August 15. The apostles gather from all parts of the world to bury Mary, the Mother of Jesus. He himself stands at her deathbed as the angels look on and holds her soul in his hands to take her to heaven. The apostles then bury her body in a tomb.

Thomas the apostle, a late comer for her funeral, goes to Mary’s tomb three days after her burial and finds it empty. Her body has been taken up to heaven to share in the resurrection of her Son.

The bodily assumption of Mary not only speaks about the future resurrection of the dead, it also calls us now to respect  the creation destined to share in the resurrection of Jesus. Our bodies as well as the world they are taken from have a destiny beyond this time and place. We must honor and care for them.

20th Sunday B: Taste and See

I stopped for something to eat the other day along the seashore at Montauk, Long Island, a place I stopped by chance. “We have a nice fish chowder, everything fresh from near here,” the waitress said, so I ordered the fish chowder. Couldn’t have been better, better than anything I expected.

Our first reading today for Sunday Mass is about a meal that’s even better, better than we could expect or plan for. Someone wise provides it. It’s not a meal for just one or two; we’re all invited to the table. Amazingly, it’s free; we don’t have to pay for it.

Listen again to the Book of Wisdom: “Whoever is simple turn in here; to the one who lacks understanding, she says, Come eat my food and drink of the wine I have mixed.”

“Whoever is simple turn in here.” I suppose that means whoever is hungry, whoever is weary, whoever is burdened, come and eat. Aren’t those the ones Jesus felt compassion for. “Come to me, and I will refresh you,” he said. Don’t we qualify for an invitation like this? His refreshment is beyond what earthy food or drink can bring.

Where can we find this meal, except in the Eucharist, where “we taste and see the goodness of the Lord.” A goodness beyond our expectations.

“Take and eat, this is my body.” “Take and eat, this is my blood.” The people in today’s gospel (John 6,51-58) are repulsed by Jesus when he says “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink of his blood you cannot have life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him on the last day.”

“How can he give us his flesh to eat and his blood to drink?” They take his words in too narrow a way. Who tells us to do this? Who’s the One who offers us his body and blood? The Lord of all, who made all things. He contains all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. He’s the Lord of life who gives life. He promises resurrection, while knowing the reality of our death.

No other meal can compare to this. No other food can satisfy us; no other drink can quench our thirst .

Moses and the Quest for God

Moses

120 years old. That’s how old Moses was when he died, according to the Book of Deuteronomy, which we’re reading today at Mass.

Biblical exaggeration we wonder? Maybe. Yet scientists said recently life expectation in our society might be heading to 120 in the future, so perhaps we need to look at Moses a little more closely. Our society is aging.

The 4th century Cappadocian mystic, Gregory of Nyssa, in his classic study “The Life of Moses” considers Moses, not mainly as a leader of the Israelites, but rather as a example of the way God calls all of us. His life shows us our way to God.

Gregory divides the life of Moses’ 120 years into 3 parts. The first part of his life (Exodus 2, 1-15) is marked by dangers. Pharaoh has decreed that all Jewish new born boys be killed, but Moses is taken by his mother after his birth and placed in the river in a little boat ( the word for Moses’ boat in Exodus is the same word used in Genesis for Noah’s ark) In the river of life, Moses is protected by God and has a mission to fulfill. We too have been placed in the river of life, in God’s boat as it were, and have a mission to fulfill.

Adopted and brought up by Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses enjoys the gifts of Egypt. Like him, we’ve been given many gifts in life. We have to use them well, wherever they come from. Gregory writes. That’s a way to make the journey.

Moses’ first forty years end with the killing of the Egyptian and his subsequent flight to the desert of Midian. Choosing to stand with his own people Moses chooses to stand with God. In life we’re constantly called to make this same crucial choice. If we wish to see the face of God, we must choose it.

The next forty years Moses spends in solitude in the mountains of Midian where he lives a simple virtuous life, which prepares him to meet God in the burning bush. Then, at eighty years, he’s sent on to the next stage of his life: leading his people through the desert to the promised land.

Eighty years old– hardly a good time to begin such a momentous task. But Gregory of Nyssa sees Moses’ life as an inward journey, rather than an outward one. This is more than an historical journey. It’s a journey that doesn’t stop, defying age and the circumstances of life. One is never too old, or too young, for this inner journey. Gregory describes it beautifully in “The Life of Moses.”

“…the great Moses, becoming ever greater, never stopped his ascent, never set a limit to his upward course. Once setting his foot on the ladder that God set up (as Jacob says) he continually climbed to the step above and never ceased to rise higher, because there was always a step higher than the one he attained…though lifted up through such lofty experiences, he’s still unsatisfied in his desire for more. He still thirsts for what seems beyond his capacity… beseeching God to appear to him, not according to his capacity, but according to God’s true being.

“Such an experience seems to me to belong to the soul who loves the beautiful. Hope always draws the soul from the beauty that’s seen to what ‘s beyond; it always kindles the desire for what’s hidden from what’s now known. Boldly requesting to go up the mountain of desires the soul asks to enjoy Beauty, not in mirrors, or reflections, but face to face. “ (Gregory of Nyssa)

In his final instructions to his people before his death, Moses does not offer words of human advice gathered from his years. He leaves no memoirs, no recollections. God will be with his people as God was with him. Beyond land or treasures of human conquest, they will see the face of God.

Elijah On the Run

Our first readings this week and next are from the Book of Kings–the story of Elijah, the prophet, and his interaction with Ahab the King of Israel and his notorious wife Jesebel.

Elijah is a powerful prophet, one of the greatest of the prophets; he raises people from the dead and brings fire from heaven on his enemies. Yet he leaves no writings, which means we know him mainly from the life he leads.

According to the First Book of Kings, Elijah is on the run most of the time, fleeing from Ahab and his wife in pursuit. We follow him from water hole to water hole, hiding in mountain caves and isolated wadis in the desert, with scarcely enough to eat. Most of our readings for the coming days are about a fleeing prophet.

It’s a difficult, humbling flight. A popular icon of Elijah pictures him hand to his head, wondering if he will make it, as a raven hovers behind him bringing bread for the day. He’s living through a desperate drought that the king and his enemies see him responsible for. He scrounges for food, even relying on a poor widow with almost nothing of her own.

The powerful prophet is helpless. He’s living through a drought, which God alone can lift. He needs food, which God alone can give. He has to wait for God to act.

Yet Elijah learns from this experience. It trains him to see. From experience, the prophet learns to see what others may not see, and so he sees God’s redeeming presence in the far-off tiny cloud that promises rain and the whisper of a wind that says God is here.

In Jesus’ time, people were hoping for a Messiah. Elijah was one type of Messiah some hoped for. He’s closest to the kind of Messiah Jesus was.

Isn’t Elijah in the drought like Jesus in the mystery of his Incarnation and Passion? “He humbled himself, taking on the form of a slave.” That humbling led to death on a cross. He was a rejected prophet, yet God raised him up in power.

Following him into the mystery of his Incarnation and Passion do we also gain a wisdom to see grace in weakness and death? In the small whisper where God can be found?

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time: B Elijah, Prophet on the Run

 

For the past few weeks the Old Testament readings at Mass on Sunday from the Book of Exodus have focused on the journey the whole Israelite community made through the desert after being freed by God from enslavement in Egypt. Today, the Old Testament reading at Mass from the Book of Kings recalls the journey of one man, the Prophet Elijah, who fled from the wicked King Ahab and his notorious wife Jezebel.

The Book of Exodus reminds us that God is with us as a people making our way to the Kingdom. The Book of Kings, as it tells the story of Elijah, reminds us that God’s with us individually as we make our personal journey through life.

Elijah is one of the greatest and most powerful of the prophets. He raises people from the dead and brings fire down from heaven on his enemies. He causes the rain to stop in punishment for unbelief. At the time of Jesus people wondered if Jesus weren’t Elijah appearing again. When Jesus is transfigured on the mountain, Moses and Elijah, two great figures from the Old Testament, appear at his side.

Yet, Elijah leaves no writings, as most of the prophets do, which means we know him mainly from the life he leads.

According to the Book of Kings, Elijah spends most of his life fleeing from Ahab and his wife Jezebel, his mortal enemies. They follow him from water hole to water hole as he flees south from northern Israel. He has to hide in mountain caves and isolated wadis in the desert, with scarcely enough to eat. Elijah may be a powerful prophet, but most of time he’s a prophet on the run.

It’s a difficult, humbling flight. A popular icon of Elijah pictures him hand to his head, wondering if he will make it, as a raven hovers behind him bringing bread for the day. He’s living through a desperate drought; the king and his all his followers are after him. He scrounges for food, even relying on a poor widow with almost nothing of her own. He wishes God would end it all.

The powerful prophet is helpless. He’s living through a drought that God alone can lift. He needs food that God alone can give. He has to wait for God alone to act.

Yet Elijah learns from this experience. It trains him to see. From experience, the prophet learns to see what others may not see, and so he sees God’s redeeming presence in the far-off tiny cloud that promises rain and the whisper of a wind that says God is here, or in a poor widow whom most would say is useless.

In Jesus’ time, people were hoping for a Messiah. Elijah was one type of Messiah some hoped for. He’s closest to the kind of Messiah Jesus was.

Isn’t that true? Isn’t Elijah on the run like Jesus in the mystery of his Incarnation and Passion? “He humbled himself, taking on the form of a slave.” That humbling led to death on a cross. He ended his life a rejected, helpless prophet, yet God raised him up in power.

Elijah invites us to learn from the journey we make, particularly from our experiences of weakness and death. We learn to see through the mystery of the cross. We gain the greatest wisdom through this mystery. What wisdom is better than the wisdom that sees God’s power in a tiny cloud, the slight whisper of a breeze, the helplessness of the poor? That’s a wisdom our times can use.

18th Sunday B: Manna and the Bread of Life

For an audio of the homily see below:

In the Old Testament, manna plays a big role in Israel’s journey through the desert to the Promised Land. According to the Book of Exodus, only one month after they left Egypt, the Israelites began to complain that God had abandoned them. Even though they experienced the mighty deeds of God who freed them from Pharaoh’s enslavement, they were sure they were going to starve in the desert. Why did we leave Egypt anyway, they say? Why not go back?

Manna was the food God gave them to remind them he was with them and keep them going on their hard journey to the Promised Land. “They ate the manna for forty years’ until they came to settled land; they ate the manna until they came to the borders of Canaan.” (Exodus 16, 35) Manna was such an important part of their experience that Moses told Aaron to take a jar and fill it with manna, so that future generations would remember the Lord’s goodness. (Exodus 16,33)

Some say manna was a natural food that’s still found in the Sinai desert, a honey-like resin from the tamarisk tree, and so that would mean, perhaps, the Jews discovered it on their own. Wherever it came from, whether they found it or received it from divine hands, the Jews saw manna as bread from heaven. At every celebration of Passover afterwards, they took bread and gave thanks to God, who fed his people. At the Last Supper, Jesus also took bread and wine, gave thanks and gave them to his disciples as his body and blood. He is the true Bread come down from heaven.

The manna in the desert has important lessons for us. First of all, it’s a sign of God’s providence, a providence that’s steady and sure. God doesn’t send us on the journey of life and leave us on our own. God doesn’t help us once and then abandon us to our own resources. However uncertain the times are, however uneasy the circumstances we face–the journey’s through the desert, remember– God is with us. Manna will be there, sometimes we have to discover it, its not always obvious, sometimes it’s a complete surprise.

The manna was a daily gift. That’s another life-lesson it teaches us. “Give us this day our daily bread,” Jesus says in the prayer he taught. That’s manna he’s telling us to pray for. Each day we’re to turn to God with empty hands and look for everything we need. “Daily bread is the bread of everything,” St. Augustine said.

Some of the Israelites, according to the Old Testament story, try to hoard the manna so that they don’t have to look for it each day. They want to be free from any obligation to God and be on their own. The manna that’s hoarded mysteriously spoils and becomes rotten, according to the Old Testament story. Moses forbade hoarding the manna, because it was another way of making ourselves above God and not needing him.

In John’s gospel, Jesus seems to accuse the crowd who come to him looking for bread of just this sort of attitude.

“Amen, amen, I say to you,
you are looking for me not because you saw signs
but because you ate the loaves and were filled.
Do not work for food that perishes
but for the food that endures for eternal life.

You wonder today as people abandon the practice of daily prayer and going to church if we are not seeing this story being lived out in our time. “You can do anything yourself, if you want.” “You don’t need anyone but yourself.” “Your life is yours to live, it’s up to you.”

Fine words, but are they true. We are on a journey through a desert. We need manna for the journey. We need Jesus Christ, the Bread of Life.