We’re reading from the 1st Letter of Paul to the Corinthians for almost the next three weeks at weekday Mass. A long stretch to read one of Paul’s letters in our lectionary. It indicates this letter’s importance. It’s important because it gives us a view of what an early 1st century Christian community was like better than any other book of the New Testament. Also, we can learn from it valuable ways to look at our churches and communities today.
The first thing you notice– this isn’t a perfect church. It has strengths and weaknesses, but its weaknesses seem more obvious than its strengths. That’s because Paul’s letter is written to correct abuses and answer questions that were troubling members of this church. What’s the first thing we might learn? Our churches will never be perfect.
Corinth was one of the great port cities of the Roman world, a melting pot for people and cultures of every kind. It had a reputation for moral depravity. Paul went there in the year 51, after visiting Athens where he tried with all his skill to bring the gospel to the Athenians. Evidently, his visit was disappointing. Moving on to Corinth, he went first to the Jews to announce the gospel, as he customarily did, but they turned him away. Then, gentile hearers mostly from the poorer elements of the city embraced the faith.
The situation caused Paul to reflect on what he has experienced. The church is a mystery of God. You can’t judge it by human wisdom or explain it in human terms. It’s God’s church, God’s community, and the Spirit of God is at work. It grows according to God’s plan, not human planning. His task, Paul realizes, is to discern what God wills as the work unfolds.
In Ist Corinthians we have Paul’s humble acknowledgment that, though he is founder of this church, he is a servant among many servants. Other teachers, Apollos and perhaps Peter, have labored in this church and factions have gathered around them. There’s a danger when human teachers take the place of God, Paul writes.
I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused the growth.Therefore, neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who causes the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive wages in proportion to his labor. For we are God’s co-workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. (1 Corinthians 3, 6-9)
We’re God’s field, God’s building. What’s God planting? God building? Those are questions for us to ask.
Martin Johnson Heade, “Newburyport Meadows”, (ca. 1876-81) (The Met)
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we shall go into such and such a town, spend a year there doing business, and make a profit”—you have no idea what your life will be like tomorrow. You are a puff of smoke that appears briefly and then disappears.
Our cross is daily
And so are our decisions
Step by step we carry
Step by step we decide
Our cross may change…its shape, its size
Our decisions, like shadows, mirror the cross
Lengthening, stretching, thinning out—seemingly to even disappear—only to return—heavier, shorter, more compact—practically on top of us
It all depends on the angle and the path of the sun
The Sun of Justice
The Son of God
He walked day-by-day
He was conscious of the hour
He knew when His hour was near
He knew when it was time to slip away
To heal a stranger
To correct a disciple
To teach the crowds
To challenge a scribe
When to stand still
When to be silent
When to turn the other cheek
When to forgive those who hunted Him down
Christ knew the hour of His sorrowful Passion
Christ Jesus knew how to embrace the Word of the Cross
The Son of God knew His Father was trustworthy
He knew how to die
He knew how to live
He knew how to love
Jesus carried His Cross
He made decisions
Only concerned with fulfilling His Father’s will
Walk like Him
Walk with Him
Carry the cross you discover each new day
Give thanks for the blessings that come in the shape of a couple of crisscrossed beams
Make decisions accordingly
Planning to do more is to presume
—to presume to know what cross you’ll need to carry a few moments from now—
Doing any less is to put the cross gently laid upon your shoulder down
But for you who fear my name, the sun of justice
will arise with healing in its wings;
And you will go out leaping like calves from the stall…
Meals of every kind are described in the New Testament. Jesus begins his ministry at a wedding banquet in Cana in Galilee, John’s gospel says. Before his death, he has a meal with his disciples and after his resurrection he has some meals with them again. Martha and Mary and his friends in Bethany celebrate the return of Lazarus from the dead at a meal. His enemies say he ate too many meals with tax-collectors and sinners. Some of Jesus’ most profound teachings and actions take place at a meal.
Today in our reading from Luke’s gospel Jesus is invited to a Sabbath meal at the home of one of the leading Pharisees, but this meal is different from those just mentioned. They were carefully watching him, the gospel says. At a Sabbath meal God is thanked for his gifts, which he gives to all, but at this meal Jesus is being watched. He’s not an ordinary guest as he enters this home. He’s there to be measured and grilled by his hosts and put in his place.
At the time of Jesus it wasn’t unusual for a symposium to take place at a meal, especially in the home of someone like the leading Pharisee in today’s gospel. A symposium was an occasion when there would be a discussion of issues: questions would be raised, controversial matters would be debated. It was a time for people with quick wits and sharp tongues to show off how smart they were.
At this meal Jesus was going to be discussed; questions and controversies about him would be brought up and he would be disposed of. So we might imagine the guests at the Pharisee’s home on that occasion were like spectators at a prize fight, looking for the best seats to watch and maybe even take part in the contest themselves.
If this meal was a symposium, and I think it was, listen carefully to Jesus’ words to those who were there. He doesn’t just tell his hearers about common etiquette; he reminds them what this meal should be all about. This is a Sabbath meal. It’s a time for thanking God for the gift of life. It’s a time for rejoicing, not for showing off how smart you are. This is time when God calls us up higher. “Friend, come up higher.” From our small places here on earth, from the smallness we might consider our lives to be, God calls us up higher. It’s not a time pulling people down with your smart words.
For that same reason, this is a meal where everyone should have a place at the table, not just the wealthy and the privileged, the smart and the powerful, but “the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.”
Now, that’s what our Mass is about, isn’t it? Our Mass is our Sabbath meal where we give thanks for the gift of life. We give thanks to God. It’s right and just, our prayers say. We do this at all times, “always and everywhere,” but now we do it as disciples with Jesus our Lord. We listen to his word, we come to him in the bread and the wine, and through them he comes to us.
“Lift up your hearts.” “Friend, come up higher.” We lift up our hearts to the Lord. God calls us to come up higher, to see our gifts and the destiny we’re promised, to recognize our relationship with one another, to let go of the fears and doubts that cloud our minds, to feel the peace and hope God wishes us to have. The Mass prepares us for the life beyond this time. . “The Mass is ended. God in peace.” “Thanks be to God.”
Our Mass is a wonderful teacher, and we’re meant to take what it teaches and make it part of the rest of our lives. Let me give you a simple example, since we’re speaking about meals. Suppose we could make our meals, our eating together, Sabbath meals, where we enjoy the gifts of God we find in food and in one another.
That may sound like a strange suggestion. It sounds strange because eating together is becoming a endangered practice today. For one thing, a lot of people eat alone today, or if they come to a meal they might as well be eating alone.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all our meals became times when we experienced those words of the gospel: “Friend, come up higher,” when we build each other up instead of tearing each other down, when we all feel welcome by others, even the stranger and the outsider, when we enjoyed the gifts of God in food and human companionship.
For we are to God the sweet aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing...
—2 Corinthians 2:15
We see so many images of Christ Crucified. Museums and churches are full of them. And they should be. It is the greatest paradox ever told.
And to go along with the abundance of visual representations, there are of course also many artworks in written form depicting the Passion of Jesus Christ. Shelf after shelf can be filled with books containing the seemingly endless repertoire of poems, plays, and musical compositions based on the subject.
But none can capture the stench of death.
Smell moves us like no other sense.
It is so powerful. So quick. So nauseating.
Think of that the next time you’re riding the subway on your way to a museum. Think of that when a homeless man enters your subway car. Think of that when you’re tempted to switch trains at the next stop due to the stench.
Breathe deep instead.
Think of the stench. Think of that poor man—that poor sorrowful man dying right in front of you. The stench of rotting flesh. The stench of death.
No artwork that you’re on your way to see will bring Jesus and His Cross more to life.
Take a deep breath, and pray. You’re on holy ground.
Pray for yourself. Pray for the man. Pray for all those on board. Pray for the entire world.
Pray that that particular stench, that stench of death, right then and there, brings life.
That it brings life to hardened hearts.
That it brings life to senses numbed to the utter poverty of human suffering—suffering that manifests itself in oh so many ways.
That it brings life to what the world says can’t and shouldn’t be redeemed.
And give that gentleman a few bucks.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art recommends an entrance fee of twenty-five dollars. Do you know how much consolation that poor suffering Christ riding right next to you would receive if you gave him that much?
Do you know how cheap a price that is to pay to be able to get so close to a living breathing masterpiece of sacrificial life?
Dig in deep. Dig into your pockets. Dig deep into the reserves of your heart.
You will be amazed how such a prayer, such an act of compassion, such a “living faith”, will transform the stench of death into the aroma of life.
Breathe deep. Pick up your cross. Die daily.
Get over yourself.
What a breath of fresh air!
Now that’s truly an entrance fee.
And it’s worth every drop.
Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
To listen to today’s homily please select the audio file below:
“Lord, will only a few people be saved?” someone asks Jesus on his journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, described in Luke’s gospel, our Mass reading today. He doesn’t answer the question, but instead tells his listeners to respond immediately to God’s call when they hear it.
Why was the question asked anyway, you wonder? Was it because the response wasn’t great when Jesus made his way to Jerusalem? In our first reading Isaiah predicts people from all nations will flock to Jerusalem when the Messiah comes. Were those who followed Jesus few in number then?
Will the response to Jesus sometimes be the same?
The journey of Jesus to Jerusalem never ends, we believe. It goes on through time as Christian missionaries go through other towns, places, even continents. It took place when European explorers, settlers and missionaries brought faith in Jesus Christ to peoples in North America who never knew him.
“Lord, will only a few people be saved?” Early Christian missionaries may have asked that as they reviewed their attempts to evangelize the native peoples of North America. Historians estimate about 50 million Indians lived in North America before the arrival of Europeans. A hundred years later, only 10 percent survived, mainly because of diseases brought by the newcomers. In a hundred or so years, as European settlers increased in number, most of the native tribes in eastern North America were forced westward or destroyed by war or small pox brought by the Europeans.
Coming to the new world, Catholic missionaries like the Jesuits and Franciscans hoped, not only to convert the native peoples to Christianity, but some thought they might create a fresh, vibrant Christian civilization, without the ancient antagonisms and rivalries of Europe. They looked for new Pentecost, but it did not seem to come.
Their harvest wasn’t great. The two civilizations were very different. The sense of superiority the Europeans brought, colonialism, and the diseases that decimated the native population made the native peoples question Christianity. It seemed to be a faith that brought death not life.
I hope to visit soon the National Museum of the American Indian, located in the old customs house across from Battery Park near the ferry in New York City, a good place to remember the native peoples in the story of America. They were the first the Europeans traded with; they were their guides into an unknown land. The native peoples provided new foods for growing populations in Africa, Europe and America. They had a greater respect for the land than those who came after them. Their story is now largely forgotten.
At the museum I’ll remember St. Kateri Tekakwitha, a native American who lived along the Mohawk River past Albany, New York. She offers an insight into the culture and social world of the native peoples. Smallpox brought by the Europeans disfigured and partially blinded her. Other diseases like tuberculosis, measles and malaria brought death to large numbers of native peoples, who were diminished further by wars and greed for Indian lands.
She came to believe in Jesus Christ.
At the museum I’ll also remember Father Isaac Jogues, the fearless Jesuit missionary, who was eventually killed by the Mohawks at Ossernonon (Auriesville), past Albany on the Mohawk River. A strong faith in Christ brought him to the New World where he experienced the clash of cultures as Christianity entered a native American world. Fleeing from Indian captivity, he came here to New Amsterdam (New York) in 1643 and was put on a ship for France by a kindly Dutch minister. A few years later, he returned still eager to bring the Christian faith to the native peoples, but was killed in 1646.
He wanted them to know Jesus Christ.
What do these old examples say about our mission today as disciples of Jesus to make him known? “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age,” Jesus says. (Matthew 28,16-20) What does that mean today?
Some today tell us to think more positively of cultures like that of the American native peoples. Some say Christians should simply be present in these cultures and silently profess their faith and work for the common good. Some even say we should not evangelize at all.
Certainly, the Spirit of God has been active in humanity from the beginning and we have missed God’s gifts in cultures and religions not our own. The church today recognizes the good in other religions “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions” (Nostra Aetate, 2) . Still, it regards them as a “preparation for the gospel.” (Lumen gentium 16)
“The church is missionary by her very nature.” (Ad gentes 2) She is called to both dialogue respectfully, work for the common good and proclaim her belief.
We’re not only speaking of other cultures and religions, of course. What about our own culture, which is becoming increasingly resistant to Christian belief? How do we dialogue respectfully and proclaim our belief to our own, our young people, those who are drifting away?
Jerzy Duda-Gracz, “Golgotha of Jasna Gora”, (ca. 2001)
“Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life…”
On a day such as this, our Lord, our God, our Savior Jesus the Christ was crucified.
It is hard to imagine just what He went through that long, hard day.
It is certainly a good exercise to meditate on Christ’s Passion. It bears great spiritual fruit.
This particular morning, exhaustion is on my mind.
I think of all those who are staggering out of bed. All those faces I shall soon see on the crowded bus, the claustrophobic subway car, the bitterly hot city street.
Of course those faces can also be seen in the suburbs and the country. Those faces are all over the place.
All those Josephs. All those Marys. All those Peters and Pauls. All those just like you and me, like yours and mine—all on their way to work—each carrying a cross made of wood, no matter what the job may entail or what the work may look like, no matter if the “work” performed results in “pay” or not.
Exhaustion. Being spent. Having been completely poured out. Nothing left but fumes.
And many whom I shall see this morning will return this evening to ungrateful companions: spouses, children, in-laws, neighbors…all those in their lives who they provide for, but who rarely think about the effort it takes to generate that provision—let alone, to say, “Thank you”.
Jesus kept walking.
Patience. Strength. Perseverance.
Lord, teach us. Show us. Show us Your blessed face.
Can we see You today in the tired, the taken for granted, the exhausted? Can we pour ourselves out on Your behalf? Can we serve those who serve others?
Can we be instruments of encouragement? Can we help the anonymous Jesus right next to us carry His Cross? And can we do all this in complete and perfect union with Jesus and all for the love of You, Lord God?
Father, can we continue to ask You questions such as these? Questions that bring us closer to You, and closer to the Passion of Your Dearly Beloved Son.
I love You, Jesus. Let me never take for granted Your crucifixion. Let me never take for granted Your exhaustive gift—a gift that took every bit of You and yet never runs out—a gift exclusively for me and at the very same time exclusively for each and every other member of mankind.
You, Lord God—Father, Son, Holy Spirit: Most Holy Trinity—are everywhere: on crowded buses, on claustrophobic subway cars, on bitterly hot city streets. You are all over the place. You are in so many who don’t even know that You are in them. Let me see You in them. And may that blessed encounter also be the moment in which he and she comes to recognize Your Divine Presence residing deep within.
You are God.
You died for each of us.
Your Passion continues.
On the Third Day, You rose again.
The Third Day is also today—this very day—this new and blessed day.
You are risen. You are risen, indeed!
So they said to him, “What can we do to accomplish the works of God?”
Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.”