Author Archives: vhoagland

“I Will Allure Her”

Commentators say the Book of Hosea, the 8th century Jewish prophet we’re reading at Mass these days, is one of the most difficult books of the bible to understand; its language and its references are often obscure. But one part of Hosea’s story you can recognize in any television soap opera or romantic novel today: It’s a story of marital infidelity, a broken marriage.

Hosea had trouble with his wife, whose name is Gomer. He was very much in love with her; they married and had some children. But Gomer’s not satisfied with Hosea and her family and she leaves them. She wants something else– romance, freedom, new things to see and to do, a new life.

So Hosea is heartbroken and crushed when she leaves him. He doesn’t understand why it’s happened, he’s bewildered and angry and feeling rejected.

Yet he still loves her and tries to win her back. He wants to renew the love they had for each other. Eventually, Gomer comes back, but we’re not really sure if she will stay. What we do know is that Hosea wants to have her back and have their love renewed.

Hosea’s story is an example of God’s relationship to humanity. God loves the world and its people. Yet, we can be unfaithful.  But God’s relationship is like the marital relationship, or as we also see in the Book of Hosea, the relationship of a father or mother to their children. God always wants us back.

You can hear the yearning of Hosea for his wife and the love of God for his people in yesterday’s  reading:

Thus says the LORD:

I will allure her;
I will lead her into the desert
and speak to her heart.
She shall respond there as in the days of her youth,
when she came up from the land of Egypt.

On that day, says the LORD,
She shall call me “My husband,”
and never again “My baal.”

I will espouse you to me forever:
I will espouse you in right and in justice,
in love and in mercy;
I will espouse you in fidelity,
and you shall know the LORD.

(Hosea 2:6, 17-18,21-22)

Learning in Bad Times

I find myself turning away from the news on television these days. I don’t think I’m the only one. The pandemic only seems to be getting worse, and we’re getting worse with it.

So we turn to the Good News.

I’m finding the Gospel of Matthew, which we’re reading these weekdays and on Sundays, helpful. It was written for people struggling with bad times.

The bad times were around the year AD 90 when the followers of Jesus in Galilee were reeling from the attacks of a resurgent Judaism. Those attacks are described in Chapters 10-12 of Matthew’s gospel.

Instead of closing their eyes and hanging on tight, Jesus tells his disciples to open their eyes and their ears, because there’s something for them to learn. “Blessed are your eyes, because they see and your ears because they hear. Many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it and hear what you hear and did not hear it”  (Matthew 13:16-17). He says that as he teaches them in parables.

Bad times can be the best times to learn. Some of the best things we know; some of the best insights we have;  some of the most creative thoughts may come in bad times. God doesn’t stop speaking or teaching in bad times; God sows seeds and opens new avenues. New treasures, new pearls are there to be discovered in the ground we walk over and the jumble of things that seem to overwhelm us.

We will be reading soon the parables of the treasure hidden in the field and the pearl of great price and the net that pulls up a bewildering variety of things from the sea.  It’s a message continued in the mystery of the Passion of Jesus. The disciples saw only death and failure there at first, but then they saw treasures in the wounds, the blood and water that flowed from his side, the words he said.

We don’t have to turn away from bad times. They’re times to keep your eyes and ears open, Jesus says. Like his first disciples, we should pray, not for blinders, but for “understanding hearts.”

July 4: Independence Day

A few days ago we remembered the foundation of our church with the feasts of Saints Peter and Paul. Today we remember the foundation of our country, July 4, with the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Like church feasts, national feasts are times to celebrate. But this year we’re not going to do much of that.  We’re in the midst of a pandemic. Our public celebrations, for the most part,  have been canceled.

Church feasts are also a time to reflect, so maybe today we can reflect on what this national holiday means.

Where can we learn about what this day means? Historians say this day didn’t happen without much struggle. Political fighting, interest groups, foreign powers, war–all had a part in it. Founding our country was not as easy as we might think. But somehow all these conflicting interests came together around an ideal.

Can we remember that ideal today?

The Declaration of Independence was a statement of great ideals, but those ideals were not applied to everyone.  Have the native peoples here on this continent before us, the African peoples brought here as slaves, been treated as “created equal” with “certain unalienable rights?”

Have the poor and the immigrant been seen as equal?

Church feasts celebrate graces of God. They lift us up to aspire to great ideals and promises. We’re called to do that today.

But we always begin feasts with prayers for forgiveness, acknowledgement of failures, and calls for mercy: “Lord, have mercy.”

“America the Beautiful… God mend thine every flaw, and crown thy good with brotherhood, with liberty and law.”

Father of all nations and ages,
we recall the day when our country
claimed its place among the family of nations;
for what has been achieved we give you thanks,
for the work that still remains we ask your help,
and as you have called us from many peoples to be one nation, grant that, under your providence, our country may share your blessings
with all the peoples of the earth.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Going to God through Questions

Thomas

Today, July 3rd, we remember Thomas the apostle. We’re tempted to think that belief does away with troublesome questions and shelters us from a world of unbelief, that belief makes our way to God smooth and undisturbed. Not so, Thomas reminds us; he found faith through his questions and by placing his finger into the wounds of Christ.

Gregory the Great reminds us today of the importance of Thomas the Apostle.

“In a marvellous way God’s mercy arranged that the disbelieving disciple, in touching the wounds of his master’s body, should heal our wounds of disbelief. The disbelief of Thomas has done more for our faith than the faith of the other disciples. As he touches Christ and is won over to belief, every doubt is cast aside and our faith is strengthened. So the disciple who doubted, then felt Christ’s wounds, becomes a witness to the reality of the resurrection.”

That’s an interesting statement, isn’t it? “The disbelief of Thomas has done more for our faith than the faith of the other disciples.”

We go to God through questions, and some troubles too. We’re healed by touching the wounds of Christ.

Grant, Almighty God,
that we may glory in the Feast of the blessed apostle Thomas, so that we may always be sustained by his intercession
and, believing, may have life
in the name of Jesus Christ your son,
whom Thomas acknowledged as the Lord.
Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Your Kingdom come on earth

The wise St. Teresa of Avila says, “We’re people who don’t feel rich until we feel the money in our pocket.” So, we have to pray, “Your kingdom come… on earth.”

We’re earthy people with our feet on the ground, today’s ground. We find it hard to pray: “Give us whatever is good for us.” We find it hard to grasp that God’s kingdom is coming with blessings far beyond what we ask for.

We’re earthy people. We find the prayer of Jesus in the garden hard to imitate: “Not my will, but yours be done.”

“But you know us, my Lord, and you know that we have not given ourselves up to the will of your Father as completely as you did. For us, it is best to pray for specific things…or else we won’t accept what God chooses to give us (even if it is far better than what we asked for) because it’s not exactly what we asked for.”

So we pray that God’s kingdom come “on earth” –for my cousin’s friend who’s paralyzed, for Dennis, Joan, Camille, Mary, and Betty who lost their jobs, for the disturbed woman who visits our garden, for our President and our country, for Vincent in the hospital.” Our prayer is about “specific things” because we live our lives in them; we only know through what we see and feel and experience.

And so, “the good Jesus places these two petitions – Hallowed be thy name and Thy kingdom come next to each other, so that we can understand what we are asking for and why it is important to beg for it and to do all we can to please the one who is able to give it to us.”

The petitions lead us to the prayer of Jesus, “your will be done.”

A wise woman, St. Teresa. No wonder she’s a Doctor of the Church. (The Way of Perfection)

The Quality of Mercy

We’re reading from the Prophet Amos all this week at Mass. His message is “one of unrelieved gloom,” one commentator says, as he speaks  to 8th century Israel, the prosperous northern kingdom of his day.

God doesn’t like anything about it: “I hate, I spurn your feasts…I take no pleasure in your solemnities…Away with your noisy songs! I will not listen to the melodies of your harps.”

God can’t stand the songs they’re singing, the music they’re playing, their beautiful liturgies, because they show no justice towards the poor. So destruction awaits them.

But wait! This Saturday God turns in mercy to his people in one of Amos’ most beautiful passages:

“On that day I will raise up
the fallen hut of David;
I will wall up its breaches,
raise up its ruins,
and rebuild it as in the days of old…
Yes, days are coming,
says the LORD,
When the plowman shall overtake the reaper,
and the vintager, him who sows the seed;
The juice of grapes shall drip down the mountains,
and all the hills shall run with it.
I will bring about the restoration of my people Israel;
they shall rebuild and inhabit their ruined cities,
Plant vineyards and drink the wine,
set out gardens and eat the fruits.
I will plant them upon their own ground;
never again shall they be plucked
From the land I have given them,
say I, the LORD, your God.”  (Amos 9,11-15)

A beautiful definition of mercy. God comes to humanity at its worst, in its sham, its blindness, its evil, and raises it up again. Mercy does not depend on merit. It’s God loving us in spite of ourselves.

We see mercy best as it’s exemplified in the Passion of Jesus. In spite of hypocrisy and injustice, God offers his love to heedless humanity and the promise of a kingdom.

Have mercy on us, O Lord.

The Precious Blood

durer crucifixion

July 1 is the Feast of the Precious Blood of Jesus in the Passionist calendar. On this feast, I think of St. Vincent Strambi, an Italian Passionist who lived in the 19th century as Europe was convulsed by Napoleon’s dreams of world conquest. Some say over 4 million people, military and civilian, were killed in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars that stretched on for decades afterwards. Napoleon, bent on victory, saw war and blood shed in mass warfare as the price of empire. Blood was expendable so his own dreams of conquest could be fulfilled. world the 19th succeeded the 18th century.

Strambi had great devotion to the Precious Blood of Jesus and often preached about it.

Strambi, as a priest and bishop involved in his church and time saw human blood of as precious. It was being shed in a new crucifixion, not only in fierce battles raging through Europe, but in the suffering, sickness, and hunger that war brought with it. He saw it mingled with the blood that Jesus shed, a precious blood that God mourned and held holy. The Precious Blood gave him a way to appreciate the suffering he witnessed.

The Feast of the Precious Blood not only turns our eyes to the blood flowing from Jesus’ side as he died on the cross, but it calls us to count precious the blood shed in today’s wars, persecutions, capital punishment, and the sufferings of the poor.

Painters like Durer (above) pictured angels holding cups catching blood from Jesus’ wounds. Don’t let his blood fall to the ground unnoticed, he tells us. It’s precious. All human life is precious.

The First Martyrs of Rome: June 30

June 30th, the day after the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, we remember the Christians  martyred with them in Nero’s persecution in the mid 60s, a persecution that shook the early  church.

It began with an early morning fire that broke out on July 19, 64 in a small shop by the Circus Maximus and spread rapidly to other parts of the city, raging nine days through Rome’s narrow street and alleyways where more than a million people lived in apartment blocks of flimsy wooden construction.

Only two areas escaped the fire; one of them, Trastevere, across the Tiber River, had a large Jewish population.

Nero was at his seaside villa in Anzio and delayed returning to the city. Not a good move for a politician, even an emperor. Angered by his absence,  people wondered if he set the fire himself so he could rebuild the city on grand plans of his own.

To stop the rumors, Nero looked for someone to blame. He chose a group of renegade Jews called Christians, whose reputation was tarnished by incidents years earlier when the Emperor Claudius banished some of them from Rome after rioting occurred in the synagogues over Jesus Christ.

“Nero was the first to rage with Caesar’s sword against this sect,” the early-Christian writer Tertullian wrote. “To suppress the rumor,” the Roman historian Tacitus says, “Nero created scapegoats. He punished with every kind of cruelty the notoriously depraved group known as Christians.”

We don’t know their names,  how long it went on or how many were killed: the Roman historians do not say. Possibly  60,000 Jewish merchants and slaves lived in Rome then; some were followers of Jesus and had broken away from the Jewish community even before Peter and Paul arrived in the city.(cf. The Letter to the Romans)

Following usual procedure, the Roman  authorities seized some and forced them by torture to give the names of others. “First, Nero had some of the members of this sect arrested. Then, on their information, large numbers were condemned — not so much for arson, but for their hatred of the human race. Their deaths were made a farce.” (Tacitus)

The Christians were killed with exceptional cruelty in Nero’s gardens and in public places like the race course on Vatican Hill. “Mockery of every sort accompanied their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.” (Tacitus)

Nero went too far, even for Romans used to barbaric cruelty. “There arose in the people a sense of pity. For it was felt that they (the Christians) were being sacrificed for one man’s brutality rather than to the public interest.” (Tacitus)

How did the Roman Christians react to this absurd, unjust tragedy? They had to ask why God permitted this and did not stop it. Fellow  believers were among those who turned them in.

Some scholars say the Gospel of Mark, written shortly after this tragedy, was likely written to answer these questions. innocent and good, Jesus experienced death at the hands of wicked men, that gospel insists. He suffered a brutal, absurd death. Mark’s gospel gives  no answer to the question of suffering except to say that God saved his Son from death.

The Gospel of Mark also gives an unsparing account of Peter’s denial of Jesus in his Passion.. Jesus was betrayed and abandoned by his own followers, Peter prominent among them.

Finally, the Roman Christians afterwards would surely wonder whether to stay in this city, an evil city like Babylon. Should they go to a safer, better place? The Christians remained in the city. I wonder if the “Quo Vadis?” story was a story prompted by questions like these ?

The martyrs of Rome strengthen us to stand where we are and do God’s will, inspired by the Passion of Christ.

A video about the persecution is at the beginning of today’s blog.

Here’s a video about Peter’s encounter with Jesus as he flees from the city during this same persecution: “Quo Vadis?”

Here are Stations of the Cross in the gardens of Ss.Giovanni e Paolo in Rome, once the gardens of the Emperor Nero.

The Feast of Peter and Paul

The church of Rome considers Peter and Paul, who came to the city and preached and died  there during the persecution by Nero in the early 60s, her founders. Their burial places are marked by great churches, St. Peter at the Vatican and St. Paul Outside the Walls.

They could not be more unlike: Paul, the educated Pharisee from Tarsus was a latecomer  to Christianity but like a runner raced from place to place in the Roman world to plant the faith. In the end, he believed God would give him “a crown of righteousness”  for his efforts.

Peter,  the fisherman from Galilee, was named by Jesus  the Rock on whom he would build his church. Denying Jesus three times, he was called by Jesus  three times  to shepherd the flock. Warily, he went to baptize a Roman soldier, Cornelius, in Caesaria; then he went to the gentile cities of Antioch and Rome to tell of the One he had seen with his own eyes.

The church today prays for Paul’s zealous faith to bring the gospel to the world and for Peter’s deep love for Jesus Christ which he proved by his preaching and death.

Commenting on Jesus’  threefold call to Peter. St. Augustine says it conquered the apostle’s “self-assurance.”

“Quite rightly, too, did the Lord after his resurrection entrust his sheep to Peter to be fed. Not that he alone  was fit to feed the Lord’s sheep, but when Christ speaks to one, he calls us to be one. And he first speaks to Peter, because Peter is the first among the apostles.

“Do not be sad, Peter. Answer once, answer again, answer a third time. Let confession conquer three times with love, because your self-assurance was conquered three times by fear. What you had bound three times must be loosed three times. Loose through love what you had bound through fear. And for all that, the Lord once, and again, and a third time, entrusted his sheep to Peter.”

“Today we celebrate the  the passion of two apostles. These two  were as one; although they suffered on different days, they were as one. Peter went first, Paul followed. We are celebrating a feast day consecrated for us by the blood of the apostles. Let us love their faith, their lives, their labors, their sufferings, their confession of faith, their preaching.”

“May your church in all things

follow the teaching of those

through whom she has received

the beginning of right religion.”