The Pentateuch

This week we’re beginning to read from the Book of Exodus, the second book of the five books of the Pentateuch. They’re important books of scripture and it’s good to step back and see the big picture they reveal to us.

Until the 17th century, the common opinion was that the five books of the Pentateuch–Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy– were written by Moses to tell the story of Israel from its origins at the creation of the world till the time when it enters the promised land of Canaan. Since then, the scholarly consensus is that many hands are involved in the creation of the books of the Pentateuch– the Torah they’re also called.

Rather than figuring out what hands they are, it might be better to keep before us the big picture we see in them. God creates the heavens and the earth (Genesis), he creates human beings, male and female. And then God says to Adam and Eve, “Increase and multiply and fill the earth.” “Let there be more of you, and take possession of the land I’ve created for you.”

Human beings, we know, resisted God’s plan through sin, and so after Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the flood and the destruction of tower of Babel, God turns to Abraham and Sarah, a landless, childless couple, and God makes to them the promise made to Adam and Eve­–many children and a land of their own. Through them, God will bless all the peoples of the earth. Their story, then, is our story too.

Land and children. A fruitful land, a multitude of children. Yet, those promises seem to elude Abraham and the patriarchs as they go from place to place. When the patriarch Jacob arrives in Egypt, it seems the promises might come true. Egypt, humanly speaking, is an ideal spot for the children of the patriarchs to flourish, and indeed their numbers increase, they settle on good land and they become a powerful group in Egyptian society.

But this isn’t the place, according to the Book of Exodus, and so Moses leads them out through the desert where at Sinai God promises to be their God; they’ll have a law to guide them, bread to nourish them. It’s not an easy journey and they’re not an easy people, but God  guides them on their way.

Scholars today say Moses didn’t write the books of the Pentateuch, but they reached the form we have now from a final compilation of earlier sources made after the Jews were driven into exile in Bablyon in the seventh century BC and lost their homeland. The compilers wanted the exiles to know their history. They were children of Abraham. The God of their ancestors was their God. They had a law to guide them, bread to nourish them, a desert to journey through. Most importantly, they would reach a fruitful land and have a multitude of children.

The commentary from the New American Bible claims the editor made a substantial change to the ancient narrative to emphasize that last point:

“The last chapter of the ancient narrative—Israel dwelling securely in its land—no longer held true. The story had to be reinterpreted, and the Priestly editor is often credited with doing so. A preface (Genesis 1) was added, emphasizing God’s intent that human beings continue in existence through their progeny and possess their own land. Good news, surely, to a devastated people wondering whether they would survive and repossess their ancestral land. The ending of the old story was changed to depict Israel at the threshold of the promised land (the plains of Moab) rather than in it. Henceforth, Israel would be a people oriented toward the land rather than possessing it. The revised ending could not be more suitable for Jews and Christians alike. Both peoples can imagine themselves on the threshold of the promised land, listening to the word of God in order to be able to enter it in the future. For Christians particularly, the Pentateuch portrays the pilgrim people waiting for the full realization of the kingdom of God.”

Thoughts to hold onto in a changing world and a changing church.

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15th Sunday A: The Sower

 

Homily below:

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Stories of the Patriarchs

Stories of Jacob and his sons continue the story of the patriarchs from the Book of Genesis we’re reading in our lectionary these days. They trying to get food to eat in a time of famine.  Inheritors of God’s promise to Abraham, the patriarchs are searching for a land of their own, but they’re not going to find it in Egypt with Joseph and his connections to Pharoah. They’ll leave Egypt and cross the desert, indeed, their search never seems to end. But that’s God’s plan; the search is not theirs but planned from above.

The stories of the patriarchs might be called the Jewish phase of the Book of Genesis. The first 10 chapters of Genesis describe the origins of the world and the beginnings of the human race. Chapter 11 introduces Abraham, followed by stories of his descendants, the other patriarchs. Then, we read from the Book of Exodus.

One Jewish tradition says that because the peoples of the world, from Adam and Eve on, resist God’s invitation to be one with him, God decides to concentrate on one nation hoping to eventually bring in all the rest. So then, the experience of Abraham and the other patriarchs affects the whole human race. Their stories are also ours and have lessons for us.

Abraham is our “father in faith”. The patriarchs, especially Abraham, are examples of faith and trust in God as they face an unknown future. That’s what keeps them going from place to place searching for a final homeland, and that’s what keeps all humanity going. Faith and trust keeps the Church going as she makes her pilgrim way. Those virtues also keep all peoples of the earth going as on their journey through time.

Besides faith and trust we need to accept the humanity we find in the patriarchs, their wives, their children, their friends, their servants and their enemies. They’re far from perfect. They live in a world of cruel wars and famine, stubborn enemies, political instability and unpredictable events. There are family fights, jealous brothers and sisters and sneaky deals at every step.

The early Christian writer Marcion wanted to do away with the Old Testament because it wasn’t spiritual enough. But there’s reality in the Old Testament. It’s a sinful reality God accepts and a humanity the Word of God embraces. “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.”

In my opinion our Old Testament readings at Mass from the lectionary tend to feature the nobler, more spiritual parts of the Old Testament and unfortunately neglect the raw parts that Marcion and other critics complain about. Are we past this ugly reality in our times? Will we ever? Yet, God’s promise in never withdrawn.

Old Testament stories, like the New, have a wonderful way of speaking to our own world. Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt at a time of widespread famine. “In fact, all the world came to Joseph to obtain rations of grain, for famine had gripped the whole world.” (Genesis 41,57) Egypt wisely opened its food supply to eveybody. Was it just from kindness, or was it good politics too?

The New York Times recently carried an article questioning present US policy to cut foreign aide to poorer nations of the world, especially those experiencing climate related shortages of food. Inevitably, violence in those countries will spill over to ours, so we must take care of them now, the writer said.

I remember reading that the Byzantine Empire fell so quickly to the armies of Mohammed because the Byzantines neglected to care for the Bedouin tribes at their borders and along their trade routes.

We’re all bound together, whether we know it or not.

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Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680)

Sometime ago I stumbled on a map of New York rivers and lakes.  Indians and early European settlers appreciated a map like that centuries ago because rivers and lakes were their roads and highways.

The New York Thruway follows the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers and near the town of Fonda just past Albany you can visit the ruins of the17th century Mohawk village of Caughnawaga, excavated in the 1950s by a Franciscan priest,  Thomas Grassmann. It’s the only village of its kind left, with traces of 12 long houses surrounded by a fortified stockade. It was built in 1666 after a French army from Quebec destroyed an earlier Mohawk village at Osserneron (today, Auriesville) a few miles downriver.

The French army was punishing the Mohawks for their part in the Iroquois- Huron wars, when they plundered and destroyed villages of Indian allies of the French, the Hurons and  Algonquins, along the St. Lawrence River. The Mohawks, members of the Iroquois confederation, wanted to gain control of the fur trade from their northern neighbors. They  took women and children captive; at the time, Indians used to replenish their own numbers– diminished by wars or disease– by kidnapping members from other tribes.

In destroying Ossernenon, the French army was probably also avenging the death of three French missionaries  killed in that village some years before: Fr. Isaac Jogues, SJ, and Rene Goupil and Gabriel Lalande,  honored  today by the Church as martyrs.

One of the Christian Algonquin women captured in that earlier raid was married to a Mohawk brave from Ossernenon and they had a daughter,  Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680), whom the Catholic Church also honors as blessed.

An epidemic of smallpox ravaged Ossernenon when Kateri was four years old, killing   many children and adults. The young girl almost died of the disease that left her disfigured. Her early Jesuit biographer says “ She almost lost her eyesight, and her eyes hurt so much from this illness that she covered herself with a blanket when out in strong light.” (The Life of the Good Catherine Tekakwitha, Claude Chauchetiere, SJ , 1695)

Both parents died when Kateri was a little girl and she was taken in by relatives in the new Mohawk village of Caughnawaga, where she lived most of her life. Her mother was a devout Christian and must have told her about Christianity, but Kateri’s new family and  tribe strongly opposed the religion.

The French military, however, as one condition for not returning to the Mohawk villages, demanded that Jesuit missionaries be allowed to visit them and minister to captive Christians or others interested in their faith. Jesuit missionaries visited Caughnawaga for three days in 1667 and received hospitality in the long house where Kateri lived with her uncle, a Mohawk leader opposed to Christians.

According to witnesses, Kateri led the normal life of an Indian girl and young woman.  “She brought wood and tended the fire when her aunt ordered her, and got water when those in the long house needed it. When she had nothing to do she amused herself making small jewels and dressing as other girls of her age. She placed shell bead necklaces around her neck, shell bead bracelets on her arms, rings on her fingers and ornaments in her ears.” (The Life of the Good Catherine Tekakwitha, Claude Chauchetiere, SJ , 1695)

Though sickly, she was not lazy or proud. She never talked about others. Timid, she avoided dances and games. She didn’t like seeing captives harmed or people tortured, witnesses said.

In the spring of 1675  Jesuit Father Jacques de Lamberville visited Caughnawaga . Kateri was alone in her long house because a foot injury prevented her from working in the fields and the priest entered her lodge. She spoke to him of her desire to receive baptism and on Easter, 1676, the young Indian girl was baptized and took the name Kateri, after St. Catherine of Siena, the mystic and a favorite patron of Christian Indian women. She was 20 years old.

Her uncle and relatives in the long house reacted to her conversion to Christianity and pressured her to marry and follow their ways, even when opposed to her beliefs. The early Jesuits considered it a miracle for a Christian to resist family and tribal pressure such as Kateri experienced in Caughnawaga. Yet, her early biographer says “She practiced her faith without losing her original fervor and her extraordinary virtue was seen by all. The Christians saw her obeying their rules exactly, going to prayers everyday in the morning and evening and Mass on Sunday. At the same time she avoided the dreams feasts and the dances,” practices endangering her belief.  (The Life of the Good Catherine Tekakwitha, Claude Chauchetiere, SJ , 1695)

Father de Lamberville finally recommended that Kateri escape to the newly-established  Indian Christian village in Kahnawake near Montreal, where she could live her faith more easily. In 1676, aided by other Christian Indians, she made the dangerous journey northward.  There she lived a fervent life of prayer and faith;  she died and was buried on April 17th, 1680.

Her feast day is July 14.

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Joseph and his Brothers

For the next few days we read at Mass from Genesis about Joseph, the son of Jacob, who’s betrayed by his brothers and sold into slavery in Egypt. He becomes one of Pharaoh’s chief advisors. When drought and famine strike the whole land,  Egypt is ready because Joseph has stored food to last through seven years of want.

When his brothers come looking for food, Joseph gives them food and saves them and their families from starvation. Eventually, Joseph brings Jacob, his father, and all his brothers and their families to ride out the famine in the safety of Egypt.

Like other Old Testament stories, the story of Joseph offers lessons simple and profound.  God saves his people, we’re reminded, even in a world of betrayals and natural disasters.  It’s also a story of forgiveness: Joseph forgives his brothers for betraying him and shows them God’s mercy.

It’s also a story to reflect on immigration and global solidarity. The Egyptians obviously let outsiders like Joseph’s brothers, nomads living beyond its borders, into their country. Why not build a wall around Egypt and keep strangers out?

Maybe an act of practical politics, some think. The nomads living on the borders of Egypt and on its trade routes were important allies to have in place with powerful empires to the north. You need to have good neighbors. One reason the Byzantine empire fell so quickly to Moslem invaders later on, historians say, was because it lost the support of Bedouin tribes on its borders.

These days, Pope Francis is stressing the “interconnectedness” of all life on our planet. The human family and nature are connected, for good or for ill. A story from Egypt has its lessons for today.

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Mission

By Orlando Hernandez

This Wednesday’s Gospel (Mt 10: 1-7) tells of Jesus’ commissioning of the twelve Apostles. In the previous chapter (Mt 9: 35-38) the Lord was “moved with pity” at seeing so many needy people, too many for Him to physically get to. So He empowers “these Twelve “ to spread out and perform miraculous deeds in His name. Each specific Apostle is mentioned, implying (to me) that God knows each one of His followers by name, probably every human being on Earth.

Then Jesus goes on to say, “Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town. Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go make this proclamation: ‘The Kingdom of heaven is at hand.’”(Mt 10: 5-7)

The mission of the Twelve is more than just medical. They are to proclaim the Good News. Jesus also tells them to go specifically to the People of God, rather than the Gentiles. Are the Gentiles unworthy? Jesus gives much evidence to the contrary in the Gospels. But there were so many rules against contact with the Gentiles that perhaps it was better not to begin with them. The people of Israel were “lost” enough to start with, and at least they shared a common culture and spiritual background with the neophyte Apostles. It’s a good start. What about us, modern-day disciples of Christ?

Every time I pray, in some way or another I feel the summons of the Lord, to go out and do some good, to relieve the suffering of others. I also feel the urge to go out and share the joy of Jesus’ presence in my heart. The Kingdom of heaven is establishing itself day by day in my life, sometimes very slowly and painfully, sometimes in the most wonderful ways. I want to tell the world, but most people do not seem to want to listen.

I am so grateful for those special days when I smile at every stranger because I feel so full of the Spirit, without fear, and people actually smile back. Have I helped establish His Kingdom by this simple act? When I show sincere concern for those who are lonely, or afraid, or hurting, but who really do not want to hear anything about God, have I actually preached the Gospel in the manner of St. Francis? I have good friends that I care for, but they are Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, New Age searchers, or adamant atheists. With them, I guess, my best start is to act with respect and love, even acceptance, not disapproval or superiority. However, if I get the chance, I will not hesitate to tell them about how happy I am with my faith, and most importantly, SHOW IT.

With the “lost sheep” of Christianity it is a little different. With my Protestant friends, I always rejoice in out common love of Jesus, and do not get into arguments about who’s the “better Christian”. With disenchanted Catholics, I just do a lot of listening, and remind them that God loves us always, and He is ready to take us back. I tell them my own story, the lost years, my conversion, my joy and struggle with my faith, and how I could never live without the Eucharist. The important thing is to be sincere and respectful, because we love them with the love that Jesus has given us.

Then there is my family. My wife and I are constantly sharing our confusions and inspirations when we share our faith. The same happens with my son and daughter-in-law, who were so instrumental in our conversions. And with my grandchildren, I look for every opportunity to remind them that there is a God who loves them much, much more than even I do. Sometimes their eyes glaze over and they want to change the subject. Other times they seem interested and want to know more. I must admit that I should try and pray more with them.

And finally, there are the good people I interact with in the different faith communities that I belong to: my parish, the Passionist family, the prayer groups, the Knights of Columbus. Even if we don’t realize it we’re constantly proclaiming the Kingdom of heaven to each other by our words and deeds. It is such a blessing.

I often think that I am wasting my time writing for this blog, that I’m preaching to the converted, that everything I write has already been said in a much better way by so many other people. But here I am, still trying, in case someone’s heart might possibly be touched by God’s hand when they read something in here. I also do it because Fr. Victor has asked me to, and I love him so very much. And then today’s Gospel encourages  me to go on, my Beloved Lord does: no matter how clumsily “ make this proclamation : ‘ the Kingdom of heaven is at hand ‘. “

Have a blessed week, dear sisters and brothers in Christ.

Orlando Hernandez

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Morning Thoughts: Prayer

by Howard Hain

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I sat toward the back. Near the cooler. At the third table of three.

Looking through the line of bakery customers, I see out the storefront window, across the somewhat crowded street—that seems to be undergoing never-ending construction—a woman waking by. She passes before the window of the corner convenience store. She crosses herself. I don’t know why. But I believe.

I don’t understand.

But I trust.

I don’t desire. I don’t will. I don’t want.

I respond with faith.

She is good. She is like you—trying her best. She is like me—she could do better.

God loves her. God loves you. God loves me. Nonetheless.

The desire to love is love.

The will to union is union.

The Freedom of Christ is a Cuban pastry with three holes.

I eat away.

I taste and see.

My food is to do the will of Him who sent me.

Faith. Hope. Charity.

All else is a small pile of crumbs—gently laid to rest—the edge of the bakery table—on the well-worn tile floor.


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“There is nothing more gracious than to think well of our neighbor.”

—Saint Therese of Lisieux


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