Tag Archives: Passionists

The Landscape Where Jesus Lived

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We live in a changing church and a changing world. Was it that way always?

Traveling from one part of the Holy Land to another you notice  great changes in the land. If you stand  on the roof of the Passionist house in Bethany, as I did some years ago, you can still see olive trees growing beneath you. The Mount of Olives is just west of us.

Then, looking eastward to Jericho and the Dead Sea, it’s barren desert. Then, as you go from Jericho to Galilee the land turns from desert to lush farmland. A changing landscape.

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Jesus experienced a changing landscape as he left Nazareth for the Jordan River and then the Sea of Galilee;  it influenced him and the way he spoke. His parables are rich with the language of the sower and the seed. Like us, he was influenced by the place were he lived.

In a book written in the 1930s Gustaf Dalman, an expert on the geography and environment of Palestine, observed that Jesus was from the highlands and entered a different world when he left the mountains of Nazareth, 1,100 feet above sea level,  for the fishing towns along the Sea of Galilee, 680 feet below sea level.

For one thing, he ate better – more fish and nuts and fruits were available than in the hill town where he grew up. He looked out at the Sea of Galilee instead of the distant hills and valleys of his mountain village. He saw a great variety of birds, like the white pelicans and black cormorants that challenged the fishermen on the lake. He saw trees and plants and flowers that grew abundantly around the lake, but not around Nazareth.

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Instead of the chalky limestone of Nazareth, Jesus walked on the hard black basalt around the lake. Basalt was the building material for houses and synagogues there. It made for sturdy structures, but they were dark and drab inside. They needed light.

Basalt also made for a rich soil in which everything could grow. “… here plants shoot up more exuberantly than in the limestone district. Where there are fields, they yield a produce greater than anyone has any notion of in the highlands.” (Dalman, p123)

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Accumulating on the rocky land around the lake, the volcanic soil produced a rich harvest. Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian, praised the land for its fruitfulness, its palm trees, fruit trees, walnut trees, vines, wheat. But thistles, wild mustard, wild fennel grew quickly too and choked anything else that was sown. The land around the Sea of Galilee was fertile then; even today it has some of the best farmland in Palestine.

The weather in the low lying lands was not the same as in the mountains, warmer in winter, much hotter and humid in summer, which begins in May. “It is difficult for anyone used to living in the mountains to work by day and sleep by night…Out of doors one misses the refreshing breeze, which the mountains along the lake cut off…one is tempted to think that Jesus, who had settled there, must often have made occasion to escape from this pitiless climate to his beloved mountains.” (Dalman, p. 124)

These observations aren’t found in the gospels, of course, but they help us appreciate the world in which Jesus lived. He was human as well as divine, and in his humanity he was influenced by where he lived, as we are.

And what about us? How are we influenced by our time and place? Doesn’t change affect us too?

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Feast of the Sacred Heart

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The Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus falls on the Friday after the Feast of Corpus Christi because  the Eucharist comes from the loving heart of Jesus.

Devotion to the Sacred Heart, promoted especially by the Jesuits, was a favorite devotion of generations of Catholics. I think today of the beautiful church of the Sacred Heart in Springfield, Mass, where Father Theodore Foley, the saintly Passionist whose cause for canonization was recently introduced, grew up. That church surely had a profound influence on him.

The devotion was strong in the pre-Vatican II church, but perhaps is not so strong today. How do I know? I was listening on the internet to a little segment on church music from Vatican Radio featuring popular hymns to the Sacred Heart. Most of them you don’t hear today.

The devotion, however,  transcends popularity. Here’s an excerpt from St. Bonaventure for today’s Office of Readings:
“Take thought now, you who are redeemed, and consider how great and worthy is he who hangs on the cross for you. His death brings the dead to life, but at his passing heaven and earth are plunged into mourning and hard rocks are split asunder.
“By divine decree, one of the soldiers opened his sacred side with a lance. This was done so that the Church might be formed from the side of Christ as he slept the sleep of death on the cross, and so that the Scripture might be fulfilled: ‘They shall look on him whom they pierced’.
“The blood and water which poured out at that moment were the price of our salvation. Flowing from the secret abyss of our Lord’s heart as from a fountain, this stream gave the sacraments of the Church the power to confer the life of grace, while for those already living in Christ it became a spring of living water welling up to life everlasting.”

“Sweet Savior, bless us ere we go
thy words into our minds instill
and make our lukewarm hearts aglow
with lowly love and fervent will.
Through life’s long day and death’s dark night,
O gentle Jesus be our light.”

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St. Anthony of Padua

On Google you find a surprising range of pictures of St. Anthony. Some have him  blissfully holding the Christ Child in his arms, which is how someone saw him one day towards the end of his life– holding the Child Jesus. At times he’s pictured holding a book in his hand. Some pictures and statues portray him holding the Child and the book together and giving a loaf of bread to  a poor man.

The pictures and statues say a lot about him.

Anthony was born in Portugal in 1195 and died near Padua, Italy in 1291, acclaimed for his preaching and virtues.  Canonized shortly after his death, he’s invoked as a miracle-worker, especially good at finding something lost. But Anthony’s more than a miracle-worker.

His world was the complex, changing world of the 13th century when Europe’s economy was expanding; military crusades against the Muslim powers were in full swing in Spain, Sicily and the Holy Land, and new religious movements like the Franciscans were bringing reform and new vigor to the western church.

Anthony entered the Augustinian community in his birthplace, Lisbon, and studied at the renowned theological center of Coimbra as a young man. Just decades before, Portugal had been freed from the control of the Moors, but then, unfortunately, the victors started fighting among themselves for power and spoils from the crusades.

Anthony rejected the violence and avarice he saw in feuding leaders of church and state; he was a crusader of another kind.  When the bodies of some Franciscan missionaries martyred in Morocco in 1219 while preaching the gospel were brought back to Portugal, Anthony decided to join the new community.  He became a Franciscan and went to Morocco, hoping to preach the faith to the Muslims there, but illness forced him out and he went to Sicily, then to Italy, where he became a Franciscan missionary and teacher.

Only a few years before, in 1206 in Assisi, young Francis Bernadone stripped himself of his trendy, stylish clothes and put on the dress of a poor man, to follow the poor Man of Nazareth, Jesus Christ. Thousands followed him and the movement he began quickly spread through the Christian world. Like others, Anthony was attracted to this movement, eager to bring the gospel “to the ends of the earth.”

The Franciscan movement began with a dedication to absolute poverty and a simple life, but as church leaders requested them to preach the gospel throughout the world its members needed books, education, training and places of formation. Anthony emerged as a model Franciscan preacher and teacher.

Through northern Italy, then through France, Anthony’s vivid, down-to-earth preaching stirred people’s hearts and minds and showed other preachers how to preach.  At the time, the Franciscan movement was not the only movement attracting the people of Europe. Through northern Italy and especially in France, Albigensian teachers were preaching a message of simplicity and release from the burdens of life to believers dissatisfied with the church. They denied that Jesus was divine, they questioned the gospels and painted the world as an evil place.

“Wise as a serpent and simple as a dove” Anthony disputed their message in his preaching. Gifted with an extraordinary memory for the scriptures and an ability to illustrate his talks with homey examples simple people understood, he spoke “with a well-trained tongue.” Thousands came to hear him. The world was not  evil, Anthony taught, Jesus, the Word of God was made flesh and dwelt among us.

Artists capture Anthony’s spirit in their portraits of him. As a preacher and teacher, he carries of book, most likely a psalter holding the Jewish psalms. St. Augustine, whom Anthony studied as a youth, always carried this one book of the bible with him, as a summary of the scriptures.

Some say this book is also clue to Anthony’s gift for finding lost things. He probably kept his notes for teaching and preaching in it. If he lost it–some say one of his students stole it– he lost something valuable to him. He found it, so he knows what it means when someone loses something too. “Good St. Anthony, come around, something’s lost and can’t be found.”

The Christ Child Anthony holds in his arms was more than a momentary vision he had.  Anthony was deeply attracted, as St. Francis was, to the mystery of the Incarnation. The Word became flesh. God became a little child, who grew in wisdom and age and grace in the simple world of Nazareth. He died on a cross, accepting it as his Father’s will. Then, he rose from the dead.

Human life and the world itself has been blessed by this mystery. Because of it,  life can never be small or inconsequential. Even suffering and death have been changed. “The goodness and kindness of God has appeared.” We hold it in our hands.

I suppose this is why a picture of St. Anthony is down in our laundry where Brother Angelo and others wash sheets and towels and clothes. He speaks to this world.

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Welcome to Ordinary Time

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The Easter season ends with the Feast of Pentecost and we’re into ordinary time in the church year. Unlike other feasts, Pentecost has no octave; ordinary time is its octave. Most of the church year is ordinary time; most of life is ordinary too, but the Spirit is there just the same.

“Their message goes out to all the earth.” We read the Acts of the Apostles during the Easter season as Jesus’ apostles, led by Peter and Paul, ventured on their way from Jerusalem to Asia Minor and to Rome, empowered by strong winds and tongues of fire, Yes, the Spirit can bring us to the ends of the earth, but the Spirit is also there in the few steps we take every day, though we’re hardly aware.

We tend to minimize ordinary life. Just ordinary, nothing’s happening, we say. Yet, day by day in ordinary time the Risen Lord offers his peace and shows us his wounds. Every day he breathes the Spirit on us. No day goes by without the Spirit’s quiet blessing.

 

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The Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

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Faith gives life and sends us on a mission. That what it did to Mary, Luke’s gospel says.

Mary believes the angel who announces in Nazareth the coming of Jesus, and she’s empowered by the message. So,  she sets out “in haste” for the hill country of Judea to visit Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah, who also was with child. It’s not an ordinary visit. She goes “in haste” because she’s filled with a sense of mission. She hurries to Judea to announce good news to her relatives serving in the temple of God.

Faith is not a burden; it empowers us.

 “Blessed are you who believed,” Elizabeth says to Mary.

“You too, my people, are blessed,” comments St. Ambrose, “ you who have heard and who believe. Every soul that believes — that soul both conceives and gives birth to the Word of God and recognizes his works.

“Let the soul of Mary be in each one of you, to proclaim the greatness of the Lord. Let the spirit of Mary be in each one of you, to rejoice in God. According to the flesh only one woman can be the mother of Christ, but in the world of faith Christ is the fruit of all of us.”

As with Mary so with us, faith gives life and sends us on a mission..

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Lamp for a Dark Place

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The sky over the boardwalk at Spring Lake, New Jersey, is sometimes swept with colors before nightfall. Then, a lamp is the only light till dawn.

The sun will rise again and the great Sun will also rise again, Augustine says. Then  “lamps will no longer be needed. When that day is at hand, the prophet will not be read to us, the book of the Apostle will not be opened, we shall not require the testimony of John, we shall have no need of the Gospel itself. Therefore all Scriptures will be taken away from us, those Scriptures which in the night of this world burned like lamps so that we might not remain in darkness.”

Darkness is temporary; we are meant for light.

“I implore you to love with me and, by believing, to run with me; let us long for our heavenly country, let us sigh for our heavenly home, let us truly feel that here we are strangers. What shall we then see? Let the gospel tell us: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. You will come to the fountain, with whose dew you have already been sprinkled.

“Instead of the ray of light which was sent through slanting and winding ways into the heart of your darkness, you will see the light itself in all its purity and brightness. It is to see and experience this light that you are now being cleansed. Dearly beloved, John himself says, we are the sons of God, and it has not yet been disclosed what we shall be; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.

“I feel that your spirits are being raised up with mine to the heavens above; but the body which is corruptible weighs down the soul, and this earthly tent burdens the thoughtful mind. I am about to lay aside this book, and you are soon going away, each to his own business. It has been good for us to share the common light, good to have enjoyed ourselves, good to have been glad together. When we part from one another, let us not depart from him.”

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The Voice of the Faithful

The mention of Apollos in Saturday’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles reminds us that Peter and Paul and the other apostles were not the only teachers in the early church. Others brought the message of Christ to the cities and towns of the Roman Empire. Apollos was one of them.

He’s described as an eloquent, learned teacher who came to Ephesus from Alexandria, one of the great centers of Jewish and Christian learning, and drew a following by preaching about Jesus.

But Apollos doesn’t know everything, so an ordinary Jewish couple, Priscilla and Acquila, “took him aside and explained to him the Way of God more accurately.”

They were disciples of Paul who supported  him by giving him some work in their tent business. They traveled with Paul and certainly listened to his teaching, but I don’t think they were ever considered teachers as he and Apollos were. They were considered “hearers of the word,” more likely. Well informed, for sure, but still among those we would call today “the faithful.”

Yet, let’s not forget what important teachers “the faithful” are, as Priscilla and Aquila remind us.

I remember a story a priest I knew, a brilliant teacher, told me long ago about a baptism he was conducting for an infant born to a member of his family. His father was the baby’s sponsor and according to the rite then was expected to recite the Creed.

“Can you say the Creed, Dad?” the priest said to his father.

“Who do you think taught it to you?,” the father sharply replied.

Faith can’t survive in this world without the ordinary Priscillas and Aquilas explaining it and  passing it on.

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