Gospel for Sunday, October 4th, 2015

Gospel for October 4th, 2015: “Marriage and Divorce” and “Blessing of the Children”

Mark 10: 2-16

He set out from there and went into the district of Judea [and] across the Jordan. Again crowds gathered around him and, as was his custom, he again taught them. The Pharisees approached and asked, “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?” They were testing him. He said to them in reply, “What did Moses permitted him to write a bill of divorce and dismiss her.” But Jesus told them, “Because of the hardness of your hearts he wrote out this commandment. ‘But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother [and be joined to his wife], and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate.” In the house the disciples again questioned him about this. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another  commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

And people were bringing children to him that he might touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this he became indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.” Then he embraced them and blessed them, placing his hands on them.

Reflection:

In this gospel Jesus teaches clearly that divorce is hateful to God. In a culture such as ours where divorce is so common, this is a hard pill to swallow. Like so many, I have family members and friends who have gone through divorces and for whom this is a deeply emotional issue. Furthermore, some of them have left the Catholic Church with hard feelings when confronted with the Church’s strong position against dissolving a Catholic marriage even when there appears to be good reasons to do so. In my own Catholic journey, I don’t feel comfortable at this point to write extensively or persuasively on this difficult issue. Rather than attempt to either defend or criticize the Church’s position, I prefer to repeat advice I have heard before that I think makes a lot of sense when grappling with a challenging Church position: Research carefully and try to understand the Church’s position first. I think this allows one to hold in check an emotional reaction that closes one’s heart to guidance of the Holy Spirit. In that same spirit of objectivity and openness, I would like to make three fairly rational observations about this passage.

First, the Church’s position on this issue seems to proceed logically from Jesus’s teaching in scriptures. Given that, it is hard to imagine the Church taking any other position in good faith. The Church’s position is, therefore, not uncompassionate any more than is Jesus’s position, which our faith tells us is marked by perfect love for us.

Second, for those of us who are married, the reminder that marriage joins husband and wife so that “two shall become one flesh” speaks to the need for spouses to communicate and compromise. Consider this analogy: For the sake of mental health, no person can tolerate widely disparate conflicts of beliefs or values psychologically for long without trying to resolve them in some way. Otherwise, crippling mental health issues will likely follow.  Likewise in marriage then, it stands to reason that if husband and wife are one, they too must also deal with such divisive conflicts between them for the sake of their marital health. Following this advice is both a practical and spiritual necessity.

Last, the inclusion of the “Blessing of the Children” part, the second paragraph in this passage, suggests an interrelated-ness between the vocation of marriage and the vocation of parenthood. Married couples with children must strive for oneness in their calling to raise their children as sons and daughters of Christ. It is easy for one parent to fall into the trap of leaving the spiritual growth of their children to the other spouse, while seeing their role only in terms of their support for financial and physical needs. The vocation of parenthood calls us to guide our children in their faith in partnership with our spouse as well.

As I read back over my three observations, I am struck by how challenging the vocations of both marriage and parenthood are. Often I fail to communicate with both my spouse and my children on spiritual matters. It is just easier to give priority to material concerns and avoid bringing up new issues that may invite conflict. However, giving up is simply not the answer. Like all challenges in my life, I can only ask for Christ’s perfect forgiveness for my failings and His guidance and strength to confront these challenges according to His will.

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Gospel for Sunday, September 27th, 2015

Gospel for September 27th: “Another Exorcist” and “Temptations to Sin”

Mark 9: 38-43, 45, 47-48

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.” Jesus replied, “Do not prevent him. There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me. For whoever is not against us is for us. Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ, amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his reward.

Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe [in me] to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. If you hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life crippled  than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna,’ where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’

Reflection:

While I find the first paragraph in today’s gospel passage reassuring in the simple sense that Jesus can know us by the good that we do “in [his] name” (39), it is the second paragraph about Gehenna  (42-48) that touches a deeper nerve on which I must comment. I don’t know if there is a consensus among scholars and theologians about this reference, but I would like to be clear I think Jesus is referring to Hell in His use of Gehenna, whether by analogy or synonym. So let’s talk about Hell for a moment. I find it hard to listen to anyone talk about Hell—about the possibility that I might be eternally damned. It is a most uncomfortable truth that makes me feel guilty just thinking about it. It is like the time I was pulled over by a cop for a burned out taillight; I was nervous at his questioning as if I had been stopped for every time I had ever been speeding and not caught, instead of for a defective brakelight.

I realize the usefulness of this kind of fear and the necessity of sharing the truth of Hell with all people. However, I have always found fear to be at best a short term motivator. Furthermore, while I believe Jesus delivers this message with perfect love for His people, I have often found those Christians quick to bring up Hell as the price of sin somehow untrustworthy, as if they relish the thought of me and the rest of the sinners meeting this fate, instead of showing us compassion. I know; don’t judge and don’t shoot the messenger. Still, I am just being honest. Perhaps I feel this way because I ignored God for so long living a secular lifestyle and worshipping a culture that said I didn’t have to accept this truth, even though I knew this was a lie deep inside.

So maybe my faith is not what it should be—filled with the joy of His presence and the hope of eternal life—in these moments when the possibility of Hell comes up. I can’t help but think my journey back to Jesus could all be for naught, for I lived without concern for Him for a long time. But here’s a thought that has occurred to me on this subject that in His grace restores my hope. In the many times I turned my back on Jesus, living what I thought was freedom, I was not happy. I didn’t have to go to Hell to feel the torment of separation from my God and my savior. In contrast, like the other “exorcist” the disciples about which the disciples were concerned (38), my past happiness inevitably came from those moments when I unwittingly performed a “mighty deed in [His] name” (39) by loving others instead of myself or things. So instead of fearing death in Hell, I have returned to loving and serving Jesus in this life to hold on to that happiness I have found in Him. Regardless of my fate after death, my happiness now depends on staying with Jesus while my heart still beats. And this shift to focusing on being with Him in the present has restored a sense of peace and hope for salvation after death that I previously doubted was possible. This to me is an incredible turnabout that can only be described as amazing grace.

The Gospel Reading for Sunday, September 20th, 2015

The Gospel Reading for September 20th, 2015: “The Second Prediction of the Passion” and “The Greatest in the Kingdom”

Mark 9: 30-37

They left from there and began a journey through Galilee, but he did not wish anyone to know about it. He was teaching his disciples and telling them, “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death he will rise.” But they did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to question him.

They came to Capernaum and, once inside the house, he began to ask them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they remained silent. They had been discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest. Then he sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” Taking a child he placed it in their midst, and putting his arms around it he said to them, “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.”

Reflection:

As I think about the reflections I have written so far for Peace in the Word, I recognize I have frequently come back to the central theme that our salvation is very much tied to carrying the cross for Jesus, or more plainly, enduring suffering in this life with faith and hope. My preoccupation with this theme is probably because I did not experience a true conversion until mid-life, and prior to that conversion much of my life was focused on the avoidance of suffering. I don’t think I am unique among humans or Christians in my difficulty in accepting this truth. Acceptance of the need for suffering goes against that baser part of us which clings to self-preservation, and in the end to sinfulness. So it is not surprising that Jesus’s mission on Earth ends with His free acceptance of death on the cross to teach us its truth in the most radical way possible.

In today’s gospel, I see divine genius in Jesus’s preparing the Apostles for the coming of this Easter lesson to which they will be witnesses. He first tells them plainly of His arrest, death, and resurrection, knowing full well they are not ready to comprehend it, which they do not (31-32). He is merely planting seeds in their minds so that when they see it they will grasp its significance.

Next, the apostles drift in to a discussion of who among them is the greatest, which demonstrates powerfully they have yet to fully understand the humility of the cross. And yet, their silence when Jesus asks about this conversation suggests to me on some level their consciences were telling them this should not be the concern of Christ’s followers. Jesus, for His part, brings them back from this digression without scolding, as good teachers often do, and inserts a new, more poetic wording of the lesson that draws on the Mystery of the Cross. He says, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all” (33-35). This point is still difficult to grasp, but like so much of God’s Word in the Bible, its mystery invites further rumination on its meaning. Even though we may struggle to understand, His words stay on our minds and continue speak to our souls.

Finally, Jesus, the model teacher, gives the apostles a more concrete example. He shows them one child and says receive her in my name, and you will receive the Father in Heaven (36-37). Children are the powerless of the society. That was true then as it is true now. They depend on adults to love and care for them. Every parent knows that despite the occasional moments of charm, the love for a child requires an unselfishness that clearly distinguishes itself from romantic love. In their best moments, parents and caregivers willing suffer in the care of children. When we embrace unselfish love of the powerless, we are embracing the call of Jesus to serve others without thought of compensation or personal gain. We deny ourselves and help carry the cross. Like the apostles we can understand this example because in growing up I dare say every child has experienced adults who treat them with unselfish care and those who take advantage of their powerlessness; and in their hearts, he or she knows which treatment is right and true.

In His perfect model found in this passage, we can take away specific guidance for embracing the Mystery of the Cross. When we share God’s word, whether it is in plain truth or poetry, we leave a trace of Him that penetrates the hearts of those who hear, even if only for the future. And every time we treat the powerless among us, be him child or poor or wounded or the infirm, we are embracing God’s call to love thy neighbor, the simplest expression of carrying the cross for Christ.

Gospel for Sunday, September 13th, 2015

Gospel for September 13th, 2015: “Peter’s Confession about Jesus,” “The First Prediction of the Passion,” and “The Conditions of Discipleship”

Mark 8: 27-35

Now Jesus and his disciples set out for villages of Caesarea Philippi. Along the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” they said in reply, “John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter said to him in reply, “You are the Messiah.” Then he warned them not to tell anyone about him.

He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days. He spoke this openly. Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. At this he turned around and, looking at his disciples, rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”

He summoned the crowd with his disciples and said to them, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.

Reflection:

Grouped with the readings from Isaiah (50: 5-9A) and James (2: 14-18) for today’s mass, the necessity of sacrifice and suffering for the Lord during the salvation journey clearly emerges as a theme. On hearing God’s call, Isaiah tells us he has “not rebelled… not turned back,” but instead, gave his back “to those who beat me” (4-6). James speaks to the suffering of material sacrifice rather physical suffering. He makes it clear that if a brother is in need of food or clothing, it is not enough to give him kind words; rather, one must act to “give them the necessities of the body” (15-16). Finally Jesus speaks to this theme in teaching, “whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it” (Mark 8: 35); which I think can be taken literally, as Christian martyrs die for their faith, as well as metaphorically, when Christians risk scorn, rejection, and hardship to live Christ’s teaching and mission.

In the context of this theme, I am interested in Peter’s role in this gospel. Throughout the New Testament, I find Peter to be bold, sometimes to the point of recklessness, in speech, action, and most importantly, in his love of Christ. He is the first apostle to give up his life when Jesus calls him to follow (Matthew 4:18); he asks Jesus to command him to come to Him on the waters of Galilee and dares to walk on the surface (Matthew 14:29); he erroneously suggests the erection of tents in the presence of Jesus’s transfiguration (Matthew 17); he hastily moves to defend Jesus during his arrest by cutting off ear of Malchus the soldier (John 18:10); and on Pentecost, he courageously gives a speech to the people of Jerusalem calling for repentance and conversion after the descent of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2), to name a few key examples. Peter’s boldness does not come naturally to me. I tend to think first before acting. While I would like to think I do that out of consideration for others, I know quite often my delayed reactions, more aptly my hesitations, are born out of a fear of risking embarrassment or failure. Peter, in contrast, frequently suffers as a result of his boldness (and in the end gives the ultimate sacrifice, dying as a martyr).

In this gospel, Jesus uses Peter’s boldness in speech and action twice. First, he asks the apostles who they think He is. Peter, moved by his love for Jesus, risks being wrong and speaks the truth in his heart while others remained silent. While the world was saying Jesus is a teacher or a prophet or a healer, Peter alone declares, “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8: 29). In this case, Peter does not suffer embarrassment. In fact in Matthew’s gospel (16: 15-19), this is the moment when Jesus proclaims that Peter is the rock on which He will build His church. Nevertheless, Peter risked ridicule and perhaps accusations of blasphemy in his confession of Christ as savior.

In Peter’s second bold move, I imagine he suffered great embarrassment to fulfill Jesus’s larger purpose in teaching that we must learn to think as God does, not as humans do. When Jesus attempts to explain the necessity of His suffering in the Passion and death on the cross, Peter, surely again moved by love, assertively rebukes him for suggesting such a thing. In reaction, Jesus, in full view of the other apostles calls him “Satan.” How crushed Peter must have been to be called Lucifer by his Lord, when all he was trying to do was prevent Jesus’s own suffering. I imagine he stood there burning with shame and confusion. And yet, Jesus needed Peter to say what they were all thinking so He could make it clear that God’s will must be done. Human weakness cannot interfere. It is necessary for Jesus to die for our sins to save us, and not even He is exempt from the hardship of accepting the Father’s mission. Still, I also imagine, after the sting of that moment Peter felt a sense of incomparable closeness to Jesus that brought him peace. Peter had fulfilled his role, which I am sure he must have recognized and accepted because he did not leave.

I pray that I may act boldly in accepting God’s mission for me and any suffering that accompanies it, so that I may too feel closer to our Lord. I pray that I may think as God does and not as humans do.

The Gospel for Sunday, September 6th

The Gospel for September 6th, 2015: The Healing of a Deaf Man

Mark 7: 31-37

Again he left the district of Tyre and went by way of Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, into the district of the Decapolis. And people brought to him a deaf man who had a speech impediment and begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him off by himself away from the crowd. He put his finger into the man’s ears and, spitting, touched his tongue; then he looked up to heaven and groaned, and said to him, “Ephphatha!” (that is, “Be opened!”) And [immediately] the man’s ears were opened, his speech impediment was removed, and he spoke plainly. He ordered them not to tell anyone. But the more he ordered them not to, the more they proclaimed it. They were exceedingly astonished and they said, “He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and [the] mute speak.”

Reflection:

The Church cycles through gospel readings which provide for us the opportunity to revisit and reconsider their depth of meaning. I find it quite amazing—and at times frustrating—how even an apparently simply story like “The Healing of a Deaf Man” can challenge me to go deeper than I have previously. As I began reading through this gospel, I was comforted by the familiarity of Jesus healing the deaf man and began to think, ‘I got this. Jesus performed miracles as proof of His divinity. Pretty easy.’ But then I reached the line, “He ordered them not to tell anyone.” This was familiar too in a nagging way, like a raspberry seed you keep discovering lodged between your molars. This was an unresolved question I had wondered about before and never pursued. Why does Jesus order them not to tell anyone? It sounds like they don’t listen and He repeats this order more than once. It seems like He would want everyone to know of His miracles.

I was frustrated because I really didn’t want to do any “big R” research to understand this better. However, I did a Google search to see what is on the web. What I found, though not authoritative, made sense. More than one writer suggested Jesus’s caution is making the point that there is more to the story to know. He has not come to just heal, like a genie in a bottle who is ignored except when needed. If that is the message the witnesses take to others, their understanding of salvation would probably be very short-sighted. I felt better in reading this. Yet, even though this dislodged the seed, I could still feel it in my mouth. I realized it was time to see what the Church teaches on this; it was time to consult The Catechism of the Catholic Church. I find it difficult to read, and I was a little daunted.

I was pleased to find I could use the rather specific search term in Google, “why does Jesus so often say not tell others of his miracles Catholic view,” and the results led me to online versions of The Catechism at both the Vatican site and U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops site at the section that provided a satisfying answer. Allow me to share the two statements I find most helpful from the section titled, “The Mysteries of Christ’s Life.”

Consider statement  516:

Christ’s whole earthly life—his words and deeds, his silences and sufferings, indeed his manner of being and speaking—is Revelation of the Father. Jesus can say: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” and the Father can say: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Because our Lord became man in order to do his Father’s will, even the least characteristics of his mysteries manifest “God’s love… among us.”

His “deeds” are only one aspect of his mission, “… to do his Father’s will,” and His Father we “listen to him!” That means the whole message, not just the parts we like. We all welcome the healing for our woes in God’s love. However, Jesus’s Passion is at times harder to swallow.

Further consider statement 517:

Christ’s whole life is a mystery of redemption. Redemption comes to us above all through the blood of his cross, but this mystery is at work throughout Christ’s entire life:

—already in his Incarnation through which by becoming poor he enriches us with his poverty;

—in his hidden life which by his submission atones for our disobedience;

—in his word which purifies its hearers;

—in his healings and exorcisms by which “he took our infirmities and bore our diseases”;

—and in his Resurrection by which he justifies us.

If we are to share in Jesus’s redemption, we must share in “the blood of his cross.” We must be willing to accept the suffering that will come with God’s will in our lives, as Jesus did. We cannot skip over this part of Jesus’s message and expect eternal salvation. His ‘healings and exorcisms… “took our infirmities and bore our diseases;”’ taking away our sin and bringing us back into a relationship with God. But once returned, we must be willing surrender to God’s will to remain in Him. And sometimes it will feel like carrying a cross.

So it is not surprising Jesus admonished those witnesses of His miracles against drawing hasty conclusions. Likewise, it is important they we do not tell and live a gospel of convenience either. We must guard against treating Jesus as the genie in the bottle and shelving Him after He heals our ills. We must instead use those signs to strengthen us to do our part in carrying His cross so that we, like Mary and the saints, may be with Him through eternity, awash in His love.