The Gospel for Sunday 29th, 2017

The Gospel for January 29th, 2017: “The Beatitudes”

Matthew 5: 1-12a

Reflection: There is Hope in Beauty

Readers of the Sermon on the Mount can read the list of beatitudes as keys to happiness. In other words, be meek, righteous, merciful, clean of heart, and peaceful and eventually happiness will bless you, even if only in Heaven. Similarly, they can be read as a prescription for holiness. Live virtuously and heaven will be yours. This second interpretation encompasses the list more fully than the first. If the only concern is heaven, and not necessarily happiness, then those who endure poverty, tragedy, and persecution while living a virtuous life will be assured Heaven.  However, both readings seem lacking. Even though in both cases Heaven and happiness are joined by the line “Rejoice and be glad, for you reward will be great in heaven” (12), such a state of affairs can seem distant for the person struggling in this life and not the cause  for hope that I think the word of the Lord should be.

I prefer to read this passage more poetically. Rather than a prescription, I like it better as description of God’s justice, and as a corollary, His mercy. Every item on this list describes a justice that is so divine and glorious, that all sinners should have cause for hope for a Heaven that is free from the pain and suffering of a fallen world. It should be clear to all of us that despite our best intentions and efforts, we are not capable of creating the perfect justice described by the beatitudes. How often in our world do the mournful receive inadequate comfort, are the meek dispossessed and exploited by the strong, and are the peacemakers labeled as foolish or unpatriotic, even though laws exist, at least in the first world, to protect all of them?

The lack of punishments mentioned by the beatitudes suggests to me that Jesus is not trying to promote a better system of temporal justice with this sermon. Instead, he is describing the absolute beauty of God’s justice and mercy to fan the flames of faith, in a way that the justice of the world simply cannot. Yes, as Christians we should aspire to a righteous life marked by this perfect justice and mercy for all our fellow humanity. But we must never become discouraged when we, both individually and collectively, fall short of this. We are sinners who need saving. Jesus’ sermon demonstrates absolute certainty that He will provide the grace necessary to usher in His divine justice for all and freedom from sin. The happiness will be abundant then.

The beatitudes are a cause for hope. Any prescriptive value we attach to this sermon should only be interpreted as a call to participate as best we can in their beautiful justice in this life, so that we may bring all of humanity to God’s altar of justice and mercy. We cannot justify humanity on our own. But we were created by a God who has wanted nothing more for us from the beginning. We are invited, inspired, and without force compelled to simply participate in the beauty of His salvation plan. Oh, hopeful day!

The Gospel for Sunday, January 22nd, 2017

The Gospel for January 22nd, 2017: “The Beginning of the Galilean Ministry”

Matthew 4: 12-23

Reflection: Why is Repentance the Central Message?

“From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say, ‘­­Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’”  (Matthew 4: 17).

In his talk on the CD “Becoming the Best Version of Yourself,” Matthew Kelly reflects on John the Baptist’s call to repentance, asking aloud about the meaning of this powerful word. He concludes that it means to turn back to God. Furthermore, Kelly points out that to turn back to God, one needs to turn away from something, typically a coveted attachment—a sin.

Why is this the message as Jesus begins His ministry? It is literally the same message John preaches when he goes out to the desert in Chapter 3 of Matthew’s gospel (2). In addition, I find it noteworthy that Jesus doesn’t alter the message in light of John’s imprisonment. He doesn’t think it so risky that it needs to be changed. Granted, Jesus has much more to say than this point in the preaching that follows, much of it more aesthetically beautiful and less demanding in its content. I am thinking of the poetry of the beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount or the simplifying of the commandments into the pairing of love for God and neighbor. Why isn’t one of these messages the starting point and thesis for Jesus’ ministry?

I think the reason is those others do not directly ask the believer to make a change. Few will argue or contest talk of love and beauty in this new kingdom until they are asked to give up something they hold especially dear, something they believe they cannot live without. Think of the apostles called in this gospel who are asked by Jesus to give up their livelihood and sense of identity as fisherman to accept an unfamiliar life as “fishers of men” (Matthew 4: 19). A believer who answers God’s call, even for a moment, has just given up his or her will for God’s will. This is the essence of faith in and unity with God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

That may be fine in the abstract, but the problem is believers cannot last in the state of repentance in this world corrupted by original sin. One moment of submission to God’s plan is soon to be replaced by a selfish plan in the unforeseen future. This is ubiquitous problem of life on Earth for which Mosaic legalism did not have a complete answer. How frustrating is it that the reward of obeying one of God’s demands, be it to fast or give alms to the poor or to care for a sick relative, does not absolve one from future sacrifices in the face of temptation? The answer is very frustrating! Perhaps for many us, frustrating enough to give trying and lose faith entirely. It really appears easier to just live for a few moments of pleasure in this life and give up the dream of sainthood.

But a life centered on Hedonism does not bring sustainable happiness. And as we grow older and lose many of the physical abilities that have provided small moments of pleasure throughout our lives, we realize we cannot give up the dream of sainthood and the hope of an eternity with our Creator who loves us as nothing on Earth can. The answer to this existential problem is Jesus, who knows the pervasiveness and hold of sin and conquered it for us with His death and resurrection. But how do we enjoy this mysterious gift? Repent! Turn back to God again and again and again…. In other words, we keep trying to maintain a relationship with our Savior that is based on the unselfish love for His creation that He modeled.  In that effort and submission to His will, we will be ready when He calls us from this life, whether that call comes surprisingly at a young age or at the end of a long, checkered life.

Recall the description from Jesus of the moment of judgment in Matthew 7:21-23:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’ Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you.  Depart from me, you evildoers.’

The message of repentance is central because it ensures we will be turned to our Lord at the unforeseen moment we are called from this world. Despite our sins, we will know Him through repeated contact from prayer, worship, witness, and ministry—all the moments where we put our selfishness aside momentarily and turn to God in faithful surrender, despite our sinfulness. The perfection of saintliness is a static state that can be obtained by our own doing, rather it is gifted to us by Jesus in our repeated effort toward repentance to Him and from sin. Repentance is a disposition as much as it is a task.

We must keep trying for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. The time and place of our departure may be a mystery to us. But the pathway that is “at hand” lives in our hearts, in our Church, and in God’s creation if we keep turning back to Jesus, rejecting the sin that is in our faces, and picking up the cross that conquered death. Asking Jesus for help and forgiveness is the one thing that every sinner can do, regardless of his or her past sins. The message of repentance  should give every person hope for salvation from death and despair.

 

 

The Gospel for Sunday, January 15th,

The Gospel for January 15th, 2017: “John the Baptist’s Testimony to Jesus”

John 1: 29-34

Reflection: The Prophetic Mission

In today’s gospel John the Baptist is not baptizing. Instead he is testifying as Jesus comes toward him that this man is the Messiah. He says the words, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (29). To speak the truth that Jesus is our savior is to live the prophetic mission of the Church. Despite being named for his actions and his denial to the Levite priests that he is “the Prophet” (John 1: 19-21), he does not hesitate in those moments to simply say Jesus is Lord. I point this out because I often doubt I have charisms, or gifts from God, for prophecy, evangelism, or even sacramental lay service for the Church. I doubt my fitness for such tasks knowing the depth of my sinfulness. I look at John the Baptist and find it hard to relate to one who gave everything to “[m]ake straight the way of the Lord” (John 1: 23).

But today’s gospel focuses on John’s simple testimony to whom Jesus is. In that simplicity I see a way in. I too can say (perhaps even without words) ‘Jesus saves.’ What I find myself thinking is the recognition and acknowledgement of that truth might well be enough to allow the Holy Spirit to empower me to serve the Church using charisms of which I did not think myself capable, whether for prophecy or for another valuable gift that is unique to my calling. Perhaps John was able to act as “the voice of one crying out in the desert” (23) and as the Baptizer because he kept saying the truth, ‘Jesus saves.’

I have met many people in my life of whom I marveled at their energy and ability to act in the service of others. I am grateful for these men and women of action, these movers and shakers. But I have consistently found myself unable to live such a life. In part, this is surely selfishness; however, as I pray I try to discern my personal mission, I also think my gifts are different than theirs. I find that when I scale back my expectations of service; I can do small things. One of those is to say simple truths. ‘Jesus saves.’ Another might be to help and encourage the activists on occasion. John explains, “[T]he reason why I came baptizing with water was that he might be made known to Israel” (John 1: 31). This simple rationale reminds me that making the truth of Jesus’s divinity known can lead to great acts of unselfish service like with John the Baptist. Even though both gifts are present in John, it doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit at times can’t delegate these gifts to animate the mission of the Church. Perhaps my small act of saying “Jesus saves” helps the movers and shakers to do what I cannot. Or perhaps in moments of grace I will do far more than I realize now is possible. In either case, today I reflect on John’s witness of Jesus Christ and resolve to speak this same truth at the next opportunity that arises.

‘Jesus saves.’ Amen.

 

The Gospel for Sunday, January 8th, 2017

The Gospel for January 8th, 2017: “The Visit of the Magi”

Matthew 2: 1-12

Reflection: Humility and Homage

With years behind me of seeing Nativity tableaus at Christmas time, I have often taken the presence of the Magi at Jesus’s primitive nursery for granted. On second look, their presence there is an extraordinary witness of faith and humility. Whether we view them as kings or wisemen or something in between, these are men of power and privilege who do not act the part. More accurately, they are Christian pilgrims who display an inspiring holiness.

The clues to this holiness start with the circumstances of their leaving. I don’t know where in the East their journey began, but it was probably long and arduous. How many men of power would personally undertake such a journey to find the “newborn King of the Jews” (2)? Would they not send a scout in their place? In contrast, Herod, who is also a man of  power and just as interested in finding the baby-king, does not seek out Jesus in person.  Instead, he secretly asks the Magi to find this king for him and then report back to him his location (7-8). He is not willing to undergo the hardship and may intuitively realize that only those with sincere hearts may approach this divine king. His interest is to find and remove a threat to his power which is later confirmed by his order to kill all the infant boys of Bethlehem to make sure this new king does not survive.  The Magi are foils to this selfish jealousness; they appear to be genuinely seeking a power greater than themselves. Furthermore, they do it on the faith that is the right thing to do, despite the personal inconvenience of the required journey.

Their quest is rewarded and they find Jesus. Once again, we must marvel at their acceptance of the surprising trappings that surround the king of kings. They do not express doubt or keep looking when they find him in poverty and filth. Instead they lay down before Jesus on the dirt upon entering the house with complete humility. Afterwards, they generously give him the most precious gifts they have to offer (11). These are men who are willing to strip themselves of all prestige, pride, and wealth in the presence of their savior. Their desire to act with humility and holiness is impressive by any standards.

Finally, they are content with the fulfillment of their mission and trust in the direction they receive in a dream not to return to Herod (12). How many of us would act so faithfully after experiencing a miracle of power and joy? It seems to me the temptation either to use this knowledge to enhance their own status by returning to Herod with the coveted information or simply to begin telling others what they found  because they think this news needs to be heard would be very difficult to resist. But they leave under divine orders and obey. They accept all their mission requires of them, even if it doesn’t fully make sense to human logic.

So whatever they may have been before their journey, the Magi we meet in Matthew’s gospel are truly wise in their humility, homage, and generosity in the presence of Christ. As such, they are models to follow as we go on our pilgrimages through Christian lives. Like them, we must disbelieve in our own importance and walk with humility and faith in both prosperity and adversity, trust in the signs we see of Christ’s love and providence, and give graciously our most precious gifts to God’s mission since they have been given to us by Him for a purpose.