The Gospel for Sunday, February 18th: First Sunday of Lent

I will be traveling on this weekend and unable to write a personal gospel reflection post. Please enjoy this inspiring video reflection from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops instead.

Peace be with you all. I will be back next week.

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The Gospel for Sunday, February 11th, 2018

The Gospel for February 11th, 2018: “The Cleansing of a Leper”

Mark 1: 40-45

Reflection: A Savior not a Genie

Today’s gospel is challenging on two levels. Jesus performs yet another miracle in healing the leper. On the one hand, lepers are the poor and sick who are hard to be around. Lepers were very likely physically repulsive as they were covered with skin sores. If we try to imitate Jesus’ healing of the deaf mute by helping someone who cannot speak for him or herself, we are not necessarily confronted with the problem of overcoming our own disgust to help this person. If we try to imitate Jesus’ healing of the leper, we are bound to confront an unsavory mission to say the least. We may balk in weakness. It reminds me of Dorothy Day’s comment that those who wish to help the poor need to know they are ungrateful and smelly. Jesus did not select only the convenient opportunities to help others and challenges us to do the same.

On another level, the details of what happens after the healing beg contemplation. Jesus sends the healed man to the priests so that he could be declared clean and rejoin the Jewish community. Furthermore, Jesus sternly commands him to tell no one of what happened. However, the cured leper did not listen; instead, “He spread the report abroad so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly” (45).

Why did Jesus want him to tell no one? He knows us because we are His creations. He knew that news of this miracle would attract those who selfishly were seeking quick-fixes and painless cures. Jesus is calling us to conversion–to live our lives as servants of others and participate in the building of the kingdom of God on Earth. There is nothing quick or painless about that. Yet, this is the salvation plan of the Messiah. His mission is for the conversion of all, not to grant the selfish desires of individuals to improve their temporary, worldly lives. So Jesus gives the healed man a mission to be a living testament to the people of Israel by going to the priests so they could declare him clean. He tells him to avoid publicity so that Jesus would not be obstructed in His missionary work by huge crowds seeking only a miracle worker. Instead, the man rejects Jesus’ plan for him. He sins. What is the consequence? Jesus could no longer enter a town openly. He must stay out in the desert. His work of kingdom-building was slowed.

As sinners, we often forget our rejection of Jesus has consequences that go beyond our own lives. We are part of a larger mission. We are members of a growing Christian community we call the Church whose work will not stop until all are converted to Christ. Our sin slows down that work. It delays the final realization of the kingdom. If our lives are truly about Christ, we need to serve that goal instead our desire for comfort and security.

I only say this because I’m not there yet. I am too often Christian only when it is convenient. But the recognition that I am that healed leper who ungratefully ignored Jesus’ commands challenges me to try harder. Lent is coming. It is a good time to try harder and ask for the Lord’s help to do so.

 

 

The Gospel for Sunday, February 4th, 2018

The Gospel for February 4th, 2018: “The Cure of Simon’s Mother-in-law,” “Other Healings, “ and  “Jesus Leaves Capernaum”

Mark 1: 29-39

Reflection

In today’s gospel we find Jesus busy healing and preaching. He tells his disciples, “For this purpose I have come” (38). This is good news since Jesus is still with us in the Holy Spirit and sacraments to preach and heal us also. However, I think we read the gospels with a two-fold purpose. First, we read to know Jesus through his Word and story. Second, we read so that we may live His story as disciples who are called to participate in His mission. It with this second lens that I reflect on today’s gospel.

I wonder if Jesus gets tired of all those needy people wanting to be near Him? Indeed, he tries to get away to pray in a deserted place, leaving before the dawn to do so.  Alas, Simon Peter comes to find Him saying, “Everyone is looking for you” (37). His time of peace and solitude is over. And yet, Jesus does not complain or ignore this call. On He goes to the next village to preach and heal.

To me, this is a subtle reminder that life as His disciple will often demand much of me, with few breaks. Nevertheless, like Jesus, I must refresh myself with prayer and carry on. It is in His mission, His story, that I will find happiness and meaning, despite my weariness. Much has been written over the centuries about the danger of idleness or sloth. Yet we should not view this from a “works contract” perspective. Our active participation in Jesus’ mission simply is a more fulfilling state, one that keeps us awash in His light and grace. For this purpose, we have been created.

The Gospel for Sunday, January 28th, 2018

The Gospel for January 28th, 2018: “The Cure of a Demoniac”

Mark 1: 21-28

Reflection:  Jesus Will Cast out the Unclean Spirits

In their synagogue was a man with an unclean spirit; he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”

–Mark 1: 23-24

I was four years old when The Exorcist came out. I have yet to see it. As a child growing up, I had a vague awareness of the movie because I did have some friends in elementary school who were allowed to watch a television airing and told me a few details. That was enough to make an impression on my young mind. So when I read Mark’s gospel in which Jesus casts an unclean spirit out of man in the synagogue, William Friedkin’s movie comes to mind as well as the fact that I have never seen an exorcism. My point is not to deny the truth of spirits, demons, or devils inhabiting humans, nor to contemplate the mechanics of how a priest or even Jesus might remove it. Instead, I just want to move past a literal reading of this gospel for my reflection. Possessions and exorcisms may happen in the world, but they do not speak to my day-to-day struggle with evil.

However, I recognize the unclean spirit as that part of me that is in the grip of sin. The part of me that wants to be selfish and get what I want, regardless of how it affects others or how my behavior may separate me from Jesus. If I see this spirit as symbolic of the sin within, then Mark’s gospel holds some really interesting insights into my daily struggles with sinfulness. I notice two interesting details:

  • The spirit is within the man, even at the synagogue, until Jesus arrives. This reminds me Jesus is at the heart of our worship and faith. Salvation—namely freedom from sin—cannot occur without Jesus’ grace.
  • Once Jesus arrives, the spirit (my sin) is unmasked and cannot tolerate his presence. As soon as we allow Jesus into our hearts, the sin there must leave because they cannot co-exist or ignore each other. Notice the spirit’s questions: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” (24). Once the light of Christ shines upon the spirit, he recognizes he cannot fight back. It just a matter of when Jesus will obliterate him.

There is no ensuing battle. No bloodshed on either side. It ends very simply. Jesus says, “Quiet. Come out of him” (25). And then it is over. This reveals the parasitic nature of sin and its utter ineffectiveness against the love of the Trinity. Sin exists and controls us only when we take our eyes off Jesus and close our hearts to Him. It is the dark side of the free will God has granted us to love Him and His creation perfectly. Sometimes we choose to possess all this good and beauty for ourselves. We are proud and selfish and turn to Jesus and say, “What do you have to do with us, Jesus…?” In those moments, we must return back to Jesus. We must repent and welcome Him back our hearts. Then He will do just as he does for the man in the synagogue.  He will save us from sin so that we may live in His presence. O, perfect love! My Lord and my God!

 

 

The Gospel for Sunday, January 21st, 2018

The Gospel for January 21st, 2018: “The Call of the First Disciples”

Mark 1: 14-20

Reflection: Complete Surrender to Christ

Mark’s version of the call of the first disciples in this Sunday’s gospel reveals the full extent of the surrender of their worldly lives to follow Jesus. First, Andrew and Simon leave behind their livelihoods. Mark tells us, “They abandoned their nets and followed him [Jesus]” (18). It is a clean break. Later in the passage Mark notes James and John leave behind their family by abandoning their father, Zebedee, along with their fisherman livelihood. Mark states this matter-of-factly, “So they left their father Zebedee in the boat along with the hired men and followed him” (20). What must their father have thought or said? What a stunning act of surrender!

I know there are still times when I use my job and my family as excuses to reject the conditions of discipleship. Those excuses play well in the world and make me think it is acceptable to disguise activities that serve the ego like working on Sunday or trying to earn extra income ‘for the family’ as justifying ignoring time with the Lord in prayer or in helping others. These are not noble pursuits. They are ego attachments. Mark’s gospel makes it clear: We must give up our jobs and our family to Christ along with all our other attachments in order to truly serve Him and not ourselves. He will take care of our needs and family. We only need to have faith to accept this. Yet, I am not there. It is only through God’s grace that I can be so humble. My egoistic pride runs deep.

The Gospel for Sunday, January 14th, 2018

The Gospel for January 14th, 2018: “The First Disciples”

John 1: 35-42

Reflection: Hearing Christ’s Call in Silence

When Samuel went to sleep in his place, the LORD came and revealed his presence, calling out as before, “Samuel, Samuel!” Samuel answered, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

–Samuel 3: 9-10

He said to them, “Come, and you will see.” So they went and saw where Jesus was staying, and they stayed with him that day.

–John 1: 39

As these respective quotes from the first reading and today’s gospel suggest, an important theme of the liturgy for today is the Lord calling His disciples. Samuel is called in his sleep and is advised by Eli so that he is ready to recognize and answer that call. In John’s gospel, “The First Disciples,” Jesus invites two brothers, Andrew and Simon Peter, to come and stay with Him, thus initiating their discipleship.

As God’s creatures, we are all called to discipleship and holiness as were Samuel, Andrew, and Peter. And like those three, our callings are unique so that we may play the role in the theo-drama God has suited us for with special gifts. I believe that whole-heartedly. Yet, as I reflect on my life and my efforts to discern my calling, I am struck by how difficult it can be to recognize Christ’s voice. It is a noisy world, filled with ideas, information, and images, all of which influence my sense of who I am and how I perceive my mission. Frequently, I am confused as to whether an idea that occurs to me comes to me as a genuine Christian calling or rather as a selfish reaction to a personal desire or fear. I often long for a clarion call from the Lord as with the disciples in today’s readings, and I fail to hear His words directed at me.

My mistake, I think, is expecting to hear my calling vocalized. Two books in particular by Catholic priest and theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar are helping me to rethink my expectation of a calling. Recently I finished his book Prayer, and currently I am reading his treatise called Christian Meditation. Taken together, there are two points from Balthasar I wish to share about the nature of discernment and mission. First, Balthasar emphasizes that Christ comes to as the Word and in the Word. So attempts to hear Christ should be grounded in scriptures.  He writes in Prayer: “The question “How can we hear God’s word?” is answered thus: we can, because we are in the Word. Because the Word who became flesh takes us into himself, giving his own self as our mode of existence” (Balthasar 58). While I do not want to put too fine a point on this, because clearly his insight extends to the liturgy of the Eucharist as well as the liturgy of the Word in this statement, we can hear Christ in the scriptures because He is the Word in every sense. By contemplating scripture, we begin to know Christ’s plan for us.

Likewise, Balthasar opens up my notion of “hearing” Christ in Christian Meditation as well. A major lesson of this book is that Christ comes to us in silence, which characterizes meditation on the Lord. To explore how that is possible, he reflects on moments in scripture where God is experienced in silence, in particular Christ’s many moments of silence during the Passion, and concludes, “[T]he Logos [Christ] can also manifest himself by means of silence. The mystery of Holy Saturday represents no exception. Not only Jesus’ entering into solidarity with us by his silence in death is a “loud cry”…but also his deliberately descending into the silence of that death” (Balthasar, Kindle version loc. 346).

While I am simplifying Balthasar’s full exploration of the mystery of both prayer and meditation in these books, the salient point with regards to hearing the Lord’s call is that it may be known in silent contemplation rather than heard or verbalized in the way that worldly knowledge comes to us. As Christians who feel lost and confused at times, we do well to contemplate scripture and then spend time with the Lord in the silence of prayer and meditation on Christ. This would be the place to “stay with” Jesus as Andrew and Peter do and discern his mission, perhaps wordlessly, for our lives.

 

The Gospel for Sunday, January 7th, 2018: The Feast of the Epiphany

The Gospel for January 7th, 2018: “The Visit of the Magi”

Matthew 2: 1-12

Reflection: Follow the Highest Good

Today’s gospel commemorates the Feast of the Epiphany, the revelation of God Incarnate, Jesus Christ. Present at this revelatory moment are the three Magi, the non-Jewish wise men or kings from the East who have come to give homage to the Lord of the Nations. These three are exotic and mysterious and easy to dismiss as interesting side characters who flesh out the strange scene of royal unveiling at a humble stable in Bethlehem.

Recently it has occurred to me that the Magic are not strangers at all; they are the first Christians. They are we. The others present—Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds—were all Jews who were told by angels Jesus was the fulfillment of their awaited expectation of a Messiah. For them the Incarnation, although different than their wildest imaginings, was consistent with their faith tradition and was revealed directly by messengers from Heaven. In contrast, the Magi were drawn out of the world to the Messiah. They were drawn to an unexpected phenomenon that was so beautiful and magnetic that they dropped everything to pursue it. What a useful analogy for us Christians who live in a world that is powerfully distracting and non-Christian. Therefore, I think it is helpful to meditate on some specific details of the Magi’s visit as a reminder how we, like them, can activate our Christianity.

We learn of the Magi’s quest when they arrive in Jerusalem and logically assume by visiting the local authority, Herod, they could be directed to the new King of Israel. They ask Herod, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage” (2). Matthew does not tell us the backstory of where and when the star was first noticed and why they decided to make the long, mysterious journey to pay respects to this new king. It is not even clear how they knew the star signified the birth of Israel’s king. Still, we can ascertain that the star must have been beautiful and magnetic, so much so that they were compelled to leave their important, worldly lives and drop everything to follow the star to its source.

I think Christians who, like me, are highly secularized, can learn a great deal from this image of these powerful men dropping everything to follow a beacon of beauty and goodness. What did they find at the end of that journey? Jesus, God Incarnate. He is source of all that is good and beautiful in the world. If we pay attention to the beauty and good we see around us today, whether is in art or nature or technology  or acts of kindness toward others, we can too can follow those back to our creator Lord. In the service of God, they give life meaning.

It is notable that the Magi do not try to possess or use this highest good for their own benefit, which must have been tempting, especially due to their great sacrifice in making the journey and the opportunity presented to make a political ally with the Roman ruler, Herod. Instead, they offer up highly valuable gifts of beauty and good in the frankincense, gold, and myrrh and humble themselves by lying down before Jesus. Matthew tells us, “They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (11). They give back to the Lord all that they possess as acts of worship and rightful praise. They do not try to keep for themselves what came from God and belongs to God. Rather, they are overjoyed just to be in His presence. Could it be that these gifts are like the gifts and talents we possess? The gifts of good looks or persuasion or inherited wealth or creative abilities all can be lain at the feet of Jesus or held back in an effort use them for our own personal gain. It is instructive to imagine giving those gifts to Jesus as the Magi did. In that, we may find the joy they found.

Finally, in spite of Herod’s request that they tell him where this new king be found, they recognize his manipulation and resist the opportunity to join forces with one who seeks power rather than service to Christ.

The Magi come from the world following a sign of beauty that leads them to the greatest good, Jesus Christ, and offer themselves completely and unselfishly to Him. Then they return to the world, changed forever, resistant to the temptation to gather the goods of the world for themselves. As Christians, this should be our story. It can be our joyful story. We simply need to follow the beauty and good all around us to the highest good, Jesus Christ. In His presence, we will act accordingly.

The Gospel for Sunday, December 24th, 2017: Fourth Sunday of Advent

The Gospel for December 24th, 2017: “Announcement of the Birth of Jesus”

Luke 1: 26-38

Reflection: “Full of Grace”

This final advent gospel is titled “Announcement of the Birth of Jesus;” however, in the rosary as the first Joyful Mystery, it is known more pithily as the Annunciation. While the focus on this announcement from the angel Gabriel is entirely appropriate—it is the announcement of the Incarnation—Mary’s response is also deserving of our attention. She says ‘yes’ to God’s plan for her. Commonly known as Mary’s “fiat,” her words of agreement mark her as paragon of humility and faith: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (38).

While I can see the logic of what she does, in my heart I often wonder if I could do the same if I were in her place. She gave up her life for a plan that is so crazy. She must allow the Holy Spirit to impregnate her with “the Son of God” (35). Even if she believed Gabriel that this was really possible, she must have recognized she was being handed a life she had neither counted on nor prepared for. Mary must have had plans of her own. She was engaged to Joseph. How was this to affect their plans for marriage and a family? What if he did not believe her or go along with this monumental surprise?

Luke’s restrained narrative gives us little of Mary’s interior thoughts during the Annunciation. We know she is “troubled,” and yet she does have her wits about her enough to ask how a virgin such as she could conceive a child. But after that, silence. Was it minutes or hours before she gave her fiat to Gabriel? I contend that Luke leaves out any of Mary’s deliberation because in the end what is important is that she said, “Yes.”

The question of could I have done the same is important because it is an answer I need to give. God has a plan for me too. We are all called to holiness and a life in Christ. Too often, I am still unwilling to surrender my own plans and ambition to the mission Christ has for me. In those moments I find myself thinking, I’m not like Mary. Her faith was extraordinary. But it has occurred to me that Gabriel’s greeting is the opening line of her prayer: Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. The angel’s reference to grace is pivotal. She didn’t make her own grace; that came from the Lord. His grace helped with every aspect of her mission, including the terrifying prospect of saying yes to a different life than she had dreamed of. Jesus sent us the Holy Spirit to help us open our hearts and say yes too. How quickly I forget the love of Christ is all around me, ready to animate me for doing good and resisting the temptation to be selfish. I am truly sorry for all the times I have closed my heart to that love, that grace. Yet like Mary in today’s gospel, the important part of the story is that in the end we all  say yes too.

 

 

 

The Gospel for Sunday, December 17th, 2017

The Gospel for December 17th, 2017: Third Sunday of Advent

John 1: 6-8, 19-28

Reflection: The Need for Silence during Advent

As we reach the third Sunday of Advent, I admit to ‘busy-ness fatigue.’ While I try to embrace the celebration of the season in all its liturgical significance, I am swept up by all its secular celebrations of various stripes as well. In the meantime, there is no slow down at work, only the additional responsibility to celebrate the season there additionally while the work continues to hum along. The sum total of all this celebrating and work is a sense of weariness and distraction that is precisely the opposite of the watchful spirit of Advent. There is a sense of déjà vu in this blog; I have discussed this before about this time of the season. And I don’t think I am alone in this. The reminder from some watchers to “keep Christ in Christmas” touches on this same general theme.

It is with this context that I read today’s gospel about the ministry of John the Baptist. He is preaching repentance and baptizing to prepare Jews for the coming of Christ. When asked about this, John is clear that Christ is coming—he, John, is not the awaited one. (25-27). Why is this preparation taking place in the desert instead of at the Temple in Jerusalem? There are many theological theories about this; but in my current state of mind I move to this conclusion: Jerusalem sounds like a busy city. Perhaps John has taken his ministry of repentance and watchfulness to the barren quiet of the desert. Perhaps, this is a place away from noise and distraction of the city where he can focus on the coming of Jesus into the world. Indeed, by doing so, Jesus does come to him there for baptism (Matthew 3: 13-17).

My point is the role of silence in our worship is critical to getting away from distraction and noise of the world, even when that noise is well-intended during the spirit of the season. If we are preparing to meet the Lord, we need to foster  the circumstances that make that encounter possible. While we may love our neighbors and family at a holiday party, that joyful noise may distract our watchfulness as well. According to African Cardinal Robert  Sarah, we must not forget the role of silent, contemplative prayer in bringing us to Jesus. Like John, we must find our own deserts for prayer. Meditating on the need for fostering the circumstances for this kind of prayer in the book, The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise, he notes:

The desert is the place of hunger, thirst, and the spiritual combat. It is vitally important to withdraw to the desert in order to combat the dictatorship of a world filled with idols that gorge themselves on technology and material goods, a world dominated and manipulated by the media, a world that flees God by taking refuge in noise. It is necessary to help this modern world to have the experience of the desert…the desert is the domain of grace. Far from his preoccupations, man encounters there his Creator and his God (Sarah & Diat 64).

So as I encounter the familiar and ironic weariness of Advent, I realize I need to spend time in silent prayer, to reconnect with Jesus and be renewed by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is only then that I can truly repent and watch with joyful anticipation of the final fulfillment of Christ’s kingdom on Earth. Silence is the antidote for ‘busy-ness fatigue.’