Jan 16, 2019

Jesus: preacher and healer

(James Tissot)

"Let us go to the nearby villages that I may preach . . ."

Mark 1: 20-39

If cameras had existed in the time of Jesus you could be sure that we would have thousands of photographs or maybe even video recordings of this charismatic and mysterious man.  If only he had come in our time.  The 24 hr news reporting would be hotly in pursuit of an interview.  Websites and blogs and social media would be buzzing with reports of his healings and the number of followers who were attracted by his words and actions.  We might hear his voice and see his face and find ourselves pulled to more than mild interest in this amazing teacher. 

Well, the above is obviously only fantasy for in the time when our Lord came, none of that existed.  Only by the written word and verbal accounts were the Gospels written.  Yet more than a moment in time, they are deep reflections on the words Jesus preached.  The scene in this Wednesday scripture we might say is a kind of snapshot, a "day in the life of . . ." Jesus.  And that day, and others like it, seem to have been frenetic. 

In the scene presented by Mark, Jesus extends a healing hand to Simon's (Peter) mother-in-law who is sick with a fever.  The illness leaves her at his word and his touch and she rises in perfect health. The word spread quickly and before you know it the "whole town" was gathered outside the door of Peter's home in Capernaum, along the Sea of Galilee, and Jesus proceeds to preach, expel demons, and heal the sick.  Early the next morning, he rises, goes off to pray privately, the disciples find him and he invites them to follow now throughout this region in his preaching ministry:"Let us go to the nearby villages that I may preach there also. For this purpose I have come."  

Jesus comes as one who preaches in the fire of John the Baptist and the prophets before him; he heals in the power of God but primarily it is his word, the good news of God's love and mercy, that he is called to proclaim. 

Yet, we want the magic, the wonder, the healings and the blowing trumpets don't we? We want God to instantly solve our problems and answer our prayers on the spot.  We are uncomfortable with waiting and with what at times may seem like persistent but unproductive prayer.  Yet, we know that God's ways are not our ways.  He isn't bound by our schedule or personal agenda.  Rather we must seek his and know that what might seem like a delay on the part of God is a call to grace; to grow in his image and to strengthen our weak faith. 

I always think of Abraham and Isaac, his son.  Remember God's seemingly heartless request that Abraham slay the son he had longed for all his life?  Out of obedience, he takes his son Isaac, places him upon a makeshift altar to slay him as a sacrifice at God's request!  Such a scene is shocking to say the least.

Yet, why would God do such a thing?  We learn quickly, that at the last moment, God stops Abraham and explains that this was not God's intention but rather a test of Abraham's faith.  How far would he go to trust the Lord - Abraham proved himself obedient even to such an edge of testing, and God rewarded Abraham for his total dedication.  Such may be true in our prayer.  God waits till the "eleventh hour" in order to test our faith in him.  How persistent will you be in prayer?  How trusting are you in God?  How far will you let him push you?  I ask such questions myself of course.

Today's report from Mark assures us that God, in Jesus, is a God of compassion and mercy.  And he is also a God who wants his children to become holy and to be tested in faith.  Yes, it is a mystery and we would rather God acted more like our I phones or computers with instant gratification.  But, what good will that do for us?  We would never be satisfied, always wanting more and more and never grow beyond a mere surface pleasure. 

God is love and mercy itself the Psalms tell us and he will meet us where we are at but we must let go and follow as the disciples did.  

Jan 11, 2019

The Baptism of the Lord - "A gift of divine love"

(Baptism of the Lord: Luisa Piccarreta)

Luke 3: 15-16, 21-22

Parishioners here are familiar with the large side walls of our Church and the wide doors that are placed on either side.  They are meant to be security doors so you cannot enter from the outside since there is no door handle.  You can only go out.  Yet, for the majority of the time they provide either a convenient exit or simply remain closed.

This Sunday we celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord.  As we now complete the hectic Christmas season, we find ourselves back in to some "normal" routine.  However, around Church ministry there is little that is routine or normal.  Here we see Jesus now as he begins his public ministry. He comes to the Jordan River where John is actively involved in his baptismal ministry and preaching up a storm.  John calls people to repentance and to prepare them for the imminent coming of the Messiah - who is Jesus of Nazareth. In so doing he is inviting all to walk through a new door, to begin a new way of life and to embrace this Christ about to appear.

Truth is, though, the crowds around John likely did not take particular notice of Jesus.  He like others joined in the masses yet once John saw him, his cousin after all, he knew of his importance.  The Gospel writers and the early Christian communities more likely were tying events together once they realized the nature of Jesus and mission. Everything we read in the Gospels is by hindsight in light of the resurrection

So, Jesus comes to be baptized by John.  Although he bears no personal sin, he enters the waters and there embraces our humanity in all with all its brokenness. Thereby he makes this sacrament the first one which leads to all the others and raises humanity to a new higher level before God. In this way, baptism becomes for all of us a door to enter.  Unlike the church doors, there is a handle on this one.  In fact it is wide open and prominently bears a sign that reads "Enter here one and all."

In baptism we are grafted on to the vine of Christ's life and love in the Mystical Body of the Church and become sons and daughters of God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  The dysfunction of original sin is washed away and although the broken world into which all of us are born remains, we now stand in a new relationship with God.  The grace of the Holy Spirit brings us into a new life as we are conformed to his likeness in this gift of divine love.

But there are many who were baptized into the Church but no longer attend.  What happened?  Why not?  Some have said the generations of today are not joiners.  They don’t join clubs and organizations like so many did in the past.  They tend to live their lives more independently and they don’t see the need for long term commitment.  There may always be something new and better so they cherish their freedom and individuality.  Many chose to be married later in life if they chose marriage at all. I think there is much truth to that. 

But for those baptized, we do not join a club or society or some kind of historical organization.  And while it is assumed that once baptized, you’re forever now a Christian sacramentally, if we look upon our parish, our Church and the Christian faith as a kind of society or club like others, then it might be understandable that, at least for now, something better has come along. 

But baptism brings us into a new relationship with God where we are graced and conformed more intimately into the life of Christ himself.  Jesus was not just some wise teacher or dead prophet but he is Lord of heaven and earth. The door of baptism opens us to a lifetime of grace and growth and we are invited each day to live as worthy sons and daughters of that grace as adopted children of a living God who now live life with a new perspective.

So what may indeed be lacking in so many today and even among those who remain faithfully involved in the life of the Church is to see our faith as a personal relationship with God; that we are called to come to know Christ Jesus as Lord of our lives. If we look to the ritual of baptism we may find a good reminder of how we can live.

Traditionally, water is poured over the head of the baby or adult to be baptized as the words of baptism are said along with the name of the person being baptized. In an emergency situation, such as in a hospital with a premature baby, a priest or deacon may simply take water and quickly baptize the baby over the head with the proper words and name.  I’ve done that a few times over the years.

My favorite, though, is for the person, even a child, to immerse themselves in the water, often kneel, as the baptismal words are said and water flows down over the person’s entire body.  It may be more dramatic but certainly emphasizes the point of cleansing and the total commitment of that person to the new faith in Christ and the Christian way. 

I think each method may provide for us a symbolic way to measure our commitment to Christ and his Church.  Do we simply dip our finger in the faith and quickly cover ourselves with little thought to what Christ is asking of me as a result of my baptism? Is my Catholic faith just simply a box I check off and move on like I would track attendance at some event?

Do I stand for a moment and reflect on who Christ is and who I have become as a result of being washed in grace and made a child of God?

Or am I willing to jump in to my faith and give myself more totally to the Lord and his Church? When baptized I promised, often through the family into which I was born or maybe later in life, to reject sin and worldly ways and to embrace God as Lord of my life and expressed my commitment to the Catholic Church in the Christian faith.

We have walked through the door opened for us by Christ in the waters of baptism.  At Christmas, God was born of Mary and entered our world.  Now in baptism God’s grace is born in us and we become his adopted children.

Our second reading from Titus so beautifully reminds us: “When the kindness and generous love of God our Savior appeared . . . he saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit . . . so that we might become justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.” It is all a gift of divine love. 

Almighty ever-living God, 
who, when Christ had been baptized in the River Jordan
and as the Holy Spirit descended upon him,
solemnly declared him your beloved Son, 
grant that your children by adoption, 
reborn of water and the Holy Spirit, 
may always be well pleasing to you. 
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, 
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 
one God, for ever and ever. 

(Roman Missal)

Jan 9, 2019

"Do not be afraid"

Do not fear

Mark 6: 45-52

We are coming quickly to the official end of this brief liturgical season of Epiphany.  While the lights and memories of Christmas are still with us, but fading fast as life turns back to normal, whatever "normal" is, the Church holds to the Epiphany event.  The visit of the Magi was a moment of revelation. Here God revealed the nature of his coming in this child at Bethlehem.  That he is here for all, Jew and Gentile alike.  The magi, gentiles from the east who represent the ancient nations first to hear the good news of the Gospel preached to them by the missionary Apostles, lay down before this child the best they had.  Did you ever wonder about their conversation on the way back?  How were they changed? Did they become missionaries in their own right?  How have I been changed as I encountered Christ anew in this Christmas season?  Good questions as this season winds down and the new year begins.

The Gospel for this Wednesday does not have a Christmas theme as such but rather a theme of Jesus power over nature - a power only God contains.  He walks on the turbulent sea towards his frightened disciples being tossed about in a boat on the sea in a storm at night.  Although at least half of them were fishermen familiar with this body of water, they still had great respect for its power, especially in a storm.  They are sinking and the power of wind and pelting rain left them feeling lost and hopeless as they feared for their lives - and Jesus was not with them.

Yet, he appears in the darkest time of night as he walks towards them upon the rolling waves.  A ghost?  An evil spirit?  As he begins to walk by them they recognize him with the words: "Take courage, it is I, do no be afraid!"  The violent wind settles down as Jesus climbs into the boat with them and all is calm. In the longer version found in Matthew 14: 22-33 Peter is invited by Jesus to join him walking on the sea.  We know of Peter's enthusiasm but also recognize, often in ourselves, his lack of faith as he took his eyes off the Lord and began to sink.

A moving story, yes, but also deeply symbolic of our lives.  When you find yourself in the midst of troubled waters, as famed Simon and Garfunkle sang, what gives you courage?  Do you turn to God in prayer?  Can you believe the Jesus comes to you in the sometime "train wreck" of our lives?  Jesus approached the frightened disciples in the midst of a storm.  Those winds did not stop until they placed their faith in the Lord and embraced his presence with them.

This is a story in which they, and us, are called to faith.  God is with us even in turbulent times.  God remains with his Church, which we well know is presently riding rough seas. Yet historically over the last 2,000 years, the Church has found itself in even more violent waters.  Christ remains with his Church and his faithful ones.  Let is be us as we take, like the wise magi, his good news out to a world aching for something more meaningful and hopeful than what the world alone can provide.

"Take courage, it is I, do not be afraid."  

Jan 5, 2019

The Epiphany of the Lord - All about one child

(The Magi: Henry Siddons, 1915)

"They did him homage"

Matthew 2: 1-12

It has been said, and always proves true, that on stage you would never want to follow children.  No matter how talented you might be, your performance would never equal that of the cuteness and innocence of a child. 

So every year, for example, our school presents its Christmas program.  As expected, the Church is filled with parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters and of course multiple cameras.  Despite the fact that we have more than 100 children performing for those gathered, in the end the parents are really there to see just one child – their own!  If I were a parent, I would do the same so it’s very understandable that such childhood memories are treasure by loving parents. 

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany of the Lord.  This story of the visiting Magi from the east, likely the area around Iraq and Mesopotamia, has been a part of the Christmas story since ancient times.  It is one of the earliest events to be included in the Nativity drama.  Although we may refer to this as the visit of the three kings or the three wise men from the east, in the end, like our Christmas program, it’s all about just one child – the one these magi were searching for – the Christ.  All the other details of the story about the moving star, the ruthless King Herod, and Bethlehem are important facts but without this child it makes no sense.  So today and throughout the unfolding new year, we are called to turn our lives as the magi did in the direction of this child, born among us, who grew to be seen as our Lord and Savior.

The true point of the story is the recognition by these astrologers of the physical revelation of God in the person of Jesus.  But even more authentically, these magi represent the nations who were first to hear the Gospel message by the Apostles who were sent out as missionaries after the Ascension of Jesus.  In these Gentile figures, Matthew reveals to us, placed in Jesus very young years, not only the truth of who this child is but what the future would be because of his coming; his destiny. That revelation, or “epiphany,” is at the very foundation of our Christian faith.

The ever distant and mysterious God, forever hidden, now shows himself to us in Christ Jesus, his Son. His coming reveals the mind of God to become the light of all nations, Jew and Gentile alike. God in particular embraces the beauty of human nature to make it whole again in this act of divine mercy; in right relationship with God and offers us the hope of eternal life.  No other child born before or after this one has drawn such universal attention and amassed so many followers over the last twenty centuries. It really is ALL about one child and the magi find this one child at the end of their journey and the beginning of another. As a result of a dream, they return to their land by another route for once they’ve encountered this child their lives will never be the same.

We might make some practical applications to our own lives.  Where is the measure of my life? Where am I going? If it is true that God has come in the flesh, as the Magi recognized and as our Christian tradition is built upon, then how could any other “power” pull us with the illusion of their greatness?  Yet we may have a tendency to not only put away our Christmas decorations but along with them any serious desire to continue our daily search, our daily journey, to discover where this Christ continues to be present in the flesh.

I think a common likely unintended posture many take is to view our rich Christian faith as more of a belief system or a philosophy of life.  Many I think remove Jesus Christ from Christianity.  We see being Christian as a set of behaviors and we measure our Christianity by how moral we are or by how we treat one another. Certainly, how we live out our faith in concrete actions is indeed a measure but to do so without reference to Jesus, as in imitation of him and according to his teaching, is to live a faith without reference.

Today, the greatest journey is that of the scientific and technological. There seems to be no end to the possibilities and to scientific discovery and the potential of more complex and perfected technology.  This star is shining bright today. 

Yet, science has its limits. The search of the Magi reminds us that they went in search of a person, not in search of a new philosophy or scientific discovery.  Once they found that person, one can assume, as for us, we desire to know more about him and to come to know him more deeply.  That is the role of the Church where the Gospel calls us all to conversion of life.  To know Christ we can only find him in his fullness within his Church. Science can reveal how things work or what substances combine to produce a result.  Technology can wow us with its wonders but neither can produce the deeper meaning and purpose of things.

The Church can reveal to us a rich spirituality that leads us to Christ, a community of faith to which we are attached through Baptism and where we feast on his Word and his sacramental presence especially in the Eucharist.  Through the Church we hear the call to mission in the world where we become a star that leads others to Christ and his Body the Church. So, it isn’t just about Jesus alone but all things are then seen in light of him.  The Magi laid down their earthly power and wealth to a greater power in Christ Jesus.

In the Church our liturgy, our sacraments, the power of Scriptures and the inspiration and support of a faith community we see Christ again over and over. The Magi did not set out as individuals but as a kind of people on search and in that community they found the Christ. We must then carry on Jesus' mission of love and mercy to make God visible to all around us in his Church and in the World.

 “Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you.” With those beautiful words from Isaiah the prophet our liturgy begins this Sunday. The Feast of the Epiphany of the Lord is filled with the image of light. What kind of light do we bring to others? What sort of journey am I on and who or what am I looking for? Where do I hope to find him? In the end, that search can only lead to one person in the Body of his Church. 

O God, who on this day
revealed your Only Begotten Son to the nations
by the guidance of a star,
grant in your mercy
that we, who know you already buy faith, 
may be brought to behold the beauty
of your sublime glory. 
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, 
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 
one God for ever and ever. 

(Roman Missal)