The First Step to Understand is to Listen

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HOMILY FOR THE 24TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

Readings:  Is. 50:4-9/Jas. 2:14-18

Psalm:  116:1-6, 8-9

Gospel:  Mk. 8:27-35

 

Over the past several weeks, I have been doing the same thing that everyone else has been doing:  hearing about the mess that the Church has been getting itself into for the past several decades.  Since the start of the summer season, there has been report after report of cover-ups by Church officials of misconduct starting in Chile, then Australia then Ireland and then back to the United States.  Each and every time a report comes out, dozens of voices cry out with their version of how to solve the crisis and bring a new age within the Church.  Each voice that cries out is louder than the next, pointing fingers at everything and everyone.  And the one who shouts the loudest becomes the victor.  All the while, the ones who long to be heard are pushed back into the shadows or placed in the hot spotlight of public opinion.  But that opinion is not their own, but it is the ones that use them for their own cause.  It made me stop and wonder that when the time came to add my voice, what would the people hear me say.

Apparently, I am not the only one. Last weekend I went to Mass at Notre Dame.  The celebrant during his homily spoke that lately when he goes on the internet, he is spending less time on the news sites looking at the troubles going on in the Church and more time on You Tube watching cat videos. (Can’t say that I blame him.)  One of the things that was concerning him was the Gospel proclaimed last week in light of these current events.  His focus was on the moment when Jesus gave the mute man the power to speak.  He said that when he began to prepare, his mind was not so much on the miracle itself, but what would become after the miracle.  The question that kept running through his head was “What happens if the mute begin to speak, and we don’t like what they have to say?”  That made me think of what is going on in the Church.  And the thought that came into my mind is what would happen if not just the power of speech was restored, but if all of the senses were opened, would they be pleased at what they encountered?

Whenever God reveals himself to us, there is a sense of awe and exhilaration.  But there can also be a risk of disappointment and denial.  Where those two points show up is all a matter of how much or how little faith we have in our relationship with God.  Remember a few weeks ago when Jesus fed the crowds with just five loaves of bread and two fish?  The crowd was ready to make him their king ready to do battle with their human oppressors.  When Jesus proclaimed that he was the Bread of Life, the crowds could not listen to what was said.  They only heard his words of hope and tasted his food; but they did not listen to his message nor savored the meal that he wanted to give them.

In the Gospel proclaimed today, Jesus asks his disciples who the people think he is?  They said he was John the Baptist or Elijah or another prophet.  But when he asked them who he was, it was Peter who said he was the Christ.  Jesus thought that they were ready, more than the crowd was anyway.  The crowds left, but the disciples stayed.  Jesus told them that the Son of Man must suffer and be rejected by the Scribes and Pharisees, be killed and rise after three days.  When Peter takes him aside to tell him that he should not be saying such things, Jesus then knew that they were back on that hillside getting ready to make him a King on earth rather than a King in Heaven.

Those who see the world while their senses are blocked are no more aware than the Mute man we heard about last week.  The crowd on the hill could only hear the words of Jesus through the gray noise of the world they lived.  Their culture could not allow them.  Peter tried to stop Jesus from sharing his destiny, which showed that Peter’s eyes could only look at Jesus but did not see of the Son of God that he would give up his life later on.

Those who were with Jesus were able to have their senses awakened through him so they can understand fully God’s creation.  Yet there are still those whose ability to “be opened” is not yet available to them.  They could be prevented by some trauma in their lives or some issue with a person or group that is telling them they are not welcome anymore.  Anytime they desired to hear the Good News, it would come from those same sources.  But instead of joy and gladness, those words would be thought of untrustworthy.  So it takes all or our senses, opened by God, for us to find His message to come back home.

In my own case, in order for me to allow my senses to open is to start at one of them and move forward.  So I started with the one that sent me on this path at the beginning:  listening.  I started to talk less and listen more so I would be able to find that voice in all this noise.  Then I found it.  It was something that has been proclaimed to us this month.  The Second Readings this month have been coming from the Letter of James.  This Letter was written sometime after the destruction of Jerusalem and the dispersion for the Jews who proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah.  This was a letter of encouragement after the catastrophe they just went through.  The letter starts out “whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance…”  These are not words of instruction but words of hope.  More often than not, the Letter of James is pulled out with the reading we heard today:  The Faith versus Works debate.  But if we just listen to this letter in its entirety, we can begin to find the solace that we are looking for and guidance to help those who are suffering the most.  “You must understand this,” says James, “let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.”

I encourage everyone to use this letter as a starting point for allowing God to enter into our lives, open our senses and enable us to listen to the cries of those who were once mute because of this crisis and now have the ability to speak.  To help them requires that we rid ourselves of those things that would cause more pain than that was there.  “Rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.”  Let us pray that these words not only come into our hearts, but also the ones who wish to take revenge on those who have committed these acts on the littlest of God’s creation.  Let our senses come in tune with the Voice of God so we can bring back those that have been in the dark and into the light of Christ.

MAY GOD BLESS YOU AND ALL THAT YOU DO THIS WEEK

 

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How we see the Bread of Life is the key toward true discipleship

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HOMILY FOR THE 18TH and 19TH SUNDAY’S IN ORDINARY TIME

            There are those who insist that we should never question our beliefs no matter what.  The theory goes that when one becomes part of a movement, whether it is political, philosophical, social or theological, it becomes one’s duty to persevere, protect and defend the ideals that one was taught from the beginning.  Pick any topic and you will find those who take an orthodox approach to the practice of their belief, either pro or con.  Any deviation from this reality and one would be labeled a heretic.  What was taught from the beginning of one’s education is all that they need to know. 

            The beliefs that they have held for so long get challenged whenever someone else questions them. When they are challenged, the person would be testy, even angry that their beliefs are questioned.  They may even claim that the tenets of their beliefs are considered “non-negotiables” in order for them to be considered the “perfect disciple” and they will do whatever it will take to attain this level. Their beliefs become more important than any truths that they are shown. 

            When those internal beliefs are turned outward, they are used in finding someone in which they can give their support.  They want someone who will support their views no matter what.  To them, it is not so much that they believe it; they just want them to support it.  What happens, then, when the person who they think will be the one who will champion their beliefs tells you that they are not what they thought they were?  When those living in the time of the Gospels were looking for their next great leader, they thought they had found them in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  He appeared to have all the qualities that they were looking for.  He was from the House of David, the great King of Israel.  He came from Nazareth, where scriptures said the Messiah would come.  He spoke with an authority that they had not heard from the Chief Priests and Scribes.  For many of them, the fact that he would stand up to the “powers that be” -either in the Temple or in the Praetorium-was just the person that they wanted.  He was an outsider; someone who was not corrupted by the system. 

            He was perfect: Or, at least the best for their needs at the time.  So they began to follow him, listen to his speeches and observed his actions, particularly his healing the sick.  His manner evoked images of David.  He spoke of being the Good Shepherd, gathering the lost flocks back into the fold.  Like David, Jesus was blessed by God to bring Israel to glory. So it seemed the perfect time for the crowds who were fed in the field with just five loaves of bread and two fish to anoint him their king just before the Feast of Passover. 

            So it must have been odd for them to discover that Jesus, along with his apostles, had left the area, got in a boat, and travelled across the sea to Capernaum. He was to be their leader, and now he was not there.  When they did find him on the other side, they were hungry for more of what they were given.  But Jesus was ready to give them something more:  more lasting, more satisfying, more enriching than anything that they had ever imagined.  Jesus was giving himself.  “I am the Bread of Life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.  I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 

            The crowds could not understand this. How could he say that he came down from heaven?  Many knew him personally; saw him grow up. They knew his parents.  He wasn’t from Heaven, he was from Nazareth. But Jesus was adamant. The food the crowd was looking for was no more satisfying than what their ancestors ate in the desert.  He was giving them more.  It was up to them to believe that he was who he said he was.  They first saw him as a shepherd bringing the sheep to the pasture.  They saw him as a leader, one who would feed them just by his say so.  They wanted him to be King, someone to inspire them to act upon their most vicious and basest natures all in the name of restoring Israel to its former glory. But what Jesus gave them was not for the glory of Man, but for the glory of God.

            To recognize Jesus as the Bread of Life is to see a world that is beyond all human constraints.  No human philosophy or edict can take the place of the guidelines set forth by God.  Yet we always seem to try.  Our own orthodox beliefs and views of the world tend to serve our own purposes.  We become more important than God and His Creation.  When there is a conflict, we will push aside the boundaries of others because they are in the way of our own.  We become the most important thing in our lives while everyone and everything is for our own use.  The world-God’s creation-is now subservient to us.  To prove our importance, we will go so far as to quote certain phrases from Scripture or other important documents to prove we are right they are wrong.  Yet when the time comes when those same words are spoken back to us-but not by Man, but by God-can we say that we will see the error of our ways?

            Can we see that the Word of God is for wisdom and not for war?  Do we notice that our churches are hospitals for wounded souls rather than training grounds for Christian soldiers?  And do we see the simple elements of flour, water and fermented grapes that become the Body and Blood of Christ as nourishment and medicine for our journey of faith rather than a treat given to us for good behavior?  When we hear Jesus tell the crowds that he is the “Bread of Life, the living bread come down from Heaven,” do we think that he is all God and all Man, or do we just see a great ancient prophet or philosopher?

            Yet despite all of our apprehensiveness and biases and prejudices, it is for these reasons that we must see Jesus as not only the Living Water he gave the Samaritan woman at the well, more than the Good Shepherd that brings his flock together and protects it from harm, but to see him as the “Bread of Life come down from Heaven.”  Only then can we look past our problems and see the solutions that God has given us.  All we have to do is to look past our nose, take off the blinders, and view the world as God created, not how Man has altered it. 

            If one needs a current example of this, we only have to look at Pope Francis’ updating of the Catechism stating that the death penalty is incompatible with the Gospel.  While other Popes have written about it, it still took a formal proclamation such as this to get the point across.  Similarly, Jesus had let those around him in one way or another know who he was, but it took this moment on the seashore and his pronouncement to the crowd to finally get the point across. 

            The Bread of Life not only satisfies our bodies but enriches our souls.  For this bread to be true nourishment, our body, soul, heart and mind must be open in receiving Him.  Once we can do that, then we can do more than just be a follower of Jesus, an itinerant preacher.  By our acceptance in declaring Jesus as the Bread of Life, the bread come down from Heaven, we can honestly and sincerely proclaim ourselves to be a Disciple of Christ.

MAY GOD BLESS YOU AND ALL THAT YOU DO THIS WEEK

 

Are you able to hear the Voice of the Shepherd?

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HOMILY FOR THE 16TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

Readings:  Jer. 23:1-6/Eph. 2:13-18

Psalm:  23:1-6

Gospel:  Mk. 6:30-34

 

When we were young, we always had that desire to be free from under our parents’ rules.  We try to say it was for one reason or another, but mostly it was because we thought their rules were not fair for us to live by.  We were not disobeying our mom and dad, but there are times that what we did or said shocked them so much that it triggered the biggest unwritten rule:  We did something that would cause a phone call from the cops.  These particular acts are listed in the “super-secret” rule book that parents have in the back of their minds that they bring out whenever we do “something stupid.”  What is deemed stupid is decided by the parents; we could not appeal that decision no matter how much we tried.  The lessons we learn as children stays with us as we slowly move into maturity.

The readings we heard today display a singular concept that is not only common in scriptures but also in our lives.  It is the image of the Shepherd.  It was the shepherds that went to the Christ child in Bethlehem.  It is the shepherd that celebrates with his friends when he finds the one lost sheep in a herd of 100.   And it is the shepherd that stays with his sheep rather than leaving them to the elements.  It is this image that we equate to Jesus, for he said “I am the Good Shepherd.”  We see the shepherd as a symbol of peace and safety in a world of hatred and despair.  It is the image of the Shepherd that parents try to emulate themselves with their children.  And it is this image-the image of the Shepherd-that we desire in our world now more than ever.

Something happens to us when we move from our parents and live on our own.  Each decision that we make or each item we buy or every person we associate ourselves with is precursor by a voice in our head that sounds very familiar.  We listen to that voice more than we think that we would.  The actions we take after hearing that voice will cause us to find either satisfaction or despair.  That voice that we hear is the Voice of the Shepherd.  It is the voice that calls us to be aware of our surroundings and points us to do the right thing.  Even during those times we want to extend ourselves, it is the Voice of the Shepherd that still guides us and advises us the best way to go about it.  As we mature, that voice may lessen in our decisions based on our own experience.  But we can never say that we ever truly walk away from the Voice that has guided us from the moment we were formed in our mother’s womb.

In their desire to hear the Voice of the Shepherd, the vast crowds followed Jesus and his apostles as they returned home.  They got into a boat to go someplace and talk amongst themselves about their adventures and get some well-needed rest.  The twelve had just returned from their journeys to the outlying areas proclaiming the Good News and driving out unclean spirits.  All they wanted to do was to rest, get something to eat and tell each other what they did on the road.  When the boat made it to shore, the people were already there waiting for them.  Jesus saw them as sheep without a shepherd.  He felt for them, and rather than leaving them on shore, he continued his work on earth and ministered to them.  What Jesus had planned was a quiet moment with his friends.  What it became was another moment for the Good News to come to those who desire it.

As those who ran to meet Jesus on the shore, we, too, desire to hear the Good News of God.  For we, too, are the sheep following the Voice of the Shepherd.  We yearn for that voice in our minds and hearts to guide us in our lives.  And yet in modern times that voice is harder and harder to hear.  It may even be so hard that at times we think that voice has gone silent.  It is a sobering experience.  That guide that had helped us decide what is right or wrong appeared to abandon that space in our head where we had thought it was.  So we begin to ask ourselves “What happened to that voice and where can I find it again?”

When sheep are lost, they still search for the Voice of the Shepherd.  That search for, and that desire for, the Good Shepherd is what makes us the sheep that is in the Shepherds care.  When we think we cannot hear it, we struggle to find it in other places.  So we begin to look for that voice not where it began-our family and our faith-but where we think it may have gone.  We will go back to the things that we have done or read or said that we remember where that voice was connected to when we last heard that voice.  Unfortunately, we do not find that voice there.  So we go outward to other sources trying to find some familiar thread that we could recall what the Voice had said.

It is at those moments, when we are at our most vulnerable, that thieves come and try to steal us from the Voice of the Shepherd.  They will do whatever they can to lead us away, even to the point to say that they are doing the work of the Shepherd.  They will say the right things and do the right things to lure the sheep away from the Shepherd to the point where the voice they hear is no longer the true Voice of the Shepherd, but an imposter.

In our society today, that work to separate the sheep from the Shepherd is often done within the concept of Mass Communication.  We want to know the facts of an issue, so we look to those sources we have been familiar with:  local newspapers and radio and television.  But we have a desire to know more than what we see.  We want to be “on the inside” as it were so we can know something before anyone else.  That is where the false shepherds come in.  They will use that desire for intellectual advantage against us and spread innuendo and exaggeration as facts and evidence to lure us away from the Shepherd.  What is worse, when we start to pass on that information to others without proper verification, we pass on those “alternative facts” or “fake news” to others as if we are the originators of the message.  We become the false shepherd to the herd because we became the agent of the true false shepherd.

Much like how Peter denied Jesus three times, we deny the Voice of the Shepherd-the work of God-in those deceptive works.  These works are the ones that Jeremiah exposed when he cried out to the shepherds that had scattered God’s flock, his people, to the ends of the earth.  “Woe to the shepherds,” said Jeremiah, “who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture.”  They were punished for their deeds.  But God also promised that new shepherds of his choosing will come and bring the flock back together to the meadow where they will increase and multiply.

We as the sheep are beholden to listen to the Voice of the Shepherd.  It is the responsibility of the Shepherd to find his sheep, keep them together and make sure of their well-being.  When we are together in thought, word and deed, then we are in the place that the Psalmist proclaimed today:  “In verdant pastures he gives me repose.  Beside restful waters he leads me; he refreshes my soul.”  We want to be the Shepherd, the voice of our own reason, but unless we understand how to be the sheep, our voice in meaningless.  When we listen to the true Voice of the Shepherd, then our voice has meaning.  For it is in the pasture of the Shepherd, the house of the Lord, can we find peace and understanding in a world of chaos and confusion.  For with the Lord as our shepherd “Only goodness and kindness will follow all the days of our lives and allow us to dwell in the house of the Lord for years to come.”  Today, let us return to hear the Voice of the Shepherd so we can be his voice for those who come after us.

MAY GOD BLESS YOU AND ALL THAT YOU DO THIS WEEK

Does travel bring you closer to understanding God’s creation?

 

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HOMILY FOR THE 14TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

 

Readings:  Ez. 2:2-5/2 Cor. 12:7-10

Psalm:  123:1-4

Gospel:  Mk. 6:1-6

I like to watch travel shows on TV.  I enjoy looking at the different areas of the world and how the people live their lives.  I especially like the ones that focus on the land and the culture rather than just the food.  It is interesting how one culture deals with the same issues we have and what we could learn from them and wonder if there is something they can learn from us.  My favorite shows are the ones hosted by Rick Steves.  His shows and books entitled “Europe through the Back Door” not only talks about how to travel on a budget, but also where the non-tourist places to visit can be found.  His focus is for anyone to enjoy the “Real Europe” and not just the places that pay the local Tourist Board for their endorsement.

In 2009, Steves wrote a book entitled “Travel as a Political Act.”  This book takes the normal tourist guide a step further and gives an explanation of how their lands and history has shaped their views on the world’s problems, how they dealt with them and if those policies and practices could be used in our country.   For example, in Switzerland their answer to hard drug use was to take a pragmatic approach to the problem.  These can range from providing dispensing machines for clean needles to having clinics that helps them with their dependency to installing blue lights in public restrooms making it nearly impossible for someone to locate the veins in their arms.[1]  The Swiss took an issue like drug abuse and, rather than treat it as a crime, they found a way to control it in order to treat it.

While Mr. Steves looked at the liberalization of drug use in one country, he also shed light on a country that is guided by strict government led by religious dogma.  When he made his visit to Iran in 2008, he saw a land that was full of history and beauty.  He also saw a country that was ruled as a theocracy fueled with religious fervor. The country, while having an elected president, is still ruled by the religious clerics led by the top cleric known as the “Supreme Leader.” While Rick Steves did not make an endorsement of one governing style over another, he was able to greatly understand other cultures and present them to his own people.  He said that his goal was “not to be ‘right’ all the time, but to learn with an open mind, to consider new solutions to old problems, to come home and look more honestly in the mirror, and to become involved in helping our society confront its challenges more wisely.”[2]

If one were to compare Rick Steves’ guidebooks to the Gospel of Mark, one could argue that the structures of the two were very similar.  Mark constantly has Jesus moving from one place to another, or arriving to one town, or getting in a boat to cross some sea to another town, and so on.  And yet through all his travels, he still made time to come back home to his people and tell them everything he found out and how those trips enabled him to spread His Father’s message to his Chosen People.

But when the people in his home synagogue heard Jesus speak, they were astonished and dismayed.  “Where did he get this wisdom; this knowledge that he possessed?  And what of these great deeds he has done in other places?  How could he have done them?  He was a carpenter; the son of Joseph and Mary.  We know his whole family.  He could not have known the things that he does.” 

Anyone who could take the time to look at the Gospel of Mark might get a glimpse as to why Jesus travelled the countryside so much.  His mission to travel can be seen as three-fold.  First, it was to spread the Good News to all the Chosen People, like we have always read about.  Second, while he was out spreading that Good News, he was also learning all he could about these other regions, trying to understand what their needs are and how His Father’s word can help them be better. He wanted to let them know that they were just as important as his own people so they, too, can come home to the faith.  And third, he took those ideas with him home to see if they can help his own.

But it was his own people, ironically, that would not listen.  They could not accept his abilities and they could not accept him.  So all that Jesus could do while he was at home was to heal a few people yet he could not do any of the great deeds that he was doing in the other regions.  When we have faith in Christ, we can do great things.  Yet when we lose that faith, all is lost.

Our understanding of the world beyond our front doors enables us to see the commonalities that we share more than exposing the differences that keep us apart.  The more we can travel, the more we can see kids playing with each other; teenagers falling into and being heartbroken by love.  We can see couples getting married, finding a home, working for their fair share and bringing up children of their own.  The games may be different; those who get married may not be our type; the homes may not be made the same way; and yet their actions are the same as our own.  They are not better or worse; just different.

When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, his experiences outside of where he grew up enabled him to observe that everyone held certain truths that he said were self-evident:  that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with what he called inalienable rights, some of which were Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.  Jefferson did not get those words out of thin air.  He saw the world and understood that the commonalities that are shared amongst all peoples overshadow any of their differences.

When the time came to remind Kind George of these rights, he exposed the lack of acknowledgement of them by the Crown’s forces in the Colonies.   Jefferson reminded everyone that this Declaration was not just to start a new nation.  It was for the rights that were given by God to every human being on the planet, whether they lived in the Colonies or not.  He was doing the same thing Jesus did in the Gospel.  They both proclaimed the Good News that God loves everyone and wants them to love each other.

Today, let us make a point to look beyond our own worlds, go explore the next horizon and become interested in another person’s world.  You never know!  That place you explore could be the final piece in the puzzle that you were missing that will bring total joy in your life and in the place you call home.

MAY GOD BLESS YOU AND ALL THAT YOU DO THIS WEEK

 

 

[1] Steves, Rick. Travel as a Political Act. (New York:  Nation Books, 2009), 157-158.

[2] Steves, introduction ix.

The Lord has remembered his oath. He has been gracious to his people.

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HOMILY FOR THE FEAST OF THE NATIVITY OF ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST

 

Readings:  Is. 49:1-6/Acts 13:22-26

Psalm:  139:1-3, 13-15

Gospel:  Lk. 1:57-66, 80

 

The Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist is considered in the Church as a Solemnity.  This is the highest level of designation of celebration in the Church, followed by a Feast, Memorial, Seasonal Weekday and Ordinary Weekday.  What that means is that whenever this day falls on a Sunday during Ordinary Time, the Solemnity takes precedence over the regularly Sunday Mass.  So, instead of hearing proclaimed today Jesus calming the waters (Mk. 4:31-35), we hear proclaimed the birth of John, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth.  While we look forward to hear the Life of Christ proclaimed, it is the birth of his cousin who garners the Church’s attention today.  So we honor his birth today with as much joy as we do the one who will come after.

In order for us to understand what this day means in the life of the Church (and in all of Christianity), we need to step back from this passage and get some background to this story.  In the First Chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke, Zechariah, a priest in the order of Adjibah, was in the Sanctuary of the Lord to offer incense.

While he was in there, the angel Gabriel appeared to him.  He proclaimed to Zechariah that his wife, Elizabeth, will bear him a son and will be named John.  Zechariah seemed puzzled.  He had prayed to God for years for a child.  But since he and Elizabeth were getting on in years, he thought their time of being parents were over.  He expressed his doubts to Gabriel.  When he did, Gabriel made him mute until the child was presented in the Temple.  When the crowd who was praying outside saw Zechariah come out of the Sanctuary, they realized that something had happened, but they did not know what it was because Zechariah could not speak. And as it so happened, Elizabeth did become pregnant, and did give birth to a son.  And during this entire time, Zechariah still could not speak.

So now we come to the moment we heard proclaimed today.  Normally, when the time would come to name a child, a couple usually will take a name that is connected to the family, like an ancestor on either side of the family. It was the same thing during this time in history.   All the people who came to the ceremony were surprised that when the time came to name him, the child’s name was going to be John and not an ancestor.  They went to Zechariah and ask him.  He asked for a tablet and wrote on it the words “His name is John.”  Immediately Zechariah regained his voice, stunning the crowd.  They began to ask themselves what power restored his voice and, more importantly, what will this child become?  This witness of faith that John’s parents had shown would serve him well in his ministry as the one will cry out in the wilderness “Prepare the way of the Lord.”

When a child is given a name, it can tell a lot about what is going on in the lives of the parents.  Think about it!  When parents-to-be find out they are having a baby, they will usually go through many sources to find the right name. Some will look at family history (i.e., grandparents, aunts, uncles, ancestors) while others will look at names that reflect a particular region or culture (i.e., Billy Bob or Mary Sue or Mary Catherine or John Francis).

Others will take the name of a certain hero (how many boys you know are named Brady or Brett because of Football) while still others will choose a name because it was “trendy” (how many Brittney’s do you know?).  Having to choose a name is very important to parents and can affect the child for the rest of their lives (I am still trying to figure out why Frank Zappa would name their kids Dweezil, Moon Unit and Motorhead).

When Gabriel told Zechariah that his son will be called John, it took the power to name the child from him and Elizabeth.  Yet if we look further, the name John falls in line with the family, even though none of their families had that name.  The name Zechariah means “the Lord has remembered.”  The name Elizabeth means “God is an oath.”  The name John means “God has been gracious.”  For God to name him John was not so much going away from his family tradition, it was keeping a promise God had given this family for the moment of their births. If we put the three names together, we can come up with the phrase “The Lord has remembered his oath.  He has been gracious to his people.”  It is quite the phrase for the family of the one who will charge the people to “make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

This John whom we honor today has been given two titles in history:  One from the East and one from the West.  The West title is “The Baptist.”  It is the one we are most familiar with and portrays his adult ministry to baptize his followers for the forgiveness of their sins.  In the East, John is given the title “The Forerunner.”  It was to reflect the image of John we have today:  the one born on earth to declare to the world the arrival of the Messiah.  He was conceived six months before Gabriel appeared to Mary.  When Mary arrived to visit Elizabeth, it was John who leapt in his mother’s womb in excitement that the Messiah had arrived.  And Elizabeth, being a child of the priestly class, immediately understood this sensation as more than just the child kicking or early contractions.  When Zechariah regained his voice, he understood what the Angel Gabriel meant when he announced John’s birth.

Then he proclaimed the prayer we call the Benedictus.  “Bless be the Lord, the God of Israel who has come to his people and set them free…”  This prayer is said every day in the Morning Office, while the prayer said at the Evening Office is Mary’s “Magnificat”.  The prayer is two-fold:  the proclamation that God kept his promise of a Messiah and that it is in John that the pronouncement will be made. While we focus on John “The Baptist” here in the West, it is John “The Forerunner” that allows the world to be ready for the Messiah.

How does this Feast, this Solemnity of the Nativity of John the Forerunner/Baptist affect us today?  John’s Nativity is the ultimate witness to the blessings waiting for us when we see God.  He was born by human means, yet his actions expressed the divine.  His lineage marked him to be great amongst the people, yet God spoke to him to live in the desert in abstract poverty.  He would have been one to offer incense in the sanctuary like his father for the sake of the Jews, yet he went to the river to take the sins of the people as a true offering to God.

While we think of the Birth of Christ when we hear the word “Nativity,” it is the Nativity of John, Forerunner and Baptist, who bring us toward Christ so that, in six months’ time, we, too, can be a Forerunner like John when we can proclaim “O Come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant to Israel.  Come and behold him born the King of Angels.  O come let us adore him, Christ, the Lord.”

MAY GOD BLESS YOU AND ALL THAT YOU DO THIS WEEK

Knowing God’s boundaries begins with knowing our identity

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HOMILY FOR THE 10th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

 Readings:  Gen. 3:9-15/2Cor. 4:13-5:1

Psalm:  130:1-8

Gospel:  Mk. 3:20-35

 

One of the biggest reasons, in my opinion, that gets in our way in being a family of faith and genuine Disciples of Christ is a lack of personal identity.  Who are we? Where are we in our lives?  For what purpose are we here?  How we answer those questions helps us in dealing with ourselves, each other and God.  Yet trying to answer those questions is easier said than done.

When we are born, we belong to certain groups.  The first one is the family group:  Our mother, our father, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins and so on.  We also become part of a territorial group: A city, county or region.  Each of those groups has their own rules of living, their own vocabulary, their own societal structure or caste system.  As long as the particular norms of that society are followed, then “the world” is safe from any harm.  Any change in direction or any gain or loss within the group would cause a disruption amongst those who purport to be in power and would consider these changes as disastrous to their “status quo” and lose whatever power they think they may have.

When the crowds came to see Jesus, they were so happy to see him come home.  The stories of the he and his disciples’ exploits were all over the land and they were glad that he was “one of their own.”  They heard about his teachings, his healings, his miracles and most importantly, his expelling of demons out of those who were possessed.  All of the things that had been done were so impressive, that their friends and neighbors had to come by and see them.  The Gospel said the crowd was so large that it made it hard for them just to eat.

But not everyone in town was happy that they were there.  When Jesus came home, his family was upset with him and wanted to get him out of there.  This was not the person they grew up with and something was making him act out.  They thought he was out of his mind.  He was doing things that his family, his blood, his tribe just would not do.  He was no longer the son of Joseph and Mary and his family did not like it.

This idea of Jesus being crazy was not just reserved to his family.  Those who “spoke for God” had their own thoughts about the work of Jesus.  The Scribes who came from Jerusalem took the families dismay of Jesus and took it a step further.  They said the only way Jesus could drive out the demons was that he was possessed.  What gave them this idea?  In short, only God could dispel demons.  And since Jesus was not God, he must be possessed, or at least one of Beelzebul’s willing agents.  So, Jesus’ abilities to win over souls were for the sake of Beelzebul and not for the sake of God.

Jesus saw the Scribes for who they were:  religious snobs who used their position to bully others in order to feel superior.  If that superiority was threatened, they would blame others as heretics and blasphemers to bring the people back, knowing that their lack of knowledge of the Scriptures would be to their advantage.  So, Jesus gathered everyone together and gave them a lesson in Civics.  He asks them, “How can Satan drive out Satan?  If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.  And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.”

Christ explains to them that any conflict that is within a group can damage or even destroy it.  It takes an outsider to destroy a house by first capturing the strong man, the head of the household or king and then plunder the treasure.  No one who is within the kingdom can destroy the kingdom.  Only an outsider can.  So to say Jesus is driving out demons because he is possessed by one is in error.

Then someone mentioned to him that his mother and brothers are outside asking for him to come out.  So again, we see Jesus give a lesson in organizational dynamics.  What constitutes a family?   On earth, Jesus was born within the House of David.  So it was natural that those from that same house would call him outside, particularly if his mother was in the group.  But Jesus saw them as they were.  They were ordinary people that loved him as much as his family.  And more than that, they were the children of his Father in Heaven.  So he reminded everyone that whoever does the will of God is his family.

He was not dismissing the Virgin Mary and his immediate family (as those who view this passage interpret incorrectly) he was expanding the definition of family to everyone who lives their lives in service to God, no matter how much or how little they believe in him or follow his ways.  Jesus expands our definitions of kingdom and family beyond our limited scope into a new identity that brings us all together as children of God.

This message of connectedness is one that was needed then just as much as it is needed now.  In fact, our entire history is littered with moments of our identities as children of God being separated for the sake of ideological purity.  The Gospel of Mark, the earliest written Gospel, was written around the Year 70 A.D., about the time of the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem.  The Jews believed that they were being punished by God for their disobedience.  It was decided, then that in order to get back in God’s good graces, they needed to rid themselves of all things that were “not Jewish.”  That included all scripture not written in Hebrew, all non-Jewish rituals and, especially, all peoples who do not believe as they do, such as this splinter group who are referred to as “Christians.”

In 1858, Abraham Lincoln addressed the crowd at a convention in Springfield regarding slavery in the country.  He warned the crowd that this country could not be half-slave and half-free.  It had to be one or the other.  To make his point, he invoked Christ in the Gospel today in saying “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”[1]  And today, we are seeing so much venom and hostility against one another that those who were once friends are torn apart because of the slightest difference in belief, no matter what the topic might be.

If there is a time in your life that you come across this sense of angst between you and someone you love and care for, remember the words of Christ today.  He said “Amen I say to you, all sins and blasphemies that people utter will be forgiven them.”  Since Christ expanded our identities from citizens of a region and members of a congregation to brothers and sisters of Christ, we are obliged to forgive as well as be forgiven all the times we fall short of the grace of God in our thoughts, words and deeds.

But the one thing that no one can forgive is when we deny the Holy Spirit.  In other words, we deny God.  “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit,” Jesus says, “will never have forgiveness.”  To deny God is to deny our identity as Children of God.  When we do that, then we are truly lost.

God the Father gave to us our identity.  Christ defined it as we matured.  The Holy Spirit showed us the boundaries.  Those boundaries go beyond any differences on how we look, any language that we speak, any groups we choose to associate, any borders on a map and any image of God that is different than our own.  We are the Children of God.  This is our identity.  Let us continue our quest to bring about its fulfillment within ourselves so that others may be inspired to find it as well.

MAY GOD BLESS YOU AND ALL THAT YOU DO THIS WEEK

 

[1] “Speech before the 1858 Republican State Convention of Illinois” in The Essential Abraham Lincoln, Hunt, John Gabriel, ed. (New York: Gramercy Books, 1993), p. 115.

When “Schoolhouse Rock” showed us the nature of the Trinity

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HOMILY FOR THE FEAST OF THE HOLY TRINITY

Readings:  Deut. 4:32-34, 39-40/Rom. 8:14-17

Psalm: 33:4-6, 9, 18-20, 22

Gospel:  Mt. 28:16-20

 

On April 24th, a man by the name of Bob Dorough passed away.  His name might not seem familiar.  He spent much of his life as a jazz musician.  A chance encounter with a New York ad exec, however, changed his life forever.  In 1971, this exec was starting a new animated show for kids and asked Bob to come up with a few songs that helped kids with their multiplication tables.  His own kids were having trouble with them and wanted a way for them to learn how to multiply that they could handle.  The show that was created was called “Schoolhouse Rock” and the first song that Dorough composed for it was called “Three is a Magic Number.”

While the song did bring a way to understand multiplication, some of the lyrics to the song was rather poignant about we view the number three.  The opening of the song goes like this, “Somewhere in ancient mystic trinity you get three as a magic number.  The past and the present and the future; Faith and Hope and Charity; The heart and the brain and the body; Give you three as a magic number.”  What Bob Dorough did was not just create a song for a new series; he illustrated the importance of this number in human history.

The number three has its connections to the world around us. There are three kinds of matter:  animal, vegetable and mineral.  All matter has three dimensions: height, length and width. There are three states of water:  solid, liquid and gas.   We also see signs of the number three in the spiritual world. The third day of the creation story in Genesis tells of the water receding, land appearing, and the first signs of vegetation appears.  There were three Patriarchs:  Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. When the Hebrews carried the Ark, it contained the stone tablets that God had written the Ten Commandments upon, a jar of the manna that sustained them in the desert, and the staff of Aaron, the one who would bring them into the Promised Land. And when we look at the life of Jesus it begins with him being presented with three gifts:  Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. When he was transfigured he was with three of his apostles:  Peter, James and John.  And when Christ died on the cross, his resurrection was done on the third day. So it is no secret that the number three becomes a part of our lives. Its magic has been with us since the beginning of time.  The number three becomes the symbol of completeness that is present in an incomplete world.

When Christ speaks to the world, it is done in that spirit of completeness.  When we hear Jesus speak in the gospel proclaimed today from St. Matthew, he showed his disciples how that completeness is to be continued after he has ascended into heaven. Before he ascended into Heaven, Christ gave the apostles the power that he was given to continue his mission on earth.  To do that, he instructed them to baptize “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  It is in the power of three-The Holy Trinity- that will bring God’s children to his father. It is with the strength of God as the Holy Trinity that will bring love from hate, trust from doubt and wisdom from ignorance.

It has been the source of some debate regarding the nature of the Trinity. Most of the time it is the question of how can we worship one God while we say God is three persons.  In trying to come up with some help with this homily, I came across an article by Fr. Michael Simone, a Jesuit Priest and professor of scripture at Boston College.  He said that in ancient times, the pagan gods were considered to be fluid, meaning that they could appear in many places and in many forms without ever losing their potency.[1] This idea was highlighted in the Book of Daniel that showed God giving a complete portion of his power and glory to someone as they were “a son of man.”  The passage goes “I saw one coming like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven…  To him was given dominion and glory and kingship…  His dominion is an everlasting dominion… and his Kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.”[2]

According to Fr. Simone, this was the passage that the early Christians used as proof that Jesus was the Son of God.  In other words, when Jesus told his disciples to baptize “In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” he was doing so because of his authority as God on Earth, so that the faithful can continue this mission that comes from the Father, through the Son with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. [3]

Bob Dorough was right.  Three is a magic number.  It is the number of our faith, our hope and our love. And it is the number that we know, believe and share with the world as the identity of God’s nature in Heaven, on earth and in the netherworld:  The Holy Trinity.

MAY GOD BLESS YOU AND ALL THAT YOU DO THIS WEEK

 

 

 

[1] Simone, Michael, S.J. “Ever Ancient, Ever New” in America” Vol. 218, No. 11 (May 14, 2018) p. 60.  (www.americamagazine.org).

[2] Dn. 7:13-14.

[3] Simone, Michael, S.J.