In last week’s reflection, I was speaking of how we tend to want to do things our way instead of following “rules” and “guidelines”…when it is so much better to rule by anarchy. Ahh…“freedom”…telling Jesus, off to the side, how things would be better in the world (like Peter in this week’s Gospel).
What does this mean for the question we have been considering? We were looking at the two goals of the Old Testament Exodus experience. I have been attempting to demonstrate that the issue was ultimately about the nature of the liturgy (how we worship individually and as a group for the glory of God). I hope it has become clear that what took place on Sinai (and in the period of rest after the wandering through the wilderness) is what gives meaning to the taking of the Promised Land. Sinai is not a halfway house (a kind of stop for refreshment on the road to what really matters). No, Sinai gives Israel, so to speak, its interior land without which the exterior one would be a cheerless prospect. Israel is constituted as a people through the covenant and the divine law it contains.
Israel has received a common rule for righteous living. This and this alone is what makes the land a real gift. Sinai remains present in the Promised Land. When the reality of Sinai is lost, the Land, too, is inwardly lost, until finally the people are thrust into exile (again). Whenever Israel falls away from the right worship of God, when she turns away from God to the false gods (the powers and values of this world), her freedom, too, collapses. It is possible for her to live in her own land and yet still be as she was in Egypt. Mere possession of your own land and state does not give you freedom; in fact, it can be the grossest kind of slavery. And when the loss of law becomes total, it ends in the loss even of the land.
Like Peter had to be reminded by Jesus to remember his place if he is to serve God, we can be so attached to this world that we lose the Promise Land of Heaven: “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?”
The “service of God”, the freedom to give right worship to God, appears, in the encounter with Pharaoh, to be the sole purpose of the Exodus…really… its very essence. This fact is evident throughout the Books of Moses. This real “canon in the canon” (the very heart of Israel’s Bible) is written and set entirely outside of the Holy Land. It ends on the edge of the wilderness, “beyond the Jordan”, where Moses once more sums up and repeats the message of Sinai. So we can see what the foundation of existence in the Promised Land must be…the necessary condition for life in community and freedom. It is this: steadfast adherence to the law of God, which orders human affairs rightly, that is, by organizing them as realities that come from God and are meant to return to God. Or…(when someone is in slavery: “what can one give in exchange for his life? For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay all according to his conduct.” Remembering what was stated last week…worship, law and ethics are inseparably interwoven.
I know some of you have been thinking: “The Fr. Kevin Reflections are going off into areas that I have a hard time grasping…what is he doing?” Well, that thought goes right along with this week’s readings at Mass. God is constantly reminding us: It’s His reality…not ours…that counts. As Elijah understands…God is not in the wind storm. Nor the earthquake, nor the raging fires that make mankind tremble in fear…it is in the whispering sound that causes Elijah to hit the ground. The same is true with Peter…he gets in trouble when he allows “earthly reality” to cloud his thinking.
With the reflections for the next few months, I am going to ask you to suspend the “practical” way of reading the reflections…and be a little impractical. Let the mind escape from the way the world thinks…and focus on the “rules of the game” that God sets before us in the practice of: our worship, our liturgy…our faith.
You may remember me referring to the liturgy and the worship of God as a “play” or “game”. There are rules that come with playing any game. To play it right, you have to suspend our day to day routine and join the rest of the team. This is similar to the liturgy. We “play” as God wants us to “play the game”. This application of the “play-theory” distinguishes the liturgy by its essence from the ordinary kinds of playing (which doubtless always contain a longing for the real “game”) for a wholly different world in which order and freedom are the same (compared to the superficial, utilitarian, or humanly vacuous aspects of ordinary play.) The “play-theory” of our liturgy brings out what is special and different about that “play” of Wisdom the Bible speaks about, (the actions found in the Bible that can be compared to the liturgy). I have to admit…this analogy still lacks something, something essential. The idea of a life to come appears only as a vague assumption. The reference to God, without Whom the “life to come” would only be a wasteland…remains quite uncertain. Let me try another approach, this time starting from specific biblical texts.
Those particularly who have been at the Bible study on Tuesdays may remember the accounts of the events leading up to Israel’s flight from Egypt (as well as in those that describe the flight itself)…the Exodus appears to have two distinct goals. The first, which is familiar all of us, is the reaching of the Promised Land, in which Israel will at last live on its own soil and territory (with secure borders, as a people with the freedom and independence proper to it). But we also hear repeatedly of the second goal…God’s original command to Pharaoh runs like this: “Let my people go, that they may serve Me in the wilderness” (cf. Ex 7:16). These words—“Let my people go, that they may serve Me”—are repeated four times, with slight variations, in all the meetings of Pharaoh with Moses and Aaron (cf. Ex 8:1; 9:1; 9:13; 10:3). In the course of the negotiations with Pharaoh, the goal becomes more concrete. Pharaoh shows he is willing to compromise. For him the issue is the Israelites’ freedom of worship, which he first of all concedes in the following form: “Go, sacrifice to your God within the land” (Ex 8:25). But Moses insists—in obedience to God’s command—that they must go out in order to worship. The proper place of worship is the wilderness: “We must go three days’ journey into the wilderness and sacrifice to the Lord our God as he will command us” (Ex 8:27). (In other words…telling the government and its leaders…we have to worship the way God wants it…no one else…no other power). After the plagues that follow, Pharaoh extends his compromise. He now concedes that worship according to the will of the Deity should take place in the wilderness, but he wants only the men to leave: the women and children, together with the cattle, must stay in Egypt. (He is assuming the current religious practice, according to which only men are active participants in worship.) But Moses cannot negotiate about the liturgy with a foreign sovereign, nor can he subject worship to any form of political compromise. The manner in which God is to be worshipped is not a question of political feasibility. It contains its measure within itself…that is, it can only be ordered by the measure of revelation, in dependency upon God. That is why the third and most far-reaching compromise suggested by the earthly ruler is also rejected. Pharaoh now offers women and children the permission to leave with the men: “Only let your flocks and your herds remain” (Ex 10:24). Moses objects: All the livestock must go too, for “we do not know with what we must serve the Lord until we arrive there” (10:26). In all this, the issue is not the Promised Land: the only goal of the Exodus is shown to be…worship, (which can only take place according to God’s measure and therefore eludes the rules of the game of political compromise).
Like Elijah…most would see the storms, the earthquake, the fire…but ignore (in ignorance) the whisper of God.
In today’s Gospel Jesus is speaking from the same place He was for the Last Supper. In this passage Jesus is giving us His last will and testament. What is He going to leave to His followers? His love. That love includes not only Himself, but the Father and Holy Spirit. He fulfills His Last Supper promise: “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.” (John 14: 15-16) Jesus did die on the cross, but He did not leave us. As we see in His words He will come and dwell within us and the Father will come with Him. A few verses later Jesus promises to send us the Holy Spirit. Our inheritance from Him is the fullness of the life of God. We began that life the moment we were baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (We remind ourselves of this treasure every time we bless ourselves in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.)
When you think about it, those we love do dwell within us. They are an intimate and intricate part of who we are. They are always in our hearts that are filled with love for them expressed in our concern, goodness, gratitude, humility, sacrifices, mercy, and generosity. In this Gospel passage Jesus expressed what was going to happen when He died and rose from the dead. Our inheritance from Him is the gift of Himself, the Father, and Holy Spirit dwelling within us. How does this inheritance affect our lives? The more we “use” our inheritance from Jesus, the more we recognize the gift of peace that He also promises in today’s Gospel: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” This is the peace we long for as individuals, families, communities, nations, and worldwide. Human efforts have helped us to defeat the countless powers that seek to separate us from God and one another (just ask a faith-filled veteran). Yet still, in all too many places around the world, there is violence, injustice, destruction and the abuse and taking of human life.
So, what is this peace Jesus is leaving us? It is the peace that comes from truly believing that He knows us as we are at each moment of our lives and is with us in all we say, do and think each day. This thought is expressed so clearly at the beginning of each of the four Eucharistic Prayers (for Various Occasions): “You are indeed Holy and to be glorified, O God, Who love the human race and Who always walk with us on the journey of life. Blessed indeed is Your Son, present in our midst when we are gathered by His Love, and when, as once for the disciples, so now for us, He opens the Scriptures and breaks the bread.” Obviously we need to accept His invitation to be renewed by our inheritance from Him through our heartfelt participation in the Mass every week. Jesus never tires of inviting us to open our eyes to His Love for us and His Presence to us. It is Jesus and our inheritance from Him, which is Jesus Himself, that lifts us beyond the confusion, challenges, and obstacles we face as individuals, families, communities, and nations. Only a nation under God can be one nation. It takes God to not only take away the confusion…but also to enlighten us with the truth of who we truly are and what we are ultimately capable of in the best sense possible.
One of the joys of being a priest is baptizing children. Before the ceremony begins, there is a lot of joy and enthusiasm in all who are present. How good it is to see how an innocent child, who is need of constant care and attention, brings such unity and joy. Along with their parents, who among us would not do anything to help these innocent souls to be healthy, happy, and cared for? The birth of a child is a Resurrection experience in that it raises the lives of parents especially to a new level of love. Sleepless nights and concern for any problems are sacrifices readily made for the good of a child. Newborn children along with anyone else we let into the depths of our minds and hearts raise us to a level in our lives that is energizing, encouraging, and inspiring.
Does our presence bring love, life, and mercy to others? When it does that is the power of the Resurrection in our minds and hearts. To bring love, life, and mercy to others means we do far more than avoid evils the Ten Commandments warn us against. Virtue and the love of God are far more than being able to say, “I didn’t kill anyone,” or “I didn’t commit adultery.” Virtue, living in union with the Risen Christ, and being part of His life means I do far more than avoid draining life out of others and myself through my words and actions. It means giving life by my thoughts, words, and actions at all times, in all places. It means far more than avoiding unfaithfulness to God and others; it means always being there, loving with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength.
The Resurrection is far more than rising from the dead and evil and its consequences; it means living in Jesus and allowing Him to live in us. Our loved ones live in us and we live in them. Even our loved ones who have died are still very much a part of who we are. We are grateful for them and their love and goodness. As we see in today’s Gospel, the disciples were very much alive in the mind and heart of Jesus. In Jesus they and we are far more than grateful for His love and goodness, we become His love, mercy, and goodness.
When we are born we are embraced by the love, gratitude, and joy of our parents. We are raised to ultimate hope and joy in life when we see how we are embraced by the love, life, and mercy of God in Jesus. When we embrace the pure love, life, and mercy of God we become that very love, life, and mercy.
“How can you, a sinner from birth, preach to us, we who are teachers of the law?” Most likely, all of us who are even minimally educated in the catechism of the Catholic Church, find these words of the Pharisees to the man born blind rather disturbing. If you, like me, find yourself “rooting” for the blind man and wishing to slap the Pharisees upside the head…then thank the person who taught you your catechism. I say this because if it was not for our belief in the Catholic dogma of original sin, all of us would most likely have this Pharisaical reaction to human suffering.
But let me be clear, almost every Catholic (as well as most Christians) knows a little catechism about original sin, but very few get beyond the basic idea that original sin was the sin that Adam and Eve committed long ago in the Garden of Eden. True enough…that is a good start. However, if that is all we can say about this belief we fall prey to all sorts of troublesome thinking. And when we have troublesome thinking it leads to troublesome attitudes and when we have some troublesome attitudes we do some troublesome things and we form troublesome habits. We can even end up declaring a suffering innocent person a wicked sinner who has only himself to blame for his misery.
The Pharisees in today’s gospel are talking just like the “friends” of Job in the Old Testament. Recall how Job while suffering so much was continually badgered by his companions to confess his guilt and repent in order to recover his health and well being. But Job can’t think of any sins so he can’t repent. (If you haven’t read the book of Job lately, Lent is a great time to do so. If you don’t have the time read the whole 42 chapters, read at least the first three and the last three chapters. The middle part is all the badgering stuff.) At the heart of the problem is an ignorance that in many ways is very understandable. But it is very problematic. They do not take the story of creation and the Fall seriously. We know suffering is very much connected to the fact that evil has been done. Just as light is understood in relationship to darkness, we know evil needs to be punished and good merits rewards. These guys figure, “this man is suffering, therefore he is being punished”. They falsely conclude, “Since I am doing well, I am being blessed.” (This actually is a common attitude found in many modern spiritualities). And, let’s admit it…“faith alone without works” has produced an odd dependence on being good to receive God’s blessings. They say: “Be good, be blessed, be bad and God won’t bless you.” This can creep into almost all of our hearts.
There is a subtle but dangerous example of this ignorance in the political realm. Those who are “progressive” are almost incapable of seeing suffering as an inescapable universal part of life. They are always assigning blame and always ready to enact new laws, which place huge burdens on others. They themselves do nothing to help carry the load. Their quest for the painless life is filled with assigning blame here and there. Extracting crushing fines upon nations for the past sins of slavery is as wrongheaded as our “friends” in the story of Job. Or when a worker’s union sues it’s “host” company into bankruptcy, they may feel good about placing the blame for suffering at the feet of someone, but they only end up increasing the quota of suffering. God allows the “curse” of Adam because it can (when we understand the redemptive characteristic of suffering) lead us to life everlasting.
Well, with the Epiphany having been celebrated, Christmas is now over and it is time to make good on the resolutions we thought of starting for this Year of Grace 2017! The greatest of responsibilities we have is to look generationally…to growing what has been given to us and leave it to the next generation better than how we found it.
Our young people need encouragement today more than ever, especially in the ways of the faith. We live in a society that openly ridicules and mocks Christian values and the Catholic faith. I think that helping our children to set the priority of faith is among the most important things you can ever do for your sons/daughters. It is interesting that most parents have no problem “encouraging and incentivizing” their children to do all sorts of things such as doing their homework, taking care of their chores, going to Mass, and being nice to their siblings. Such actions do help teens to understand the importance of these things and certainly your expectations for them as parents who are concerned for their well-being, overall good, and future success.
It is important to remember that the most important responsibility a parent has for his/her son or daughter is not to ensure them of a quality education, give them a good earning potential, or even to provide for them the highest possible standard of living. The most important responsibility that a parent has for their children is to help get them to heaven! Everything else (physical health, athleticism, popularity, GPA, wealth, popularity, etc.) will fade away, but heaven lasts forever. Obviously, once they are old enough to move out and be independent, your responsibility shifts dramatically, however, it is often in those later years that many parents experience regret that their children no longer practice the faith or that they have given up on the Church.
Never underestimate the importance of these formative years. Parents, you basically have one shot to get it right! As the product of Catholic schools, I strongly believe in the value of a Catholic education. Sometimes parents who have sacrificed financially for their children to go to Catholic school have a hard time understanding why their children as adults stop going to church. Blessed Paul VI said that what the world listens to today is not teachers, but witnesses! The greatest way to teach is by example. And January 22nd is a perfect “field trip” for the parent/teacher to fill in the generation gap and put our faith into action. So, again, it’s time to plan our trip…call and reserve the bus seats to the March for Life Rally to the State Capitol.
Education has its role, but Jesus’ power has not limited to that of a teacher, but rather as a witness to the Father’s love. What can we do to better the chances that our children will cling to their Catholic faith in future both in times of joy and in times of distress? Let’s be witnesses being called by the Judge of the Universe to testify, in our small way, to the Gospel of Life.
We are entering the second week of our journey through this time of Advent to meet Christ at His coming to us on Christmas. Our Advent retreat helps us to open and focus our hearts on the Incarnation. This great mystery of God’s love to humanity is expressed in assuming the human nature by Logos, the second person of the Trinity, and by His coming to us in the form of an infant child. This was such a tremendous moment that the voices of the choirs of angels broke through the skies with the joyful song of glory announcing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will”. The hope of thousands of years of waiting was fulfilled with the child born in a stable in Bethlehem to the Virgin Mother Mary and her most chaste spouse, Joseph. This is such a great mystery that only a glimpse can be reflected in the joy of a couple welcoming their newborn child. So we can only imagine the joy that filled the hearts of Mary and Joseph when Jesus, the Emmanuel, was born into the world.
During this second week of Advent, on the liturgical calendar we celebrate two feast days of Mary. On December 8th we celebrate the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and on December 12th we celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Through these celebrations we honor Our Lady Mary who is the model of the Church, and the model of how we should live our own lives in response to God’s abundant graces. As the Church teaches us, Mary is the one who gave us Jesus Christ as His mother, but she also is the one who leads us to Christ as our own mother. She fulfilled this role especially during the time of Advent when she entered the journey with her husband Joseph to Bethlehem, the town of his ancestor King David. Mary is on the journey of faith with us. As we, she also awaits the birth of her child Jesus. Therefore, these two celebrations this coming week are a great opportunity for each of us to join her and Joseph on their journey. To allow her to take us with her to Bethlehem, and let our hearts be enlightened and filled with the warmth of God’s love and peace that comes to us in the infant baby Jesus.