Incola Ego Sum

Incola ego sum, et apud te peregrinus. “Oh God, I am a stranger, and with you a wanderer.” This verse is from the end of Psalm 39, which was not our Psalm today, but it is an excellent way to begin the season of Advent.

Advent is about the coming of Christ. As we have been reading in the Scriptures for the past few weeks, he will come at the end of time in justice, when he will separate the sheep from the goats. He will gather unto himself those who love him, and those who do not love him he will cast into Gehenna. So Advent is a season to prepare ourselves for that moment at the end of time when Jesus comes in judgment.

Advent is also a season that prepares us for the coming of Christ in human form at Christmas. He came in mercy as a baby to share our human experience. Like us in every way except sin, he came as the Son of Man to take upon himself all our sins and redeem us. He, who is without sin, gave up his life so that we might die to sin.

Continue reading “Incola Ego Sum”

Babylonian Captivity

The prophet Jeremiah was sent by the Lord to warn the Hebrews about the impending Babylonian exile. He served as a prophet for more than 40 years. There are 52 chapters of Jeremiah, which is immediately followed by five chapters of his Lamentations. His message was so sad, he was called the weeping prophet and he gave us the word “jeremiad” which is a long list of woes or lamentations. If you have to be a prophet, you would much rather be Jonah with three days inside a fish and a short, successful preaching ministry than to be Jeremiah with 40 years of preaching to a community that rejects you, persecutes you, and ultimately ends up where you warned them they would go if they did no change their ways. The prophet Jeremiah had a pretty bleak ministry.

Jeremiah was telling the Hebrews they would be sent to Babylon for a couple of generations if they did not change their ways, and they did not, so they were exiled for 70 years. But even in the midst of serious troubles, even when our troubles last a long time, we still have faith and hope. In the reading today, from chapter 31, we hear Jeremiah preach faith to the doomed Hebrews. He promises, “They departed in tears, but I will console them and guide them, so that none shall stumble.”

Continue reading “Babylonian Captivity”

Fire Pits

gehennaHere on the 26th Sunday in ordinary time, the readings have a seriousness of tone that will continue through the first couple of weeks of Advent. In the reading from Saint James, and in the teaching from Jesus in the gospel, we are challenged to take seriously the reality of Gehenna.

So what is Gehenna? The answer to this question is like so many other answers to questions that believers raise, multifaceted. And that’s why I want us to focus on the reality of Gehenna rather than the many alternative explanations for Gehenna. But let’s start with some of those alternative explanations. One that you will hear is that Gehenna was a trash pit, and like many trash pits it was always burning. In this explanation, Jesus was referencing a local physical place to remind his listeners of the importance of being a good person. Other explanations are that Gehenna was the place where sacrifices to Moloch were made. Moloch was the local God of the Canaanites to whom live children were sacrificed by throwing them into a pit of fire.

Three times in the gospel story Jesus contrasts Gehenna with life. So it may be true that Gehenna was a trash pit, and it may be true that it was the place of sacrifice for the pagan god of Moloch, but Jesus uses this imagery as a contrast to life. And when Jesus speaks of life, he is speaking of eternal life. So Gehenna is eternal death. The church has come to describe that eternal death as Hell.

Continue reading “Fire Pits”

No Middle Ground

The last line of the Gospel is quite challenging. “From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.” [Mk 7:23]

With these strong words, Jesus is reminding the Pharisees and scribes, and he is reminding us today, that the human person is an integral thing. We are not, as Fr. Neil explained a few weeks ago, a spirit trapped in and essentially separate from our material body. We are one thing: body and soul and mind united.

Jesus’s list shows us how mental sins are linked to physical sins. Greed, malice, deceit, envy, arrogance are all mental states; they are the evil thoughts that come from stony hearts. From those mental states come the evil actions: murder, theft, unchastity, blasphemy. Every kid has tried the “The Devil Made Me Do It” defense when caught with his hand in the cookie jar, but every parent knows that we used our minds to decide to put our hands in the cookie jar. As Jesus said, the evils come from within, and they defile.

Where the Greek pagans sought to separate the spirit from the body, the Jews and the Christians understood the two are integrated in one whole person. St. James reminds his readers that we must have an integrated relationship with our Lord, too. He says, “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves.” That part about self-delusion is so important. We cannot say we love Jesus on Sundays and that’s the last time he is part of our day until next Sunday. Jesus is particularly hard on the Pharisees because their words do not match their deeds. They honor him with their lips but their hearts are far from him, as Jesus rebukes the Pharisees with a quote from the prophet Isaiah.

God looks at our hearts as he considers our deeds. We cannot compartmentalize our relationship with Him. At the end of the day, either he is our Lord or he is not. That’s the point Moses is making in the reading from Deuteronomy. If he is my Lord and Master, then I should obey his instructions. If he is not, then I should stop pretending. He knows what’s going on in my heart. Even if I am able to deceive my neighbor, I cannot deceive God. That’s what the word omniscient means. It means He knows everything. So we should stop faking our faith if our hearts are not united to His.

Struggling with our faith is not the same thing as faking our faith. Jesus is hard on the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, but he is gentle with the father of the possessed boy in chapter 9 of Mark’s gospel when he cries out, “I believe, help my unbelief.” He shows the rich young man that despite his regular acts of religious devotion he still loves his money, and the young man walks away. But he responds to the nagging prayer of the Phoenecian woman when she tells him even the dogs get scraps from the table. Our God can hear any honest sentiment from us: it’s okay for us to complain about injustice, to wonder why God seems so far from us, to want a better life, to whine about our troubles and to pester him to give us good things. His willingness to listen is endless. He’s always there when we look for him. And he will always hear what we have to say. But He does not want to hear platitudes and insincere praise. He can see right through that.

That’s what Moses is driving at with his statement to the people. They can either do what God tells them to do and receive all the blessings he has in store for them, or they can go off on their own. That’s what St. James is driving at with his invitation: either humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you and is able to save your souls, or don’t. Maybe these Scriptures are what inspired the Yankees catcher Yogi Berra to say, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” 

There is no middle ground. If we believe God is who he says he is, then we receive his Word and our lives are transformed by that Word. We hear and we obey. We do what we are told. Our obedience is our path to docility and humility, and they pull us even closer to God, and we are no longer hearers only but also doers. Our thoughts and our actions are in greater harmony with God’s will and his plan for our lives. We are becoming the human persons he made us to be: integrated rather than separated between mind and body. We do the good things we do because our hearts are no longer stony but transformed into godly hearts that are close to God. Just as evil acts come from wicked minds, the merit of our good deeds comes from the state of our hearts. We are no longer disjointed as the Pharisees were, saying one thing but doing another. We are integrated in mind and body and soul, truly God’s children.

As we prepare to offer our sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise, let us put at the foot of the altar all the times we tried to manage our relationship with God and recommit ourselves to just being his children. When we come forward for Holy Communion, let us be praying that we truly do commune with Him, that our wills become one with his will, that our hearts and minds and bodies be fully integrated according to God’s plan for our lives.

Life and Death

Today’s readings are about life and death, from the musings of Solomon in the Book of Wisdom to the story of Jairus and his daughter from the Gospel of Mark. Solomon directs our gaze to the origins of death, and the Gospel story makes it clear that the God of Life has the ultimate power over death.

Connecting back to the Creation story in Genesis, Solomon remembers that we were not made for death but for life. He writes, “For  God formed man to be imperishable; the image of his own nature he made him.”

When we say that we were made for life and not for death, it’s useful to remind ourselves what those words mean when we use them in this context. For Christians, God is life. In response to a question from his disciples, Jesus says, “I am the truth, the way, and the life.” And in the Transfiguration, Jesus’s glory is revealed as being so white that no fuller — a person who cleans and bleaches clothes — that no fuller could ever duplicate. In the Transfiguration, the disciples get to see, for just a moment, what real life looks like. Thus we understand that when Solomon says we were made to be imperishable he is saying that we were made for life, that we were made for God. God made us to be close to him and to be with him in the fullness of life. Made in His image, we were made to enjoy a close relationship with him.

If that is life, then what is death? Death is the absence of life just as evil is the absence of God’s goodness. Evil is not a thing; evil is the lack of a thing or the absence of a thing. The thing that is missing is God himself. Sometimes theologians describe evil as a privation, which is a fancy word for the absence of something or the lack of something. Evil is the lack of God’s goodness, and death is the lack of his Life.

Continue reading “Life and Death”

Why So Mysterious?

ottrinityicon

I was invited a few years ago to come and preach at another parish on Trinity Sunday. As he introduced me, the pastor mentioned that the Trinity was one of those subjects where the longer you talk the more likely you are to preach heresy. So here goes. 

The reason why it’s so difficult to talk about the Trinity is because the Trinity is one of the mysteries of our faith. When we talk about a mystery of the faith, we mean something that we know is true because God gave us that truth. There are many things that we know to be true by our natural powers of observation and our intellect. We can, using our brains, figure out a lot of the truths of our faith. But there are some that are just too magnificent, or too glorious, for us to understand by our own natural power. In believing mysteries, we confirm our belief in a god greater than ourselves.

The trinity is one of these mysteries. When we try to preach about the trinity we stumble over the apparent conflict between our claim that God is one and our faith is a monotheistic faith, and our claim that there are three persons in the one Godhead: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. A rational person can ask a good question of how can three be one? You can see how it’s a bit difficult to evangelize when you start with a mystery like the trinity. Yet the doctrine of the trinity is central to the Catholic faith.

Continue reading “Why So Mysterious?”

Now What?

Here on the third Sunday after Easter the readings seem to be exploring the question, “What do we do as an Easter people?” Many Christian communities have the tradition of an Easter greeting in which one person says, “He is risen” and the other person replies, “He is risen indeed.” Today, let’s take a look at the implied question that would follow such a greeting. The implied question is, “Now what?”

The Gospel today picks up the story at the end of the Walk to Emmaus, when two of the disciples walked and talked with Jesus without recognizing him. They only recognized him in the breaking of the bread, and immediately he disappeared from their sight. Just as they are telling the others about their experience, Jesus appears and gives them his peace. Then he opens the Scriptures to all gathered there just as he had during the walk with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.

These stories from the days after the Resurrection show us how the Apostles were grappling with the mystery of what they knew to be true: that Jesus Christ died, was buried, and rose again in a glorified body that could go through walls but also eat regular food. Truly human, truly dead, truly alive, truly God. As Father Mike Schmitz of internet podcast fame likes to say, “Man oh man, oh man.”

Continue reading “Now What?”

Good Friday Sixth Word

There was a jar filled with common wine. They stuck a sponge soaked in this wine on some hyssop and raised it to his lips. When Jesus took the wine, he said: “It is finished.”

John 19:29-30

The New Covenant is now set. What began Thursday evening as a Seder meal that seemed to be interrupted just when they would have drunk from the cup of consummation is now revealed to be the holy sacrifice of the unblemished lamb, the Lamb of God. Thursday evening, Jesus told his disciples that he would not drink from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.

By accepting a bit of sour wine, Jesus is completing the new Passover sacrifice. Where the old Passover freed the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, the new sacrifice has freed everyone from slavery to sin and death. Those who are marked with the blood of the Lamb through baptism and faith in Christ are freed to enter into the kingdom of God.

The Paschal victim is also the Paschal priest. He offered the perfect sacrifice: Himself. He, who was without sin, took upon himself all our sins. In dying upon the cross, Jesus paid the price that we cannot pay.

The Seder meal was a liturgical memorial of the Passover. The food, the readings, the vestments, and the instructions on how to sit, were all prescribed and unchanging. The new Passover meal is the holy sacrifice of the Mass. More than a memorial meal, it is a mysterious participation in the sacrifice at Calvary.

Jesus has said, “it is finished.” He has drunk from the cup of consummation. He is about to go to his Heavenly Father. He has completed his earthly ministry, and through his sacrifice, he has transformed the Cross from an instrument of torture and death to the means of obtaining eternal life.

Faithful cross! above all other,

One and only noble tree!

None in foliage, none in blossom,

None in fruit thy peer may be;

Sweet the wood and sweet the iron!

And your load, most sweet is he.

Good Friday Fourth Word

When noon came, darkness fell on the whole countryside and lasted until midafternoon. Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which means: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Matthew 27:45-46

Jesus hanging on the cross, is still an observant Jew. He is reciting the 22nd psalm; the Son of David is reciting a Psalm of David as his life slowly slips away. The Psalms were the hymn book and the prayer book at the time of Jesus. And so Jesus is praying to his God the prayers of the persecuted, the one suffering at the hands of others.

At the same time, Jesus continues to teach his children even as he dies on the cross in front of them. In reciting this famous Psalm, Jesus is pointing to himself in the words ascribed to King David.

Verse 6 of Psalm 22 is: “But I am a worm and no man, scorned by men and despised by the people.”

And the gospel narrative tells us that was indeed what was happening on the ground below him.

Verse 7: “All who see me, mock at me, they make mouths at me, they wag their heads; ‘He committed his cause to the Lord; let him deliver him, let him rescue him, for he delights in him!’”

Verse 14: “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint.”

His body is stretched, hanging from the Cross, and soon enough, water and blood will flow from his side.

Verse 16: “A company of evildoers encircle me; they have pierced my hands and my feet.”

Indeed, the Precious Blood drips from the places the Roman soldiers drove spikes through his hands and his feet.

Verse 18: “They divide my garments among them, and for my raiment they cast lots.”

The verses in the first half of this psalm accurately predict the condition of the Son of Man hanging on the Cross. In the days to come, the disciples of Jesus will understand how the scriptures of their day, what we call the Old Testament, should be read as pointing to him. This psalm of David written centuries before the day of crucifixion only becomes clear after the day of crucifixion.

The tone of the Psalm pivots at verse 22: “I will tell of your name to my brethren; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”

Verse 24: “For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted.”

Jesus teaches us that suffering for the glory of God has a noble purpose and a heavenly end. This day will be remembered as Good Friday.

Verse 27: “All the ends of the Earth shall remember and turn to the Lord.”

Jesus proclaims the Good News to Jews and Gentiles alike. All the ends of the Earth are offered salvation on this day that is a Good Friday.

Verse 28: “For dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations.”

Jesus announces his victory over Satan, who discovers on this day, Good Friday, that his rule is merely temporary, and it will end with his destruction.

Verse 30: “Men shall tell of the Lord to the coming generation, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, that he has wrought it.”

The song that begins with a cry of despair, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” ends in the confident trust the Son has in the Father. For Jesus knew that day would be known as Good Friday to the coming generation, for on the Cross that day he brought deliverance to a people yet unborn.

Good Friday Second Word

One of the criminals hanging in crucifixion blasphemed him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Then save yourself and us.” But the other one rebuked him: “Have you no fear of God, seeing you are under the same sentence? We deserve it, after all. We are only paying the price for what we have done, but this man has done nothing wrong.” He then said: “Jesus, remember me when you enter upon your reign.” And Jesus replied, “I assure you, this day you will be with me in paradise.”

Luke 23:39-43

Is this life that we are living all there is to life? Or is it a time of preparation for our eternal life? The two thieves on the crosses next to Jesus highlight the importance of this question. As we approach our death, our attitude towards eternal life makes itself clear. If we have acted our whole lives as if there is no after-life, then the most important thing at the moment death approaches is prolonging our earthly life. The wicked thief is here, using whatever he can to motivate Jesus to save him from the grim reaper.

If, on the other hand, we live in knowledge that there is an after-life, then at the end of our lives we are focused on going to the right place, since we are going to be there forever. The good thief sees his earthly life ending and asks Jesus to save his eternal soul.

When we see Jesus on the Cross, it is a vision to which we must respond. Either he is what he says he is, or he is an utter fool. If he is a fool, he deserves to be mocked for his weakness. But what if we don’t see as well as we should? If we have let the habit of sin persist to a great extent, it prevents us from seeing clearly. So we are like the wicked thief, encountering the font of justice, and mocking him.

But if we see even in a limited way who he really is, he will offer us the healing power of his love. When our eyes are no longer clouded by the habit of sin, we see more clearly that he is King of All and Lord of the Universe. What looks to some to be a loser in life – dying a despicable death – is the king of eternal life, the victor over sin and death.

Both thieves recognize the power of Jesus, one more fully than the other. The good thief recognizes that He is the Son of God, made Man. And that he is going to his eternal glory at the right hand of the Father. Both thieves know Jesus is no ordinary criminal on the Cross. The one who does not see clearly mocks him for his worldly weakness, but the other acknowledges his eternal kingship. One will not ask for help, while the other asks for salvation. We need to remember that Jesus gives us ultimately what we truly want.

Jesus, by his obedience – even unto death on a cross – turned this dark day into Good Friday. Jesus made this day of disaster the day death was defeated. He continued to offer himself to anyone seeking salvation even as he himself was dying. That’s how much he loved those thieves, and he loves you and me just as much.

Call out to Jesus. Receive salvation.