The Law of the Lord v. the laws of men

Our reading from Nehemiah today is the story of the day when the Israelites have been allowed to return to Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile. Ezra the priest brings out the books of the law and reads from them. The Books of the Law told the Israelites how they should live if they wanted to be faithful to the God who gave them life. We read in the story today that “all the people listened attentively to the book of the law.” And, after the reading, “all the people, their hands raised high, answered, ‘Amen! amen!’”

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The Model of the Holy Family

Yesterday we celebrated the Incarnation. It is also the Nativity of the Lord. It is a solemn celebration of the mystical reality that God became man, that God, who is the author of all creation, sent himself, his only son in human flesh, to live with us and share our earthly experience. And he came in human flesh finally to redeem us by his sacrifice on the cross at Calvary. So the celebration of Christmas is a celebration of our Heavenly Father’s love for his children.

Today we celebrate the gift of the Holy Family. Our God loves us so much that he gave us a model on how to live in the state of life that is common to all of us. All of us are somebody’s son or daughter, and so all of us are part of a family.

We all start as a member of a family, though some of us choose another state of life, such as the priesthood or religious life. And some of us lost the family state of life when we became an orphan or a widow or some other disruption in the traditional family arrangement.

In the Holy Family, we have a model for holiness in family life, even if our family has not always reflected that. In Jesus, and Mary, and Joseph, we have examples of what to strive for – as children of parents, as parents of children, and as spouses. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, give us models – sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly – of what sonship or motherhood or fatherhood should look like, and we reflect on that today.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.