Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Sign of Jonah

"This is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah."  This short excerpt from today's Gospel, found in the Gospel of Luke, shakes us up a bit.  The listeners of Jesus are demanding signs and works that would demonstrate that he is the Messiah.  I think about how children will ask dozens of questions about the 'hows' and 'whys' of all things, until the parent, in frustration, says, "Just because!" 

Jesus pointing to the conversion of a people many centuries before his time.  The people would have known this story.  Jesus is directing his hearers to ponder the faithfulness of these people who turned from Sin and Evil simply on the words of the prophet.  Today we find this same challenge in the words of sacred scripture, and in our faith tradition. 

Speaking with a group of priests yesterday, we were discussing the tendency towards a 'soft-Christology.'  We would like to imagine that Jesus is only going to say nice things to us.  As parents, when our four year old brings the latest crayon drawing to us, it is proudly displayed on the refrigerator door.  We would hope though that when the child is eight or nine, they have moved beyond stick figures.  Recall that Jesus continues to have the apostles open their hearts and minds to the real meaning of the Kingdom.

The love of God is beyond our comprehension.  St. John reminds us that God so loved the world that he sent his Son in the mystery of the incarnation, that we might experience salvation and peace.  St. Paul wants us to understand that Jesus comes into our lives as the sign and symbol of the Father's love for us.  But to paraphrase the psalmist, who asks us, what response can we make to the Lord for all he good that He has done for us? 

Well that response would be one of conversion, a change of heart, and discipleship.  If we do not continue to mull over the Word of God in our lives, we begin to take on the nature of apathy and a lackluster heart.  We are to cling to what is good and refused to be mastered by evil.  The ashes we received the other day are not meant to be a magical potion to keep us away from Sin.  They mark a commitment of belief that draws us out of darkness so as to share His marvelous light.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Forty Days in the Desert

Mark does not take any time to explain or offer a theology of the Incarnation.  From the very beginning of his Gospel, Jesus is drawn into the desert by the Holy spirit, where we are told he is tempted.  More so he thwarts the temptations, and full of strength and Spirit, he calls on men and women to repent and believe in the Gospel.  While the desert is an arid wasteland, for Jesus it is an opportunity to develop a communion with God the Father, and deliver a model of faith.

Over the centuries men and women of holiness have gone out into the desert and have lived faithful and ascetic lives as they try to live with themselves and various temptations.  We do not have to go our into the desert though to try to put up with the brokenness of ourselves and others.  From the very beginning of Mark's Gospel Jesus places the cross before us.  The faithful life of a disciple necessarily includes dying on the cross.  The desert image magnifies the challenges of standing against Sin and temptation, and learning to rely on God.

John's Gospel makes it clear that Jesus is not present to us on his own accord.  But Jesus will muse that the works and words are not about him, but rather they are to direct us to God the Father.  At one point Jesus unfolds a theology of how the Father and he are one, and then much later Jesus will pray for the apostles, and the world, that all would have the same unity and communion as exists in the Father and Son.  The desert experience teaches us about our dependence upon God.

I have from time to time told the story of a small parish community in which the leadership commented that the annual parish dinner was the center of their parish life.  We would like to believe that they really meant to reply that Mass on Sunday was the focus of parish life and vitality.  The desert motif recalls for us our need to hunger and thirst for the holiness of God.  As a Church it is easy to become distracted by the things we do in the name of religion, which should be responses to the love of God.  Our ministries are our way of saying 'Amen' to God who loves and cares for us.

Our trek through this desert needs to be guided by God's abiding presence in everything we do and say.  Jesus models for us how we can thwart Evil by attaching ourselves to what is good.  Jesus must be the oasis who loves and cares for us, to whom we can rely on for help.  By experiencing dryness we can now yearn for the one who gives us whatever is good and true.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Call to God full Throated

One of my pet peeves (one of five or six dozen) has to do with the folks at the 'Y' after the New Year.  There is always this increase of men and women who are going to get healthy and lose weight, as part of a New Years resolution.  These are truly novices who are often in the way more often than not.  About his time of year they begin to dwindle, and by early March they are probably looking at other resolutions.

In regards to our Faith I think that we can very much be this way.  We give up too quickly, or we do our spiritual practices for the wrong reasons.  You know that you are going to stumble and falter when you tell others, "On Easter Sunday I am eating all the chocolate I want,"  or "I look forward to that first beer after Lent."  In regards to our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, it might be good to contempate th real reason behind these act.  And even More so, are we drawing closer to conversion and discipleship.

Isaiah brings the peoples complaint to God (as do the Parisees to Jesus) as to why God is not drawing close to them after their time of fast.  God's response is that the real fast that is expected is the release from oppression and the beginning of reconciliation.  We can fast all we want but if that does not cause us to "hunger" for God, the fast is for naught.  In Matthew's Gospel Jesus quotes the Hebrew scriptures in stating, "It is mercy I desire and not sacrifice."  Our religious acts in and of themselves do not impress God.  But our becoming more 'Godly' draws us into the life with God. 

Even if part of our Lenten practice is to do without one pleasure or another during these forty days, the scriptures remind us that there is a very serious call we have in living on the foundation of the Paschal Mystery.  Hopefully by paying attention to the movement of God in our life, we can come to learn the ways of charity, compassion and peace.  While some of our Lenten things might be monotonous they become those exercises so as to recognize what is good and true.

Lent cannot be so much of a spiritual treadmill as it is a journey with God, within a comminity.  May the good things God has begun in us be brought to completion.  

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Repent and Believe in the Gospel

Today hundreds upon hundreds of Christians will begin their Lenten journey, and will have ash smudged on their foreheads.  Now of course the hope is that those who receive ashes will be serious about their Christian lifestyle.  The external sign should indicate that an internal transformation is taking place.  Coming to church today means that we are promising to God, publicly that we intend to really move away from Sin and lived a graced life.

The three main components of this holy season are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.  There really needs to be a sacrifice here.  I recall when I taught high school the young'ins would ask whether eating lobster wold qualify as having fish, rather than meat.  Their point was well taken.  The notion of "giving up" has a lot to do with dying to oneself.  The cross needs to remain our focus throughout the Lenten season.  How well do I live the paschal mystery?  So it is the understanding that simply having ashes will not make us any more holy.

Sometimes I will hear a parents frustrated cry, over a child who has made a wayward decision, "We sent them to catholic school and everything."  But by 'everything' does one mean Mass on Sunday's. family meals and prayer together, and understanding of faithfulness to God and Stewardship.  Conversion and Discipleship has to be an interior transformation.

The reading from Joel is awesome today.  It speaks of the angst that we who have sinned posses, and also of the desire for God that needs to be part of our life.  The words from Mark speak loudly to us today, "Repent, the Kingdom of God is at hand.".  

Monday, February 20, 2012

Living in a Life in a Culture of Death

In 1995 John Paul II issued the encyclical Evangelium Vitae, the Gospel of Life.  In it he laid the foundation of teachings of the Church in regards to respect and responsibility for all human life.  Beginning at the beginning with the stories of creation, John Paul built the premise that all life, from conception until natural death, is sacred.  The encyclical moves beyond basic human rights and focuses on the divine component of life; that is we are from God and will return to Him.

It was during the World Youth Day in 1993 where John Paul first described our culture as a culture of death.  "In our present social context, marked by a dramatic struggle between the culture of life and the culture of death, there is need to develop a deep critical sense capable of discerning true values and authentic needs."  John Paul urged all American people to move away from a culture of death into a culture of life.  While the Pope spoke primarily on the propensity towards abortion, euthanasia, and contraception, the respect of human life also moves into the areas of poverty and violence.

When human sexuality is removed from the relationship of conception, and becomes a "bonding" experience, albeit an emotional and physical pleasant one, then we slowly diminish the sacrosanct nature of sexuality, and of procreation.  It becomes much easier to view human life in an objective manner which assigns tasks or values to them.  Hence if a poor woman becomes pregnant, it is easier to talk about abortion since we would not want a child born into poverty.  For teenagers the decision of having playing Xbox or having sex are equal options for an evenings activity.  More so we begin to look the other way in matters of violence and poverty.

In recent weeks the Catholic Church has been portrayed as this archaic beast which seeks to oppress and retain some ancient rite.  But when we look at peoples happiness today, and examine many of the problems we have in our central urban areas, we begin to see the culture of death personified.  An openness to life means the taking responsibility for all human life.  From conception until death we are walking on holy ground in regards to human life.  Persons who raise children are making a sacrifice to be sure, as are those who care for the elderly, or work to alleviate poverty and injustice.  In the end they have a more full experience of love, peace, and joy.

I think that the reason we always imaged mystics and seers on mountaintops is because they have a different perspective that allows them to oversee everything.  In our society today we really need to take a step back an view the world through a culture of life.  As Catholics we really need to be prophetic in challenging the world around us.  We need to make a choice for life from womb to tomb.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Opening the Roof

The people in today's Gospel are again awestruck.  Jesus continues to heal, forgive, and to restore.  Remember way back at the beginning of Jesus' ministry, when John the Baptist sends his disciples to follow Jesus, and to discover whether or not he is the Messiah.  Jesus noticing these disciples following him invites them to stay with him.  After some time, Jesus has these disciples report to John everything they have seen and heard.  They report that the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, dead men are raised to life, and the poor have the good news preached to them.  This is what Isaiah said the Messiah would do.

Some where the four friends of the paralyzed man must of either seen or heard of the ministry of Jesus.  Like the crowds in the house they too must have been overwhelmed with joy that something new was happening.  It is interesting that while the Gospel has Jesus commenting on the paralyzed man's faith, it is also the intense faith of the four men, who go as far as tearing open the roof, that also needs to be commended.  St. Paul would suggest that these four are not forgetful listeners, but rather hear the Word of God and out it into practice.  More so, the paralyzed man and the crowds now become proclaimers of everything that they have heard and seen.

Right from the get go, the message of Jesus Christ suffers opposition.  The scribes are hanging on every word, but not for the cause of conversion and discipleship, but to make sure the words match with the prescribed set of phrases to use when preaching.  In a real way today is no different.  The challenges that the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ causes many to rebel and try to find an easier or more expedient way around the message.  We like to pretend that Jesus really did not mean to change our hearts, to love our enemies, or to become humble servants of one another.

Now granted that we have as Christians hurt ourselves by wandering from the Word every now and then.  But the message of Jesus remains firm.  Discipleship is a matter of dying and rising.  The structures of Sin in which are alluded to today are not just or private Sins, but those that corrupt institutions and nations.  Conversion and discipleship as about a virtuous life and about justice and peace for all nations.  As with four men who remove the roof to get to Jesus, faith is a community effort.  There is no private religion.

We can be like the crowds today who marvel at what we have heard and seen in faith.  But we have to proclaim it, and maybe even others to Jesus for healing.  And sometimes our faith requires some radical structure changes to get to Jesus.

Friday, February 17, 2012

A Matter of Religious Freedom

Recently there has been much in the news in regards to the HHS mandate that would require religious institutions to provide contraception and birth control for it's employees.  The U.S. Bishops have been steadfast in their objection to the government imposing requirements which are in opposition to the Church's moral teachings.  While some have proclaimed that the Church should change it's teachings, the issue comes down to the government, any government, infringing on belief and morals.

More and more as our society becomes more secularized, and people begin to view religion as a personal manifestation, governments will feel free to step into the religious sphere.  About a year ago one of the States attempted to mandate how the administration structure of a parish should formed.  The State government felt free to move into Canon Law.  The more we whittle away these basic freedoms, the less free we actually become.  Religion will become a 'State' institution; something our fore bearers left Europe over.

It is very important that we pay attention to what is happening in this regards.  We should also pray for our Bishops and offer them our support and encouragement.  This is the time for us to write to our legislatures and congress-people, they need to hear from the people they serve.

This is a serious time in our Church.  So often when we think of religious persecution we think of the martyrs of old, and solders storming church buildings.  But in reality it is far more subtle than that.  This present time also give credence to way we need to know our faith and understand Church teachings.  Just a hint, the major news organizations are not the best catechists.  Faith does not allow us to be wall-flowers, but obliges us to respond as members of the body of Christ.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

...You Can Make Me Clean

In today's Gospel concerning the leper, it is natural to try to figure out who the lepers are around us today. Obviously those who suffer oppression and injustice, are socially mandated outside the wall, removed from the community.  But anytime a "blemish" appears, which causes fear and anxiety, we relegate those persons to the status of leper.

Just as all lepers of the Scripture did not suffer from Hanson Disease, so today's "lepers" are often not sick or diseased.  In my homily today I used the example of teenagers.  In this major transition of life, we react to their different lifestyle, rather than respond to their needs and concerns.

While the culture at the time mandated that lepers stay away from those who are clean, the leper today does not allow his affliction and brokenness to keep him away from Jesus.  Someone has told him about Jesus; they witnessed to what they had seen and heard.  So the leper is confident and unafraid to approach Jesus.  He does not allow his sickness, real or imposed, prohibit him from finding healing and peace in his life.

Change and transformation are important in order to find healing and unity in our lives, and in our society.  Sometimes we run up against a wall which tells us that, "we don't do things that way."  Our faith helps us understand that we are not our disease, affliction, or social standing.  Jesus has pity on the leper, recognizing that he is a Child of God.  To be sure we have been formed out of clay, but as God breathes life into us, we have worth and values in life.  More so because of what the Lord has done for us we have the ability to reach out to the saving power of God.

We begin the Mass acknowledging  that indeed we are all unclean.  But we also faithfully admit that the Word of God made flesh can and does bring us healing and peace.  We approach our God full of faith and hope, making the lepers prayer our own - "If you will to do so, you can make me clean."  Amen.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Religion and Faith

There are many conversations that I have about religion, sometimes with total strangers, whereas the other mentions that they are not religious, but they are spiritual.  What that means usually is that they have no official affiliation with a religious body.  In many corners of the world today religion, and especially Christianity are bad words.  Even more in many facets of society today there is an outright hostility towards religion and Christianity.

On of my favorite attacks against Christians is the Crusades.  Somewhere in the middle of a discussion on some religious point, the other will ask, 'What about the Crusades?'  It would be difficult to explain the socio-political structure of the day.  For the Church, the only model of governance was that of the Roman Empire.  Certainly the apostles were not busy considering the various governing models that might be part of the administration of the Church.

What seems to conflict people most today is that religion has with it a certain structure and expectations that affiliate peoples with the religious body.  In our post modern society all belief and morals are subjective.  While a certain act or action might be 'sinful' for me, it is not for everyone else.  Many have problems with religions' insistence that there is a Natural Law, and certain morals in which we must adhere to.

It is hard not to look at the brokenness and hurt in our world today and miss the fact that much is based on pride, greed, jealousy, anger, lust, and envy.  Even primitive tribal people have a set of mores which dictate one's day to day behaviour.  It is good and important to have a close and intimate relationship with Jesus Christ, but then to maintain that orientation towards God. and God's Son, our words and actions are directed to truth and goodness.

There is no doubt, as the Gospel for today illustrates, that religious practice alone, will not bring us to salvation. But in the end our religion and faith draws us close to God and assist us in nourishing and nurturing that relationship.  It is easy to get caught up in the workings of the Church, or the intricacies of a religious life.  But in the end we live as members of a body of faith constantly unfolding God's love and mercy.  St. Paul will remind us often that, "We walk by faith, not by sight."  The courage and strength of peoples who stand for justice and peace is an indication of their connection to God.

We are really spiritual and religious.  We cannot separate out our belief and our morals.  To be sure we are these broken vessels, but we are filled up with what is lacking in our faith.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

From Sickness to Resurrection

One of the lines that I have always found amusing in today's Gospel, is after Peter's mother-in-law is healed, she begins to wait on Jesus and the apostles.  I had always thought that was sort of convenient.  But when we look at the Greek, the word used in raising Peter's mother-in-law out of bed, is the same phrase that will be used in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  More so, her 'service' is not just in the domestic realm, but she is one who serves along with Jesus - she is a disciple.

The Jesus of Mark's Gospel comes to reveal the Kingdom of God.  But to understand the Kingdom we have to be transformed into disciples.  Part of that transformation and conversion is moving away from Sin and Evil and living a graced, or healed, life.  Jesus restores people to health and sends them on their way.  St. Paul talks about the obligation he feels in proclaiming the Gospel.  Paul will state that even when he tries not to speak of the Word of God, the desire or longing is so great that he ends up proclaiming the Gospel.

Jesus' healing and forgiveness unfolds for us what the Kingdom of God means.  The miracles of Jesus are not ends in themselves, but invitations to experience the love and mercy of God.  In doing so we can draw close to the One who draws close to us through the incarnation.  As we see with the apostles, Jesus demands authentic discipleship and a deep commitment of one's heart.  Healing occurs when we recognize the ultimate and true healer.

Mark mixes physical sickness with the expulsion of demons.  To be sure when sickness and disease occur in our life, sometimes the cause can be anxiety or worry which leads to physical disease.  And certainly our sickness can cause all sort of emotional ailments.  So the healing that takes places is both and at the same time physical, spiritual, and emotional.

The Church, as a faithful Disciple, continues on the ministry of healing through the anointing of the sick, and in the sacrament of reconciliation.  In the sacraments of the Church Jesus continues to raise us up so as to serve the Body of Christ.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A Prophet with Honor

"A prophet is not without honor except in his native place
and among his own kin and in his own house."
So he was not able to perform any mighty deed there,
apart from curing a few sick people by laying his hands on them.
He was amazed at their lack of faith.
I remember the first time I preached before my family.  It was a memorial Mass for an uncle of mine.  The Gospel pertained to the challenge of the Gospel message, and I spoke about the analogy of how easy it was for a camel to enter a needle's eye.  My family remembered the funny story I told in the middle of the homily, but seemed to be unable to remember anything else.  One other uncle asked why my alb looked the way that it did. 

Jesus is that young kid from down the street, you know, Joe and Mary's boy.  Jesus is familiar for them, but not in the way we think about.  For those around Jesus the Christ is to be mysterious, with no one knowing where he is from.  Jesus is quite ordinary.  From the very beginning people begin to question the authenticity of Jesus' claims since he is known and is not a warrior or a king.  Many had already decided that God could not save them from any plain person.

And yet this is exactly how God brings us salvation and peace.  In ordinary bread and wine we are nurtured and nourished with Jesus Christ.  Through regular men and women God continues the ministry of the Church in preaching, teaching, and sanctifying.  It is dangerous to assume we know how God is going to act or respond in our lives.  It is important to discern truths and to test the spirit of the messages that are conveyed to us.

To be sure God is unfolded in the Word and sacrament, but also in the children, the elderly in nursing care centers, and in the folks who come late to Mass only to leave early.  But it is a matter of being attentive to the ways of God.  The view that theology is "Faith seeking understanding" implies the faith work that we must do as faithful disciples of the Lord.