April 27th, Second Sunday of Easter
The joy and happiness of Easter continues in the life of the Church across the world. We are a believing people. We believe that God stepped into the human story in the person of Jesus. We believe that Jesus offered his life as a sacrifice for each of us. We believe also that he rose from the dead and is still with us.
The Church today is an awesome institution. It is a community of faith and has drawn billions of people into its arms, but it was not always that way. Today’s readings give us the opportunity to look at that infant community of faith, and see the men and women who walked with Jesus and were witnesses of the Resurrection. The Gospel story is one that each one of us knows all too well.
Thomas is in the center of the story and in a very real way he represents each one of us. Thomas doubts the Resurrection and demands physical proof. That proof is provided and then Jesus looks into the future and sees each one of us. We have not seen physical proof. We believe in the Resurrection because the message has been brought through the centuries by this wonderful family of faith. We need to stop and think occasionally about the fact that our faith is grounded in the Church.
The apostles provide us with an excellent image of some aspects of the Church’s frailty. They stumble and fall, they doubt, they fight among themselves but ultimately they believe in Jesus and they accept the Resurrection.
The first reading goes into greater detail and shows the Church getting itself organized in chapter two of Acts of Apostles. Two thousand years later, Pope Francis has just appointed eight cardinals from seven different countries from around the world to assist him as he endeavors to improve the organizational structure of the Church. It was needed in the first century and it is needed today. The Church is guided by the Holy Spirit but it will always be in need of reform.
In discussing last week’s scriptures, I described that text from St. John’s Gospel as one of my favorites in the entire New Testament. Well, I am going to say that again because today’s text from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians is able to put in front of us a statement about Jesus of Nazareth that, in one or two sentences, summarizes the totality of salvation and the reality that we see and experience from our faith in our Divine Lord. Paul is writing to the Church in Philippi and they have had their problems. That is why he needed to write the letter. But in the second chapter, he uses words that are startling, clear and definitive.
He tells you and me that we should have an attitude in life like Christ. Christ, of course, loved his Heavenly Father and was willing to make any sacrifice necessary in order to redeem the human family. Then these words leap out at us:
(Jesus Christ) “Though he was by nature God
Did not consider being equal to God a thing to be clung to
But emptied himself taking the nature of a slave.”
What an awesome statement. We should say it over and over in our morning or evening prayers. Paul is telling us what is the overwhelming reality of our spiritual journey. God has been here. God has come to us. God has been one with us. And God invites us to pass via the salvific life and work of Jesus to share eternal life with him forever and ever.
In this Holy Week, we will have a great deal of time to think about our own lives, the status of our own souls and the eternal reward that is awaiting us as we approach our own death and resurrection.
We are to be one with Jesus forever and ever.
It is hard to imagine that anyone who would be fortunate enough to be able to visit Florence, Italy would go there and not enter that wonderful building where Michelangelo’s statue of David is enthroned. Enthroned is the right word! It stands magnificently in the rear of the building and although there are other objects of art within those walls, Michelangelo’s magnificent statue generates awe and wonder to all who behold it. Michelangelo more or less idealizes David in perfect human form.
There is nothing wrong with that because the first reading of today’s Scripture from the Book of Samuel describes David as handsome to behold and making a splendid appearance. It is God’s plan that this young shepherd boy, called in by the Prophet Samuel, be anointed as the king of God’s people. This would produce a little tension. Saul was firmly in control of the Israelites.
Then begins the story of David and it is a wonderfully human story filled with courage, action, heroism, great accomplishments and tragically destructive sinfulness. Here we are late in Lent and I think it is important that we see David, not as a dim figure in our historic past, but something of a shadow that hovers over each one of us. The Church has always taught that human nature is essentially good but weak, and during Lent we celebrate our goodness but must do it in the context of an awareness of that weakness. Yes, we fulfill our basic responsibilities to our family, to our community but we are all rough around the edges. We are brittle, hypersensitive, short-sighted and sometimes very selfish. Lent calls us to look at those weaknesses, to attempt to smooth over the rough edges and march forward with a calm confidence that we are about to join in the Resurrection.
Onward to Easter.
He has convened the bishops of the world to a special Synod to be held in Rome in October of this year and he has let us know that the Synod must consider many pastoral problems, not the least of which is the question of committed Catholics, living in civil unions, being denied the Eucharist as they are today. I have been raising this topic for my entire priestly life and so I am thrilled to see that the Church is going to make an effort to deal with this important issue.
Do not be surprised, however, that the right wing is manifesting vigorous opposition to any changes in our present pastoral policies. Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, who is head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has stated that this change cannot be made. Happily, other bishops, including Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga in Honduras, have challenged Cardinal Müller pointing out with a bit of humor that since Cardinal Müller is a German Theologian, he can only see black and white and never anything in-between. Other Church leaders are also supporting the possibility of a pastoral solution to this long-time problem.
Now comes Dr. Robert Fastiggi, a professor of systematic theology at Detroit’s Sacred Heart Major Seminary. Fastiggi does not challenge the pope directly but rather goes after Cardinal Walter Kasper who gave a lengthy talk to introduce a February 20-21 discussion by the College of Cardinals on family life. Cardinal Kasper is conscious of the fact that priests all over the world are providing pastoral solutions based on individual cases rather than using the formality of an ecclesiastical Tribunal and there seems to be a greater acceptance of this temporary solution. Fastiggi challenges that and states that an ecclesiastical Tribunal could handle these cases more effectively studying them from afar and on the basis of written documents rather than a priest in direct contact with the couple. My guess is that Fastiggi thinks that the world operates with the neatness and simplicity of a classroom.
Onward through the fog, but the fog is beginning to lift thanks be to God.
March 23rd, Third Sunday of Lent
If you live in the Southwestern part of the United States, you seldom see an issue of the local newspaper that does not have a story in the first section about water. California is not panicking but it is very, very concerned. Here in Central Texas many of us report to each other on the levels of the Highland Lakes. After all, that is OUR water.
Water is one of the most crucial aspects of life on this planet. We can get by with limited clothing, pathetic roofing and live without food for several weeks. But water is essential to our wellbeing and it manifests that fact within a couple of hours without it. That is one of the reasons that in our history, especially Judeo-Christian history, that water appears in story after story. Moses is plucked from the river. Moses leads God’s people through walls of water. Jesus begins his public life by being baptized in the Jordan River. The Church will use water for its fundamental sacramental thrust, namely baptism, which carries us through the waters of salvation to being brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ.
It is such a beautiful symbol. Are your hands filthy? Water will change them. In today’s first reading, we see that wonderful story of Jesus and the lady at the well. I know this is going too long but I can’t control myself. What a story of history, faith and God’s revelation of Himself. It was to that woman who challenged his ability to produce water without a bucket that:
Everyone who drinks this water
will be thirsty again
but whoever drinks the water that I give him
will never be thirsty again.
No, the water I give him
shall become a fountain within him
leaping up to provide eternal life.
What a proclamation! Thinking like this is one of the reasons that Lent is really so joyful. Every reader of this text today should remember that each of us has a fountain of water within us that is providing eternal life. What a joy. Thanks be to God.
The other day I wrote about the question as to whether or not sadness and joy can co-exist. The answer is that they certainly do. Sadness is an emotional response or reaction to one or more of life’s difficulties and usually when those problems are solved, sadness evaporates. But joy is a permanent relationship. I am of course referring to Christian joy.
Several weeks ago, Father James Martin S.J., editor of America magazine, wrote an excellent article on the subject. It is particularly important for understanding Christian joy.
“First let me distinguish joy from happiness. Unlike happiness, joy is not simply a fleeting fleeing or an evanescent emotion. It is a permanent result of one’s connection to God. While the more secular definition of joy may be simply an intense form of happiness, religious joy is always about a relationship. Joy has an object and that object is God. The ultimate response to the Good News is joy, one that is lasting and endures even in the midst of difficulties.”
And who does not have difficulties? We all have problems. We all face crises at one time or another, we all get tired and occasionally at least discouraged. The Gospels clearly tell us that Jesus experienced overwhelming sorrow. When he learned of the death of his friend he broke down and cried. Jesus experienced the full range of human emotions and so we must assume that Jesus laughed. The Gospel of Luke, speaking of the Garden experience, used the word agonia and says that Jesus’ tears fell on the ground as in drops of blood.
For successful living, adults require a wonderful blend of faith, courage and strength. We should not attempt to avoid every possible problem. Sometimes it is easier to address them face on rather than wishing that they would go away.
Back to Lent! This is a time to evaluate our efforts to develop in these necessary virtues. We need to deepen our awareness of our faith in the presence of Jesus, and we certainly need courage and strength to move forward. Good Friday is coming but beyond that is the Resurrection. Let us go forward.
March 16th, Second Sunday of Lent
The ashes either fell or were washed from our foreheads ten days ago. As we move farther along in this holy season, we must make every effort to hold on to what the ashes symbolized because it is that symbol which makes Lent both meaningful and necessary.
In a very short period of time, all of us will depart this planet. It is the role of the Church to constantly remind all of us to live life in preparation for that reality. Thinking of death is realistic but not dreary. We believe that our departure, regardless of the process involved, opens the door to an eternal life of joy.
Most people find that the first reading today is grim and evil, at least in its concept. To understand its meaning fully, we have to remember the culture being written about, as the author of the Book of Genesis is telling of Abraham’s complete and obedience. The culture, tragically enough, utilized the offering of other human beings, even children, to the deity being worshipped. Yahweh’s challenge to Abraham was a test of his faith and Abraham responded properly. He was totally obedient to God even though what he thought that he being ordered to do was the worst possible thing that could be demanded of him. Yahweh, however, knowing of Abraham’s awesome and complete faith, intervened and Isaac would live to carry on God’s saving plan for the human family.
If you switch over to today’s Gospel, you see a thinly veiled comparison between these two events. Abraham was committed to doing Yahweh’s bidding, even though he did not understand it. Jesus’ three close friends, Peter, James and John, knew something wonderful was coming but, at the time of their vision on top of the mountain, they did not understand it either. Jesus simply told them let’s go down and join the others, but don’t tell anybody about this. There is plenty of time for all of us to understand…and then after the Resurrection they would!………….You and I do understand!! God loves us. He has come to us. He has redeemed us and our response is to walk in the footsteps of the Risen Lord. At times it can be a challenge but the good use of Lent makes it much easier.
It started last Wednesday where those of us who went to Church on that day, were marked by and reminded that life on this planet is limited, very limited. Today’s readings go beyond symbols and confront us with profound ideas about reality, about our relationship with God and the reality of temptation and sin. In St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, he reminds us that sin entered into the human story at the very beginning where Adam turned away and severed the relationship with his loving Creator.
Sinfulness has marked the human story from the very beginning. It was a depressing story, except for a thin line of hope that, through the prophets, Yahweh had promised that a Savior would come. Just as through Adam’s sin we were all damaged, when that Savior arrived the damage would be undone, redemption would be achieved.
Today’s text frames Adam and Jesus together each producing awesome results – Adam’s sinfulness and Jesus’ redemption. The Church calls upon us to meditate on this reality and to embrace it. The Church encourages us to look at the fact that when divinity stepped into the human story and dealt with us through a very real human nature, that Jesus was one with us, not in sinfulness, but in experiencing temptations. Jesus goes into the desert to prepare for the beginning of his public life. Time after time, he is tempted to commit the sin of pride but he pushes temptation to do evil aside and confronts with the devil a steadfast commitment and faithfulness to Yahweh.
“You should do homage to your Lord, your God and him alone should you adore.”
The text says that when the devil left, the angels came and waited upon him. We are invited to do the same thing during the next six weeks.
Lent is here, let us utilize this spiritual gift.
In January, Pope Francis gave a detailed presentation on the role of the CDF when he spoke to the Congregation’s members. He supported their role in “promoting and protecting the doctrine of faith” but went on to warn the Congregation against the temptation “to domesticate” the faith and to reduce it to abstract theories.
Lately, a number of important bishops and cardinals have spoken out publicly in opposition to the way that CDF operated and that was unheard of until this new atmosphere in the Church generated by Pope Francis. Father Thomas Reese, S.J., the former editor of America magazine, summarized the situation very well when he said,
“Since the early times of the church, the temptation has existed to understand the doctrine in an ideological sense or to reduce it to an ensemble of abstract and crystalized theories (Evangeli Gaudium, 39-42). In reality, doctrine has the sole purpose of serving the life of the People of God, and it seeks to assure our faith of a sure foundation. Great, in fact, is the temptation to appropriate to ourselves the gifts of salvation that come from God, to domesticate them — perhaps even with a good intention — to the views and the spirit of the world. And this is a temptation that is constantly repeated.
Theirs is a “delicate task” that is always to be done in collaboration with local bishops and episcopal conferences. Pope Francis wants a kinder and gentler CDF that seeks always to have “a constructive dialogue, respectful and patient with authors,” he said. “If truth exacts fidelity, the latter grows always in charity and in fraternal help for those called to mature and clarify their convictions.” In other words, the congregation should be “distinguished for the practices of collegiality and dialogue.”
If the Congregation would operate in such a manner, it would be a wonderful change for the better. Let’s pray that Pope Francis can bring this off.