Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 12th
Once again, a reading from Acts of the Apostles gives us an opportunity to see something of great importance that was taking place in the early Church. Last week’s excerpts had two important points – that there was theological confusion from the very beginning and the apostles claimed guidance by the Holy Spirit in order to be able to maintain the purity of the teachings of Jesus.
Today is another first – martyrdom! The text tells the story of Stephen, one of the first deacons. Stephen has been effectively preaching the new joyous message of Jesus of Nazareth and needless to say, it stirs up strong resentment among those who had rejected Jesus. At this point, the sacred author has Stephen giving a long, very long, homily about the story of salvation history. Towards the end of it he points out that their ancestors had rejected the prophets and now they have rejected Jesus and they are making a big mistake. You can well imagine that the crowd was infuriated and, cheered on by the Sanhedrin, the crowd begins to execute Stephen by stoning him. Again, the sacred author makes Stephen very similar to the death of Jesus. His enemies bring forth false witnesses to accuse him of false crimes and as he begins to die he prays, “Lord do not hold this sin against them.” And with these words he “fell asleep.”
From the very beginning the Church saw martyrdom as a mysterious blending of one’s own death into the death of Jesus Christ and making that person one with Christ for all eternity.
An interesting sideline is that there was a man standing there that seemed to have some importance and we will see that later on but it was that Saul was there as a witness and approved of what was happening. A little farther along in Acts we will see that Saul is commissioned to travel up to Antioch and arrest any other followers of “the way” that he might find in that city. On the road he will find that he experiences a very interesting horseback ride.
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March 17th, Fifth Sunday of Lent
I just opened my lectionary and I can see very clearly that tomorrow is the fifth Sunday of Lent. I am also joyfully aware that March 17th is St. Patrick’s Day. This is a sad reality that surfaces every seven years because the Sundays of Lent are so important in the liturgical calendar that they block out the lesser feast days themselves. My comments come from the Mass of this Sunday rather than those of the Votive Mass of St. Patrick. I am sure that God will forgive me.
It is not a problem because the Gospel excerpt used for this Sunday is simply marvelous. It is clear, dramatic and our Lord drives a point home with tremendous power. You know it well but let’s take a quick look at it again.
It shows our Lord’s teaching in the courtyard of the temple and, as usual, there is a large crowd. Suddenly, there is excitement and people begin to jostle. We see then a number of strong men pushing and shoving a single woman through the crowd until they get in front of Jesus. They denounced her and ask for his view on whether or not she should be stoned to death because she had been caught in an adulterous act. Adultery requires two people! Where is the man? Try to visualize this dramatic scene. There is a lot of yelling going on and a crowd of men are demanding that Jesus agree to Mosaic law that a woman like this should be killed. They have already humiliated her tremendously and now they are pushing for her death.
Our Lord drops to his knees and then begins drawing in the sand. When they kept demanding a response, he really threw back one of the great stories of the Gospels. “Let the man among you who has no sin be the first to cast a stone at her.” Jesus then returned to his crouched position and waited to see what would happen. The crowd slinked away leaving no one there but Jesus and this poor abused woman. When the woman told Jesus that no one had accepted his challenge, that no one had condemned her, he merely said, “Nor do I condemn you. You may go but from here sin no more.”
From a Christian perspective, that is one of the greatest statements ever made. He knew that the woman had made mistakes but he was informing her that God instantly forgives true sorrow. She was being given another chance to live a better life.
As Lent approaches, be conscious that Jesus was speaking not only to the Jewish woman but to you and me as well. Let us remember that as we move towards Holy Week.
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Sunday, January 13th
All serious Christians believe that Sacred Scripture is inspired by God and that any part of it has a potential message or meaning that can be of spiritual help and value to us. That does not mean, however, that it is not always a challenge to study and apply in our individual lives. Today, the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord is a good example of that. St. Luke’s Gospel describes a dramatic and moving moment in the story of salvation. The players are all there. First, John the Baptist announcing the arrival of the Messiah and that salvation is at hand and then in quick succession we see manifestations of the Father, the Son and the Spirit.
The Sacred text tells us that Jesus leaves Gallilee up north and comes down south to where John is baptizing on the Jordan. John is baptizing his Jewish followers as a sign that they have turned away from sin and are going to follow the dictates of Yahweh. BUT JESUS IS FREE OF SIN. Why is he being baptized? This is a mystery even to John and he attempts to argue with the Lord. Jesus insists. At this moment in history, John’s baptism has meaning and value. It will not be until after the resurrection that the old law will be set aside and the time of the New Testament will have arrived. Jesus is merely telling John your symbolic baptism still has value and let’s utilize it to the extent that we can.
After Jesus’ baptism is complete, the Holy Spirit descends upon him in the form of a dove and a voice from heaven is heard to say, “You are my beloved Son. On you my favor rests.” The Trinity. This awesome mystery about the inner life of God is put in place before us and once again we are challenged to place our faith in what God has revealed to us about himself. We don’t understand it. The mind cannot grasp it but we are wise enough to know that when God is conveying something about his inner nature we would do well to follow his direction and accept it.
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Sometime back I touched on the subject of forgiveness. It seemed a very ordinary topic to me because it is a need and a quality that all of us should both receive and dispense. I must admit that I was surprised at the response from viewers. Many people thanked me in person, on the phone and in writing. For that reason, I thought that I would go just a little further on the subject.
Because we are weak and frail human beings, because we have rough edges that consciously or unconsciously inflict pain and hurt into the lives of those around us, there is a never-ending need to be forgiven and the corresponding response is that there is a constant need to be open to receiving that forgiveness. Why is it so difficult for some people?
Forgiveness brings freedom. Forgiveness takes a load off our backs and enables us to relax and be at home and one with the person we have forgiven or who has forgiven us. Who has not experienced a bitter personal conflict with someone close to us and then a moment comes when one or the other is prepared to put it behind. They embrace, they laugh, they may cry but it is over. That is a wonderful sentence. IT IS OVER!
I realize that in some situations it is more difficult to bring forth forgiveness. Some people seem to be intentionally mean, others routinely selfish, etc., etc. However, these weaknesses cause the bearer much more pain and suffering than those who are hurt by their unkindly acts. If we would think about that, we need to generate sorrow in our hearts for these people who have hurt us because they are hurting too whether they realize it or not. In fact, it is their pain that is causing the meanness and the nasty temperament. What goes around comes around.
I want to say again that if we can all really concentrate on the fact that we are called to bring joy and happiness and not pain into the lives of those around us, our families, our neighborhoods, and this whole planet would be better off.
Onward through the fog.
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We all remember that on the night before His passion, Jesus prayed to His heavenly Father that His followers would be united. That they would be one with Him, and through Him, would be united to the Father.
That has always been the goal of Christianity, but it is a goal not yet achieved.
Recently, I have been stressing the major theological truths underlying basic Christianity. They are more complex than can be possibly described in a few paragraphs, but never the less, I tried. My points were:
God Himself, the Creator of all that is.
Humanity, endowed with an immortal soul
Sin- the abuse of the gift of freedom
And finally, Jesus, and redemption.
While we regret existing disunity in the followers of Jesus, we should take some very real consolation in the fact that virtually all Christians hold to these same truths. Where, then, is the difference? That difference is to be found in the unfolding story of Jesus and His redemptive acts. Those differences flow from the way the followers of Jesus have tried to live out their lives and their faith in keeping with His teachings. Those differences have developed within the Christian story, and have rent the unity of the followers of Jesus.
Tomorrow we will look at the two major divisions among the followers of Jesus. Stay tuned.
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I’m going to be talking about the Sacrament of Penance for several days, but I think first and foremost, we have to understand what we mean when we use that simple three letter word called SIN. Most of us throw it around constantly, often jokingly. “A second piece of pie would be sinful!” But the question of SIN involves profound spiritual reality. One is incapable of committing a sin unless he or she uses both of those awesome faculties of the soul in a manner that is at variance with what God expects of us. The first faculty is the intellect, the power by which we KNOW. The second is the WILL- the power which enables us to decide. Both of these faculties must be in play for a sin to be committed.
We must KNOW that something is wrong. We cannot commit a sin “accidentally”. We must freely CHOOSE the evil that is before us. Without that freedom, something terrible may happen, but it would not be sinful. A third component of sinfulness is the matter itself, which can vary from genicide to uncharitable gossip. In other words, the potential for human evil is as wide as the human experience itself.
Let me repeat: You cannot commit a sin unless you know that the issue before us is wrong, and that you freely choose to do it. Without these criteria, there are mistakes, tragedies, mishaps, etc. but not sinfulness.
If a small child slips out of sight and falls into a swimming pool and drowns, this is a tragedy, yes, but not a sin. Frequent daily prayer is a good thing, but many people CONFESS that they missed morning or evening prayers. There is no obligation to pray at a certain time. This is not a sin. But should we PRAY? You betcha!
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One of the great strengths of the Catholic priesthood is the trust that is placed in them by the thousands and thousands of penitents who, when confessing in the context of the Sacrament of Penance, bear their souls regarding what they perceive as sins. No one would ever dare ask me about the specific confession of an individual, but I have been asked on occasion how I see human sinfulness after 55 years of listening to very, very human confessions.
My answer frequently shocks the questioner, because quite frankly, the vast majority of us commit very few really serious sins, and we misconstrue our imperfections as actually being sins. A SIN is a transgression against God’s law. While there is enough of that to go around, most people are too hard on themselves. Grave and terrible sins are to be found among us, but happily, murderers and rapists are in short supply.
As we move through life, we find ourselves in different chapters, and each of these chapters presents its own rewards and dangers. In view of that, manifestations of human weakness vary with the age and circumstances of the penitant. More on that tomorrow.
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Today is Wednesday of Holy Week. But in the past, and even today in the Eastern Churches, this day is called “Spy Wednesday” because the Gospel utilizes St. Matthew’s Gospel to spotlight the betrayal of one of the twelve – Judas Iscariot. We all know so well the story of Judas, how he goes to the enemies of Jesus and cuts a deal for a mere thirty pieces of silver. Think about it; the crime of crimes and the betrayal of all betrayals. The human nature of the second person of the blessed Trinity is sold for a pittance of silver coins.
Sometimes when describing events in the life of our Lord, and especially with certain individuals who are portrayed as having failed him in this way or that, I say that in some limited sense they are examples of ourselves and our own failures. I don’t want to push this too far with Judas. Sinfulness abounds, moral mistakes, even catastrophes, are all around us but most of us when we fail, when we turn away from God, we do not do it with absolute malice.
Rather than thinking too much about the terrible failure of Judas on this particular day, let’s look ahead three days to the glorious reality of the Resurrection and that despite all of our weaknesses and failures we are a redeemed people.
Onward to the Resurrection.
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Can you celebrate Holy Week without going to the Sacrament of Penance? Not when I was a kid. Until the second Vatican Council, most adult Catholics would make every effort to receive the sacrament of penance, usually on one of the last three days of this week. They would come by the thousands, and they would leave with a great sense of relief, feeling they were properly prepared to receive Communion on that day of days, Easter Sunday morning.
To me, it was a beautiful scene, as by the tens of thousands, we knelt before another weak human being, and confessed our own failings. We rose up, however, with calm confidence that whatever it was that we brought to the Sacrament of Reconciliation was now behind us, and a new beginning had been found.
Today the Sacrament of Penance, “Confession”, continues to be very important in the life of the Church, but it is used less frequently. This is not all bad. In the Church of my childhood, Confession was frequently superficial, repetitious, and lacking a determined effort at reform. Today, I find adult penitents far more thoughtful, more serious, and committed than was true prior to the Council.
It would be good if you could celebrate Reconciliation this week, but even if you do not, let the glorious thought of God’s infinite, personal love for you overwhelm you as you celebrate the Resurrection.
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First Sunday of Lent, March 13th
Today we begin that wonderful six weeks challenge that the Church places before us every year in early spring, six weeks in which we are to pray, read, meditate and possibly discipline ourselves with some efforts at better self-control as we prepare for the great feast of the Resurrection, as we prepare to celebrate our redemption.
Today’s Gospel fits us perfectly because it describes Jesus going into the desert for 40 days as a preparation for the beginning of his public life, but I would rather that we take a look at the first reading, which is from the second chapter of the first book of the Bible, Genesis. It presents us with a story that we all know so well, the story of Adam and Eve, the story of the serpent, the story of temptation and failure. While this describes the early events in the human story, the book itself is really quite new, probably only written a few centuries before the birth of Jesus. Struggling as they were with their journey towards the promise land, God’s people saw sin and corruption everywhere – sin outside the borders of Judaism and sin within the family of the Israelites. It was a great question. Why is there so much evil? The Catholic position is that God inspired a sacred author to write the book of Genesis in which he presents not a historical documentation, but rather a poetic drama of clash between good and evil, between obedience and rebellion, between the gift of grace and the fall from grace.
This early rebellion, which we entitle Original Sin, occurred at the dawn of human history but each one of us is marked by it to this day and each one of us feels the reality of sinfulness, rebellion and a lack of discipline. Thus, we have Lent.
Let us begin this holy season by admitting to the frailty of our nature, admitting the inadequacy in our response to God’s love and endeavor to make use of these six weeks as though we were athletes in training for an all-important contest. And we are!
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