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The Baptism of the Lord

January 12, 2020

Spirit and Fire

Gospel: Matthew 3:13-17

A comparison of the different accounts of Jesus’ baptism in the four Gospels reveals the development of early Christian faith and understanding of the significance of this event in the salvific mission of Jesus. In Mark, the earliest and simplest account, Jesus goes to John, is baptized by him, and at that point receives the Spirit of his mission (Mk 1:9-11).

Matthew’s Gospel was written with a sharp eye toward discovering the roots of Jesus’ messiahship in the Hebrew Scriptures. Mt 3:1-12 presents John the Baptist as the new Elijah who was expected to come before “the day of the Lord” (see Mal 3). John’s garments and life-style recall what was remembered about Elijah’s (see 2 Kgs 1:8). The dialog of vv 14-15 (John tried to prevent him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” Jesus said to him in reply, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed him.) is Matthew’s unique contribution to the baptism account. In the same breath it emphasizes the superiority of Jesus over John (and over the whole Jewish order) and shows Jesus’ concern to respect and fulfill the Jewish law and practice.

By comparison, Luke’s story, written for Christians of non-Jewish origins, plays down the role of John in the baptism itself in order to emphasize the coming of the Spirit and the prayer of Jesus (Lk 3:15-22). The Gospel of John (1:29-34), focusing on the divine origins of Jesus rather than on his human or Jewish roots, alludes to Jesus’ baptism by John, but avoids explicit mention of it.

First Reading: Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7

The Spirit of Jesus’ ministry, which the Gospels associate with Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, fulfills the role of the Spirit-filled servant in Isaiah. The people of Israel saw a reflection of their own mission to the world in this portrayal of the chosen servant, but we must see this image as a pale foreshadowing of the mission of Christ — and of the continuation of his body, the Church.

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 29:1-2, 3-4, 9-10

This psalm meditates upon the power and glory of the Lord in the awesome natural forces of a violent storm. Response: “The Lord will bless his people with peace.”

Second Reading: Acts of the Apostles 10:34-38

Peter’s teaching to Cornelius and his family revolves around two main points: (1) progress from knowledge of Jesus to faith in him as the Anointed One (= Christ = Messiah); and (2) the portrayal of Jesus’ Spirit and his resurrection as the pattern for the Christian’s own possession of the Spirit and final resurrection.

Questions for thought, discussion, and prayer:

1. What do the symbolic elements of water, wind (or breath), and fire say to you?

2. Discuss the similarities between the working of the Spirit in Jesus’ life as recorded in the Gospels, and in your own life.

Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

October 14, 2018


Gospel: Mark 10:17-30

This long and complicated passage poses many problems of interpretation, of which we can only touch the surface here for a small entry into understanding. Jesus is seen as surpassing the legalism of the current interpretation of the Jewish law, just as he did in the view of marriage presented in last week’s reading (Mk 10:2-11), and at length in Mt 5:17-48. True life does not come from mere obedience to the law, but from abandonment of the heart to God. In fact, trying to earn points in God’s eyes by legalistic scruples can be an excuse to cover up a lack of faith rather than a manifestation of genuine faith. Riches and possessions can erect a serious obstacles to this abandonment, but not an insurmountable one. The true willingness to place God first, and even to have that attitude tested by deprivation, is the first requirement for entry into the kingdom. Whatever the “eye of the needle” may be, it is small — and one cannot pass through carrying the baggage of egotism, pride, and worldly attachments. The question “what to do” to enter the kingdom has to be changed to “what to be”: Jesus’ disciple with no conflicting interests.

To say that those who have wealth must simply become materially poor risks falling into another sort of legalism. Wealth must be used responsibly, for the benefit of those truly in need, and this could not be done by mindless abandonments. Seeing wealth only in terms of profit and self-aggrandizement is anti-kingdom and damnable. But seeing wealth as an opportunity for advancing the common good in Christ advances the kingdom at the same time. (But, let’s face it, the “more for me” temptation grows stronger even for the best of us as the dollars multiply!)

First Reading: Wisdom 7:7-11

Although written nearly a thousand years after the death of Solomon, the book of Wisdom is put into his mouth to give it authority. Solomon’s own request for wisdom centered more on the political savvy to keep his people in order than on the discernment of God’s will for its own sake (see 1 Kgs 3:7-9), but the wisdom envisioned here is contentment with union with God’s plan manifested in right judgment and correct moral action.

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 90:12-13, 14-15, 16-17

This comparison between God’s infinity and human limitations puts us properly in our place: our destiny is fulfilled only when we are united to God’s will. Response: “Fill us with your love, O Lord, and we will sing for joy.”

Second Reading: Hebrews 4:12-13

God’s self-revealing word is one, manifesting the fullness of his presence. This word is a threat to those who are not open in faith, but at the same time is a promise of life to faithful hearers. This word is effective — it accomplishes what it says. Those who hate God flee from it into self-destruction; those who love God come and are nourished. His word is a standard by which our own stature is measured.

Questions for thought, discussion, and prayer:

1. Discuss the responsible use of wealth today in accord with the Gospel.

2. What is wisdom, and how do you grow in it?

Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

October 7, 2018


Gospel: Mark 10:2-16

Jesus’ teaching on marriage confronts his followers with a bold challenge to reverse their thinking from what would seem reasonable and convenient to a realization of the cross in their lives. However, this teaching invites acceptance of the cross freely more than it allows outside authority to impose the cross. It must not be interpreted in a judgmental way so as to add to the burdens of someone who may be already innocently suffering a traumatic breakup of marriage. It is all too easy to impose rigid answers to problems that we ourselves do not have to face!

First of all, Jesus affirms the basic oneness of the married couple, which no human agency, not even the law of Moses (see Dt 24:1), has the right to interfere with. This is of nature, inherent in the way things are, rather than anybody’s rule or interpretation. Therefore it is absolute and unchangeable in principle. In practice, this ideal must primarily be seen as an obligation incumbent on both partners in a marriage — a call to both to live in fidelity even in the face of any difficulty. The infidelity of one partner does not automatically absolve the other of all responsibility for the marriage. Yet, maintaining this ideal in all its strength, Jesus gives no one any cause to judge or condemn another person in an unfortunate marital situation, nor any reason to hinder a Christian from seeking a stable and permanent marriage union after the breakup of a bad marriage, particularly if the first marriage never exhibited the qualities that must characterize genuine marital commitment. The ideal is absolute and cannot be set aside, compromised, or reinterpreted. Yet, in practice, the Church does seek a place for the discernment of individual needs and problems.

The deeper level on which Jesus is speaking adds further weight to the obligation of marital fidelity. He is teaching about God’s kingdom here, and he emphasizes that the faithful married state is a strong and privileged manifestation of God’s plan and a sign of the restoration of creation in Christ. In this light, divorce is not only an injustice to the abandoned partner, but to God himself. Just as childlike simplicity and acceptance is the prime requirement for entry into the kingdom (vv 13-16), so the same trusting mutual acceptance and fidelity are necessary for the successful marriage, which then becomes a sign of the kingdom’s presence.

First Reading: Genesis 2:18-24

The account of the creation of woman in Gn 2 stems from a definite “man’s world” view (in contrast to the equality of the simple statement of creation in Gn 1:27). Yet, in an age in which women were often seen as mere possessions to be used and disposed of at will, the equality of man and woman here expressed was revolutionary. Although a certain dependence and subordination is envisioned here — and this is corrected to a certain extent in other scriptural teachings — woman is truly seen as man’s “other self,” not an inferior by any means.

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 128:1-2, 3, 4-5, 6

This psalm extols fruitful and prosperous family life as the blessing of a life of fidelity to God. Response: “May the Lord bless us all the days of our lives.”

Second Reading: Hebrews 2:9-11

The letter to the Hebrews is very different in style and approach from any of the writings of Paul, and appears to have been a lengthy sermon or instruction rather than a letter sent to a particular community or person. It is basically a commentary on the Jewish Scriptures in the light of the person and role of Jesus Christ in God’s plan of salvation. The opening section, vv 1-6, reminiscent of the opening of John’s Gospel in its exalted vision of Christ as the eternal Son of God, is read at the Mass of the Day on Christmas.

After affirming the divinity of Christ and his position as superior to all forms of creation, the author of this letter explores the significance of Jesus’ solidarity with humanity — he calls us brothers and sisters, and became subject to the laws of nature with us, including death. In his becoming one with us, we truly become one with him in his overcoming the limitations of nature and his being made “perfect through suffering.”

Questions for thought, discussion, and prayer:

1. How is Christian marriage a sign of God’s kingdom?

2. How is the creation of man and woman, as described in Genesis, brought to perfection in Christ, as described in Hebrews?

Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

September 30, 2018


Gospel: Mark 9:38-48

This passage contains various teachings of Jesus loosely connected by the theme of “little ones” and their relationship to the kingdom. First come commands about behavior (vv 38-42). Jesus’ followers must show leniency toward good, and promote good wherever they find it. Just because we have the assurance that God does work in and through our own Church, both as community and as institution, we are not justified in restricting his activity to there alone. God is always bigger than whatever we make of him. Our attitude toward those who are weaker or who differ from us must be to build up faith, not to tear down (scandalize), to seek unity and solidarity, not to set up barriers.

V 40 and its parallel Lk 9:50 seems to contradict a stern warning of Jesus in Mt 12:30 and Lk 11:23: “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters.” However, the context of both statements makes it clear that Jesus is speaking about two distinct attitudes. First, his disciples must accept true good wherever they find it — the work of the kingdom of God is always from God, even if it arrives through surprising quarters. Secondly, the disciples themselves have to decide to be firmly with Christ — they cannot be half-hearted or compromising in their commitment.

The following of Christ demands strict self-discipline in overcoming obstacles to the unity and harmony of the kingdom (vv 43-48). These words are not to be understood in a closed individualistic sense, as if one’s own personal salvation were all that mattered. No one is ever part of God’s kingdom alone. The hand that oppresses the other person, the foot that steps on or walks away from the other, the eye that sees the other only as an object of self-gratification — all are obstacles that must be rooted out. We can only enter the kingdom fully aware of our weaknesses and handicaps, in need of support as well as giving support. Refusal to admit dependence on others, and ultimately on the Other, is itself hell.

First Reading: Numbers 11:25-29

The book of Numbers presents both law and history with a definite emphasis on the legitimacy and authority of the religious and civil institutions of Israel. This incident is therefore curious and significant in that it presents a case in which Spirit-filled charisms outside the established structure are recognized as legitimate. It is very tempting to go from recognizing and affirming the Spirit’s activity within the Church or one’s own group or personal life, to restricting him to a particular institution or sphere — to try to make the Spirit the possession of a certain group and to exclude all others from his action.

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 19:8, 10, 12-13, 14

The more we realize and accept God’s dominion, and strive to keep his law, the more we know that we cannot grasp it or understand it fully. Response: “The precepts of the Lord give joy to the heart.”

Second Reading: James 5:1-6

Then, as now, the wealthy of the world stood on the backs of poor, having acquired their surfeit of goods and power at the expense of those who must labor, whether in their own country or in “underdeveloped nations.” Although the actual possession of wealth itself is not wrong, acquiring it by dubious means or using it solely for one’s own further power or profit rather than the common good is a deadly obstacle to God’s kingdom and deserves the strong language of James’ condemnation.

The following verses, 7-10, which counsel patience as one of the most important virtues for Christian community life, are read on the Third Sunday of Advent, Year A. Vv 14-16 are traditionally seen as alluding to the sacrament of anointing of the sick, but are more pertinent for us in affirming the healing power of solidarity in love, prayer, and mutual forgiveness.

Questions for thought, discussion, and prayer:

1. What is the purpose of self-denial and discipline?

2. Discuss criteria by which the Spirit’s activity and gifts may be discerned.

Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

September 23, 2018


Gospel: Mark 9:30-37

In the synoptic Gospels, the transfiguration (9:2-10) comes between the first and second prediction of the passion; in the liturgical year, these selections are read on the Second Sunday of Lent each year. For apparently no reason whatsoever, the dramatic account of the cure of the possessed boy, with its strong challenge to the faith of Jesus’ followers, has been omitted altogether from the Sunday readings, even though it is found in parallel accounts in all three synoptic Gospels (vv 14-29; see also Mt 17:14-21 and Lk 9:37-43).

Each time Jesus speaks of his cross (see also Mk 8:31-9:1; 10:32-45), he also emphasizes the call of his disciples to share in his cross. Here he speaks of this sharing in terms of service and humility (vv 33-37). Most cultures in Jesus’ time, including the Jews, had a rather ambivalent attitude toward children. They were seen less as individuals in their own right than as extensions of the family and, perhaps, potential adults. We may find this hard to understand, but their mentality was conditioned by an economic condition of family enterprise that required many helping hands, as well as a high infant mortality rate. It was simply expected that many children would die and therefore families had to be large in hopes that some would survive to be productive and carry on the family name. In some languages, including Aramaic, the word for child was the same as for slave!

Jesus here is saying not only that children — and therefore all despised and lowly people — must be valued as persons in their own right, but also that his followers must become like them, not merely look down upon them kindly from a superior position. This likeness includes both service and simplicity. A servant exists for no other purpose than to serve. A child who is deprived and despised will be appreciative of everything in open simplicity. (At least ideally it seems like that should be true. Modern psychology would rightly dispute that assertion.) These are the models for entry into the kingdom.

Jesus’ way of teaching about his passion is saturated with references to the prophetic servants of the Jewish Scriptures that must have struck a responsive chord in his hearers. “Son of Man,” used so often in Mark, recalls the mysterious figure of Dn 7:13-14. “To be delivered” recalls the handing over of the lamb in Is 53:7, identifying Jesus with the suffering servant. “Into the hands of men” is from Jer 26:24, and associates Jesus with the persecuted prophet. Rejection echoes the stone rejected by the builders in Psalm 118:22, and alludes to Is 53:4 as well.

First Reading: Wisdom 2:12, 17-20

Since the book of Wisdom was written only about a hundred years before the time of Jesus by a Jewish writer in Alexandria, Egypt, it is unlikely that Jesus and his disciples were acquainted with it. Nevertheless, the reflections in this passage on the plight of the persecuted Alexandrian Jewish community correspond remarkably to the situation Jesus faced. We can see here an insight into the mentality of those who rejected Jesus. In their own arrogant self-righteousness, they misunderstood his claim to be the Son of God as a pretense of superiority rather than a pledge of love and service, and so they felt threatened and sought to remove this threat. As with Jesus, so with his followers.

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 54:3-4, 5, 6-8

This psalm, attributed to David when being pursued by Saul, is a declaration of confidence in God’s care and power. Response: “The Lord upholds my life.”

Second Reading: James 3:16-4:3

James and Paul take different approaches to the same thing, and so provide a balanced view. Paul’s writings concentrate on faith, and see behavior as the result of faith (or its lack). James concentrates on behavior as the sign and test of faith. The existence of conflict and jealousy within a community is a sure sign that natural desires and competition have the upper hand, even if the members claim to have faith. If true peace and gentleness characterize the life of a community, it is a sure sign that faith and God’s wisdom must be there.

In the light of the common good, it becomes clear why James argues for restraint and order in the use of spiritual gifts, especially those involving speech, at the beginning of chapter 3. What possesses great power for good is all the more capable of being used for self-centered good, and therefore distorted into a force destructive of community.

Questions for thought, discussion, and prayer:

1. Who are the “little ones” (see also Mt 18:2-4, 10) in today’s society that might correspond to Jesus’ command in the Gospel?

2. What questions does the passage from James raise about your own life as a Christian, or your family’s life, or your parish’s?