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Second Sunday of Lent

February 25, 2018
SECOND SUNDAY OF LENT, Year B  (Scripture Readings)

“LISTEN TO HIM”

Gospel: Mark 9:2-10

This event shows several striking similarities to the baptism of Jesus (Mk 1:9-11). In the one, Jesus is immersed in water as a sign of his solidarity with sinful humanity; in the other, he is enveloped in glory as a sign of his divinity. In both, a voice speaks from the heavens proclaiming Jesus as God’s Son. In the transfiguration comes the added command, “Listen to him.” In all the Gospels, the baptism marks the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, while the transfiguration marks the beginning of the disciples’ awareness of the true nature of his mission. Note that the transfiguration is presented in very close connection with Jesus’ teaching about his death and resurrection (see Mk 8:27-28; 9:9-13, 30-32).

Elijah features in the narrative because the suffering and death of John the Baptist (the new Elijah) foreshadowed that of Jesus (9:9-13). Moses, in leading the chosen people out of slavery, through the sea, into the freedom of the promised land, prefigured the suffering-death-resurrection passage of Jesus, which his followers must also share (8:34-38).

The six days, the mountain and cloud, and the booths or tents are all a clear reference to the yearly Jewish feast of tabernacles, which celebrated the anticipation of the Messiah and his enthronement. In his transfiguration, Jesus proclaims that he is the awaited Messiah, but that his glory would be fulfilled through suffering.

First Reading: Genesis 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18

This story of the sacrifice of Isaac displays many levels of meaning as a part of the Jewish scriptural tradition. It consecrates the mount of the temple (Moriah) as a place fitting for sacrifice. It condemns the practice of infant sacrifice, which was prevalent in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E., by demonstrating a substitute sacrifice to redeem the first-born, who belong to God. Moreover, it emphasizes that true sacrifice lies in faith and obedience rather than in actual slaughter. Finally, it demonstrates that the fulfillment of God’s promise of descendants to Abraham does not depend on physical procreation through Isaac alone, but on the power of God. This event looks forward to the death and resurrection of Jesus, in which the giving up of life into God’s hands brings forth new life in abundance.

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 116:10, 15, 16-17, 18-19

This psalm is the prayer of thanksgiving of one who was faithful to God even in the midst of darkness and affliction. Response: “I will walk in the presence of the Lord, in the land of the living” (v 9).

Second Reading: Romans 8:31-34

At the heart of faith is the confidence that, if God wills to save us, he does not will to accuse and condemn us. His saving will is shown in his raising Jesus up to be our savior, not merely by his death, but by his continued presence with the Father, commending us to his love and mercy.

Questions for thought, discussion, and prayer:

1. How do you understand the idea of suffering and death in relation to glory?

2. What is the meaning of sacrifice in your life?

First Sunday of Lent

February 18, 2018
FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT, Year B (Scripture Readings)

(For Ash Wednesday Readings, scroll down or click here.)

THE TIME OF FULFILLMENT

Gospel: Mark 1:12-15

Mark’s is the Gospel that begins to consider Jesus as the Messiah with the baptism in the Jordan (1:1-11). Being the first Gospel set to writing, it reflects the earliest preaching of the Apostles, which was concerned only with Jesus’ ministry, not his pre-history (see Acts 10:38). Later Gospels searched for his roots in earlier events. The baptism is a sign of Jesus’ full immersion into the human condition (v 9), and he emerges as the open channel between God and humanity, signified by the image of the parting heavens (vv 10-11).

The temptation in the desert (vv 12-13), covered very briefly in Mark (see the fuller accounts, showing later developments, in Mt 4:1-11 and Lk 4:1-13 — they are commented upon in the First Sunday of Lent, Years A nd C), forms the pivot between the baptism and the beginning of his ministry. Aware of his power as Messiah, being fully divine as well as human, the very human temptations to misuse or shortcut his mission would provide the material for a major struggle. Would he fully accept the human condition — and thus allow God to become fully one with us — or would he use God’s power for selfish ends: to satisfy purely material needs, to evade death, or to attract a huge following? Our salvation hangs upon his freely willed fidelity as man to the Word-of-God-made-flesh that he is. He emerges from the struggle victorious in new strength, proclaiming the coming of the kingdom — the new and full relationship between God and humankind — and its requirements: a change of heart and faith (vv 14-15).

First Reading: Genesis 9:8-15

Christian tradition has always seen the flood as an image of the “waters of baptism that make an end of sin and a new beginning of goodness” (Rite of Baptism, Blessing of the Water). Both aspects of destruction and new life are conveyed in the flood story. As sin is destroyed, so new life comes forth, borne up on the same water. The flood is not simply a chance event or the amusement of a capricious god; it is the result of humanity’s sinfulness. But in the midst of this catastrophe, the saving will of God is at work, and the basic goodness of creation and of humankind is reaffirmed in the covenant God makes with Noah.

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 25:4-5, 6-7, 8-9

Of all God’s works, the greatest are forgiveness and mercy, for in this way he brings his creation to fulfillment. Response: “Your ways, O Lord, are love and truth, to those who keep your covenant.”

Second Reading: 1 Peter 3:18-22

Most commentators consider 1 Peter an early baptismal instruction in which the Christian life is described for new converts as to its meaning and obligations. This passage quotes a simple formula of faith in Christ: “Jesus died to flesh and rose to the spirit (v 18); he descended to the realm of the dead (v 19), and went to heaven at God’s right hand in power (v 22).” The author adds a footnote comparing the baptism that the new Christians now experience with the flood of Noah’s time (vv 20-21). The descent into hell (= the realm of the dead) seems to signify Christ’s lordship over all creation without exception — even the underworld — and allows the good news of salvation to be proclaimed to those who had gone before.

Questions for thought, discussion, and prayer:

1. Lent originated as the time of preparation for the celebration of baptism, and the restored Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults has brought this significance back into the forefront of the Church’s celebration of this season. How can this influence your understanding and practice of Lent now?

2. Discuss the role of temptation in the Christian life. What is it, and what purpose does it serve?


February 14, 2018

ASH WEDNESDAY — Years A, B, and C (Scripture Readings)

“REND YOUR HEARTS NOT YOUR GARMENTS”

Gospel: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

The readings of Ash Wednesday establish the theme of Lenten penance — a call to interior conversion. The Gospel passage is from the sermon on the mount where Jesus reveals the basic ethic of his kingdom. His concern is to bring observance of the law from a mere external act into the inner realm of intention. Jesus’ new commandments here are nothing more than an interiorization of the old. Almsgiving (works of charity), praying, and fasting are the three fundamental practices of any religious life, and they must spring from the heart and go hand in hand with each other. Almsgiving without prayer and fasting lacks a spiritual dimension. Prayer without fasting and charity is an exercise in self-expression, navel-gazing, or wishful thinking. Fasting without charity and prayer becomes self-centered physical conditioning.

First Reading: Joel 2:12-18

Almsgiving, prayer, and fasting are not purely individual religious matters. “Me and God” exercises quickly become egocentric. Our relationship with God is always mediated through the community, and anything that has to do with that relationship cannot escape being part of our relationship with our brothers and sisters. As a people, we do charity, we pray, and we fast together (vv 15-16). What we do in private, as the Gospel counsels, must serve to nourish our community activity as well as personalize it.

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 51:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 14, 17

The verses chosen from this great psalm of David’s repentance emphasize the spirit of inner conversion as not only emptying oneself of sin but filling one with joy. Response: “Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.”

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2

The conversion-journey of catechumens preparing for Easter initiation gives a foundation and motivation for the Lenten practice of the rest of the community. It is up to the already formed Christian community to accompany them on their journey, to welcome them, to give them an example of reconciliation (5:20-21), and to share a sense of urgency in responding to God’s call (6:2).

Questions for thought, discussion, and prayer:

1. What sort of “Lenten penance” could both follow Jesus’ command of secrecy and still benefit the whole Christian community?

2. What is the significance of ashes in expressing conversion?

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

February 11, 2018
SIXTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME — Year B (Scripture Readings)

“BE CURED!”

Gospel: Mark 1:40-45

Leprosy, as found in the Bible, is a generic term for a variety of skin diseases; it did not refer only to what we now call leprosy, or Hansen’s disease. Lv 13-14 describes various forms of skin disease, and prescribes the precautions of isolation outside the city for those afflicted, and examination by the priests to verify healing. Thus leprosy and its consequences signified uncleanness and alienation from society, and therefore became a symbol of sin and condemnation. The Hebrew mentality made little distinction between physical and moral evil, seeing them both in terms of sin and God’s disfavor.

In these early miracles, Jesus appears to act quite spontaneously, motivated by compassion alone. Later (2:5) he associates healing with forgiveness, and still later, with faith (5:34, 36). Now, at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus emphasizes that his human love for others is the channel of God’s love for them. He is also anxious that the man not omit the legal investigation, and so he also seeks official recognition of his power as Messiah (v 44). At the same time, he tries to avoid the misunderstanding that premature popular acclaim would bring. Of course, just the opposite happens: word of his wonders spreads, and crowds gather — often out of curiosity and self-seeking — and the officials of the established religion remain unconvinced, begin to be threatened by his presence, and eventually reject him totally.

First Reading: Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46

These four verses fail to do justice to the complexity of the Levitical law on skin diseases. Lv 13-14 gives detailed procedures for the evaluation and quarantine of those so afflicted, but shows little concern for suffering or interest in healing. The laws must naturally look to the common good —protecting society from infection — rather than the welfare of the individual. The priest was not intended to be a physician but a judge. Undoubtedly there were also various forms of medicinal remedies, but it was not the purpose of a book of laws to discuss them.

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 32:1-2, 5, 11

This psalm speaks of sin (especially David’s sin, 2 Sm 11-12) in terms very similar to those used in describing leprosy. Response: “I turn to you, Lord, in time of trouble, and you will fill me with the joy of salvation.”

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1

Read all of chapters 10 and 11, for these few verses cannot be understood properly apart from their context. 10:1-13 is an introduction. 10:16-17 gives the key teaching: the eucharist is the one body of Christ so that we may become one with the body of Christ. 11:2-16 is a sort of footnote, and does not carry the same weight as 11:17-34 which tells how to put the key teaching of 10:16-17 into practice.

If we are united to Christ, we form an organic unity — one body — with all who share the eucharist. In addition to being a sign and source of our unity as Church (= the community that believes and worships together), the eucharist also calls all humankind to this unity. Therefore we must celebrate the eucharist so that our unity in Christ’s love is evident. If we truly celebrate the unity we profess, then we must also live what we celebrate. God’s glory (v 31) is that all humanity be united together in Christ. The faith-filled life of a true disciple is a source of inspiration and example to all (vv 33-34).

Questions for thought, discussion, and prayer:

1. What is healing? In what ways do we need to be healed? How does the eucharist have to power to heal us — and all humanity? Why do we observe so little effect of it?

2. What are the positive values of laws, as well as their limitations, in relation to balancing the welfare of a society with the good of individuals?

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B)

February 4, 2018
FIFTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME — Year B (Scripture Readings)

“WE MUST MOVE ON . . .”

Gospel: Mark 1:29-39

The expulsion of the demon in last week’s Gospel reading demonstrates the power of Jesus’ word: his teaching drives out the demon of unbelief. On the other hand, the cure of Simon’s mother-in-law (vv 29-31) focuses on the compassion of Jesus. It was a Sabbath (v 21), and so people would not be able to journey very far until after sunset (see Acts 1:12 — about 3000 feet). The whole town heard about Jesus, and gathered in front of Simon’s home.

Imagine yourself a part of the crowd, and it is very easy to see why Jesus commanded the demons to silence (v 34, see also vv 44-45): his mission was to go about announcing the establishment of God’s kingdom, but you would prefer that he stay in your town and become the village doctor! Miracles loudly broadcasted often become ends in themselves rather than signs of something deeper. Thus Jesus counters the enthusiasm of his disciples at his success (v 37) with a rather stern and urgent declaration that they cannot stay in one place (vv 38-39).

Jesus’ prayer — a totally absorbing communication with his Father (v 35) — is seen to be the source of his power: as the enfleshed Word of God Jesus accomplishes his work. Note the connection between preaching and doing in v 39.

First Reading: Job 7:1-4, 6-7

The book of Job is a long dramatic poem in which worldly wisdom struggles with the wisdom of God on the battlefield of suffering and deprivation. In this passage, Job reflects on his condition — and the entire human condition as well — in sad and hopeless terms. An awareness of the inevitable passing of time, in which good moments pass quickly, and labor and pain continue, opens the door either to empty despair or to deepened trust in God.

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 147:1-2, 3-4, 5-6

This psalm is the prayer of the Israelite nation upon return from exile. The same wisdom that made the universe now heals our wounds and restores our hearts. Response: “Praise the Lord who heals the brokenhearted.”

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 9:16-19, 22-23

Every treasure exacts its price. The cost of true discipleship of Christ is to proclaim the Gospel in word and in life in spite of the difficult and terrifying obstacles one encounters. An awareness of being freely gifted by God’s word cannot fail to lead to a compulsion to share this great gift with others (v 16). To refuse or neglect ministry of the Gospel means to lose it, for that involves a denial of what we are. Yet proclaiming the Gospel does not depend on human words or our own abilities. It demands only that we be fully what we are in Christ, and live accordingly wherever we are and whatever we do (v 22).

The original question of chapter 9 concerns Paul’s position and rights as an apostle. Apparently he did not demand certain rights or privileges that they expected of apostles, such as being supported by the community, and they thought less of him for it. Paul emphasizes that it is true freedom to be able to give up your claim to rights for a higher ideal.

Questions for thought, discussion, and prayer:

1. What does it mean to imitate Jesus? What elements of his behavior as seen in the Gospel can you take as a pattern for your own life?

2. What can you say to someone who is facing great suffering and questions God? Put yourself in that person’s place. Would your answer satisfy you?

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B)

January 28, 2018
FOURTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME — Year B (Scripture Readings)

SPELLBINDING AUTHORITY

Gospel: Mark 1:21-28

This passage contains a nutshell summary of the whole mission of Jesus: to free humankind from enslavement to the forces of evil, which he does by the power of his word — he is God’s Word-made-flesh (Jn 1:14). To use this passage to argue the pros and cons of personal demons and diabolical possession risks missing the point: all humanity is in the grip of the power of evil without Christ.

This first miracle of Jesus in Mark’s account climaxes the introduction to his Gospel. Read from the beginning of the gospel up to this point. V 1 gives the title, an unmistakable identification of Jesus. John the Baptist, as herald, preaches repentance and preparation (vv 2-8). Jesus embarks on his ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit (vv 9-11), struggles with the forces that would distort his ministry and run it off true course (vv 12-13), and sets off to continue and fulfill what John had begun (vv 14-15). He gathers disciples (vv 16-20), and he teaches (vv 21-22).

Notice that Jesus does not seek out the possessed man. The demon is threatened by the very presence of Jesus and his word, and confronts him. In its fearful rejection of Jesus, the force of evil itself witnesses to him (v 24). Jesus is not asked by anybody to cure the man, he simply order the demon to release him. V 27 relates his word of teaching with his word of power —it is one and the same word. Those who hear his word experience his power. His teaching cannot be separated from his person. He is what he teaches.

First Reading: Deuteronomy 18:15-22

Although these words are put into the mouth of Moses as lawgiver, they actually date from much later in Jewish history. The entire book of Deuteronomy is a compilation of laws and traditions formulated during the monarchy (tenth to sixth centuries, B.C.E.) and finally codified around the end of that period.

The description of the four major offices of Israelite society (judges, 17:8-13; kings, 17:14-20; priests, 18:1-8; and prophets, 18:9-22) presents an ideal of social order that seldom occurred in reality, so there was always hope for a better future. The prophet is depicted as being God’s true representative, as opposed to the falsity of pagan oracles. The prophet was seen to have the power to proclaim God’s will in a way that would bring about the deeds that the words signified. Thus Jesus is the fulfillment of the true meaning of prophet.

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 95:1-2, 6-7, 7-9

A sound with no one to hear it is no sound at all. Even the voice of God, spoken through the prophets, through his Son, through his Church, has no power unless freely received — heard and understood, taken to heart and acted upon. And so we must pray that we will hear his voice when he speaks. Response: “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 7:32-35

Paul’s purpose here is not to advise whether or not to marry. He was obviously unmarried himself — as a traveling missionary, he had no fixed home, and so marriage and family would have been impossible (see v 8). However he regarded marriage very highly, calling it a sign of the union between Christ and his Church (see Eph 5:21-33). Here Paul holds up an ideal of detachment from the things and ways of the world, using virginity as a sign of this detachment, not as its only means of fulfillment. No matter what our state in life, the important thing is to keep our eyes firmly fixed on what is beyond, and not let ourselves become helplessly entangled in the passing concerns of the here and now.

Questions for thought, discussion, and prayer:

1. How do words have power? What does this say about the power of God’s word in your life?

2. How and where do you see the power evil at work in your own life? How can the power of Jesus counter it?

[Image: Synagogue at Capernaum. Wikimedia.]