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Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

September 16, 2018
TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME — Year B (Scripture Readings)

“TAKE UP YOUR CROSS”

Gospel: Mark 8:27-35

Peter (vv 32-33) is us. A Messiah without the cross is a phony. This passage is the doorway leading from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, characterized by wonderful cures and firm commands to be silent about his power, into the inevitable progress toward the cross. The miracles might convince one that Jesus was the Messiah, but faith based on miracles alone would be incomplete and dangerous. People following a worker of wonders will wander elsewhere when the performance ceases to satisfy their curiosity. Don’t many Christians do this? Their faith in Jesus is strong enough as long as they understand him or have him under their control. Jesus, however, demands a faith in him as a Messiah that is beyond our full understanding and above our control. That is the mystery of the cross, symbolizing not only his ultimate submission to God the Father, but ours as well. Thus the disciples — and ourselves — should be silent about a miraculous Messiah until our faith in the crucified Lord is firm.

First Reading: Isaiah 50:4-9

Why suffering? Or more pointedly, what good can suffering be? This is a mystery that humankind has pondered since the beginning of time. All answers are inadequate, though not necessarily wrong, and so suffering remains a mystery. But a mystery can still be profitably explored, and small hints of understanding can come our way. Jewish scriptural reflections on this mystery range from Ecclesiastes (“all is vanity”) to Job (God remains faithful even if we don’t understand his designs), through the psalms (expressing many different attitudes, including perhaps the hope of a reward in afterlife) to the Servant Songs of Isaiah (42:1-4; 49:1-7; 50:4-11; 51:13-53:12), of which this passage is the third in series.

These songs give us a fore-glimpse of the role of the suffering Messiah, and put suffering in a new light as a means of redemption. Possibly echoing the scapegoat atonement ritual (compare 53:4-5 with Lv 16:21), as well as the sacrifice of the paschal lamb (53:7), the suffering of the Lord’s servant comes from making the burdens of others his own, thereby relieving them. The servant’s suffering becomes the model and the means for facing and conquering sin. (See also the First Reading of Passion/Palm Sunday.)

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 116:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9

This is a heartfelt and picturesque prayer of a person who has recovered from a death’s-door illness. Response: “I will walk in the presence of the Lord, in the land of the living.”

Second Reading: James 2:14-18

To anyone who might say that faith alone guarantees eternal life, or that God’s favor can be bought or merited by performing certain works, James in this passage simply states the obvious: true faith unfolds itself in action, and good works are nothing more and nothing less than the outward sign of inner faith.

Questions for thought, discussion, and prayer:

1. What is the value and purpose of suffering in life? How do you see this in your own suffering?

2 Distinguish various types of suffering (or its causes) and their relationship to redemption; e.g., suffering caused by one’s own sin or foolishness, or by the sin of another, sickness, natural calamities, etc.

Twenty- Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

September 9, 2018
TWENTY-THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME — Year B (Scripture Readings)

HEAR AND PROCLAIM

Gospel: Mark 7:31-37

Jesus’ encounter with the Gentile woman (vv 24-30) is read in Year A, the Twentieth Sunday of the Year, from Mt 15:21-28. It is interesting to compare the two versions. Mark has more little details in telling the story, like “small daughter” and “crouched at his feet.” Matthew builds to a dramatic climax in v 28 — Jesus’ affirmation of the woman’s faith.

In the Bible, deafness and blindness are often taken to be the result of sin, and the healing of these senses a sign of salvation. The inability to speak, or confusion of speech, was often a prophetic sign in the Jewish Scriptures: the word of God could not be proclaimed because the people had closed their ears to hear it not (see Lam 2:9; Ez 3:22-27; Amos 8:11-12; Gn 11:1-9). Restoration of speech, hearing, and sight was understood to be a sign of the arrival of the messianic age. (See also the saga of Zechariah in Lk 1.)

This cure of the deaf and mute man closely resembles the cure of the blind man in 8:22-26. In both instances (1) the afflicted man was brought to Jesus by friends; (2) Jesus took him away by himself; (3) he touched or laid hands on him; (4) he used saliva; (5) he restored the man to his family or friends, but ordered him to be silent to others. Moreover, both cures are placed in a section of Mark that concentrates heavily on bread (6:30-8:26). It is likely that these cures were seen in the early Church as models for Christian initiation, and in turn, the rituals of initiation influenced by the way these miracle-stories were told. Ancient as well as modern rituals have a rite of purifying (opening) the senses. The baptismal sponsors are seen in the deaf mute/blind man’s friends. Candidates were taken aside to be baptized in private, and then restored to the community, “enlightened.” Saliva may have represented a materialized form of breath, and therefore symbolized the Holy Spirit. Finally, the newly baptized shared in the eucharist, represented here by the feeding of the multitude with the loaves. The parallels aren’t perfect, but references and clues are clearly present. The meaning, then, of these cures is that the Christian, enlightened through baptism, becomes a prophet — a confidant of God, charged and empowered with speaking the word he or she hears in faith.

First Reading: Isaiah 35:4-7

The theme of this prophetic song (35:1-10) is the return from exile in Babylon and the restoration of the people in the land of promise. But the hope expressed here goes far beyond mere return to a former state of life. It is rather the consequences of Adam’s sin that will be reversed. This prophecy could only be fulfilled in Christ. However, the prophecy is not merely something that we are on the receiving end of. As members of Christ’s body, we are challenged to share in his mission — to continue rescuing the world from sin and restoring it to God’s plan is our job in union with Christ.

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 146:7, 8-9, 9-10

These words undoubtedly refer to the experience of the psalmist, either in person or as a member of the people as a whole. But in their simple trust and praise, they look forward to the messianic times as well. Response: “Praise the Lord, my soul.”

Second Reading: James 2:1-5

It is easier to love humanity as an abstraction than it is to love the people we come into daily contact (and conflict) with. In James’ day, as in our own, Christians were professing to worship God, but in reality proclaiming their worship to be a lie because of their refusal to treat other children of the one Father as their brothers and sisters. We must display Christian love every moment and in every place, but the place where we must be most Christian is in the celebration of the eucharist. How often our participation at worship is characterized by isolation and disregard for those around us. Is it any wonder that many people see the lie in this and are turned off? Words do not convince when actions say something else more forcefully.

Vv 10 and 11 should not be a cause for scrupulosity or despair at our imperfections. But these verses do warn us that we cannot pick and choose the elements of the Christian way that we find to our liking. We need to be open to the challenge to continue broadening our understanding of what it means to be members of God’s people.

Questions for thought, discussion, and prayer:

1. How can the practical advice of James be a sign to others that Christ has truly come?

2. Think about and share any religious experiences you have had that are comparable to being cured of blindness, deafness, or muteness.

Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

September 2, 2018
TWENTY-SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME — Year B (Scripture Readings)

WHERE IS YOUR HEART?

Gospel: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

The lectionary now returns to Mark’s Gospel, and presents the hardened attitude of the Pharisees as a continuation of the rejection by the disciples in last week’s reading.

Pharisees were by no means what we would call bad people. They were rightfully looked up to by all as being models of what it means to be good. Unfortunately they were so concerned with what was required to “be good” (that is, to keep the law in every detail) that they risked losing sight of God himself as the Giver of all goodness. Religious traditions are necessary to give concrete expression to religious spirit. But if these traditions assume greater importance than the spirit, they kill the spirit. This distortion of priorities in the name of religion is more dangerous than the more obvious forms of sin, which is why Jesus condemns the Pharisaic attitude harshly, and yet appears forgiving and lenient toward other sinners. Self-righteousness is a disease of self-centeredness that blinds one to deeper realities, and constitutes an insurmountable obstacle to repentance.

Jesus gives examples of this attitude: a false dedication of goods to the Lord’s service (korban) and ritual purity. Tradition had developed numerous ways a person could become ritually impure, which had nothing to do with personal morality or sinfulness but was simply a temporary unfitness for performing a rite of worship. Elaborate rituals for cleansing were also created. Jesus’ point is that these things do not touch the core of our being. But they are not mere harmless games either, for they can blind us to real moral impurity and the need for inner cleansing.

First Reading: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8

This passage is a preamble to the law as given in Deuteronomy. The law is seen here not primarily as a set of rules or commands, but as the peoples’ way of fulfilling who they are by keeping the covenant. Because the continuance of the covenant depended upon observance of God’s word as its necessary condition, the law itself could be viewed as giving life. The motive for obeying the law was not to bargain with a God who attached strings to his favors, but simply to respond to the God who had shown himself close to his people.

These words were recorded long after the time of the Exodus, in an age when the nation was falling apart and exile in Babylon was approaching. They appear here with a sense of urgency and sad hindsight: “We have not been faithful to the covenant, we have not kept God’s commands; and that is why we are experiencing dissolution, defeat, and death.”

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 15:2-3, 3-4, 4-5

This is a moralistic psalm describing the qualities of a person who treasures God’s presence. Response: “He who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.”

Second Reading: James 1:17-18, 21-22, 27

In a sense, James takes up where Paul leaves off. Paul’s foundational teaching is that all who profess faith in Christ are united in the Church as the one body of Christ. Faith therefore involves not only adherence to Christ and acceptance of his message personally, it also demands that we acknowledge, in word and act, our unity with one another in Christ. James insistently spells out the implications of this unity with each other as God’s people, bound together by our relationship with God.

In the first chapter, James sets the tone for the entire letter. The one rule of life, which cuts through all traditions and practices, is to hear God’s word and put it into action. This word is not a mere teaching of lessons, but the real presence of God in Jesus Christ among those who hear. Planting and keeping the word is not like burying a treasure for safekeeping, but like sowing a seed, which enables a new plant to come to life and bear fruit. The ground is made fertile by contemplative silence (v 26) because the chatter with which we fill our lives does not allow God to be heard. The word bears fruit in worship and in lives of loving generosity (v 27).

Questions for thought, discussion, and prayer:

1. How is the Pharisee’s attitude in the Gospel found in people you know? More importantly, in yourself?

2. Is all tradition bad? Does tradition have any necessary function in our lives as Christians?

Image: “The Pharisees Question Jesus,” James Tissot (1836-1902)
Brooklyn Museum of Art, Public Domain

Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time

August 26, 2018
TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME — Year B (Scripture Readings)

“WE HAVE COME TO BELIEVE . . .”

Gospel: John 6:60-69

The reaction of Jesus’ hearers gives us a mirror in which to examine our own reaction to his presence and teaching. Faith is ultimately a choice to accept the full implications of Jesus’ presence; a choice that is ours in complete freedom, and yet a choice made under the impulse of God’s power.

The hearers who murmured and turned away encountered Jesus’ flesh as an obstacle — they saw him only in human terms (v 42). They were very aware that their union in the flesh with Abraham, as his descendants, gave them the right to the same relationship with God that he had (see Jn 8:31-41). They could not look beyond Jesus’ human reality as sign of his relationship with God as Son, nor see the possibility of sharing that relationship themselves by union in the flesh, signified and brought about by eating and drinking.

Throughout chapter 6, Jesus emphasized the importance of a total union (“in the flesh”) with himself as the only avenue to a full, life-giving relationship with God the Father. This union could not be achieved by physical generation, but by a free choice of the will — full acceptance and adherence in faith (v 63).

The disciples who turn away see Jesus’ flesh as a roadblock. The Twelve represent those open to faith, who have the power to look beyond the flesh and see the Spirit that gives life to the flesh.

The glorification of Jesus in his death and resurrection is pre-echoed here. His prediction of the completion in his return to the Father is accompanied by the scattering of his disciples in unbelief, and at the same time stronger adherence by the true disciples.

First Reading: Joshua 24:1-2, 15-18

Read all of chapter 24. It describes the covenant made between God and the people of Israel upon their settlement in the promised land. In contrast with the bloody covenant rites with Abraham (Gn 15) and at Sinai (Ex 24), which were based on the customs of nomads, this covenant at Shechem reflects the customs of a settled people beginning the process of civilization. Thus life’s blood as a sign of the binding agreement gives way to the word carved in stone as a perpetual reminder of the terms. This liturgical reading, as part of the preamble to the event, emphasizes freedom of choice. The covenant between God and his people is not a contract that binds slavishly, but an agreement between free agents to establish a relationship of mutual commitment.

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 34:2-3, 16-17, 18-19, 20-21, 22-23

This psalm praises God for his fidelity to the covenant. Response: “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.”

Second Reading: Ephesians 5:21-32

It wasn’t easy for Christ to love us. Nor is it easy for us to follow his command to love one another as he loved us. Paul continues to challenge us to take Christ’s love as the model for our own, and further to see in our own selfless love the actual love of Christ in operation. The self-gift-love of a Christian marriage is both the image of Christ’s love for his Church as well as the place where this divine love is concretely shared.

It is unfortunate that many people fail to see beyond v 22! A careful reading can perceive the expression of a beautiful equality of husband and wife in the diversity of their roles. Genuine human love is a matter of mutual submission, and we can rejoice that this love is able to signify the depth and strength of Christ’s relationship with us, his Church. In reading the concluding chapters of Ephesians, it is important to understand that Paul was not out to change the social structures of his day, even if they were often at odds with the demands of human dignity. Rather, he was concerned to explore how Christians can make the kingdom of God present in their lives and their communities no matter what their situation. This does not, however, absolve us of the responsibility as Christians to work toward an ever more just society for all people in our day.

Questions for thought, discussion, and prayer:

1. How is faith in Jesus a necessary requirement for sharing the eucharist? What are some of the implications of this, for example, regarding the way we live our faith in union with the Church?

2. Love is fundamentally a choice. Reflect upon the cost of making Christ’s love your own.

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

August 19, 2018
TWENTIETH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME — Year B (Scripture Readings)

FLESH AND BLOOD

Gospel: John 6:51-58

This passage is the climax of Jesus’ teaching about the bread of life. Having shared bread with the crowd (6:1-13), he spoke of bread as sign of his relationship with the Father shared with us (6:27-50). Now he describes vividly the manner of our participation in this life. When these words were recalled among the Church, the actions of eating and drinking could only refer to the eucharistic sharing which the Christian communities were already experiencing regularly as the focus of their relationship with Christ. The use of the word “flesh” echoes the description of the incarnation itself in Jn 1:14 — “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” Just as he originally “took flesh,” so now through the eucharist he continues to take flesh in us. Through the sharing of the Lord’s supper, the incarnation — “enfleshment” — of Jesus is continued through all times and all places. Through communion with his eucharistic flesh and blood we become one flesh and blood with him. It is important to see Christ not only in the eucharistic bread and wine, but as really present as well in the those who share them (v 56).

The eucharist is our link with the whole Trinity (v 57): as the Son lives by the Father, so the Christian lives by the Son through the medium of this bread; and this union is brought about in the power of the Holy Spirit. When parents offer bread to their children in their love and care for them, it can be described as a sharing of their flesh through the personal toil that went into it. What is given in love is always a sign and a bearer of the one who gives.

First Reading: Proverbs 9:1-6

In nearly every religion throughout history, the ritual meal has played an important role as a sign of communion with divinity. This is true of the Jewish tradition as well as the Christian eucharist. Eating in common creates bonds among the partakers, and insofar as the food is seen to belong to the divinity in some way — as either a gift of nature or a sacrificial offering — a favorable unity with the Beyond is established.

In this reading, the meal is seen as symbolizing the communication of God’s wisdom to humankind. The banquet well expresses the richness of God’s generosity (vv 1-2) and his eagerness to share by sending out servants to shout the invitation (v 3). Just as hunger is necessary to appreciate a meal, so poverty in spirit and awareness of our lack of wisdom are necessary to open us to God’s wisdom (v 4).

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 34:2-3, 10-11, 12-13, 14-15

These verses meditate on the openness of the poor, the hungry, and the ignorant to God’s care. Response: “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.”

Second Reading: Ephesians 5:15-20

In chapters 5 and 6, Paul draws practical conclusions from the key verse: “Be imitators of God as his dear children” (5:1). Vv 8-14 are read on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year A. In these passages, he reminds us that we live in time, and the present moment is a precious, unrepeatable opportunity. In the life of the Spirit, the occasions of worship and praise (eucharist) are focal points, summing up the remainder of life and charging every moment with new and life-giving meaning. They are a challenge to live fully in time as the sacrament of God’s presence, and not merely to pass time heedlessly or try to escape or evade the passage of time.

Questions for thought, discussion, and prayer:

1. Does a Christian social conscience have anything to do with the eucharist? Can one satisfy one’s own hunger and be heedless of the hungers of others, material or spiritual? Does sharing the eucharistic bread relate to the obligation to share bread with the poor?

2. Reflect upon your own experience of time. How does it relate to the eucharist and the Church’s liturgical year?