Archive for August, 2012

Gospel, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23  A hug or kiss expresses affection.  A handshake is a sign of friendship or agreement.  In myriad ways we give external expression to what we hold within our minds and hearts.  Each culture develops common practices or customs of how we express ourselves in relationship to God and one another.  Consider the many ways we express ourselves in prayer.  We genuflect or bow to express allegiance and subservience to God.  We kneel as an extended sign of the same.  We stand out of respect for the word of God in the gospel.  We raise our hands in praise or extend them in petition.  As long as such physical actions match what we hold in our hearts, they are good and appropriate.  When ritualized and repeated numerous times, however, any of these actions can become mere habit or custom, a mere external motion unaccompanied by internal attitudes.  They can even be distorted into a prideful show of one’s religiosity accompanied by a judgmental attitude toward others not as observant of such practices.  In this Jesus found cause to contend with the Pharisees who performed acts for others to see and admire their religiosity.  They, in turn, challenged Jesus for not requiring his disciples to observe customary actions such as washing of hands…their awareness that Jesus’ disciples had not washed their hands indicates how closely they were observing him for anything to use against him. 

Why were the Pharisees so focused on external expressions of the Jewish faith?  They lived at a time of first Greek and then Roman dominance of Jewish territory, a dominance accompanied by attempts to turn young people away from the faith and culture of their ancestors to the Greco-Roman culture.  The Pharisees were concerned about losing the hearts and minds of young Jewish people and their parents.  The solution, they reasoned, was to emphasize the externals of their faith as an example for others to follow.  That’s why Jesus could accurately comment that “all their works are performed to be seen” and why they widened their prayer shawls and attached huge tassels and prayed out in public (Matthew 25:3, 5).  It is also why they looked down on other Jews who weren’t as observant about the religious practices and who, in their way of thinking, were failing to give good example to others. 

While it is good to give good example, focusing on modeling faith practices as the Pharisees did can inadvertently lead to overemphasizing externals and neglecting the more important internal attitudes such things practices should represent.  As such many Pharisees suffered a disconnect which Jesus notes in this gospel text with the quote from Isaiah 29:13.

In Psalm 51:10 David asks God to “create a clean heart for me and renew in me a steadfast spirit”.  We do well to make that our prayer as well…commitment and faith expression that begins from a steadfast heart. 

Reading 1, Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8  Other nations worshipped idols which people had fabricated and placed in their temples and in their homes.  In that and only that sense, their gods were close to them.   Israel’s God was not close in the sense of being a physical entity they could see and touch, but no other nation had “gods so close to it as the Lord” who was not limited to a niche in a temple but rather accessible to people anywhere and at all times.

We do not know what impression Israel’s laws made on other nations of their day.  Comparisons to the codes of law of other countries in the ancient Near East indicate that Jewish Law uniquely included laws providing for more humane treatment for all peoples…Jews and foreigners, free people and slaves.  Observance of the law for Jewish people was not tied to winning God’s approval but in giving evidence to the nations of the wisdom, intelligence and justice of God and the code of law given by God through which they could live in good order with God and one another. 

Reading II, James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27  In the few verses previous to this reading, James commented on a belief that everything that happens in life, including temptation, is predetermined by God.  James counters that belief by teaching that all that comes from God is good and, likewise, all good comes from God.  We understand that God allows evil but does not cause it to happen.  God gives each of us a free will with which we can choose good and reject evil.

James continues with a theme repeated several times in his letter: hearing the word and believing in the head is not sufficient.  We must be “doers of the word and not hearers only”, giving proof by our love and care of others through our actions and not merely by kind words and best wishes.

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St. Cyril of Jerusalem

Doctor of Catechesis

c.  315 – 386


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St Ephrem

 Father of Hymnody

c. 308 – 373


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Gospel, John 6:51-58  With this passage, a continuation of our gospel readings from the past two Sundays, Jesus ends his teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum on his being the Bread of Life come down from heaven.  The dynamics of teaching in a synagogue differed considerably from that of modern-day preaching during a church service.  While in some denominations the people may shout out an affirmation of “Alleluia!” or “Amen!”, people would consider it out of place to challenge the preacher openly during his sermon (it only happened to me once in 32 years).  What followed the scriptural reading in the synagogues of Jesus’ time was more of an open discussion on the proper interpretation of what had been read.  The one who did the reading gave his interpretation first.  Then everyone else could join in.  At times this resulted in heated debates and angry reactions such as when the people in Nazareth wrestled Jesus out of their synagogue with the intention of throwing him off a cliff (Luke 4:28-29 ).

The exchange at Capernaum had been very lively.  With each challenge, Jesus spoke with more explicit language about himself as the Bread of Life and the need for people to eat his flesh and drink his blood.  After an animal was sacrificed to God in the Temple of Jerusalem, it was given to the family to share in a sacred meal.  To somehow understand how Jesus could be the sacrifice and the people partakers of his flesh was difficult enough, but the thought of drinking blood was completely contrary to Jewish sensitivities.  Blood belonged to God alone.  People were not allowed to even touch blood and became ritually impure by doing so.  As subsequent verses will indicate, many of Jesus’ disciples left because they could not accept this teaching.  In one of his reflections, my spiritual director Fr. Gerald Keefe wrote that, given the Jewish centuries-long struggle to teach One God in the face of temptations from other cultures to idolatry and polytheism, it had to be a great gift of faith that so many disciples stayed with Jesus and came to believe in him as divine. 

Keep in mind that John’s gospel was probably written more than 60 years after this event.  The readers from that era would have understood this teaching with reference to the Eucharist.  Since this teaching is not found in the other gospels, we can surmise that it was included in the gospel of John in response to issues being raised at that time regarding the true nature of the Eucharistic presence of Jesus.  Those who challenged Jesus and the disciples who eventually left over this teaching represented latter-day Christians having difficulty accepting the Eucharist as the true body and blood of Jesus Christ.

Reading 1, Proverbs 9:1-6  Intelligence involves knowledge and understanding.  It is a gift which is nourished and expanded through study.  More important than intelligence, however, is wisdom which can be considered “applied intelligence” in making right decisions.  Without wisdom, intelligence can be directed in selfish and even destructive avenues.  Many books of the Hebrew scriptures are classified as “wisdom literature”, largely comprised of short sayings to be memorized and applied in the process of making decisions.  The wise person could read and absorb those sayings eating of the food and drinking of the wine of wisdom. 

Wisdom has built her house of seven columns.  Don’t just think of buildings here…the scriptures were written in columns on scrolls.  The book of Proverbs may have been written in seven columns…seven, of course, being the number of perfection…as though to say to the astute reader, “Come in through these seven columns and you will be fed with the banquet of wisdom prepared for those who will read and learn.”

Reading II, Ephesians 5:15-20  Jewish wisdom literature is replete with statements comparing foolish and wise ways of living.  Jesus drew on that when he likened a person who listens to his words and puts them into practice to a wise person who built his house on rock.  Conversely, the one who does not listen and put Jesus’ words into practice is like the foolish man who built his house on sand (Matthew 7:24-27).  Here Paul uses the foolish-wise combination to encourage watchfulness and virtuous living. 

Does the music we listen to influence how we live?  News about the recent killings at the Sikh temple in Milwaukee indicate that the gunman was a member of a rock band whose white-supremacy music spewed out a message of hate towards non-whites and that they played at concerts where all the other bands and those attending shared that same attitude.  Whether or not the music turned people’s minds and souls to such hatred, it undoubtedly fed such hatreds.  St. Paul encouraged his readers to express their faith singing and playing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.  Music can move the soul and give a person avenues of expressing and deepening faith in Jesus Christ.

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Gospel, John 6:41-51  While the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke include the account from the Last Supper as Jesus gives his disciples his body and blood under the forms of bread and wine, John’s gospel does not.  John 13-17 uniquely includes the washing of feet and an extended prayer by Jesus for the unity and strength of his church.   In this text from John 6 Jesus speaks of himself as the “Bread of Life” with the promise that whoever eats this bread will live forever, a clear reference to the Eucharistic presence of Jesus.  Why does John present the teaching in this manner rather than quoting Jesus’ statements at the Last Supper as did the other three evangelists?   

It is generally believed that John’s gospel was written some time after the other three.  His readers were very familiar with the words of inauguration repeated at the Eucharistic assembly every week.  There was no need for John to repeat the words.  He wanted to focus his teaching, instead, on a few related issues, one of which continues to be a challenge and the other a question of debate yet today. 

The challenge is the call to serve others and work for the unity of believers (John 13-17), a challenge incumbent upon all who receive Jesus in communion, thereby reaffirming their commitment to love God and neighbor as Jesus has directed.  It is so easy to for communion to become a privatized experience of unity with God with little or no sense of association or responsibility to the rest of the Body.  Communion is not merely a gift or grace bestowed upon us.  In receiving communion we, for our part, renew our commitment to love and serve others in Jesus’ name.  The New Covenant is ratified once again.

The question, probably debated at the time John wrote the gospel as it is still debated by Christians today, has to do with the reality of the Eucharist we receive.  Do the bread and wine actually become the Body and Blood of Christ as we teach in the Catholic Church?  Is it merely a symbol of the unity of the people as the Body of Christ, as some other  Christian denominations believe, through which people merely express their unity by sharing bread and wine?  A good indicator of what a church believes can be surmised from what they do with breads left over after the service.  Are they guarded in a special place as we Catholics place them in a tabernacle?  Are they eaten as normal food or put back in storage with breads not used in the service?  The Catholic Church interprets Jesus’ statements in John 6 in a Eucharistic context and the bread and wine as truly his flesh and blood given to us to eat and drink, not merely as a symbol.  For that reason the bread become the Body of Christ is retained in the tabernacle for adoration and distribution to the faithful.

Reading 1, 1 Kings 19:4-8   Having single-handedly faced and vanquished 450 prophets of Baal by the power of God (1 Kings 18), Elijah for some reason loses his confidence in God’s saving power on receiving a message that Queen Jezebel wants to kill him.  Elijah goes on the run, first to Beersheba (today a city of over 150,000 population at an oasis in the Negev Desert of southern Judea) where he leaves his servant.  Full of anxiety, he then flees deeper into the desert by himself.  Although we might wonder about this change in Elijah, we need only reflect on how we ourselves can fluctuate between being very strong and wimpy in our faith and discipleship.

The food provided for the journey revitalizes Elijah for the journey.  Note that the angel of God did not tell Elijah to go to the mountain nor had Elijah mentioned Horeb (Sinai) as his destination.  God knew that Elijah needed to return to the place where Moses had received strength and guidance from God.  Even great prophets need time to retreat, reflect, and recharge their batteries.

Elijah rested in the shade of a broom tree.  I read that there are a variety of evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs called broom trees.  Most grow in dry climates and are adapted to fires which kill the above-ground parts of the plant but create conditions for re-growth from the roots.  If broom trees were known to Jewish people for that characteristic, it would be very symbolic that Elijah, burned out from his recent encounters and threats, would be recharged in the shade of a broom tree.

Reading II, Ephesians 4:30-5:2  With a wry face and the words “Good grief!” Charlie Brown and friends expressed frustration countless times with their own failure and that of others to live up to expectations.  Paul tells Christians from the region of Ephesus: “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God!”  Just in case they didn’t know what grieves the Holy Spirit, he provided a quick list as well as a list of what causes the Holy Spirit to rejoice over us.  Ultimately, the model of what would make God rejoice is Jesus “in whom,” as the Father proudly states in Matthew 4:17, “ I am well pleased.”  We are to be “imitators” of Christ.  Paul must have noted how people tend to imitate those they admire…parents, celebrities, and heroes or all sorts…for he told his readers many times (1 Cor. 4:6 / 1 Cor. 11:1 / Eph. 5:1 / Phil. 3:17 / 1 Thes. 1:6 / 2 Thes. 3:7 / 2 Thes. 3:9) with enough confidence in his imitation of Christ as to offer himself as an example to follow.  This theme was the basis of one of the great works of spiritual reflection, “The Imitation of Christ”, by Thomas a Kempis (available on line in English at www.leaderu.com/cyber/books/imitation/imitation.html ) first published anonymously (so appropriately pointing the reader to Jesus and not to the author) in 1416. 

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St. Athanasius

Father of Orthodoxy

c. 297 – 373 (more…)

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