Second Sunday of Lent (Year B)

Sometimes we are given the opportunity to enjoy the company of someone we truly admire, maybe someone famous, or well-known in a particular field. Just being able to sit and listen to them; just to be near them, can make us feel pretty important.  At those times we almost hate to have to tear ourselves away; we just want to stay there and ‘drink it all in’.  We don’t want to leave – and we are almost fearful that something or someone will come along and cause this moment to end.

In this week’s passage from St. Mark’s Gospel, we are transported to Mount Tabor.  Jesus takes with him his closest friends, Saints Peter, James and John. While they are gathered there, Jesus shows them his true nature; his glorified body – He is dazzling like the sun; and besides this, the prophets Moses and Elijah appear and are talking to Jesus.   Moses and Elijah, showing that Jesus is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets, the long-awaited Messiah; St. Peter says, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here,” and offers to make three tents, shelters for Jesus, Moses and Elijah.

Although Peter says, “it is good for us to be here” he is afraid.  He is so afraid, in fact, that when he offers to make these tents, the Gospel tells us that he really doesn’t know what he is saying.  Even before God the Father makes his presence known by the cloud, the apostles are afraid;  perhaps their fear is at some sense of being in the presence of such glory and holiness, believing that they are not worthy of being in such company.  Perhaps they are afraid that they cannot remain in the presence of this glorious and holy company, and that is why Peter wants to build shelters, to keep them near as if he can somehow have some kind of control in this situation.

Surrendering control is one of the most difficult things for all of us. It seems to run contrary to our human nature, to be ‘masters of our own destiny’.  The truth is, though, that we really don’t control much of anything, which is so obvious in our current circumstances.  None of us has any influence on whether the sun shines or the sky pours forth rain.  We may have some influence over opinions, but we cannot control how people think, act or behave.  I have no guarantees that I will be drawing breath ten minutes from now, nor do I have any control over the movement of the Holy Spirit.  But to admit we have no control to ourselves, can be a fearful thing.

There is something we do have control over though.  We control our response to God’s love.  God invites us to share in that same glory that Jesus displayed on Mount Tabor; but to do that, we have to conform our will to God’s will.  And that means surrendering our will, basing our decisions every day, not on what we want, but rather on what God expects. That means not having control, but surrendering control in order to imitate Christ, especially in His humanity.  That imitation comes when we serve Him in our brothers and sisters, particularly the poor, the marginalized, the most vulnerable in our society.  That imitation comes when we seek the will of God; when we are detached from anything that separates us from God, anything that prevents us from being open to the work of grace in our lives.

But we need to, like the Apostles, overcome that fear of surrender. It says in the Gospel that when this episode was over, and the Apostles looked up, they saw Jesus ‘alone’.  There was no one else present – all of the visions, and the voices, the clouds and the glory had gone, and there was Jesus ‘alone’ still with them.  .  He was with them in the midst of the wonder, and the glory and the questions.  He was with them in their fear. 

And He is with us in our fear and our doubt; His presence among us, gives us strength.  The strength we receive from God through the gift of His Son, through this boundless love of God is only limited by our ability to be open to receive it.  Our ability to recognize Christ glorified in each other is only limited by the depth of our own desire to seek Him.  If we have truly served our brothers and sisters, with our whole hearts, we have served Christ.  And if we have served Christ, we have seen Christ…and it is ‘good for us to be’ there.

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

First Sunday of Lent (Year B)

It seems to me almost surreal that already, we are here at the first Sunday of Lent.  Lent is traditionally a time of prayer, fasting and alms-giving. It’s something that most of us as Catholics, have grown up with.  Like family traditions, special occasions, and household chores, the season of Lent was just part of what made us ‘who we are’.  It was a part, although not the most joyful, of our own development and our culture. 

Of course, it seems the value placed on Lent in our present time, has significantly diminished in our society.  The notion of ‘giving up’ is regarded in a negative way.

However, we can’t let our culture define our faith; these observances are not actually a complete negative.   In fact, the Christian who practices these three postures is choosing something – a greater good. It is an annual example of what we as Christians are called to do in our lives; to give up those things that can become an obstruction to our relationship with God.  Yet we can’t approach this relationship with complacency or a ‘minimal effort; there should be a sense almost of urgency in our desire to improve and repair our relationship with the Almighty.

In our gospel passage today, as with the rest of this liturgical year, we hear from St. Mark, and his account of Jesus’ temptation in the desert.  Mark’s gospel of course, is somewhat different than the other synoptic gospels (Matthew and Luke).  He doesn’t comment on the particular temptations, because he doesn’t see these in and of themselves as most important.  He says the devil tempted Jesus in the desert and that’s that. It’s a statement of plain fact, without descriptors or analysis or dialogue that might get in the way of his main point.

Mark’s is a gospel of ‘action’ when it comes to Jesus.  He very much writes in a ‘get to the point’, matter-of-fact style.  He tells us after His baptism by John in the Jordan, the Spirit “drove him out into the wilderness”.  There he was for forty days tempted by Satan, and apparently overcame Satan’s temptations because then the Angels waited on Him.  This being ‘driven into the wilderness’ underscores an urgency about Jesus’ actions; there’s no time to delay.  Before He begins His public ministry and His part in the salvation of the human race, He has to set aside every other worldly concern by abandoning all of it for a period of time to prepare in the desert.  It’s not something He will consider, weigh, think extensively about and discuss with a committee.  It needs to be done, and it needs to be done now.

Mark’s sense of urgency is evident in that he immediately ‘jumps’ to Jesus going immediately to Galilee from the desert after John’s arrest and proclaiming the kingdom of God.  Jesus is instantly going about His Father’s work!  If we consider this gospel passage in light of our first reading from Genesis, where God calls Noah and warns Noah of the coming flood, then humanity has had millennia to consider reconciling to each other and to God.  Clearly there has been enough time to think about it; it’s time to act!

Each Lent is an opportunity for us to consider in a concrete and practical weigh, setting aside those things that obscure our relationship to God; perhaps in little comforts or in bigger relationship challenges, especially in the midst of a worldwide pandemic; but we cannot afford any longer in our own lives to “wave it off” as if we will have plenty of time to work on it, ‘somewhere down the road.’  If this pandemic has taught us anything collectively, it’s that circumstances can change almost instantly and all the time we had to ‘get things done’ has suddenly evaporated.  In our spiritual lives it cannot be ‘I’ll have time later’ or ‘waiting for the right opportunity.’

As God tells us through the writing of St. Mark, “the time is now.  The place is here.  The action is ours to take.  The kingdom of God is upon you.”

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year B)

Imagine having an incredible miracle happen in your life – a 100% sure, bona fide honest to God miracle – perhaps some amazing healing, or a complete transformation in your living conditions – and not being able to tell anyone.  This is the curious message that we find in the middle of our gospel passage today from St. Mark, concerning Jesus and the healing of a leper.  But there is tremendous wisdom in the midst of this ‘strange’ instruction from Jesus – and in this short passage, we actually see the mission of the Church and the individual call to holiness both in miniature, yet another illustration of the two great commands – love of God and love of neighbor.

But as with any gospel passage, it’s important to understand some of the context of what is happening between Jesus and the people involved.

Certain diseases were particularly feared through the history of the children of Israel, and one of the most feared was leprosy.  Under the Law of Moses, someone who had contracted leprosy was supposed to be set completely apart from the whole community –‘outside the camp’ as we heard in the book of Leviticus, to avoid contaminating the rest of the camp.  Even anyone ‘suspected’ of having leprosy – and just about any kind of skin condition would fit in this category- was to be presented to the priests for a confirmation that they were in fact, leprous; and if they were found to be leprous, then they had to live outside the camp – completely removed and out of contact with the rest of their community.  If anyone came near, they had to warn them off, shouting ‘unclean, unclean’ as if wearing a warning sign around their neck.  There was a very clear sense of isolation, and a very public sense of shame connected to the leper.  We need to really understand this in putting today’s Gospel passage into context.  Jesus is not just doing a good deed.  He’s illustrating what is expected of all of his followers; in a deeper sense, he’s giving a sign of what we need to do to grow in our own holiness.

To associate with, to touch lepers – those who were unclean – was to make one’s self ritually impure or unclean.  A Jew who did this would not be permitted to offer sacrifice in the Temple (and wouldn’t be particularly welcome at any gathering, really) until they had gone through a rite and period of purification, to make themselves ritually pure again.  This leper, this one who is unclean, is isolated from the rest of the community through circumstances that may or may not be a result of his own actions; and by coming into contact, Jesus risks being considered impure as well – and despite this, when the man kneels before Jesus and says ,’if you choose, you can make me clean’, Jesus responds with, ‘I do choose,” and cures the man.

But that’s when Jesus does that curious thing; he tells the man to tell no one about this cure; in fact he says ,”say nothing to anyone…” and just to present himself to the priests after making his offering of thanksgiving for his cure, as was prescribed in the law of Moses.    Instead, this man who is absolutely bursting with gratitude goes off and tells everyone ,”proclaiming it freely,” the gospel says.  He does the opposite of what Jesus tells him. 

Now we can all probably appreciate why the man did this, especially in light of the rules about lepers.  Who knows how long he had been cut off from the rest of the community?  Who knows how long he had to survive alone against the elements and whatever hardships were to be found outside the town?  Who knows how long he had gone without someone to help him in need; without someone to share a meal with; without someone – anyone – to even just talk to?  If we were taken from that situation, and suddenly free to move about and talk to and see whomever we liked, imagine how difficult it would be for us not to tell everyone about it.

But the man didn’t follow Jesus’ instructions.  Now Jesus is no longer able to minister in the towns; His fame spreads because of this man’s words and his obvious cure; St. Mark writes, Jesus could no longer ‘go into a town openly,’.  People were caught up in their need; the need for healing, the need to witness – even the needs to satisfy their curiosity or to have some visible proof to convince them of what they had heard.  These crowds made it impossible for Jesus to openly minster in the towns, to those who were genuinely in need.  Crowds who would have gathered out of curiosity would have drowned out Jesus trying to preach and proclaim the coming of the Kingdom to those who needed it the most.

Instead, Jesus has to remain outside the towns, and for people to see him, for people to be healed by his touch, for people to hear what he has to say, they have to leave the towns – leave behind the crowds- leave behind their community – and make an effort to go to where Jesus could be found.  Those who were really sincere in wanting to meet Jesus, and recognizing that he alone could fulfill their need, had to approach Jesus, rather than waiting for him to approach them.

The leper had been placed outside the town; in order to minister, Jesus had to place himself outside the town; anyone who wanted to hear, see or touch Jesus, had to go outside the town. 

This story can be seen as a description of the mission of the Church; to seek out those who have been placed ‘outside’ the community – the lost or broken or marginalized in any way – to see Jesus in those who are ‘outside’ the community, and to place ourselves with those who are ‘outside’ the community, being that instrument of mercy, compassion and healing so that we can bring the marginalized back inside our community; back inside our family.

We can also see in this story the movement of those who desire to grow closer to God being given directions on how to do this: God uses this man, this leper,  who was put outside the town as the means by which anyone who sincerely seeks Him has to move ‘outside the town’ as well.  They can’t stay in the comfort and anonymity of the crowd – and it’s the same for us; we have to make the effort to go beyond that comfort of the crowd, outside of a materialistic and self-absorbed society, to stand apart and to approach Jesus in sincerity and authenticity.  Like the people in the town, we have to bring our needs to him, rather than waiting for him to wade through our own crowd of dozens of daily concerns to address our needs at our convenience.  

Like the leper, we need to move outside of our own distractions and desires; like the leper we need to kneel in humility before him in our own brokenness and ask for his healing; and when we approach Christ in that spirit of true humility, we can be confident that we too will receive the same response as that leper did – the response of the love, compassion, healing and love that is found only in the presence of Christ.

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year B)

One of the challenges that comes with children is teaching them appreciation for the people that play an important role in their lives; many of us can recall a time when a gift was received by a child from a special visitor – perhaps a grandparent or other relative; sometimes, if these visits were repeated over time, a pattern emerged where the child repeatedly received something from the visitor; and eventually when the visitor arrives at the door, they might be greeted with “ Hi grandma or grandpa…what did you bring me?’

It then becomes the work of the parent to lead the child to an understanding that it is the giver that is most important, rather than the gift….that love doesn’t need to be expressed with ‘presents’; eventually the hope is that the child will greet the visitor with “ Hi grandma or grandpa…I love you. It’s great to see you. You didn’t have to bring me anything, but thank you for the gift.’

One of the more common temptations for Christians as they go through life, is this idea of placing a priority on gifts we receive.  Whether blessings of health, employment, family, prosperity; we can be drawn into a type of ‘Hi God, what are you going to give me” focus in our prayer life or in our relationship with God.

We might look at some gifts as our right to have, sometimes placing demands or conditions as if God owes them to us  sometimes we might even treat gifts as if we don’t appreciate them.  Other times, we focus so intently on the gifts that we receive, that we lose sight of who gave them to us;  we fall in love with the gifts, rather than the Giver.

In much the same way, our passage from St. Mark’s Gospel raises this notion. Continuing from what we heard last Sunday, from Jesus’ early ministry in Capernaum and his visit to the synagogue and casting out a demon, this passage takes place on the same day, and a very full day it is.  Jesus goes to the house of St. Peter where he heals St. Peter’s mother in law, and she waits on them.  After hearing about the happenings in the synagogue, the local citizens bring all of the sick and suffering to the door of St. Peter’s house at sundown…it says the whole city was gathered there, and Jesus performs many miracles of healing and casting out of demons well into the night.  In the early morning, while it is still dark, Jesus goes away by himself to a quiet deserted place to pray, to spend time alone with God, the Giver of all things.

It says the disciples ‘hunted’ for Him, and when they found Him said ‘Everyone is searching for you.”

The question we might ask at this point is ‘why’ was ‘everyone’ searching for Jesus? For some it may have been his teachings in the synagogue…for others it may have been a feeling of being drawn to Jesus in his generosity and kindness in his dealings with people…but for many it was likely to see another miracle performed, to witness another ‘gift’ of healing at the hands of Jesus.

And how does Jesus respond?  Rather than going back into Capernaum and giving more gifts on command, He says it’s time to go to the neighboring towns…” so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came to do.”  The focus of Christ’s ministry is proclaiming the Good news of salvation; that God is acting to reunite Himself to humankind. But it seems that in dealing with people at this time, that’s not the news they are interested in ; that’s not the gift they want most –the gift of relationship with God – they are more interested in the gifts of something miraculous that they can see – something extraordinary or visibly outstanding…..

Almost an expression of ‘Hi Jesus, what did you bring me?’ 

In our own world, many people thirst and hunger for a relationship with God…in fact, we could echo the words of the disciples, God “Everyone is searching for you.” But unfortunately, many seek to fill that hunger with things that draw them away from God – entirely focusing on material gain, power, luxuries…as if these ‘gifts’ could satisfy their deepest longings…but these ‘gifts’, these ‘things’ don’t satisfy because they are not eternal.  As St. Augustine noted ‘our hearts can never rest O Lord until they rest in you.’

We have gifts from God every day; sometimes we forget that.  We have the gifts of life, of faith, of hope and love.  We have the very Word of God that we can explore and contemplate; we have unlimited opportunities to speak directly and converse with our Creator at any time we like.  We have the gift of technology that, if uses wisely, gives us opportunities like this to pray together remotely.  God constantly pours out gifts upon us; but they are not ours to demand or take – that are God’s gifts, freely given out of love for each of us.

They are an expression of God’s invitation to enter into a deeper relationship with Him.

They are an invitation to us to live in gratitude for the knowledge that God knows each of us, and loves us and wants us to live in Him.

They are a reminder of self-giving, and that more important than any blessings and gifts that we have received in our lives, the most important is God’s gift of Himself in the person of Jesus to us;

that the Giver is the ultimate gift.

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B)

“Name it and claim it”  – it’s a principle in dealing with addiction, or trying to ‘self improve’ – to name the shortcoming and admit it’s existence

We can’t improve a situation if we don’t first of all acknowledge there’s a problem, and admit our own responsibility in the problem’s continued existence.  If we don’t, then the problem, weakness or addiction ends up controlling us.

We see that reflected, in a sort of negative-reinforcement, in today’s Gospel passage from St. Mark:  Jesus confronts a man who is possessed by an ‘unclean spirit’ in the synagogue at Capernaum.  In the midst of this dramatic encounter, the ‘unclean spirit’ tries to take control of the situation, by naming Jesus for who He really is, the ‘Holy One of God’.  Jesus, however takes complete control of the situation and tells the spirit to ‘be silent’ and casts it out of the man.  The spirit, or problem if you will, tries to control, but Jesus does not allow it.  Rather than letting the problem direct the action, Jesus silences the ‘problem’ and rejects it. 

We seem to forget that most basic thing; that we are all children of God – children of the one Father – and as such are deserving of the highest dignity and respect; respecting ourselves, and respecting each other; that we are imbued with a sense of that ‘belonging’ and value, and we know instinctively on some level, that we are meant for much better than this world has to offer.

And yet, we allow this world to control us in almost every aspect of our lives. 

Our world is full of ‘things’ and ‘groups’ that we have created – from items like smart phones and vehicles, to fashion and pop culture, to systems of government – these things were made for us, not the other way around; the point of these things is to serve us, not the opposite;  yet we allow these things to determine our actions.  It’s as if culturally we are addicted to these things but we refuse to “name it and claim it” – we need to buy the latest smart phone when we bought a new one a short time ago.  Why?  Well, just because we do.

 Really?

In our western world for example, If anything has immediately been made evident by the pandemic, it is the pervasive problem of inequity;  inequity in the treatment of the poor and homeless, inequity in the distribution of resources, inequity in the treatment of people based on race, religion or geography.  We might have known it ‘was there’ but without naming it, and calling it for what it is – an attack on the dignity of our brothers and sisters – we have allowed it to flourish and control our culture, industry and apparently even the halls of government.

If we think we are not ‘strong enough’ to improve our lives and our selves, it’s because we have forgotten whose likeness and image we have been created in.  We have to remember whose children we are.  We have to remember that we are responsible for our own actions, behaviours and attitudes.  We have to remember that we have the name of the Holy One of Israel to call upon to be our strength when we claim to be his followers.  He is our strength – He is our help – He is our salvation; and we know His name.

Jesus.

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B)

Quite a lot has been written and shared via social and mass media about ‘things to do’ during the pandemic; things to keep us busy, to keep us entertained, to keep us occupied.  There are suggestions about ways to improve ourselves, from ‘at home’ exercise programs to online courses.  In one way, I suppose, it’s about making good use of our time when we are prevented from ‘life as usual’. 

Another way, if I may overstate the obvious, is to spend the time that we have an increased availability of, in prayer; whether it be formulaic or spontaneous, devotional or personal.  Our culture increasingly views prayer as a “waste of time”; as if binge-watching streaming services or watching the same news stories over and over and over are more productive and emotionally and spiritually ‘healthier choices’.

 Here we are gathering virtually during this period of ‘lockdown’, and today we hear from St. Mark’s Gospel, how when Jesus called his first four disciples, they responded, ‘immediately’.  There was no debate or dialogue or question. Peter and Andrew, James and John did not propose conditions. Jesus called to them, and without delay, they responded.  Mark reports they left everything familiar and ‘productive’ to them in a heartbeat, and followed Jesus.  They certainly didn’t “waste time” in responding to Jesus’ call.

The inference in this vocation story is rather clear; that when Jesus speaks to us, invites us to follow Him, to do God’s will, our response should be immediate; not weighed down by personal desires or opinions or viewpoints; it should be immediate – without delay – at the moment.  It’s not something that we have to over-analyze or dissect.  In fact, too often when we do that, we either delay too long and end up convincing ourselves that either we don’t need to follow Jesus in the immediate moment, or (worse for Christians) we know better than the One who calls us.

Our readings today actually give us a bit of an insight into that ‘cycle’ of hearing God speak and humanity’s response.  Often when we sense that inclination to act in accordance with God’s will, we begin by questioning what it is God really wants of us, when in fact He has already told us thought the Scriptures.  Psalm 25 begs, “Lord, let me know your ways”.  While we join the psalmist in asking God to reveal His path and His will for us, we tend to then weigh that will against what we want or what we think is best – generally for ourselves.

In our first reading, we hear how Jonah is told directly by God to preach a message of repentance to Nineveh; initially Jonah refuses, going so far as to travel to the opposite end of the known world to avoid delivering God’s message of mercy to the Ninevites. Jonah not only doesn’t like God’s message for Nineveh, but when God shows He means what He says when He offers mercy and compassion, Jonah becomes upset with God’s  compassion to ‘sinners’.  Jonah knows God’s will, and he wastes a lot of time fighting against it, even though he is a prophet, one of God’s messengers. 

Through the Scriptures and through the Church, we have been told time and again in the most basic of terms, what God asks of each of us.  Too often though we weigh that against our comfort and then, if we don’t simply ignore it, we see how it fits into our “big picture”; that makes it easier to diminish and dismiss it.  Perhaps we spend so much time and effort looking into that ‘big picture’ that we miss the little picture; the immediate, the present moment.

We are called every day, whether locked down or whether working, shopping, moving about going to appointments and such, to live out the teachings of Jesus and respond to His call to follow Him; to observe those two basic commandments of love of God and love of neighbour.

Regarding our neighbours; in our words, do we speak to others in charity or in unkindness;  in our actions, are we directed towards our own comfort at the expense of others; do we take more than we need either socially or materially so that others will not have sufficient? 

Regarding God; do we bother to consciously spend time with Him; would we rather binge-watch television endlessly; would we rather watch the same news stories over and over moving us deeper into a negative mindset; would we rather just sit and do nothing?

Even in lockdown, there are countless opportunities to participate in the Kingdom; and in each of these we are presented with a choice ; we can either follow the example of Jesus in that immediate moment, speaking and acting with love and compassion, or we can follow our own path; acting without love or compassion.  We can’t say, as Christians, that we really don’t know what God wants us to do, or what being a follower of Jesus really means if we aren’t willing to take the time to listen in prayer and in reading Scripture.

The question for each of us then, is how and when do I choose to “waste my time”?

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

Second Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year B)

Each time I think of how long it’s been since my ordination ,it causes me to reflect on the ‘transformative power of the sacraments’  – how they are more a matter of becoming than receiving.  A deacon enters the Sacrament of Holy Orders at his ordination, and like a priest, in receiving that Sacrament there is a fundamental change that occurs at the very core of one’s being. They are no longer at their core, the person they used to be; something is different;  I am also reminded that the ordained are no longer  ‘their own man’ ; they are to always put on, and think with the mind of Christ- responding to the Sacramental reception of Christ in their lives.

In our first reading from the first book of Samuel, we hear of the Lord calling Samuel by name, while he is still a young boy, and the eventual response by this boy on the advice of his mentor Eli: ‘Speak Lord, for your servant is listening,” The reading goes on to say how as Samuel grew, the Lord was with him, and Samuel did not let a single word of the Lord, ‘fall to the ground.’  Samuel was faithful in doing everything that God asked him to do.  God’s word and instruction would become more important to him than anything else – his reputation, his comfort, his own desires.

In our Gospel passage from St. John, we hear how John the Baptist points out Jesus to some of his own followers, identifying Jesus as ‘the Lamb of God’ – and two of these disciples follow after Jesus.  John has continued being faithful to his own call of setting the stage for Jesus, identifying Jesus for others, and then stepping back – without consideration for his own position or reputation; he had a substantial number of followers of his own, but John was faithful to his vocation. He was not the priority; preparing the way of the Lord, setting the stage or bringing others to Jesus – and then putting himself in the background – that was his priority.

Later in this same Gospel Andrew brings his brother Simon to meet Jesus, and Jesus in his meeting with Simon changes his name to Peter or Kepha, which means ‘rock’ (in Matthew’s Gospel this is expanded on, with the words, ‘and upon this rock I will build my Church’).

Peter will no longer go back to being known only as Simon – with the change in name has come a fundamental change in his person; and although throughout the gospels we have example after example of how Peter is loyal to Christ, and other times how he fails Christ, ultimately he will show his faithfulness by giving his own life for his faith in Jesus.

Whether it is Samuel, or the Baptist, or Andrew or Peter, repeatedly we hear examples of those who respond to the invitation to come and know God in a more intimate way, a more personal way, surrendering their priorities, their ‘selves’ to that call from God to become more deeply involved with serving God and bringing others to know Him.

While I know how much all of us are missing physically gathering for Mass during this pandemic, it is an opportunity for us to reflect more deeply on what that gathering actually means.  Each time we gather for the celebration of the Eucharist, we are responding to that call to come and know Christ more intimately.  Each time we approach the altar to receive Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament we are responding to that call, and when we receive Him in Holy Communion, we take Him into ourselves – and if we really and truly believe that Jesus is present in this Sacrament, then we cannot help but be changed at some level of our being.  It’s a question of how much awareness we have of that change.

It’s the same with all of the other Sacraments – baptism and confirmation; in reconciliation or anointing of the sick; in matrimony or in Holy Orders; the Church teaches and we believe that Christ is truly present in each of these Sacraments;, and when we enter into any of these Sacraments, we become more than we are on our own; we encounter Jesus in a very intimate way; we are fundamentally changed in our most interior selves.

But it’s a package deal – as Catholics, we don’t pick and choose which Sacrament Christ is present in and which one He is not;  either we believe He’s present in all of them, or He’s present in none of them – it’s not a cafeteria.  We can’t pick and choose which Sacraments Jesus, who is God, enters into our lives, and which ones He doesn’t.

The challenge then, for us, is to allow that interior change to affect our exterior selves; to bring the influence of Jesus and the love of God into our thoughts, our words and our actions in everything that we say and do. Certainly not so that we can win praise, or be noticed or honoured; rather so that we can be a reflection of Christ who has called each one of us by name; so that we can be like Andrew and introduce our brothers and sisters authentically to Jesus; so that we can be like the Baptist, and point others away from ourselves and towards Jesus; so that when we open ourselves to hear God’s will in our lives, we can each respond with Samuel,

“Speak Lord, your servant is listening.”

Praised be Jesus Christ , now and forever!

Baptism of the Lord (Year B)

It would be impossible to hold a conversation with anyone this week without the events that unfolded in Washington D.C. on Capitol Hill becoming part of it.  Reactions ranged from anger and disgust, to shock and disbelief.  Comments like a ‘lack of common decency’ or ‘respect for the common good’ have been thrown about; yet I can’t help but ask, in a culture that has increasingly insisted that “it’s all about me and what I want”, why is anyone shocked when this type of action is actually the logical conclusion to that attitude?  It’s an attitude that is promoted in advertising, in social media, in the public forum.  It’s an attitude that it’s all about ‘Me’ and if I disagree with anything or don’t like anything, then I am free to ‘redesign’ or ‘reconfigure’ that which I disagree with.  I don’t have to care about anyone else or what they think, because ultimately, it’s all about my desires, my opinions, my lifestyle.  I don’t converse with someone about my disagreement; I simply shout or shut them down.  In this culture there is no ‘We’; there is only ‘Me’ – there is no civility, common good, or common decency. When that attitude is affirmed, then anything -unfortunately- is possible.

Contrast that with the actions of Jesus in today’s passage from St. Mark’s Gospel as we mark the Feast of the Baptism of The Lord.

We read of this very public meeting between St. John the Baptist and Jesus.  St. John at this point in his ministry has followers; but he has already stated he is not the Messiah.  And then Jesus enters into this scene, mingling with the rest of the crowd at the Jordan – apparently un-noticed, blending in amongst the rest of the people, very ordinary, very plain.

But after this baptism, to those who read and hear and believe, it becomes very clear who Jesus is; He is not someone very ordinary, very plain – He is the Son of God, the Beloved; and this is one of those rare scenes in the Gospels, where we have all Three Persons of the Holy Trinity, apparent and visible as three distinct persons; the voice of the Father, the physical presence of the Son, and the movement of the Holy Spirit. The incredible, unlimited potential of what appeared to be something very ordinary is opened up and unlocked for those who are open to seeing and hearing and believing.

It is important that we look for a moment at something that sometimes causes confusion when we consider Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan by his cousin John;

We understand in the Sacrament of Baptism we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and original sin is wiped away; but the question is often asked, “why would Jesus need Baptism to wipe away original sin?” 

It’s important to realize the baptism by John was not the same as the Sacrament of Baptism the Church received from Jesus- where we become adopted children of God; John’s baptism of people was symbolic, not sacramental; as he said himself, he baptized with water, not with the Holy Spirit.

The people who came to John were accepting a baptism of repentance; repentance really means desiring to come closer to God, recognizing that as human beings, we are separated from God.  This was a public statement.  Those attending had water poured over their heads as a public sign of that desire to wash away their earthly attachments (whether that be harmful relationships, material wealth, power, or sin) and to dedicate themselves to growing closer to God.

In this passage Jesus initially identifies with the rest of the crowd up to this moment.  Jesus is ‘one of us’, unrecognizable by anyone else as something special, until in prayer, when the Spirit descends upon Him and the Father’s voice singles Him out ‘the Beloved’ . 

In accepting this baptism from John, Jesus is telling us that he has fully entered into our humanity- our physical separation from God; that in his humanity, He is just like us – he desires to be closer to the Father; and in his humanity, he will set the example of emptying Himself for others; taking all our sin, through His divinity, upon himself; carrying it all the way to the Cross; to bridge that divide for us; a divide that separates us from God- a divide that we made. God does all the work, in the person of Jesus – and we receive the rewards; we receive them collectively

How could we not respond in love to that?  How could we not want to desire to move more deeply into relationship with God, who goes to that extent for us?  How could we not be open to seeing that same gift is offered to every person in our parish, our community, our planet?

Today’s Gospel reminds us that as Jesus identified with us in our humanity, we can now begin to identify with Him in His divinity, becoming adopted children of God through our own Baptism; He is saying, “I have become just like you, so that you can become just like me.”  and because of this, God says to each one of us; “you are my beloved.”  It’s an invitation; to accept and live that relationship, and to recognize that same relationship between God and each other as sisters and brothers.  To realize there is a common good to be nurtured and protected. It truly is saying, it is all about ‘We’, not just ‘me’.

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

Feast of the Epiphany (Year B)

Towards the end of 2020, astronomers were inviting people to view a cosmic event where the planets Jupiter and Saturn would align to make a bright object in the southern sky.  Of course, it was overcast here, but it was an invitation to view an event that had last been seen about 800 years ago. This was ‘billed’ as ‘the Christmas Star’ because of its timing, and a lot of ink was used by people from various backgrounds about it.   Every few years, it seems we have an announcement in the news that one group or another has put forward another theory or ‘identification’ of the ‘Star of Bethlehem’.  Most often these announcements come just before Christmas, or around the feast of the Epiphany, the feast we celebrate today.

These theories range from the ‘best’ scientific suggestions, to the most outlandish of ideas – a conjunction of several planets perhaps, or a supernova – an exploding star – even to thoughts of alien spacecraft.

Most of these theories are put forward for one of two reasons: to disprove the miraculous nature of the story of the Nativity of Jesus – or to nail down historical physical proof to support or discount the accounts of Jesus’ infancy as recorded in the gospels of St. Luke and St. Matthew. 

But this determination to physically or scientifically prove or disprove the historicity of the particulars of this Gospel passage, is really nothing more than an attempt to satisfy curiosity.  Certainly it’s fun to wonder at what the ‘star’ really was, or whether there were more than three wise men, or exactly where they came from – but this really is far and away extremely secondary to the point of the feast of the Epiphany. 

In this event recorded by St. Matthew, we have an account of the revealing to the Gentiles or the discovery by the Gentiles, of the Christ child.  We have an indication from St. Matthew’s writing that the Messiah, the instrument of God’s salvation, has come for all people – not just the children of Israel.  These foreigners, these visitors from outside Israel – are the first to come to worship Jesus, even before his own people have understood the prophecies pointing to his birth.

They are drawn by light; by the light of a star.  And when the star stops ‘moving’ and they discover where it is, they discover Jesus – and rather than congratulating themselves on following this star or celebrating a scientific discovery, the Gospel tells us the paid the child ‘homage’ – they worshipped Him.  They didn’t pay homage to the star or to the light of the star; they paid homage to Jesus.

Their science and understanding was useful to them, but it only brought them to a certain point in this invitation to relationship from God; at some point, the Truth of faith spoke to their hearts, and they worshipped Christ.

They discovered with eyes of faith, what their eyes of reason had brought them to.  They were drawn by the light – and the light led them to Jesus.

The feast of the Epiphany, of the revealing of Christ; of the ‘discovery’ of Christ is something that doesn’t need to be isolated to a historical event.  It is something that we are each called to live out as Christians every day.  Just as the light of a star drew ‘foreigners’ or ‘strangers’ to Christ, so too, the light of our lives in Christ should draw others to Him. We don’t live lives of virtue to attract others to us – we do it to share our love of God and to invite others into that loving relationship.  It doesn’t have to be flashy or big or spectacular; but it has to be authentic; it has to be real and genuine.

We are called to be living ‘stars’ if you will; spreading the light of  Christ through  lived virtue; when we live the virtues of faith, of hope, of charity – humility, prudence, self-control, perseverance – these qualities attract others; they draw others –not to us – but to the author of these virtues: to God.

He truly is present, in our midst; and we are invited to be a reflection of that reality; to discover Him ourselves, and reveal Him to others through our lives.  It doesn’t have to be a huge undertaking or enterprise – it doesn’t have to involve a superhuman effort; but it is doing something great for God – imagine, each of us is invited to actually play a part in salvation history, the plan that God set in motion from the moment our first parents separated themselves from God.  What an incredible opportunity and gift God is holding out to us.  And that authentically lived gratitude can’t help but attract others; St. Augustine probably said this best when he wrote, “One loving soul sets another on fire.”

This is our mission; this is our baptismal calling – to be the light of Christ and invite the stranger into His company; to invite them to come and adore Christ as the magi did.

When we do this, we can do so with joy and the wonder of that Epiphany – of that discovery that we know with our minds and can feel in the depths of our hearts…that the gift of Christ, is a gift we are given and can approach and can share, each and every day of our lives.

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

Feast of Mary Holy Mother of God

Often the significance of a day or date is emphasized by our culture – and we tend to lose the true significance of that day, even within our own faith community.  Even though there are restrictions in various places of our world today because of the ongoing pandemic, today we celebrate the feast of Mary, the Holy Mother of God – and yet, more often, we talk about Mass on ‘New Year’s” – and the real significance of this feast is reflected in the fact, that in Canada on our liturgical or Church calendar, we only have two holy days of obligation (other than Sundays, where previous feast days were moved to the Sundays from other days of the week). Those two feast days are Christmas Day and the feast of Mary, the Holy Mother of God. 

The fact that the Church stresses these as days of obligation speaks to their importance; but often, secular culture and concerns ‘hijack’ the true meaning of these days.  In many ways, for example, the celebration of Christmas, the Incarnation – God coming among us as one of us – has become a crass and commercially exploited venture.  Likewise, the celebration of January 1st as the feast honouring  Mary , has become a day of parties and eating and drinking and making resolutions that are often unrealistic and unattainable.

The Church’s honouring her on this feast day, ‘Mary, Mother of God’, in truth says more about Jesus than it even says about Mary.  In calling Mary, “Mother of God” we emphasize the true nature of Jesus, that He is God – fully human and fully divine.  The fact that the Church Council promoted this title for Mary as doctrine in the 4th century at Ephesus, only speaks to the fact that this belief was held from the very earliest times of the Church.  This is not about worshipping Mary.

No, this feast is about paying Mary the respect and honour due to one who lived such a magnificent example for the rest of us to follow, in her complete and total surrender to God; one who provided the best example for the rest of us in proclaiming the working of God in the world of humanity.

In our gospel passage for this mass, we hear part of the Christmas story from St. Luke.  In this passage, the prayer posture of Mary is in the very centre, literally and figuratively.  When she hears what the shepherds tell everyone at the stable, unlike the others (whoever they may have been) she isn’t ‘amazed’.  It says, “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

To ponder doesn’t mean to give a fleeting thought to something and then continue on to the next order of business.  To ponder is to go over and over the details of that which is revealed – to think about it yes, but to go even further; to move the details and the events from a mental ‘remembering’, to consideration and meditation in the heart; to seek the deeper meanings and to glory and revel in that which is revealed.

When we are deeply in love, we don’t simply give a fleeting thought to the one who is the object of our devotion; we ponder everything about them; we not only think of each detail of their physical appearance, but we consider and reflect and even meditate on everything about them, their likes and dislikes, their personality, sometimes even becoming overwhelmed and lost in that depth of emotion and affection that we have for the other.

Mary’s life, what little is recorded for us directly in the Gospels, is nothing less than a picture of that absolute devotion; that ‘head over heels’ love for God – completely surrendering her own life, will and desire to what God invited her into;  from the moment of her ‘fiat’  before the angel; ‘behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done unto me according to your word,’ to this deep reflection on the witness of the shepherds , to her eventual surrender of her Son to fulfill God’s plan of salvation by his passion, death and resurrection; Mary becomes the model for each of us in a lived ‘love affair’ with God, holding nothing back from Him, always putting the Other ahead of herself.

If this feast day is about worshipping anybody, it is about worshipping God who does such wondrous things in all of our lives, if only we take the time, like Mary to treasure and ponder these wondrous things in our own hearts.  It is about accepting the obligation that we have, and obligation of gratitude for the great gifts that God has given all of us through His Church, including the great gift of the example of Mary , the Holy Mother of God.

And if you are not able to go to Mass to honour her today because of health restrictions, perhaps take this time to offer a prayer, say a rosary, or just a word of thanks to God in giving us Mary, who as Gerard Manley Hopkins sj, wrote, is “our tainted nature’s solitary boast.”

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!