22nd Sunday Ordinary Time (Year A)

The 16th century was a time of tremendous upheaval; numerous wars were being waged, and Europe was in great turmoil; it was the time of the Reformation, and numerous attacks were being levelled against the Church from outside. There were those, however, who moved deeper into their relationship with God to the point that they felt moved to act within the Church to correct abuses and bring the life of the faithful in general, and those in religious life in particular, back in line with what the Gospels and the Church’s teaching called them to. One of these ‘reformers from within’ was St. Teresa of Avila, a Spanish Carmelite nun who is recognized as one of only four female Doctors of the Church.  

 

Some of her writings are among the greatest spiritual works of all time, and several are still among the best sellers lists.  She had a deep desire to begin this ‘return to basics’ within her own religious order.  However this movement to do away with excesses and return to deeper prayer and rid themselves of luxuries met with great resistance.  At times it was only natural that in facing so much opposition St. Teresa wondered if it was really worth it, following where Jesus led.  There was a story how at one point she was facing tremendous struggles and resistance and attacks; one of the sisters who supported her tried to encourage her; ‘Sister, ‘she said’ Don’t lose heart when facing these trials.  These trials in the world are a sign that you are among God’s friends.’

 

To which St. Teresa is said to have replied, “Well, if this is how God treats his friends, it is no wonder he has so few of them.”

 

The Gospel of St. Matthew takes us on one of these journeys, where at one point we have the uplifting joy showered on someone close to God, and the next we have a cold hard dose of reality of what that closeness can mean in this world.  Last week, we heard how Peter was graced with a revelation from God; that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God – and his proclaiming this truth is rewarded by Jesus with Peter’s primacy among the apostles; the rock upon which the Church is built.

 

Today, from the very next paragraphs in the same gospel, we have the same Peter going from the heights of praise by the Christ, to being chastised by Jesus, to the point of being compared with Satan; Peter, rash and proud, but who very much loves Jesus and desires to follow him; at one point, putting aside his own doubt and fear, boldly announces who Jesus is; he speaks a most profound truth – then in the next paragraphs, opens his mouth again and puts his foot in it!  His faith journey is always two steps forward and one step back.

 

Jesus has just told the disciples that he must go to Jerusalem to suffer and to die – but he ends with a prediction of his own resurrection – the prediction contains the entire point of all of salvation history for the whole human race.  And either Peter is so shocked by the first part of this prediction by Jesus; undergoing suffering and being killed – that he either doesn’t hear or he ignores the last part – that Jesus would, on the third day be raised.  Whatever the reason, Peter jumps right in and starts spouting off what he thinks is wisdom and righteousness; he completely contradicts his previous statement that he believes Jesus is the Son of the Living God by applying his own human reasoning; that the Christ cannot suffer and die at the hands of his own people.

 

Jesus has just told the disciples what God’s plan is, and yet Peter’s first remark is ‘God forbid it!’ as if Peter knows better than God.  Perhaps Peter’s response is not so much from a desire to protect Jesus, as it is fear of what might be expected of him now as a disciple; because Jesus follows his scolding of Peter with the definition of the true disciple; that anyone who would be his disciple must pick up their cross daily and follow Him.  The disciples and those hearing these words from Jesus knew very well the reality of what ‘picking up the cross’ meant on the physical level.  It was not simply a means of a quick death – it was a slow lengthy process, and was meant to not only kill the offender, but to completely destroy their dignity, to completely humiliate them and to serve as a warning to others. Carrying the cross was a very graphic example for Jesus to use.  But it was a stark example of the extent to which His disciples are expected to go.

 

It doesn’t sound very much like discipleship is terribly appealing; but Jesus is telling the disciples – all of his disciples – that they don’t get a ‘free pass’ when it comes to the human condition simply by calling themselves his followers.  Rather, it means embracing our human condition – all of it; the weaknesses and strengths, the joys and sorrows, the sufferings and the victories – and in whatever circumstances we find ourselves in, never losing sight of the fact that God, in the person of Jesus, despite his divinity, fully embraced our human condition and fully lived the whole range of our experience.  He did that so we could share his nature…and he invites us to embrace His nature while not denying our own.

 

Discipleship doesn’t mean always having the easy path, or even the enjoyable path; it means detaching ourselves from those things that prevent us from growing closer to God; moving away from those things and circumstances that prevent us from truly loving God, and truly loving our neighbour –of emptying ourselves so that we might be filled more with God’s love and goodness and grace.  And that is never easy. 

 

The beauty of these chapters in St. Matthew is where they go from here; from Peter’s announcing that Jesus is the Son of the Living God; to Peter stumbling and trying to substitute human reasoning for God’s will; to what will come in the next chapter of the same Gospel – Jesus will take Peter, (along with James and John) up Mt. Tabor to reveal himself in his transfigured glory, giving them a preview of what is in store for all of those who return to God; who enter into eternity as adopted sons and daughters of the Almighty.  Who are friends of God.  It is a message to all of us to keep trusting in Jesus, no matter what this world brings our way.

 

It is a message that reflects our own faith journeys; that when we open our hearts, God will speak to us, revealing who Jesus is to each of us – that sometimes the road that we journey on will be difficult, and may even seem illogical or unwise using strictly human reasoning – but if we continue to get up despite stumbling and follow where Jesus leads us, we will join Him in his glory.

And in that regard, it is always good to be counted among God’s friends, even if sometimes it seems that there are so few of them.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

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21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A)

Today’s passage from St. Matthew’s account of the Gospel gives us much to ponder and consider about our own belief about and in Jesus, and how we in turn display and present that belief.

In once sense, I suppose, we can identify with the disciples in this episode, because they are called not only to ‘report’ back to Jesus what the crowds say about him – they are called upon to stand up and profess their own understanding of Jesus.

The disciples tell Jesus, when He asks them, that the people say he is a resurrected John the Baptist, or the prophet Elijah, or the prophet Jeremiah, or one of the other great prophets of the Sacred Scriptures from the history of the children of Israel. The people only claim at this point that – if not a miraculous ‘reincarnation’ of one of the prophets of their history – that Jesus is really only one in a long line of prophets.

Prophets are human agents through which God has spoken to and taught His people – but they are still only human beings; nothing more. How often have we heard this repeated in our own day, that Jesus is just another in a long line of wise ‘teachers’ or ‘philosophers’ or ‘prophets’ – just another human (albeit a special one) among many others.

But Jesus becomes more pointed in his question to the disciples;”but, who do you say that I am?’ He doesn’t want to know what others are saying now – He wants to know what the disciples say.

In asking this, He is asking the disciples two things, really; to claim and to proclaim. He wants to know who they claim He is to themselves, and who they proclaim to others that He is.

And of course it is St. Peter who boldly says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus points out the revelatory nature of this – it is not simply by human reckoning or deductive reasoning that Peter has come to this conclusion. It has been revealed to Him by the Spirit of God. It is a grace moment. It is a gift of faith.

Every day, in all of our thoughts, words and actions, we are asked by Jesus, ‘who do you say I am?’

Who do you claim me to be in your heart? Another teacher? A wise sage?

Or like Peter to you understand in your heart that I am the Son of the living God?”

If we answer ‘yes’ to that second question, that we claim in our hearts that Jesus is the Son of the Living God, then He calls upon us to proclaim that to anyone and everyone we meet in our everyday life. We are to live out that claim, to proclaim it to the world.

If we claim the name of Christian, we are claiming to believe that Jesus is God, and if so, then it is incumbent upon us to proclaim Him as such. Jesus acknowledged His true nature in His response to Peter’s proclamation that Jesus was the Son of the living God.

Yet like St. Peter, this intimate knowledge of Jesus comes to us through faith, a free gift of God, in which the true nature of Christ is revealed to us by the Father.

We can, and are expected, to use our own reason to come to an understanding of who Jesus is; but ultimately it requires a step beyond our own human reasoning – it requires a leap of faith. That faith is there for the asking, if we only have the courage to ask for it in prayer, and be open to the truth that God reveals.

God reveals Himself in Jesus to us that we might claim Him as our own – and it is in that conviction, fueled by faith and courage that we proclaim Him to others.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

20th Sunday Ordinary Time (Year A)

There used to be a popular catch phrase in response to people who didn’t seem to get what they prayed for….

God always answers prayer; but sometimes the answer is ‘No’.”

In my experience though, and reading the lives and writings of numerous mystics and saints, I would offer that this is actually false. The response should be more, “God always answers prayer; often though, not the way we want or expect. God answers prayer in God’s own way and time.”

Today’s gospel passage is a real challenge, and is sometimes a difficult one to come to terms with, especially in a country and culture that promotes tolerance and inclusiveness. It’s the story of a Canaanite woman apparently being ignored by Jesus in the midst of her need. The portrayal of Jesus and his disciples as cold and uncaring is not very flattering in this particular excerpt from St. Matthew’s gospel. Yet it is that very portrayal that scholars point to as proof of the accuracy of this event. If a person was writing a book to encourage others to join a movement, they certainly would never portray the ‘hero’ in an unflattering light, or in a manner which appears contrary or opposite to the message of his movement. Her we have Jesus, the Lord of love, portrayed at the very least as stingy with his miracles, or at the very worst, a racist- giving a cold reply to someone not of his race.

On a surface reading, Jesus may come across as callous, uncaring; the woman is begging him to help her child, and Jesus initially doesn’t answer her at all; the disciples come off looking just as bad if not worse – they demand Jesus ‘send her away’ so she will stop bothering them.

Imagine being in the position of this woman; her child is possessed, and her own medical people have been unable to heal her, and she is coming to this healer and preacher from a people who forced her own people from their homeland centuries before – in fact, Jesus is in the region of Tyre and Sidon in southern Lebanon – he’s out of his own territory. He is in a heavily pagan region.

When I reflect on passages like this, I try to identify with them in my own experience or imagination. My child is seriously afflicted. I’ve tried everything and I’m desperate; I am on a mission of love for my child, and I need help – I go to this stranger whom I have heard a bit about, particularly as a healer, and I am begging him for help. His followers tell him to ‘send me away’ because I’m becoming a nuisance – I’m bothering them. I’m not ‘one of them.”

And Jesus’ initial response sounds pretty cold too; “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ – to which she answers, pleading “Lord, help me”…Jesus’ subsequent response sounds even more harsh; “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

And she doesn’t give up and go away; she sticks to her request, and answers, ‘even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table”

The story of course has a happy ending with Jesus healing the woman’s daughter, because, as Jesus tells the woman who persists in her pleading, ‘great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish.” This woman persisted for love of her daughter; and because she obviously believed – really believed – that Jesus could provide the healing that no one else could. She didn’t say if you heal my daughter I will believe you or follow you or love you.

This passage requires a very careful reading to see the truths Jesus teaches all of us; with the woman’s initial requests, ‘Have mercy on me Lord” Jesus doesn’t immediately answer her – but he doesn’t say ‘no’. When the disciples are annoyed with her shouting and pleading, again he doesn’t immediately respond to her cries, but he doesn’t say ‘no’. Even when she gets into the exchange with him about the ‘dogs’ and the ‘master’s table’, Jesus still is not saying ‘no’. He draws out her faith, almost as if he is challenging her to reach further, to persist, to stand firm in her belief that she can approach Him and ask for His healing and grace. He answers her in his own time, in his own way.

This is also an opportunity for Jesus to illustrate to his disciples that the kingdom of God is open to all.

In his gospel account, St. Matthew is chiefly writing for a Jewish audience, trying throughout to show Jesus’ words and actions against the backdrop of the Prophets and Jewish tradition, and how this fits together to show that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah. Most of his healings and miracles are of Jewish people, in synagogues, near the Temple, and the like. There are very few instances where Jesus heals a Gentile – a non-Jew or pagan – several chapters earlier, he heals the Roman centurion’s servant; so it is clear that these healings of Gentiles are exceptions in Matthew’s Gospel.

Exceptions, but they are there. These exceptions are a reminder that the gift of salvation, given by God freely, and offered through the person of Jesus, is open to all people. This offer; this understanding is a theme that runs through all of our readings today: our first reading from Isaiah, “and the foreigners (meaning the Gentiles) who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to Him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, … these I will bring to my holy mountain….”

My house will be a house of prayer for all peoples.”

And in our second reading, from St. Paul to the Romans; he addresses the Gentiles saying that salvation is likewise open to them (not just the Jews) through Christ: “God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all

Jesus uses the persistence of this woman, a Gentile, to show his followers, that it is not by birthright or by belonging to a specific group that people automatically receive the grace of God, the gift of His love. Prayer is not simply a matter of just ‘saying’ a few words of request without the motivation of love or trust. Prayer is not muttering a specific phrase without meaning as if the words themselves are some kind of magic formula. Prayer is also not making a demand and attaching conditions to God’s reply. And if it seems at first that because we don’t get an immediate answer or get the answer we demand or expect, it does not mean that God is not listening.

It is by being persistent in faith; in trusting, that God provides answers to our prayers; it is in refusing to let setbacks or apparent lack of success prevent us from persevering in our prayer; and it is in being motivated by love that we approach God in prayer in the first place. But in all of it, it is about hearing and accepting whatever response God gives us; conforming our will to God’s will…because God always answers true prayer- in God’s own time and in God’s own way.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

19th Sunday Ordinary Time (Year A)

I don’t think there is anyone  who will not acknowledge that in recent years the Church has been facing crises; battered by storms from a selfish and materialistic outside world – battered from within by dissension and scandalous and sinful behaviour by some of her own members; but it is not the first time in the history of the Church that this has been the case.  There are dozens of examples throughout the history of the Church when it has been in crisis and peril from outside OR battered by individuals from within. And today’s Gospel passage gives us a glimpse into one of those earliest moments;

This passage occurs after Jesus has learned of the execution of his cousin, St. John the Baptist; it occurs after Jesus has fed the five thousand; Jesus has gone off to be alone in prayer and communion with His Father.  After praying all evening, He is returning to the disciples who are now in the middle of the Sea of Galilee in a boat; in the midst of a storm; and so He comes directly to them, walking across the water.

The ferocity of this storm is evident in this reading, as we know some of the disciples, particularly Peter were well-experienced sailors and fishermen; and they were afraid; now, in the middle of a raging storm, they see someone walking across the water towards them and they start to panic, and begin to shout in fear ‘it’s a ghost’!

But Jesus continues to come to them, speaking words of comfort in the midst of the wind; he tells them ‘be not afraid’…’it is I”.

There is a difference between conventional wisdom and wisdom of the Holy Spirit; and as in so many other passages we see a mixture of both of these with St. Peter.  First, he exercises prudence, a virtue and shows spiritual wisdom, rather than simply jumping into the sea;  He calls out to Jesus, testing the spirit as it were, and says,” Lord if it really is you, command me to come to you” – Peter knows he cannot simply get out on his own and walk across the water to Jesus, but he has discerned well enough that if it is really Jesus calling Him, then the power of Jesus will be enough to uphold him on the waves;

Having shown spiritual wisdom, Peter , the experienced fisherman, then throws worldly wisdom completely aside and gets out of a secure boat into a raging storm; and he actually begins to walk on water;

This is where Peter gets himself into trouble though; he feels the wind and the waves and realizes what’s happening; he starts to lose focus on who it was who called him out of the boat and onto the water, and starts focusing on the waves and wind and his own efforts; and as soon as he does that, he begins to sink.

Once again, Peter shows spiritual wisdom; rather than turning for the boat or shouting to the other disciples to throw him a rope, he calls out to Jesus “Lord Save me!” and the gospel says ‘Immediately”  – Immediately Jesus reached out and caught him and saved him;  Jesus brings him back to the boat, they get in, and the storm ceases. And at that point, all the other occupants of the boat, it says ‘worshipped him’.

The occupants of that boat on the Sea of Galilee at that point in history are the Church. And this little Church is in crisis – is being battered from the outside and the inside; battered from the outside by the storm surrounding the little boat; soon to be battered from the inside when we look at who makes up the Church in this little boat; Judas the traitor, Thomas the doubter, Simon the Zealot – but there is also John, the beloved Disciple; James, who will lead the infant Church in Jerusalem and be the first of the apostles to die for Christ ; and of course, Peter.  They have all met Jesus, walked with Jesus, lived with Jesus; they have witnessed many of his miracles, have heard his teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven; and yet, when the entire Church is beaten about by a storm, the only one who is willing to step out of the boat in trust, because Jesus is calling him, is Peter; and so Jesus saves Him;

But it may seem curious, why did Jesus bring Peter back to the boat?  Why not bring him to shore where it was safe, since Peter was the only one who had the courage to ‘get out of the boat’ in the middle of the storm in the first place?

Because now, Peter is back amongst the other members of the Church, and has a unique and intimate story of the saving power of Christ to share with them; Christ will continue to teach them, through Peter’s experience, through Peter’s WITNESS; it’s not hard to imagine that as time goes on, after this adventure, the other disciples would approach Peter  with their own questions; Peter has been strengthened by Jesus Himself, and will share this experience and this lesson in faith with them, and from it, they will have the opportunity to grow and develop in their own faith and prayer life.

But all of this would be impossible, without the movement of the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, in Peter’s life, and Peter’s willingness to be open to the power and the gifts of faith and hope and trust supplied by God through the Spirit.

God calls each of us to be with Him, to be holy; that is the general vocation of each and every human being on the face of the earth.  Some respond, some do not. But even within this call to holiness, God calls each of us to a more intimate and specific relationship – to a particular role in helping others to grow in grace and faith and in the love of God; to witness to His love for all people; to testify to the strength He gives to each of us to follow Him.

We may not be called to witness with our own blood for our faith; but there is no one , man, woman or child, who has not been faced with making a decision, big or small, which calls on us to decide between the wisdom of this world, or the love of God; in the middle of our own crises and storms; employment problems; financial difficulties; turmoil in our relationships; sickness; loss, personal tragedy; but also in the midst of our joys and celebrations; that’s when we need to look outside the boat and walk towards Jesus; He’s there calling us to step out of the boat, out of our own crises to bring them to Him; we can trust that He will always be there, reaching out immediately to hold us up if we begin to sink; strengthening us, and returning with us into our own little boats; helping us witness and minister to others, in our journey back to the Father, listening to His word’s of comfort in the midst of those storms,

‘be not afraid’.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

 

 

18th Sunday Ordinary Time (Year A)

This Sunday as we read the gospel account from St. Matthew of Jesus’ feeding the multitudes, we are given an opportunity to reflect on how we, living in a country of plenty, are being asked to help those in our world who do not have the most basic necessities of life – those who are starving.

 

We are being asked to help feed the hungry.  It seems we are always being asked to feed others; to feed them literally, physically- to give food to nourish the bodies of those who don’t have enough to survive; or we are asked to feed others who hunger for human contact, to feed them socially by giving of our time; we are asked as Christians to feed others spiritually – to give spiritual and moral support to those who either struggle in their faith journeys or who simply do not know Christ.

 

But often when we are asked to feed others, we tend to look at ourselves and say, ‘oh I can’t do very much.  Maybe I can only afford a modest donation, but how much good really will that small amount do?  Maybe people need someone to spend time in visiting them, but I only have an hour a week or a month to spare, and what good would so little time really do?  I don’t have formal education in theology or spirituality – what could the little I know possibly do to help another person in their faith life?  How much can my little contribution do in the face of so much overwhelming need?’

 

How much does this sound like the disciples’ response to Jesus in this gospel passage?  It’s late, there is a huge crowd present to hear Jesus’ teaching, and the people are hungry – physically and spiritually.  So, it makes sense to the disciples that this crowd be sent away, before they have their own crisis of hungry and tired thousands.

 

Jesus tells the disciples ‘They need not go away. You give them something to eat.”  It’s then that the response from the disciples sounds so familiar …”We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”   Note their wording – first they say they have nothing, then say well, we have something – five loaves and a couple of fish; it really isn’t enough…of course, there is a huge difference between having a little and having nothing.

But how much does the disciples’ response sound like, ‘my contribution is too small – I can’t give a lot of time – I don’t have enough knowledge’?

 

And Jesus responds to this ‘small’ offering with ‘Bring them here to me.” Bring those small amounts, those small gifts that you have to me.

 

It is through the involvement of Jesus, through His action, that this small offering becomes sufficient to feed this multitude of over five thousand men, women and children.

 

It is in taking that which is readily at hand – all that is available and given – and showing the disciples that there is nothing offered that is so small that it cannot work to God’s purpose to further the Kingdom.

 

He could have sent the crowds away, but He didn’t.  He could have had the disciples canvass the crowd to find out if anyone had any food with them, but he didn’t do that.  He could have used his power and authority and called down manna from heaven to miraculously feed this huge crowd; but He didn’t do that either.

 

Knowing that the disciples had something, He told them ‘You give them something to eat.”  He didn’t work some immediate sign and tell the crowds to come directly to Him and be fed.  He took what little there was, blessed and divided it, and then gave it back to the disciples to give to the crowds.  And in that action, there was enough for everyone, with some to spare.

 

Rather than handing the food directly to the people Himself, Jesus has the disciples feed them, illustrating the part that all who would call themselves His followers need to play. He takes their gifts, offered in love, transforms them and increases them to meet the needs of others; He involves them in a concrete and visible illustration of love of neighbour in their actions, which becomes a visible sign of their love for God.

 

We all have possessions; we all have time; we all have gifts; they vary in type and degree and amount, but we all have them.  We are asked to give what we can to build up the kingdom of God; to support the poor and the vulnerable, the weak and suffering, the lost and the lonely.  But as Christians we recall that even the disciples had to first bring those gifts to Jesus, and through Him, in the light of His love, to give them to those who needed them.  And we need to stop downplaying our own gifts as if they are insufficient or useless; they are gifts after all, given by God to each of us; given so that we can share them as a reflection of God’s love.

 

There are so many ways we can do this; there are always national campaigns for missions; there are projects in our own community; but we are always in need at the parish level too;  in need of volunteers to visit the elderly or homebound; to help bring Holy Communion to those who can’t attend Mass; to reach out and support each other in prayer and socially; to participate in ongoing ministries or programs or devotions; to help support the outreach and rebuilding projects your own parish. We only have to really read a parish bulletin to find out what initiatives there are in our own back yard.

 

Yes, we need to offer up our prayers of petition to God, asking Jesus to help us in caring for each other; we need to pray, asking for relief for the impoverished and the lonely and sick, shelter for the homeless; food for the hungry.

 

But we need to recognize that just as with the disciples in that gospel story, Jesus is saying to each one of us;

 

“You give them something to eat.”

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!