25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B)

Being identified with a role in relation to someone else is something we all encounter: it’s probably most common to parents when their children start school – you’re not John or Cathy, but ‘Billy’s parents’ or Mary’s Mom or Dad ; an experience where we are identified in relation to another person or group; it happens as we grow and go to school, or work, or are involved in different social activities – you’re John’s brother or Mary’s sister; Bill’s grandmother – Tom’s wife; Sally’s husband….and there is something in our human nature that sometimes gets concerned….a kind of fear that we have lost our own identity; and in our society that fear is fanned into a flame; don’t lose your individuality – your self; being identified in relation to the other means taking a secondary place, and that’s somehow not right….put yourself first;

But over time, particularly as we look through the lens of our Catholic faith, we can see that this identification in relation to another is not really a loss, but an expanded identity; a bigger reality: it’s a reminder of a role; a connection to another; a life of service in love that we have in relation to others, to the greater whole. Even in a name like Father Joe or Deacon Bob; if we grasp these “titles “as a means of gathering respect or prestige that’s wrong. But when anyone calls us Father, or Deacon , it reminds us of our promise to serve God and others with our lives; that it is a means of holding ourselves to account that we are servants to God and His people; that this is not about power or prestige.

In today’s Gospel, we hear how the apostles were arguing amongst themselves who would be the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven; maybe we can imagine how the argument or dispute plays itself out….’I was the first one called, so I will be first’…”I had influence over the lives of hundreds of taxpayers, so my talents will put me over others’…’I’m his favorite – he called me the beloved disciple, so if I’m beloved, I’m definitely going to be first’…’ our Mom asked him to put us at his right and left hand so we’ll obviously be at the top’……a completely disordered way of looking at the Kingdom; and at some level, the apostles know this type of thinking is inherently wrong, because they talk amongst themselves; they don’t want Jesus to hear them…in fact, when they get to Capernaum he says to them, ‘what were you arguing about?’…he knows they were arguing and knows what they were arguing about, but he gives them an opportunity to recognize how wrong their argument was in the first place…..obviously they know there’s something wrong with their thinking because even when he asks what they were arguing about, they remain silent; they’re ashamed; they’re embarrassed; they realize they were again thinking, not as God thinks, but as humans think.

The ultimate point of their argument is really rather silly; they argue who will be the greatest in the Kingdom of God, when the answer is really self-evident: the greatest in the Kingdom of God is God…..there is only God in union with His children; there is no second best: but this desire to be the greatest goes right back to the early stories of creation, to the fall of Satan in his sin of pride, wanting to be the greatest in heaven.

Perhaps they are afraid of losing their self identity in the kingdom, that somehow their self identity is what gives them influence and power. But Jesus teaches that this is a false sense of identity – that the truest expression of who we are is in our relationship to God and others: And when we start to grasp to what gives us worldly influence and power, we lose connection with our true identities, the identities we have as Sons and daughters of God, as brothers and sisters of Jesus, as children of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus drives this point home to the apostles at the house in Capernaum by placing a child in their midst and he tells them (and us) to accept the child in His name. This story is about our relationship with others for the love of God. Jesus uses the harsh reality of first century Palestine; we have a difficult time understanding this reality in our church which places a high value on children and their care and nurturing.

But children in this culture, in the eyes of the world, had no status: in fact, some slaves, depending on their position in their master’s house, were more highly valued. Children had no influence, no authority, no position, no prestige; so when one welcomed these ‘little ones’ they were welcoming someone who had nothing of material gain, nothing of influence or privilege, who brought nothing of worldly value into the relationship. They could only bring themselves – their true selves; they were welcomed simply for who they were; simply because they were children of God.

And Jesus teaches the apostles that when one welcomes one of these little ones in His name, they are welcoming Jesus, and in turn welcoming God .

To receive them for any other reason is to substitute that other reason for God;

To welcome someone simply because of what they can do for me is to put that false self identity ahead of God.

This is at the very heart of Jesus teaching, and the Church’s teaching on our relationships with others, but in particular, our relation to the poor; whether their poverty be material or spiritual: that we welcome and serve the ‘lowly –or children – or the littlest in the Kingdom’ precisely because they have nothing worldly to offer; we accept them solely for Christ’s love.

It is those with nothing and those who are attached to nothing other than their identity as children of God who are first in the Kingdom; in their love for God they serve God and others because that is who they are; their identity is in their relationship with God;

It is in this role, then, that we can really see the value and importance of our own roles in service to each other. Rather than thinking as the world thinks, that we lose our own identity when we’re introduced as ‘so-and-so’s parent or child or friend’, we can see this as an identification of our giving of ourselves to each other; that it is not a negative- it’s a real positive – something to celebrate; imagine, if people identified us as ‘oh, there’s Joe or Sue; they’re Jesus’ friend or they’re God’s son or daughter’: would we be so insistent as to say ‘no I’m not – I’m my own man or my own women? As Catholics of course, the answer to that is obvious. Would we grasp that identity as a means of holding power over others; or would we accept it as the truth that all we have comes from God and we simply give it back to the One who gave it to us in the first place?

So perhaps in the week ahead, we can set a goal for ourselves to be welcoming as Jesus tells us, to someone specifically because they can not offer us anything in return; to see in these ‘little ones’ Jesus Himself; and reflect on surrendering our own individual ‘identities’ to truly become brothers and sisters of, and in, Christ.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever

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24th Sunday Ordinary Time (Year B)

In a large parish church, there was an usher who, one Sunday, was helping people find seats before Mass as usual; he noticed an elderly woman, who he had never seen before, walking to the front of the church, seating herself in the very front pew, directly in front of the pulpit. The usher, trying to be his usual helpful self, went to the woman and quietly said to her, “Ma’am, you might not want to sit there; the priest in this church has a reputation of being very loud, and having long, drawn-out homilies.”

The woman looked quite indignant, and said to the usher, “do you know who I am?”

No ma’am” he replied. “I’m that priest’s mother.” The usher responded, ‘well ma’am do you know who I am?’ “No,” she answered.‘ Good’ said the usher, ‘let’s keep it that way.’

Often in our human nature, we like to be associated with talented people, with gifted people – people who are held in high regard by others, whether it be in a social setting, at work or school. It’s nice to have a ‘famous friend’ or a friend who is ‘popular’ – someone who is ‘connected’ or has influence in our community or country. It is as if, simply by being associated to that person, our own social standing or influence is increased. People seek our opinion on things or our input because if we are friends with such an important person, then we must be just as wise or talented or qualified.

Contrast that with being associated with someone who is not successful, or who is not held in high esteem – maybe even looked down upon by the rest of the community- either for their living conditions, their apparent lack of influence, or lack of resources or talents; if we are associated with them, then people tend not to seek us out; they don’t necessarily want our opinions or advice; they might not listen to us when we have something important to say.

It is, as the saying goes, ‘guilt by association’.

This scenario plays itself out in today’s Gospel passage from St. Mark. Jesus’ public ministry is well under way, and as He is travelling with His disciples, He asks them who the people think He is. The disciples respond that the crowds are comparing Jesus with the great Prophets of Israel – or maybe that He is one of these biblical ‘greats’ risen again and walking among them.

Then Jesus makes it more direct and personal – ‘Who do you say that I am?” And it is Peter who answers “You are the Christ” meaning the Messiah.

Now the people up to then thought the Messiah was going to be a great political and religious leader, one who would put Israel in the forefront in world power – to greatness among the nations.

In the next exchange, Peter demonstrates he too doesn’t fully understand what that means – when Jesus says the Christ – the Messiah – must suffer and die and rise again. Peter ‘rebukes’ Jesus, saying ‘this can’t happen.’

Like most people, Peter might want to be associated with the Messiah who is going to triumphantly lead his people. He wants to be close to the great leader – it boosts his self-esteem and public standing. Who would want to be associated with one who is rejected by his own people and persecuted and condemned to die as a criminal? Who would want that ‘guilt by association’?

Yet, this, as Jesus points out, is what it means to truly be His disciple. That being a follower of Christ is not to be privileged or powerful in the worldly sense. It is not about seeking comforts and pleasures for ourselves as our main goal in life. It is about emptying of self for others; it is about associating and caring for those who the world rejects – the neglected, the poor, the isolated, the lonely – those who have no one to speak up for and advocate for them.

If we see someone being victimized or neglected in our workplaces or schools or communities, it is not enough to simply not get involved in the victimization or neglect. We are expected to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves. We can’t, as Christians, simply say, ‘well, everyone else was persecuting that person, but I didn’t join in,’ – ‘yeah, okay, I might have kept silent, but at least I didn’t join in with the others’ as if that’s enough; it’s not.

Supporting the outcast doesn’t mean agreeing with their lifestyle or their opinions or attitudes – but it does mean caring for them simply because they have the right to be treated with the dignity of a human being – as a child of God.

It might mean that in caring for – and associating with- the outcast and the neglected and the most vulnerable members of our society, that we too become outcast and neglected, and perhaps even persecuted. (Just ask members of the pro-life movement, or who publicly support traditional marriage.)

But that’s exactly what society did to Jesus 2000 years ago, and in many ways, continues to do today to Jesus and those who truly follow Him in their words and actions. That’s part of the cross that He carried – it’s the same cross we must carry, if we would truly be His disciples.

The difference between those who heard Jesus’ message in this story, and us, is that we now have the benefit of knowing about the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ; that being associated with Him, being His followers, means inheriting eternal life, spending eternity with Him in the presence of God; and that’s a friendship – an association- that we all want to be ‘guilty of’.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

23rd Sunday Ordinary Time (Year B)

I would be hard-pressed to tell you what my favorite part of being a deacon is; the opportunity to serve God and His Church through outreach, through ministry and liturgy; there’s nothing that I don’t enjoy. But if I had to pick one thing, baptism of infants would rate right up there. And while the whole Rite is a tremendous joy to celebrate, my favorite prayer comes near the end, when I touch the child’s ears and mouth: this prayer, prayed by the deacon or the priest is called the Ephphatha rite ; and the words are

“The Lord Jesus made the deaf hear and the mute speak.

May he soon touch your ears to receive his word,

And your mouth to proclaim his faith,

To the praise and glory of God the Father

Amen.”

The incident in today’s passage from St. Mark’s Gospel not only recounts a physical event or moment in history; it speaks not only of a physical miracle of healing; it speaks not only of a fulfillment of prophecy that would identify the Messiah –it speaks to the invitation to not only hear God speaking to each and every one of us in our broken-ness; it speaks to the response we are each called to make in hearing God.

The man that Jesus heals in this account lives in the Decapolis, or the Ten Towns in the region near the Sea of Galilee. This particular region was populated not only by Jewish people, but by other cultures; Syro-Phoenicians, Canaanites – people from pagan cultures. And because this population regularly mixed, the Jews of this region were looked down on by those closer to Jerusalem in the south of Palestine as being of lesser religious ‘value’ – kind of a case of ‘guilt by association’; the Pharisaic wisdom would be something like this… if they lived near and with pagans, then they were most likely weak in their religious observances, or unclean. Of course as we see in this Gospel as elsewhere, this isn’t an obstacle to Jesus in granting healing or in calling others to follow Him.

In this healing , the man is brought to Jesus by others; somewhat paralleled in our own Rite of Baptism, where those to be baptized are brought forward by others, whether it be by parents for infants, or by family or sponsors for older children or adults in the RCIA process. But someone introduces the man to Jesus; and Jesus touches him, healing him, by commanding the man’s ears to ‘Be opened’ or in the Aramaic word ‘Ephphatha’.

He then heals the man’s tongue so that his impediment is removed and he can speak clearly or properly.

But what is he expected to speak about? He’s expected to use his ears to hear the word of God and his mouth to speak of God. In his broken-ness he is spoken to and healed directly by God in the person of Jesus, the living Word of God, and is given the gift of speech to proclaim God’s goodness.

It doesn’t matter about his past life, his cultural background, his choice of geographic location to live in; what matters is that he is introduced to Jesus; Jesus opens him up to hearing His word and opens his mouth to proclaim. And that’s about as good a definition of a vocation as you will get.

We all have a calling from God. Each and every person in the world has a call to come closer to God, to enter into His holiness. That’s what each and every person has been called to since the fall of our first parents. But we are also called in a more particular way, to a specific path.

We are not all called to the same thing or called in the same way. But in order to hear the call, we need to hear the words of Jesus ‘Ephphatha’ – ‘Be opened’. But with that call, that ‘being open’, something is expected; we must not only hear the word, but like the man whose tongue was healed, we need to do something with that word.   And here’s the paradox – the only work we need to do in this is to say yes to being opened to hearing what God calls us to do. We say ‘yes’ and God does the rest, including the opening; God provides the grace to act on that call, that word – if we are opened enough to say yes to God. If we are truly opened, then He will provide the direction and the guidance and the graces we need to proclaim the praise and glory of God the Father.

And how do we proclaim Him? We do it by our words, by our actions, by our life.

We all receive a different call – a call that is as unique as the one receiving it;

We pray for vocations – and in that prayer, we ask God to open the ears of the hearts of those he calls, that they ‘Be opened’ to hear his call, and be given the grace to follow that call.

We are not all called to a priestly, diaconal or religious vocation: married life is as much a vocational call. So is remaining a single person, but we are all called to serve God and our neighbors in whatever state of life or occupation God has called us to. In our work, our schools, our homes, our social lives, our families, we are all called to be open to what God is calling us to do, and to seek the grace to put what we are called to into action, to do it for God’s glory.

So I would like to repeat again those words from the Ephphatha rite in prayer ;

“The Lord Jesus made the deaf hear and the mute speak.

May he soon touch your ears to receive his word,

And your mouth to proclaim his faith,

To the praise and glory of God the Father

Amen.”

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!