Feast of All Saints (Year B)

I had an acquaintance who once used to say, ‘our job as Catholics is to get to heaven, and to take as many people with us as we can’. I think this would be a fair definition of the baptismal calling that we all have; and that fundamental call is to holiness, to sanctity. Each one of us, by our very baptism, is called to be holy, to be a saint.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2683) begins to define saints as, ‘the witnesses who have preceded us into the kingdom, especially those whom the Church recognizes as saints’. Yet the church also says there are many who have lived lives of heroic virtue who are with God, known to Him, yet remain unknown to most of humanity. It is not to receive honours and praise from people that we strive to live a holy life, to be saints – it is so that we can be part of that great multitude that we read about in our first reading at Mass from the Book of Revelation – the great multitude from every nation that stands before the throne of God. This is the great gift of salvation that we receive through Jesus Christ, a gift we enter into through the sacrament of baptism, and become part of the communion of saints.

To often we give a kind of ‘caricature’ representation to saints; we consider them after their ‘conversion experiences’ and stories about them after their deaths and canonizations, and we forget they were real people with real concerns; often they were people who struggled much as we do with their own human weakness, and yet, through their prayer and faith and the grace of God, they grew to deepen their relationship and love of God in their day-to-day circumstances; we think of St. Augustine as a great doctor of the church, and forget that his youth was spent in a life of self-gratification; we think of St. Jerome translating the sacred scriptures and forget he was notorious for having a quick and violent temper; we speak of St. Francis of Assisi hugging the leper and forget he was petty and self-indulgent as a young man.

But through the gift of baptism, we become adopted children of God, and through the continuous gifts He gives us– as long as we are open to receiving them – we grow deeper in that relationship. As St. John says in his first letter, when God is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is, and as long as we have this hope in God, we purify ourselves. This is where we run into conflict with the ‘world’ because we see ‘purifying’ ourselves for God meaning to ‘give up’ things, to do without all the world offers – and our human nature tends to push back against this. This though, is a distorted mindset, because to grow deeper in love and closer to God is not to ‘lose’ anything; it is gaining everything – to be part of that great multitude seeing God as He is because we have become like Him.’ How could any worldly experience top that?

Jesus gives us a ‘blueprint’ if you will, for deepening this relationship, this love – it is recounted for us in today’s gospel account of the Beatitudes from St. Matthew -we learn that we are blessed, becoming more holy, more sanctified when we deepen these virtues; being poor in spirit, being meek, being merciful, being pure in heart… yet Jesus also states the result of our being more ‘blessed’ in God’s eyes; when choosing God’s ways over the world’s ways, we are reviled and persecuted, and ridiculed. We see that repeatedly in our own culture – in popular entertainment, in politics, and even sadly amongst those who claim to be people of faith.

Jesus doesn’t say being a saint is easy; in fact he says it can be the opposite – but if we truly desire to spend eternity with God, we need to begin living like we mean it in the here and now, starting today, in this moment, rather than waiting until some point in the distant future when we have had our fill of ‘the world’ and realize there is something more than the gratification of our senses in this life. We receive strength and glimpses of this eternity in the Sacraments, which is why the Church constantly reminds us to receive them, particularly Reconciliation and the Eucharist.

We need to be concerned about our own sanctity, to pray for the grace to live a life of virtue, and for others to be strengthened with this same grace; we need to ask others to pray for us, particularly the saints who have gone before us,, ‘the witnesses who have preceded us into the kingdom’.

There is a story that Pope St. John Paul II, in the midst of his pastoral travels that took him all over the world, fell ill between two of these trips. Doctors ordered him to rest in bed, but he was insistent that God had entrusted him with the mission to shepherd the people of this world to a closer union with God. When he decided to get up and resume his travels – which many thought was too soon – one of the nursing sisters entrusted with his medical care protested that he should set aside this mission and return to bed; she explained her concern saying, “I am worried about Your Holiness”, to which he replied, “I too, am worried about my holiness.”

On this feast of All Saints, may we too be as worried about our own holiness and the holiness of those we hold dear.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

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29th Sunday Ordinary Time (Year B)

There is a common bit of wisdom in a phrase that most of us have heard at one time or another; sometimes it is spoken in relation to our jobs, or our homes, or even our families. It often centres on our personal wants or desires, our goals or even our prayers: That bit of wisdom is, be careful what you ask for – you just might get it.

This expression suggests that often, there are implications to everything we wish or ask for, and quite often, we don’t understand those implications.   It also suggests that with thing or situation we want, we also receive additional work, or duties or responsibilities or difficulties.

Our Gospel illustrates this in the request of the apostles Sts. James and John to Jesus. These two brothers, the Sons of Zebedee ask Jesus to grant them seats at his right and his left when he enters into his glory.

In Jesus time, whenever anyone held a banquet, the places of honour were the seats next to the host. If the person hosting the banquet was someone particularly important, say royalty or a high official, the seats at his right and left hand were reserved for guests of the highest importance; it would be a way for all the others at the feast to see these particular guests and recognize how important (at least in the public eye) they were. James and John are asking for this particular place of honour, of high regard, of Jesus who they believe will come into glory as the Messiah; but the fact that they make this request at all shows they don’t fully grasp the meaning that Jesus is trying to teach them about the true nature of the Messiah; they are apparently caught in the notion of worldly importance and rank and prestige, assuming that this even applies to the Kingdom of God; that the Messiah will be a political and social leader and will establish a kingdom in a similar fashion to a worldly kingdom.

Even the way they make this request shows they don’t really yet understand who Jesus is: they start with ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”…in other words, they aren’t coming to Jesus in humility and offering themselves to His service; they are making a demand – trying to have Jesus bend to their wishes.

He follows with a question of His own; ‘are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” Of course, they jump right in and answer this with yes….they say ‘we are able’. Without taking the time to understand what it is that Jesus has even asked them, and without considering what sharing the cup or sharing His baptism really means.

Again in this culture, at a great feast, if a person of high rank hosted it, he would have a special cup, a prized possession. To be invited to drink from this cup was reserved to the most important guests, and was a sign of a high honour being bestowed by the host. It may be that this was the image of sharing the cup that James and John were thinking of.

Biblical scholars and historians tell us that James and John were once disciples of John the Baptist, likely present when Jesus was baptized in the Jordan. They would have been aware of the descending of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus and the Father’s voice ‘This is my beloved Son’, so of course, the image of Jesus’ baptism to them could have been one of identifying His greatness as God’s Son.

If these are the two images that were in their minds, and they were asking for recognition and honour, then it’s easy to see why they answered so quickly. It’s easy to see why the other apostles were a bit upset; likely because they were hoping for the same honours themselves. While they have committed themselves somewhat to Jesus at this point in His ministry, they still don’t seem to have understood much of his teaching , or even the prophets who pointed to Him; one of the more notable references to the true mission and nature of the Messiah comes from the prophet Isaiah, who lived about 500 years before Jesus, and who we read in the first reading: ‘it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain, when you make his life an offering for sin,…”…the righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.” These passages describe what has come to be known as the ‘suffering servant’; that the Messiah, Jesus, is that suffering servant.

But the cup that Jesus is talking about is the cup of his suffering, of service, and the baptism is an entering into His passion and death; because without the passion and crucifixion, there cannot be a resurrection. Without the suffering and the service, there cannot be a place in the Kingdom. This is the sharing of the cup and the baptism that Jesus is referring to; and he makes this point quite clearly when He tells the Apostles as a group, “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.”

And he really clarifies it with the next sentence: ”the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve; and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

It’s a life that all Christians are called into; and quite often we are okay with the first part of that last sentence…not to be served, but to serve’…but we have some difficulty with the second part ‘to give His life as a ransom for many.’

We know that as Christians, when we serve others, it is without expectation of being repaid, or without consideration of gaining some type of advantage over another. Sometimes this is difficult (especially in our materialistic culture) – to simply serve others completely for their benefit, not our own, because this is what is expected of those who ‘put on the mind of Christ’.   But the giving of our lives as a ransom for others takes some deeper consideration; maybe it even makes us a little afraid because it sounds like something so far beyond our experience. It sounds like something that is only in the realm of martyrs or great Saints in history. St. James from our Gospel was the first of the Apostles martyred, under Herod Agrippa in 44 AD, and his brother St. John would outlive all the other Apostles, ancient traditions tell us he survived two attempts on his life for witnessing to Jesus.

But parents who set aside their life’s personal ambitions or desires to dedicate themselves to raising their children should be familiar with this ideal. People who put aside their own wants and goals to care for an aging parent have touched on this ideal. Anyone who sets aside their own wants and comforts and dedicates themselves to the service of others as a lifestyle are definitely in touch with this ideal. In their own way, they have given their lives as a ransom for someone else. The goal though, is not to do it so that we are ‘owed’ something – not so that our children or parents or the poor or marginalized somehow are indebted to us, or that they or the Church or God are somehow obligated to us: we do it because we want to – we do it for the love of God and our neighbour as Jesus taught: and in doing that, in that service and giving of self, we enter into the mind of Christ:

This sharing of the cup and baptism of Jesus will not be without trials: Jesus never promised that it would be easy: but he led by example for each of us, and continues to teach and to lead us: in our second reading, St. Paul tells the Hebrews Jesus is able to sympathize with us in our weakness because he is like us in every way except sin: he was tested and hurt as we can be. But he is always there to approach, so that we may receive the grace to help us in times of need; the strength we need to persevere in sharing that cup and baptism. And if we really understand that in our heart of hearts, then it’s okay to ignore that conventional wisdom

We don’t have to be careful what we ask for: because if we ask for the grace and strength to follow Christ, we just might get it;

And we’ll get far more than we could possibly hope for.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

27th Sunday Ordinary Time (Year B)

People of a particular ‘vintage’ will be familiar with a response received from our parents when we asked if we could participate in a particular activity or go to a certain place with friends or classmates; we had to go, we would tell them, because everyone else was going, and we wanted to be ‘just like everybody else’. Often this was met with the response, ‘and if everybody else jumps off a bridge, will you too?’ This response was given because our parents were looking out for our best interests – perhaps the activity or place was not conducive to our well-being, our safety, or our health. It was meant out of concern and love. But the one thing I recall from this response, was that they never apologized for it. They never apologized for expressing their concern and love.

Our readings today, particularly the Gospel and first reading, deal with marriage, with the union of man and woman on a number of levels; it is from these readings among others, that the Church receives her understanding of what marriage is all about, particularly as a Sacrament, and what Church teaching is based upon. The Gospel, for example, seems to deal specifically with the question of divorce, and how Jesus speaks on the permanence of marriage – the connection St. Mark makes in relating Jesus answer to the question of divorce and in the example of openness of little children to the Kingdom of God is easily recognizable and obvious in the connection between the sanctity of marriage and the family.

But as with every passage of Scripture, there is always a greater depth that we can explore – a better understanding that each of us can take from the Living Word of God that speaks to our hearts and minds and helps us better appreciate what Jesus tells us through the teachings of our Catholic faith. Today we have a culture of disposability; we are bombarded by the media and a popular cultural myth that the way to happiness and fulfilment is to do what you want, when you want; enter into relationships without worrying about permanence or commitment because if things don’t work out the way we want them, then we can just bail out or walk away. Our faith tells us that the Sacrament of Marriage is a lifetime commitment; the intent when we enter into it, is an intent to a lifetime commitment; a permanence; a covenant – that’s what the Church teaches; yet our culture of disposability questions that; even sometimes ridicules it as an outdated or old-fashioned unrealistic concept; and often many Catholics feel (for some reason that I personally can’t understand), that they somehow need to apologize for the Church’s teaching on marriage, a teaching which comes directly from Jesus Himself.

The Pharisees in today’s Gospel passage ask Jesus about divorce based on a ‘permission’ that was handed down by Moses; they say to Jesus ‘Moses said a man could divorce his wife given certain conditions – what do you have to say about that?’ First off, they hold Moses as the great lawgiver, so they want to see if Jesus will contradict someone who handed down most of the laws on which their whole tradition is based; their question is not so much to understand really what Jesus teaches; their question is designed to ‘trip’ Jesus up – not so much a desire to honestly learn on their part, but to ridicule Jesus or discredit his teaching; to diminish his mission, and show that they know better. We see this time and again in the gospels; and we see it time and again in our society, even amongst Catholics who want Church teaching on faith and morals and the Sacraments to bend in their favour. This is the hardness of heart Jesus talks about.

The permission that the Pharisees speak of is from the book of Deuteronomy, in which Moses is trying to keep the children of Israel on track with God’s intent that they live righteous lives and remain pure and dedicated to him. But they live amongst numerous pagan cultures, cultures which embrace divorce as just another phase of relationships. The children of Israel, even after all that God has done for them, show their hardness of heart; they say to Moses ‘we want to be like everyone else…okay, granted God has given us alot; has blessed us abundantly, but that’s not enough…we want that and more, and we want it our way – just like everybody else.’ The truth is though, as God’s chosen people, they’re not like everybody else; but in order to diminish this demand to a lesser evil, and to give time for people to think before they act on a divorce, MOSES gives them permission, saying that they have to write up a writ or a legal document of divorce; and the grounds for this are ‘if the woman fails to find favour in her husband’s eyes’; the more conservative or orthodox groups interpret that as solely on the grounds of adultery – the more liberal groups, which were prevalent in Jesus time, interpret that to mean if she doesn’t please her husband for whatever reason, then he can divorce her.

Jesus totally rejects this, calls the Pharisees and the people on it, saying it was because of their hardness of heart that Moses made this provision in the law. Jesus tells them from the beginning, reflected in our first reading from Genesis, God created man and woman for each other; that they were intended by God to be united in a complementary relationship of mutual support and self-giving and caring; the words God uses for woman in relation to man as husband and wife in this creation account are helper and partner; REMEMBER this is before the fall – before humanity made a mess of everything and disrupted the purity and order that God established; before there was a need for the salvation brought by Jesus: even in this relationship, God gave humanity everything, and it still wasn’t enough; humanity displayed again this ‘hardness of heart’ and even damaged this mutual sharing partnership of marriage that God had established.

But Jesus reminds the Pharisees of God’s original intent in marriage between man and woman; and he reminds them, and us, that what God has united, people must not divide; He states the ideals here that God set out and makes no apologies for them. He uses the little child to tell the Pharisees, and us, that it is not in hardness of heart, but in opening our hearts to trust in what God has stated time and again through Scripture and through His prophets; that’s what being childlike is all about; that accepting what God has taught in open trust and wonder like a little child is how we enter into the Kingdom – not by demanding that we can be ‘like everybody else’ – not just on the question of Marriage, but in everything God has set out; everything that Jesus has passed onto His Church in the areas of faith and morals.

The great irony in this whole exchange is that, the Pharisees consider Jesus to be a product of his culture – a Galilean from a region where pagan culture may have polluted His ideas about God; that this carpenter’s son thinks he can interpret Moses’ teaching better than they can.

The reality that they don’t realize (and many in our own society overlook) is that Jesus is God; He is the second person of the Holy Trinity, and as God, He knows the mind of God; He knows what God intended; and when He speaks of what God meant from the beginning, He is speaking as the One in the beginning through whom all things were made. And it is from this exchange that Jesus, who is God, emphasizes the ideal of marriage between a man and a woman (as helpers or partners) and raises or elevates it to a Sacrament, not just a civil union or a contract. He made marriage sacred; he made it a sign which grants special graces from God; that He- Jesus-God – is present in the Sacrament of Matrimony; that’s why we celebrate the Sacrament of marriage in a Church; that’s why the Church teaches the ideal of the permanence of marriage; that’s why the Church teaches the family is sacred; and it is with the openness of a little child’s heart that Christ invites us to trust in the wisdom and the Divine intent of this teaching; handed down through His Church; He invites us to be open to the graces He gives to uphold this ideal, to live and support and proclaim this ideal, and like Him, like Jesus, to make no apologies for it.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

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!

more thoughts on the readings 6th Sunday Ordinary year B

(note: there are occasions when I have a researched and prepared homily, and come to the moment in the Mass to preach where the ‘prepared’ homily notes are set aside, and something else comes forth.  This past Sunday was one of those times -DC) I think sometimes when we read through the Gospels and encounter the miracles and words of Jesus that are recorded for us, very often we focus on the miraculous events or words in isolation – we look at the wonder of an event where Jesus is involved, and forget that there is more to these particular incidents.  Very often, I think we fail to realize that in everything Jesus said, and in everything He did, including miracles of healing, there were ‘real-time, real-world’ consequences for His actions in first-century Palestine. St. Mark records for us the healing of a leper by Jesus.  While we may focus on ‘what’ Jesus did, in this regard it is just as important to reflect on ‘how’ He did it, to get a sense of the consequences I am referring to.  Jesus did not simply heal this man with a word and a wave of His hand.  He touched the leper. This action in and of itself is the lesson that I want to focus on today.  Jesus knew that there would be reactions and consequences to His actions; he practiced His Jewish faith in His humanity, and so perhaps it is important to ‘back up’ a bit so that we can better understand the consequences Jesus faced. Our first reading from the Book of Leviticus relates how the Law handed down through Moses told the children of Israel during the Exodus how to deal with someone who was even suspected of having leprosy (perhaps not even having leprosy itself, but a skin rash that ‘looked’ possibly leprous).  They were to be set ‘outside the camp’ to live alone.  There was a practical reason, of course, in preventing the spread of disease among this pilgrim people as they travelled to the Promised Land. This injunction, though, effectively removed the person from the rest of the people, cutting them off from any interaction – socially, financially, culturally, etc.  Over time, this would evolve as Israel would, to the point that by the time the Temple was built, lepers (or those suspected of leprosy) were put outside the cities, towns and villages; they had no contact with their own people – they were cut off from religious celebrations and activities which were at the very heart of their nation and culture.  Lepers could most certainly not enter the Temple. Being sent off to separate areas they were, ‘out of sight and out of mind’. This could give rise to a mentality amongst those who were ‘well’ that could sound very familiar to modern ears; as long as these people were out in their isolated places,  it could become a matter of “if you get well, get well; if you die, then die – as long as I don’t have to deal with it and it doesn’t affect me directly, it’s not my problem or business.”  They had become disposable people. Likewise, people who touched lepers were considered ritually impure or at risk – they had to go through a period and rite of purification before they could participate in Temple worship.  We know that Jesus practiced His Jewish faith – we read examples throughout the Gospels, including this passage; He tells the man to present himself to the priests and make an offering according the Law of Moses.  Jesus is not setting aside the Law – He recommends its practice to this cleansed leper, as any observant Jew would have done.  Jesus, as an observant Jew would have been well aware that he risked being cut off from the people and the Temple by touching a leper. No doubt those around Him would have been saying, ‘are you crazy? Don’t touch this leper! You will be unclean and have to be purified!’  Jesus knew there was a consequence in the immediate moment.  He also knew that this man was cut off from his own people, his own community and family, and his own faith practice.  He knew it would result in some people avoiding Him or demanding He be separated from the community as well.  He knew these were ‘real’ consequences in that moment. He touched the leper anyway, and healed him. In doing so, Jesus restored the man to his family, his community, and to the opportunity to practice his faith, in a sense to be restored to his relationship with his neighbours and with God.  He did it deliberately; He did it with compassion; He did it with great love. Why would He do this?  He certainly didn’t do this just to display His power or spread His fame (He told the man not to tell anyone).  He did it to restore this man, because this man was a son of Israel, a child of God, a member of the human race.  With few words and in this simple gesture of touching a leper, Jesus made a bold statement for all time.  There are no ‘disposable people’ and that human life in whatever form it takes, has an inherent dignity, whether the rest of society recognizes it or not.  This was a moral lesson and statement on the need to put one’s own convenience second to the needs of our brothers and sisters. Less than two weeks ago, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the current law governing assisted suicide.  While not made up of the same individuals, this is the same ‘body’ that struck down our laws on abortion and marriage.  It’s anybody’s guess as to how this latest decision will end up, but anyone who suggests it won’t affect the most vulnerable members of our society is either incredibly naive or deliberately dishonest.  As a society (yes, Catholics, we are part of that society) we have handed off responsibility for our moral and ethical decisions as a nation to a panel of judges, established by politicians, less than 150 years ago. I don’t know about you, but I would rather look for guidance in what is moral, ethical, right and true from the Church, instituted by the compassionate Son of God, Christ Himself over 2,000 years ago. Our second reading from St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians tells us to be ‘imitators’ of Christ.  If we would truly claim to be His disciples, that ‘imitator’ of Christ is who we are called to be – it isn’t an option, it’s an obligation.  It means we are obliged to uphold the dignity of every human life, just as Jesus the Master did when he touched that leper; it means we are to do it at all times, in all places, recognizing that we, like Jesus , will have to face the consequences in witnessing to this truth – whether we face those consequences in our social settings, our workplaces or communities, perhaps even in our own families. Like Jesus, we are to do this, not from some sense of moral superiority or in a cruel or judgemental way; we are to witness, as the master did – deliberately, with compassion, and great love; and we ask Our Lord to grant us the strength and perseverance to imitate Him whatever the consequences. flag Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

6th Sunday in 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.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!