5th Sunday Ordinary Time (Year B)

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

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

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

We might look at some gifts as our right to have, sometimes placing demands or conditions as if God owes them to us ; sometimes we might even treat gifts as if we don’t appreciate them; imagine how we would feel if after handing someone a present, they responded with, ‘ you gave me this? This isn’t what I wanted…”

Other times, we focus so intently on the gifts that we receive, that we lose sight of who gave them to us; We fall in love with the gifts, rather than the Giver.

Our first reading today is a passage from the Old Testament Book of Job; in this passage, Job is speaking with three friends and is commenting on the shortness of our lives on earth compared to eternity; taken only in itself, and not read in the context of the entire book, this is probably one of the most depressing pieces of Scripture you could read, “…I am allotted months of emptiness and nights of misery are apportioned to me..,”

Not terribly uplifting language. But to understand it in its context, the Book of Job relates how Job was very faithful to God, and was wealthy with estates and crops and livestock and children….the Old Testament image of a successful person blessed by God. A conversation occurs between God and the devil, in which the devil insists that the only reason Job is so faithful to God is because Job has so many gifts and blessings; the devil claims Job is in love with the gifts, not the Giver.

So the devil is given permission to influence Job’s life – Job loses his riches and his family, but still will not speak out against God – no doubt we’re familiar with the line “the Lord gives and the Lord takes away”…this is where it comes from.

God tells the devil that Job is still faithful and holds him up as an example – but the devil comes back with ‘ Job is only still faithful because he still has his health, and that gift is the only reason Job still praises you…’ so the devil is given permission to further tempt, and this time Job loses his health. And during this time, while he doesn’t praise God, he doesn’t speak out against God, until his friends visit him.

These friends could be looked at as our own society. They focus on the loss of gifts, as if these are the only measure of God’s love for Job. They speak out in judgment, trying to rationalize why Job is suffering….maybe he did something wrong and God is punishing Job, or maybe Job should question God or maybe demand an explanation from God……and eventually, Job agrees and demands to know from God why he has lost all of the gifts he once had….

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The dialogue between God and Job gives much food for thought…..it begins with God saying ‘who is this who darkens my counsel….” I will answer your question if you answer mine first…where were you when I laid the foundation of the universe? Where were you when I created all things? Was it you that I sought advice from before creating life?..and on it goes for several chapters.

The dialogue eventually ends with Job basically saying ‘You’re right God…you are God, not me, and you create and build for your own purpose, not mine. Thanks for gifts you did give me – all I ever had, I received from You in the first place.

In other words, You are the Giver, God, not me…all is gift and my focus should be on you, not on what you have or have not given to me.’ Your gifts are yours to give, not mine to take.

It is because of this sense of gratitude, then that God restores everything to Job, but God is not pleased with the three ‘friends’ who gave Job all of their advice….and you can read further in this book.

And yet, the response of the friends is a very common, human response. Instead of simply being present to Job in his suffering, they want to rationalize it, to provide a reason from a human standpoint…at no time do they comment on all of the blessings and gifts that Job had. At no point do they even try to comment that while they can’t give a reason for this ‘turn of fortune’, that Job should trust that God still loves him. It is as though the gifts were the sole measure of the relationship between Job and God. It is as though without gifts, the relationship was unimportant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We have gifts at every Mass; we have a miracle at each and every Eucharistic celebration, when through the power of God, bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Jesus, Our Savior. We receive and hear the living Word of God proclaimed in the readings. We gather to worship, and in that gathering of two or more Christ Himself is in our midst. The Church has all of these gifts, they are a constant. But they are not ours to demand or take – that are God’s gifts, freely given out of love for each of us.

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

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

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

that the Giver is the ultimate gift.

emmaus meal

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

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Epiphany

Quite often we don’t see or stop recognizing great things in our own midst; it happens time and again in our Church; but it also happens in our communities or workplaces, even in our own homes and families….we expect that greatness comes from somewhere outside, and that which is within while, a ‘good effort’ is not something that we see as ‘great’ or ‘earth shaking’ because perhaps we’re too close to it to recognize the effect it has on others.

Today we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany; the occasion recorded for us in the Gospel of St. Matthew, when magi, or wise men, from foreign lands, traveled to Bethlehem – they were following a star which had appeared, and which, to their science and learning and wisdom of the time, would indicate something of tremendous importance to the entire world – most likely the birth of a great King, or someone even greater.  The Magi, scholars tell us, most likely traveled from Persia, which is modern day Iraq, and were learned men.  They were possibly of great importance, as the Gospel records they had a private audience with King Herod; not something ordinary ‘scientists’ would have been invited to.  In their culture and time they were well educated, and were drawn by their knowledge and obvious dedication to their studies to travel to see the outcome or result of this wonder in the heavens.  Here we have an early example that science and religion are not polar opposites…God created all things, and in the natural world, uses it to draw those with open minds who seek the real Truth, closer to Himself.  He draws the Magi from their own lands and brings them to Bethlehem, where He reveals Himself to them through the Sacred Scriptures in prophecy, and in the person of Jesus Christ.  And despite what their science and studies have taught them, despite what their religious practices were prior to that moment, the Gospel says, ‘they knelt down and paid him homage…”They worshipped Him.  These Gentiles who were not from among God’s ‘chosen people’ were in awe of the work of God; of God entering into our humanity.  These ‘outsiders’ recognized the wonder of God, while the ‘insiders’ did not.

 This theme of foreigners, of non-Jews, of Gentiles being drawn into relationship with God is spoken of in prophecy by Isaiah in our first reading, “nations shall come to Your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn…”. More than 700 years before the birth of Christ, Isaiah writes of how all nations will be coming to God through His Messiah – that it will not be salvation for Israel alone, but for the whole human race.  St. Paul too picks up this theme, writing for the Ephesians, when he says, ‘the Gentiles have become heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus.’

Here was the promised Messiah, the promise God had made through His prophets and Sacred Scripture, and he was largely unrecognized, unappreciated, and rejected by those in His own country and culture, who should have been the ones to recognize who He was in their midst.  St. Matthew almost screams this out in his writing of his Gospel, particularly from the beginning – he backs up each mention of a circumstance of Jesus conception, birth, the visits of the magi, all of it , with references to what the prophets said in scripture earlier….in this particular Gospel passage for example, speaking of his birthplace, St. Matthew quotes the prophet Micah, ‘and you, Bethlehem in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.”….time and again, in His gospel, written for a Jewish audience, St. Matthew is saying ‘See…we should have know right from the beginning that Jesus was the one promised by God – the prophets all pointed to him, his life bore out what the prophets said about him…right from the beginning; and because he was humble and in our midst, we never saw who he truly was….it was those from outside, from foreigners, from Gentiles that those who worshipped Him first came from.”

There was someone though, in Israel, who was open to the possibility that the child born in Bethlehem was truly of great importance.  And this is where we have one of the greatest contrasts in the Scriptures; of the opposing choices that everyone faces with the possibility the Christ has entered into our world and into our lives; in contrast to the homage paid to the new-born King of kings by the magi, we have the reaction of King Herod, the great.

Unlike the rest of the nation at the time of Jesus’ birth, who largely ignored Him, and unlike the Gentiles, the non-Jews who are the first in Matthew’s Gospel to honour Christ, King Herod seeks to destroy Jesus.

 A bit of a historical context can even help us to more fully appreciate this episode from the Gospels.

Herod’s family ruled in Palestine from about 40 BC until the late 50’s AD.  They were Arabs who had converted to Judaism, and ruled the territory with the permission of Rome. Through political maneuvering, Herod had achieved the power he had, and was a close ally of the Emperor Augustus.  Historians of the time, among them Josephus, and Tacitus, as well as other writers, provide us with an image of Herod; he was paranoid, power-hungry and absolutely ruthless; although he was Jewish by conversion, whenever he acted contrarily to the laws of their religion, if the religious leaders were bold enough to point this out, Herod would simply execute them by the dozens.  He would go to lengths to prove to the Romans that he could be just as merciless as they were, crucifying scores of people on the outside walls of his palace.  Herod even had one of his wives executed, along with some of his young sons on separate occasions; and their crime? He feared they were more popular than he was.  Herod sought permission from Rome at one point in writing, to execute two of his sons, which caused the Emperor Augustus himself to comment, “I would rather be Herod’s pig than one of his sons…”

But Herod was a builder too, constructing a great fortress at Masada, and of course, rebuilding the great Temple in Jerusalem, a project which would take 46 years to complete.  But we have to look at his motives; Herod, the convert, raising a great edifice that people would marvel at, come to and no doubt, recognize him for building; it was a way for him, so he thought, to control God too – to use God and worship of Him to keep his own subjects happy and to place his own people in the religious leadership to solidify his influence.   Trying to bend God to his will, rather than surrendering his will to God’s.

The trouble was, now the prophecies pointed to this unknown child in Bethlehem coming as God’s promised Messiah who would lead, not only Israel, but all people.  The problem was that Herod, like the rest of the leadership of Israel, didn’t understand that the Messiah was not to be a political ruler, but something far greater.  And because he didn’t understand that, that he feared his grasp on power and his personal ambitions would be lost, rather than try to be open to what God’s will was for him, Herod sought to destroy the child, through what we have come to call the massacre of the innocents, all of the boys in Bethlehem two years and under. 

The irony is that while Herod is in the middle of His tremendous project of rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem – a temple of bricks and mortar where the inner Holy of Holies was where the glory of God was believed to dwell – here he was plotting and attempting to destroy the living Temple of God in the person of Jesus, the Son, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity…..because the call to holiness for all people, to return to God, did not fit in with Herod’s personal  plans , ambitions and insecurities.

For all of us, it really comes down to these choices; we can ignore Christ among us as most of Palestine did at His birth- and as our consumerist society tells us to do today;  we can reject and seek to destroy any influence He has in our lives as Herod did –as our modern relativist and secular societies do; or we can seek Him out in faith and reason – as the magi did- and worship and pay homage to Him when we discover Him in our midst.  When we have the opportunity to recognize, to approach, to worship Him, particularly in His Church and His Sacraments, we can do so with joy and the awe of that Epiphany – of that discovery that we know with our minds and can feel in the depths of our hearts…that we can approach and place ourselves before Christ at any time; and that His Church and His Sacraments are wonders and miracles and glories that we are given, to approach each and every day of our lives.

 magi

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!