Day of Prayer, for Unborn Children’s Protection

Scripture Readings for January 23, 2017

Hebrews 9: 15, 24-28, Psalm 98:1-6, Mark 3:22-30

Is the world a good place or a bad place? Some days it’s hard to tell. As Catholics our faith says it’s a good place, God’s place. People familiar with the Bible might point to the creation story in Genesis as proof that God made everything good, very good. That’s one place you can go. I think today’s readings are another.

The Psalm says it most clearly, “The LORD has made his salvation known: in the sight of the nations he has revealed his justice.” We believe that the person, Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God and lived among us to demonstrate what salvation, joy and the kingdom of God really looked like. Everyone could see and experience him and what he did. Today even more than in his own time, the entire world knows about Jesus and what he stands for. So God certainly has revealed his justice and salvation for all to see.

However, that doesn’t mean that recognizing the Kingdom of God is obvious for everyone. It hasn’t been obvious at any point, including when Jesus was alive for all to see. That’s what the story in the Gospel today is all about.

The scribes who had come from Jerusalem had seen and heard about the miracles that Jesus was working and they came to the conclusion that what he was doing couldn’t be explained on natural grounds alone. These religious leaders who had an entire faith tradition of God’s saving actions and who were explicitly waiting for a messiah, came to the conclusion that what they were seeing was the work of the devil. That should tell us that recognizing God’s presence among us is not obvious. If seeing Jesus cure people, give people sight and drive out demons makes some people think it’s the devils work we should not be surprised that it isn’t obvious that the world is a good and holy place.

We, however, believe that Jesus is the Son of God which means we accept that God is here, in this life making a difference just as Jesus did when he was alive. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus points out that the good he does couldn’t be the devil’s work or the devil would be working against himself. More importantly, Jesus makes a remarkable statement of how the strong man of the house must be tied up. The point is that Jesus has tied up the strong man, the devil, so that Jesus can plunder his house, so that he can change what has gone on in the world. Which is to say that there are bad things, evil things in the world but that in the end God wins, whereas the devil, evil is vanquished. The only thing that stands in the way is to blaspheme against the Spirit. Meaning that if you don’t recognize the work of the Spirit you can’t enjoy the benefits of what that means. Recognizing the holiness of life means being able to see God in all of God’s creation.

The Spirit of God can change lives, heal wounds, give us new life but we have to be open enough to recognize it as God’s gift. Think of all that has changed in two thousand years: medicine to cure diseases, indoor plumbing, airplanes, phones to talk to anyone, anywhere in the world instantly, better understanding of human behavior, individual freedom, you could go on and on. The world is a more human friendly place than it was two thousand years ago. We should be able to say the world is good, we should be open enough to recognize God’s love all around us.

Monday, Second Week of Ordinary Time

Scripture Readings for January 16, 2017

Hebrews 5:1-10, Psalm 110:1-4, Mark 2:18-22

 At first glance these two readings can appear to be pretty far removed from our experience. At least that’s what I thought when I first read them. The Hebrews reading is about Jesus as priest and few of us are priests. Second, Mark’s Gospel is talking about how Jesus life on earth creates a special situation. His disciples don’t fast because of it. Since we live 2,000 years after Jesus of Nazareth walked among us it would seem the situation is long past being useful to us.

However, closer examination reveals that the two readings are more about the kind of relationships Jesus had with God the Father and with those around him. Let me explain.

In Hebrews the relationship is identified as a priestly relationship. The reading says, priests were understood as the people’s “representative before God, to offer gifts and sacrifices to him.” It’s still that way today. We expect priests to be the people with a special relationship to God. Although Hebrews is about being chosen as a priest it reminds us that every priest is chosen from among the people and that Jesus too “learned” and only over time was he “made perfect.” In other words, the topic is priesthood but the subject is Jesus who came as one of us, a human being just like us. Sometimes we can be tempted to think of Jesus as God, kind of temporarily, acting as a person. But that isn’t what Catholic teaching says. It says Jesus was a human being, with two natures. Christmas wouldn’t mean what it does if God were only pretending to be a person. The wonder is that the second person of the blessed trinity became a human being, born just like the rest of us, subject to the same difficulties and in need of the same learning and discipline as the rest of us. If that is true, then Jesus can more easily be seen as a model or stand in for us as Christians and the readings as examples of the kind of relationship we can have with God.

Mark’s Gospel tells of the time of Jesus own ministry and how it was unique. Jesus identifies himself as the bridegroom and he invites us all to this feast. He is being criticized because his life was an open invitation, like the meals he and his followers enjoyed. Like the meals, he told stories about the King who invites the ordinary people out in the streets to come to the wedding feast. By doing this, Jesus is changing the way people could expect to relate to God. Jesus, the ultimate priest, in Hebrews, is extending the invitation to all us to have that same priestly relationship with God. We are to be as it says in 1 Peter, “a kingdom of priests.” It is this extravagant welcoming behavior that raises the questions among those who follow John the Baptist and the Pharisees in the Gospel.

I think Mark is trying to remind us that Jesus came to bring Good News, which is what the word Gospel means. Jesus didn’t come to ask us to fast, suffer or feel guilty about our mistakes. Jesus came to invite us to a great feast that God offers. Using the marriage analogy opens to a great wealth of interpretation. It isn’t that being married is always easy but rather that the two people are happy together, share a life together and can say over time, we are good for each other and as a result we are better individuals because of it.

This world is not a perfect place, but unless we begin by acknowledging that we are blessed just to be here, that life is a gift that opens to wonderful possibilities we will have a hard time coming to the kind of close personal relationship that God wants to have with us. Together these readings suggest that the relationship with God can have the power and wonder we have thought of in terms of priesthood, but extended to be a banquet for all. This world, this life is God’s gift to us. The first thing we should do isn’t to give up something or restrict our behavior. The first thing we should do, is say thanks.

Thursday, First Week in Ordinary Time

Scripture Readings for January 12, 2017

Hebrews 3:7-14, Psalm 95:6-11, Matthew 1:40-45

Today’s readings are stories of compassion. The story from the Old Testament is familiar. God has led the Israelites out of Egypt, freeing them from oppression. This is recounted ironically in the complaints voiced both in the Hebrews reading with a quote from Psalm 95 and then using the Psalm itself as the Psalm of the day. Finally, the Gospel tells another story of how a person with leprosy asks for help and Jesus compassionately cures him. Both stories are examples of God taking care of God’s people in concrete everyday life saving situations.

I think it is important to recognize the emotional component in Jesus’ actions. Mark says Jesus was “moved with pity.” Jesus operates out of a personal concern and care for people he meets. He is not a miracle making machine out to light up the country side. Hence, the admonition to just go see the priest and perform the rituals that the Law of Moses requires. He is doing this for this person but otherwise things are expected to stay the same. He’s not trying to break the mold, or issue some kind of challenge to the religious establishment. At least not in this action for this man. It’s a personal response. I think that is very important for us to recognize. Because it opens a better way of understanding God’s relationship with us at all times. I suspect that we can think of God’s saving history with humanity as, “what God does.” As in the first reading when God may be angry but God doesn’t abandon God’s newly freed people.

I certainly don’t want to shake the idea that God acts to give us better lives as part of who God is. But I think we need to nuance it somewhat. I think we need to see God’s action, as unbelievable at this may sound, as a personal, emotional response to the one being helped. This is not about building a highway so we can all get around better. It is laying one stone in the water so this person can cross.

God’s gifts are personal, individual to each of us, heart felt offers to make a life better. That is why the Psalmist calls out, “Oh, that today you would hear his voice.” We are asked to be in conversation with this God. God is saying, “Let’s be friends.” Too often we can’t believe or accept that such an offer is real. We do what the Psalmist deplores, we “harden our hearts” like the Israelites in the desert. Having been saved from their Egyptian oppressors they complained about conditions in the desert, they tested God.

The man with leprosy offers a better model. So giddy with being cured he goes off and tells everyone. The trick is to do what the author of Hebrews advises, “hold the beginning of the reality firm until the end.” If we are blessed enough to see and hear what God has given us then we must hold on to that reality in today’s world for each of today’s situations. Isn’t that was we do with a friend who cares for us?

It’s also why prayer is so important. Like a conversation with another person, prayer is specifically a time when we adopt a one-on-one stance towards God. By praying we acknowledge the personal relationship just as the leper did by asking for help and, in fact, as the Israelites did by complaining to God about their situation. God already considers the relationship personal. The issue is, will we?