Tuesday, Second Week of Lent

Scripture Readings for February 27, 2018

Isaiah 1:10, 16-20, Psalm 50:8-9, 16-17, 21, 23, Matthew 23:1-12

When I first read today’s readings my reaction was, boy this is really heavy Lenten stuff. The readings present a clear challenge of turning our lives around. Turning from bad behavior to good behavior. But then I got defensive about it, I don’t know that my behavior is all “that bad”. I don’t think I have lots of really crimson sins or scarlet letters that need wiping away. Getting defensive kind of stopped me. Then after a little bit of time I read it again.

This time I noticed the very first words of Isaiah, “Hear the word of the Lord” and I noticed that what the Lord was saying was, “Come now, let’s set things right.” I realized that the readings weren’t so much about us and what we may or may not have done in the past. These readings are about moving forward and how God views our lives. When Isaiah talks about crimson red becoming white as snow or scarlet becoming white as wool it seems to me he is talking about the change itself. The subject is who we are now and not what we have done in the past. It suggests that what is important is our responding to God in this moment regardless of past behavior. That’s why even the worst of sins, those crimson and scarlet things, can become white as snow, because God wants us to be part of God’s plan, part of God’s life right now and going forward.

I think the message here is God doesn’t carry a grudge but makes all things new in this moment. We simply have to listen to God’s instruction today and respond. To do otherwise is to give past behavior power over our present. Worry and guilt about what we’ve done or should have done creates a burden God doesn’t see. It’s why Jesus in the Gospel is so hard on Pharisees and Scribes because they had gotten all caught up in what is required, rules that meant listening more to other people instead of God. As leaders they worried about what other leaders would say, they looked for approval from others and therefore became more concerned about how things looked than for the real needs of other people. They were being hypocrites, betraying their tradition by letting the past tradition supplant what God was doing in the current moment, what people needed right now.

So Jesus’ advice is that we simply work together as servants of each other to help where needed, since none of us has the final answer or the ultimate truth. Our challenge is to “hear the word of the Lord”. That word can come to us in lots of ways: a reading from Scripture, a surprising family situation, a person in need, a friend offering to help. Life itself presents God’s word to us and we have to be ready to grasp it and respond. We have to do what the Psalm says, “Go the right way” and I would add, do it right now. Go the right way, right now. In the present moment respond to what God is asking of us and don’t worry about what came before. When we do that it will be like we wash ourselves clean and as our Psalm says, encounter “the salvation of God.”

 

Ash Wednesday

Scripture Readings for February 14, 2018

Joel 2:12-18, Psalm 51: 3-6, 12-14, 17, 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2,

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

Is anyone confused by today’s gospel? Jesus says in three different ways, don’t parade your religious practices around for others to see: don’t trumpet your alms giving, don’t make a show of your praying, and when you fast don’t make it appear like you are fasting. Yet here we are at Ash Wednesday and many of us will receive a great big cross of ashes on our foreheads. That isn’t exactly praying behind closed doors where no one will see. You can be sure everyone is going to see ashes all over your forehead.

So why does this reading question public displays of almsgiving, prayer and fasting when that is exactly what Lent asks us to do? Perhaps this story of Jesus teaching about traditional acts of piety isn’t about being modest or unassuming in our religious practices?

The first thing I noticed when I spent time praying with this reading was the repetition of the word, hypocrites. We have three different religious practices, almsgiving, prayer and fasting. But we have one type of behavior that keeps getting criticized, being a hypocrite. Whatever Jesus may be saying about almsgiving, prayer and fasting we know he finds fault with hypocritical behavior.

Every time the almsgiving, prayer or fasting is secret or hidden, it is rewarded by God.  When it is done for others to see, it is considered hypocritical behavior. I think, Jesus is saying the key to the value of our actions is the attitude we have in doing it. Unlike the hypocrite, our thoughts, our feelings, the hidden inner, secret part of us should match what we do in the open.

Jesus isn’t promoting hiding our almsgiving but rather a giving to others that expresses our real concerns. Jesus isn’t against public prayer, he wants our prayer to be about who we are. Jesus isn’t worried people will know we are fasting, he wants us to fast as a way to focus on what we may too often ignore, those inner feelings or attitudes we hide even from ourselves. Jesus wants us to ask ourselves, are we hypocrites? Do we live based on what we believe? Or do we cover our true feelings with phony behavior? Perhaps, it is what we hide deep inside that should concern us most?

So how does Lent and receiving ashes today help? Why the emphasis on almsgiving, prayer and fasting during Lent? The practices of Lent are meant to break into our patterns of behavior. Just as Joel called for trumpets to blow, just as Paul said this was the day of salvation, we need something to get our attention. Coming to get ashes, not eating meat today and on Fridays in Lent, giving money or our time to others, adding a time to pray or changing how we pray during Lent gets our attention so we can practice doing what God’s asks of us. We are being asked to make it intentional so it can become part of who we are.

 

To use a baseball analogy, think of Lent as our annual spring training. Lent is about getting ready for the regular season. In every sport we understand that to play the game involves learning the skills, doing the drill to get it right. We need to practice what we are going to do during the game so it is part of us. Lent is practice for the game of everyday Catholic life.

We all know everyday life is responsible and rigorous. It is taking care of our children, making decisions at work, building loving relationships, figuring out what is the most important use of our time. The question Jesus poses is: will what we do each day match our Catholic faith? Will what we do, match our innermost feelings and attitudes? What we do with Lent could make a difference. Make the decision to do something different in Lent, put in the practice it takes to make a difference every day from now on.

Friday, First Week of Ordinary Time

Scripture Readings for January 12, 2018

1 Samuel 8:4-7, 10-22a, Psalm 89:16-19, Mark 2:1-12

My first reaction to the story in 1 Samuel is that God gives us the freedom to choose. Which is what Israel is doing here. Israel wants to be like other nations. They want a King, a ruler someone can see. A King represents for these people a visible leader who will “fight our battles,” and keep them safe. I think it’s easier for people to put their faith in someone they can see than a God they can’t see. God sees it that way. In talking to Samuel God says, “They are rejecting me as their King.” My suspicion is the situation with Samuel’s age and his sons not filling his shoes is a case of “what have you done for me lately?”

We might think that the God who has done so much in Israel’s history that was able to be seen and recorded might do a little wonder working here to remind everyone who’s really in charge. But that is not happening. Rather God says to Samuel, “Grant the people’s every request.” Samuel goes on to warn the elders of all sorts of bad outcomes in having a King. They want the King anyway. I think it’s interesting how much these people are willing to give up for the sake of someone who will protect them. It raises the question of whether we act the same way to protect ourselves. How much do we give up in order to feel safe?

The picture Samuel paints is one of giving up sons and daughters, possessions and finding themselves as slaves to this King. That’s a picture of giving up our future, our hopes and our freedom so that “someone” will “fight our battles.” Is trying to fit in so strong that we give up our own sense of self. Is it possible we put on a face that everyone can see in order to hide and safe guard what is unseen but more revealing of who we are? The story suggests it’s our choice to make. God doesn’t come to the rescue when our freedom to choose is involved.

We have to want to connect. The story is the Gospel is a case in point. Jesus is preaching to a packed house, literally. Nobody else can get close. So four pretty assertive guys take their paralyzed friend up on the roof and lower him on his stretcher into the middle of the crowd, right in front of Jesus. That’s serious effort to accomplish a connection. The part of this story that always gets me is what Jesus does next. He doesn’t heal the man’s paralysis instead he comments about the faith of the guys who brought their friend and then forgives the sins of the paralytic. What? My guess is these guys weren’t looking for spiritual benefits. They wanted their friend healed physically. So that incongruity says to me that Mark is definitely trying to make a point. I think it says that there’s no healing one part without the other. The spiritual healing and the physical healing are tied together. Jesus says it to the scribes this way, “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, pick up your mat and walk’?” Jesus does something they can see so that they might believe something they can’t see.

Some days I just don’t feel good, a down day, not a lot of personal energy. Some people have more of that than others. However, I’ve found that if I just get up, get out and do something physical I feel better. My inner spiritual life gets dragging into a better day because I got on the treadmill, went to the grocery store, cleaned the gutters, or mowed the lawn. It’s evidence our spiritual and physical selves aren’t separate. So when we operate in ways that fit what others expect instead of the values or feelings that make up who we are we create a separation, a break that hurts us. I don’t think we can create a convenient persona that will successfully “fight our battles” for us. Rather I believe knowing we are each unique individuals loved by God will help us “keep it together” in the first place and know where to go for help when we don’t.

Thursday, First Week of Ordinary Time

Scripture Readings for January 11, 2018

1 Samuel 4:1-11, Psalm 44:10-11, 14-15, 24-25, Mark 1:40-45

Sometimes when reading passages from Scripture it’s a single word or phrase that catches my attention and is the basis for reflection. Today the elaborate story of Israel’s defeat at the hands of the Philistines is too significant to be put aside. The Psalm reinforces my sense that Israel’s defeat is the issue to be talked about because the Psalm is a lament about being defeated.

The key here is the question raised in 1 Samuel, “Why has the LORD permitted us to be defeated today by the Philistines?” How often do we feel like asking the same question? How come I feel defeated? Why isn’t God on my side? Two things occur to me when faced with this kind of question. First, Israel isn’t afraid to ask the question. In fact Israel has a long history of being disappointed with the way God is handling things. Remember that after being rescued from Egypt the Israelites complained at separate times about lack of food and lack of water. They literally put God to the test. Given dire circumstances it’s appropriate to complain to God about what’s happening. It has to do with being in a living relationship. It takes a strong relationship to support honest, passionate argument. We aren’t likely to take our deepest worries to someone who doesn’t care or worse will walk away because what is said is hard to hear. When we’re upset about something it only helps if we talk to people we can trust. So ultimately this question reveals a solid relationship that Israel can count on.

The problem is Israel doesn’t understand what’s going on. The fact they “don’t get it” is stunningly revealed when they bring the Ark to the battle scene and they lose even worse than the first time. The ark is captured and Eli’s, two sons are killed. That is a serious defeat and this is where our reading ends for today. There is no escape from this loss. Which brings me to my second impression about this situation when it seems God isn’t working on our side. My thought is maybe something needs to change. In other words, if life is beating us up so badly that we think God has abandoned us then maybe it’s time to make a change. Maybe this defeat is God’s way of telling us what we need to hear.

The possible confusion is that doing anything worthwhile takes effort and often costs us something to accomplish. So the trick is to correctly evaluate whether what is going on is truly an overwhelming, game changing defeat or just a reasonable challenge to success. My own experience was that when faced with total crushing defeat I frankly felt that if I didn’t make a change, what was going on was literally going to kill me. It was a point of having to choose a new life or face death. Which interestingly enough is what has happened to the Israelites. Their current course of action is killing them by the thousands.

When the situation is dire then it matches the Psalm today, “For our souls are bowed down to the dust, our bodies are pressed to the earth.” If God is telling us to make a change then we will find what is needed. Lepers were totally excluded from ancient society. But the leper in today’s Gospel sought out Jesus and was healed. That healing changed his life. If our world collapses then we need to look just as hard to find what will heal us.

Wednesday, First Week of Ordinary Time

Scripture Readings for January 10, 2018

1 Samuel 3:1-10, 19-20, Psalm 40:2, 5, 7-10, Mark 1:29-39

Today’s first reading is the namesake for this blog. It begins by saying it was a time when revelations and visions were infrequent. A description that if it doesn’t fit our world reflects what many people believe, i.e. God doesn’t operate in our world the way God did in Biblical times. If God exists then God is distant and only watches us. A popular song a few years ago expressed this exact sentiment.

What happens next in Samuel is what I have taken to be instructive. God calls out to young Samuel in his sleep and Samuel simply goes to Eli to answer the call. Eli however, isn’t calling Samuel. This happens three times before Eli realizes that it’s God who is calling Samuel. He says, “if you are called, reply, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.’” Samuel is called and replies as instructed and from then on is a prophet of the Lord. I believe God is calling to us, all of us, all the time. However, we often don’t realize who is doing the calling. Too often there is no one who can tell us who is doing the calling. We can go along for a long time trying to answer the wrong call.

Importantly I am not taking this act of being called literally. I think it’s a way to talking about knowing who we are and what we are about. The general answers to those questions are: that we are loved by God, meaning worthwhile valued human beings, who are here to love and care for one another as participants in God’s gift of God’s self to the world. How each of us works this out should be the joy of being who we are. I’m convinced God is trying to engage us in our own personal adventures, if you will. That’s how God is calling us. The question is, are we listening? Do we pay attention to the people and events in our lives that say something about what is good for us? Are taking the time away from all the rush of living to see what’s actually going on?

Today’s Gospel can be seen as a sample of what real listening to God can accomplish. Are we going to invite Jesus into our home like Simon and Andrew did? The results can be quite dramatic. Simon’s mother-in-law was restored to health. Not only were town’s people cured of illness but Jesus drove out many demons. Isn’t that exactly what we want, to rid ourselves of the demons that plague our lives?

We have to do what Samuel did and what is wonderfully expressed in our Psalm response. We have to respond, “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.” We have to say, “Here I am Lord; I come to do your will.” If we can sort out what is good and worthwhile. If we can be honest about who we are and follow our deepest desires then the words of the Psalm will truly ring home.

I have waited, waited for the LORD, and he stooped toward me and heard my cry.
Blessed the man who makes the LORD his trust;
who turns not to idolatry or to those who stray after falsehood.

Which is followed by:

To do your will, O my God, is my delight,
and your law is within my heart!”

To be happy, find satisfaction, in pursuing our deepest desires. Isn’t that Good News?

Tuesday, First Week of Ordinary Time

Scripture Readings for January 9, 2018

1 Samuel 1:9-20, 1 Samuel 2:1, 4-8, Mark 1:21-28

What I noticed in today’s readings was the comment about Hannah after her visit to the temple, she “no longer appeared downcast.” That seems pretty straight forward. In her own words to Eli she describes herself as in “deep sorrow and misery.” So she had come to the Temple and “in her bitterness she prayed to the LORD, weeping copiously.” This was a heart-felt appeal. I think it’s exactly the place where we can feel God’s support.

Catholic’s have a wonderful and useful tradition of published prayers. Everything from the Eucharistic liturgy to the rosary and before and after meal prayers. Catholic schools and parish religious education programs work very hard to pass on these forms of prayer to each new generation. However, that tradition can have the tendency to steer an individual toward more formal and impersonal forms of praying. At minimum the words of prayer are not ours. Worse, we may not be connecting the act of prayer with what is happening for us at a personal level.

We can learn from Hannah. This woman is being totally honest with God and herself. That starts with coming to prayer, “in her bitterness.” Plus she blatantly wants to make a deal with God. This is not, however, a calculated action. What I see here is utter desperation. She is laying herself out there by not holding anything back. If we’re going to talk to God, I think that’s exactly what prayer requires. It involves brutal honesty about who we are, how we feel and what we want. There’s something holy in that process. According to this story it’s the kind of prayer to which God responds. It’s also been my personal experience that when I was emotionally spent and there seemed to be nothing left, at that very point, something changed and I felt better and more able to deal with what needed to be done.

I think it is from these kinds of emotional turn-arounds that the Psalmists and today Samuel exclaims, “My heart exults in the Lord, my Savior.” Note he says, “My heart.” Consider how much of what we read in the Psalms is meant to refer to human events or can be understood to be about the human emotional landscape:

 

“The LORD puts to death and gives life;

 he casts down to the nether world;

 he raises up again.

 The LORD makes poor and makes rich:

 he humbles, he also exalts.”

Isn’t that where we are most likely to find our God, connected to the deepest part of who we are? That’s certainly what is going on in today’s Gospel.

Jesus is teaching in a synagogue based on his own authority, which to me suggests he talking from his own experiences and what the Scripture of the day means in his life. So this is already a personal encounter with the group. Some man “with an unclean spirit” reveals his deepest fears. Whatever “possessed” this man, it was deeply personal. Jesus’ own personal honesty so jarred him that he couldn’t abide what that might mean for him. The Gospel has already revealed that the other people were “astonished” at what Jesus was saying. Jesus, unwilling to enable any further dysfunction, heals the pain that has occupied the deepest parts of this man.

I would suggest that praying to God: actual prayer, being able to make the connection, may require that we recognize our deepest secrets, fears, wounds and desires. Maybe we need to name the “unclean spirits” in order to expel them from our lives. God certainly is listening and waiting.

Memorial, Sts. Basil & Gregory Nazianzen

Scripture Readings for January 2, 2018

1 John 2:22-28; Psalm 98:1-4; John 1:19-28

Today’s readings are about identity. In the first letter of John, people are being led astray by others. Questions have been raised about what they believe as well as who Jesus was. In the John’s Gospel the issue is who is John the Baptist and what does his presence mean?

I think the place to begin is with John the Baptist since that’s how it began in the first place. The Pharisees want to know what he’s doing and by what authority. Interestingly they are believers in God and God’s works because they ask about powerful people of faith whom they think they would recognize. Is John the Christ, that is, the anointed one of God, the one who was to come or is he Elijah who was to return before the Christ or a prophet who would be another person sent by God.

It is clear John knows who he is. And he’s none of those. Rather a person clearing the way for the one to come. He baptizes as a sign of the one to come. In today’s readings the key point is John knows who he is and acts accordingly.

That is not the case for everyone addressed by the first letter of John. The people to whom he is writing are being assailed by other believers who are having doubts about what their faith means for them. Some in the community are questioning the basic element of faith that Jesus is the son of God. So this letter from John is trying to reassure them that those who believe in Jesus as Son of God have the truth. Importantly that truth was given to them as part of their anointing. Which is a reference to gifts of the Holy Spirit. These people have a sense of the Holy Spirit as a guiding force in their belief.

Hopefully today, we are closer to a place that is like the Psalms, “all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation by our God.” It has been a long time since the first letter of John was written. Yet too often people haven’t been able to see that Jesus is still among us. What John the Baptist told the Pharisees is too often still true, “there is one among you whom you do not recognize.” We also know there are lots of people who although they were raised Catholic or Christian don’t really accept that a person named Jesus is God’s son and that his Spirit lives with us in a way that often changes hearts and refreshes our spirit.

So that is why I think these readings spoke to me about identity. Are we comfortable with who we are? Do we recognize the gifts of life’s abundance and appreciate the simple beauty of the people who love us? Do we cherish the enthusiasm of children and the peace of quiet evenings? Because if we are anxious or troubled or feeling left alone it can be hard to accept God’s desire to lead us to peace and joy.

We are celebrating Christmas. The Incarnation, is our belief that God is born into this world as one who lives among us. So the question is, do we remain in him as people who feel him with us? We are a people redeemed by God’s very presence and beloved as God’s children? Do we know who we are?

Solemnity, Blessed Virgin Mary

Scripture Readings for January 1, 2018

Numbers 6:22-27, Psalm 67:2-3, 5-6, 8, Galatians 4:4-7 Luke 2:16-21

One of the things about reflecting on Scripture, or our lives for that matter, is you have to pay attention to the details. Sacred Scripture is the result of many people pouring over the text for years and then other people doing the same thing again, keeping, adding and adjusting until what we have in our Bibles is an amazingly refined piece of work. Nothing is in there by accident, nor was it something that someone dashed off in a moment of hurried necessity.

So I make this point because there’s a detail in today’s reading that I think raises very interesting questions. I think I noticed it because today is the solemnity of Mary as the Mother of God. Luke is talking about the shepherd’s coming to visit Jesus and passing on to Mary and Joseph what the angel’s had told them. And then he says, “And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” This reminds me of the scene later in Luke after Jesus, now 12, has been talking with the teachers in the temple. Once again Luke says, “His mother kept all these things in her heart.” So for me, Luke is saying Mary is trying to understand what these events mean even after visits from angels. Why else do you reflect on something?

This pattern began the first time the angel comes to Mary and announces that she is favored by God. According to Luke, Mary’s response was to be disturbed and “asked herself what this greeting could mean.” Luke is portraying Mary as not being sure what is going on. To me the real indicator comes after the angel tells Mary that her cousin Elizabeth is six months pregnant and she immediately leaves and goes “as quickly as she could” to see Elizabeth. I’m convinced she’s going primarily to verify what the angel has told her.

We see this same behavior in the shepherds of today’s reading. The angel announces Jesus’ birth to a group of shepherds and gives them a sign they can verify. This child will be lying in a manger, an animals feeding trough. What do they do? They go “in haste” to see if it’s true. Luke spells out the evidence, they find “the infant lying in a manger.” And only then do they tell Mary and Joseph the message of the angel. Finally, when they return glorifying God for all they had seen it is because it was, “just as it had been told to them.” In other words they weren’t sure it was true until they could see it.

Now you could write off Mary’s reflecting on all these things in her heart as devote behavior in the face of divine revelations. However, I think Luke is giving us a sample of what happens when we encounter God acting in our lives. What, in retrospect, we interpret as God’s help in our lives is often something we didn’t recognize at the time. Coming to see God’s action is a process of real life verification, checking out what parts are good and what isn’t. I don’t think we should read these wonderful Bible stories and think, “how come that doesn’t happen anymore?” Well, it wasn’t obvious to the people in Biblical times. It took time for people to figure out that these events were God’s action.

Luke’s telling of the story is from the perspective of one who understands the significance of what happened. We shouldn’t take them so literally that we miss the underlying meaning. Without undercutting the point of the story, Luke is hinting at what it might have been like for the original participants. Which suggests what it to be like for us. God could be bowling us over and we may not, in the moment, recognize what turns out to have been an angel in front of us.

Fifth Day, Octave of Christmas

Scripture Readings for December 29, 2017

1 John 2:3-11, Psalm 96:1-3, 5b-6, Luke 2:22-35

The last few words of today’s Gospel touched me immediately. Simeon’s last words to Mary are, “so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” He has just told this child’s mother that her son will be a source of conflict for his people and that she herself will be cut to the quick. What’s more we know what’s coming. Jesus will do an amazing amount of good during his life. People will be cured of sickness, demons will be vanquished and disciples will be inspired both by what he does and what he says. However, it ends badly. The Romans will torture and crucify him publicly to be sure anyone thinking like him is properly discouraged. All this and Simeon says it’s all so the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed?

The significance of this little phrase for me is hinted at in the first reading from 1 John when he says,

This is the way we may know that we are in union with him:
whoever claims to abide in him ought to walk just as he walked.

 John’s letter is trying to get across to early Christians that just saying, “I’m a believer” isn’t what counts. We have the same problem if we think that going to Mass and knowing the responses is what makes us Catholic. I could also say that volunteering for causes and giving money to worthwhile charities doesn’t necessarily make us Christian either. There is this little thing usually referred to as integrity. It’s the connection that needs to be there between what we are inside with what we do outside. Jesus criticizes people in power all the time for being hypocrites. When what they say and do doesn’t match what they say they believe. In today’s reading John explains it this way: “Whoever says he is in the light, yet hates his brother, is still in the darkness.”

The challenge for us, for everyone since time began, is recognizing when our inside and our outside don’t match. We’re all really good at not seeing the little maneuvers we make to avoid facing our own duplicitous behavior. We say one thing but when faced with making the tough call to do what is needed, too often, we take the easy way out. Some examples might be, “it’s not the right time,” “it would be better for everyone if I didn’t push this,” “who knows I might be wrong,” “I’m afraid,” and the best of all time, “no one else will know.” The problem is we know. We may not admit it to ourselves but deep down something isn’t right. We feel unsettled. John’s letter puts it this way, “Whoever hates his brother is in darkness; … and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes.” If we try to fool ourselves too often we end up really messed up and not knowing why.

All of this brings us back to Simeon and his insight into the importance of this little child Mary has brought to him. To reveal the thoughts of one’s heart is perhaps the most important thing we ever do. We must know the yearnings, the fears, and the needs of our hearts. That alone allows us to be authentic, a real person who can pick and choose what we really want because we have been honest about what we need. To walk as Jesus walked, requires that we need to know ourselves, our own hearts. Jesus saved the world by living his life faithfully. Faithful to what he understood his God wanted. He persisted even when doing so cost him everything. Jesus was only able to do that because he knew his own heart. In contemporary language he was comfortable in his own skin.

For us, we have to know what is in our hearts. Otherwise, there is only darkness.

Feast of the Holy Innocents

Scripture Readings for December 28, 2017

1 John 1:5-2:2, Psalm 124:2-5, 7cd-8, Matthew 2:13-18

First of all, Merry Christmas. This is the fourth day of the Christmas season. Officially Christmas lasts until Epiphany. It’s mean to be a joyous season to celebrate the birth of Jesus. So frankly I don’t like the Gospel for today about children dying. I understand for Matthew the flight to Egypt and Herod’s rage against Jesus birth was a way of drawing a parallel between the saving of Israel and the life of Jesus. He makes being God’s son a quality of both the people of Israel and the person of Jesus. I just don’t like the story at Christmas time.

Perhaps there’s a lesson in this. My own advice about reading Scripture is to pay attention to our own reactions to it. So in thinking about my reaction to this reading perhaps it’s simply that times of joy don’t exclude tragedy from our lives. The reverse may be more revealing, that when bad things happen it doesn’t mean that something joyful is being excluded. I’m not suggesting cause and effect. Rather it seems both good and bad events go on all the time irrespective of each other.

Perhaps it’s important to think of this another way. We can believe God loves us, supports us in very real ways, and our life can still include really tragic, evil events. In the common parlance, bad things often happen to good people. I certainly don’t have any real answer to that challenge to our trust in God. It does occur to me that Jesus, God’s own son, was brutally tortured and killed. So clearly, no matter how good you are bad stuff can happen anyway. I don’t believe that bad things are any kind of test or purification that God instigates to make us better. Bad stuff is bad. Evil is evil. It’s separate from what God would want. This is the view in today’s first reading when John says, “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.”

So let’s deal with the issue of Jesus’s death since some theologies and too many people think he died to compensate for Adam’s sin as if God needed to be paid back in a divine balancing of the scales of justice. My concern here is that we not treat Jesus’ death as something God arranged and therefore not be able to see the reality of somebody working for good having a truly horrendous death. My understanding of Jesus and his death is based on Karl Rahner’s theology. Jesus redeems humanity by living human life as God intended and in so doing he changed the reality of life for all the rest of us. It changes life for us because somebody actually lived the life God asked. In other words, God’s intentions were fulfilled by a human person. That life, lived openly and honestly, so threatened the status quo of his society that people killed him.

In today’s Gospel Joseph avoids a tragic fate for his son by following what he hears in a dream. At minimum it tells us God is looking out for us. I believe the value in trying to live based on what we’ve learned about God’s love is in the life itself and not what may or may not happen to us over the course of our lifetime. I suspect the reality is more about what we hear in our first reading.

If we say, “We are without sin,”
we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just
and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing.

Can we be honest with ourselves about who we are and what we are trying to do? Only then will we recognize God’s forgiveness and have a sense of peace so we can actually hear how God is trying to guide and protect us.