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.