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.

Feast, St. John the Apostle

Scripture Readings for December 27, 2017

1 John 1: 1-4, Psalm 97:1-2, 5-6, 11-12, John 20: 1A, 2-8

Merry Christmas!

I hope you were able to celebrate a wonderful Christmas Day and you can help make it a season and not just a one day event. As you know, the Church celebrates Christmas beginning on Christmas day through the Epiphany on Sunday January 7. Our everyday life seems to create Christmas from about Halloween through Christmas day and then puts it all aside and moves on. An interesting indicator of that is the way radio stations play Christmas music. The one I listen to started before Thanksgiving and played Christmas music right through Christmas day and then stopped.

I think this is another example of being in a hurry. We are easily excited about what is coming but once something is here there is a tendency to look immediately for what is coming next. If you have young children or grandchildren you know how they can be ready for the next present almost before the current one is open. The issue is to learn that paying attention to the moment, is what yields the greatest rewards. That, of course, is what a two week celebration of Christmas is all about. The birth of Jesus is more momentous than any one day, it needs to be celebrated and elaborated on for days and weeks.

How does that fit with today’s Gospel? I didn’t think we could consider today’s Gospel and our first reading without recognizing the season we are celebrating. Frankly, I was somewhat disappointed to find a reading about Jesus and the tomb as today’s Gospel, even if it is the feast of St. John the apostle. However, it does fit our celebration, because it is the empty tomb that is the beginning of our faith that Jesus is God’s Son, just as it was for Mary Magdalene, Peter, John and the apostles. We are the beneficiaries of what the letter of John says, “what we have seen and heard we proclaim now to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us.” What the women and men discovered in the days and weeks after Jesus’ death has been passed on to us and is the reason we celebrate Christmas as the birth of God’s Son and not just another well intentioned prophet or wise man who lived an exemplary life.

It is important for us to recognize that when Mary first finds the tomb empty she assumes somebody has taken the body. Peter and John run because they think someone has defiled the grave. Based on the Gospel stories we know that it wasn’t until Jesus appeared to the Apostles later that they came to understand and believe who he is. It’s important because we can think that faith in Jesus was easily apparent for the apostles, since they had lived with him, and should somehow be easy for us who are active in the Church. I would argue that it didn’t come easily for the Apostles. The Gospels say over and over how they didn’t understand. Even after Jesus appears to them, Thomas for example, won’t believe the Apostles reports of his appearance to them. Faith is built over time and is doubted at times and needs strengthening by all the different things that happen in our lives. So when the time comes to celebrate what we have come to believe over a lifetime of struggle and joy, we should take more than one day to celebrate the birth of our Savior, the renewed demonstration, for everyone, that God lives with us. Let’s make Christmas two weeks of celebration.

Friday, Third Week of Advent

Scripture Readings for December 22, 2017

1 Samuel 1:24-28, 1 Samuel 2:1, 4-8, Luke 1:46-56

Both of today’s readings fit in the context of the last several days. Each day we have had women who have become pregnant only after God has intervened on their behalf. It’s important to know that at this point in history, and for the writer, a woman’s value was largely measured by her ability to produce children. To be barren was socially embarrassing because it was seen as a punishment from God. So telling a story about God enabling a woman to give birth is to validate and vindicate her in very real terms.

1 Samuel tells of Hannah giving her son Samuel to the Lord. Samuel was born only after she had prayed in the same Temple for God to give her a child. If she had a child, she promised to give him to God’s service. The idea of giving away your child even if he was understood to be a gift from God seems terrible. It raises the question of what it might mean to be dedicated to the Lord. I think the answer is found with Mary who also, even more explicitly, was given a child by God only to have her son be totally dedicated to God. That however, is to get ahead of our narrative. Today we have what Mary says about her experience of God having “done great things for” her.

What Mary says about God is modelled after what Hannah said after giving up Samuel at the Temple. In fact, much of today’s Responsorial Psalm comes from what Hannah says in 1 Samuel 2:1-10. This heightens the parallel between the two women. It helps me see more clearly the “lowly servant” aspect of Mary’s statement. I have tended to think of this phrase as merely a statement of humility. But the link to Hannah makes me realize Luke is talking about the humiliation of women and all people who are discriminated against and seen as second class. Mary is speaking as one who has no status, no power. Such a woman does not understand herself as one who could act on her own behalf. Which makes the praises Mary and Hannah sing even the more amazing. Hannah says because of God: “I have swallowed up my enemies; I rejoice in my victory.” Mary says, “From this day all generations will call me blessed.”

I believe both these women are describing what happens when someone experiences God’s immediate loving presence. In narrative terms, Mary has become pregnant with God’s son and Hannah has given over her son, her only claim to personhood, to the service of God. These actions have empowered them and therefore changed their entire world view. I think it makes them not just visionaries of some vague future but participants in the reign of God here and now.

They see, understand and operate in the world in a new way: the proud are scattered, the mighty are cast down and, on the opposite side, the hungry are filled and the lowly lifted up. Mary says all this is the fulfillment of God’s promises. The world is changed, the reign of God spreads, now, in this life, one person at a time.

I don’t think this suggests a mystical experience of God’s presence is required for us to change the way we live. I do think that the more we reflect on what happens in our lives, searching for and recognizing how God is present in it, the more we will be able to act with love, concern and courage. In other words, the more we try to come closer to God, the more God transforms who we are and the lives we live, until in the end it makes sense to give ourselves away.