February 28, 2011 - Monday of the Eighth Week in Ordinary Time

The rich young man may have been sad because he decided that following God was too costly, and he now knew that he could not be perfect. This is how people often interpret the story, but it does not make much sense. This interpretation gets stuck in our head, perhaps even preventing us from hearing the Word of God. The rich young man followed the commandments, but he knew something was missing. When he realizes that Jesus has the answer he is seeking, he does not walk. He runs to Jesus, kneels down before him, and asks a question. How different this is from the questioning of the Pharisees! He is not testing Jesus; he actually wants to know something. Is it likely, then, that when he gets the answer he has been seeking, the answer that he ran and knelt down for, he gave up?

The reason why the rich young man went away sad was because he thinking of all those possessions that he was about to lose. This is an excellent feeling, the feeling of ripping out something which has put down roots in your heart. This is a pain which few pleasures can equal: giving something up to follow God. To be a Christian requires a certain kind of masochism. We take pleasure whenever God presents us with the next cross. Something stands in our way, we lose a possession, we are treated unfairly, we are spit upon, the very thing we thought was in our grasp is stolen away. The first feeling, the human feeling, the natural feeling is sadness, anger, despondency. Then, either we embrace the feeling and become consumed by it, or we embrace the cross and find joy that nothing can equal. The martyrs are not remarkable because they die for the faith; lots of people die for all kinds of nonsense. The martyrs are amazing because they die joyfully.

As for the rich young man, longstanding tradition tells us that he sold everything, gave it to the poor, and followed Jesus, that he there in the garden when Jesus was arrested, that he continued following Jesus as they took him away, but, when they tried to grab him, he was wearing nothing but one cloth and he left that in the guards’ hands and ran away naked, that he followed St. Peter around as an assistant, and then wrote a Gospel, this Gospel, according to Mark. 

February 27, 2011 - Sunday of the Eighth Week in Ordinary Time

Trust is the highest regard one person can have for another. I may like somebody, I may even love somebody, but, until I trust somebody, I am holding something back. Trust is fundamental to human relationships, but misplaced trust can be fatal. If I am going to trust someone completely, they need first of all to be competent. I would not trust any four-year-old to drive a car. Second, they must have my best interests at heart. Even if I find someone competent, they have to care about what happens to me and they have to desire for me what is good.

No one but God fits this definition perfectly. No one else is perfectly competent and perfectly desires our good. It would seem like we should all trust God completely out of our own self-interest, yet how rare such trust is! So many people decide instead to trust the god Mammon, money. Why do we trust Mammon? Well, money is competent. It can do 95% of what we need done in life. It can provide food and shelter and clothing and entertainment. Money is like a genie in a lamp: a billion dollars can provide a lot of wishes. Does money have our best interest at heart? Money does not really have anything at heart, but it does obey us. The problem is that money is only as smart as we are. Money cannot take care of us better than the best human mind money can buy, and that is only if we know who to turn to for advice.

So even though God can do anything and money can only do lots of things, and even though God knows what is good for us even when we do not, and even though God loves us and wants to care for us and money does not care about anything, many people still choose to worship money: they praise money, they spend hours each day thinking about how to acquire money, their morality is based on how to get money. At first, it seems like a strange mistake. God is more powerful than money. God is smarter than money. God loves us completely, and money does not love us at all. Why would anyone choose to trust money instead of God?

It could only be stupidity. There is a stupidity in us due to original sin. We would rather have things our way than the best way. Like a child who is upset because, instead of receiving candy for dinner, their parents have made delicious, nutritious dishes, we cannot see the past whatever we think we want in order to understand that God will only give us the best.

There is another kind of stupidity in us. We hear everything that Jesus says about how God will provide for us, how God will not leave us to starve. We hear from the Lord that even if our mother forgets us, he will not forget us. We are told not to worry. We believe that Jesus is God. We believe that he would not lie to us or pretend something was true that was not. We believe that God loves us. And then we do a kind of bad logic in our head; we put all this on a shelf called religion and get back to real life. Religion is a silly thing if it does not apply to real life.

Something inside of us says that it is all well and good to believe these things but they are not reliable.  When have we ever attempted to rely on them? Trusting in God does not mean that, if I sit home doing nothing, food will appear magically, as if God wanted us to be lazy. Trusting in God does not mean that I can be foolishly wasteful with what I have and expect that God will support my bad habits. But trusting in God does mean something. It means that, if I work hard, according to the abilities that God gave me, and I live my life as God tells us to live, and I consciously rely on God, not having him be a magician in the back of my mind who I forget about until I need something, then I never need to be afraid, I never need to worry.

A person who lives like this, trusting God rather than money, will probably not have many of the nicer things in life, but are flat screen TV’s and granite countertops worth all the worrying? They will probably not end their life with a large balance in their bank account, but it is not as if we can take it with us. They might not ever be able to retire. It is fascinating that in our culture we presume retirement as a kind of right, but, in the Gospel, the only time retirement is mentioned Jesus says, “You fool!”

Jesus is telling us that we have to choose between a life where we live basically for ourselves and a life where we forget ourselves and just live. If we trust in God we need to give up on the American dream: the idea that we will live a life substantially different than what we were born into. If we will trust in God, we see this life as a training ground for the next life rather than looking for a place to rest in this world. We may have joys in life, and that can be good. We may do very well because of some circumstances, and we can thank God for it. The difference is whether our whole life is designed around how to get ahead, or if we just live life one day at a time, making plans but not holding on to them, never thinking that we cannot do what is right because of our material needs, never thinking we have arrived somewhere where we earned the right to stop serving our brothers and sisters or to stop serving God.

I want to point out the second reading here. While the other readings were about how we need to trust God, in the second reading St. Paul points out how God trusts us. This is particularly amazing, considering how untrustworthy we are. God could just run the world all by himself, but he lets us cooperate “as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” This shows that he has destined us for great things. We are like 15 year-olds with our permits, and God is letting us drive. You let your children drive because you want them to become mature adults with good driving skills. God is getting us ready for real life, which has not begun yet, but it will begin soon.          

February 26, 2011 - Saturday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time

The Lord has made us to praise him. This is not to say that the Lord made us because he wanted to be praised. God is perfectly happy in the perfect union of the Trinity. He is not looking for compliments.  The Lord made us to praise him because that is the most wonderful action that is possible. God could have made us so that our final happiness was found in something simpler. He could have made creatures who delighted in a full stomach and a good bed and nothing more. But a creature is only as great as their final destiny. It is only the dissatisfaction that we sense in the things of this earth that make us look toward heaven. All of the truly great accomplishments in art or music or literature are the result of this desire we have to praise God, even if the artist did not know why they were impelled to create something beautiful.

This desire to praise God is inside each one of us, and it is God’s own gift to us. Our soul cries out like an infant, unable to put its desire into words. We try to quiet it with pacifiers. There are many pacifiers in this world: food, alcohol, sex, entertainment. Sometimes the pacifier works for awhile, but then our soul begins crying out again. Some people try to keep up a variety of these pacifiers, switching whenever one has lost its power. Some people remain bored and unhappy as they continually go to the same pacifier looking for the satisfaction they have never found there.

We, however, know what our soul is crying out for. We want love, and not the imperfect love that any human being can give us. This too can be just another pacifier. We want the perfect love of God. Without a doubt, God does love us. He is love, and he created us. It is left for us to recognize his love. This recognition is praise. Boredom is a sign that we have not been praising God enough, that we have forgotten about the love of God. Every time we choose to answer boredom with one of the pacifiers of this world instead of by praising God, we make ourselves less than we should be. Whenever we do praise God, we are fulfilling our soul’s true desire.

February 25, 2011 - Friday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time

It is important to note two points about Jesus’ teaching today. First, his prohibition against divorce is based on remarriage. He is telling us that once a marriage has been created, only death will end it. “’Til death do us part” is not just romantic language but a reality. Even if, sometimes for very good reasons, two people stop living together, never see each other again, even get a judge to split up the property in a civil divorce, they are still married. Such a person may have done nothing wrong, particularly if they are seeing to the care of their children, but they are not able to marry another person. They are still married.

The second point Jesus mentions in another place: this does not apply to unlawful marriages. In other words, if a marriage never actually got started, then a person is not bound to what does not really exist.  The classic case of this is the shotgun marriage, where two people are forced into marriage against their will. No one can be forced to get married. They might say all the words and sign in all the right places, but marriage requires two people entering the life of their own free will. It is for such cases that the Church has annulments. In an annulment, the Church investigates the wedding and makes sure that nothing happened which prevented the marriage from ever existing. An annulment never dissolves a marriage that is a sacrament.

When two people are married, they make a decision, but how that decision is understood is at the heart of many difficulties in our modern age. Marriage is not a non-binding contract. Jesus says, “What God has joined together, no human being must separate.” When two people agree to be married, they are asking God to join them in an indissoluble contract. As part of the benefits of the union, God will give them the grace to live together, in good times and bad, in sickness and in health, to live together and serve each other when a human agreement would not be enough. To give up one’s freedom and be bound to another, that is marriage. It is far more romantic. In the modern idea of marriage, nothing is sacrificed, nothing changes. In the true idea of marriage, the two become one flesh, the individuals no longer remain individual, a miracle only God can accomplish.

February 24, 2011 - Thursday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time

Jesus suggests a kind of surgery that is repulsive to us, and not us alone. The words of Jesus today, “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out” are probably those which have less often been followed literally than any other. The historical examples of people maiming themselves in hopes of greater holiness are few and not admired. Our eyes do not cause us to sin. Our hands do not cause us to sin. It seems cruel that we should attack a part of our bodies when the cause of the sin lies elsewhere.

If the examples that Jesus gives here are nauseous, the principle is absolutely solid. We should look at our lives and find the causes of sin. We are naïve if we think that we can leave the causes of sin lying around and avoid sin nevertheless. Jesus is saying that even if the cause of sin is as beloved to us as our own right hand, we should cut it off, even if the removal would be as painful as plucking out an eye, we should not hesitate.

If a person is causing you to sin, cut them off. Better to enter heaven alone than to go to hell with friends. If your television is causing you to sin, pluck it out of your home. Better to enter heaven without knowing who won American Idol than to enter hell having watched every show. If the internet or a kind of website is causing you to sin, sever the connection. Better to enter heaven crippled in this digital world than to enter hell well-informed.

Surely the removal of these or many other causes of sin would be hard, but not as painful as plucking out your eye. To live without television or internet in this modern age would be a serious disability, but not as bad as having a foot cut off. In other words, even if we are severe with ourselves, we will never exceed the examples that Jesus gave. If we need any encouragement in all this plucking and cutting off, our first reading from Sirach provides the words we need: “Delay not your conversion to the LORD, put it not off from day to day.”    

February 23, 2011 - Memorial of Saint Polycarp, bishop and martyr

We have just repeated in the psalm, “O Lord, great peace have they who love your law.” The psalmist is speaking of the peace which is the foundation of peace in our society: peace within ourselves. This internal peace is founded on the law of God. Until we love God above all things and our neighbors as ourselves, we cannot be at peace, and until we are at peace our society cannot be at peace. Our popular society blames fundamentalism for violence, which is to say that they blame strongly held beliefs for violence. If everyone would calm down, we are led to believe, and be willing to accept that they will not always get their way, we would have peace.

This is not true. Most of the violence in this world comes from selfishness. Behind theft, rape, nearly every murder, and all the other crimes which disturb our peace, lie a selfish motive. We concentrate on the violence that comes from those who claim to be fighting for an ideal, but that is such a minuscule part of the violence in the world. Some people speak as if the elimination of fundamentalism would lead to perfect peace, but they must be ignoring the vast majority of the crimes against peace to believe this. A popular claim by modern atheists is that the elimination of religion would mean a flowering of peace. This is false. Religion, even religions that are deficient in their understanding of the truth, are the greatest contributors to peace in this world. Most religions make a person try to be good, and no one is more peaceful than a good person.

If we could only make every person in the world be good, then we could deal with the philosophical questions like whether and when it is ever a good to use violence. There is a way to have this world peace, but we must begin with peace within ourselves, which comes only from following the law of God: love. Until we love God above all things and our neighbors as ourselves, we will not be at peace, and until we are at peace, it is sort of foolish to hope for world peace.

February 22, 2011 - Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter, apostle

Today's Readings

Today we celebrate a very interesting feast: the Chair of St. Peter. This feast is not exactly in honor of a person, as most are, nor of an event, as others are, but of a chair. Of course we are not commemorating a piece of furniture today; the chair in question is “chair” like “chairman”, a position, an office. We celebrate today the founding of the position of the leader of the Church. Jesus Christ is the head of the Church; this office in no way replaces his office of high priest and king. God did not need Noah to build the ark, and he did not need Simon Peter to lead the Church. He chose to allow us humans positions of dignity as cooperators of his grace.

When Simon made the profession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”, Jesus explains “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.” Because of this revelation, Jesus renames him Kephas, which in Greek is Petros. This was not a name; it means “The Rock”, like the movie star. Jesus then says “upon this rock I will build my Church.” Which rock? Not Simon Peter the man, who would deny Jesus three times. Jesus founds his Church upon an idea: the idea that God reveals the truth to a human being. Jesus is hereby instituting an office, the Chair, and choosing Simon for that office which will be the foundation rock of the Church. Along with the position comes certain powers: “I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” This language is the traditional language for a king to install a prime minister, a leader to serve under the king and do the day to day work of the kingdom.

Jesus makes a promise to Peter and therefore to the Church: “Upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.” This promise is often misunderstood. It is often treated as if it meant that the Church would be able to withstand any attack by evil, but this is backwards. He says that the “gates”, the defenses of Hell, will not be able to stand against the Church. It is the Church who is attacking evil, and we will be victorious.

February 21, 2011 - Monday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time

“Why could we not drive the spirit out?”, the disciples asked Jesus. If they had asked us, they would have gotten a different answer. If someone had asked us why this boy could not be healed, we could have spoken about the meaning of suffering in this world. We could explain how God’s will is not our will and his ways are not our ways. We could say that there is a time for everything. Our only problem is that standing against us, disagreeing with us, is Jesus.

It is not only in this passage that Jesus says things that are embarrassing for us Christians. Here he says, “Everything is possible to one who has faith.” In another place he says, “For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” In another place he says, “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” These and other quotes are embarrassing for Christians because we know that they are not true. We ask and do not receive. We believe that God will help us, and then he does not. If we Christians really had the kind of power that Jesus suggests we should have, we would be a lot more convincing to the world.

What is the problem? Is God unable to fulfill his promises? No, he can do all things. Was Jesus mistaken about how prayer would work for his disciples? No. Jesus is never mistaken. The problem must be ours. Something must be standing in the way of miracles. Jesus calls it a lack of faith, but this faith must not be simply confidence. There is no shortage of arrogant confidence in this world. The faith that Jesus is talking about is a humble faith, a gift from God, inseparable from hope and love. Every sin is a sin against faith because every sin doubts God in some way. It is popular to think that some act can only be a sin if it is hurting somebody, but if every sin is blocking our way to God, than every one of our sins is hurting people because our sins are preventing us from working miracles. We will never be totally free from sin on this earth. The prayer of the boy’s father is a good example for how we should pray, “I do believe, help my unbelief!” We stand always with some faith but in need of more. 

February 20, 2011 - Sunday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time

Today's Readings

We have been working our way through the Sermon on the Mount these past few weeks. First there were the Beatitudes. Next Jesus said that we are the salt of the earth and light of the world. Then last week, Jesus began teaching the commandments in a new way. Just like today, he says “You have heard it said” and then he names one of the commandments, and then he says “But I say to you” and then he teaches a new way of understanding that commandment. However, there is a crucial difference between last week’s reading and today’s.

Last week Jesus’ teaching had a certain logic to it. Any reasonable person could understand his teaching. “Thou shall not kill” includes not hating our brothers and sisters, not calling them names. “Thou shall not commit adultery” includes not committing the sin mentally, includes pornography and romance novels. Jesus is telling us that the commandments are not about crossing some line. We should not even be walking in the general direction of sin. It is a hard teaching, but when we hear Jesus teach it, something within us knows that he is right, that this is the way that the commandments ought to be understood.

Suddenly, although the format of Jesus’ teaching stays the same, it stops making any sense. “You have heard that it was said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Yes, an important teaching. The punishment should fit the crime, neither unfairly harsh or unfairly gentle. How is Jesus going to expand this teaching? “But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.” What? That is completely illogical. “When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well.” Really? “If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand over your cloak as well.” And should we walk around naked then? “Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go for two miles.” When exactly does a person get their own work done then? “Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.” Even if we know they are not going to pay us back? Even if we need the money more than they do?

The other teachings are hard, but we wish we could live up to them. These teachings are just foolish. If we followed these teachings, someone could come up to our home and just ask for things until we were naked in the middle of the street. The new teaching is that there is no limit on how much we should let people take advantage of us. Any group of people who tried to follow these teachings would go out of existence pretty quickly. Anyone who followed these teachings would be a fool.

St. Paul writes to the Corinthians, in our second reading today, “If anyone among you considers himself wise in this age, let him become a fool, so as to become wise, for the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God.”  St. Paul recommends that we become fools. He wrote in this same letter, a little earlier, the reason: “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” Let us think then for awhile about this foolishness of God.

When you hear these words from Jesus, do they inspire you? I mean before you think about the practical implications of allowing the world to take complete advantage of you. Do these words have the power to speak to something deep in your heart? Do these words make you want to stand up and live the Gospel without compromise? I hope they do. I hope no one is so cynical that their only reaction is to laugh at the foolishness. Something is dead inside of such a person. Something about these words should make us sad that the world is the way it is, that we cannot live them out.

It is certain that we cannot live these commandments to the letter. Jesus did not let people take advantage of him in every situation. Several times the Gospel tells us that he just walked through the midst of a crowd of people trying to kill him or arrest him. Jesus had a mission to fulfill, and he could not let anyone stand in the way. He would ultimately fulfill these words perfectly, but only when the right time had come.

Here is an understanding: we ought to follow the teachings as far as possible. A father needs to provide for his family, and sometimes that will mean saying no to someone trying to take advantage of him. A mother needs to protect her children, and sometimes that means the opposite of turning the other cheek. But what if we took this commandment as a presumption, saying, “Times will come when my responsibilities in this world will prevent me from following this commandment, but, as far as I am able, I will live according to this teaching.”

This commandment and others like it are the reason why some vocations are higher than others. All of us have vocations, whether to marriage or priesthood or religious life. A vocation is said to be higher when it allows a person to better live out the teachings of Jesus. So religious life is higher than marriage, as St. Paul also affirms, because a Sister or Brother is better able to turn the other cheek, to serve for two miles, to give up any material thing, than a married person. This does not mean that the person is better (there are saints who were married), but a married person is always going to be conflicted between their responsibilities and the teachings of Jesus. A person in religious life is more free to follow Jesus; of course, they may or may not actually follow him.

I point this out not for those of us who know our vocation, who are committed to it; all that is left for us is to live it. I point this out for those young people here today who want to know their vocation, who want to know what God wants them to do with their life. If the words of today’s Gospel speak in a particular way to you, if something in these words makes you happy when you hear them, you should consider whether God is calling you to the kind of life, as a Sister or Brother or Priest, where you can more freely live them out. 

February 19, 2011 - Saturday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

The first verse of our first reading today is one of those which is often engraved on a plaque and given as a religious gift. It is easily quotable and very inspiring. One reason this verse is so quotable is that it sounds like a definition. We hear, “Faith is…”, and we are interested. We would like to know what faith is. The literal translation is “But faith is the substance of what is hoped for, the evidence of what is being done unseen.” Substance is that which stands underneath. So faith is the basis of hope.     

To understand this verse better, we need to consider the context. The author of Hebrews is saying to the people, “When you first began to believe, you did well. You threw yourself into following God entirely. No one was able to extiguish your hope and commitment to God; neither threats nor violence nor losing your property stopped you from following Jesus Christ. Now you are undergoing another trial: time. Years have passed. Are you going to give up now that which, at the beginning, no one could have taken from you by force?”

We can sympathize. The enthusiasm of youth, the excitement of something new, has died away. Why? Because we expected to see results, either external results, like the Kingdom of God coming again in power, or internal results, like real holiness in our lives. It is difficult to stand after years of struggle and look around and see that the world is basically the same as it ever was, or perhaps somewhat worse. It is difficult to look within and see that I have not even made much progress with myself: I find the same faults I have always had.

Now, “Faith is the substance of what is hoped for, the evidence of what is being done unseen.” Hope without faith underlying it, supporting it, would just be optimism. We believe that Jesus Christ has saved the world and that he is at work in the world right now and that he is at work within each of us. We may not see the results, but our hope is based on something solid. When that feeling of enthusiasm has died away, as it will, when we can no longer see any reason to hope, then all we have left is faith. In other words, if we believe that God is God, then we do not need to be afraid.

February 18, 2011 - Friday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

Today's Readings

The teaching of Jesus today is for those who have already decided to follow him. He is explaining the cost of discipleship. We have to deny ourselves and take up our cross. Jesus sets the denial as a prerequisite to discipleship. Of course, as we grow in our faith, we will have a deeper understanding of what this denial means; as we grow in grace, we will be better equipped to deny ourselves. At the beginning, however, we have to make a positive decision to deny ourselves.

Some people try to follow Jesus without denying themselves. They may be very enthusiastic; they often mean well. They are not trying to disobey Jesus; they merely never learned that denial was the cost of discipleship. They would not commit a sin if it involved hurting somebody, but they are confused by the other side of morality. How many times I have heard someone say, “What good does fasting do? I am going to do something useful instead.”! This is like saying, “What good does bathing do? I am going to eat something instead.” A Christian life that consisted only of doing useful things would be rather pointless. There would be no growth. A Christian should do good things, but they should deny themself also.

Jesus asks, “What profit is there for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” It is possible and popular to interpret this verse to say that no success in this world is worth sinning for. This is true, but this understanding does not fit in with the surrounding verses. Taken as a whole, Jesus is telling us what Socrates told the Athenians, what any good philosopher teaches: the remarkable man is not the one who commands 10,000 other men; the truly remarkable man commands himself. Jesus is not telling us that in pursuit of success we should use lawful means; he is questioning success as the world sees it. What do I want with the whole world? What would I do with it if I had it? My soul, however, I would like to be in control of. I would like to truly be master of myself. Death, which leads to new life, means the death of pride, the death of greed, the death of lust, the death of laziness, the death of envy, the death of gluttony, the death of wrath. Self-denial is the weapon. Employ it mercilessly.

February 17, 2011 - Thursday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

Today's Readings

St. Peter is a man who exemplifies the leap of faith. He jumps out on the water when Jesus is walking toward him. He dives into the sea and swims to Jesus when he sees him on the shore. Today we have two examples of this personality trait, good and bad. When Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” all the disciples might have been thinking, indeed hoping, that Jesus was the Messiah, but only Peter takes the leap of faith. “You are the Christ.” However, when Jesus then warns them about his suffering and death, all the disciples might have been thinking, fearing, that Jesus was depressed and suicidal, but only Peter had the audacity to take Jesus aside and rebuke him.

These two stories about Peter, one right after the other, do not contradict each other. Peter is consistent throughout. His great strength is also his weakness: a lack of caution. He does not spend a great deal of time deliberating before he acts. God created Peter to be Peter. The world needs practical people who rush headlong. The Church needed the particular leadership of Peter for the first thirty years of her existence. This does not mean that everything he does is right; Jesus could hardly have used stronger words to condemn Peter’s attempt to question him. Peter had to be careful, though, to take the right lesson here. If Peter had decided to stop being impulsive, he would not really have been himself anymore. It would have been unfortunate if Peter had stopped being the person who would later so easily mouth off to the authorities who tried to stifle Christianity.  

Like Peter, each one of us has a personality, with strengths and weaknesses. Our personality makes some things easy that others struggle with, but we also have bad tendencies. We have to be redeemed; we have to be restored to grace. This restoration is not destruction though. If we look at all the saints who ever lived, we do not see a group of identical automatons; there is amazing diversity among the saints. God’s plan includes each one of us, not as interchangeable tokens but as ourselves. If we follow God, he will lead us to become the best version of ourselves possible.

February 16, 2011 - Wednesday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

God is using language throughout the story of Noah that seems strange. He is “sorry that he had made man on the earth.” God cannot be sorry; he cannot actually regret something. Not only would a literal understanding of this language put God into time, but it would deny his omniscience. This is not a case of trying to defend my own idea of God against Scripture. God is constantly regretting things in the Old Testament, but many verses also make clear that he does not regret anything. For instance, shortly after announcing that he regrets making Saul the king of Israel, he says through Samuel the prophet: “The Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.”

What are we supposed to do with this contradiction? It seems clear that the phrase “God regrets” is a metaphor, a figure of speech, but it must mean something. Throughout the Scriptures, there are two kinds of regrets that God is said to have. In the one case, he has set forth a plan to good purpose and seen it ruined by the sins of the people involved. In the other case, he threatens punishment against a city or nation and then, when they repent, he relents, as he seems sorry today for having flooded the earth. The suggestion is that human action affects God’s plan.

The history of the world could have been different, if we were different. In this subtle interplay between free will and an eternal plan, God is ready for whatever we do, but that does not mean that we are forced to do it. We make a choice, and we find that God had always accounted for that choice. God planned a world outside of Eden, but if Adam had not sinned it would have been unnecessary. God planned a flood to destroy human civilization, but if more people had been like Noah there would have been no flood. We will never find God unprepared for our actions, but we could always have done something different. Every punishment is eternally part of God’s will, but it is never undeserved. Every miracle is eternally part of God’s will, but it happened because someone prayed for it. God knows right now when the world will end; he knows what you will have for lunch today. He knows everything that has been, that is, that will be.  

February 15, 2011 - Tuesday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

Our first reading today is the story of Noah and the Ark. We will have more from this story tomorrow, but there is a preliminary comment to be made today. Many people regard this story as fanciful, as fictional. Many atheists spend considerable time trying to prove how ridiculous the idea is, bringing up facts like how much an elephant eats in a year. Then there are some Christians who work hard to prove that it is possible after all, calculating the food supply and many other such things. I am sure this can be an interesting task, and there are people who waste their time on sillier things, but we do not need to be defensive. Noah on the Ark is not like if you or I tried to do the same thing tomorrow in the middle of the lake. Noah was fulfilling God’s command. God does not command us to do something impossible without making it possible. Whether there is a way to arrange everything, or if God just made the food last by a miracle, there is no question that Noah’s Ark was possible. It was just as much God’s Ark. This is true of all the miracles of the Bible that seem impossible, unbelievable. Unless it was too much for God (and what is?) questioning whether it really happened is pointless.

Jesus makes a similar point today, not his first but his second. First he says, “Watch out, guard against the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” Jesus is telling them to guard against two errors: on the one hand there are the self-righteous hypocrites and on the other there are the self-indulgent aristocrats. It is very difficult to walk the narrow path where we agree that sin is sin but do not spend our time judging others.

The disciples, however, misunderstand. They believe that Jesus is being literal and telling them not to buy bread from either of these two groups. Jesus sets aside his first point for the moment and points out to the disciples that even if there were a problem with bread, he would not be giving them shopping advice. The disciples are calculating how to feed a dozen people with one loaf of bread. Jesus says, “Forget about it. I am here. When I am here, there are not going to be any problems, least of all with bread. Haven’t you noticed what I can do?”

February 14, 2011 - Memorial of Saint Cyril, monk, and Saint Methodius, bishop

Jesus “sighed from the depth of his spirit.” I think we all know how Jesus felt. The Pharisees were pestering him for a sign. Of course, Jesus had, at least twice, fed crowds with a few loaves of bread and a couple fish. He healed the sick, the blind, and the deaf by the thousands. Still, the Pharisees were demanding a sign.

Jesus could have just given in. This must be at least partially where that sigh came from. Jesus knew that he could have said, “What do you want? Just name it.” He could change the color of the sky, turn mud into a person, summon 12 legions of angels, or whatever. He could literally have done anything. He could have just started taking requests and fulfilling them as they were spoken. The Pharisees want to test Jesus here; they want to try him out like we might try out a new gadget on Christmas day.

This demand for a sign shows a basic misunderstanding about faith. Faith is a gift from God. Faith is not something we do; faith is something God does to us. The Pharisees, like most people today, thought that their faith was the result of weighing both sides, thinking about it, and coming to a judgment. They are asking for a sign because they want more evidence before making their decision. But what evidence would have been sufficient? Anything can be thrown into question. Maybe it is just an illusion. Perhaps Jesus was a space alien with advanced technology. Maybe it was all just a dream. Maybe you are dreaming now and you will wake up in a minute and realize that this is all imaginary.

There is no argument, there is no evidence, that could convince us perfectly. Our brains are not perfect. If faith came from within us, it would have no surer footing than any other thought we have. Faith, however, comes from outside, from God. If we lack faith, we should not demand signs from God, we should not invent elaborate schemes to prove or disprove him. We ought to pray. If we ask God for faith, he can give it to us; he can give us a faith that does not rely on our weak intellect, that is not subject to the whims of our limited mind. 

February 13, 2011 - Sunday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

Readings for Sunday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

Sirach places a choice before us today: life or death, good or evil, fire or water. The choice that Sirach is talking about is called the “fundamental option”. The idea of the fundamental option is that we ought to stop being lukewarm, wishy-washy, half-in/half-out and make a decision to follow God. Many people stand at this fork in the road and refuse to commit themselves to a path. Throughout the Old Testament, God is constantly telling his people to make a decision either for him or for the world, to continue to the Holy Land or to go back to Egypt, to worship him or to worship the pagan Gods. God insists that we make a decision.

Many people easily and proudly proclaim what football team or political party they support, but, in life, they are content to stand on the sidelines and watch. The world loves the open-minded, who see both sides, neither extremist nor fundamentalist. There is a war going on; pick a side. Will your fundamental option be for God or not? If we choose God, life will be hard. We will have to follow the commandments. People are afraid to choose because they think that they might choose wrongly. What if I choose for God and I am wrong? I will miss out on a lot of fun in life. What if I choose against God and I am wrong? I will miss out on something bigger. Every choice for something rejects other possibilities, but we will never get anywhere unless we pick a direction. So we stand on the threshold of life, paralyzed by fear.

Now, if this were a particular kind of protestant church, I would continue in this vein for an hour or so and then ask you to make a decision right now and to come up front and to pray a prayer of decision. I tell you, you would feel good if you did it, all warm inside, excited, probably crying. You would feel alive for the first time in a long time. And I am not going to stop anyone from doing that. Come on up after Mass, and look at Jesus, and make a decision. In fact, I am going to presume something right now. I am going to presume that since you got up this morning, got dressed, and came to worship God, you probably would make that commitment. In fact, let us all pause right now, and, without all the theatrics, turn to Jesus and say, “Lord Jesus, I believe that you are the Son of God who died to save me from my sins. I choose to follow you wherever you lead me, forever. Amen.”

But now we have got a problem, because we have to actually do what we just said. No one runs a marathon by signing up for a gym membership. You have to actually exercise. No one loses a single pound because they made a New Year’s resolution. You have to actually eat better. No one ever got to heaven because they decided that they would follow God. You have to actually follow God. We made the decision. We took the fundamental option for Jesus Christ. The problem is, it is hard to be perfect.

If we thought that following Jesus just meant not killing anybody, he corrects that idea today: “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.” Has anyone here ever been angry with their brother or sister? Has anyone here ever called them a fool? Thus Jesus goes through each commandment and shows what it means to keep it perfectly.

There are some possibilities of course. We could just be hypocrites. We could follow the easy commandments in public and break the hard ones in private. We would be like actors on a stage: it does not matter what happens when the curtain goes down. This was the way of the scribes and Pharisees. But Jesus tells us, “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

We could be antinomians, which is to say, we could not bother trying to be good since we will sin anyway. We could just say, “I have taken the fundamental option for Jesus, so it does not really matter what I do day to day.” The antinomians are like the hypocrites except that they do not even try to hide their failings. This is not a surpassing righteousness.

We are going to have to use more difficult tactics if we will succeed on this path. We made the commitment today; we will have to make it again tomorrow. When we fail, we can repent. We will just have to keep trying to be perfect, no matter how many times we fall. We must never accept sin. We must refuse to put up with evil in our lives. We must never say about some sin we have struggled against, “Oh well, that is just the way I am.”

If this were all though, we would just be like Pharisees but humble. Not a bad place to start, but there is also good news. If we choose to follow God, he will guide us. His Spirit lives within each one of us by our Baptism and Confirmation. God wants us to be saved, but we have to decide that we want to be saved. We have to decide it at every hour; we have to decide it against every temptation; we have to decide it in every part of our lives. This is what it means to choose Christ, to take the fundamental option: following Jesus is the foundation of our lives. “If you choose, you can keep the commandments. They will save you. If you trust in God, you shall even live.”   

February 12, 2011 - Saturday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time

Yesterday, the first reading recounted how, through the efforts of the devil and the decisions of Eve and Adam, sin came into the world and with it shame and death. Today, God brings the first part of the cure: confession. “The LORD God called to Adam and asked him, ‘Where are you?’” God is not playing hide and seek. He is asking Adam to reveal himself. The sin has occurred, nothing now can make it un-occur, but God can begin to heal us, if we turn to him. So long as Adam hid from God, he was hiding nothing; he was an infant covering his eyes and pretending that the world had disappeared.

Adam “answered, ‘I heard you in the garden; but I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid myself.’” He has begun to confess, but, rather than confess his sin, he confesses the consequences of his sin: “I am naked; I am afraid.” This is good. Adam admits weakness; there is still a place in his heart for God. God asks directly for a confession: “Who told you that you were naked? You have eaten, then, from the tree of which I had forbidden you to eat!” God knows what happened, but the confession will be essential. Adam begins with an excuse, a justification that fails to justify, but ends well: “The woman whom you put here with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and so I ate it.” He said the words; he confessed his sin; anything is possible now. God turns to Eve, who also begins with an excuse but finishes well: “The serpent tricked me into it, so I ate it.”

Consequences follow: pain in childbearing, an unhappy relationship between men and women, the man must now work for his food, and they will both die. What wonderful news! The remedy for our sin will be more expensive yet, but there is a remedy. Without the confession, life would have been hopeless, now it is merely very hard. Satan and his angels will never repent, so they will remain forever in Hell. Adam and Eve were led by Jesus into heaven after he died and broke the chains of death. By confessing their sin to God, our first father and mother, who failed to pass on their original holiness to us, have passed on an example for us to follow when we sin.

February 11, 2011 - Friday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time

“Ephphatha!” (that is, “Be opened!”). The Ephphatha rite is performed at baptism. The deacon or priest who is baptizing puts his thumb on the child’s ears and mouth while saying “May he soon touch your ears to receive his word, and your mouth to proclaim his faith, to the praise and glory of God the Father.” I have seen priests skip this line, or more often, skip actually putting their thumb on the child’s ears and mouth. This is not the only ritual that I have seen priests skip. I know a priest who never washes his hands during Mass, on the principle that he washed them beforehand.

Why do we have these rituals, these unnecessary rituals? Why does Jesus go through unnecessary rituals? No one who knows the power of God can dispute that he could have healed the man with a look, but instead, we have before us today this elaborate ritual: “He put his finger into the man’s ears and, spitting, touched his tongue; then he looked up to heaven and groaned, and said to him, “Ephphatha!” (that is, “Be opened!”)” So much unnecessary work!

The heresy that our spiritual life does not include our bodies is one of the oldest, and it is constantly taking different forms. Sometimes a person says that the sexual sins do not matter because they only involve the body not the soul; sometimes a person says that it is not important to kneel in church since we can pray just as well standing in church, or standing on top of a hill for that matter.

The Catholic Church has always stood against such foolishness. When the priest washes his hands at Mass, or we turn to shake hands as a sign of peace, or we kneel before Jesus Christ, or we put on our best clothes before coming to Mass, our soul is affected. This is not merely a case of a physical symbol reminding us to think about something spiritual. We are body and soul. We have to get our whole selves into whatever we are doing. We know this instinctively: a person might say a lot of nonsense about praying in their recliner at home in sweatpants during commercial breaks, but when they have something really important to ask God, they are going to be in church on their knees. If we take our relationship with God seriously, our bodies have to pray along with our souls.

February 10, 2011 - Memorial of Saint Scholastica, virgin

Today’s Gospel is disturbing, which is to say that from the rest of the Gospel we have a certain image and understanding of Jesus and today’s Gospel disturbs that. If this were the only story we had about Jesus, our whole image of him would be very different. There are various ways of making sense of this passage, but few of them make any sense at all. We know that Jesus was fully human and Scripture tells us that he grew in wisdom, age, and grace. Growth in virtue implies someone not already perfect in it. So, Scripture tells us that Jesus, according to his human nature, his human mind, was not always perfect in wisdom and grace. This is a mystery which we will never fully understand, but let us think about it and try to understand partially.

Perhaps Jesus was just grouchy; he was trying to take a nap, but even in a foreign city where he “wanted no one to know about it”, he just cannot get a break. No! Jesus who died meekly upon the Cross, who came to serve and not to be served, who loved us so much that he died for us, was not grouchy.

Perhaps what Jesus said was just a saying in his time, and it was not as offensive as it comes off to us. No! Jesus always was careful about what he said, and, actually, the phrase is far, far more offensive in the original than it is now.

Perhaps we should take the words at face value: Jesus was racist. He grew up in a certain culture that hated foreigners, and he had just learned to disrespect them too. Those who defend this idea suggest that the woman here taught Jesus a valuable lesson. No! Jesus was not a man of his time, and, when he grew up, he grew in wisdom, age, and grace, not in prejudice, selfishness, and hatred.

Perhaps Jesus just knew what words would be perfect here. Whether he is speaking to the woman at the well or inviting a new disciple, Jesus always knew just what to say to elicit the response he was looking for. Yes, this is possible. God does test us. He puts challenges in our way so that we might grow as we deal with them. We should follow the example of this woman when God tests us: be persistent, humble, and just a little bit clever.

February 9, 2011 - Wednesday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time

The words of Jesus today require some understanding. He told the crowd, “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person, but the things that come out from within are what defile.” We may want to question Jesus as his disciples did. We might begin questioning him about bacteria and parasites, or, if we take his words more spiritually, then we should ask about bad entertainment: violence and sex. It is absolutely necessary for a Christian to keep custody of their eyes and ears. Those who try to follow Christ and then watch popular entertainment are fools, they deceive themselves. In the first reading today, we hear the foreboding hint of original sin and we know how that ended up: Eve allowed the serpent’s words in and sin quickly followed.

What are we to think then? Was our Lord so naive? Not at all! “He knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man.” Jesus is not concerning himself now with questions of basic hygiene, nor even whether anything that we put in our bodies is good or bad for us. The word he uses here that is translated as “defile” is a very technical word for the Jews, referencing uncleanness. Certain illnesses made a person unclean. Shrimp and pork were unclean. We should not confuse “unclean” with either sinful or dirty. We should think more about our feeling if we were served dog for dinner. There is no logical reason why a dog is a worse animal to eat than a pig, but I do not want it.

The laws on uncleanness are developed very early in the Old Testament, and they built on cultural ideas of what is disgusting or not that existed long before the law. God used disgust, which is natural to us, to teach his people about good and bad. Throughout the Old Testament, we see constant references to a clean heart, which begins to spiritualize the concept. Jesus fully develops this teaching in the Gospel today. If Jesus were here now, teaching us this teaching, he might say, “What do you find disgusting? That man over there, who hasn’t showered this month, who’s picking his nose as he digs through the dumpster behind McDonald’s looking for half-eaten food? Do you want to know what’s really disgusting? “Evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.”

February 8, 2011 - Tuesday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time

There is a difference between the human tradition that the Pharisees were following religiously and God’s commandment which they had invented excuses for disobeying. It would not be strictly correct to suggest that the Pharisees were following something easy instead of something hard. All that ritual washing before every meal could not exactly be called easy. The difference between the human tradition and the commandment is that the one is limited while the other is unlimited.

There is something comforting about a limited rule. If we look at the Precepts of the Church we see one right away: “Attend Mass on Sundays and all Holy Days of Obligation.” It does not say “enjoy Mass” or “participate well at Mass”; our obligation is simply to show up at a particular place at a particular time about 55 times a year. This is a limited obligation. It is easy to tell when you need to attend Mass. It is easy to tell whether you have attended Mass. If someone is trying to follow Christ, not at a stage where they are picking and choosing, but, like the Pharisees, totally committed in principle to their religion, they love the limited obligations.

It is the unlimited obligations we struggle with. “Honor your father and mother” is a much more difficult commandment than “Do not commit adultery.” With the limited obligations, we know where we stand, but where do the unlimited obligations begin and end? How much honor exactly do I owe my parents? What does it mean to honor them? How much exactly is this honor going to cost me?

Because these limited obligations are easier, there is a temptation in religion to limit the unlimited obligations. “Support the Church” could mean giving 10% of your income to your local parish, an easy calculation. “Honor your father and mother” could mean a card for each of them once a year. We must defy this temptation. When we limit the unlimited, we become simply practitioners of a science of sorts: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Religion should include some limited obligations, a framework on which to build our relationship with Jesus, but that relationship and the obligations of that relationship are unlimited. We can never say about our service of God, “I am done for today; I have finished everything.”

February 7, 2011 - Monday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary

A lot has been made of how the days in our first reading can be thought of representationally. There are some who say simply that each day could stand for however long God wanted it to be. There once was an evangelical, who was a physicist, who tried to integrate Einstein’s idea of relative time into this description. Of course, this sort of talk will never satisfy everybody. Some want to defend the literal interpretation: God spent six days, 24 hours each, creating the universe. On the other side are those who would say that no matter how the time factor is understood, it is clearly wrong that fruit was created before the sun.

The story is obviously symbolic, for reasons other than what have been listed above, from the other side of things, so to speak. We know that God did not really create the world in six days and rest on the seventh because God does not work like that. God is not like us. He is one, simple, not complex. He has never done two things, from all eternity he has done one thing, but in that one thing is everything that he ever did.

It is very difficult for us to imagine God outside of time. We say that he is outside of time, but then we speak of him as if he were inside of time: “first he did this; later he did that,” but this is wrong since outside of time there is neither “first” nor “later”. God simply exists, and, as part of that existence, he acts with one singular act. We live in time and we see that one action as multiple because we see the effects of that one action spread throughout time.

A little philosophy and theology today, but these are important so that we can understand the utter uselessness of arguing with people about whether creation really took six days or six billion years. One of those is correct from our perspective, if we had time machines and could somehow go and watch the creation of the world. What is essential for our faith, though, is the first verse of our reading, the first verse of the whole Bible: “God created the heavens and the earth.” An attempt to describe how he did this can be prayerful and poetic, but we should not imagine that it is accurate, as if we could comprehend God.

February 6, 2011 - Sunday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time

Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth.” He also says, “You are the light of the world.” Jesus is telling us that we are different. If the flavor of salt was the same as the flavor of the food, it would be useless. No one sprinkles some potatoes on their potatoes or adds a dash of rice to the rice, for flavoring. Salt must be different than what it is flavoring. If a light is not brighter than what is around it, it does not deserve to be called a light. Light is not a remarkable thing in the daytime, but at night the smallest light becomes immensely powerful. Nobody takes note of the flashing blue light on the DVD player at noon, but when you are trying to sleep it might as well be a 1000 watt light bulb. Each, both salt and light, is important and useful because it is different from its environment.

What are we to flavor? The earth. What are we to light up? The world. When Jesus tells us that we are the salt of the earth, the light of the world, he is telling us that we have to be different from the world. The flavor of the world is selfishness, greed, lust, laziness. This world is boring. This world is dull. This world lacks flavor. Light is a sign of goodness, and there is some light in this world. There are people who do good things naturally. We, however, must do better. If we are going to light up the world, we have to be significantly brighter than the world around us.

Perhaps someone does not believe that the world is lacking in flavor, that it is very dim. We have some guinea pigs at our disposal. There are people who spend their days trying everything that the world has to offer, trying to find something with real flavor. These people are the rich and famous, the celebrities. Some of them spend their whole lives trying to find flavor, being consumed in the search. Some of them realize that everything this world has to offer is bland in the end, so they go looking for something different than the world, and often end up believing in nonsense. Immense wealth and a lot of free time should add up to people who are happier, but it almost never does.  

Some here today do not need to look so far outside themselves. They have arrived here after tasting the whole world and finding it insipid. Others have arrived here without tasting much of the world at all, but simply believing what their eyes tell them: there is no satisfaction in this world. We are here today because we want something different. And if we want something different and the something different is not out there in the world, we are going to have to be something different. We are here today because we want to be salt; we want to be light!

We have a problem though: we are children of this earth; we are of this world. If something is going to change the flavor of the world, it must come from outside of the world. If there is energy bright enough to make sunshine seem dim, it too must come from outside the world. Jesus came into this world from outside. He continues to send the Holy Spirit to us from outside of the world. Jesus is different; the Holy Spirit is different. Here we have real difference! This is where our flavor and light is going to come from: the teachings of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit.

The world praises wealth, sex, and freedom. These three values express everything the world has to offer. There is nothing intrinsically evil about these.  Wealth, sex, and freedom are all gifts from God to humanity, but without some salt they will be very dull. The teachings of Jesus point us to the proper flavoring: poverty, chastity, and obedience. The world is without flavor because it loves wealth without poverty, sex without chastity, and freedom without obedience. The world tells us that we are the fools because we refuse to have an unlimited love for what the world values. We refuse to love money itself; instead we appreciate being able to buy bread for the hungry, homes for the homeless, and clothing for the naked. We refuse to love sexual pleasure itself; instead we wonder that God has given to men and women the ability to participate in his creation. We refuse to love freedom itself; instead we love the opportunity that freedom gives us to live in accordance with the truth.

A little salt goes a long way. A little light in the darkness can seem very bright. The saints very rarely did great things, as the world sees great things. Very few saints were kings or queens or popes. St. Francis just chose to live in the woods and beg for his food. Mother Theresa just chose to care for dying people. Neither of them put up an advertising campaign to spread the word about their magnificence. The whole world knows about them because they were different, and seeing something different was very shocking to the world. The difference caused some people to hate them. It caused other people to give up their lives and follow them. When we see light in a dark place we can choose either to shield our eyes or to celebrate that light has finally been found.

“You are the salt of the earth.” “You are the light of the world.” How amazing that Jesus entrusted us with this role. Very few of us Christians ever end up being very different from the world, which is sad, because that means that most of us live very dull lives. Nevertheless there are little differences in our lives that add some flavor. When we come to Mass every Sunday, we are a little different. When we pray before we eat, especially in public, we add a little excitement to the world. When we choose to live our lives according to a moral code that is incomprehensible to the world and sometimes even difficult for us to understand, we are a little more interesting. Still, the possibility remains for anyone who would like to do something with their life: you could always try being different, being salt in a bland world, being light in a dark place.

February 5, 2011 - Memorial of Saint Agatha, virgin and martyr

Working for Jesus must have been very difficult, if our Gospel today is any indication. Jesus says to the Apostles, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” I have heard many people use this verse to say that even if our work is very important, we need to find time to get away from it all and rest. This sounds like a good interpretation of Jesus’ words, but what about his actions?

The rest that the disciples get is in the boat going from one place on the Sea of Galilee to another. Of course, one should not imagine a cruise ship or even a sailing ship. They must have rowed slowly since the crowd beats them to the deserted place. When Jesus sees the crowd there, he does not tell the Apostles to turn the boat around and make for some other deserted place. When he gets off the boat and sees the vast crowd, he does not get right back on the boat. He begins teaching the crowd, and he continues into the evening, when he feeds them all and the disciples serve as waiters to 5000 families.

This is why I say that it must have been difficult working for Jesus: his suggestion is nice, but his follow-through is terrible. We have to ask, why? The usual reasons do not suffice. Jesus did not make a bad decision either by suggesting the vacation or by delaying it. He does not have a weak will that his mind is easily changed. Jesus usually knows the future, so it seems probable that he knew that the retreat was not going to happen right away. Peter, James, and John eventually do go on top of a mountain with Jesus, where Jesus is transfigured before their eyes, but more than a week later.

If there is a lesson to be drawn from Jesus’ actions it would be that we should plan a time-off, but not be too attached to it. Parents know this fact intimately; they often must continue to exert themselves when no reasonable employer would make someone work. It should be no different for those who serve God as apostles. But if we, whether apostles or parents, are going to live our lives in this unselfish way, we will need help. We will need the energy given by the Holy Spirit to all those who are tired.  

February 4, 2011 - Friday of the Fourth Week in Ordinary Time

Today’s Gospel reading, after the first few lines, is the only one that could be entirely removed without eliminating the smallest fact about Jesus.  After those first lines, Mark continues with a story which is an anomaly: the only Gospel story completely unrelated to Jesus. It is a very interesting story, captures the imagination, but, still, why put it in the middle of the Gospel rather than in some book full of interesting stories?

This story seems to be more about us Christians than about Jesus. Our interpretation of it ought to be guided by the first reading and the psalm today. Hebrews reminds us: “The Lord is my helper, and I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” Put you in prison and cut off your head, evidently. “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom should I fear? The LORD is my life’s refuge; of whom should I be afraid?” Dancing girls, it seems.

John the Baptist was as good as they come. There is a reason that he is honored after Mary as the second greatest Saint. The Gospels never record him doing anything wrong. He was so humble he did not consider himself worthy to untie Jesus’ shoes, but he was judged worthy to baptize Jesus. His only crime was being the only man willing to stand up to the king, speaking truth to power. If John the Baptist was not protected by God, what meaning do these words have? Thus we have the problem of today’s Gospel. Why bad things happen to good people, or more exactly, “Why does God keep implying that they do not?

Here we must remember that John is doing very well right now. He is in heaven with a front row seat. We must remember that God has not promised us that we and all our loved ones will all die at 99 years old after a life of perfect health and moderate wealth.  He has promised something better. “What can anyone do to me” that, in the long run, will matter at all?  Heaven will be wonderful. When we have been there 10,000 years, the few decades of this life and how they ended will seem important only to the extent that God was glorified, whether by our pleasure or suffering, our life or death. Of what could we possibly be afraid?

February 3, 2011 - Thursday of the Fourth Week in Ordinary Time

Yesterday we saw the completion and fulfillment of the Old Testament. Today we see the new covenant in all its glory.

In the beautiful passage from Hebrews, perhaps one of the most beautiful and poetic in the whole Bible, we are reminded of the blessed times we live in. We might look back (the early Christian Jews certainly did) on the time of Moses as an ideal time: to be alive and see the glory of God revealed so clearly, with fire and darkness and storms, with words that frightened the hearers! We, however, live in an even more blessed time. We are able to come each day and celebrate the Mass; the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross becomes present to us; we receive his Body and Blood.

The earth has been around for 5 billion years. Human civilization has existed for hundreds of thousands of years. But it is in our times, the end times, that Jesus Christ has been revealed. Even though the end times have been 2000 years so far, even if they last 10,000 more before Jesus comes again, they are the end times. The final revelation has been given to us. If we could consider how people lived 5,000 years ago, we might be surprised how similar their daily life was to ours in some ways, and then we might consider the greatest difference: they did not know that God has a Son; they did not know God’s mercy. This difference is greater than all the spaceships and all the computers that will ever exist. They were born; they lived; they died. We were born; we live; we will die. But death has been defeated.

Our Gospel shows the stark difference between Jesus and everything before him. The mission of the Apostles is something new under the sun. Nothing like it has ever been seen before. There have been prophets before, workers of wonders, but which prophet ever sent forth twelve disciples with authority to cure and drive out unclean spirits? Jesus sends them out on a mission to change Israel forever, and soon he will send them out to the world to announce the Good News. It had seemed that sin would always rule over the lives of humans, but now there is repentance. It had seemed that death would forever have the last word on human life, but now there is hope. These are exciting times we are living in.

February 1, 2011 - Tuesday of the Fourth Week in Ordinary Time

The theme of the readings today is “struggle”. To struggle is to fight, specifically to fight against a force preventing you from moving toward your goal. Without a goal there cannot be a struggle. We see a woman trying to touch Jesus’ cloak, and there is a crowd in her way. We see a man trying to help his daughter, and in his way are several people who are telling him that what his effort is useless. We hear in the reading from Hebrews an exhortation to all Christians to run the race despite the sin clinging to us.

What an interesting point: “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood.” There is such a difference between the way that a person struggles and the way that a desperate person struggles. Of course, desperate is exactly the wrong word but conveys the right image. Desperate means “without hope”, but a person without hope does not struggle at all. What I mean by a desperate person is someone who has nothing except hope. The woman who needed healing did not stand on the sidelines and vaguely wish that she could touch Jesus’ cloak; some pushing and shoving went on. When the people came up to Jairus and tried to tell him to give up on his daughter, we are told that Jesus disregarded them, but if one of them stood in front of Jairus and grabbed him by the shoulders and tried to get him to see reason (“Your child is dead! Give up!”) I think they may have gotten a broken nose.

Now consider your struggle against sin. Are you struggling recklessly or, when you first feel the slightest resistance, do you twist a little bit before shrugging your shoulders and giving up, like a bad actor? Our attitude toward temptation should be like a three-year-old’s attitude toward naps: there should be some kicking and screaming involved. “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood.” When you have ropes and chains holding you to sin and you want to run to Jesus, you going to have to struggle. You might lose your shirt or some skin. It’s going to hurt, but that’s okay: it’s just the feeling of what is holding you down finally tearing away.