Sunday, July 31, 2016

Memorial of Saint Alphonsus Liguori, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

“St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori” 
Artist and Date are UNKNOWN
Reading 1: Jeremiah 28:1-17
Commentary on Jer 28:1-17
The reading from the book of the Prophet Jeremiah is a stern warning against false prophets. This reading (the complete chapter 28) tells the story of Hananiah, a false prophet, and Jeremiah. The story is biographical, and attributed once again to Baruch. Hananiah gives the people a very sugar coated vision, that within two years the rule of King Nebuchadnezzar (the Babylonian King who conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and exiled the people) would come to an end, and the temple wealth, the exiled leader, and the people would be restored. This prediction contradicts Jeremiah’s own oracle (see Jeremiah 27).
Jeremiah laments to the people that he too would hope for such an outcome (“May he fulfill the things you have prophesied…”). He goes on to warn them that, prophets who predict pleasing futures can only be validated as “truly sent by the Lord” when their oracles are seen to come true (see Deuteronomy 18:21-22).
Contradicting Hananiah's pleasing prediction, Jeremiah is given a true vision from God. The reign of Nebuchadnezzar will not be broken. It will be strengthened (“By breaking a wooden yoke, you forge an iron yoke!”). Because Hananiah told the people he was hearing God’s voice when he was simply predicting things the leaders of the time wanted to hear, he was told (in an oracle that was fulfilled – proving that Jeremiah was a true prophet) that he would die within a year.
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 119:29, 43, 79, 80, 95, 102
R. (68b) Lord, teach me your statutes.
Psalm 119 is an individual lament asking for God’s support in times of difficulty. From this, the longest of the psalms, the strophes ask for the psalmist to be strengthened in the truth, and given wisdom that comes from the law.
Commentary on Mt 14:13-21
St. Matthew’s account of the feeding of the multitudes is framed with Jesus’ grief over hearing of the death of his cousin, St. John the Baptist. He hopes to grieve in solitude, and so takes a boat to “a deserted place by himself.” While it is not said explicitly, we assume at least some of the disciples accompanied him in the boat. When the crowds catch up with him (Jesus is well established as an important teacher now.), he does not turn them away but continues his work among them.
Possibly continuing his formation process with the disciples, Jesus tells them to feed the hungry people rather than dismiss them. The miracle occurs with significant symbolic numbers associated with it. (Five loaves and two fish would add up to seven, in Hebrew numerology the perfect or most complete number. The fragments filled twelve baskets, enough for the twelve tribes of Israel. Five thousand men was a representation for a huge number and probably not meant as a census of the participants.)
For the early Christian there would have been even more subtle symbolism, as the loaves would represent the “Bread of Life,” the Eucharist, and the fish, the Christian symbol that identified themselves to each other as a consequence of the Greek letters used. Taken in its larger context the story is preparatory to Jesus’ final trip to Jerusalem.
CCC: Mt 14:13-21 1335; Mt 14:19 1329
Once upon a time a large ship set out for a land that promised to be a paradise.  People from all over came to the ship and all were given tickets.  The captain of the ship knew the course they must follow, and set sail on the long and difficult voyage.  It was a journey that took such a long time that when the captain died, a new captain was elected and given the charts to navigate the ship.
They had traveled some distance when arguments began to erupt about what the land would really be like.  One group said that the first mate had a clearer understanding of the destination and the course they must follow, so when the ship came close to an island, they got off and built their own ship.  The course they sailed was almost identical, and they kept in sight of each other. 
On board that larger ship, as captain after captain took the helm, discipline began to get lax and a large group of passengers decided that the captain no longer knew the way to the land of paradise.  They took life boats and struck off on their own, some smaller and some larger, some staying close to the mother ship, others striking out on radically different directions.  They each got a copy of the charts from the captain of the larger ship, but the charts were difficult and tricky to follow.
When last seen the various different flotillas were headed generally in the same direction.  Some had decided that, even in the smaller boats, they had their own ideas of the directions to follow, but there was no captain to consult and no course correction was possible.  Many of these become lost.
We use this simple story to describe the history of the Church (the mother ship).  After an intense early struggle to get everyone on board the mothership of Christianity, the first groups to leave were the Eastern Rite Churches who disagreed with some fundamental issues over the creed. Later (around the time of the Crusades) political issues caused a huge rift that has not been healed to this day.  The second group to break off was at the Reformation. (It is noteworthy that printing technology facilitated the Reformation.  Without inexpensive copies of the Bible, this challenge to Church authority may not have occurred.)  These protestant groups took the Bible and ran with it, disdaining the hierarchical Church, feeling that they could figure out how to find the Lord without any help from anyone.  The independent faith communities that evolved out of this group had no cohesive discipline of belief, and could essentially pick and choose what parts of scripture to accept or interpret and which ones they didn’t like.  The charts, as the story says, are tricky and difficult to read.  Not having any recourse to authority, many of these little boats found radically different paths, many of them seemingly headed in the wrong direction.
The Holy See has been our constant source of direction, prayerfully considering each change of course, constantly consulting the charts left for us by the authors of Sacred Scripture.  But they have also been able to consult the notes left by great saints and brilliant doctors, like Saint Alphonsus Liguori, whose memorial we celebrate today. Throwing away the traditions and thoughts of the great saints is like throwing away the legend to the charts.  A map without a legend is not much more than a picture.
Today we give thanks for the Church which leads us faithfully, unlike those who have gone off trusting only themselves to find the destination.  We pray for the ship’s company to be reunited and rejoice at the thought of one Church, One Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

[1] The picture is “St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori” Artist and Date are UNKNOWN

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Catechism Links[1]
CCC 661, 1042-1050, 1821: hope for a new heaven and a new earth
CCC 2535-2540, 2547, 2728: the disorder of covetousness

Allegory of the Vanity of Earthly Things 
by an UNKNOWN French Master, 1630
Commentary on Ecc 1:2; 2:21-23
Three hundred years before Christ walked the earth, the Hebrew teacher Qoheleth reflects on the illusion of human wisdom and effort. Even one who works and has earthly success must ultimately leave that result to a person (heir) who did not toil. He develops the idea that God’s wisdom is hidden, and nothing mankind can do on this earth will reveal it in a meaningful way. “All is vanity.” The word “vanity” (in Hebrew “hebel”) is used 35 times in this book, and translated literally it means “breath” or “vapor.” It is used elsewhere (Psalm 39:6-7 and Psalm 94:11), and indicates something transient, worthless, or empty.[5]
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 90:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 14, 17
R. (1) If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
This selection of Psalm 90 is very important to us, in that it provides an understanding of God’s timetable for creation and man: “For a thousand years in your sight are as yesterday.”  The psalm laments the mortality of the human life, and prays for wisdom, requesting success for the work of human hands (for human endeavor).
Commentary on Col 3:1-5, 9-11
The theme of seeking the higher gifts continues in this section of St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, as the focus on building spirituality by those raised to new life in Christ through Baptism is exhorted.  He instructs the church to turn away from the hedonistic instincts of human nature, to make a radical change, dying to the old self (also Romans 6:3), and become the new creation of the Baptized.  In this baptism we are unified, one in Christ (similar to Ephesians 2:14ff).
CCC: Col 3-4 1971; Col 3:1-3 655; Col 3:1 1002; Col 3:3 665, 1003, 1420, 2796; Col 3:4 1003, 2772; Col 3:5-8 1852; Col 3:5 2518; Col 3:10 2809
Gospel: Luke 12:13-21
Commentary on Lk 12:13-21
Jesus uses the parable of the Rich Landowner (Fool in some translations) to emphasize the need to focus on the spiritual gifts, not just on material goods. He tells the one who wishes to have Jesus arbitrate a dispute with that person’s brother to take care against greed.
The passage begins with Jesus refusing to provide rabbinical guidance to a person in the crowd. Such guidance is provided in Numbers 27:1-11 and Deuteronomy 21:15ff, but the Lord saw greed at the root of the request. He uses the parable (found only in Luke) of the Rich Landowner (Fool in some translations) to emphasize the need to focus on the spiritual gifts that do not perish, not just on material goods.
The parable has elements of other stories used by Jesus in which the unpredictability of the end of life is emphasized. Spoken to the crowd, the Lord tells them to focus on those spiritual attributes without delay.  St. Athanasius used these words: “A person who lives as if he were to die every day- given that our life is uncertain by definition- will not sin, for good fear extinguishes most of the disorder of our appetites; whereas he who thinks he has a long life ahead of him will easily let himself be dominated by pleasures (Adversus Antigonum).”[6]
CCC: Lk 12:13-14 549
There was once a very good and very wealthy man who died and went to heaven. When he arrived at the pearly gates, St. Peter looked in his book and saw all the good things the man had done and invited him in. As the man walked by, St. Peter noticed a look of great sorrow on his face. He said to the man, “Mr. Jones, I don’t understand your depression. You had a wonderful life on earth, filled with good deeds and great wealth, and today you are ushered into heaven. Why are you sad?”
The man said in reply, “St. Peter, I know I should be happy, and I always knew I could not take my wealth with me, but I fear I will miss it. I wish I could have brought up just one souvenir of my earthly success.”
St. Peter again consulted his book and thought for a moment. He turned to the man and said, “You know, I think you can be allowed to go back and bring just a small memento of your earthly life, nothing big like a yacht, but just a reminder.”
Poof! The man disappeared and poof, he was back. He was holding a small shoe box that was clearly quite heavy. St. Peter could not resist and asked the man what he had chosen to bring back. With his face reddening somewhat, the man opened the box lid to show St. Peter four bars of gold bullion. Whereupon St. Peter looked up in surprise and exclaimed, “You brought pavement?”
The story, of course, has a moral and that moral is tied directly to the Gospel from St. Luke.  The Lord is, at this point in his ministry, a person of renown.  He is respected and looked upon as a person of some authority.  He is approached by one of the crowd he is addressing and asked to take on the role of a Rabbi, to settle a dispute about Mosaic Law in a family dealing with how an estate should be settled.  Jesus does not choose to deal directly with the issue, but rather sees the motive of the one who asked the question.  That motive is greed.
Greed, defined as “excessive desire, as for wealth or power,” is a symptom of perverted values, and Jesus chooses to address the entire crowd with a story to illustrate the foolishness of the motives the questioner expressed.  The story of the wealthy fool is instructive in a few different ways.  It applies the same sentiment expressed by the ancient author of Ecclesiastes in the first reading today: Even a person who is successful in his labors on earth may not take those treasures to heaven.
Without going into details, there is another humorous story about the man who gave his lawyer a large sum of cash to put into his casket when he was buried.  After the funeral he was asked if he did and he replied, “Yes, I left him a check for the total amount.”  What is important in our lives is not how much we can accumulate, not even how much we leave to our heirs. Rather our goal should be what the Lord was suggesting in his Gospel story; the treasure we need to accumulate is spiritual, not material.
One may think, at this point, that gathering spiritual treasure is all fine and good, but it does not pay the mortgage or put food on the table.  That is, of course, correct.  We must all work to provide for ourselves and for those who depend upon us.  Working in such a way is not vanity, as Qoheleth said, nor is it greed.  What Jesus refers to is our passion: What are we passionate about?  Where our passions lie we will spend our time, our energy, and our thoughts.  Taken to an extreme, our passions become obsessions, and obsessions may turn even the best intention into an unwholesome pursuit.
The Gospel begs us to ask ourselves a question today.  Where do we spend our time?  What are our passions?  If we are passionate about our work, have we neglected more important elements of our lives?  If we are passionate about a hobby or sport, have we neglected some other aspect of our lives? Have work, or friends, or family suffered as a result?  Are we passionate about the Lord?  Ah, there is the question.
One might argue that, just like other healthy passions, passion for the Lord can be overdone.  I submit that it probably could be, but like eating healthily, or getting proper exercise, you would have to go a long way before passion for Jesus would cause a problem.  I seriously doubt that one who truly followed the Lord, no matter how obsessively, if they did so for the right reasons, for God’s greater glory, could overdo it.
Our concern today is not that our congregation will become obsessive / compulsive about the Lord.  But rather do we give Jesus enough of our time, our passion, our thought, so that our lives will be transformed?  That is the message contained in scripture today. Do we spend our time on gifts that we will always have, or do we go after pavement?
In other years on this date: Memorial of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, Priest

[1] Catechism links are taken from the Homiletic Directory, Published by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, 29 June 2014
[2] The picture today is Allegory of the Vanity of Earthly Things by an UNKNOWN French Master, 1630
[5] Jerome Biblical Commentary, Prentice Hall, Inc., © 1968, 32:8, pp 535.
[6] The Navarre Bible, Gospels and Acts, Scepter Publishers, Princeton, NJ, © 2002, pp.437.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Saturday of the Seventeenth Week in Ordinary Time

(Optional Memorial for Saint Peter Chrysologus, Bishop and Doctor of the Church)
(Optional Memorial of the Blessed Virgin Mary)
On Saturdays in Ordinary Time when there is no obligatory memorial, an optional memorial of the Blessed Virgin Mary is allowed. [1] Mass texts may be taken from the Common of the Blessed Virgin Mary, from a Votive Mass, or from the special collection of Masses for the Blessed Virgin Mary.

“St John Reproaching Herod” by Mattia Preti, 1662-66
Commentary on Jer 26:11-16, 24
The story of Jeremiah’s persecution is continued after he first prophesied in the Temple that if the people did not turn away from their sinful practices, God would destroy the kingdom of Judah, including the temple. Here the leaders of the community try to have him put to death.
In the face of this angry mob, the prophet repeats the essence of the prophecy (repent so the Lord will not punish them), and then reminds them that it was not on his own that he came to them, but as a servant, a prophet of God, who commanded him. If they put him to death, they were committing an offense against the law. They were finally convinced (in the omitted verses, 17-23, the example of the Prophet Micah, who also predicted dire consequences, was used) and we are told Ahikam came to his defense.  “Ahikam, son of Shaphan: one of Josiah's officials (2 Kings 22:12) and father of Gedaliah, Jeremiah's friend, who was governor of Judah after Zedekiah's deportation (cf Jeremiah 39:14; 40:5-7).”[5]
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 69:15-16, 30-31, 33-34
R. (14c) Lord, in your great love, answer me.
Psalm 69 is a lament in which the psalmist sings of being unjustly persecuted, and calls on God’s saving help. The faith in God’s mercy is reflected in the confidence of the psalmist as in the final strophe the poor are reassured of the Lord's kindness.
Gospel: Matthew 14:1-12
Commentary on Mt 14:1-12
In this passage, recalling the manner of the death of John the Baptist, Herod unwittingly predicts Jesus’ future glory as he assumes that the Lord is John the Baptist, raised from the dead. His guilt over the murder of John weighs heavily on him.
In St. Matthew’s account of the murder of John the Baptist, we note that there is a much more detailed explanation than that found in the Gospel of St. Mark (Mark 6:14ff). We also see that, according to St. Matthew, the murder of St. John was the intent of Herod from the beginning, where St. Mark’s Gospel infers it was Herodias that manipulated him into the act.
It is a tense day in scripture.  First we hear Jeremiah who has been really haranguing the leadership for a couple weeks. He is, at this point, about ready to be put to death.  His response: “Don’t blame me, God is the one who sent me, and it is God that wants you to change.”   He dodged a proverbial bullet.  Then in the Gospel, just when it seems like King Herod is getting very concerned about Jesus (thinking he is the re-incarnation of John the Baptist), we get a flashback to the execution of John.
As we watch the lives of the servants of God unfold, we come to one inescapable conclusion: working for God can be hazardous to your health.  Granted, special honor was accorded to the great Prophet Jeremiah, and similar honor was given to the precursor of the Lord, his cousin, John the Baptist.  Still, when the message of God is placed against the backdrop of society’s norms, it is not what most people want to hear.  And when those people are of a far distant time, a time when human life was less revered, the common outcome was pain, frequently resulting in death.
What message does that bring to us today?  First, we must understand that if we take our faith into the secular world, we will not win any popularity contests.  Those that don’t avoid us will probably do what they can to make us figures of ridicule or contempt.  They will make jokes at our expense, and the names they use for us such as Jesus freak, fanatic, or hater are not meant to be badges of honor (although some of them [not hater – that’s just a lie put out by those who would pervert sexual morality] we should be proud to earn).
In other parts of the world, especially those parts where radical Islam seems to be taking hold, being labeled Christian can be a death sentence.  In the predominantly Islamic states around the holy land (Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran, not to mention the ISIS terror state containing parts of Iraq and Syria where there is currently a pogrom taking place), professing Christianity is actually a civil crime punishable by death.  In China, Christianity is tolerated but subordinate to the state.  We in the “Christian West” are actually quite lucky.
We have an obligation to be faithful to our Creed, and to proclaim our Lord Jesus Christ, and him crucified.  We are required to live a life of faith at home (the domestic church), at school and at work.  We need to show the face the face of Christ to our families, our friends, neighbors, and especially the stranger we meet.  But as we do what we are obligated to do in the name of our faith, let us remember Jeremiah, John the Baptist, and above all Jesus.  They gave us an example of what the faith is worth to us and the world.

[2] The picture used is “St John Reproaching Herod” by Mattia Preti, 1662-66
[5] See NAB footnote on Jeremiah 26:24