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REFLECTIONS

SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

Last Sunday we finished the Advent-Christmas cycle.  This Sunday we return to Ordinary time.  We will have several Sundays of Ordinary time prior to beginning the season of Lent.

It is in very ordinary ways that God enters our lives, thus making them extraordinary.  Jesus calls people to serve him in different ways.  Our call is not a one time event.  At different times in our life Jesus calls us to different things.  The Gospels for this Sunday and the next give us two examples of the way the Gospel writers describe Jesus’ call.

The first reading this week also gives us food for thought in the call of Samuel.  Samuel must struggle to hear the Word of God.  Three times he responds that he is ready, but he wrongly responds to Eli.  Finally Eli helps him to understand that it is God calling.  At times in our lives we must be helped by others to hear the word of the Lord.  I remember a choir director beginning Mass by announcing:  “Please rise and join us in singing our opening hymn to welcome our Spirit Guide.”  We must realize that it is not just priests and sisters who are spiritual guides.  A man told me that when he was getting ready to get married an older man of the parish told him, “Just get in the habit of getting up for Mass every Sunday.  It’s just as easy to get in the habit of getting up as it is to get in the habit of staying in bed.”  That man is a regular church goer.  He received wise guidance which has made a difference in his life.  The puzzled and questioning Samuel of today’s first reading became a man of discernment.  Samuel was chosen by God to anoint the first king of Israel. He also was chosen to anoint Saul’s successor.   The sons of Jesse were presented to him as candidates.  He rejected all six.  He chose the most unlikely the Shepherd boy David.  He anointed David King.

From the Synoptic Gospels, we have come to know John the Baptizer as the one who prepared the way for Christ.  In the Fourth Gospel, however, he is assigned a different role:  “he came for testimony”.  John’s Gospel offers no account of Christ’s baptism, as the synoptic Gospels do, but chooses to describe the encounter between John and Jesus in a different way.

With each passing scene, the figure of Jesus grows more prominent.  First Jesus is simply described as “one among you whom you do not recognize.” But John also says twice in the following verses "I did not know him."  In the next scene, John sees Jesus “coming toward him”.  In today’s scene, Jesus actually “walks by”.  John points out Jesus as the Lamb of God.  Two of his followers leave him to follow Jesus.  Jesus turns and asks “what are you looking for?”  Their response seems to indicate that Jesus had disoriented them a bit, “Rabbi where are you staying?”  He said to them, “come and you will see.”

Jesus call of the disciples is quite different if we compare the Gospel of John with that of Luke, Mark and Matthew.  Next Sunday we will hear the call story according to St. Mark. “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.”

Although the disciples follow Jesus they are not yet his followers.  Jesus invites them to stay with him.  Only after we stay with Jesus for a time do we actually become his followers.

Many times we are like the biblical figures of the reading.  We do not always look beneath the surface, so we often miss the extraordinary in what is ordinary.  We do not hear the voice of God in the voices of others calling us to great things, to sacrifice ourselves for our children or give of ourselves to aging parents.  We do not recognize Christ in the thoughtful people with whom we work, the honest people with whom we do business, the understanding people who help us in simple ways, and the ordinary people with whom we live. Pope Francis continually calls us to not be indifferent. He challenges you and me to go to the periphery.  What periphery is he calling me to?  A friend of mine was challenged by a nun:  "you are doing Church work but are you doing the work of the Church?" We must attune our ears to hear the voice of God.  In what way is the voice of God waiting for me to respond:  “Here I am.  You called me.”?


Becoming a disciple of Jesus and integrating what the "kingdom of God" really means, is a process.  Where am I along that process?

Source of reflection: Dave Jackson

EPIPHANY

Today’s First Reading says:  “Your Light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you.”  The Light of the Star guided the Wise Men, the Light shone on the angels, God wants to let God's  light shine on us.  But in the midst of the guiding light of the Wise men there are the shadows of Herod greatly troubled and all Jerusalem with him.  We invite the light of the World into our lives into our shadows

Matthew is writing his Gospel about the year 80 for Jewish Christians probably living in Syria.  They are living the midst of two great transitions, separation from Judaism, and adjustment to the influx of the Greco-Roman world of the Gentiles.  They are being harassed by non-Christian Jews.  They are being overwhelmed by the great influx of Gentiles.  These were turbulent years of transition and disruption.  Matthew’s Church was suffering loss of perspective and unity.

One of the great seekers of our time a Jesuit priest-theologian, Fr. Karl Rahner, S.J. gave a talk some 16 years after the second Vatican Council.  It was his attempt to give a basic interpretation of this Council.  In it he pointed out there have been three great ages of Christianity:  “First, the short period of Jewish Christianity.  Second, the period of the Church in a distinct cultural region, namely that of Hellenism and of European culture and civilization.  Third, the period in which the sphere of the Church’s life is in fact the entire world.”  Now Christianity must meet World Religions:  Moslems, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, etc.

The Gospel of Matthew, in a special way, tells something of the separation process of Christianity from Judaism.  But it is also dealing with the second age, the spread of Jewish Christianity to the Greco-Roman World.  We call ourselves Roman Catholics.  As Roman Catholics we have our own doctrines, worship, church law, tradition.  Our present day Roman Catholicism has been profoundly shaped by the splits that took place in the history of our Church.  There have been splits with the Eastern  Churches and Protestant Churches (I like to refer to them as separated sister churches).  But all of these groups are Christian.  The predominant geographical area for these religious groups has been Europe, followed by North and South America and now Africa.  There has been some spread to the East, but nothing compared to the expansion of the Roman Catholic Church to the West.

Our World has changed.  Now we refer to ourselves as living in a global village.  We know of Muslims in Iran and Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc.  We know of Hindus in India.  We know something of Buddhists in China. The murder of the Sikhs near Milwaukee calls attention to diversity with the U.S.  We may have heard about other more obscure (to us) Religious traditions.  It is in this world that we must now live and operate.

The Gospel of Matthew was written for Christians that had been Jews;  people who continued to believe that only they shared the  privileged state as the Chosen people.  St. Matthew shows them that is no longer so, that now there are no more privileges in this way.  What used to be exclusively theirs now belongs to all people.  Matthew shows it through the scene we have just heard:  some Wise Men who come from the East are looking for the new-born king of the Jews, whose star they have seen in the sky.  Anybody, any woman or man of good will, who sincerely seeks goodness, justice and peace, can see themselves in these wise men from the East.  Our Christian imagination has painted them with warm descriptive strokes.  They are no longer just the kindly figures of the manger scene with their camels and dromedaries, exotic names, luxurious garments and their retinue like a fairy tale.  They are all those who seek truth and love, and who, guided by that,  wish upon a star, and find Jesus and  offer him the best they and we have, because in Him we see God himself made human.

The topic of religious pluralism, the encounter of World Religions, and religious dialogue will more than likely be an ever increasing topic of discussion and discernment.  Some have said it is the religious theme of the new millenium.

This Epiphany we should reflect on the guiding lights in our lives.  Who or what are they? What are we reading? What are we watching on Television?  Who are our companions along the way?  What do I do when I get stuck like the Wise men did?  St. Paul said that a mystery had been revealed to him.  The mystery St. Paul is talking about is this:  God considers us all equal, loves us all equally, and has a special fondness for those who are excluded, marginalized, materially poor.  Who am I forgetting in the broader Jesus family?

Source of reflection: Dave Jackson

 

HOLY FAMILY SUNDAY

In 2015 Pope Francis spoke about family to the employees of the Holy See and the Vatican City State:

Pope Francis received the employees of the Holy See and the Vatican City State in a special audience to exchange Christmas greetings with them and their families. During the course of the audience, the Holy Father expressed his gratitude to the workers and their families, and asked forgiveness for the recent scandals in the Vatican. How Pope Francis has a knack of getting to the core of things, continues to inspire and surprise me.  Is it possible to do better than Pope Francis as he reflects in this way?  (Taken from the web site “Vatican.va”)

“As I thank you,” Pope Francis said, “I also want to ask your forgiveness for the scandals that there have been in the Vatican. I wish, however, that my attitude and yours, especially in these days, be above all one of prayer: pray for the people involved in these scandals, that those who have done wrong might repent and find the right path once again.”

The Holy Father also encouraged his employees to cultivate family life.

“I encourage you to take care of your marriage and your children,” he said. “Marriage is like a plant,” he continued. “It is not like a closet, that you put there, in the room, and just dust it occasionally: a plant is alive, it should be cared for every day.” Likewise, “A marriage is a living reality: the couple’s life should never be taken for granted, at no stage of the path of a family. Let us remember that the most precious gift for the children are not things, but the love of parents – and I mean not only the love of parents towards their children, but parents’ love for each other.”

Departing from his prepared text, the Holy Father had particular words for grandparents and their role in the health of family life and the upbringing of children. “Grandparents are so important in the family,” he said, “grandparents have memory, have wisdom: do not leave grandparents aside.”

Forgiveness was another major theme of Pope Francis’ unscripted reflections: peacemaking among spouses and among children. “The Jubilee is something to be lived in the domestic Church, as well, not only in the big events,” he said. “Indeed, God loves those who practice mercy in ordinary circumstances,” he continued. “This I want to wish you: to experience the joy of mercy, beginning in your family.”

Pope Francis concluded, saying, “Thanks for your work, forgiveness for the scandals and, ‘Onward!’: go forward in this community and bring my greetings and my best wishes to your loved ones, the elderly and the sick--and continue, please, to pray for me. Thanks again and ‘Merry Christmas!’”

Source of reflection: Dave Jackson

 

CHRISTMAS 2017

This is a Christmas homily from a sister in India. It is one of the best homilies I have ever heard for Christmas. (Dave Jackson)

by SHALINI MULACKAL, PBVM

The birth of a child, especially a male child, always brings joy to the family in South Asian countries like India. The family celebrates the event by distributing special sweets in the neighbourhood and by bursting crackers. A woman who gives birth to a male child is given respect in society whereas the woman who gives birth to a female child is often scorned upon. As a result, even for an ordinary family, the birth of a male child is very significant. It calls for rejoicing and great celebration. Though Christianity affirms equality and dignity of the female and the male both in creation and in redemption, at the sociological level, Christians too succumb at times to the son preference due to the patriarchal culture that still persists in South Asian countries.

The first reading and the Gospel of today are centered on the birth of a child. Both happen to be male children. However the joy and the mood of celebration which the readings evoke in the hearers are not because the children born are males but because of the role they are called to play. Both are portrayed as descendants of David and are expected to bring everlasting peace, shalom or wellbeing for people who live in darkness.  Who are the ones who live in darkness in our world today?

I think, most of us are in one way or another are in darkness, are in need of peace due to the ever increasing violence in our world. The refugees, the asylum seekers, and the people who are forced to flee their land are all in darkness. Think of the millions of Rohingya Muslims who underwent untold suffering in recent months! It is not only the victims of injustice, violence, oppression and poverty who are in darkness but also the people who unleash terror like the ISIS, those who accumulate wealth and promote aggressive capitalism and thereby cause poverty, hunger and disease in our globalized world. All of us are in need of the light and shalom brought by Jesus.

Though Luke may not be historically correct in placing Jesus’ birth during the time of emperor Caesar Augustus who issued a decree for a census of the whole world, he seems to be signaling to the readers the significance of Jesus’ birth for the entire world. Though he is born under Roman oppression, Jesus would overthrow the powerful and raise up the oppressed as Luke has already indicated through Mary’s Magnificat.

In contrast to the present day child births taking place under medical supervision in special maternity hospitals, the birth of Jesus takes place almost on the road without the assistance of a midwife or the presence of an elderly woman. The biblical author merely says, ‘she gave birth to a son, her first born.’ Further ‘she wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in the manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.’

By saying that there was no room for them in the inn, Luke indirectly hints the failure of humanity to receive Jesus which invariably led him to his eventual crucifixion. This verse also reminds us of what prophet Isaiah spoke, “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand” (Is. 1:3).

Who are the first recipients of the good news of Jesus’ birth? They are the shepherds camping in the countryside nearby.  Shepherding, as it is today, was not a dignified profession; it was a despised occupation at the time. The shepherds were scorned as shiftless, dishonest people who grazed their flocks on other people’s lands. Even today it is the illiterate and the poor who takes up this job.

What does the various images and symbols found in the Christmas story convey to us? Manger signifies the humble origins of Jesus and good news given to the shepherds is a clear sign that Jesus is sent to the lowly and the outcast. Of course, there is a reversal of values taking place with the birth of Jesus. What was considered despised takes the center stage, the lowly are raised and the proud ones are brought low.

The Christmas story begins with Caesar Augustus but ends with the shepherds visit to the birth scene in Bethlehem. The Angels announce the good news. The effect of good news is joy for all. The birth of Jesus is a sign of God’s abundant grace. Therefore joy and celebration are the only appropriate responses to this news.

The story also invites everyone to go to Bethlehem. It is a place where God came to us through the birth of a child, a place of mystery and wonder… But how will we get to Bethlehem? The magi were directed by their learning… Mary and Joseph were forced to go because of the census. The shepherds go by a dramatic heavenly revelation. What about us?

At Bethlehem we witness the scandal of the Christmas story. God came into human history completely helpless as a new born and was laid in a feeding trough. God slipped unassumingly into a small village far from the seat of earthly powers. He was born to a young couple who were only betrothed. No elaborate preparations were made for the birth. God was born on the road. The crib was a feed trough; the visitors were despised shepherds, not kings. By entering the human history this way, God identified with the powerless, the oppressed, the poor and the homeless. Among them, God could do the divine new work.

Jesus’ birth reveals a new world order, a world not under Caesar but under the direction of God’s design for the redemption of all peoples. In this world, God’s Word is heard by the humble. There is place even for the shepherds. There is hope for the oppressed. God has not forgotten us or abandoned us to the brokenness we have created. The story of Christmas is both an announcement of hope and a call to humility.

The first reading of today is filled with images.  But the image alone cannot change the world. Deliberation, planning, and hard work are required. However, images, like ideas and commitments, fuel the imagination which stimulates planning and action. This ancient song from Isaiah helps us to understand the deeper meaning of Christmas. The birth and its celebrations are signs of hope. It helps us to trust and gain confidence in God’s future. God’s will for justice, righteousness and peace is made flesh in the weakest of human creatures, a little baby.

Let us pray that shalom brought by Jesus be an experiential reality for all of us during this Christmas.

FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT

As Advent draws to a close, Mary, is a final figure of expectation who comes center stage. Pope Paul VI in 1974 offered us a beautiful and challenging meditation on Mary (Marialis Cultus). #35 

“The Virgin Mary has always been proposed to the faithful by the church as an example to be imitated, not precisely in the type of life she led and much less for the socio-cultural background in which she lived and which scarcely today exists anywhere.  Rather she is held up as an example to the faithful for the way in which in her own particular life she fully and responsibly accepted the will of God, because she heard the word of God and acted on it, and because charity and the spirit of service were the driving force of her actionsShe is worthy of imitation because she was the first and most perfect of Christ’s disciples.”

The Gospel passage we heard today highlights her hearing of the word of God.  Carey Landrey’s moving arrangement Hail Mary, Gentle Woman, in melody and words. captures something of Mary for us.  A commentary on this Gospel amplifies our picture of Mary:  “The narrative never goes far from the concrete simplicity of Mary: unsure of why she was chosen, keenly aware of her unimportant status, and disturbed by the unexpected declaration of her pregnancy.  Using this emphasis on Mary’s uncertainty, the story points out that the ways of God are not obvious even to the holy.  But what they do understand and accept is that God can work in new ways and they must be open to the divine will for them.”

As Paul VI reminds us, “she fully and responsibly accepted the will of God.”  This is our challenge as well. Today’s readings offer us Mary and David’s experiences to teach us about our accepting the will of God.  David had his own plans to build a temple for God.  At first the prophet Nathan supported this plan.  But then in a dream the prophet receives a surprise initiative from God for David:  “You will not build God’s house, but God will build a house, an inheritance for David.”  Mary too receives a surprise initiative from God through a messenger, an angel of annunciation, Gabriel.  We notice that Mary hears that she is deeply loved by God.  But she is “deeply disturbed by these words and asked herself what this greeting could mean.”  Gabriel calls her by name and tells of the baby’s birth, that he will be named Jesus and that he will be great.  Mary responds with continued uncertainty about how it will happen.  Gabriel explains that “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow.”  And Mary is to know as well that her kinswoman Elizabeth, in her old age, has conceived a son, “for nothing is impossible to God.”  Mary’s response then to this assurance and explanation is acceptance and consent to the new turn her life is taking.

In our life too we wish to be attentive to the Word of God.  At times the word comes clearly.  But at times our experience is like that of Mary.  The word comes to us with disturbance, self questioning, questioning of the Angel of annunciation, and hopefully finally with fully and responsibly accepting God’s will.

Though today’s Gospel passage ends with Mary’s acceptance, we know there is more to the story.  Following her momentous encounter with God’s messenger, Mary makes a journey into the hill country to visit Elizabeth.  The hymn we know as the Magnificat is woven into this visit.  Mary tells us of her private joy but she also makes the connection between her private joy and the blessing of God’s people.  There will be in God’s action the rising of the humble, the falling of the mighty; the filling of the hungry, the emptying of the rich.

Why did the Angel begin his announcement: “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you”?  Does not Paul VI give us the answer?  “ . . . because charity and the spirit of service were the driving force of her actions.”  This must have been true prior to this visit and we clearly see that it was true after the visit.  In the Magnificat we have Mary’s interpretation of the Word.  We too are called to share the Word of God with others, not simply by repeating it, but by interpreting it.  Mary is an example to be imitated.

Source of reflection: Dave Jackson

THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT

 In today's Gospel, Priests and Levites, the representatives of the Jewish authorities and experts come from Jerusalem to the desert.  They come to ask John, "Who are you?" 

Something had obviously attracted their attention. Large numbers of people were going to John.  Movements of rebellion often times formed in the desert.  The authorities were probably afraid of this. Their concern is whether some special status other than birth status is implied in John's behavior. John's father Zechariah was a devout rural priest.  Luke begins his Gospel by telling us that Zechariah is serving in the temple in Jerusalem .  There he receives the announcement of the birth of his Son. Zechariah is of a priestly family and so is his wife Elizabeth. This should mean that John would one day appear serving in the Temple too.  But John appears in the desert preaching and baptizing. 

JOHN'S PERCEPTION OF HIS IDENTITY

John justifies his actions not in terms of his own birth status, but as a prelude to the coming of one greater than he.  Though John's actions had suggested to onlookers a status higher than his own birth status, he himself offers a different assessment.  He suggests that his interlocutors have misread the situation rather sharply.  John says he is not even worthy to untie his sandal strap.  Untying sandal straps was an action proper to a slave. John is placing himself below slaves and students of teachers. The implication is that John's status is low indeed.  The Gospel of John five times explicitly places John below Jesus on the scale of honor. 

John answers their question by first saying who he was not, Not The Christ (Messiah), Not Elijah, not the Prophet.  When pressed to give more information he states, "I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord,’" as the prophet Isaiah said. 

OTHER PERCEPTIONS OF JOHN, GOSPEL WRITERS.

John the Gospel writer introduces John :  "There was man sent from God, whose name was John.  He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him.  He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light." 

John the Baptist says of Jesus to the people, " . . . but among you stands one whom you do not know."  The Gospel writer John also places on John the Baptist lips the words, "the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie."  The mention of the sandals is present in all four Gospel writers.  This and the baptism of water are probably the only elements that all four Gospel writers share in writing about John the Baptist.  Matthew and Luke portray John as a fire and brimstone prophet.  Ax at the root, cut down, thrown in the fire, brood of vipers, winnowing fan in his hand, chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. 

HOW DO I SEE MYSELF?

If someone were to ask you, "who are you?"  What response would you give?  We might start our response like John saying who we are not.  How would you formulate the answer to someone asking about your identity? In contemporary American society the question "who are you?" is a question about what uniquely characterizes an individual.  The individualist personality.  But the world of the New Testament, when someone asked, "who are you?" he or she normally expected to hear some kind of group identifier like "son of Joseph from Nazareth" or "descendant of Abraham".  They saw every person as deeply embedded in a group and therefore assumed that identity is possible only in relation to the others who form this group.  For most people this was the family. They thought in terms of collectivist personality. 

For example are you thought of as a responsible person or as irresponsible?  Are you dependable or can't be depended on?  Are you neat and organized or haphazard and disorganized.  Are you considered a happy person or a sad person?  As a serious person or fun loving?  Are you a team player or a lone ranger?  Are you an on time person or an always late person? 

It is common to speak of people having an identity crisis.  My experience has been that some people have an inflated idea of their identity and other people have a deflated idea of their identity.

RELIGIOUS / CATHOLIC IDENTITY

We would identify ourselves by religion as Catholic.  In what does your Catholic identity consist?  One writer on a sermon on the internet put four qualities out there:

1) Attend Mass every Sunday

2) Known to be a moral person, standards of ethics, morality and character.  Persons of principle and goodness in the way we carry out our affairs, our businesses and in the way we treat others.  My word means something.

3) Prayerful persons.

4) Have an attitude, a habit of being that is kind, gentle, respectful, sensitive to others, compassionate and caring toward others. 

ADVENT is the time of the coming of God into our humanity, into our personal lives.  It is that mysterious time of the year when we recognize the tension between what already IS and what is YET TO BE, between what we ARE and what we CAN BE; between what has been ACCOMPLISHED and what remains UNFINISHED in our enterprise of living. 

As preparation for the year 2000, Pope John Paul II, six years prior 1996 wrote the Apostolic letter  Tertio Millenio Adveniente. The first words of this letter are: "As the third millennium of the new era draws near . . . "  In announcing the JUBILEE the pope turned to the prophet Isaiah and the words we heard today.  He invited us to be in right relationship to God and neighbor through personal conversion, repentance over individual and corporate sinfulness and reconciliation with enemies.  He also stressed the social dimension of this jubilee:  "From this point of view, if we recall that Jesus came to preach the good news to the poor, how can we fail to lay greater emphasis on the church's preferential option for the poor and the outcast?  Indeed, it has to be said that a commitment to justice and peace in a world like ours, marked by so many conflicts and intolerable social and economic inequalities, is a necessary condition for the preparation and celebration of the Jubilee.  . . . Christians will have to raise their voice on behalf of all the poor of the world, proposing the Jubilee as an appropriate time to give thought, among other things, to reducing substantially, if not canceling outright, the international debt which seriously threatens the future of many nations.  The Jubilee can also offer an opportunity for reflecting on other challenges of our time, such as the difficulties of dialogue between different cultures and the problems connected with respect for women's rights and the promotion of the family and marriage." # 51 Tertio Millenio Adveniente.

From the Vatican, on 10 November in the year 1994, the seventeenth of my Pontificate. APOSTOLIC LETTER 
TERTIO MILLENNIO ADVENIENTE 
OF HIS HOLINESS 
POPE JOHN PAUL II 
TO THE BISHOPS, CLERGY 
AND LAY FAITHFUL 
ON PREPARATION 
FOR THE JUBILEE OF THE YEAR 2000

Source of reflection: Dave Jackson