The 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time [A] - 28 AUG 2011

The 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]
Jeremiah 20:7-9    Romans 12:1-2    Matthew 16:21-27
August 28, 2011

“You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”  [Matthew 16:23]

When you were little, you probably played “King of the Hill”.  Of course in our part of Kansas you don’t find too many actual hills, but for the purpose of playing the game, just about anything will serve as a “hill”:  a shed, a junk pile, a van.  The point of the game doesn’t rely on what the hill is.  The goal is to bring down the king, so a better king can climb.

Among adults, this same game takes many different forms.  You can read or listen through mass media every day about elaborate games of “King of the Hill”.  Some of these games are played in Washington, D.C. (or on a smaller hill, in Topeka).  The history of politics, both in our own country and in every form of government through the ages, is full of examples of espionage, blackmail, and even murder in order to bring down the one in charge.  Julius Caesar, Charles I and Abraham Lincoln all paid with their lives because others wanted to bring them down by whatever means necessary.  Brutus, Parliament, and John Wilkes Booth imagined that a more virtuous emperor, a wiser king, and a more loyal president could ascend to power in the stead of those they brought down.

Fortunately for you and me, most of life is not as tragic as the downfall of Caesar or Lincoln.  But it is tragic that one of the surest proofs of Original Sin is the pleasure that human beings take in seeing the mighty fall.  This is part of the popularity of tabloids, showing as they do how the famous of Hollywood have faults, failings and sins like the rest of us.  Even professional sports are filled with stories that capture the attention of those who don’t even care for sports.  Think of the sport that’s considered by many to be the most gentlemanly:  golf.  In spite of the sport’s genteel manner, what sort of media circus exploded to cover the downfall of Tiger Woods?

Our wiser and older members who grew up in St. Mark’s will tell you that the German word schadenfreude means taking pleasure in the downfall of others.  Maybe this tendency comes from wanting there to be a level playing field, where we tell ourselves that the great and mighty are not really any greater or mightier than me [sic].  But what schadenfreude overlooks is the fact that there really are hills in this world.  It’s true that every human being is certainly equal to every other human being when it comes to dignity, intrinsic worth, and love in God’s sight.  But God has not given equal gifts to all his children.

This very plain fact—that God has not given equal gifts to his children—is sometimes obscured, however, by one of the most challenging verses of the Bible.  It’s not found in any of our readings this Sunday, but it bears directly on the confrontation in today’s Gospel between Jesus and His apostle Simon.  This confrontation is all the more astounding because, just moments earlier—in the passage we heard last Sunday—Jesus had given Simon a gift without equal.  Jesus, just moments before this tense confrontation, placed on Simon’s shoulders the gift of leading Jesus’ Church following His Ascension.
In giving this gift, Jesus had even changed Simon’s name.  Jesus gave Simon the name “Peter”.  You know that the name “Peter” literally means “Rock”.  But think about the significance of Jesus giving him this name.  Every time that someone addresses him by name—every time that someone calls out “Peter!”—his mind is going to flip back in time to that moment we heard of last Sunday, and to the One who declared: “I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church….”

And so Simon, having been given a new name and gift, shows us today that he is unworthy of and unready for both.  Last Sunday Jesus declared, “I will build my church.”  This Sunday He begins to build.  How does he build?  With stone and mortar?  With brick and wood?  With books and maps?  No.  It’s just two verses after Jesus says to Peter, “you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church,” that “Jesus began to show his disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly…and be killed and on the third day be raised.”

This is the bedrock on which the Church’s foundation is set.  Here is the foundation of following Jesus.  But Peter does not want to follow Jesus.  Peter wants to stop Him.  Peter refuses to accept that His Master must…suffer greatly…and be killed.  It’s easy to imagine that Peter didn’t even hear the words “and on the third day be raised.”  Jesus’ proclamation of His coming Passion and Death is a stumbling stone for Peter.  Peter refuses so strongly that he cries out, “God forbid!”

We have to imagine that Peter spoke these words in all charity.  It’s clear that he spoke in ignorance.  Peter does not see that Jesus was building His Church:  that the Passion and Death of Jesus are the bedrock on which the Gospel will rise.  There can be no Resurrection if there is no Passion and Death.  There can be no forgiveness of sins if there is no Resurrection.  And if there is no forgiveness, there can only be eternal punishment for all mankind in hell.

We have to grant that Peter does not hear the full Gospel.  Peter’s mind and heart are stuck on hearing that Jesus must suffer and die.  Peter loves his Master.  Peter is unwilling to accept the price.  Peter is unwilling to see that Jesus’ Passion and Death are the price for the forgiveness of sins, and eternal life.
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“More is demanded of those / to whom more is given.”[1]  What has Jesus given you?  If you don’t know what Jesus has given you, you can’t understand what Jesus is demanding from you.  The two always go together, and that’s why this verse is one of the most challenging in the whole Bible.

Peter doesn’t know what Jesus has given him, so he doesn’t understand what Jesus is demanding.  Peter doesn’t know the Gospel of salvation, so he doesn’t understand how to be the Rock of Jesus’ Church.  Peter imagines that he’s doing good when he cries, “God forbid!”  He doesn’t understand that these words are a stumbling stone.  Peter is playing an old game.  He wants to bring down the King from the hill of Calvary.  Peter imagines that he himself is being more virtuous, wiser and more loyal to God than Jesus.  “God forbid!”  “Abandon the plan to scale Calvary, Jesus!”

“More is demanded of those / to whom more is given.”  What has Jesus given you?  Jesus has given Peter the gift of leading His universal Church, and to that gift Peter says, “God forbid!”  Against Simon Peter, Jesus applies two salves of bitter medicine.  Jesus calls Simon Peter “Satan”, which literally means “adversary”.  Peter has made himself Jesus’ adversary in Peter’s game of “King of the Hill”.  And so Jesus explains this rebuke plainly, saying, “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”

The gifts God gives each of us are given for His sake, not ours.  God gives us gifts for the sake of Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church.  When we listen authentically for God’s voice in the Sacred Liturgy, in our personal prayer, and in our conscience, we hear an invitation from Our Lord.  Here at the beginning of Peter’s life as “the Rock”, Peter understands poorly what lays before him.  But remember the end of the Gospel:  in John’s account, in the days following the Resurrection, Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?”  Peter affirms three times that he does.  And Jesus replies to him, “Feed my lambs.”  “Tend my sheep.” “Feed my sheep.  Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”  Jesus said this signifying by what kind of death Peter would glorify God.  And when Jesus had said this, he said to Peter, “Follow me.”[2]

“Follow me,” Jesus says.  “Follow me up the hill of Calvary.  Do not ask me to come down from there for you.  I will not.  I will remain on top of that hill for you, until I have died to take away your sins; to offer you eternal life.  Follow me up to the top of Calvary.  Follow me to your death, and I will give you eternal life.”  This is the Gospel of our lives as Christians.

[1] Luke 12:48.
[2] see John 21:15-19.

St. John of Avila: soon to be the 34th Doctor of the Church!

St. John of Avila:  soon to be the 34th Doctor of the Church!

The 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]

The Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]
Isaiah 22:15,19-23  ─  Romans 11:33-36  ─  Matthew 16:13-20
August 21, 2011

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! [Romans 11:33]

This reflection quotes liberally (if you’ll pardon the term) from The Fulfillment of All Desire by Ralph Martin, which you can order here:
Most quotes are indicated (some may not be), but I did not have time to cite the references.  Please read Dr. Martin’s book!

When you look at the full spectrum of Catholic saints, you see that some grew up as devout children, were brought up in devout homes, and lived lives that (for the most part) progressed steadily in holiness.  Thérèse the Little Flower was such a saint.  On the other hand, you have those like Augustine of Hippo, who in spite of his mother’s prayers, didn’t receive Baptism until the age of 33.  He never married, but in the years before his baptism, he fathered a child by the woman with whom he lived for thirteen years.  And so these two very different saints—Thérèse and Augustine—show how the men and women who eventually followed Christ without reservation are very different from each other.  Yet God called them, not because of or in spite of their early lives, but simply because He loved them.

Saint Francis de Sales was born in 1567 in France, near the present border of Switzerland. He lived a life much closer to the former end of the spectrum, like the Little Flower or—in our own day—Blessed John Paul II.  When Francis de Sales “was twelve years old he felt strongly called to serve the Lord as a priest.”  But his father didn’t take those feelings seriously.  So instead, Francis de Sales became “accomplished in [what were called] the ‘arts of the nobility’ (horsemanship, fencing, dancing).  He pursued higher studies in law and theology at the University of Padua [in northern Italy] and received a doctorate at the age of twenty-four.”

Francis de Sales was then “given a title of nobility and offered a [seat] in the senate” of his local civil government.  His father had even chosen a girl for him to marry.  But Francis at this point renounced his noble title, his senate seat, and his opportunity to enter the beautiful Sacrament of Marriage.  Because though his earthly Father had never taken Francis’ desire to be a priest seriously, his heavenly Father had.

Once ordained, Father Francis was assigned to re-establish the Catholic Church in the area around Geneva, which had become the center of Calvinism.  Because of the great hostilities that many Catholics and Calvinists waged against each other, “Francis often had to flee in order to avoid being beaten, or worse.”  Rejecting physical coercion and violence, Father Francis declared that the means used to re-establish the Church in the region would be prayer, alms, and fasting.  He re-established many Catholic parishes, and he reconciled much of the population with the Church.”  Eventually Father Francis was named the Bishop of Geneva.  However, because of continual violence, he, like his predecessor, was unable to reside in Geneva.  He was forced into exile in France.

There in France, Bishop Francis “came in contact with the writings of [the cloistered Carmelite nun] Teresa of Avila, who had died only twenty years before.”  As a bishop, he applied the teachings of St. Teresa in the formation of his seminarians.  During his 22 years as a bishop, he ordained nine hundred priests.  And through the priestly ministry of those 900, the teachings of that cloistered Carmelite nun reached thousands of lay men, women and children, just in the lifetime of Bishop Francis alone.  That’s how God works:  the lives of his saints interact with each other, and the grace that God gives one saint bears fruit through the efforts of another.

But Bishop Francis applied the teachings of St. Teresa in other ways, also.  He wrote a book explaining in his own words that the universal call to holiness includes lay people:  it is for those living ordinary lives, like yourselves.  In this book, The Introduction to the Devout Life, he explains why he wants to speak about the spiritual lives of lay people:

Almost all those who have [up ’til now] written about devotion / have been concerned with instructing persons [who are completely] withdrawn from the world / or have at least taught a kind of devotion that leads to such complete retirement.  My purpose is to instruct those who live in town, within families, or at court, and by their state of life are obliged to live an ordinary life[, at least,] as to outward appearances.[1]

The Church has always called every member of the Body of Christ to follow Jesus without reservation, putting God and His Church before everything else in his life.  Still, there are many different reasons why individuals profess not to believe that they themselves are included in the universal call to holiness.  Some object, “I’m not a priest or nun!”, as if lay people simply are not called to complete holiness.  Others confess, “I’m not good enough”, even though Jesus says plainly in the Gospel, “I came to save the sick, not those who are well.”  Then there are those who admit, “I’m not ready to follow Jesus in the way He wants.”  These people are the most honest, and know that following Jesus means being led to the Cross.

All three of these objections and confessions demand humility.  It was through humility that St. Francis de Sales showed the difference between what devotion is not, and what devotion truly is.  On the one hand, he exposes some of the false masks that appear at first glance to be devotion:

Everyone paints devotion according to his own passions and fancies.  A man given to fasting thinks himself very devout if he fasts, although his heart may be filled with hatred.  Much concerned with sobriety, he doesn’t dare to wet his tongue with wine or even water[,] but won’t hesitate to drink deep of his neighbor’s blood by detraction and calumny.  Another man thinks himself devout because he daily recites a vast number of prayers, but after saying them[,] he utters the most disagreeable, arrogant and harmful words at home and among the neighbors.

“Francis goes on to describe how someone else may give money to the poor[,] but not forgive his enemies.  Or another may forgive his enemies[,] but not pay his [creditors] unless compelled to do so by law.  The point that [St. Francis] is making is that” true devotion doesn’t begin with our actions, but with our heart.  True devotion is the fruit of a heart that has been united to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
St. Francis elaborates on his own way of seeing true devotion:

When… [divine love] has reached a degree of perfection [where] it not only makes us do good[,] but also [makes us to] do this carefully, frequently, and promptly, it is called devotion. . . .
     [True devotion] arouses us to do quickly and lovingly as many good works as possible, both those commanded[,] and those merely counseled or inspired. . . . Like a man in sound health[,] he not only walks[,] but runs and leaps forward “on the way of God’s commandments” (Psalm 119:32).

In the Gospel today, Saint Peter professes his faith in Jesus as the Messiah and Son of the Living God.  Jesus responds to Peter’s faith by giving him the greatest earthly gift possible:  the stewardship and burden of leading the Church on earth.  Yet moments later—in the Gospel passage we will hear next Sunday—Peter shows his weakness, and his un-readiness to lead even himself to Heaven, much less the other members of the Church on earth.  Every gift that God gives us is given out of love for us.  But it has to be accepted in faith, even when that means the sacrifice of what seems most important to us.  In the midst of sacrificing what seems to us important, God reveals to us what truly is.

[1] This book was first published in 1609, and has been in print each and every one of the 402 years since.

Assumption of the BVM

The Solemnity of the Assumption
Revelation 11:19; 12:1-6,10  +  1 Corinthians 15:20-26  +  Luke 1:39-56
August 15, 2011

Not too many years ago, our federal government added a monument to those which decorate downtown Washington, D.C.  This monument to President Franklin Roosevelt is a tribute to this man who served our country during the course of a great economic depression and a world war.  This monument adds to those honoring other great leaders of our country, such as Presidents Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln.
All this, of course, is very natural.  When great and famous people die, they are usually given an elaborate funeral and buried in a great tomb. Often buildings and streets are named after them. Their great hope is that their memory will live after them, whether through their personal legacy or through some sort of monument.  But, let’s face it, when you and I die, because we are common people, we don’t expect that we will receive an elaborate funeral or be buried in a great tomb.  Probably no building or street will be named after us. Yet we all hope to live on in the memories, thoughts, and prayers of those who are close to us.  But the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary teaches us about the greatest and deepest hope that we all share. We hope that we will live not just in the memory of others, but forever with Mary and all the saints in heaven, as we all together as One Body, worship God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
               The twentieth century is a century in which God has graced the human race with great gifts, gifts which have been taken and twisted to serve death, such as the scientific knowledge that mankind has achieved in this century, which has been used to build and use nuclear bombs.  But our century is only a giant example of one of the most basic facts of human existence:  original sin.  In other words, when humanity is left to its own powers, it constantly gravitates towards DEATH.  This is the story of the human race, from Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, to the Israelites in the desert, to Christ coming to live among us and being killed for his actions, to our own day.  Whenever God has acted as a loving Father, and given us, His children, a greater share of responsibility for creation, we have abused God’s trust by serving our own selfish ends.
               It was in 1950, in the middle of our century, this extraordinary century of using good for evil, that Pope Pius XII defined our belief in the Assumption as something revealed by God for the good of humanity.  The response of many people in the world was not surprising;  it simply followed the same pattern of humanity throughout the ages.  Here was God, through His Church, revealing something important, something that could help humanity cope with the anxieties of the age, and the response was to reject God’s gift:  many called our belief in the Assumption “Roman superstition,” and “worship of Mary.”
               But far from being  either superstition or idolatry, our Catholic belief in Mary’s Assumption is one of the few bright lights of hope in an age blackened by human sinfulness.  Our Catholic belief in Mary’s Assumption is not a fable invented by the Roman Church, but a tradition that stretches back to the first century.  Our Catholic belief in Mary’s Assumption is not idolatry of Mary, but a recognition that there is hope for the human race.
               What IS the meaning of our Catholic belief in Mary’s Assumption?  What hope IS there in believing that Mary, at the end of her life here on earth, was assumed, soul AND body into Heaven?
               We all believe that when a person dies, if they are a state of perfect grace, their soul goes to Heaven, or in another word, that their soul is “assumed” into Heaven.  We may very well know people in our own families who, we’re sure, had their souls taken by God into Heaven.  This undoubtedly happens with many people.  Well, the only difference between these people and the end of Mary’s life is that BOTH Mary’s soul AND her BODY were assumed into Heaven.
               Why was Mary’s body taken into Heaven along with her soul?  Because Mary was never touched by the effects of original sin, and so didn’t have to suffer the corruption of her body.  Mary is the perfect example of what it means to take the gifts given by God and use them completely for good.  Because Mary accepted the great gift of being the Mother of Jesus, the Mother of God, and because she always stood faithful to Christ, even as he hung on the Cross, she was protected by God from the effect of original sin, that body and soul should be separated by death.  And so when the end of Mary’s life came, Mary became the sign that shows all of us our own destiny as disciples of Christ, what we have to hope for if we are faithful to Christ.  If you and I follow Christ even when asks us to suffer, to stay faithful even when it means embracing the Cross--- if we are always willing to use the gifts God has given us for good and not evil--- then when Christ comes a second time, your body and my body will be raised by Christ, and with our Blessed Mother in Heaven we will all thank God for the gift of life.
We too are destined for great things in God's loving plan.  Being intimately connected with Jesus and with Mary, we live in the hope of being like them in glory. This is the blessed destiny of all God's daughters and sons who choose to hear the word of God and keep it faithfully.
We shouldn’t forget that we celebrate this in our creed when we pray, “We believe in the resurrection of the body.”  We live in the hope that our bodies are going to participate in God’s own life. Mary has followed the path Jesus showed us.  Mary is our hope since we too look forward to sharing the full life of the risen Christ. If we are faithful as Mary was, we will be remembered in the only way that counts. We will be remembered by God who calls us to share divine glory in heaven forever. The feast of the Assumption of Mary should fill us with great hope and help renew our trust in Christ. Where Mary has gone, we too hope to follow.

The 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]

The Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]
Isaiah 56:1,6-7 – Romans 11:13-15,29-32 – Matthew 15:21-28
August 14, 2011

                “…my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.…” [Isaiah 56:7]

Father Benedict Groeschel, CFR tells the story of how he was shocked to learn, on a trip to Greece, of a mechanic involved in a horrific sort of trade.  As you know, the Greek language uses a different alphabet than most languages in the Western world.  Father Groeschel is a well-educated man, though—he has a Ph.D. in psychology—so as he travelled through the country he translated signs as best he could.  One day, though, his car broke down, and while he was waiting for repairs, he was shocked when he read one of the signs in the mechanic’s shop.   The sign said… that the mechanic sold… Catholics!

Dumbfounded, he pulled up his belt and determined to have a word with the shop owner.  A few minutes later, he left the owner’s office smiling, having shaken the shop owner’s hand, grateful for the lesson in humility.  You see, Father Groeschel knew enough of the Greek alphabet to recognize the word καθολικοѕ as meaning “catholic”, but he’d forgotten that the word “catholic” means “universal”, and so the shop owner had to explain to Father Groeschel that his sign was advertising… universal joints.
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There are always bad consequences when we forget that the word “catholic” means “universal”.  There are always worse consequences when we forget just how catholic our faith in Jesus Christ is meant to be.  There are at least three ways in which our Christian faith must be catholic:  that is, universal.

When Jesus Christ walked this earth, He had a mission.  His mission is about salvation.  That’s why He died on the Cross, and that’s why His Father raised Him from the dead:  to save human beings from Hell.  Which human beings?  All human beings.  When Jesus Christ walked this earth, He founded a universal church:  a church through which all nations, in all ages would be offered salvation.

The Church Jesus founded is for all the nations of the earth.  This truth was and remains today one of the biggest stumbling blocks for the Jewish people.  Jesus in many of His parables teaches that His salvation is for Jew and Gentile alike.  Remember the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  In Jesus’ day, the Samaritans were at odds with the Jewish people.  But the hero in the Parable of the Good Samaritan—the one who truly loved his neighbor—was not a “faithful Jew”, but a so-called “outsider”.  Jesus founded His Church for all nations and races.  The only outsiders are those who choose to remain outside the Church.

The Church Jesus founded is for all time.  Jesus founded the Church when He said to His apostle Simon, “you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.”[1]  This foundation has stood through history.  265 men have succeeded St. Peter in bearing this office.  Pope Benedict XVI leads a Church that is not his own.  The Pope, whoever he may be, is a steward.  God has entrusted him with the gift and burden of leadership.

The English writer G. K. Chesterton was a journalist with a sense of humor as strong as his sense of irony.  In one of his greatest books, titled Orthodoxy, he describes how tradition emerges through history.  Here are his words:

If we attach great importance to the opinion of ordinary men… when we are dealing with daily matters, there is no reason why we should disregard it when we are dealing with history….  Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors.  [Tradition] is the democracy of the dead.  Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.[2]

When calls are made today for radical changes in the Church—to throw Tradition overboard for the sake of trendiness and popularity—the Pope has to teach the faithful that he and we together must be stewards of Catholic Tradition:  from the grandest halls of the Vatican, to the living rooms of the most modest home.  We are not called to be “consumers” of Tradition, who throw away what is not sleek, flashy and attractive.  We are not called to be “cafeteria Catholics”, who pick and choose the most palatable pieces for our plates.  History shows us what “cafeteria Catholicism” becomes.  “Cafeteria Catholicism” becomes “Protestantism”.  Protestantism was founded five hundred years ago by mortals with minds that differed even amongst themselves.  The Catholic Church was founded two thousand years ago by Christ, of one Mind and one Will with His Father.
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When Jesus Christ walked this earth, He had a mission.  The Church has continued His mission since His Ascension.  The Church, in every age, has carried Jesus’ mission to every people in our world.  But this Church is built of single members, like you and me.  Jesus is not a corporate CEO, who focuses on charts, graphs, poll numbers and mission statements.  The sole statement of His mission is the Gospel.  He saves His Church through His Gospel, one soul at a time.  He works with each, single, solitary member of the Church, to help each of us grow in holiness.  That’s why the Church speaks of the “call to holiness” as a universal call.  God calls each and every member of the Church to complete holiness.  We may not complete this work on earth, but we must begin.

One of the most enjoyable parts of a vacation is the chance to read.  Last month on vacation, most of my reading was about the sixteenth century.  This was a fascinating century.  The 16th century was filled with heroes, villains and heretics.  The villains and heroes lived and died as Catholics.  The heretics were born as Catholics, but died as Protestants.

In the 16th century, as in the 21st, the strongest argument against the Catholic Church was her members.  In the 16th century, on every level of Catholic life—from parish priests and laypersons, to monks and nuns, to the highest level of the hierarchy—open scandal was common.  The Protestant reformers had good reason to be scandalized by, and angry at, the members of the Church whose actions mocked the Gospel.  The Protestant reformers had good reasons to reform the Church.  But they used bad methods.  Those methods led them out of the Church, and they died outside her arms.

In the 16th century, as in the 21st, the strongest argument for the Catholic Church was her members.  Of the seven saints that we are focusing on this summer and fall, three lived during the 16th century.  All three of these saints—St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Francis de Sales—were reformers.  But they were Catholic reformers.  They chose to reform the Church from within:  from within the Church, and from within themselves.  Each of these three Catholic reformers began with the reformation of his or her own life.

History is fascinating.  The history of the Catholic Church—two thousand years of growth throughout the world—is astounding.  But more astounding, fascinating, intimate and revolutionary is God’s grace at work in a single soul given to Christ without reservation.  That’s what these three saints knew.  They recognized that Isaiah’s prophecy was meant for them, as it is for us.  When the Lord said, “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples,” the Lord meant all peoples, including you and me.  The call to holiness is difficult work.  It’s not work we will complete on this earth, but it’s work we must begin.

[1]  Matthew 16:18.
[2] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, “The Ethics of Elfland”, §4.

The 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]

The Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]
I Kings 19:9,11-13    Romans 9:1-5    Matthew 14:22-33
August 7, 2011

“He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray.
When it was evening He was there alone.” [Matthew 14:23]

Every one of you has been lonely at some point in your life.  Sometimes the feeling of loneliness is caused by distance.  In the pews today are young men and women who have just graduated from high school and are leaving in a few days for college.  Amidst the anticipation of studies and new friends and places to hang out, I’m sure they realize that they’ll experience homesickness, as well.

One of the most profound experiences of loneliness that I’ve ever felt was about twelve years ago, as I sat alone in a hotel room in Warsaw, Poland.  The next day I was scheduled to fly back to Rome, where the previous month I’d begun a two-year course of studies.  I had flown to Poland to visit a family from my first parish, who had taken their son to a medical clinic that offered treatments they couldn’t find in the States.  Somehow, seeing a family again from “back home” made the prospect of travelling from one foreign country—where I could not speak a word of their language—to another—where I could speak only very clumsily—a very lonely one.

But loneliness can be caused by factors other than physical distance.  Once, a mother told me how sad and lonely she felt on the August morning when she dropped off her youngest child—her baby—on his first day of kindergarten.  She knew for years that that day was coming, and she taken all of her older children to their first days of kindergarten, as well.  But this was different.  On that August day, she wasn’t sure exactly why, but she sensed that her loneliness was due to crossing a threshold in her life, where never again would she be needed by others in the same way.
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These different examples of loneliness raise a question:  what is the difference between loneliness and “aloneness”?  They’re certainly not identical.  It’s true that a person who is alone can also be lonely, as I was in Poland.  But on the other hand, a person can feel lonely in the midst of a room full of friends.

One difference between the two is that loneliness is interior, while aloneness is exterior.  Aloneness is easy to spot:  if we notice someone—at a distance—who has no one else around him, it’s obvious that he’s alone.  But loneliness, on the other hand, is not as easy to spot.

Because loneliness is interior,  we can only see loneliness if we can see into someone’s soul.  It’s true that sometimes the state of a person’s soul becomes visible through, say, an expression on her face, or tears running down her cheeks (like that mother who left her baby at the kindergarten door).  But often, we do not see those signs, sometimes because the signs are not present (the loneliness is being hidden), or because we are not attentive to the signs that others express.

Now how does all this reflection about loneliness and aloneness relate to today’s readings from Sacred Scripture?  We see how if we look at two men presented there:  Elijah, and Jesus:  Elijah from our First Reading; and Our Lord Jesus, as Saint Matthew paints Him at the beginning of today’s Gospel passage.
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The portrait of Elijah painted by today’s First Reading is really only a detail of a much larger canvas.  It’s always true that we get more out of Sunday Mass if we prepare by reading—throughout the week—the Scriptures for the coming Sunday:  maybe a different portion each weekday.  And we get yet even more from Sunday Mass if we read not only the readings themselves, but the entire chapters that they come from, and maybe even the preceding and following chapters, as well.  It’s really up to each individual Christian—based on the time he has—to decide how much he wants to get out of Sunday Mass.

For example, look at the context that surrounds Elijah today.  Our First Reading doesn’t reveal that Elijah is in flight, for fear of his life.  Elijah was the mortal enemy of King Ahab, the king of Israel who, Scripture tells us, reigned over Israel… for twenty-two years, during which he did evil in the sight of the Lord more than any of his predecessors.[1]  Among his evil deeds, Ahab and his wife Jezebel had each and every prophet of Israel murdered by the sword, except one, named Elijah.

At the beginning of the chapter from which today’s First Reading is taken, Jezebel vows to end Elijah’s life within a day’s time.  Although Israel’s prophets often faced death threats, Elijah acts very humanly, and flees.  He prays that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life….”[2]  At the beginning of today’s First Reading, Elijah—having fled for forty days and forty nights—has hidden himself away in a cave inside the mountain of Horeb.

At this point, maybe you can imagine a time in your life, or maybe a circumstance in your life right now, that resembles Elijah’s darkness.  Elijah is in a dark place, both in his physical surroundings, and within in his soul.  But in what happens next, maybe there’s a foreshadowing of what God would like to have happen in your life.  Because it’s within this darkness that the Lord God chooses to speak to Elijah.  But it’s not so much that the Lord chooses to speak to Elijah in his darkness.  Certainly that’s one important lesson that God is teaching us here.  But it’s not the most important one.  In your own life, the Lord promises you that if and when you are in darkness, he will speak to you.

But more importantly, the Lord teaches us to listen for His whisper.  The breadth and depth of Sacred Scripture reveal to us the obvious fact that God can speak as He wishes.  He can speak through a strong and heavy wind:[3]  remember the day of Pentecost.[4]  He can speak through an earthquake:[5]  remember the death of Jesus.[6]  He can speak through fire:  recall the descent of the Holy Spirit.[7]  God can choose to speak through signs that are loud and eye-catching.  But He can do otherwise, as well.  He can choose to speak through a light, silent sound.

Too many people are afraid to be alone.  Maybe they equate aloneness with loneliness.  Maybe they know that they can distance themselves from everyone in their lives except two:  God, and themselves.

In contrast, at the beginning of today’s Gospel, Jesus went up on the mountain by Himself to pray.  When it was evening He was there alone.”  We have to be alone, to hear the whispering of the Lord.  Jesus was willing to listen for, and listen to, the voice of His Father in Heaven.  He was not afraid of doing what the Lord asked of Him, even if this meant carrying and dying on the Cross.  He was not afraid because He knew that the love of His Father is stronger than death.

It’s not difficult to notice the fires, the earthquakes, and the driving winds that the Lord sends our way.  But what about the whispers?  What are we missing in our lives?

[1]  I Kings 16:29,30.
[2]  I Kings 19:4.
[3]  I Kings 19:11.
[4]  Acts 2:2.
[5]  I Kings 19:11.
[6]  Matthew 27:51.
[7]  Acts 2:3.        

The parish I serve

<b>The parish I serve</b>
St. Mark the Evangelist Parish in Colwich, Kansas (Diocese of Wichita)