Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 106

The kingdom of heaven may be likened
to a man who sowed good seed in his field.
While everyone was asleep his enemy came
and sowed weeds all through the wheat, and then went off.
When the crop grew and bore fruit, the weeds appeared as well.

Gardeners tell me they must tend their garden plots often. Weeds appear in a matter of days, within a week of sunshine and rain they smother vegetables and flowers. True hobbyists enjoy weeding despite the hot sun, kneeling on all fours, stiffness in the back and the effort to stand up again. It’s a necessary part of the process and if you don’t want to weed you’d best take up another hobby. The joy of gardening absorbs its challenges; we call that virtue patience.
Today’s gospel offers three parables about God’s divine patience. First there is the farmer whose fields suffered an invasive species; then the tiny, unpretentious mustard seed; and finally the yeast that disappears into dough. The farmer might have been frustrated by the appearance of weeds; someone might expect nothing of so small a seed, and the ignorant would ask, “What’s the point of adding yeast?”

In all three cases the wise know to wait patiently while the ignorant rush to judgment and wasteful, ineffective action.
These later chapters of Saint Matthew’s gospel concern the mission of the disciples and the life of the Church. The new disciple, eager to announce the Gospel and more eager to get results, will suffer endless frustration. He might go to war with certain elements of the Church when they disagree with him. They represent evil to him. Even baptized and fully engaged members with impeccable credentials suffer his interdict when they present obstacles to his success. He would weed them out of his church.

The same tyro will regard the small stuff, the mustard seed, as unimportant and unworthy of attention. The little birds – children, elderly, disabled, poor – will not find shelter in his presence; he is out there doing Great Work.
Finally, he’ll take short cuts as he kneads the community and bakes it into a communion.  He might ask, “What difference does the yeast of personal prayer make anyway? If the bread fails to rise it’s the fault of those people who shouldn’t be in my church to start with!”

These parables teach us about Divine Patience. Unlike the annual cycle of planting and harvesting, God has all the time in the world. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” His Kingdom of Heaven will appear, but not in the foreseeable future, nor within the time I have left.
No one can know yet which members of the church are wheat and which are weeds. The wise tell us, “Call no one happy before she dies.” Likewise, call no one saved and no marriage successful before they have ended in grace. Those judgments belong to the Lord who planted the Seed of Justice in a garden just outside Jerusalem.

Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene

Lectionary: 603

The Bride says: 
On my bed at night I sought him 
whom my heart loves– 
I sought him but I did not find him. 
I will rise then and go about the city; 
in the streets and crossings I will seek 
Him whom my heart loves.

When many people think of the word Catholic or Catholic Church the first thing they think of is a Roman Catholic teaching about sexuality. It might be the issue of birth control or abortion. It might concern "homosexual marriage" or the required celibacy of priests. Or perhaps it's the refusal to ordain women. Many people rightly suspect the Church has a low opinion of transgender medical procedures. And extra-marital sex is still out of the question. Artificial insemination? No, thank you. We also frown upon incest; marriage is permitted only between persons who do not have a first degree (mother/son or father/daughter), second degree (brother/sister) or third degree (uncle/niece, aunt/nephew.) Fourth degree (first cousins) relations are reluctantly permitted. 

If a fertile couple intends not to have children -- that is, not to accept them as a gracious gift from our generous God -- they do not have the wherewithal to be married. Likewise if they intend to be unfaithful, or marry with the proviso that they might divorce, they may appear to be married but are not. 

No matter the issue, if it's sex, we've got a teaching, policy or position; and it's probably not conformed to the currently popular opinion. 

Unfortunately, that negative publicity overshadows our enthusiastically favorable attitude toward sexuality. Especially, we love the Sacrament of Marriage. Even a grade school child should notice that neither religious life nor celibacy is a sacrament, while marriage is. 

Historically, that has been controversial. There is a shadow tradition of Manichean heresies among Christians, beginning even before the birth of Jesus. They have always despised Marriage. Their dualism sees only good and evil: the divine is good, human is evil; spirit is good, flesh is evil; male is good, female is evil; friends are good, enemies are evil; and so forth. Manichaens  have opposed the institution of marriage because  they suspect everything about flesh, desire and pleasure. But it's a lot easier to suppress marriage than sexuality; the very people who despise the sacrament as carnal often slip into carnality. 

Clearly, by anyone's account, Saint Mary Magdalene was attracted to Jesus. Thousands of people flocked to hear his words and to be healed by his touch; she readily joined the throng. Did she have a sexual relationship with him? Only in the fantasies of today's sexually-obsessed public. There's no indication of that in scripture. 

Much can be made from an argument of silence -- that is, "Just because the Bible doesn't say it doesn't mean it didn't happen." -- but nothing persuasive. An argument from silence could just as well suppose Jesus traveled to China. 

We celebrate Mary Magdalene as a disciple of Jesus. She wept at his grave and he appeared to her on Easter Sunday. Their embrace ended when he sent her to tell the others. We know little more than that about her. She loved him intensely and he loved her as well. Like every relationship of two persons, like your relationship to Jesus and like mine: theirs was absolutely unique. 

But of course there were sexual feelings as there are around any desirable male or female. Did Jesus exploit the desires of the women or men who came to him? That would fit no one's image of Jesus. 

We honor Saint Mary Magdalene among the disciples of Jesus for her chaste devotion to him. During this licentious age, insanely preoccupied with sex and gratification, we pray that her Spirit might guide us in all our gatherings, conversations and interactions. 

Friday of the Fifteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 393

But the blood will mark the houses where you are. Seeing the blood, I will pass over you; thus, when I strike the land of Egypt, no destructive blow will come upon you.

It is wonderful to see the number of Catholics who more deeply participate in the Eucharist as they drink the Blood of the Lord from the chalice. This privilege, once permitted only to bishops, priests and deacons, belongs to the baptized. 
One of the Fathers of the Church, remarking on that practice, promised his congregation that the Avenging Angel, seeing the blood on the lips of God's people, would pass over them. 
There are innumerable references to blood in the scriptures, beginning with the blood of Abel that cried to heaven for revenge, through the "blood and water" that fell from Jesus' body when he was crucified, to Revelation 19: 13: 
He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God. 
The implication is always violent. Blood is not supposed to leave the body; it does so only when the body has been violated. But this violence is a sacred sacrifice which is beautiful and precious in God's sight. The Father is pleased and grateful for the Son who offers his life to save his people. 
So when the Christian drinks the Blood of the Lamb she welcomes the full measure of blessings and trials that must come her way. 
If Jesus was not exempt from suffering, obviously his disciple will not be either. 
Saint Francis readily embraced the way of the cross when he taught his friars that poverty is the easiest, surest, quickest and most blessed way to heaven. Just as Jesus was homeless and poor, as he relied on kind strangers in every town he visited, so should the friars prefer neediness, shortages and the ever-present possibilities of hunger, cold and privation. 
As Francis' teaching worked its way into popular devotions, traditional expressions appeared. We say things like, "Offer it up!" and "All for Jesus." These sayings help us cope with the disappointments which are natural and inevitable. 
If my first emotional reaction was self-pity and "Why me?" remembering the Blood of Jesus I will ask, "Why not me?" 
Today's liturgy gives us an even more delightful response to difficulty, "I will take the cup of salvation, and call on the name of the Lord."
It is a phrase we should recall each time we step from our pews to join the procession to the altar, as we slowly step forward, and as we bow before the Eucharistic Minister who offers the Precious Blood of Jesus. 
"I will take the cup of salvation, and call on the name of the Lord."

Thursday of the Fifteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 392

Then he added, "This is what you shall tell the children of Israel: I AM sent me to you." God spoke further to Moses, "Thus shall you say to the children of Israel: The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. "This is my name forever; this my title for all generations.

A child's first word is "Momma." The simple sound of m and ah, created by pursing the lips and shaping a breath, thrills the infant's mother. If the baby is her first she has a new identity, one she had hardly dared to dream of or expect. Though she cannot be unfamiliar with the word, it is entirely new when it's mouthed by a new born baby.
The baby's word is a new identity for the new mother. Regardless of titles ahead of her name, or degrees fastened at the end; regardless of whatever she was called by her parents, friends, enemies or government, the one that matters to the child and to her is "Momma." 
In Exodus 3 the Lord reveals his name to us. That is, he reveals the name by which we shall call him. It is not an abstract concept  like god, which might prove useful for the classroom or theological debate. It is a sacred name by which we enter the unfathomable mystery of God's presence, entering freely and without hesitation, as a child runs into his mother's room crying, "Momma, Momma, Momma!" 
It is a privileged name, given to a particular people. Not every child in the neighborhood can call this woman, "Momma." They have their own parents. Likewise not anyone can call on the God of our fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob unless they have been adopted or born into the family. 
"This is my name forever; this my title for all generations.
Like the proud new mother, the Lord boasts of his name and would be called by this name "for all generations," precisely because the Lord is proud of his people. 
so I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to me, to be my people, my fame, my praise, my glory

Wednesday of the Fifteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Moses said to God,
"Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh
and lead the children of Israel out of Egypt?"
He answered, "I will be with you;
and this shall be your proof that it is I who have sent you:
when you bring my people out of Egypt,
you will worship God on this very mountain."

I find it more than remarkable that the "proof" God offers for Moses' authority is the worship the Hebrews will offer on Mount Sinai. We usually look for more spectacular demonstrations and there are plenty in the history that follows this conversation in the wilderness. Who would not be persuaded by the ten plagues that afflicted the Egyptians, the parting of the Red Sea and the complete destruction of Pharaoh and his army? But these mighty deeds were not the proof the Lord offered. Nor would they prove a reliable foundation of faith.

Rather, it was the worship the Hebrews offered on "this very mountain."

"No sign will be given!" Jesus thundered at his critics. His changing water to wine and feeding five thousand in the desert did not satisfy them. Neither his compassionate healing nor his numinous presence could bring them round. They would not see his passion, death and resurrection as a proof of his authority. As he had prophesied, "If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead."

We read of that proof in Exodus 24, when Moses presided over the Mount Sinai covenant. He sprinkled the blood of an ox on the people and on the altar, which represented God. Thus they were bound together in the blood.

The Church sees this remarkable ceremony as a prototype of the Mass. We are joined to our God and to one another in the Blood which was shed on Mount Calvary. It flowed from his open chest when a soldier pierced his side with a lance; it is the very blood which we drink at the altar.

The proof God offered during that burning bush epiphany was the covenant of communion with himself.  This sign is recognized with the eyes of faith, by those filled with the Holy Spirit.

There will always be cynics and critics who demand more persuasive, "scientific" proof. They point to the persistence of evil -- which abides even in Christian hearts! -- to show that an all-powerful God is neither good nor just.

Our eyes have been opened and we see God's vindication on Calvary and our Communion in the Blood of the Lamb.

Tuesday of the Fifteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 390

And as for you, Capernaum: Will you be exalted to heaven?
You will go down to the netherworld.

For if the mighty deeds done in your midst had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom on the day of judgment than for you."

Growing up in the mid-western Catholicism of the 1950's I remember presumption as one of the more serious sins. Although I conformed to the six laws of the Church and the innumerable laws of civil society, I should not presume I would go to heaven or, to use the Protestant word, be saved. I should still cultivate an attitude of fear and trembling before the sacred mysteries of faith. The nun, the priest, the church, the sanctuary, the tabernacle and the Most Blessed Sacrament demanded and deserved great reverence. If I walked or drove past a Catholic church or cemetery I should sign myself with the cross; I should be afraid not to do so. 

This training met some resistance with the onset of cynicism in American society during the 1960's. Resistance to the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and the furor around birth control and Humanae Vitae and many other circumstances created an atmosphere more tolerant of presumption. 

Advertisers in particular told me, "You deserve a break today!" Baby boomers were special, entitled and privileged.  Americans in general were supposed to colonize the world with our culture of privilege. There would be no more minorities; everyone had the right to think, feel, speak and buy whatever he could afford. Laws might prohibit abortion, guns, gambling, Sunday shopping, divorce, and recreational drugs but they could be changed for the entitled generation. With a new millennium even "same sex marriage," which had been both unmentioned and unimaginable, became not only a privilege but a right for those who wanted it. 

In this Brave New World everyone was saved; Hell, Purgatory and Limbo were no more. A Good God who loves everyone unconditionally must assume everyone into heaven immediately upon their death, regardless of their deeds. 

Theologians tell us presumption is a sin against the virtue of hope. Where hope stands in eager waiting before a generous God, presumption ignores the Presence of God. Where hope wonders what gifts might appear as unexpected adventures unfold and insurmountable difficulties arise, presumption wants no challenges . Presumption knows what it wants, expects and demands it. 

Where hope ennobles, presumption enslaves. Hope allows the Holy Spirit to bless one with courage when distressed and joy when disappointed. It recognizes the sovereign freedom of God to give and withhold gifts, and remains confident that His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches over me. Presumption disappointed plunges into angry despair. 

Finally, hope recognizes presumption and does penance for it. If I am disappointed I know it comes from my expectations and not from God's failure. Presumption cannot be converted to hope; it clings to itself and bitterly resents every challenge. 

In today's gospel Jesus uses the strongest possible language to warn against this sin. It must suffer the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, even as hope confidently waits God's mercy. 

Monday of the Fifteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 389

A new king, who knew nothing of Joseph, came to power in Egypt. He said to his subjects, "Look how numerous and powerful the people of the children of Israel are growing, more so than we ourselves! Come, let us deal shrewdly with them to stop their increase; otherwise, in time of war they too may join our enemies to fight against us, and so leave our country."

Exodus is the story of refugee immigrants. No descendant of Abraham, whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim or Mormon, can forget that God has given us a home along with our traditions and identity. We are the people he chose for his own; if we prosper it's because we were blessed when the world hated us.

Christians in particular cannot forget, "Out of Egypt I have called my son." The infant Jesus was a refugee, whisked out of Bethlehem in the dead of night to flee with Mary and Joseph from Herod's soldiers. There are many passages in the Old and New Testaments that remind us to welcome refugees; for instance:
You shall not deprive the resident alien or the orphan of justice, nor take the clothing of a widow as pledge. For, remember, you were slaves in Egypt, and the LORD, your God, redeemed you from there; that is why I command you to do this. When you reap the harvest in your field and overlook a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; let it be for the resident alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the LORD, your God, may bless you in all your undertakings. When you knock down the fruit of your olive trees, you shall not go over the branches a second time; let what remains be for the resident alien, the orphan, and the widow. When you pick your grapes, you shall not go over the vineyard a second time; let what remains be for the resident alien, the orphan, and the widow. For remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt; that is why I command you to do this. (Deuteronomy 24:17-22)
Refugees and their descendants do not forget where they came from. Syrian, Kurd and Iraqi refugees fleeing to Europe want to return to their homelands. Most do not intend to stay in foreign, strange lands. When they ask for help it is first to help them survive the moment and then to return to a safe, stable home. They truly become displaced persons when they and their children forget their native land. 

The cruelest people are those who have forgotten their native lands. Many American have lost their memories of Northern Europe; they do not remember the religious violence that drove them out of their homelands. They call themselves "Americans" and feel entitled to taunt and jeer at the latest refugees to reach our country. They would build walls against Latin Americans; some even discriminate against the Americans native to the southwestern territories stolen from Mexico.

Our Catholic traditions teach us to remember our history, including the suffering of our ancestors, and to show both compassion and hospitality to refugees. Not to do so is to betray our own souls; not only do we lose our heritage, we take for granted the blessings God has given us. 

Wikipedia lists twenty-one places in the United States named "Providence." Their founders believed God would provide for them through the hardships of building a new home far from their native lands. Only those who have lost faith in Providence, who believe God no longer provides for this country would build a wall against Latin Americans fleeing the drug wars spawned by North America's addicts. 

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 103

"Because knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but to them it has not been granted. To anyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; from anyone who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 

The Gospel of Saint Matthew addressed the Church as it gained more experience of different problems in different countries speaking different languages in radically different cultures. The "saints,' as they preferred to call themselves, were to be tangy salt and brilliant light. They should make a difference by being different. If they dressed like their contemporaries and ate the same food and lived in similar houses, if they carried on the same trades and shopped in the same places, their style had to be different. 

Their difference was their knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heavenThese mysteries were not readily disclosed to strangers. 

A fellow, seeing my Roman collar in a supermarket, once asked me about the Blessed Sacrament: "This is supposed to be the Body and Blood of Christ, isn't that right?" 

How do you answer a question like that? If I reply am I throwing my pearls to swine or casting seed on barren soil? 

The fellow had been told he should prepare his son for First Communion but he was frankly unfamiliar with our rituals and beliefs. He supposed the instruction could be summed up in a few words, perhaps in between sitcoms and the evening news, weather and sports. He was not willing and wouldn't take the time to attend the adult instruction his parish offered to parents. 

These mysteries are known over a lifetime or not at all. They're not found on Wikipedia; you can't google the answers. They engage the heart and the mind; they demand sacrifices of time, talent and treasure. They discipline one's work and play, one's eating and sleeping, one's associations and intimacies. 

Jesus, quoting the Prophet Isaiah, says of our contemporaries: 
Gross is the heart of this people, they will hardly hear with their ears, they have closed their eyes, lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their hearts and be converted, and I heal them. 
Recent studies of the brain show how difficult it is for bad habits to be broken and good habits to be formed. We adopt many attitudes before we can walk or talk, and they are changed only by deliberate and persistent discipline. Many of those changes can occur only by moving into a new environment; treacherous friends must be shunned and dysfunctional families kept at arm's length

When the Roman Empire became nominally Christian many devout souls moved out of their homes and villages to pursue holiness in the isolated wilderness. When that experiment failed, they created monasteries and wrote Rules that would be administered by strict abbots and abbesses. To this day religious life is supposed to be markedly different from the culture. But the continual history of reforms shows how difficult it is; there is no formula for holiness. Nothing about it is automatic. 

In our time, the Spirit has again challenged the institutions of the Church, and especially has reminded us that everyone -- not just "professional religious" -- must be salt for the earth and light on the mountain. If few are called to monasteries, convents or friaries; everyone is shown the mysteries of the Kingdom of God through a lifetime of daily fidelity. 

Memorial of Saint Bonaventure, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

Lectionary: 388

Joseph said to his brothers: "I am about to die. God will surely take care of you and lead you out of this land to the land that he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob."

The Author of the Letter to the Hebrews, recalled passages like this one in Chapter 11:

All these died in faith. They did not receive what had been promised but saw it and greeted it from afar and acknowledged themselves to be strangers and aliens on earth, for those who speak thus show that they are seeking a homeland.

Perhaps he was thinking specifically of the Patriarch Joseph when he added,

If they had been thinking of the land from which they had come, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better homeland, a heavenly one.
Some inquisitive child must have asked why Joseph, a powerful Egyptian administrator, didn't use his influence to lead his family with his father Jacob back to Palestine when the famine ended. Did they not have the opportunity to return? Only the Christian theologian could answer the question that stumped the historian.

Ours is a religion of promise and it's had a palpable influence on our American experiment. I was told as a child that Europeans traveled to North America in search of opportunity and a better life. Some immigrants prospered, many died in poverty, but all hoped that their children would have a better life.

It's become a commonplace today that children of the Boom Generation cannot expect a better life. American prosperity has passed; our culture is failing; and our influence waning. Everyone is welcome to blame whomever they choose for that situation. As a childless celibate I am not especially troubled by the problem. 

As an American Franciscan priest, I ask myself, "What future blessing do I see and greet from afar? What do I hope for but do not expect to see in my lifetime?" 

I was barely a teenager when the bishops of the western Roman Church met with eastern Orthodox patriarchs at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Entering theology I heard knowledgeable professors say this council was one of the two or three most important in the history of the church. Its scope was wide and its ambition deep. Not only did it renew and revitalize the worship of the Church, it initiated a process of reuniting east and west, and Protestant and Catholic; even as it addressed the challenging issues of north and south. (The old northern church of Europe was fading even as the southern church of Africa and South America was beginning to flourish.) 

Fifty years later, in the last decades of my career, I am not disappointed with the reforms. I understand better than I did then, how difficult it is to renew and revitalize a religion. The best is yet to come. Every time I read the Eucharistic Prayer -- choosing one from among nine options -- I try to enunciate each syllable so that God's people will remain as rapt as I am in the prayer. If I cannot see, I can hear the coming Kingdom of God in those words. 

There is no history without a future, nor is there hope. Many Americans are literally killing themselves because they can envision no future. Christians in general and Catholics in particular must separate themselves from the culture of death which invests in suicide, abortion and warfare to ensure a bleak joyless future. We see a bright future when the Church will breathe with both lungs as she announces the Good News to all peoples and every age. 

On this day in 1967, fifty years ago, 
Fathers Don Adamski, John Curran, Richard Kaley and I 
made our Simple Profession in the Order of Friars Minor Conventual. 
Thanks be to God.

Memorial of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, Virgin

Lectionary: 387

Brother will hand over brother to death, and the father his child; children will rise up against parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by all because of my name, but whoever endures to the end will be saved.

Last November my brother-in-law, a lawyer, assured me the United States will conduct presidential elections in 2020 and again in 2024. The Constitution is strong, he said, and so is the American people's commitment to the law.

There is a tradition among American ministers, perhaps more Protestant than Catholic, of pessimism about the future. Preachers railed against Abraham Lincoln once they discovered he attended no church and endorsed no denomination. Despite the fury of the Civil War, they concluded, the real threat to the United States was the President's apparent agnosticism.

In defense of my pessimism, I point to the long memory of the Church and the persecutions we have survived. We remember not only the ones against us; we remember the ones we perpetrated! Catholics are reminded by our Sacrament of Penance how fallible we human beings are, and how gullible we can be in the hands of conniving or manipulative demagogues. We usually act impulsively and very often in fear.

The Constitution of the United States is, like a marriage license, made of paper; it can be shredded by indifference and infidelity. We have seen civil liberties cancelled and civil rights deferred when other concerns preempted the piece of paper.

In today's Gospel Jesus describes not the disestablishment of the state but the dismemberment of the family. Many people find it hard to imagine that brother would hand over brother to death, and the father his child but a glance at a history book or news out of Syria assures us these things happen.

Jesus tells us, "Do not be afraid." In today's gospel he says again, "Do not worry about what you are to say...." It's not a matter of if but when. These cycles of violence are ineluctable; hoping they don't happen won't help; preparing for them does.

We pray that we might be daily guided by the Holy Spirit in everything we say and do, for every act becomes historical and contributes to the momentum of where we're going. An angry word, a careless snub or an inappropriate joke may be like the butterfly's wing which stirred up a hurricane.

We need not be anxious or scrupulous but we should be aware/mindful that God whose Presence is the Holy Spirit will guide our reactions, attitudes, thoughts, words and deeds as we make ourselves available to Goodness.

Thursday of the Fourteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 386

As you go, make this proclamation: 'The Kingdom of heaven is at hand.' Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, drive out demons. Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give. Do not take gold or silver or copper for your belts; no sack for the journey, or a second tunic, or sandals, or walking stick.

The Franciscan Blessed John Duns Scotus, (1266-1308 AD) reflected daily on the life of Saint Francis and lived closely his principle of poverty. Where Francis saw the Glory of God from his practice of owning nothing, Scotus saw the "contingency" of everything. Nothing is really necessary except God. Everything else is contingent. Therein lies our freedom.

That is, it doesn't have to be and might not have been. Had not my parents met in the late summer of 1946; had not my grandfather arranged their first date; had the young man, after a long day at work, decided not to visit a woman he'd never met; had she decided she would not wait more than two hours for her overdue blind date, I would not be here. And that's four of the "contingencies" out of an infinite number of alternate possibilities, that led to my actual being here. 

That I am here and  you are here, given their unlikeliness, are cause for celebration! And certainly, gratitude! 

Jesus reminds us, "Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give." Americans tabulate the monetary worth of everything. What they cannot monetize they regard as worthless. Some ecologists have challenged such thinking by asking, "How much are we willing to pay for the air we breathe?" 

We forget that beneath all those things we treasure is the generosity of God and beneath that is nothing at all! Nothing we treasure has to exist; it is all gift. Understanding that induces freedom! Because it was given freely and we received it with equal freedom, we can give it. 

Saint Francis somehow, miraculously, saw that clearly. It was shown to him. Surviving a year in a foreign dungeon may have helped; surviving the battle that led to his imprisonment ("I might have been killed!") may also have revealed his radical contingency more clearly. During his first pilgrimage to Rome, as a solitary hermit, he traded clothes with a beggar and discovered he could live in the street with the other beggars and nothing really bad happened. That experiment was a dry run that led to his escape from wealth, security and comfort. 

Not everyone is called to live as Francis lived but we are challenged by Jesus' command to "give freely as you have received." Remembering the abyss of nothingness which yawns beneath God's generosity frees us from possessions and obsessions. 

Wednesday of the Fourteenth Week in Ordinary Time

To one another, however, they said: "Alas, we are being punished because of our brother. We saw the anguish of his heart when he pleaded with us, yet we paid no heed; that is why this anguish has now come upon us."

This is one of those instances when we remember daily Mass attendance cannot meet all our spiritual needs; we must also study the scriptures privately so as to understand what we hear proclaimed from the lectern. 

The story of Joseph the Patriarch has been chopped into small pieces and scattered over several days in the lectionary; portions of it have been skipped altogether. The editors selected certain verses for our reflection, but they do not say how or why they chose these verses. I suppose we should find in them inspiration and reflection about Christ, the Gospel, the saints and our church. 

But an adult Catholic should be familiar with the entire story of Joseph. His unfortunate encounter with Potiphar's wife (chapter 39), for instance, deserves our attention in the light of current controversies. So that (if, for no other reason) we might understand what some misogynists are talking about when they refer to it. The story does not appear in our lectionary.

In today's selection from Genesis, we hear of Joseph's testing his treacherous brothers. He has unexpectedly survived their selling him into slavery; in fact he now holds life-and-death authority over them and they don't even recognize him. 

Because he has never lost his filial affection for his father Jacob; and because he has gained some wisdom through slavery, imprisonment and God's mercy; and because he shares Jacob's craftiness, he sets up an elaborate ruse. He holds Simeon for ransom while the rest return to Palestine to retrieve their youngest brother Benjamin (Joseph's full brother by their mother Rachel). This is typical of Mideast dealings, even to this day. Beloved sons and daughters of foreign potentates are more valuable than money; it pays to hold them hostage. It was not unusual for ancient princes and princesses to spend their lives as "guests" in foreign cities. They might enjoy some privileges and comfort so long as their distant parents did nothing foolish. like rebellion. 

Jacob's bullying sons must return to Egypt with Benjamin and their father to rescue Simeon. They had once sold their brother Joseph into slavery, would they betray another one of their own? 

They cannot imagine the whole family will be restored when they do so. But God's ways are not our ways and Joseph enjoys an extraordinary insight into the mind of God. 

The suggested collect for today, from the 12th Sunday of Ordinary Time, recalls God's fidelity to those who are set firmly on the foundation of his love. The sons of Jacob enjoyed that privilege despite their failings, frictions and fractions. Great-grandchildren of Abraham, they were set firmly in God's promise, not because they were deserving but because God had sworn it. 

We too, by our baptism, enjoy that privileged place in God's eyes. He may treat us as sternly as Joseph treated his brothers but we should never doubt his love. 

Memorial of Saint Benedict, Abbot

Jesus went around to all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom, and curing every disease and illness. At the sight of the crowds, his heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd.

After thousands of years of controlled breeding sheep cannot survive in the wilderness. They startle at things which do not threaten them and tamely watch as wolves prey upon them. They grow fat with idleness and thick woolen coats which must be sheared in the heat of summer. "Factories on legs," some people call them because they serve our food and clothing industries so well. However, they lack the survival instincts of wild animals and, without a conscientious shepherd, they perish in the wilderness.

Jesus saw the crowd who had followed him into the wilderness, away from the safety of villages and cities, and pitied their helplessness. They were like sheep without a shepherd, There were no shops with bread, no taverns for drink and no shelter for the night. 

Americans who travel abroad thinking that every amenity they expect at home should be provided for them in Outer Mongolia, who suppose the Italian government will ignore their parties with recreational drugs, who suppose they can tear posters off of walls in North Korea: are like sheep without shepherds. Even the confident driver who supposes the cop will be patient while he reaches for his concealed carry license is not prepared for the indifferent cruelty of our wilderness.

While most of us appear well enough in the shopping malls and downtown streets, I see daily the sad results of unfortunate choices in the hospital. Somebody sold a perfectly legal bill of goods to the public and millions of people suffer the predictable consequences. 

Jesus' immediate response in today's gospel to our plight is an exhortation and an appointment, "...ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest. Then he summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits to drive them out and to cure every disease and every illness. "

Recent observers have reminded us that few of our choices are purely rational. We buy everything from candy to cars on impulse; our economy seems to count on irrational, impulse shopping. Rarely are those purchases guided by the Holy Spirit.  

We ask the Lord to send leaders who will cultivate in our homes and churches the gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitudeknowledgepiety, and fear of the Lord. They must have authority to drive out the impulsive spirits of consumerism (which leads to abortion, gun violence and drug addiction) and individualism (which is suicidal.) 

Monday of the Fourteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Collect of Holy Apostles
Lectionary: 383

In you and your descendants
all the nations of the earth shall find blessing. Know that I am with you; I will protect you wherever you go, and bring you back to this land. I will never leave you until I have done what I promised you."

The Book of Genesis tells of beginnings; in today's story we hear the origin story of the shrine at Bethel. There God appeared to Jacob, as he traveled to Haran to stay with his kinsman, Laban. Although he has the place to himself that night, with only a stone for a pillar, centuries later it became the holiest site of the Hebrew people. Joshua brought the Ark of the Covenant to Bethel and there it resided for several hundred years, until King David moved it to Jerusalem.

We should notice that Jacob dreams of God's presence there and hears God's promise to him, but he says nothing until he wakes up. He might be paralyzed with holy fear and unable to speak. God's promise of protection and many descendants is completely gratuitous; Jacob neither asks for the promise nor deserves it. Nor does God demand anything of Jacob. Realizing the frailty of our good intentions, who can promise anything to God?

God has his own reasons for consecrating this place and for selecting Abraham, Isaac and Jacob for his favor. Jacob is not the deep thinker who might wonder about divine intentions.

So far as Jacob's worthiness, he is nothing special. He consecrates the place by anointing his stone pillow, and thus establishes Bethel as a holy shrine for Hebrews. He will be remembered for that. But he is no saint; he's just one of the ancestors and we tell his story because we dare not forget our history.

That history includes  the promise, "Know that I am with you; I will protect you wherever you go, and bring you back to this land. I will never leave you until I have done what I promised you."

The importance of this story appears in The Book of Daniel, written more than a thousand years later. The fictional Azariah, with his fellows Shadrack, Meshak and Abednego, sing of God's fidelity from the fiery furnace:
Do not take away your mercy from us,for the sake of Abraham, your beloved,Isaac your servant, and Israel your holy one,To whom you promised to multiply their offspringlike the stars of heaven,or the sand on the shore of the sea.
Daniel was written as the Jews suffered persecution in their own homeland. Despite all that had happened in that millennium since Jacob's dream at Bethel, despite the rise and fall of many cities, the appearance and disappearance of many religions and peoples, the Jews kept faith with the Lord who kept faith with them.

Americans tend to ignore the past, thinking that it's all a haze of dull information. I read a spiritual text recently that invited me to consider the timelessness of life. In deep meditation one comes to the realization that "time is an illusion;" it is attached to the illusion of things around us.

I understand that. I have had that experience in meditation, but I say, "No thank you." We Christians celebrate the Lord's appearance in history. The material world must collapse into disappointed, frustrated emptiness without the Word Incarnate who has lived among us. Although the cycles of our liturgical seasons suggest the timelessness of eternity, the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jesus and the Holy Apostles anchor our faith in this world, where we await salvation.

Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 100

"Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
for I am meek and humble of heart;
and you will find rest for yourselves. 
For my yoke is easy, and my burden light."

More often than not, when I anoint a Catholic Veteran with the Sacrament of the Sick, I recite the gospel passage above. I can narrate other passages but this one I recite verbatim. It speaks volumes to the sick.

There are two yokes in the passage, the explicit one that Jesus offers and the implicit one we carry, the yoke of our own making. That one is very heavy.

Because each of us fashion's his own yoke, each one is different. Some are made of guilt and shame. We carry terrible regrets about things we have done, or seen, or suffered. These incidents should not have happened and we feel eternally responsible for them.

Others consist of expectation about the way things should be. Some patients think they should feel no pain or discomfort. They might even cite certain misguided authorities who decreed they have a right to feel no pain. The pain is severe enough; and it's complicated by the anger, suspicion and resentment that accompanies false beliefs about medical care.

The fear that says the pain might get worse may also be paralyzing. Sometimes all it takes to feel less pain is to inhale, exhale, relax and let it pass. Too, it helps to keep one's eyes open. Holding one's breath and scrunching the eyelids holds it in.

Human life is fraught with many disappointments and some of them hurt a lot. Jesus knew that; it was a burden he readily carried. He knew pleasure, delight and laughter. He knew the joy of companionship and the solace of solitude. And he also knew sorrow. He felt sadness and hurt but was not disappointed when they fell upon him. Rather, he claimed them for himself.

Jesus invites us to "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me." We don't get to choose the crosses we bear. We might select a few of the lighter ones, for practice. We can fast, exercise, study and work with a generous spirit; these elected crosses are good for the soul. But life, or the Lord, will appoint the major crosses; the losses, disappointments, chronic illnesses and heartbreaks.

They're easier to bear when we recognize them as gifts from our Beloved Lord.

Occasionally a patient will tell me his illness has been a blessing for him. The presence of a chaplain may afford him the time and opportunity to notice it. That's usually not his first word to me; he may have to review the onset of the illness and the story of his life. Days might pass before the silver lining appears around that cloud.

We Catholics bring to our Christian tradition this practical awareness of disguised blessings. We walk the Stations of the Cross and ponder the Sorrowful Mysteries. We choose to fast during Lent and Advent, remembering Jesus' forty days in the desert. We sacrifice time, talent and treasure for the sake of our religion. We don't expect life to be continually rewarding or satisfying. We defer gratification with the confidence that there will be plenty of time to finish the bucket list in eternity.

Given the right attitude, we discover that his yoke is easy, and his burden light.