Saturday, July 31, 2010

The LORD Hears The Poor, And His Own Who Are In Bonds, He Spurns Not.

Memorial of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, priest
Reading I
Jeremiah 26:11-16, 24
The priests and prophets said
to the princes and to all the people,
"This man deserves death;
he has prophesied against this city,
as you have heard with your own ears."
Jeremiah gave this answer to the princes
and all the people:
"It was the LORD who sent me to prophesy
against this house and city
all that you have heard.
Now, therefore, reform your ways and your deeds;
listen to the voice of the LORD your God,
so that the LORD will repent
of the evil with which he threatens you.
As for me, I am in your hands;
do with me what you think good and right.
But mark well: if you put me to death,
it is innocent blood you bring on yourselves,
on this city and its citizens.
For in truth it was the LORD who sent me to you,
to speak all these things for you to hear."

Thereupon the princes and all the people
said to the priests and the prophets,
"This man does not deserve death;
it is in the name of the LORD,
our God, that he speaks to us."

So Ahikam, son of Shaphan, protected Jeremiah,
so that he was not handed over to the people
to be put to death.
Today we have a continuation of yesterday’s reading about the reaction to Jeremiah’s prophecy about the future fate of the Temple and Jerusalem.

We saw yesterday how Jeremiah had been arrested by the religious leaders after he had warned that the Temple and Jerusalem would be reduced to ruins if the people did not change their ways. His words sounded sacrilegious to his hearers and now judgement is being passed on him.

In a verse that comes between the two passages but not in either reading, we are told that the leaders of Judah were told of the situation and held a formal trial at the New Gate of the Temple. The priests and prophets told the leaders and the people gathered round that Jeremiah deserved to die because of what he had said against the Temple and the holy city. His accusers pass sentence on him even before Jeremiah has had a chance to defend himself.

When Jeremiah does get the opportunity to speak, he says that everything he told them came directly from the Lord. They were not his own thoughts. Once again he tells that they have only to change their ways and submit themselves to God’s law and the threatened disaster will not take place. Jeremiah is in their hands and he tells them they can do what they like with him. But, if they execute him, they will have innocent blood on their hands, “since the Lord truly sent me to you to say all these words in your hearing”.

This statement produces a division between the court officials and the people over against the religious leaders, the priests and the prophets. The former say that Jeremiah does not deserve to die because what he has said he has spoken in God’s name.

What happens next in the passage is not contained in our reading (27:17-23). First, some of the elders remind the people that the prophet Micah had made prophecies very similar to those of Jeremiah but he was not condemned to death. He had said that Zion would “become a ploughed field, Jerusalem a heap of ruins”. But then we are told of another prophet by the name of Uriah, who was preaching the same message as Jeremiah. When the king wanted to eliminate him, he fled into Egypt but he was pursued, brought back, executed and dumped in a common grave.

However, Jeremiah was rescued from certain death by some high-powered intervention. Ahikam, son of Shaphan, was a highly-placed official, a scribe in the court of King Josiah and always well-disposed to Jeremiah. He was also the father of Gedaliah, who would become governor of Jerusalem after its destruction in 586 BC and would also befriend Jeremiah.

Here we have an example of how the prophet’s integrity is rewarded, although it might always turn out like this. Whatever the consequences, Jeremiah had to speak out what he believed was the Lord’s message. Quite unknown to him, circumstances worked in his favour and preserved his life.

This is an example of one’s life being in the hands of potter. Jeremiah would die when his time had come and not before. Neither he nor anyone else could change that. Clearly, Yahweh had some more work for him to do.

For us it is the same. In our lives, too, God’s Providence can work in strange ways and use very unexpected instruments.

Let us today count our blessings and recall how many times God’s love has been experienced through surprising and unexpected interventions.*
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Psalm 69
Lord, in your great love, answer me.
Rescue me out of the mire; may I not sink!
may I be rescued from my foes,
and from the watery depths.
Let not the flood-waters overwhelm me,
nor the abyss swallow me up,
nor the pit close its mouth over me.
Lord, in your great love, answer me.
But I am afflicted and in pain;
let your saving help, O God, protect me.
I will praise the name of God in song,
and I will glorify him with thanksgiving.
Lord, in your great love, answer me.
"See, you lowly ones, and be glad;
you who seek God, may your hearts revive!
For the LORD hears the poor,
and his own who are in bonds he spurns not."
Lord, in your great love, answer me.
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Matthew 14:1-12
Herod the tetrarch heard of the reputation of Jesus
and said to his servants, "This man is John the Baptist.
He has been raised from the dead;
that is why mighty powers are at work in him."

Now Herod had arrested John,
bound him, and put him in prison
on account of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip,
for John had said to him,
"It is not lawful for you to have her."
Although he wanted to kill him, he feared the people,
for they regarded him as a prophet.
But at a birthday celebration for Herod,
the daughter of Herodias performed a dance before the guests
and delighted Herod so much
that he swore to give her whatever she might ask for.
Prompted by her mother, she said,
"Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist."
The king was distressed,
but because of his oaths and the guests who were present,
he ordered that it be given,
and he had John beheaded in the prison.
His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl,
who took it to her mother.
His disciples came and took away the corpse
and buried him; and they went and told Jesus.
Our reading is about the death of John the Baptist at the hands of Herod. When Herod the Great died his kingdom was divided among four of his sons. One of them, the Herod of today’s Gospel and also known as Herod Antipas is called a “tetrarch”, meaning that he was the ruler of a fourth part or a quarter of a territory.

Herod Antipas ruled over Galilee and Perea from 4 BC to 39 AD, that is, all during the life of Jesus and beyond. He is the one who wanted to see Jesus and whom Jesus called “that fox”. He is the one to whom Pilate sent Jesus during his trial. His rather painful and loathsome death is described in the Acts. Although only a tetrarch, Matthew calls him ‘king’ because that was his popular title among the Galileans and also in Rome.

It seems that, by all accounts, Herod was a nasty man and, as revealed by today’s story, a weak and highly superstitious one. It is striking how many powerful people are made insecure by superstition e.g. businessmen worried by the feng shui (lucky orientation) of their company buildings, anxious to have ‘lucky’ numbers on their cars, and the like.

Herod was hearing extraordinary things about Jesus and he came to the conclusion that Jesus was a re-incarnation of John the Baptist whom he had executed for reasons he knew very well to be totally wrong. Now here was John’s spirit come back to taunt him for he had killed God’s servant.

This leads to a re-telling by Matthew of the events which led to John’s death.

John, who was no respecter of persons, had openly criticised Herod for taking his half-brother Philip’s wife, Herodias, as his own partner. This was in clear contravention of the Mosaic Law. Herod’s fault was not so much in marrying a close relative but for taking her as his wife when Philip was still living and, at the same time, putting away the wife he already had.

It was already an extraordinarily incestuous family. Herodias was a granddaughter of Herod the Great and therefore a niece of Herod Antipas. First, she married another uncle, Herod Philip, who lived in Rome. He was a half-brother, from a different mother, of Herod Antipas. It was on a visit to Rome that Herod Antipas persuaded Herodias to leave her husband for him. This, of course, was strictly forbidden by the Mosaic law: “You shall not have intercourse with your brother’s wife, for that would be a disgrace to your brother” (Leviticus 18:16).

Herod, doubtless under pressure from Herodias, had wanted to rid himself of the embarrassment John was causing him but was afraid to do anything because, in the eyes of the people, John was a prophet and spoke in the name of God.

Herodias got her chance on the occasion of Herod’s birthday. Knowing her new husband’s weakness, she got her daughter to dance in his presence. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, the daughter was known as Salome. She later married her granduncle, another Philip and a son of Herod the Great who ruled over the northern territories. He is mentioned by Luke.

Whether the dance was as lascivious as Cecil B. de Mille and others like to suggest, we do not know but Herod was greatly taken by the performance. In the presence of his courtiers and very likely having drunk a little too much he promised the girl he would give her anything she wanted, even half his kingdom. Under the prompting of her mother, she asked for the head of John the Baptist delivered on a dish. Herod was clearly appalled and also afraid but he had made his oath in the presence of a large number of people. He could not go back. John was decapitated and the head delivered as requested. His disciples came and buried the body and then went to tell Jesus.

There are echoes in this story of Jesus’ own death. He also died because of the moral weakness of Pilate who gave in to the threats of the Jewish leaders for the sake of his own career. Jesus’ death too was the result of blind hatred. And when he died his disciples arranged to have him buried.

Undoubtedly John was a martyr. He died as a witness to truth and justice in the service of God.

Herod, on the other hand, put expediency and his own convenience before truth and justice. He was in an immoral relationship with another woman and he gave in to what he felt would be the criticism and perhaps the derision of others. He had indeed made an oath but it was one that, in the circumstances, he was obliged not to observe.

With whom do I identify with more? John the Baptist, the fearless champion of truth and justice? Or Herod, the vacillator, the one who compromised truth and justice because of pressure of opinion and his own personal interests? I am sure all of us can think of times when we compromised with what we knew was the good thing, the right thing to do and took the line of less resistance.

John is an example to us of integrity. And, like him, we have each one of us been called in our own way to be prophets, to be spokespersons for God’s way. It may not always be easy.*
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St Ignatius Loyola, Priest, Founder of Society of Jesus

Ignatius of Loyola (original name Inigo), born in 1491, was the youngest of eleven children of a Basque nobleman and was destined to become a soldier. During a battle against the French he was wounded at the siege of Pamplona in 1521. His broken leg was badly set and, very conscious of his appearance, insisted that it be broken again and re-set. However, the surgery was not well done and Ignatius was left with a limp for the rest of his life. During his long period of convalescence he was not able to get the knightly romances he craved and had to settle for a life of Christ and stories of saints, the only books available in the family castle. However, these books had a deep effect on him and the heroism he now dreamed of was that of saints like Francis of Assisi and Dominic. He pledged his loyalty to the Mother of God by visiting her shrine at the Benedictine monastery of Montserrat in Catalonia and then began a year of prayer and penance in the cave at Manresa not far away. Here he experienced both desolation and consolation and began to learn the causes for each. This led to the compiling his classic, the Spiritual Exercises. In 1523 he fulfilled a dream by making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, begging his way like many before him. However, the Franciscans there persuaded him to give up his intention of converting Muslims and he returned to Spain without a clear plan of what to do next.

He decided that he needed to do some studies if he was to be an effective evangeliser. He began, at the age of 30, by sitting down with schoolboys to learn Latin. He went on to Barcelona, Alcala, Salamanca and finally to the University of Paris. In Paris he studied philosophy for three years and graduated in 1534 as a master of arts. All this time he led a life of austerity and, though still a layman, gave spiritual direction, especially to women. In Spain he spent some time in prison, suspected of heresy.

As a student in Paris he gathered six disciples, to whom he gave the Spiritual Exercises. They then made vows of poverty, chastity and obedience at the Chapel of St Denis in Montmartre, promising to serve the Church either by preaching the Gospel in the Holy Land or else at the exclusive service of the pope. In 1537 they met in Venice but were unable to continue on to the Holy Land so they went on to Rome to ask the pope to recognise them as a religious community. They were now all priests and had made an extra vow of special obedience to the pope. Their main priorities were the education of the young and going on missionary enterprises. They also were the first religious congregation to drop the communal recitation of the Divine Office so as to increase their freedom and mobility for apostolic works. In 1540 the new congregation, with the name Society of Jesus, got papal approval. Ignatius was unanimously, though against his will, elected as the first General and would hold the post for the rest of his life. He would also remain in Rome from where he directed the works of the Society. Other works he personally was involved in were houses for converted Jews and shelters for prostitutes. Given that so many members were scattered to so many places and often working on their own, obedience to the aims of the Society became very important for maintaining unity. It also explains the long letters which members on the missions regularly sent back to Rome to report on what they were doing. Among the most famous of these were the letter of St Francis Xavier and of the missionaries working in China and North America.

A tighter organisation was also called for because of the crisis situation caused in Europe by the Reformation. Peter Canisius was one of the leaders of the Counter-Reformation as were the many schools started by the Society. In missionary work, Francis Xavier was the pioneer with an astonishing career. He was followed by missionaries in India, China, Ethiopia, Latin America and North America. Spiritual direction, which was to complete rather than replace the work of parish priests, was undertaken by the Society. Ignatius, who had been plagued by chronic stomach problems due to the austere excesses in his younger years, died suddenly on 31 July 1556. By then the Jesuits numbered over 1,000 members in nine European provinces, besides those working in foreign missions.

He was canonized with Francis Xavier on 12 March 1622 and was declared Patron of Spiritual Exercises and Retreats by Pope Pius XI.

*** Living Space
The Irish Jesuits

1 comment:

Sarah in the tent said...

'But mark well: if you put me to death,it is innocent blood you bring on yourselves,on this city and its citizens.'

The Jews, aware that they lived under God's law, seem to have avoided shedding innocent blood - they knew it cried out to God for vengeance. In contrast, modern laws attach no special significance to innocent blood. There are special categories for homophobically and racially aggravated crimes, but not for crimes against innocence.

Instead we have euphemisms: 'collateral damage', 'miscarriage of justice', 'termination of pregnancy'. Perhaps that in itself shows we are still aware of the special significance of innocence.