Monday, August 9, 2010

Heaven And Earth Are Full Of Your Glory.

Monday of the Nineteenth Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I
Ezekiel 1:2-5, 24-28c
On the fifth day of the fourth month of the fifth year,
that is, of King Jehoiachin’s exile,
The word of the LORD came to the priest Ezekiel,
the son of Buzi,
in the land of the Chaldeans by the river Chebar.
There the hand of the LORD came upon me.

As I looked, a stormwind came from the North,
a huge cloud with flashing fire enveloped in brightness,
from the midst of which (the midst of the fire)
something gleamed like electrum.
Within it were figures resembling four living creatures
that looked like this: their form was human.

Then I heard the sound of their wings,
like the roaring of mighty waters,
like the voice of the Almighty.
When they moved, the sound of the tumult
was like the din of an army.
And when they stood still, they lowered their wings.

Above the firmament over their heads
something like a throne could be seen,
looking like sapphire.
Upon it was seated, up above,
one who had the appearance of a man.
Upward from what resembled his waist
I saw what gleamed like electrum;
downward from what resembled his waist
I saw what looked like fire;
he was surrounded with splendor.
Like the bow which appears in the clouds on a rainy day
was the splendor that surrounded him.
Such was the vision of the likeness of the glory of the LORD.
We begin today readings from the prophet Ezekiel. The language is often very apocalyptic in style and full of symbolism. His special contribution to the prophetic tradition was through his interest in the temple and liturgy. He also had a great influence on the period after the Exile, when the refugee Jews returned to Jerusalem. He has been called the “father of Judaism”.

He became a prophet in Babylon, as a member of the first group of exiles deported by King Nebuchadnezzar in 597 BC. He was the first to receive the prophetic call outside of Israel. His first task was to prepare his fellow countrymen in Babylon for the final destruction of Jerusalem, which they believed God would not allow to happen. But Ezekiel reproached Israel for his sinful and idolatrous behaviour and foretold more destruction and a second and more complete deportation into exile for the people of Jerusalem. All of which, of course, happened in 587 BC.

But, after this event, just as Jeremiah had believed, Ezekiel thought that the exiles were the hope of Israel’s restoration, once God’s allotted time for the exile had been accomplished and they could return to Jerusalem.

Today’s reading begins by introducing Ezekiel in the third person. The time of this first vision is dated as the fifth year of King Jehoiachin’s exile in Babylon, 593-92 BC. The name Ezekiel means “God is strong”, or “God strengthens”, or “God makes hard” in different contexts of the book. The prophet, like Jeremiah, belonged to a priestly family. (‘El’ in a name indicates ‘God’ - hence, for example, the archangels - Micha-el, Gabri-el and Rapha-el.)

Ezekiel then proceeds to speak in the first person, “The hand of the Lord came on me”. This phrase is repeated six times in the book and indicates a powerful experience of God revealing himself in a vision.

The experience described here in part is called the “Chariot of Yahweh”. Its central message is that God transcends any specific place. He is not, as the tradition held, tied to the Temple in Jerusalem but can be with his people in their exile (as he was with them in their journey through the desert during the Exodus). This is a breakthrough which will be picked up by the people of the New Testament and emphasised by Paul.

The vision begins with the words, “I looked”. The symbols at the opening of the vision all speak of the presence and power of God: the stormy wind, the great cloud surrounded by light, the fire with flashes of lightning and the “sheen like bronze at the heart of the fire”.

In the centre appear what seem to be four animals in human form. ‘Four’ represents completeness as also represented elsewhere in the Old Testament by the image of four directions and four quarters of the earth. The idea appears several times in this chapter and over 40 times in the whole book.

The four creatures which are later referred to as “cherubim” attend on God’s throne. Here they represent God’s creation. In our reading their detailed description has been omitted but the four separately symbolise:

humanity, God’s appointed ruler of creation
(see the creation story in Genesis);
the lion, the strongest of wild animals;
the ox, the most powerful of domestic animals;
the eagle, the greatest of the birds.

They will appear again in the Book of Revelation and are commonly depicted in medieval art where they represent the four evangelists (Matthew the man; Mark the lion; Luke the ox; and John the eagle).

Above the vault over the heads of the cherubim was a sapphire shaped like a throne on which sat “a being that looked like a man”. This is the prophet’s way of describing God but he is careful not to say that he saw God directly. No one could see God and live.

Again from his loins upward and downward the figure like a man was surrounded by fire and the colour of bronze. A bright light like a rainbow penetrating the clouds on a rainy day shone all around.

To the prophet it all spoke of the glory and presence of the Lord and he fell to the ground in adoration. The glory of Yahweh is often described in the Bible as a bright cloud (the pillar of cloud with the Exodus people; Jesus covered by a cloud during the Transfiguration; Jesus, after his resurrection, ascends into a cloud, that is, into the presence of his Father [Acts 1:9]).

What is significant here is that for so many centuries God’s glory and presence had been linked to the Temple in Jerusalem. But now the Temple is far away and God is with his people in their Babylonian exile. This is a major theme in the first half of Ezekiel’s message. This is a foretaste of the presence of God through Jesus and, through the Spirit, in the Church where God’s people become his temple.

Spirituality in later times will also constantly find the glory of God in all of creation. As the poet said, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” God is always with us revealing his truth, goodness and beauty to us. It is for us to open our eyes and learn to see. We may not have apocalyptic visions like Ezekiel but we are surrounded by dazzling beauty if only we would look.*
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Psalm 148
Heaven and earth are filled with your glory.
Praise the LORD from the heavens;
praise him in the heights;
Praise him, all you his angels;
praise him, all you his hosts.
Heaven and earth are filled with your glory.
Let the kings of the earth and all peoples,
the princes and all the judges of the earth,
Young men too, and maidens,
old men and boys,
Heaven and earth are filled with your glory.
Praise the name of the LORD,
for his name alone is exalted;
His majesty is above earth and heaven.
Heaven and earth are filled with your glory.
And he has lifted up the horn of his people.
Be this his praise from all his faithful ones,
from the children of Israel, the people close to him.
Heaven and earth are filled with your glory.
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Matthew 17:22-27 
As Jesus and his disciples were gathering in Galilee,
Jesus said to them,
“The Son of Man is to be handed over to men,
and they will kill him,
and he will be raised on the third day.”
And they were overwhelmed with grief.

When they came to Capernaum,
the collectors of the temple tax approached Peter and said,
“Does not your teacher pay the temple tax?”
“Yes,” he said.
When he came into the house, before he had time to speak,
Jesus asked him, “What is your opinion, Simon?
From whom do the kings of the earth take tolls or census tax?
From their subjects or from foreigners?”
When he said, “From foreigners,” Jesus said to him,
“Then the subjects are exempt.
But that we may not offend them,
go to the sea, drop in a hook,
and take the first fish that comes up.
Open its mouth and you will find a coin
worth twice the temple tax.
Give that to them for me and for you.”
We have here a story of a young man who did not have that simple trust of the child which Jesus spoke about in the immediately preceding passage. (Only Matthew describes him as ‘young’.)

He was apparently a good man, an unusually good man. He asks Jesus what he needs to do in order to have eternal life. However, he seemed to be operating out of the legalistic mind with the emphasis on external actions. For Jesus what we are is more important than what we do. The man also asked about ‘eternal life’. In Matthew (and in Mark and Luke) ‘eternal life’ is really synonymous with ‘entering the Kingdom of Heaven' and ‘being saved’. It is to be totally taken up into God’s world and sharing God’s understanding of life.

“Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus asks him. “There is One alone who is good.” This seems to be a way of telling the man that goodness is not something merely external. The real source of goodness is inside, although, of course, it will flow out to the exterior. Is it also a way of asking the man who he really thinks Jesus is?

In any case, the man is told, “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” As we have just said, to ‘enter into life’ is equivalent to entering the Kingdom. And Jesus mentions just four of the commandments, all touching on relationships with other people. And he adds, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”

The man is not satisfied. “I have kept all these. What more do I need to do?” Jesus tells him that if he wants to be perfect then he should sell off everything he has, give it to the poor and then become a disciple of Jesus.

Obviously, the man was not expecting this. He was very rich and, although he wanted to serve God, he was not prepared to separate himself from the security of his wealth. And he walked away from Jesus full of sadness. It is an example of Jesus’ words earlier on that we cannot at the same time serve God and wealth.

To be rich is not just to have a lot of money. It is to have a lot more money than others and especially to have more money than one needs in a world where there are people who do not have enough for a life of dignity. And wealth is very relative: a person close to the poverty line in Europe could be seen as very rich in a remote African or Asian village.

So as long as the man had to cling to his money, he could not - as he claimed to be doing - be loving his neighbour as his own self. Clearly he was not yet ready for an unconditional following of Jesus. He was not able to follow the example of Peter and Andrew, James and John who left their boats, nets and family to go and put all their security with Jesus.

Before we think that this gospel does not particularly concern us because we do not see ourselves as numbered among the rich, we should listen to what Jesus is really saying.

He touched on the one thing that the man was not ready to give up - his money and all that it brought. But, if we are honest, we will admit that we all have some things we would be very slow to let go of. Things we would not like God to ask us to give up.

It might be a good exercise today for us to ask ourselves what would be the most difficult thing for us to give up if Jesus asked us to do so. It might be some thing we own like our house, or it might be a relationship, or our job, or our health. Whatever it is, it could be coming between us and our total following of Jesus. Do the things we own really own us?

Why not ask for the strength to be ready, if called on, to give it up? Only then do we know that we are truly free and truly followers of Jesus.

One final point. This story has been used in the past as an example of someone getting a special ‘vocation’. According to this view, all are expected to keep the commandments but only some are invited to follow a ‘counsel’, such as living a life of ‘poverty’, as members of religious institutes do. It would be quite wrong to see Jesus here suggesting two levels of living the Christian life. What is said here applies to every person who wants to follow Christ. All the baptised are called to the same level of service although there are different ways of doing this.*

The Irish Jesuits
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Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

A  brilliant philosopher who stopped believing in God when she was 14, Edith Stein was so captivated by reading the autobiography of Teresa of Avila (October 15) that she began a spiritual journey that led to her Baptism in 1922. Twelve years later she imitated Teresa by becoming a Carmelite, taking the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.

Born into a prominent Jewish family in Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland), Edith abandoned Judaism in her teens. As a student at the University of Göttingen, she became fascinated by phenomenology, an approach to philosophy. Excelling as a protégé of Edmund Husserl, one of the leading phenomenologists, Edith earned a doctorate in philosophy in 1916. She continued as a university teacher until 1922 when she moved to a Dominican school in Speyer; her appointment as lecturer at the Educational Institute of Munich ended under pressure from the Nazis.

After living in the Cologne Carmel (1934-38), she moved to the Carmelite monastery in Echt, Netherlands. The Nazis occupied that country in 1940. In retaliation for being denounced by the Dutch bishops, the Nazis arrested all Dutch Jews who had become Christians. Teresa Benedicta and her sister Rosa, also a Catholic, died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz on August 9, 1942.

Pope John Paul II beatified Teresa Benedicta in 1987 and canonized her 12 years later.

In his homily at the canonization Mass, Pope John Paul II said: “Because she was Jewish, Edith Stein was taken with her sister Rosa and many other Catholics and Jews from the Netherlands to the concentration camp in Auschwitz, where she died with them in the gas chambers. Today we remember them all with deep respect. A few days before her deportation, the woman religious had dismissed the question about a possible rescue: ‘Do not do it! Why should I be spared? Is it not right that I should gain no advantage from my Baptism? If I cannot share the lot of my brothers and sisters, my life, in a certain sense, is destroyed.’”

Addressing himself to the young people gathered for the canonization, the pope said: “Your life is not an endless series of open doors! Listen to your heart! Do not stay on the surface but go to the heart of things! And when the time is right, have the courage to decide! The Lord is waiting for you to put your freedom in his good hands.”

Saint of the Day


Sarah in the tent said...

'take the first fish that comes up. Open its mouth and you will find a coin ..'

At first this incident seemed to me like the product of someone's imagination - it has a fairytale quality. Then I read the natural history of the tilapia - also called St Peter's fish. They are known as mouth breeders:

"1) The male makes a nest (or defends an area on the bottom of a tank or even a fine meshed cage) and attracts ripe females to the nest with courtship displays.
2) The female lays eggs in the nest, where they are fertilized by the male, and immediately picked up in the mouth of the female.
3) The male will continue to court other females, while the female, which has just spawned retreats away from the nest to incubate the eggs.
4) The eggs hatch in the mouth of the female after about five days (depending on temperature) and the hatchlings remain in the mouth while they absorb their yolk sac.
5) Gradually the fry start swimming out of the mouth to feed, but return to the mouth at any sign of danger
6) Once the fry have become too large to fit in the female’s mouth, they become totally independent and swim to warm, sheltered water such as the edge of a pond
7) The eggs of a female are stimulated to develop once the previous batch of offspring are released, so after a period of recovery, she will return to spawn within 4 weeks."

It seems that the female tilapia is in the habit of taking pebbles into her mouth in place of her young. It is not unusual to catch this fish with a smaller fish or other object in its mouth.

Sarah in the tent said...

Still thinking about this episode, because the image of the fish with a coin in its mouth is so striking!

As a Catholic, the coin in the fish's mouth reminds me of the host in the mouths of all us fishes caught in Peter's net! The importance of Peter in relation to the Temple is also remarkable. The tax collectors approach him rather than Jesus directly and the coin pays for Jesus and Peter together.

The Temple tax provided for the Temple's worldly needs, but money given to the Temple can also be seen as a spiritual sacrifice, providing for the giver's spiritual needs (like the poor widow's gift).

At Mass, the coins placed in the collection are both worldly gifts and a spiritual participation in the sacrifice. They are mirrored by the host placed in the mouth.