Thursday, September 30, 2010

Hear, O LORD, The Sound Of My Call; Have Pity On Me, And Answer Me.

Memorial of Saint Jerome,
priest and doctor of the Church
Reading I
Job 19:21-27
Job said:
Pity me, pity me, O you my friends,
for the hand of God has struck me!
Why do you hound me as though you were divine,
and insatiably prey upon me?

Oh, would that my words were written down!
Would that they were inscribed in a record:
that with an iron chisel and with lead
they were cut in the rock forever!
But as for me, I know that my Vindicator lives,
and that he will at last stand forth upon the dust;
Whom I myself shall see:
my own eyes, not another's, shall behold him,
And from my flesh I shall see God;
my inmost being is consumed with longing.
Job asks his “comforters” for some genuine compassion “for the hand of God has struck me”. His body is covered with sores and his family destroyed. He is not sure yet why this has happened but the words of his friends do not seem to be of much help. “Why do you hound me down, will you never have enough of my flesh?” he asks them. It is bad enough having God do these things to him without their aggravating the situation.

And then, in stark contrast to what goes before and follows after (not in our readings), in the very depths of his misery, Job bursts out in a marvellous statement of faith and hope. It is “probably the best-known and most-loved passage in the book of Job, reaching a high point in Job’s understanding of his own situation and of his relationship to God.” (NIV Bible).

So strongly does he feel about what he is going to say that he would like it to be inscribed in stone so that it would survive his death and endure until the day when his vindication will take place.

“I know that my Avenger lives.” ‘Avenger’ or ‘Vindicator’ translates the Hebrew word goel, a technical term in law. It is frequently used of God as the saviour of his people and the avenger of the oppressed and early rabbis used it of the Messiah. In the Latin translation of St Jerome (the Vulgate) the word is translated ‘Redeemer’. (The word seems analogous to the title given in the New Testament to the Spirit, Paraclete, which means someone who comes to protect you and stand by your side, such as a defence lawyer in court).

Job now in deep faith awaits his God to come and vindicate him before his friends, who have condemned him as a sinner and wrongdoer. The Jerusalem Bible comments:

Job, slandered and condemned by his friends, awaits a Defender who this time is God himself. Job still believes his happiness to be lost for ever and his death to be at hand: when God undertakes to avenge his cause, it will be after his death. Nonetheless Job hopes to witness this and to ‘see’ his vindication. In 14:10-14 he had envisaged the possibility of a temporary shelter in Sheol, and here it would seem that he is counting on a brief return to earthly life to see his vindications accomplished; in this he is prompted by his faith in a God who can bring men back from Sheol. Job’s faith thus momentarily defies mortal horizons in his desperate need for justice; it prepares us for the explicit revelation of bodily resurrection, cf. 2 Maccabees 7:9+.

Job expresses his confidence that ultimately God will vindicate his faithful servants in the face of all false accusations.

Job’s words of faith and hope are probably best known to us in the famous aria from Handel’s oratorio the Messiah, “I know that my Redeemer liveth”, although ‘Redeemer’ or ‘Vindicator’ here, with the hindsight of the New Testament, has a meaning going far beyond what Job is saying.

God is also called here “the Last”, he is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end of all things. He will “take his stand” as judge. And that will be the moment of Job’s justification. Job expects to die from the physical afflictions of his body but “after my awaking” God will be close to him and he shall even “look on God”, perhaps returning to earth for a short period.

In spite of his sufferings, he knows in his heart they are not the result of his sin and that his basic innocence and goodness will be finally recognised by his being brought face to face with the one who will vindicate him.

Job’s great hope should be the basis of our faith, too. We too know that our Avenger, our Vindicator, our Redeemer in the person of Jesus Christ lives and that he has gone ahead of us so that we can share with him the life that no one can take from us.*
+++    +++    +++    +++
Psalm 27
R. I believe that I shall see the good things
of the Lord in the land of the living.
Hear, O LORD, the sound of my call;
have pity on me, and answer me.
Of you my heart speaks; you my glance seeks.
R. I believe that I shall see the good things
of the Lord in the land of the living.
Your presence, O LORD, I seek.
Hide not your face from me;
do not in anger repel your servant.
You are my helper: cast me not off.
R. I believe that I shall see the good things
of the Lord in the land of the living.
I believe that I shall see the bounty of the LORD
in the land of the living.
Wait for the LORD with courage;
be stouthearted, and wait for the LORD.
R. I believe that I shall see the good things
of the Lord in the land of the living.
+++    +++    +++    +++
Luke 10:1-12
Jesus appointed seventy-two other disciples
whom he sent ahead of him in pairs
to every town and place he intended to visit.
He said to them,
"The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few;
so ask the master of the harvest
to send out laborers for his harvest.
Go on your way;
behold, I am sending you like lambs among wolves.
Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals;
and greet no one along the way.
Into whatever house you enter, first say,
'Peace to this household.'
If a peaceful person lives there,
your peace will rest on him;
but if not, it will return to you.
Stay in the same house
and eat and drink what is offered to you,
for the laborer deserves his payment.
Do not move about from one house to another.
Whatever town you enter and they welcome you,
eat what is set before you,
cure the sick in it and say to them,
'The Kingdom of God is at hand for you.'
Whatever town you enter and they do not receive you,
go out into the streets and say,
'The dust of your town that clings to our feet,
even that we shake off against you.'
Yet know this: the Kingdom of God is at hand.
I tell you,
it will be more tolerable for Sodom on that day
than for that town."
Two days ago we saw Jesus firmly setting out for Jerusalem and the accomplishment of his mission. Yesterday we saw how he responded to people who wanted to or were being invited to join his mission. During the coming days we will see Jesus preparing his actual disciples for their work.

In addition to the inner circle of the Twelve, we are told today that he appointed another 72 (12×6) and sent them two by two to the places he himself would be visiting. (Only Luke mentions this group.) That is a good description of our Christian role. We are supposed to go first to prepare the ground but then it is Jesus himself who comes to plant the seed of faith.

Jesus then goes on to give an instruction to his disciples. We, too, should be listening to his words:

      a. He first points out that the harvest is great and there are very few labourers, few who are willing to do the harvesting work with Jesus.

This is a text which is often thrown at us during “vocation” campaigns. We tend to hear it as a call for more priests, brothers and nuns. It is that, of course, but when Jesus spoke there were no priests, brothers or nuns. The challenge was being thrown out to all his followers to find more people to join in the harvesting work.

We have to be careful as we listen to these words not to exclude ourselves because we are middle-aged, or married, or already have a career. The words are addressed to all of us and call for some kind of response from every one of us. It is never too late to respond to the call.

     b. Second, Jesus warns his followers that it may not be easy. “I am sending you out as lambs among wolves.” In spite of the message of truth, love, compassion and justice that we bring, it does not mean that we will be received with open arms. On the contrary, we may meet with strong opposition and even persecution. Our message will be seen as threatening. It will be distorted and misunderstood.

      c. The disciple is called on to travel light. Jesus himself “had nowhere to lay his head” and he only had the clothes he wore. So many of us are weighed down by the things we own. Some of us have to protect our property with the latest in security devices. In our search for prosperity and material security we have lost the more precious gift of freedom. They are not to stop to greet people in the sense of carrying on lengthy conversations. Their mission was urgent – there are few labourers for a potentially huge harvest.

      d. They are to be bearers of peace. Peace, shalom, is much more than an absence of violence. It is a deep inner harmony with oneself, with others, with one’s environment, with God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” We could hardly bring a more precious gift to others than this inner peace. It is, in fact, the heart of our Christian message. Faith, hope and love are the keys to peace.

      e. The evangeliser is, first, to stay in the first house that accepts him. He should not be going around looking for better accommodation. At the same time, he is to be provided with shelter and hospitality for “the labourer is worthy of his hire”.

This, it seems, was the way Jesus himself lived. And this was the overall ideal of the Christian community: a network of mutually supporting people sharing their resources with each other and with those in greater need than themselves.

      f. Their work is primarily to heal the sick in the places they go to. ‘Healing’ should be taken in a wider sense of including body, feelings, mind and spirit. And ‘healing’ should also be seen not just as getting rid of a sickness but of making a person whole again. Bringing healing and wholeness into the lives of individuals and communities is of the essence of the Kingdom and at the heart of Jesus’ work and that of his followers. The sign of that wholeness is inner peace. Today it is no different.

And they are to say, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” This is not just a statement they are to throw out. It is the core of Jesus’ message and an explanation of why people are experiencing healing and wholeness coming into their lives. This is the effect of the coming of the kingdom; this is what the coming of the kingdom means. God’s power is penetrating their lives, transforming them and making them whole again.

Luke mentions the kingdom of God more than 30 times; Matthew more than 50 times. Matthew’s is truly a Gospel of the Kingdom.

The term can have a number of meanings:

- the eternal kingship (basileia) of God
- the presence of the kingdom in the person of Jesus; he is the embodiment, the incarnation of the rule of God in himself, an incarnation he wishes to be found in his disciples and the communities they establish.
- the future kingdom in the life that is to come.

In short, the kingdom, the rule of God is intended to be both a present reality as well as a future hope.

g. Finally, if there is any place where they are not received, they are to leave it to its own fate. Even then those people are to know that the kingdom of God is near to them also. There is always the hope that the results of their very rejection of the kingdom will lead to a deeper awareness later on. But by rejecting the messengers of God they have opened themselves to a fate worse than that of Sodom, a city utterly destroyed because of its shameful lack of hospitality to divine visitors. But those hearing the message of Jesus are even more accountable for hearing the message of the Kingdom proclaimed to them and turning their back on it.

Clearly, we cannot literally apply all of these points to our own work on behalf of the Gospel but we need to make the underlying principles and values ours too. It will require some reflection on our part both as individuals and as communities on how we should effectively share the Gospel with those around us and be the harvesters that are so badly needed.

Indeed, let us pray for vocations but let us remember that every single one of us is being called to work in the harvest field and not just some chosen souls who are totally unknown to us.*

The Irish Jesuits

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

In The Sight Of The Angels I Will Sing Your Praise, O LORD!

Feast of Saints Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, archangels
Reading I
Deuteronomy 7:9-10, 13-14
As I watched:
Thrones were set up
and the Ancient One took his throne.
His clothing was bright as snow,
and the hair on his head as white as wool;
His throne was flames of fire,
with wheels of burning fire.
A surging stream of fire
flowed out from where he sat;
Thousands upon thousands were ministering to him,
and myriads upon myriads attended him.

The court was convened, and the books were opened.
As the visions during the night continued, I saw
One like a son of man coming,
on the clouds of heaven;
When he reached the Ancient One
and was presented before him,
He received dominion, glory, and kingship;
nations and peoples of every language serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not be taken away,
his kingship shall not be destroyed.

Revelation 12:7-12ab
War broke out in heaven;
Michael and his angels battled against the dragon.
The dragon and its angels fought back,
but they did not prevail
and there was no longer any place for them in heaven.
The huge dragon, the ancient serpent,
who is called the Devil and Satan,
who deceived the whole world,
was thrown down to earth,
and its angels were thrown down with it.

Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say:
"Now have salvation and power come,
and the Kingdom of our God
and the authority of his Anointed.
For the accuser of our brothers is cast out,
who accuses them before our God day and night.
They conquered him by the Blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony;
love for life did not deter them from death.
Therefore, rejoice, you heavens,
and you who dwell in them."
+++    +++    +++    +++
Psalm 138
R. In the sight of the angels
I will sing your praises, Lord.
I will give thanks to you, O LORD, with all my heart,
for you have heard the words of my mouth;
in the presence of the angels I will sing your praise;
I will worship at your holy temple
and give thanks to your name.
R. In the sight of the angels
I will sing your praises, Lord.
Because of your kindness and your truth;
for you have made great above all things
your name and your promise.
When I called, you answered me;
you built up strength within me.
R. In the sight of the angels
I will sing your praises, Lord.
All the kings of the earth shall give thanks to you, O LORD
when they hear the words of your mouth;
And they shall sing of the ways of the LORD
"Great is the glory of the LORD
R. In the sight of the angels
I will sing your praises, Lord.
+++    +++    +++    +++
John 1:47-51
Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him,
"Here is a true child of Israel.
There is no duplicity in him."
Nathanael said to him, "How do you know me?"
Jesus answered and said to him,
"Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree."
Nathanael answered him,
"Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel."
Jesus answered and said to him,
"Do you believe
because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?
You will see greater things than this."
And he said to him, "Amen, amen, I say to you,
you will see heaven opened and the angels of God
ascending and descending on the Son of Man."
There is a choice of two First Readings. The first is from the Book of Daniel and speaks of a vision that the prophet has of God on his Throne, which is described in graphic and apocalyptic language. Among other things we are told that “thousands upon thousands were ministering to him and myriads upon myriads attended him”. These are the angels who serve at God’s throne.

The second part of the reading is taken in the New Testament to refer to the Christ, the Messiah, the Saviour King of Israel. He is said to be “like a son of man” coming on the clouds of heaven.

"His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not be taken away, his kingship shall not be destroyed.” An image that the Gospel will use to describe the return of the Risen Jesus at the end of time as he calls his people to himself (cf. Matthew 25)

The alternative First Reading is from the Book of Revelation and speaks of Michael defeating Satan and the powers of evil, which was mentioned above. With the defeat of Satan, “salvation and power have come, and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Anointed (the Christ).”

These angels are symbols of God’s ever-loving relationship with us. It is a two-way communication. We listen to what God tells us and try to make it part of our lives. At the same time, we reach out to him in faith and trust and in a complete surrender of our being.

The Gospel reading from John is the scene in the beginning of the gospel where Jesus meets Nathanael, who has been introduced to him by Philip. Nathanael who had somewhat sneeringly asked if anything good could come from Nazareth must have been somewhat surprised to hear Jesus say to him, “Here is a true Israelite. There is no duplicity in him.” (Of how many people can that be said – including ourselves?)

Puzzled, Nathanael asks Jesus: “How do you know me?” Rather enigmatically Jesus tells him that, before Philip called him, Jesus saw him under the fig tree. The fig tree was often seen as a symbol of messianic peace. They were words, then, of commendation. Nathanael, deeply impressed, tells Jesus: “You are the Son of God, you are the King of Israel.” This declaration is on a par with Peter’s confession and concludes the list of Jesus’ titles which are given in this first chapter of John.

And yet Jesus says he will see much more: “You will see the sky opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” The allusion is clearly to the dream of Jacob who saw God’s angels-messengers going up and down on a ladder linking Heaven with Earth, God with his People. Jesus, as the Incarnate Son of God is the bridge which links God with his People, he is like a ladder by which God comes to his People and his People go to God.

In a sense Jesus is the Archangel of archangels, the Ultimate Messenger of God’s Truth and Love. Through him God comes to us; through him we go to God.
The Irish Jesuits

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Let My Prayer Come Before You, LORD; Incline Your Ear To My Cry For Help.

Tuesday of the Twenty-sixth Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I
Job 3:1-3, 11-17, 20-23
Job opened his mouth and cursed his day.
Job spoke out and said:

Perish the day on which I was born,
the night when they said, "The child is a boy!"

Why did I not perish at birth,
come forth from the womb and expire?
Or why was I not buried away like an untimely birth,
like babes that have never seen the light?
Wherefore did the knees receive me?
or why did I suck at the breasts?

For then I should have lain down and been tranquil;
had I slept, I should then have been at rest
With kings and counselors of the earth
who built where now there are ruins
Or with princes who had gold
and filled their houses with silver.

There the wicked cease from troubling,
there the weary are at rest.

Why is light given to the toilers,
and life to the bitter in spirit?
They wait for death and it comes not;
they search for it rather than for hidden treasures,
Rejoice in it exultingly,
and are glad when they reach the grave:
Those whose path is hidden from them,
and whom God has hemmed in!
The Dialogue begins: Job now curses the day of his birth but not God.

As Job was there in misery and desolation, his family and all his property wiped out, his body covered with ulcers as he sat in an ashpit, he is scolded by his wife who urges him to curse the God who brought them to this state. He replies in a phrase which underlies the whole book: “If we take happiness from God’s hand, must we not take sorrow too?” 

Job is then is joined by three friends: Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar who come to console him. They were appalled by his appearance; as far they were concerned, he was dead.

For seven days and seven nights they all sat together in total silence. Then Job broke the silence and uttered the words we have in today’s reading. He curses the day he was born and the night he was conceived. “Perish the day on which I was born! The night when they said, ‘The child is a boy’.” The birth of a boy would normally be good news; it would mean the continuation of the family line. But Job is now alone – his whole family wiped out. There is nothing to live for.

There now comes a series of rhetorical questions:

     If he was to be born, why did he not die soon after birth?
     Why was there a mother there to hold and suckle him?

Otherwise he would now be with the dead, “lying in peace” in the company of kings and princes in their magnificent tombs, crammed with all kinds of treasure (like the kings of Ur or the Egyptian pharaohs).

Or at least why did he not enter the world of the still-born to join those “unborn babes that never see the light” in that place where prisoners suffer no more, where high and low are all one and the slave is free of his master?

“Down there” (in Sheol) even the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest. Sheol, a word of unknown origin, indicates the deepest parts of the earth. It is the place where the dead, both virtuous and wicked alike are, leading a colourless existence where there is no praise of God. The belief in rewards and punishments after death and of bodily resurrection only came very late in the Old Testament period (cf. 2 Maccabees 12:38ff).

Why allow a man to grow up and suffer like this? Why give life to those who long for a death that never comes, “who hunt for it more than buried treasure”?Why make this gift of light to a man who does not see his way, whom God baulks on every side?”

Job can see no future for himself. A life like this is not worth living. He longs for the liberation of death and curses the day of his birth.

We ourselves may have somewhat similar experiences and surely we know of others who have gone through terrible inner and outer pain. People who wonder where a loving God can fit into such a situation. Today, there are strong inclinations to arrange an early termination of such an existence. Not a few take the way of suicide while others resort to “euthanasia”. They are very sensitive issues which need to be dealt with through compassion and understanding.

Although Job regrets now that he was born, he never contemplates suicide. And, of course, later on, when his fortunes change again for the better, his words in today’s reading will be set aside.

We, too, must always live in hope. Some of our pains and sufferings are of a temporary nature and will go away. Others, such as terminal illness, we know cannot be taken away. Yet, here too, as experience has shown many times, total acceptance and inner peace is possible. And so many good things can come from pain. In my pain, I may experience the deep sympathy and compassion of people who might otherwise ignore me. My pain can help me to understand much better the pain of others and bring a healing compassion to their situation. A world totally free of pain could become a place of total selfishness and self-indulgence.
+++    +++    +++    +++   
Psalm 88
Let my prayer come before you, Lord.
O LORD, my God, by day I cry out;
at night I clamor in your presence.
Let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my call for help.
Let my prayer come before you, Lord.
For my soul is surfeited with troubles
and my life draws near to the nether world.
I am numbered with those who go down into the pit;
I am a man without strength.
Let my prayer come before you, Lord.
My couch is among the dead,
like the slain who lie in the grave,
Whom you remember no longer
and who are cut off from your care.
Let my prayer come before you, Lord.
You have plunged me into the bottom of the pit,
into the dark abyss.
Upon me your wrath lies heavy,
and with all your billows you overwhelm me.
Let my prayer come before you, Lord.
+++     +++     +++    +++
Luke 9:51-56
When the days for Jesus to be taken up were fulfilled,
he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem,
and he sent messengers ahead of him.
On the way they entered a Samaritan village
to prepare for his reception there,
but they would not welcome him
because the destination of his journey was Jerusalem.
When the disciples James and John saw this they asked,
"Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven
to consume them?"
Jesus turned and rebuked them,
and they journeyed to another village.
We come today to a distinct turning point in Luke’s gospel. It is marked by the opening words of today’s passage: “When the days for his being taken up were fulfilled, he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem.” The ‘taking up’ or the ‘assumption’ of Jesus refers to his passion and death leading to resurrection and ascension. It corresponds to the ‘glory’ that John speaks of and for whom the crucifixion is a ‘lifting up’ into ‘glory’.

At this point we have now come to the end of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee and we move on to a new section – the journey to Jerusalem which ends at chapters 18:27 where we find Jesus in Jerusalem. The opening corresponds to Mark 10:1 where Jesus is seen entering Judea to preach there and which John more specifically describes as a journey to Jerusalem during the time of the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:1-10)

But Luke diverges from Mark’s story with very different material. He now follows Matthew’s source as well as using material of his own. The section consists almost entirely of teachings of Jesus to his disciples. It is all loosely organised within the framework of Jesus making his way to Jerusalem. The section we are entering is a time of preparation for the disciples for their future role as Messengers of the Kingdom.

Jerusalem is the place where it is all going to happen – the ‘exodus’ of Jesus, including his suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension leading to the passing on of his mission to his disciples with the coming down of the Spirit of the Father and Jesus on the disciples. And it will be from Jerusalem that the new Church will be established and from Jerusalem it will spread gradually throughout the whole Mediterranean area until it reaches the empire’s capital in Rome and from there to the ends of the earth.

As he set out, Jesus sent some messengers ahead to announce his coming. In order to go directly from Galilee to Judea, where the city of Jerusalem was situated, they would have had to pass through Samaria. Samaritans were particularly hostile to Jews, especially when they were on their way to a Jewish festival in Jerusalem (as Jesus and his disciples seemed to be doing). It would take at least three days to cross Samaria and the Samaritans were refusing the disciples overnight shelter. Because of this situation, Jewish pilgrims and travellers often avoided confrontation by going down the east bank of the Jordan River. There is an irony here that, when the first Christians were persecuted in Jerusalem, they took refuge in Samaria which became one of the first places to accept the Gospel. (Very likely, the evangelist is aware of the irony when telling this story.)

Faced with this hostility, the brothers James and John, whom we described yesterday as hotheads, suggested that fire from heaven be called down to burn them up. Their threat is reminiscent of the fire that Elijah brought down on the emissaries of an idolatrous king. They were indignant that their Master, the Messiah, should be treated in this way. There is a parallel here between Jesus’ negative reception in his home town of Galilee with his rejection by the people of Samaria.

But Jesus distances himself from those disciples and gives them a scolding. This was not Jesus’ way. Instead, they went off to another village where they hoped to find a better welcome. As we see in other parts of the Gospel, Jesus does not normally go out of his way to court trouble. On the other hand, he will not hesitate to speak his mind or do what he believes is right, even if certain kinds of people take offence at it.

It is never Jesus’ way to destroy his enemies. We will see that clearly after he reaches Jerusalem where far worse things are done to him. Jesus’ purpose always is to change people who are against him, to defuse their hostility and help them to see things in a better way. It is something we could try to do more often. It is not at all the “softy’s” approach. On the contrary, it requires great inner strength and security.

The Irish Jesuits

Monday, September 27, 2010

The LORD Gave And The LORD Has Taken Away; Blessed Be The Name Of The Lord!

Memorial of Saint Vincent de Paul, priest
Reading I
Job 1:6-22
One day, when the angels of God came
to present themselves before the LORD,
Satan also came among them.
And the LORD said to Satan, "Whence do you come?"
Then Satan answered the LORD and said,
"From roaming the earth and patrolling it."
And the LORD said to Satan,
"Have you noticed my servant Job,
and that there is no one on earth like him,
blameless and upright, fearing God and avoiding evil?"
But Satan answered the LORD and said,
"Is it for nothing that Job is God-fearing?
Have you not surrounded him and his family
and all that he has with your protection?
You have blessed the work of his hands,
and his livestock are spread over the land.
But now put forth your hand
and touch anything that he has,
and surely he will blaspheme you to your face."
And the LORD said to Satan,
"Behold, all that he has is in your power;
only do not lay a hand upon his person."
So Satan went forth from the presence of the LORD.

And so one day, while his sons and his daughters
were eating and drinking wine
in the house of their eldest brother,
a messenger came to Job and said,
"The oxen were ploughing
and the asses grazing beside them,
and the Sabeans carried them off in a raid.
They put the herdsmen to the sword,
and I alone have escaped to tell you."
While he was yet speaking, another came and said,
"Lightning has fallen from heaven
and struck the sheep and their shepherds
 and consumed them;
and I alone have escaped to tell you."
While he was yet speaking,
another messenger came and said,
"The Chaldeans formed three columns,
seized the camels, carried them off,
and put those tending them to the sword,
and I alone have escaped to tell you."
While he was yet speaking,
another came and said,
"Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine
in the house of their eldest brother,
when suddenly a great wind came across the desert
and smote the four corners of the house.
It fell upon the young people and they are dead;
and I alone have escaped to tell you."
Then Job began to tear his cloak and cut off his hair.
He cast himself prostrate upon the ground, and said,

"Naked I came forth from my mother's womb,
and naked shall I go back again.
The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away;
blessed be the name of the LORD!"

In all this Job did not sin,
nor did he say anything disrespectful of God.
After Proverbs and Ecclesiastes we now move on to another ‘wisdom’ book and one of the most profound, the Book of Job.

The book is called after its central character and deals with the problem of the suffering of the innocent. It is regarded as a literary masterpiece, although the author is unknown.

Job, a good and upright man but also a very wealthy one suddenly loses all his wealth, including his property and his family. He himself suffers from a serious skin disease and he is reduced to sitting miserably on an ash heap.

Yet, Job never complains against God. When some friends, “Job’s comforters”, come to sympathise, he protests his innocence, for such afflictions were usually seen as punishment for sinful behaviour. Nevertheless, Job does not complain against God. Yet he curses the day of his birth and longs for death to bring an end to his sufferings.

All through, he maintains an attitude of acceptance and trust in God which is strengthened by his suffering.

The overall lesson is that even good people may suffer greatly in this life and this can be a test of their faithfulness. Nor is it possible for the human mind to grasp fully the thoughts of God and to understand why things happen the way they do.

So the book in general deals with a problem which is still a source of great puzzlement and contention: How can God allow a good and innocent person to suffer?

Today’s reading sets the scene for the long dialogue which forms the main part of the book. The opening verses of the book, which we omit in today’s reading, present us with a man of great wealth and with a large and united family, as well as being a man who is very close to God.

One day, we are told, when the “sons of God” came into the Lord’s presence, Satan came along with them. These “sons of God” are superhuman creatures who make up God’s court and council and are understood to be the angels. Satan was originally a general name for an evil being but later became a proper name and here plays a role similar to the serpent in Genesis, as a tempter to sin.

There is then a dialogue between God and Satan, also called the “Adversary” or “Accuser”. God, taking the initiative throws down a challenge. He asks Satan if, in his wanderings around the earth, he had come across God’s good servant Job, a man whose like cannot be found anywhere. “Servant” indicates someone with a special relationship to God and is used of people like Moses and David and, later in Isaiah, for the “suffering Servant” who is a pre-figurement of Jesus.

“That’s all very well,” replies Satan, “for a person who has been endowed with huge wealth and prosperity. It’s easy to be good in his situation. But just let his possessions be taken away from him and you will see he will soon begin to curse God.” Satan boldly accuses the man God commends: he says Job’s righteousness, in which God delights, is self-serving. This is the core of Satan’s attack on God and his faithful servant in the book.

God takes up the challenge. “Right,” he says, “Job is all yours. You can do what you like but do not harm his person.” Satan is given an almost free hand to do what he wants but his power is significantly limited by the greater power of God. The question now is: Will Job curse God to his face? If Job does not, the accuser will be proven false and God’s delight in Job vindicated.

We are now brought to the house of Job’s eldest son where all Job’s family are dining together. One by one messages of disasters begin to come in. First, an invasion of Sabaeans have carried off Job’s herds of cattle and murdered his farm workers. All his herds of sheep and their shepherds are then struck by lightning. Again, a group of Chaldeans take off all Job’s camels and murder their drivers. Finally, Job is told that a hurricane has caused the house of his eldest son to collapse on his whole family, killing them all. In effect, his family and future generations are wiped out.

The Sabaeans were predatory nomads, probably southern Arabians from Sheba, whose descendants became wealthy traders in spices, gold and precious stones. Later in the book Job refers to them as “travelling merchants” and associates them with Tema, which lies nearly 600 km south-east of Jerusalem. Chaldeans were a Bedouin people until c.1000 BC, when they settled in southern Mesopotamia and later became the nucleus of Nebuchadnezzar’s empire.

Job is left with nothing. How will he respond? Will he curse God or at least complain and ask why these things are happening to him?

In fact, he goes into a penitential mode, tearing his clothes and shaving his head. Perhaps these things are a sign of his sinfulness for which he needs to repent. There is no sound of complaint but rather of total acceptance of what has happened to him: He was born naked from the womb of his mother and naked he will return to the womb of the earth. Everything he had was a gift from the Lord and now they have all been taken back. “Blessed be the name of the Lord!” Job’s faith leads him to see the sovereign God’s hand at work, and that gives him repose even in the face of calamity.

In fact, in the long dialogues which follow with his friends, Job will show that acceptance of what has happened to him does not come so easily. But, through it all, he never questions the justice of God; it is just that it is so difficult to understand.

We can see that the problems we have with the sufferings of the young and the innocent are nothing new.

These questions become perhaps even more painful and meaningless when many try to solve the problem by removing God from the picture altogether. But that does not solve the problem and does not take away the pain. If there is no God, if we convince ourselves that all is simply the result of chance, then why does the sense of wrongness still assert itself? In a world of pure chance there can be no absolute truth or falsehood, no objective right or wrong. Things just happen in a totally mechanical way.

Taking away God does not solve the problem because ultimately he is the source of the problem! – as Job recognises. Somehow, the answer is only to be found in a God who is full of love and compassion, in a God who allows his own innocent Son to suffer terribly and die in agony. Somehow the answer has to be found there in the Suffering Jesus. Many have discovered that the way out is not the removal of their pain but in being able, together with Jesus, to go through it. Pain can destroy but it can also heal.*
+++    +++    +++    +++
Psalm 17
Incline your ear to me and hear my word.
Hear, O LORD, a just suit;
attend to my outcry;
hearken to my prayer from lips without deceit.
Incline your ear to me and hear my word.
From you let my judgment come;
your eyes behold what is right.
Though you test my heart,
searching it in the night,
though you try me with fire,
you shall find no malice in me.
Incline your ear to me and hear my word.
I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God;
incline your ear to me; hear my word.
Show your wondrous mercies,
O savior of those who flee
from their foes to refuge at your right hand.
Incline your ear to me and hear my word.
+++    +++    +++    +++
Luke 9:46-50
An argument arose among the disciples
about which of them was the greatest.
Jesus realized the intention of their hearts
and took a child and placed it by his side
and said to them,
"Whoever receives this child in my name receives me,
and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.
For the one who is least among all of you
is the one who is the greatest."

Then John said in reply,
"Master, we saw someone casting out demons
in your name, and we tried to prevent him
because he does not follow in our company."
Jesus said to him,
"Do not prevent him,
for whoever is not against you is for you."
Following on Jesus once again telling his disciples that he was going to be “handed over” to suffering and death, we were told in our previous reading that they did not understand what he meant. It did not make sense to them.

Now, almost as an indication of how far they were from Jesus’ thinking, they began arguing among themselves which one among them should be seen as the greatest. Why should they be arguing about this? Was it because, whatever difficulties they had in accepting what Jesus had said about his future, they were wondering what was going to happen after Jesus had been taken away from them? If they were to remain together as a group, which of them would be in charge?

Perhaps Peter was already beginning to think that he should be the one. Perhaps some of the others felt it should be one of them.

But Jesus, who, of course, was not present during these sensitive discussions, was well aware of what was going on. He took a child and put it in their midst. “Whoever receives a child like this in my name, receives me. And whoever receives me, receives him who sent me. For the one that is least among you all is the greatest.”

It is interesting that the greatness is to be seen in the child rather than in the one who receives it. The child represents all who are vulnerable and weak and powerless. To “receive” such persons is to treat them with the utmost dignity and respect and to accept them and lift them up.

In Jesus’ eyes, such little people are truly great because, to those who have eyes to see, they are the ones in whom we can especially meet Jesus and love and serve him. St Francis of Assisi, who kissed the leper (a particularly daring thing to do in his time), or Mother Teresa, tenderly picking up a decaying, barely living body off the street knew this well. To find Jesus in such a person is to make direct contact with God himself.

Jesus himself will reach the peak of his own greatness when he hangs dying and helpless on the cross. This is the lesson the disciples will learn to see and accept in time. We have to keep working on it too because it does not come easily to any of us.

The second part of today’s gospel points to another area where the disciples have to change their outlook. John, the brother of James, who both come across in the Synoptics as somewhat hotheaded (they had the nickname “sons of thunder”), tells Jesus they saw someone driving out devils in Jesus’ name. They had told the man to stop because he was “not one of us”. (Was there an element of jealousy also? In Mark 9:14ff, we are told that the disciples failed to drive out an evil spirit from a boy.)

Here we have something of the arrogance of the insider, of the elitist. John and his companions felt that the exorcism of evil spirits in the name of Jesus was something only they were allowed to do. Jesus did not agree. “Leave him alone,” he told them. And he enunciates a principle for them to follow: “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

It is a constant temptation among more devout religious people to set themselves apart from “the others”. It can happen to bishops or priests or religious. It can happen in a parish to members of the parish council or some parish group – a prayer group, charismatics, the liturgy committee or whatever.

We can find ourselves developing a two-tier community of “us” and “them”. We can find ourselves looking down on those who come in late for Mass and hang around the back door or who only come occasionally or maybe even only turn up at Christmas.

Even more, we can be tempted to set ourselves apart from non-Catholic and non-Christian groups. We can fail to see God working in all kinds of people, religious and non-religious, atheists, agnostics and people who apparently do not believe in anything.

Of course, as Christians, we do have a distinctive understanding of life and its meaning coming from the teaching and life of Jesus and it should not be compromised. But, at the same time, we do not have a monopoly of the truth. No one has. The full Truth is beyond all of us. We are all searching. Still less do we have a monopoly on good works. God can and does use any person to build the Kingdom. And it is our responsibility to work hand in hand with such people. Ultimately, our aim is not to promote our Church but God’s work and God’s plan for the whole world.*

The Irish Jesuits

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Praise The LORD, My Soul!

Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading I
Amos 6:1a, 4-7
Thus says the LORD the God of hosts:
Woe to the complacent in Zion!
Lying upon beds of ivory,
stretched comfortably on their couches,
they eat lambs taken from the flock,
and calves from the stall!
Improvising to the music of the harp,
like David, they devise their own accompaniment.
They drink wine from bowls
and anoint themselves with the best oils;
yet they are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph!
Therefore, now they shall be the first to go into exile,
and their wanton revelry shall be done away with.
+++    +++     +++    +++
Psalm 146
Praise the Lord, my soul!
Blessed he who keeps faith forever,
secures justice for the oppressed,
gives food to the hungry.
The LORD sets captives free.
Praise the Lord, my soul!
The LORD gives sight to the blind.
The LORD raises up those who were bowed down;
the LORD loves the just.
The LORD protects strangers.
Praise the Lord, my soul!
The fatherless and the widow he sustains,
but the way of the wicked he thwarts.
The LORD shall reign forever;
your God, O Zion, through all generations. Alleluia.
Praise the Lord, my soul!
+++    +++    +++     +++   
Reading II
1 Timothy 6:11-16
But you, man of God, pursue righteousness,
devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.
Compete well for the faith.
Lay hold of eternal life, to which you were called
when you made the noble confession
in the presence of many witnesses.
I charge you before God, who gives life to all things,
and before Christ Jesus,
who gave testimony under Pontius Pilate
for the noble confession,
to keep the commandment without stain or reproach
until the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ
that the blessed and only ruler
will make manifest at the proper time,
the King of kings and Lord of lords,
who alone has immortality,
who dwells in unapproachable light,
and whom no human being has seen or can see.
To him be honor and eternal power. Amen.
Luke 16:19-31
Jesus said to the Pharisees:
"There was a rich man who dressed
in purple garments and fine linen
and dined sumptuously each day.
And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus,
covered with sores,
who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps
that fell from the rich man's table.
Dogs even used to come and lick his sores.
When the poor man died,
he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham.
The rich man also died and was buried,
and from the netherworld, where he was in torment,
he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off
and Lazarus at his side.
And he cried out, 'Father Abraham, have pity on me.
Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water
and cool my tongue,
for I am suffering torment in these flames.'
Abraham replied,
'My child, remember that you received
what was good during your lifetime
while Lazarus likewise received what was bad;
but now he is comforted here,
whereas you are tormented.
Moreover, between us and you
a great chasm is established
to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go
from our side to yours or from your side to ours.'
He said, 'Then I beg you, father,
send him to my father's house, for I have five brothers,
so that he may warn them,
lest they too come to this place of torment.'
But Abraham replied,
'They have Moses and the prophets.
Let them listen to them.'
He said, 'Oh no, father Abraham,
but if someone from the dead goes to them,
they will repent.'
Then Abraham said, 'If they will not listen
to Moses and the prophets,
neither will they be persuaded
if someone should rise from the dead.
TO SOME PEOPLE the story in today's Gospel may seem quite unfair. A successful man, indicated by the prosperity of his surroundings, is buried in hell. A snivelling beggar, who may have never done a day's work in his life, ends up in Abraham's bosom. Is this Christian teaching?

To understand this story properly may involve a radical change in the way we - and the society we belong to - normally thinks. And, importantly for those who wish to be truly Christian, it will involve learning some of the values of Jesus and of the Gospel.

We live in a world which praises achievement and has little time for failure. It starts right in kindergarten with the very first school report. We live in a society, which says people deserve everything they are able to work for and acquire. The materially successful (and in our society is there any other kind of success?) are sometimes heard to say that, if anyone else did what they did, they could be billionaires too. The emphasis is not on what people are but what they can do and on what they can acquire with what they do. How they get it or what the consequences may be for others is not regarded as of great importance.

For us Christians, often as deeply infected with these ideas as anyone, there is another distortion as well. Our way of living our faith can be very individualistic and self-centred. The emphasis is on personal salvation ("saving my soul") and that is achieved by being a morally good person. Morally good means avoiding actions which are ethically wrong, such as, failing to worship God in the "official" way, committing violent actions against others, behaving in a sexually immoral way (we coyly use the word "impure"), stealing things from people, gossiping maliciously about others, being jealous, envious, angry, resentful... and so on. Seldom in confession do people say: "I was not a loving person" but that they broke rules and disappointed themselves. Seldom do people confess the harm that their sins caused in others. I have never heard a person confess to cheating on taxes, although this is one of the chief ways in which people fail to express solidarity for the less well-off in their community.

As long as I am not aware of doing any of these things, or at least, not doing them in a serious way ("mortal sin"), then I am a "good" person and, if I am a Catholic, then I am "quite a good" Catholic (no need to exaggerate!).

However, this is not really the picture that the Gospel today describes. If we were to base our judgements on the above image of the "good Catholic", then there was really nothing much wrong with the rich man. All he did was to enjoy his wealth and his good food, his big house, his fashionable and expensive clothes. He did not seem to do any harm to the poor man. He did not drive him away or use abusive language towards him. The rich man was, in fact, quite "charitable". The poor man was welcome to any of the (surplus) food that fell from the table.

The rich man (and some of us) might ask why the poor man did not just get up and see a doctor about those ulcers on his leg and then go and do a proper day's work. We have no idea how the rich man became rich. Perhaps he was born into a rich family and inherited his wealth; perhaps it was the result of working long hours over many years. Why should such a man be punished? And, even more strangely, why should the beggar be rewarded?

Someone has said that God loves the poor, not because they are good, but simply because they are poor, where "poor" means deprived of what is necessary to live a fully human life.

Can we say also that God does not love the rich, not because they are bad, but simply because they are rich? Does one hear cries of "Unfair!"? "What's wrong with being rich? Everyone wants to be rich and prosperous." "Just look at the numbers buying lottery tickets every week!" "The rich are people too; they have souls." "I thought God loves everyone without exception." And so on.

But is it so unfair? Who is really being unfair? What does "rich" really mean? Indeed that rich man in the parable may have worked very hard to get his money, perhaps he was a good family man who loved his wife and was a good father to his children. Perhaps he went faithfully to the synagogue every Sabbath and observed all the regulations of the Sabbath day. He may have been seen as a very pillar of his community. long as that poor man lay uncared for at his feet, the rich man was totally condemned. Because he did not know what justice means. He did not know what love means. He did not know what a truly human society means. He did not know what religion means.

And perhaps there are thousands of us just like him in the Catholic Church here and all over the world.

Of course, one may say to oneself: "Jesus is not talking about me. I could not be regarded as rich. I am just a tax-paying fixed salary earner." No, but is such a person looking anxiously to move in the direction of wealth? Does such a person dream of striking it big on the national lottery? Does one dream of finding a short cut to making a killing on the stock exchange some day?

As an individual in our society, I may not (yet) be regarded as rich and we all belong to a society which is regarded as rather prosperous today. But, like most other rich communities, we are living in a society where wealth is very unevenly divided. There are many social problems in our midst affecting both rich and poor. Every social problem is a form of deprivation, a denial of full human living and hence poverty in Gospel terms.

How aware am I of these problems? How aware am I that I am somehow responsible for their elimination? What, in practice, am I contributing to the removal of these problems? Being a personally "good Catholic" is hardly enough.

Again, a lot of our community's wealth comes from buying and selling to countries of the Third or developing world, where millions continue to live in poverty. Would we dare to say that there is no exploitation going on in our trading practices - perhaps by the very company I work for or companies whose goods I buy? How come our society continues to grow in prosperity while theirs gets deeper and deeper in debt? Is it really only a question of mismanagement and "laziness" on their part?

The rich countries of the North (which include some Asian countries and Australia-New Zealand) sit at their groaning table in purple and silk with champagne and caviar, while the poor of Asia and Africa and Latin America, covered in the wounds of deprivation and exploitation, are shut out. We constantly pat ourselves on the back and look forward to the day when our material standard of living surpasses that of Switzerland or Luxembourg. Is that what we really want to aim at?

The rich man made the excuse (when it was too late) that he did not realise what was going on. His brothers (also rich?) did not realise either. Let them be warned, he pleaded. Even in hell, the rich man could still only think of his own family and not of all the others to whom he was responsible.

It would be no use warning them, Jesus said. They would not listen even if someone rose from the dead. Ironic words indeed. Jesus has risen from the dead this 2,000 years and how many of us have taken in the message of the Gospel about wealth and poverty? Not a great many, it must be said.

One final point. Central to the story is the table laden with food. This is both the symbol of the Kingdom and also points to our Eucharistic table, which we dare to approach every Sunday. If we saw our Sunday Mass in terms of today's Gospel, we might be more hesitant. We might be less smug about sharing the food of the Lord's table - even every day.

The rich man made no move whatever to share what he had at the table. He could have done so at either of two levels. First, he could have seen to it that the poor man had enough to eat and he might even have gone further and "donated" medical treatment. This is the level of "charity", the level most of us feel good about doing. But it is not yet the Gospel.

In the second level, neither of the men is seen as rich or poor. They sit down together at the same table and they give and receive and share on a footing of equal dignity the meal and the food. It is quite irrelevant whether one of them is more intelligent, more active, more enterprising, more healthy. What is important is that each cares deeply for the other and sees that the needs of each are taken care of with the resources available. Strangely enough, the poor are often much better at that than the rich. Which makes one wonder, who in the world are the really rich, enriched and enriching?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

In Every Age, O LORD, You Have Been Our Refuge

Saturday of the Twenty-fifth Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I
Ecclesiastes 11:9--12:8
Rejoice, O young man, while you are young
and let your heart be glad in the days of your youth.
Follow the ways of your heart,
the vision of your eyes;
Yet understand that as regards all this
God will bring you to judgment.
Ward off grief from your heart
and put away trouble from your presence,
though the dawn of youth is fleeting.

Remember your Creator in the days of your youth,
before the evil days come
And the years approach of which you will say,
I have no pleasure in them;
Before the sun is darkened,
and the light, and the moon, and the stars,
while the clouds return after the rain;
When the guardians of the house tremble,
and the strong men are bent,
And the grinders are idle because they are few,
and they who look through the windows grow blind;
When the doors to the street are shut,
and the sound of the mill is low;
When one waits for the chirp of a bird,
but all the daughters of song are suppressed;
And one fears heights,
and perils in the street;
When the almond tree blooms,
and the locust grows sluggish
and the caper berry is without effect,
Because man goes to his lasting home,
and mourners go about the streets;
Before the silver cord is snapped
and the golden bowl is broken,
And the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
and the broken pulley falls into the well,
And the dust returns to the earth as it once was,
and the life breath returns to God who gave it.

Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth,
all things are vanity!
Today we come to the end of our selections from this book. Even in translation one can see the poetry of the passage. Again it can be read in a very pessimistic way or with a sense of realism.

The reading deals with the inevitability of old age and what it brings.

In Jewish tradition, going back to the book of Deuteronomy, long life was seen as a reward promised by God and the greatest blessing given to those who had led good lives. However, for Qoheleth, old age is not happiness but the fear of death, regrets for one’s younger days, the slowing-down of life, and a painful slowing down “before the dust returns to the earth”.

So he begins by urging the young to enjoy their lives while they still have the energy and vigour to do so. “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may!” They should follow the promptings of their hearts and the desires of their eyes but with the caveat that some day they will have to give an account to God of their actions.

There seems to be a mixed signal when he tells them to “cast worry from your heart, shield your flesh from pain” because youth is but a “dawn” and it will not last long. For such a carefree and hedonistic life is in fact highly deceptive. For “youth, the age of dark hair, is vanity”. The wise young person will be mindful of the Creator while there is still time.

For the days are coming when life will give little pleasure and a kind of darkness (occasioned by weakening sight and cataracts?!), when sun and light and moon and stars grow dim and the clouds return after the rain.

There follows then a sad but moving description of old age

when strong men become bowed down,
when women can no longer grind corn,
when (through hardness of hearing?) so many sounds are no longer heard -

     the sound of the mill,
     the singing of the birds,
     the sound of music -

and when walking uphill becomes a dreaded ordeal.

Yet, while all that is happening, life continues with never-ending normality:

     the blossoms come out on the almond tree
     the grasshopper is heavy with food,
     the trees bear their fruit,

but we move inexorably towards our “everlasting home” in the bosom of the earth.

Already the mourners are getting ready to see us off, awaiting the moment “before the silver cord has snapped, or the golden lamp has been broken, or the pitcher shattered at the spring, or the pulley cracked at the well, or before the dust returns to the earth as it once came from it, and the breath of God who gave it” - all poetic ways of describing the ultimate return to the earth of the dust from which we came.

Finally, the Teacher closes his message using the same words with which he opened his book: “Vanity of vanities. All is vanity.”

Yet, as the Jerusalem Bible comments, while the book ends with the same words with which it began, in between it has covered much ground. It reminds us of our wretchedness and powerlessness but also of our greatness, by showing us that there is something greater beyond the world in which we live. It points us in the direction of the God who is above and beyond all that we can experience. “It incites the reader to disinterested religion and to that kind of prayer in which a creature, aware of its nothingness, adores the mystery of God”.

Vanity, or meaninglessness, is not the last word.

It is possible to feel depressed on reading this book but that is not its ultimate purpose and certainly not the intention of those who chose these readings for the liturgy.

Underneath the apparent negativity and cynicism is the deep truth of the transitoriness and fragility of all existence and the importance of our using well the time - long or short - that has been given to us and, through the joys and pains that make up every life, finding God’s love and compassion there. Life is to be enjoyed but with the realisation that, on this earth, it has a very definite end for each individual.

Underneath it all, one is reminded of the great ‘Contemplation to Attain the Love of God’ which concludes the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola. In four steps, the one doing the Exercises is urged to be aware of:

     1. the blessings of creation and redemption with which one is surrounded;
     2. how God is present in every level of creation, bringing it to its destined fulfilment;
     3. how God works for me through every created thing, including his Son Jesus Christ;
     4. how reflection and contemplation on all of this brings me to the very Source of everything.
         "In him, we live, and move, and have our very being” (Acts 17:28)

To be united with that Source is my final Destiny and I can say with Paul:

     “For I am convinced that neither death nor life,
      nor angels, nor rulers,
      nor things present, nor things to come,
      nor height, nor depth,
      nor anything else in all creation,
      will be able to separate us from the love of God
      in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).*
+++    +++   +++    +++
Psalm 90
In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge.
You turn man back to dust,
saying, "Return, O children of men."
For a thousand years in your sight
are as yesterday, now that it is past,
or as a watch of the night.
In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge.
You make an end of them in their sleep;
the next morning they are like the changing grass,
Which at dawn springs up anew,
but by evening wilts and fades.
In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge.
Teach us to number our days aright,
that we may gain wisdom of heart.
Return, O LORD! How long?
Have pity on your servants!
In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge.
Fill us at daybreak with your kindness,
that we may shout for joy and gladness all our days.
And may the gracious care of the Lord our God be ours;
prosper the work of our hands for us!
Prosper the work of our hands!
In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge.
+++    +++    +++    +++
Luke 9:43b-45
While they were all amazed at his every deed,
Jesus said to his disciples,
"Pay attention to what I am telling you.
The Son of Man is to be handed over to men."
But they did not understand this saying;
its meaning was hidden from them
so that they should not understand it,
and they were afraid to ask him about this saying.
After yesterday’s reading where the disciples recognised their Master as the Messiah and are told about the death and resurrection of Jesus, there follows the scene with the three chosen apostles on the mountain where they get a glimpse of Jesus in glory (the transfiguration). This is followed by the healing of the epileptic boy.

The reaction of the crowds to this cure was that “they were all amazed at the mighty power of God”. Not, we might note, the mighty power of Jesus. Even the crowds could recognise the real source of what Jesus was doing.

It is at this high point of Jesus’ popularity that he says just to his disciples, “Let all this sink into your ears, for the Son of man will be handed over into the hands of men.” What Jesus seems to be saying is that they are to realise there is no contradiction whatever between Jesus revealing in himself the unlimited power of God and his being handed over powerless to the power of his enemies. Only when they can see and understand the meaning of a suffering Messiah will they fully know the Way of Jesus.

But, Luke tells us, they were not ready yet for this. “They did not understand what Jesus was saying. It was hidden from them and they could not see it.” At the same time they were afraid to ask him.

To what extent can we say that we understand and accept the idea of a suffering Messiah? We are used to looking at the cross of Jesus but to what degree do we see the place of suffering in our own lives? Can we see that, without pain and suffering in our own lives and in those of others, our lives would be in many ways impoverished? Strange as it may seem, it is pain and suffering that can bring out what is most deeply human in all of us.

The Irish Jesuits

Friday, September 24, 2010

Who Do You Say That I Am?

Friday of the Twenty-fifth Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I
Ecclesiastes 3:1-11
There is an appointed time for everything,
and a time for every thing under the heavens.
A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant.
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to tear down, and a time to build.
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather them;
a time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces.
A time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away.
A time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to be silent, and a time to speak.
A time to love, and a time to hate;
a time of war, and a time of peace.

What advantage has the worker from his toil?
I have considered the task that God has appointed
for the sons of men to be busied about.
He has made everything appropriate to its time,
and has put the timeless into their hearts,
without man's ever discovering,
from beginning to end, the work which God has done.
Today we have a well-known passage which was even the subject of a popular ‘hit’ song some years ago.

It is part of a longer passage whose overall theme is death, the inevitable end of every life. Life here is presented as equally divided between things which bring pleasure and sadness, comfort and pain. Each has its own ‘time’ slot, so to speak, and we have little control over one or the other.

Our occupations - some bringing joy, others pain - are overshadowed by the inevitable end in death. Death casts its shadow on life, which is a series of contradictory acts, some of them listed here, but all end in the meaninglessness of death. We are subject to times and changes over which we have little or no control. Only one thing remains supreme - the all-knowing and all-loving God. We are totally in his hands and the sooner we realise that the happier we will be.

At the end the Teacher says that, although we can try to see meaning in individual events as they unfold, we can be mistaken and the overall direction of the world is totally beyond us. God’s world is simply too big for us to grasp. “God’s beautiful but tantalising world is too big for us, yet its satisfactions are too small. Since we were made for eternity, the things of time cannot fully and permanently satisfy.”

The New Testament keeps reminding us that we “have here no lasting city”. We are pilgrims passing through. We have no permanence in this world. The important goal is not to be reached here, because it does not, cannot exist. The ultimate goal is beyond this life.*
+++    +++    +++    +++
Psalm 144
Blessed be the Lord, my Rock!
Blessed be the LORD, my rock,
my mercy and my fortress,
my stronghold, my deliverer,
My shield, in whom I trust.
Blessed be the Lord, my Rock!
LORD, what is man, that you notice him;
the son of man, that you take thought of him?
Man is like a breath;
his days, like a passing shadow.
Blessed be the Lord, my Rock!
+++    +++    +++    +++
Luke 9:18-22
Once when Jesus was praying in solitude,
and the disciples were with him,
he asked them, "Who do the crowds say that I am?"
They said in reply, "John the Baptist; others, Elijah;
still others, 'One of the ancient prophets has arisen.'"
Then he said to them, "But who do you say that I am?"
Peter said in reply, "The Christ of God."
He rebuked them and directed them not to tell this to anyone.
He said, "The Son of Man must suffer greatly
and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,
and be killed and on the third day be raised."
After the incident concerning Herod, which, as we saw, is a pointer to things yet to happen, the disciples return from their mission. What follows is omitted from our readings. In fact, Jesus took them to a quiet place where they could rest and reflect on what they had been doing. However, they were pursued by the ever-hungry crowds and Jesus fed them with the Word of God, with his healing and finally, through his disciples (”You give them to eat”) with bread and fish. The story is another step in the Twelve’s involvement in the mission of Jesus and it leads into today’s reading.

We find Jesus praying alone. As we have already seen, it is something that Luke mentions a number of times about Jesus and especially before significant events in his public life. Some people might wonder what Jesus would have to pray about. Such a question could reveal a rather limited idea of prayer, e.g. as something you do when you want to get something from God or when you are depressed or in trouble of some kind.

But prayer is ultimately getting in touch with God and that is something that Jesus would surely want to do a lot. Prayer is also a way of discovering just where God’s will enters one’s life and that is something that was always of supreme importance to Jesus. “I and the Father are one.”

Jesus, we are told, was not altogether alone. His disciples were with him. Were they praying too? Later, they will ask Jesus to teach them how to pray.

All of this is Luke’s introduction to a high point in all the Synoptics: the revelation of Jesus’ true identity. From the other Synoptics we know that it took place at Caesarea Philippi, a mixed Jewish-Gentile region outside Herod’s territory.

“Whom do people say that I am?” Jesus asks them. They give various answers: John the Baptist (resurrected) or Elijah, expected to return to announce the imminent coming of the Messiah, or some other of the earlier great prophets.

But then he asks, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter, answering for all of them, replies simply: “The Christ of God.” “Christ” is not a name but a title. It comes from the Greek christos which means “anointed”. And Christos is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew ‘Messiah’. The anointing indicates someone who is king and, in this case, the One who is anointed the Saviour King of Israel.

In short, Peter is saying that the man standing before him is the long-awaited Saviour of the Jewish people. It is a dramatic development in Jesus’ relationship with his disciples.

His next words at first sight seem unexpected and contradictory. He strictly orders his disciples not to say anything of this to anyone. Surely they should be doing the exact opposite? But the people are not yet ready for this revelation. They have a very limited and preconceived idea of what the coming of the Messiah will mean. They see him in very political terms as a kind of national liberator who will drive out and destroy the Romans and all enemies of the Jewish people and restore the past glories of Israel.

Even after the Resurrection Luke has Jesus’ own disciples them asking him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Their ideas, even at this late date, are no different from the ordinary people’s. At this point in the Gospel, they must be secretly proud that they, of all people, are the first to be privileged with this information.

If that was the case, they were very quickly to be disillusioned. Almost immediately Jesus goes on to say that “the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, be killed and raised on the third day”.

This is the first time in Luke that Jesus refers to himself as “the Son of Man”. It occurs 81 times in the four gospels and is only used by Jesus of himself. In the book of Daniel (7:13-14) we see the ‘Son of Man’ pictured as a heavenly figure who is entrusted by God with authority, glory and sovereign power. Jesus’ use of the title in a Messianic sense is made clear by its close proximity to Peter’s declaration of Jesus as the ‘Christ’.

We know from Matthew and Mark that the disciples - in particular Peter - were dumbfounded when they heard Jesus’ words and wanted to reject them entirely. It was totally against all their expectations of the Messiah, apart from the fact that they could not bear to have those things happen to their Master.

To them, it simply did not make any sense. First, Jesus as Messiah was going to be rejected and handed over by the leaders of their own people. Secondly, he was going to go through a terrible and humiliating death. His “being raised” on the third day - whatever that meant - did little to alleviate their confusion.

But, as Mark indicates, this was a further step in their relationship with Jesus. They now recognised him as the Messiah but now they had to learn just what kind of Messiah he was going to be and how he was going to liberate not only his own people but people all over the world.

We, too, of course, have to keep going through the same process. We have to deepen our understanding of the true identity of Jesus and we have to be able to understand how the suffering and dying Messiah is not only the way he needed to go to reconcile us with God but that we too have to be ready to go the same way. We have to learn to see the redemptive and healing power in the pains, sufferings, disappointments and failures of our lives.*

The Irish Jesuits

Thursday, September 23, 2010

In Every Age, O LORD, You Have Been Our Rescue.

Memorial of Saint Pio of Pietrelcina, priest
Reading I
Ecclesiastes 1:2-11
Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth,
vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!
What profit has man from all the labor
which he toils at under the sun?
One generation passes and another comes,
but the world forever stays.
The sun rises and the sun goes down;
then it presses on to the place where it rises.
Blowing now toward the south, then toward the north,
the wind turns again and again, resuming its rounds.
All rivers go to the sea,
yet never does the sea become full.
To the place where they go,
the rivers keep on going.
All speech is labored;
there is nothing one can say.
The eye is not satisfied with seeing
nor is the ear satisfied with hearing.

What has been, that will be;
what has been done, that will be done.
Nothing is new under the sun.
Even the thing of which we say, "See, this is new!"
has already existed in the ages that preceded us.
There is no remembrance of the men of old;
nor of those to come will there be any remembrance
among those who come after them.
Today we begin reading from the Book of Ecclesiastes, another Wisdom book which follows immediately in our Bible on Proverbs.

The word “Ecclesiastes” is a Greek translation of the original Hebrew title of the book, Qoheleth, a word which means “Teacher”, one who conducts an assembly or a school. As the Greek word for ‘assembly’ is ekklesia; this explains the title we use.

The book is presented as being written by Solomon, a king famous for his wisdom, and this gave it weight as a “wisdom” book. However, scholars are agreed that the book was not written by Solomon but comes from a much later period when the Jews, back from exile and in Jerusalem, were under the empire of the Persians.

The book teaches wisdom by highlighting the emptiness of most human pursuits. “All is vanity.” The language often sounds negative and cynical. Even so, “in the face of death and ‘vanity’, Qoheleth repeatedly urges humans to embrace life and its goods - food, drink, love, work, and play - as gifts from God”. (Harper Collins Bible).

In the face of the emptiness and vanity of life, the Teacher does make two positive points:

a. Near the very end of the work he tells his reader to “fear God and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone”.
b. As humans have no really effective control over their environment and spend much of their time chasing the illusory, the real good is to enjoy life as a gift of God and it is in the area in which they find themselves that they are to find him.

The theme of the whole book is expressed in the opening words of today’s reading: “All is vanity.” The original meaning of the Hebrew word translated ‘vanity’ was ‘mist’ or ‘breath’. It is one of the traditional group of images (water, shadow, smoke, etc.) used in Hebrew poetry to describe the transitory nature of human life. It is used 35 times altogether in this book but in Qoheleth the word has lost its usual meaning and for him signifies only the illusory nature of things and hence the delusions to which they subject the human family. The basic thrust of Ecclesiastes is that all of life is meaningless, useless, hollow, futile and vain if it is not rightly related to God. Only when based on God and his word is life worthwhile.

"What profit has man from all the labor which he toils at under the sun?" It reminds one of the words of Jesus to his disciples: “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose his life?” A life without God and the values we identify with God, however much energy is put into it, is meaningless.

The second part of the reading is full of a kind of weariness and pessimism about the experience of life that many, if not most, people have experienced at some time. The world by itself seems to have no inner meaning. It goes on and on repeating the same cycles again and again. There is a terrible determinism and inevitability about everything. Yet, Job, who had his fair share of troubles, looking at the same world is filled with wonder and adoration. To quote a verse: “Two men looked out through prison bars / One saw mud and one saw stars.”

Of course, the author was writing in a world which had far less control over its environment than we have but even in our day there are still situations where we are basically helpless. Freak weather conditions, droughts and floods, earthquakes and volcanoes, deadly viruses, the breakdown of our bodies (often the result of our own indulgences and excesses in work and play), our recklessness with mind-altering substances (nicotine, alcohol, and other drugs), and the unforeseeable breakdown and/or mishandling of our technologies (e.g. car and plane crashes)… all of these can bring the most dazzling of human achievements to nothing, sometimes in a split second.

Meanwhile, as the Teacher says, the world goes on just as before without us. Generations come and generations go; the sun rises and sets; the wind blows from the north today and from the south tomorrow and back again; the rivers keep flowing into the sea but the sea remains the same in volume. The world goes on indefinitely but human life can disappear very quickly.

The cycles of life are repeated again and again. “There is nothing new under the sun.” This is a phrase the Teacher will use 29 times in his book. It could be heard as very cynical but it also has a genuinely positive meaning.

We may feel that in our exciting technological world new things are constantly appearing. ‘New’ is a word constantly shouted at us by products in our supermarkets and TV ads. Yet, the deeper experiences of life repeat themselves again and again. Maybe we understand them a bit better but the experiences themselves and the fragility of life have not changed since the Teacher’s days.

Jesus put this in another way when he reminded us that we did not know the day nor the hour when our life would come to an end. There is not a single person, however rich or however powerful, who knows when that hour will take place.

The purpose of such a reflection, then, is not to fill people with fear and discouragement but with a realistic awareness of the ultimate purpose of living.

What is the quality and purpose of my life at this time? Is my day spent in seeking and finding him or am I in search of something else which I have no guarantee of either finding or keeping? Or, on the other hand, am I so in touch with my Lord that, no matter when it happens, I will be ready to answer his call and run to him full of desire for perfect unity with him?*
+++    +++    +++    +++  
Psalm 90
In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge.
You turn man back to dust,
saying, "Return, O children of men."
For a thousand years in your sight
are as yesterday, now that it is past,
or as a watch of the night.
In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge.
You make an end of them in their sleep;
the next morning they are like the changing grass,
Which at dawn springs up anew,
But by evening wilts and fades.
In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge.
Teach us to number our days aright,
that we may gain wisdom of heart.
Return, O LORD! How long?
Have pity on your servants!
In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge.
Fill us at daybreak with your kindness,
that we may shout for joy and gladness all our days.
Prosper the work of our hands for us!
Prosper the work of our hands!
In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge.
+++    +++    +++    +++
Luke 9:7-9
Herod the tetrarch heard about all that was happening,
and he was greatly perplexed because some were saying,
"John has been raised from the dead";
others were saying, "Elijah has appeared";
still others, "One of the ancient prophets has arisen."
But Herod said, "John I beheaded.
Who then is this about whom I hear such things?"
And he kept trying to see him.
Today we have a short interlude which is leading to some very special revelations.

Herod the tetrarch (his father Herod the Great’s kingdom had been divided among four sons) is hearing stories about what Jesus is doing. ‘Tetrarch’ means the ruler of the fourth part of a kingdom. This one, Herod Antipas, was one of several sons; the kingdom was divided among four of them. Herod Antipas ruled over Galilee and Perea from 4 BC to 39 AD. Although not strictly speaking a ‘king’ he is called that in Matthew and Mark following popular usage.

Herod is puzzled because he is being told that Jesus is John the Baptist risen from the dead. At the same time others are saying that Elijah, whose expected return would signal the arrival of the Messiah, or some of the former biblical prophets has reappeared. Herod has recently beheaded John the Baptist and the superstitious king is filled with a mixture of fear and curiosity. He “kept trying to see Jesus”.

Luke does not actually record the death of John and, in this short passage, he prepares the reader for the later meeting of Herod with Jesus (23:8-12). So Herod’s wish will be partially fulfilled at a later date though under very unexpected circumstances and in a way that Herod will find very unsatisfactory. He is hoping that Jesus, like some circus dog, will do some ‘tricks’ or ‘miracles’ for him. [In the musical ‘Jesus Christ Superstar' Herod asks Jesus to walk across his swimming pool.]

Herod’s desire was almost entirely one of curiosity, it was the desire of the hedonist and the seeker of novelty. To see Jesus, in the full Gospel sense, is something totally other. It can only happen to those who have the eyes of faith and who can see in the person of Jesus the presence and power of God. We may recall the request of some “Greeks” who told Philip they wanted to see Jesus and the reply that Jesus gave about the grain of wheat falling into the ground and dying (John 12:20-26). We have not seen Jesus if we do not know him in his suffering and dying as his way to new life.

Let us ask to see Jesus today, a seeing that leads to a total acceptance of his way of life and following him all the way, through the cross and beyond to a life that never ends.*

The Irish Jesuits
A message from Fr John L

Later this morning, I'm leaving on a week-long holiday, and I won't be bringing my laptop with me.  [I've tried that in the past, and the transmission doesn't work very well.]   The daily Scriptures and commentaries have been logged on through the end of the month.  You may continue to make comments, if you choose to, but be aware that I will not be in a position to post your comment, or my response, until after I return to my residence. 

You will all be in my thoughts, prayers and Mass intentions every day.

God bless you all. 

Father John L.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Your Word, LORD, Is A Lamp For My Feet.

Wednesday of the Twenty-fifth Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I
Proverbs 30:5-9
Every word of God is tested;
he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.
Add nothing to his words,
lest he reprove you,
and you will be exposed as a deceiver.

Two things I ask of you,
deny them not to me before I die:
Put falsehood and lying far from me,
give me neither poverty nor riches;
provide me only with the food I need;
Lest, being full, I deny you,
saying, "Who is the LORD?"
Or, being in want, I steal,
and profane the name of my God.
+++    +++    +++    +++
Psalm 119
R. Your word, O Lord, is a lamp for my feet.
Remove from me the way of falsehood,
and favor me with your law.
R. Your word, O Lord, is a lamp for my feet.
The law of your mouth is to me more precious
than thousands of gold and silver pieces.
R. Your word, O Lord, is a lamp for my feet.
Your word, O LORD, endures forever;
it is firm as the heavens.
R. Your word, O Lord, is a lamp for my feet.
From every evil way I withhold my feet,
that I may keep your words.
R. Your word, O Lord, is a lamp for my feet.
Through your precepts I gain discernment;
therefore I hate every false way.
R. Your word, O Lord, is a lamp for my feet.
Falsehood I hate and abhor;
your law I love.
R. Your word, O Lord, is a lamp for my feet.
+++    +++    +++    +++
Luke 9:1-6
Jesus summoned the Twelve
and gave them power and authority
over all demons and to cure diseases,
and he sent them to proclaim the Kingdom of God
and to heal the sick.
He said to them, "Take nothing for the journey,
neither walking stick, nor sack,
nor food, nor money,
and let no one take a second tunic.
Whatever house you enter,
stay there and leave from there.
And as for those who do not welcome you,
when you leave that town,
shake the dust from your feet
in testimony against them."
Then they set out
and went from village to village
proclaiming the Good News
and curing diseases everywhere.
St John Chrysostom wrote: “Christ had the power to set the human race free from all evils—not only the Romans but also... every race of barbarians. He succeeded in doing this with no force of arms, nor expenditure of money, nor by starting wars of conquest, nor by inflaming men to battle. He had only eleven men to start with, men who were undistinguished, without learning, ill-informed, destitute, poorly clad, without weapons, or sandals, men who had but a single tunic to wear.”

Mahatma Gandhi was deeply impressed by Christ, but not by Christians. In the famous pictures of his visit to London in 1931 he appeared just like one of those barefooted twelve. St Ambrose quoted Isaiah 52:7, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,” and remarked that there was no mention of beautiful sandals.

On a train journey I was seated beside a man who had brought an enormous suitcase with him. This suitcase, he told me, contained all the things he might need during his day away from home: an umbrella in case it rained, and sun-cream, in case the sun came out. This suitcase was so big that it would not fit in the compartment and he had to have it put in the goods carriage. This was of course at the end of the train, at a great distance from our carriage, but he insisted (with complicated reasoning) on not moving closer. During the journey he talked about the deficiencies of the transport system and how complicated everything was made for the ordinary passenger. So involved did he become in this subject, with recitation of past experiences, that he missed his stop and found himself parted from his suitcase, which had been removed from the train at the correct stop. His panic knew no bounds. As the train pulled out again, I could see him on the platform, with flushed face, shouting, waving his arms. He had just that moment discovered what it was like to "take nothing for the journey," but it could be a long time before he learns to enjoy it!

Today's Good News
Donagh O'Shea, O.P.