Christmas Midnight Mass

Nativitas D.N.I.C.

25 December 2018

One of mankind’s biggest challenges in relationship to God is making the time to consider God, to consider His ways, His teachings, to consider Him real, and real enough that He actually has a claim on my life.  We are busy and we focus on so many other things instead of God such that we train ourselves to give Him little focus.  This is a challenge even for self-professed religious people like you and me.  That puts us on a trajectory of having a tangential acquaintanceship with God or, at worst, keeping Him at a distance.  Whatever the case, we aren’t building a friendship with God when we don’t consider Him and work against the tendency to give Him little attention in the real time of our daily living.  If you want proof of the risk of this tendency, then look no further than the screen time report on your smart phone.  Compare the amount of screen time with your amount of prayer time.  Yes, it is a real tendency of ours to place greater focus on things that are not God.

So many other things about our life seem so much more pressing as compared to God.  That’s not a unique challenge.  It seems it was present surrounding the birth of Jesus in his time.  People were traveling, they were busy, they were figuring out what they had to do to comply with the requirements of the census called for by Caesar, and they were taking care of their real worldly and bodily needs.  And God was right there, hidden just beyond sight in Mary’s womb.  In the midst of this busyness and the focus on so many other things, the gospel tells us of this common human tendency to fail to make space for God by reporting: “There was no room for them in the inn.”  An outlying cave and a place for animals was all the room God could find.  The focus, the attention, the minds and hearts of God’s people were not focused on Him.

Recently after Mass talking to people in the narthex I was holding an infant.  The baby was calm and happy to be cradled in my arms.  I looked down at the baby and he looked up at me.  We locked eyes on one another for quite a while actually as I was standing there with his parents.  When you hold a baby don’t you also just naturally look at the baby?  You gaze at the infant and, if awake and calm, the infant gazes back at you.  As I was looking into this baby’s eyes I found myself wondering: What is he thinking? What is he seeing?  What is on his mind?  What is his mind able to perceive and process as he looks up at me?  What’s going on inside him, in his mind and heart, as he gazes at me?  He had my attention and my pondering, as I marveled at new life.

Reflecting later on about this experience the idea came to me that perhaps this is how we understand God’s method of breaking through our common tendency to be focused on other things and distant from Him.  Does this perhaps explain some of the divine logic in God’s choice and plan to enter as an Infant the creation He desired to save?  Perhaps to draw us naturally to Him?  Maybe we understand the birth of Almighty God in the smallness of human flesh as the means by which God could break through our distraction and self-centered thoughts such that in reference to God we too might wonder about Him: What is He thinking?  What does He think about me?  What is going on with Him?  What does He perceive in me?  What does He see when He looks at me?  Mary and Joseph had the very distinct privilege of holding the Infant God in their very arms.  Maybe they thought the same things I described in holding an infant.  Even though we live centuries after his birth and even though we don’t get to hold him physically in the form of an infant, we can however dwell on that common experience of the pondering that arises in us as we hold a child and find renewed focus to train ourselves to consider God and His ways.  That can be our response to the truth of faith we celebrate today, that God took human flesh and was born an infant in Bethlehem.  We can find in this day and this season renewed reason to train ourselves to act against that common tendency to keep ourselves so busy and full that in us too there is no room for them in the inn.  We can imagine what arises in us so easily while holding an infant and find in that a good lesson for needing to gaze upon and ponder God in such a way that He and His commands actually have a claim on our life.  This can be our response to the invitation that is deep in the mysterious infant eyes that Mary and Joseph gazed upon.

Our cynical world might want to accuse me of taking a human experience and simply placing it upon God as if the human explains the divine, as if the limited explains the infinite.  Fundamental error in philosophy, Father!  Don’t they teach you that in that seminary you went to?  But Sacred Scripture reveals to us authoritatively what God is like and I think we find there some reason to trust human experience as a lesson about God.  When you read throughout all the Scriptures, especially in the Old Testament, God’s lamenting of the distance and infidelity of His people you find strikingly emotional language and language that borrows from human relationships.  Listen to just a small selection of examples that I found that describe God’s lament at our distance and His desire to get our attention. 

From the Book of the Prophet Michah: “O my people, what have I done to you?  In what have I wearied you?  Answer me” (Micah 6:3)!

From the 81st Psalm: “But my people did not listen to my voice; Israel would have none of me… O that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways”  (Ps. 81:11, 13)!

From the Prophet Hosea: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.  The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing… and burning incense to idols.  Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms… I led them with cords of compassion, with bands of love” (Hosea 11:1-4).

The Prophet Isaiah reports God telling His people not to fear because He has redeemed them, called them by name, and loves them…  God says, “Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you” (Is. 43:4).  Isaiah goes on to report the Lord saying: “ ‘Can a woman forget her suckling child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?’  Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” (Is. 49:15).

How in the midst of the crush of the demands of daily living (whether around 3 BC or 2018) does God effect the fulfillment of His plan and get His people to consider Him?  To think of Him?  To ponder Him and His ways?  Today we observe that God desires to provoke a focus on Him by being an Infant who can be held.  Mary ponders Him and all the things about Him in her heart.  She becomes the model for how His incarnation calls us to ponder Him.

Psalm 131, in a verse I chose for the window of our baptistry, expresses the calm and peace of a soul attentive to God: “Like a child quieted at its mother’s breast is my soul” (v.2).  God desires us to enter relationship with Him in regular worship, rather than giving our sacrifices to idols.  He calls us to rest in Him in regular time each day for prayer, by which we turn our attention and our gaze upon Him, so as to train ourselves to combat that tendency to focus on other, lesser things.  To highlight one type of prayer, Adoration is such a good training ground to combat the tendency to not consider God.  In adoration in our chapel we kneel and spend time before the Real Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.  He’s really there, God-with-us!  We look upon Him and we train our gaze to rest in His presence.  In so doing, we live lives of deeper friendship with Him now and we are prepared to gaze upon Him in the eternity of His blessing in Heaven.  God comes in our flesh, born as a baby, that our natural tendency to look upon, to ponder, and to wonder about a baby might draw us to consider Him and His ways as having a claim on our living.  As St. Paul wrote: “The grace of God has appeared, saving all and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires.”  And so with the Gospel, “I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.  And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”  Come, let us gaze upon Him!  Come, let us ponder Him!  Come, let us adore Him!

Third Sunday of Advent

Dominica III Adventus C

16 December 2018

The change of vestment color for this weekend and the permission to decorate the sanctuary with flowers serve as a visual reminder that over half of Advent is in the past.  The color rose – rose being traditionally associated with joy – and the repeated message of the Scriptures call us to rejoice.  And so this day has been called “Gaudete Sunday” or “Rejoice Sunday.”  This weekend the Church calls us to step up our joy because we have completed more than half of this holy season and are drawing near to the celebration of the source of our joy, the birth of Christ Jesus.

The gospel selection is the continuation from last Sunday of the preaching of that famous Advent figure, St. John the Baptist.  If you back up to the start of Chapter 3 of St. Luke, from which chapter the gospel is taken, you see the world scene into which St. John was sent to preach.  St. John the Baptist is preaching his message in the reign of Tiberius Caesar, while Pontius Pilate is governor of Judea, and while Herod ruled as tetrarch of the Jews in Galilee.  Each of these figures in St. John’s world has a checkered legacy.  If you find yourself lamenting how bad things are today (and they are!), and if by that you uncritically adopt the notion that it was easier in Jesus’ time (it wasn’t!), then you need to correct that thinking.  Tiberius is associated with adultery, murder, and political executions.  Herod’s life is associated with lavishness, jealousy, and sexual excess.  And Pontius Pilate.  We know that story.  St. John’s preaching was at times a seemingly non-threatening proclamation.  Things like: “I am not the Christ” (Jn. 1:20), “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness” (Jn. 1:23), “He who is coming after me is mightier than I” (Mt. 3:11), “I am not worthy” to untie his sandal (Jn. 1:27), “Behold the Lamb of God” (Jn. 1:36).  These are the sorts of messages that are easy to hear from a preacher.  But St. John also knew how to deliver the hard truth.  Things like: “Repent” (Mt. 3:2), “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Lk. 3:7), “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Lk. 3:9).  St. John was a tough and wild preacher.  After all he wasn’t arrested and beheaded for failing to speak the truth.

When you think of the very different personalities who listened to St. John and who heard him preach – the powerful rulers, the religious authorities, the everyday people – what accounts for the difference in those who responded to his message versus those who did not?  I think an answer is that question that three different groups ask in the gospel.  “What should we do?”  In St. John’s time, and as now, some people are going to hell and are heading there with wild velocity.  Then, like now, some people are trapped in grave sin but perhaps various circumstances or personality struggles lessen their guilt.  Then, like now, some people are basically holy but are still working out the lesser sins.  Then, like now, our lives might be marked by some or all of this.  Then, like now, some are responding to God’s grace and making their way to deeper friendship with God.  What should we do?  It’s a question from those we hear about in today’s gospel, a question that shows a serious engagement with the message of St. John.  That serious engagement makes all the difference and leads to repentance.

What should I do?  Are you willing to hear the call of God across the ages to repent and prepare for His day, culminating in His arrival in our flesh to save us?  Or are you here but sort of coasting through the drama of salvation?  It is time to listen to the call of God and to seriously engage with the need to repent and to engage with the generous offer of God’s loving mercy.  What should I do?  It’s a question we should ask ourselves.  The answer, like it was for the crowds, for the tax collectors, and the soldiers, is not too high, lofty, or impossible for us.  If you have two cloaks and enough food, give some to the person with none.  Like the tax collectors heard, stop cheating and do your work well and fairly.  Like the soldiers heard, don’t use your power to lie and to take advantage of others, but be loyal and satisfied with what you have.

When we engage seriously with the call to repent and to foster life with God we stop treating the Gospel we hear as simply a collection of faith stories from the past serving purely to remind us to be religious.  When we engage seriously with the call to repent we allow the drama of salvation to be something alive and active within us who are still being saved by God’s grace.  When we engage seriously with the call to repent we are willing to be moved out of our stagnation and to ask that uncomfortable question that betrays that I need to change.  “What should I do?”  It is the willingness to ask that question of ourselves day in and day out of our earthly journey that permits us to live the joy and rejoicing encouraged by this Gaudete Sunday because repentance, confession, and conversion lead us away from a relationship with God’s wrath and instead to a relationship with the Father who saves us by placing the irreplaceable gift of His Son in our midst.  What cause for our rejoicing!  As we heard in the first reading, “Shout for joy…. Be glad and exult…. The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior; he will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love.”

Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe

Our Lady of Guadalupe

12 December 2018

Today we observe with great joy the miraculous event 487 years ago by which the Blessed Virgin Mary made herself known as Holy Mary of Guadalupe.  Her appearance is referred to as “mestiza,” meaning someone of mixed race.  The description of her beauty tells us of the harmony in the mix of her Spanish and Indian features.  With the beauty and the harmony of that mix in mind, I want to make a simple observation about a lesson for us on this feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Mary is the woman of faith who said “yes” to God the Father.  Her “yes” resulted in the fulfillment of God’s plan to come close to us, to “mix” with us in our very flesh.  Mary is the example to us of how to live in harmony with God such that our humanity and divine grace mix to create beauty and praise to God.  Mary appeared in a place marked by the error of false religions and the brutality of human sacrifice offered to false gods.  Thus, we can say her appearance also places in contrast the ugliness that develops when we fail to live in harmony with the beauty of God’s image, an image and likeness He made to be reflected in us.  The appearance of the mestiza beauty of the Virgin of Guadalupe reminds us that we are not made to mix with sin, which deforms our appearance and our dignity.

The Prophet Isaiah says, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good tidings” (Is. 52:7).  My brothers and sisters, to honor the mestiza beauty of Mary who appeared in Guadalupe we must not stand here to honor her with our lips while our feet stand and remain in the filth of sin.  If our feet carry us here today, then we must complete our journey by moving our feet to deeper life with Mary’s Son, our Savior, Jesus.  We must move away from sin and refuse to mix with it.  We must move our feet to confession and to worship Jesus at least every Sunday and holy day at Mass.  We must live in harmony with God such that we may carry the Good News, the tidings of salvation, and draw others to conversion by the beauty of our harmonious mix with divine life.

Hoy observamos con gran alegría el milagroso evento de hace cuatrocientos ochenta y siete años por el cual la Santísima Virgen María se dio a conocer como Santa María de Guadalupe. Su apariencia se conoce como “mestiza,” que significa alguien de raza mixta. La descripción de su belleza nos habla de la armonía en la mezcla de sus rasgos españoles e indios. Con la belleza y la armonía de esa mezcla en mente, quiero hacer una observación simple sobre una lección para nosotros en esta fiesta de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe.

María es la mujer de fe que dijo “sí” a Dios Padre. Su “sí” resultó en el cumplimiento del plan de Dios de acercarse a nosotros, de “mezclarse” con nosotros en nuestra propia carne. María es el ejemplo para nosotros de cómo vivir en armonía con Dios, de modo que nuestra humanidad y la gracia divina se combinen para crear belleza y alabanza a Dios. María apareció en un lugar marcado por el error de las religiones falsas y la brutalidad del sacrificio humano ofrecido a los dioses falsos. Por lo tanto, podemos decir que su apariencia también pone en contraste la fealdad que se desarrolla cuando no vivimos en armonía con la belleza de la imagen de Dios, una imagen y semejanza que Él hizo para reflejarse en nosotros. La aparición de la belleza mestiza de la Virgen de Guadalupe nos recuerda que no estamos hechos para mezclarnos con el pecado, lo que deforma nuestra apariencia y nuestra dignidad.

El profeta Isaías dice: “Qué hermosos son los pies de quien monta las buenas nuevas en las montañas (Is. 52:7). Mis hermanos y hermanas, para honrar la belleza mestiza de María que apareció en Guadalupe, no debemos estar aquí para honrarla con nuestros labios mientras nuestros pies permanecen en la inmundicia del pecado. Si nuestros pies nos llevan aquí hoy, entonces debemos completar nuestro viaje moviéndolos a una vida más profunda con el Hijo de María, nuestro Salvador, Jesúcristo. Debemos alejarnos del pecado y negarnos a mezclarnos con pecado. Debemos mover nuestros pies a la confesión y a adorar a Jesús al menos cada domingo y día santo en la Misa. Debemos vivir en armonía con Dios para que podamos llevar la Buena Nueva, las noticias de la salvación, y atraer a otros a la conversión por la belleza de nuestra armoniosa mezcla con la vida divina.

First Sunday of Advent

Dominica I Adventus C

2 December 2018

Our word “advent” comes from the Latin “adventus,” which is a translation from the Greek word “Parousia.”  Parousia means “arrival” or “coming.”  Our use of “advent” refers not only to the coming of Christ at his Incarnation and birth at Christmas, but it also refers to his second coming at the end of time, his coming as Judge.  In fact, it is this second coming that is most commonly associated with the word “Parousia.”  Advent is the start of a new Church liturgical year.  It is a time of year that is hectic and exciting in holiday anticipation.  It is a time of year that is tender with family gatherings, parties, rich memories, and holy songs.  Given how this time of year is spent by us, it is safe to say that perhaps the gospel selection today sounds almost strange to us, as if it doesn’t fit.  And perhaps that raises a critical question: What is truly strange?  Is it the Church’s liturgical focus and scriptural selection that is strange and doesn’t fit?  Or is it how we live that risks not fitting with Christian preparedness and vigilance for the moment when the Lord comes again?  If the gospel is almost like a disappointment or sounds strange to us then we have a good opportunity to catch our error and to make change so as to prepare for the coming, the advent, the Parousia of the Lord!

The gospel is from Jesus’ discourse on the Mount of Olives where he speaks of his second coming.  He speaks of dramatic cosmic signs that will accompany his return in glory and he alludes to a prophecy from the Book of Daniel that the Son of Man will come in the clouds.  These signs are disturbing.  People will be in dismay and perplexed.  In fact, “people will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world.”  Considering this, Jesus’ instruction is hard to swallow.  He says when you see these things “Stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.”  When we are assaulted by things that cause dismay, leaving us perplexed, and which may even cause one to die of fright – I don’t know about you, but my inclination is to duck for cover and to keep my head down.  Imagine a battlefield riddled with violence and bullets flying.  Ducking and putting your head down seems to be the best policy.  And a battlefield is nothing compared to the signs of the Second Coming.  But Jesus tells us to stand up.  Almost like a football coach teaching tackling method, he tells us to raise our heads, to face the cosmic signs we can’t control or understand because it means our redemption is arriving.

How are we possibly supposed to face the final advent?  Jesus tells us that our responsibility is to be prepared.  And he tells us some things NOT to do in order that we are prepared.  Jesus says, “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life.”  Jesus warns us to take care that our hearts not be weighed down by things that will prevent us from being ready to stand erect and to raise our heads.   In particular, we must be on guard not to become drowsy from carousing.  Other translations of this passage use the word “dissipation.”  That’s a word commonly used of the young son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  The word in Greek translated as dissipation or carousing refers to “unbridled indulgence.”  Carousing then is unbridled indulgence in all the pleasures of the flesh: money, sex, power, the things of this world and how the world evaluates a noteworthy or successful life.  These are the things that we fall to so easily in our fallen nature, making them our focus and, in so doing, becoming weighed down with an earthly, lower focus that obscures our true dignity as God’s children and impedes our ability to be ready to stand up and to raise our heads with what me might call the “lightness,” the levity of freedom.  To respond to Jesus’ call to be vigilant for his second coming, we have to guard our hearts so that we do not let them fall in love with a disordered and unbridled attachment to lower things.

The second bit of advice from Jesus is much more immediately clear, but perhaps even more stark to us given how simple and confrontational it is.  He highlights the grave sin of drunkenness.  Deliberate inebriation is a serious sin that Jesus singles out as something to be avoided if we are to be vigilant for his return.  Why might the Lord highlight this issue?  Because deliberate inebriation or carelessness in drinking serves as a symbol of someone who has become so wrapped up in the pleasures of this world that the person has lost control of him- or herself.  Someone who is drunk does not have control of his faculties.  He or she has lost the control of the mind and the will.  We all know that drinking, especially excessive drinking or drunkenness often results in one’s guard being down, in the loss of inhibitions that might otherwise tell us to straighten up and choose moral good.  In other words, drunkenness is to deliberately enter into a state where we are lower than we are made to be, where we are less than our dignity.

The final advice for vigilance is that we must beware of the anxieties of daily life.  This harkens to the Parable of the Sower where the seed of God’s Word is planted but thorns, which Jesus says are the anxieties of life, choke it off and smother the seed of God’s Kingdom.  To be prepared for his second coming Jesus tells us we must avoid letting our hearts be weighed down and consumed by anxiety.  We might ask ourselves if we lose sight and hope in the seed of God’s Kingdom planted in us?  Do I focus on the anxieties and the problems of life to such a degree that I actually give little attention to – or even forget – God’s Kingdom?  It is the kingdom that is like yeast in a batch of dough or like a mustard seed that starts as the smallest thing but then has impact well beyond the worldly measure of its size.  Do I forget that?  In the face of my worries and preoccupations do I let myself remember this truth and this promise of Jesus?  Or am I weighed down?  This advice might be the most interesting of the three.  Why?  Because here Jesus isn’t talking about avoiding a specific sin, like the other two (indulgence and drunkenness).  Here he expresses the danger of being too worldly focused, putting too much stock in this life and our estimations of our progress such that we lose an other-worldly focus, a focus on his kingdom.

So, how do we avoid these things?  How should we prepare this advent for Christmas and for the final advent at the Second Coming, such that that day not catch us by surprise like a trap?  Jesus says, “Be vigilant at all times and pray.”  This refers to the spiritual advice of staying awake and praying, especially in the night time hours.  This spiritual discipline of vigilance is perhaps less considered than something more familiar like fasting, but it is just as much part of the Jewish and Christian traditions.  Monks get up while it is still dark, late at night or very early in the morning, to pray.  That time of prayer – not surprisingly – is called “vigils.”  This call to be vigilant, to stay awake and to pray, helps us understand and appreciate key Catholic practices.  Ever wonder why we have a Midnight Mass at Christmas?  The older I get, I sure do!  To keep vigil, to stay awake and to pray ourselves into the dawning of light on Christmas Day.  We keep vigil on Holy Thursday night after the Mass, praying before the gift of the Lord’s presence in the Blessed Sacrament.  We do that all night until midnight.  We have an Easter Vigil that is always held in the darkness of Holy Saturday night so that we keep vigil as preparation for the arrival of Easter Sunday.  Maybe hearing about these practices today gives us some added push to make the effort to attend these Masses in the coming year.  The spiritual practice of vigilance can also be grown in the devotion of Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.  When we come to an adoration chapel anywhere in the Catholic world we are coming to be vigilant, to stay awake and to pray before and with the Lord.  Perhaps the message of Jesus on this First Sunday of Advent might drive you to take up this practice, to commit to adoration, and to let the Lord prepare you for his return.  The Lord tells us to be vigilant, to stay awake, and to pray that we may have strength to escape what comes and to stand before him.  Physical strength will do us no good at the Second Coming.  We need spiritual strength.  Train yourself in that spiritual discipline that we perhaps unwisely leave only to the most dedicated monks.  Stay awake and pray.  Avoid the drunkenness and the carousing so often associated with secular “night life” and “the weekend.”  Stay awake and pray with the Lord in adoration so that you remind yourself of his Kingdom already present here and now, whose fullness we await in the next life.  Train yourself in prayer and adoration to desire that Kingdom more than daily anxieties.  And as you pray before the Lord now let him help you identify the sins that need confession.  Let him raise your head and cause you to stand secure in his love such that when that day with disturbing signs comes, you may see it not as a day of fear but as the arrival, the advent, of the gift of God’s love and desire for you: “Your redemption is at hand!”

Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

“Do not be afraid. For the Lord God will not let us go empty.”

In this homily for Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Fr. Stephen Hamilton reflects on today’s reading from 1 Kings and the Gospel of Mark. In those passages we hear the story of two widows who gave all that they had to the Lord and in their example we can learn to be transformed as disciples of Christ.

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Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Dominica XXX per Annum B

28 October 2018

Upon receiving his sight the Gospel tells us that Bartimaeus “followed [Jesus] on the way.”  The Scripture readings chosen for this Holy Mass are marked by several allusions to the good things that are possible when we follow the path of the Lord, as compared to the distance and exile from God that we create when we sin and choose to stray along our own path.

I want to point you to the Gospel for the first allusion to the good that is possible when we remain faithful to following the way of God.  The Gospel selection tells us that “Jesus was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a sizable crowd.”  The larger context in this section of St. Mark’s Gospel informs us that Jesus is going to Jerusalem where he will arrive for the Passover.  Jews in Palestine (at least those who were able) would make annual pilgrimage to the Holy City Jerusalem to observe the Passover.  And what did the Passover commemorate?  God’s goodness and faithfulness in leading His people along the pathway out of Egypt and toward the Promised Land.  We can conclude that this sizeable crowd that passes by Bartimaeus is made up of many pilgrims on the joyful procession to Jerusalem where they will commemorate following faithfully the path of God.  This allusion to the blessing that is possible when we follow God’s ways is amplified when you consider the location named in the Gospel: Jericho.  What is significant about that city?  It was the site of Israel’s first conquest in the holy land as they began to take possession of what God had promised.  That familiar conquest story is recounted in Joshua 6 when, by God’s power, the Israelites conquered Jericho after a seven-day liturgical march around the city, carrying the Ark of the Covenant, blowing horns and shouting as the walls of the fortified city fell.  Thus, this Gospel wants to make us think about the blessing that came when God’s People followed His lead.

The Scripture selections also allude to the distance and exile from God that comes when we stray and follow our own path.  We can’t help but recall that Israel’s history is also marked by wandering in the desert and distance from God, a distance we too experience when we choose to sin and to stray from where God leads.  For this we can look at the first reading from the Prophet Jeremiah and also the psalm.  The first reading makes reference to Israel’s exile to the land of the north.  They were scattered and driven from the Promised Land after being unfaithful in their choice to adopt pagan ways rather than living according to God’s ways.  The first reading is a prophesy of joy when the Lord will deliver the remnant of Israel and bring them back, gathering His people as an immense throng, “with the blind and the lame in their midst.”  The Prophet Jeremiah says that though God’s people were exiled in tears, God will console them and guide them, and lead them so that none shall stumble.

The example of Bartimaeus in the Gospel is an invitation to us to recognize our blindness and the obstacles that cause us to stumble and to stray from the direct path Jesus opens before us.  The example of Bartimaeus is an invitation to us to throw aside the cloak of our old ways, the sins and the lack of love for Jesus that contribute to our sitting on the roadside and failing to advance in the way of holiness.  The example of Bartimaeus is an invitation to us to hear the repeated message of being called by Jesus and called by His Church to join the great procession that is the way of the Lord, the way that leads to Heaven.  In the past many weeks’ gospel selections, where Jesus has taught his disciples on the way to Jerusalem, we have seen their blindness toward the way he will be the Messiah.  Today we hear of the blindness of Bartimaeus.  God’s Word invites us to recognize our own spiritual blindness and the obstacles in our lives to following Jesus on the way.  Jesus always stands ready to pause his journey and to heal us if we will call out and come to him.  When we stray from the path and refuse to call out to Jesus we remain blind, distant from God, and sitting idly along the road.  When we reject the voices that tell us to be silent and instead call out like Bartimaeus then we are taking the first steps to correct our course and to join the procession of Jesus toward freedom and entrance into the Promised Land of heaven.  Just as in the Gospel, both Jesus and his Church call us to rise and to come close to Jesus.  If we desire greater sight and the ability to follow Jesus on the way, may we learn to cry out in faith: “Jesus, son of David, have pity on me!”

Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Dominica XXIX per Annum B

21 October 2018

The selection from St. Mark’s Gospel this weekend is right around the third and final prediction Jesus makes about his impending passion.  Like the first two predictions, it is met with a clueless and inadequate response from the disciples.  Let’s do some brief review.  The Sacred Liturgy for the Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time had us listen to Jesus make his first prediction (Mark 8:31ff).  The embarrassing response there was when Peter took Jesus aside and tried to convince Jesus he was wrong.  Jesus responded with a serious tongue-lashing: “Get behind me, Satan.”  We heard Jesus make the second prediction on the Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Mark 9:31ff).  The disciples did not understand and they were afraid to question Jesus.  Moments later we learn the depth of their inept response.  It becomes clear that in the very moment of predicting his passion, the disciples had been arguing about who among them was the greatest.  And now this weekend, the Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, we hear the gospel selection immediately after Jesus’ third and final prediction, a selection that highlights again the impure motives of the disciples.

That in his very brief Gospel St. Mark devotes space to communicate three distinct predictions of the passion likely tells us something of its importance.  That he uses space to highlight the inept response of the disciples likely also teaches us to be aware of our own resistance to suffering in the life of faith.  Again, in this third prediction, Jesus and the disciples are on the way, going up to Jerusalem.  Here however St. Mark makes the point of telling us that Jesus went ahead of them all (Mk. 10:32).  The image this creates for me is one of Jesus insisting on facing head-on his mission and the will of the Father.  He’s walking ahead.  He’s blazing the trail.  Meanwhile, the disciples, we might imagine are distracted, less than focused, day dreaming, perhaps dragging their heels, busy about imagining a Messiah who doesn’t suffer or how they can achieve a share in Jesus’ glory while avoiding the passion he predicts.

James and John come with the request: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”  Nice try, boys!  They are seeking the top posts of power and authority in Jesus’ glory, in his kingdom.  That’s what asking for seats at his right and his left mean.  In the Davidic kingdom those seated on either side of the King were the next in authority.   I have said this before, and I might risk repeating myself, but since Jesus repeats himself in these passion predictions, perhaps it bears repeating: Notice that Jesus does not rebuke or scold James and John for their boldness in asking.  Rather he tells them how to achieve the desire.  I think that is very noteworthy for us.  It would seem that desire for greatness, desire to surpass our limits and our boundaries, the desire to surpass even life itself and to reach for eternity is very much part of our human nature.  Jesus doesn’t reject that or say it is a cause of our shame or a reason we can’t be holy.  No, rather he accepts the innate desire and simply focuses our attention on how to achieve it in a good way, in a way that makes us like unto him.

Does Jesus require that James and John – does he require that we? – accept the passion, accept suffering in the life of faith?  Yes.  That’s what his response about the cup and the baptism means.  In the Old Testament a cup is a metaphor for what God has in mind for someone.  It might be a cup of blessing (cf. Ps. 16:5; 23:5; 116:13) or the cup of His wrath (cf. Ps. 75:9; Is. 51:17-22; Jer. 49:12).  Jesus has this latter meaning in mind since he will drink the cup of God’s wrath, God’s judgment for sin.  Jesus requires James and John – and us! – to accept participation in suffering for sin.  We have been engaged now for several weeks in our extraordinary time of penance and reparation for sin in the Church.  Today’s Scripture lesson answers quite well that understandable question that might rise in our conflicted hearts: Why do we do penance?  Why do we make reparation?  Why do we invite suffering and inconvenience for sins that we did not personally commit?  Because it is part of Jesus’ mission and in accepting the cup of God’s wrath for sin we become more like Jesus and that saves us while also making repair for the whole Body of Christ!  The image of baptism in Jesus’ response to James and John also clearly communicates that suffering is part and parcel of the life of faith.  Immersion in water is a biblical image for overwhelming calamity (cf. Ps. 42:8; 88:17-18; Is. 43:2).  For this reason baptism in Christian history has always been viewed as a death, the dying of the old man of sin, a burial in the waters, with a simultaneous rising to new life of the man made new in Christ.

How often are we, like the disciples, ready to reach out and to grasp at the glory of Jesus’ kingdom, while trying to avoid suffering for sin, while keeping rejection and even death at an arm’s length?  The false message comes easily enough.  It sounds like this.  There is so much to do each day and making time for prayer is just too hard.  Surely praying once a weekend is enough! / I have the same sins over and over, do I really have to work to change them? / The drive to lust is just so strong, it’s like it overtakes me.  Does Jesus really expect me to strive to become pure?  Besides it’s like everyone else at school and all around me gives in all the time, do I really have to work and discipline myself to live in my body as the temple of the Holy Spirit? / I know my marriage is not what it is supposed to be, but the thought of opening the wounds and doing the work to improve is just so scary.  It’s just easier to live with the status quo.  I thought marriage was “happy ever after.”  Is there really any value in suffering for my spouse, in suffering to improve my marriage? / My family is getting together for the holidays and that one relative will be there.  How do I handle his partner?  Where do I draw the line?  Why does it have to be so hard?  Does Jesus really expect me to take a stand?  And if so, how do I do that? / How could God let her get that disease?  Hasn’t she faced enough in her life?  And of all people, she is so faithful!  What value can there possibly be in such terrible suffering?

Quite easily do these and so many other examples of refusal to suffer come to our hearts and minds.  With good reason does St. Mark highlight the passion three times.  With good reason does he let us see the failures of the disciples each time.  We have to be aware of the unholy tendency to resist suffering in our life of faith.  To accept suffering in our own life means we are walking a proven pathway, chosen by Jesus himself, that has value and that leads to glory.  But the value is not just the ultimate goal of the kingdom for which we wait.  Rather, accepting suffering counteracts our tendency to think that suffering is a sign that God is distant or even absent.  Embracing suffering brings grace now to others and to us who draw closer to the Suffering Servant who came to give his life as a ransom for many.

Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

“Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.”

In today’s homily, Fr. Stephen Hamilton reflects on the silence in today’s Gospel passage, how the disciples struggled to understand Jesus’ prediction of his own Passion, and finally how similarly we fail to understand the crosses in our own lives.

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