Saturday, February 25, 2012

Homily for 1st Sunday of Lent

Homily for the
1st Sunday of Lent
Feb. 26, 2012
1 Pet 3: 18-22
Gen 9: 8-15
Christian Brothers, Iona College
St. Vincent’s Hospital, Harrison, N.Y.

“A few persons, 8 in all, were saved thru water. This prefigures Baptism, which saves you now” (1 Pet 3: 20-21).

All of our readings this evening point to Baptism in some fashion. That isn’t obvious in the story of Noah, but St. Peter makes the connection thru typology, that traditional Christian way of reading the OT and seeing in it foreshadowings of Christ, or as the Petrine text puts it, it “prefigures” some aspect of the Christian mystery.

“Baptism saves you now,” Peter says, by “appealing to God for a clear conscience” (3:21). That is, it cleanses us of sin and thus makes us appealing to God and worthy of the resurrection—that feast, that greatest of the Christian mysteries, which thru our Lenten observance we’re preparing to celebrate, and that final act of our personal salvation which we look forward to.

In Noah’s time, the flood cleansed not the human conscience like Baptism, but the world, by destroying all those who had been perverted by sin. “The Lord saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how no desire that [men’s] heart conceived was ever anything but evil, [and the Lord] regretted that he had made man on the earth,” Genesis says as it introduces the story of the flood (6:5-6). So God cleansed the earth, leaving only one upright man and his family to start human life, human society, human culture afresh. When Noah and his family and all the animals emerge from the ark, we’re presented with a new creation, and Noah is even given the same command that was given to Adam, to “be fertile and multiply and fill the earth,” and he’s given all the creatures as food, as Adam was (9:1-3).

The cleansing by water signaled by Baptism is a new start for every Christian—most obviously for catechumens with real personal histories to be wiped clean when they receive the sacraments at the Easter Vigil. The new start isn’t so obvious for the innocent newborn bearing only original sin. But in either case it’s a fresh start, a union with Jesus Christ, the 2d Adam, the inaugurator of the new creation.

All of us, at whatever point in life we commit ourselves to follow Jesus Christ, continue to pass thru a world aptly compared to a desert—a place where, like Jesus, we may meet God but also a place where, like him, we confront evil and are tested (Mark 1:12-13). Unlike Jesus, we often fail the test, succumb to evil. And so we remain in need of cleansing. Conversion is never a done deal, never a once-and-for-all matter. So Lent beckons us every year to “repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15).

Jesus Casting Out Satan, by Carl Heinrich Bloch

Baptism isn’t mentioned explicitly in the gospel reading, but we all know that Jesus’ baptism by John immediately preceded his going out into the desert to fast and pray. It’s noteworthy that Mark says, “The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert” (1:12). That’s the very Spirit that had just descended upon him “like a dove” as the heavenly voice declared, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (1:10-11). The Spirit “drives” God’s “beloved Son,” compels him to go, into the desert. Just anointed by the Spirit, just identified as the Son of God, Jesus must go out alone into the wilderness to be with his Father, must go into the wilderness like Israel coming out of Egypt and like the prophet Elijah, for a deeper encounter with God. But Jesus won’t really be alone out there, because the desert is also where the demons lurk and where Jesus must confront himself, all his human urges and feelings that might distract him from his mission as the Anointed One of God. He was tested in every way that we are, yet did not sin (Heb 4:15).

In the early centuries of Christianity, many devout men and women, like St. Anthony, imitated Jesus by going into the deserts of Egypt and Syria for the same reasons: to seek God in prayer and in labor and in silence, to pray, “Your ways, O Lord, make known to me; teach me your paths, guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior” (Ps 25:4-5); to wrestle with their demons, all the temptations that our flesh is inclined toward; to purify their minds, their intentions, their desires, their wills thru unrelenting self-denial and submission to God.

Jesus and the desert fathers and mothers of the early centuries remind us that our own commitment to God—in Baptism or by religious vow—is never finished. We have to continue to seek God, and we have to do that ourselves even if we have guidance and support. No one can seek God for us. We have to struggle against temptations, no matter how “pleasing” we may be to God so far; the Father was “well pleased” with Jesus, but Jesus still had to prove his obedience by resisting sin. No one can substitute for us in fighting against sin. Unlike Jesus, who defeated all the lures of the devil, we have to repent repeatedly. No one else can repent for us, and renew our belief in the Gospel, in the Father’s love for us, in the sureness that his way is the right way, the only way, toward happiness and salvation.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Homily for 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Homily for the
7th Sunday

in Ordinary TimeFeb. 19, 2012
Mark 2: 1-12
NYLT, Putnam Valley, N.Y.
St. Vincent’s Hospital, Harrison, N.Y.

National Youth Leadership Training (NYLT) is a Scouting program to help boys in leadership roles in their Scout troops to develop their leadership skills. This weekend the team of experienced Scout leaders and adult Scouters was planning a course to be given in April. Some other Scouts who were in camp also joined us for Mass on Saturday evening.For a couple of Sundays we’ve been hearing how crowds and crowds of people have been coming to Jesus. E.g., last Sunday, in the verse that immediately precedes today’s gospel we were told: “It was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly. He remained outside in deserted places”—camping, but surely without a tent—“and people kept coming to him from everywhere” (Mark 1:45).

Why do you think people came to Jesus from everywhere? [seeking healing, witnessing the wonders he worked]

We have a further example today. Jesus has come home—to Capernaum, where he’s made his HQ, so to say, because it’s alongside the Sea of Galilee and on the main road between Judea and Syria; Nazareth, on the other hand, is off the beaten track. Jesus has come home, and again a huge crowd has gathered: in the house, around the door, down the street. And what’s he doing? [preaching the word]

So people came by the hundreds—by the thousands, even, as we know from the stories of how he multiplied bread and fish for them—not merely to see miracles but just to hear him preach the word of God. He must have been a far more interesting preacher than someone else you know! But I’ll bet he went on a lot longer.

That a talented and convinced preacher would attract thousands of listeners isn’t that unusual. I doubt that your American history textbooks cover the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s. Throughout the British colonies, from Georgia to Massachusetts, the Great Awakening was probably the most significant event in the 18th century, up till the Revolution. It was a religious revival preached by men such as Jonathan Edwards (you’ve read a snippet of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” in your American lit), John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and George Whitefield (pictured below). Even today on U.S. 17 north of Myrtle Beach, S.C., there’s a roadside historical marker noting that Whitefield preached near that spot on Jan. 1, 1740. Newspapers and letters of the period tell us that people traveled 20, 50, even 100 miles, to hear these preachers, and you could tell where the preachers were from the clouds of dust that the wagons and horses raised on the roads as they converged on the preaching place.

Ben Franklin, who is in your history textbooks, was a great skeptic in religious matters, writes in his Autobiography of George Whitefield’s visit to Philadelphia. He relates how he walked as far as it was possible still to hear the preacher and how he then calculated that the number of people who might fill the space between where he stood and where Whitefield was would amount to more than 30,000 listeners.

From 1952 to 1957 perhaps the most popular show on TV, with as many as 10 million viewers each week, was Bp. Fulton Sheen’s half-hour program, Life Is Worth Living, in which he taught religion and preached the word, with no other prop than a blackboard. I was too young to appreciate him at the time, but my mom and dad watched, as I’m sure the parents of many of your Scouting leaders did. The bishop won an Emmy in 1952, too! You can still watch many of his programs on YouTube.

Throughout the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s evangelist Billy Graham traveled the country and the world, preaching to tens of thousands of people at a time in auditoriums, arenas, and stadiums, including Yankee Stadium.

So Jesus initiated a great preaching tradition. People came to him to hear him preach the word of God and to seek physical healing, including “casting out demons,” as we heard in the gospels 2 and 3 Sundays ago.

Now let me ask: do you remember the very 1st words out of Jesus’ mouth in Mark’s Gospel? We heard them on Jan. 22: “Jesus came to Galilee,” Mark writes, “proclaiming the gospel of God” (1:14). And what Jesus proclaimed, Mark tells us, was, “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (1:15). (Gospel is a very old English word that means “good news,” and it’s a literal translation of the Greek word that Mark uses, euanggelion. The word evangelist means, literally, one who preaches the Good News.)

Jesus’ 1st words link “fulfillment,” the presence of “the kingdom of God,” and repentance. Those 3 elements add up to “good news.”

What’s being fulfilled? [all God’s promises thru the prophets, promises of deliverance and protection]

How is the kingdom of God made present? [thru the preaching and the actions of Jesus, and thru how those 2 things lead people to change their lives for the better]

What does “repentance” mean? Mark’s word is metanoeite, which means “change your mind,” “change your outlook,” “change your attitude.” When a change of mind or attitude leads to a change of behavior, in religious or moral terms we have conversion or repentance. People’s lives will be changed for the better—the kingdom of God will be made present—when they undergo a conversion of heart, a repentance for their sins with a resolve to change their behavior, to act in a more God-like manner.

St. Augustine in one of his commentaries has a fine passage that speaks of this. Using the example of filling an empty container, he writes: “God means to fill each of you with what is good; so cast out what is bad! If he wishes to fill you with honey and you are full of sour wine, where is the honey to go? The vessel must be emptied of its contents and then be cleansed. Yes, it must be cleansed even if you have to work hard and scour it. It must be made fit for the new thing, whatever it may be. We may go on speaking figuratively of honey, gold or wine—but whatever we say we cannot express the reality we are to receive. The name of that reality is God.”[1]

In other words, before we can be filled with God—with his love, with his grace, with his mercy—we must empty ourselves of whatever would keep God out: sin. Only then can the kingdom of God be in our hearts.

That’s why Jesus says what he says and does what he does in today’s gospel. A paralyzed man is brought to him. But the healing of our bodies isn’t what we really need in order to be filled with God. Physical healing doesn’t go to the heart of our problems, of our hurts. We all need deep within us spiritual healing, forgiveness, the cleansing of our souls. Without peace of heart, the best of health, good looks, power, all the money in the world will not satisfy us.

When Jesus drives out demons or heals sick people, like the leper in last Sunday’s gospel and the paralytic today, he’s showing outwardly what God’s mercy does for us inwardly. Ultimately, the most complete healing of our bodies will be our resurrection from the dead, a resurrection unto eternal life if we have turned away from our sins in repentance and accepted the forgiveness that Jesus offers us: thru Baptism, thru Reconciliation, thru a changed attitude and way of behaving toward God and our neighbor.

This Wednesday we’ll begin the Church’s great annual season of repentance, of conversion—Lent. It’s a season for us, once again, to commit ourselves to Jesus: to his teachings, to his way of living, to his Person, and therefore to reject, turn away from, repent of anything that’s inconsistent with his way of living, with his teachings, with a healthy relationship with him—whether those inconsistencies are selfish behavior, snotty attitudes toward our peers, disrespect for our parents, lying, cheating in our schoolwork, stealing from our employer, laziness, sexual immorality, failure to pray and to go to church on Sundays, reckless behavior on the highway or in our use of alcohol, etc.

Every one of us is invited by Jesus today to turn away from our sins—which begin inside, in our opinions and attitudes—and to be healed; invited to recommit ourselves as “Christians,” people who belong to him, who walk with him, who with him are headed toward the kingdom of God.

[1] Tractates on the first letter of John, tract. 4: LOH 3:221.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Homily for 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Homily for the
6th Sunday

in Ordinary Time
Feb. 12, 2012
Mark 1: 40-45
Ursulines, Willow Dr.

“Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, ‘I do will it. Be made clean’” (Mark 1:41).

In one verse you have a summary of the entire Gospel.

“I do will it,” Jesus says. His will is to heal, to save men and women. His will is to make us all clean and whole. God is neither the Great Policeman in the sky, nor the Eternal Scorekeeper, playing “Gotcha!” with humanity, waiting for us to fail so that he can condemn us. Sorry, John Calvin. Sorry, Cornelius Jansen. St. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “This is the will of God, your holiness” (1 Thess 4:3), our cleanness in all respects, our transformation into likenesses of him who made us, of him who saves us thru his cross and thru the workings of the Holy Sanctifier.

Jesus is “moved with pity.” The Greek word means that Jesus was deeply touched, was moved with heartfelt compassion. One commentator calls this pity “gut-wrenching.”[1] Jesus encounters humanity at its most wretched—not merely sick with a disease that is, at that time, incurable, but a disease that cuts its victims off from the community, excommunicates its victims, renders them physically, emotionally, and socially “untouchable.” Recall the terrible experiences of Judah Ben-Hur’s mother and sister in Lew Wallace’s famous novel and its William Wyler version of 1959.

This man has no business coming anywhere near Jesus. Evidently he’s desperate for healing, more than any of the other people whom Jesus has so far encountered in the 1st episodes of Mark’s Gospel. The leper’s probably looking for healing of more than his body. The heart of Jesus, who has come to save us from every manner of evil—as he’s already demonstrated in this 1st chapter—can’t help but be touched.

Then Jesus does the unthinkable. Not only is his spirit touched deep within—the leper has touched him psychologically—but “he stretched out his hand and touched him.” He touches the leper; we’re not told how or where, as for example we were told that he took Simon’s mother-in-law by the hand (1:31). But however he touches this diseased man—on the hand, the shoulder, the arm, the head—he’s risking his own health. He’s incurring uncleanness himself. Implicitly, he’s breaking the Mosaic Law, just as the leper’s doing by approaching so close. But Jesus is encountering this desperate man; he’s giving him the 1st touch of humanity he’s felt, probably, in a very long time. That already would offer him a kind of healing. He’s giving the healing he’s about to effect an intensely personal “touch.”

Altho both the leper and Jesus are breaking the law in this interaction—Jesus showing in action what he’ll later verbalize, that the Law is made to serve humanity, and not humanity to serve the Law (Mark 2:27)—Jesus shows his respect for the Law and the values it expresses by directing the man to “go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed” (1:44). The man wishes to return to the community of Israel, and so he must take upon himself and observe what makes Israel a community: their faithfulness to their covenant with God, their faithfulness to the Torah. For any community, law, and the values to which it gives voice, is an essential binding force and can’t be set aside without jeopardizing both those values and community cohesion.

Jesus’ stretching out his hand and touching this man who is diseased and unclean, and thus becoming unclean himself, is also a metaphor. Mark has a subtle way of showing how Jesus takes upon himself the burden of our sins and the degradation of our human condition. In accordance with the Law of Moses, as we heard in our 1st reading (Lev 13:44-46), the leper has been cast out of the community, out of civil society, and is obliged to “dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp.” Jesus heals this man, who’s restored to the community. But Jesus’ fame renders it “impossible for him to enter a town openly,” and he must “remain outside in deserted places” (Mark 1:45). Jesus has become a sort of leper in this man’s stead, just as he will later be the sacrificial Lamb offered in our place.

The scene displays what St. Paul lauds in the hymn that he quotes in Philippians: “Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God…emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; …he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death” (2:5-8). God’s Son stretches out his hand—his very Person, in fact—and touches the human race by becoming one of us. He risks the uncleanness of a race of sinners; he becomes a social outcast thru the opposition and hatred of the religious and public authorities; he risks death. The Son of God, in a manner of speaking, becomes a leper by extending himself to us and our condition thru his incarnation.

But in doing so he’s healed us. He elevates all those he touches, raising us to a new status, a new dignity, as children of God.

The same commentary that I alluded to earlier links Jesus’ touching the leper with the sacraments.[2] All of the sacraments—those “outward signs instituted by Christ to give grace”—use sensual components (words, physical elements, our 5 senses) to effect the healing that Christ wills for us (“I do will it. Be made clean.”). Four of the sacraments in fact use the laying on of hands as a explicit part of their rites: Baptism, Confirmation, Orders, and Anointing; two include an implicit laying on of hands thru the extension of the hand or hands: in Reconciliation over the penitent as she’s absolved, and in the Eucharist over the bread and wine as the Holy Spirit is invoked for their transubstantiation. The 7th sacrament involves its celebrants’ entire bodies. In the sacraments, then, the healing touch of Jesus is extended to the whole body of believers, making us part of, or restoring us to, community with the Holy Trinity.

The Letter to the Hebrews, in a well known passage, exhorts us “confidently” to “approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace for timely help” (4:16). Like lepers, we sinners come to Jesus—desperate, if we truly consider our condition without grace—to be made whole, to be made new, to be restored to communion with God. And Jesus with heartfelt compassion always receives us outcast offspring of Adam with words and deeds that effect his will to save us.

[1] Days of the Lord: The Liturgical Year, vol. 5—Ordinary Time, Year B (Collegeville: Liturgical Press), p. 56.[2] Ibid., p. 57.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Province Begins Extraordinary Visitation

Province Begins
Extraordinary Visitation

By rule, every 6 years each province in the Salesian Society is to be visited by the Rector Major or someone he delegates.

Ordinarily, the provincial formally visits each house and meets with each confrere annually.

In either case, the visitor meets with each SDB and with the local council, reviews the community's apostolic and religious life in their many aspects, etc. At the end the visitor prepares a report of commendations and recommendations.

The extraordinary visitor also meets with the province's leadership and, naturally, prepares a report for the province as a whole, which he'll bring back to the Rector Major and general council.

This year our visit is being conducted by our regional councilor, Fr. Esteban Ortiz (photo), whom we know well. He arrived Friday evening, and the formal visit began this afternoon when he met with the provincial council. It will go on until late May, with a 2-week interruption in late March-early April, when the general councilors return to Rome for some meetings.

On this visit Fr. Ortiz is being assisted by Fr. Nestor Impelido, a Filipino SDB who happens to be a professor of Church history, and a friend of mine from several meetings of Salesian historians. In fact, he chaired the session when I presented my paper in Turin on Fr. Michael Rua and the Eastern U.S. in Oct. 2009 (see post date 11/15/09).

The 2 U.S. provinces are taking advantage of Fr. Ortiz's presence also to hold their annual interprovincial councils meeting with him on Monday and Tuesday at the Marian Shrine in Haverstraw.

Poppin' Up the Popolopen

Poppin' Up the Popolopen

We've been having a pretty mild winter in N.Y. State, so far anyway. Last Sunday (Feb. 5) was a bright, sunny day with temps hitting the low 40s--fine hiking weather. So after Mass and breakfast, Bro. Tom Higgs and I packed lunches (and other useful gear) and headed to Bear Mountain State Park.

The only time I'd hiked up Popolopen Gorge from its mouth--or from the 9W bridge over it, anyway--was on Aug. 17, 2001. I thought it was time to do it again. We parked conveniently at the Ft. Montgomery State Historical Site around 11:15 a.m. and set off.

There was a surprise when we'd crossed the bridge and come to the trailhead: a sign announcing that the trail was closed. Of course we wondered why (trail washed out by summer storms?) and proceeded anyway, there being no other trail right in the gorge. (The 1777W and 1779 trails skirt part of its northern rim.) We soon came to the old dam that, according to the Harriman Trail Guide, was built to furnish water to a 17th-century grist mill that once stood in the gorge a little west of the present bridge. You can see some stone foundations down there that must have been the mill site.

Water was gushing over the dam from Roe Pond behind it, and rushing down the gorge toward Popolopen Creek's mouth into the Hudson.

After lunch overlooking Roe Pond (very serene), we continued. Above the pond it was rapids all the way up the creek--very few small pools of relatively calm water.

I got Bro. Tom to pose overlooking the 1st rapids above the pond.

Further up the gorge, Popolopen Torne comes into clear view (it's also clearly seen from the parking lot). It's a pretty impressive height--and, from experience I can say, a quite strenuous climb even when you start from the closest parking spot, along the road on the north side of the gorge.
Rapids after rapids explain why the whole section of the creek above Roe Pond and below the hikers' bridge is known as Hell Hole (so marked on the trail maps). One can only imagine what it's like during the spring thaw or after a really heavy rain.

About 3/4 of a mile along the trail, it climbs uphill to the left, partly out of the gorge up to an aqueduct-woods road (the aqueduct supplies Bear Mt.), just a little below the Palisades Pkwy. That's when Brother and I found out why the trail was "closed." The Park is doing a major construction project along the aqueduct, apparently putting in a new water line. The trail is now a construction road up there, there's pipe everywhere, and several pieces of heavy equipment. Fortunately, since it was Sunday, all was quiet, and we just walked along.

It was so quiet, in fact, that along our hike we didn't see a single other person, and hardly any wildlife either. But there were plenty of people around the Ft. Montgomery museum.

At 1.4 miles the Popolopen Gorge Trail is intersected from the right by the 1777W, 1779, and Timp-Torne Trails, all of which have just crossed over the creek down below. I suspect this is the only place in the whole complex of Harriman and Bear Mt. SPs that 4 or even 3 trails run along together--which the 4 of them do for something like a mile, all the way up to the edge of Queensboro Lake.

But it was our intention to cross the creek if we could and return to Ft. Montgomery along the 1777W-1779. I thought I'd read in the Trail Conference newsletter that the bridge had been washed out by Hurricane Irene in July, so we weren't sure whether we'd be able to cross.

I knew well that the simple old wooden bridge had been washed away years ago. Its mortal remains are still lodged in the rocks on both sides of the creek (see photo).

The Trail Conference and the Park had worked together in 2003-2004 to build a new, stronger bridge--steel, in fact--and anchor it solidly to rocks well above normal water levels.

They didn't get it above Irene levels, however. The mass of the bridge is lodged solidly to rocks, all right, all on the south side of the creek (see photo), with small bits of it scattered downstream for a hundred yards. From a safe distance I'd like to have seen what the creek looked like in Irene's immediate aftermath!

Looks so quiet, doesn't it?

We looked up the creek a few hundred yards, and down the creek a few hundred yards more for a place where we might cross over safely and drily.

After my experience in the Catskills in April 2009 (see my earliest post, 4/19/09), I had no wish to test my footing on creek rocks, and I didn't especially want to strip down the way I did in September to cross a much smaller brook (see my "hiking vacation" post below)--this time on slippery rocks over a wider span. I think Bro. Tom was a little readier than I was, even to get wet. But the water wasn't much warmer than freezing, judging from the ice clinging to some wood a little out of the water. If we'd HAD to cross, we would have. But we didn't have to.

So, guided by discretion, we returned the way we'd come. The afternoon sun gloriously lit up the Bear Mt. Bridge, Anthony's Nose, and the lordly Hudson. Here's a photo taken from the 9W bridge.

Back to the car at 3:00 p.m., having hiked more than 3 miles, mostly easy trail but some clambering over rocks while we searched for that elusive crossing.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Homily for 5th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Homily for the
5th Sunday of
Ordinary Time
Feb. 5, 2012
Mark 1: 29-39
Ursulines, Willow Dr., New Rochelle

“He approached, grasped her hand, and helped her up. Then the fever left her” (Mark 1:31).

We can joke about Jesus having to heal Simon’s mother-in-law so that the men would have someone to “wait on them.” (You’ve heard the joke that asks how many men it takes to change a roll of toilet paper? No one knows, because it’s never been done.) Joking aside, that angle would miss one point Mark is certainly making in his telling of this episode, and another point he could have intended.

The certain point is that the cure of this woman—anonymous, unfortunately, like most of those whose lives Jesus touched, but more precisely described than the generic “all who were ill or possessed by demons” who were brought to him that evening, after the Sabbath rest was over—her cure is immediate (to use a favorite Marcan word) and complete. Mark is making a point about the awesome power at work in Jesus, his exercise of God’s power to make people whole, to defeat evil in any of its manifestations, whether that be the evil powers of the devil (the immediately preceding exorcism in the synagog as well as those done in the evening), the evil powers of disease, (later on) the evil powers of out-of-control nature, and finally the evil power of death.

The 2d point—which we may deduce from the story, whether Mark intended it or not—is the woman’s gratitude. She responds to what Jesus has done for her by doing what she can for him. She gives him her attention, her devotion, her service.

In the Collect today, we prayed that the Lord would “keep [his] family safe with unfailing care.” In effect, that’s what we see him doing here. If Simon has become his disciple, then Simon’s family has become part of Jesus’ family, and the Collect presents all of us disciples of Jesus as his family—for Baptism has put us all into a direct relationship with him as his sisters, his brothers, children of his Father. In this gospel story Jesus acts to care for his family—the immediate family of Simon, and the extended family of all the inhabitants of his adopted hometown, Capernaum: “When it was evening…they brought to him all who were ill or possessed by demons. The whole town was gathered at the door. He cured many who were sick…, and he drove out many demons” (1:32-34). (Note that use of many: it doesn’t mean anyone was turned away; it means lots of people, and not just a few.[1])

He acts to restore their health—a word that would be rendered as salus in Latin, which in turn could mean in English also “safety” or “salvation,” depending on the context. I expected that the Latin of the Collect for “keep your family safe” would use a cognate of salus, tying together the gospel text and the prayer, tying together the physical cures and our eternal salvation; but, alas, it prays, instead, “Familiam tuam continua pietate custodi,” literally, “Stand guard over [or ‘Keep watch over’] your family with your continuing care” (“unfailing care” in the official version).

In any case, that familial concern which Jesus showed for Peter’s mother-in-law and his Capernaum neighbors is what we appeal for ourselves, reminding our Father that we’re family too. One commentary on the Collect states: “The Christian family is God’s family,” and it notes that “the word translated as ‘care’ (pietate) refers to the devotion between a parent and child.”[2]

Furthermore, like the humble townsfolk of Capernaum—who probably couldn’t afford such meager medical care as may have been available there—we depend utterly upon “the hope of heavenly grace” (Collect) for relief of our ailments. Unlike them, we ought to have a greater sense of what really ails us—our sins and the various maladies of our souls, our spirits, our psyches; we depend on the Father to offer us in Christ salus, which is more than bodily health; it’s spiritual salvation and the ultimate physical health: resurrection on the Last Day.

It is, finally, against that Last Day that we beg the Lord to “keep your family safe,” to stand guard over us, to protect us—the same prayer that we make several times a day: “Deliver us from evil”—from the Evil One, whom the Lord powerfully drives away thru his exorcisms, and from the ultimate evil of everlasting death. We expand upon that plea at every Eucharist: “Deliver us from every evil, that by the help of your mercy, we may be always free from sin…as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ” (Embolism after the Our Father). The Lord’s “unfailing care,” his defense of us “always by [his] protection” is what we pray for in the Collect, a spiritual and eschatological extension of what Jesus has done in this beginning of his public ministry.

Mark shows us over and over Jesus’ power to deliver us from evil in all its facets. In today’s passage he also shows us what made Jesus powerful against evil: “Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed” (1:35). An interesting verbal link here: in the Greek text, “Rising very early” is πρωϊ λίαν αναστάς, words that Mark will use again in ch. 16, v. 2, to tell us when the faithful women went to the tomb (λίαν πρωϊ), and in v. 9 that Jesus αναστάς. The Greek word for the Resurrection is ανάστασις (whence the girl’s name Anastasia). Jesus rises—to commune with his Father, in ch. 1 thru prayer, and in ch. 16 thru his return to the Father’s side. Rising very early in the morning isn’t essential to our prayer life, of course, but that language from Mark and that practice of Jesus does more than suggest the priority of prayer, of communion with the Father on his part, and on the part of all who belong to his family. God’s “heavenly grace” and “unfailing care” sought in constant prayer, in communion of heart and mind with the Father and the Son and the Spirit, is the way to our own ανάστασις.

Returning to Simon’s mother-in-law: she “waited on them” after he “grasped her hand and helped her up.” “Helped her up” could be translated also as “lifted her up” or “raised her up”—another resurrection allusion, tho here Mark uses a different verb, the same one he puts in the angel’s mouth at the tomb in 16:6. In this unnamed woman—who is thus a kind of Everywoman for those who hope to be “helped up”—we find the response that’s “right and just” for us, as well, to God’s saving actions on our behalf, the right response to “the hope of heavenly grace” on which we rely so hopefully, so confidently. That response of course is service: the service of adoration and praise, which is the heart of all our liturgical actions and much of our personal prayer; the service of carrying out our daily ministry and our daily life in community as acts of love for him and for the members of his family; the service of humble submission to his will, exemplified in Jesus’ mother: “I am the maidservant of the Lord; be it done to me as you say” (Luke 1:28) and “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5); the service, finally, of longing to be with him, not as servant but as friend (cf. John 15:13-15)—and for the religious sister, more than a friend, also a spouse.

[1] Cf. the new wording at the consecration at Mass.
[2] Daniel J. Merz and Marcel Rooney, OSB, Essential Presidential Prayers and Texts: Roman Missal Study Edition and Workbook (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2011), p. 168.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Salesians Are Special

"Salesians Are Special"

A gentleman I did not know but who has some familiarity with the SDBs wrote to a relative of mine following the deaths of Fr. Vince Zuliani (see Dec. 30) and Fr. Frank Wolfram (see Jan. 26):

Fr. Vince, who said the noon Mass, died a month ago. The loss of Fr. Frank (I think he was in charge of the retreat center) a few weeks later must be especially difficult for the Salesian community.

While waiting in the office of an eye doctor, I met someone from my parish who said, "I love the Salesians. There's a difference between the Salesians and the diocesan priests." A fine compliment and one with which I would agree. Salesians are special.