Sunday, July 29, 2012

Homily for 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Homily for the
17th Sunday
in Ordinary Time
July 29, 2012
John 6: 1-15
St. Vincent’s Hospital, Harrison, N.Y.

“Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were reclining, and also as much of the fish as they wanted” (John 6: 11).
From the Book of Hours of the Duc du Berry, ca. 1413

Altho we’re reading from the Gospel of St. Mark during this liturgical year—from what’s labeled as the “B” cycle of readings—you may have noticed that our gospel this morning is from St. John.  It’s kind of like, “We interrupt this program to bring you an important news bulletin.”

Not that Mark’s Gospel isn’t important!  But 2 factors are at work here.  1st, Mark’s Gospel is rather short, so that we don’t need the whole of Ordinary Time (roughly 32 Sundays) to hear most of it.  2d, John’s Gospel isn’t assigned to one of our 3 cycles of Sunday readings; he’s read during the Lent and Easter seasons—and for 5 weeks during Mark’s year, i.e., starting today, specifically from John 6, which is all about Jesus, the Bread of Life.

Last week, you may remember, Mark told us how Jesus took the apostles away for some R&R—or he wanted to.  But a huge crowd beat them to their destination, hungry for Jesus’ attention—his teaching and his healing.  And, Mark says, “he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (6:34):  lost, directionless, imperiled.  “And he began to teach them many things” (6:34), that gospel reading concluded.

From there Mark goes on to recount how Jesus fed the huge crowd, which he, like St. John today, numbers at 5,000 men without counting women and children—by multiplying 5 loaves and 2 fish.  But we’ve switched to John’s account of that, which reports some details not found in Mark’s version (or Matthew’s or Luke’s, for that matter).  This is the only one of Jesus’ miracles reported by all 4 gospels.  It’s that important!

One detail that John mentions is that this multiplication took place “near the Jewish feast of Passover” (6:4).  Thus he links the bread that Jesus supplies with Passover, which uses unleavened bread in remembrance of the Hebrews’ hasty departure from Egypt many centuries earlier.  Theologically we view yeast in some sense as corruptive; St. Paul, for instance, writes, “Clear out the old yeast, so that you may become a fresh batch of dough…. Let us celebrate the feast, not with the old yeast of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Cor 5:7-8).  Jesus is a new, unleavened bread, without any corruption, and our celebrating the feast of the Eucharist with him leavens us with his truth, presents us with salvation, inaugurates the resurrection of the dead, which will be the final triumph over earthly corruption.

The loaves that Jesus multiplies are symbols of the Eucharist—not only because they’re bread and the Eucharist is bread transformed into the Body of Christ; but also because the Gospels use Eucharistic language when they tell us that Jesus took the bread, gave thanks (or “blessed” it), broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples to distribute (Mark 6:41, Matt 14:19, Luke 9:16, and John 6:11), altho John omits “breaking.”  Those are the very same 4 verbs—took, blessed, broke, and gave—that we use at the consecration of every Mass as we remember what Jesus did at the Last Supper:  “On the night he was betrayed, he himself took bread, and giving you thanks, he said the blessing, broke the bread and gave it to his disciples, saying….” (EP III).  The Greek word for “give thanks,” moreover, is eucharisteo, “Eucharist.”  At the Eucharist we imitate what Jesus did on this occasion of multiplying loaves and fish.  We don’t imitate what he did at the Last Supper, however, because when we do in his memory what he did, HE is actually the one doing, and we become sharers, partakers, of what he did at the Last Supper as well as what he did on Calvary and what he did when he abandoned the tomb and returned to his heavenly Father.

Truly, in the Eucharist we celebrate Christ’s Passover, his death and resurrection.  We celebrate our delivery from bondage—not in “the hard labor of bricks and mortar and all kinds of field work,” as the book of Exodus says of the Hebrews in Egypt (1:14)—but from bondage to our sins and the punishment that our sins merit.  Jesus’ Passover is offered also to us; in the Eucharist we join him on his journey from death to life and to the freedom of God’s children.

Another detail in John’s version that’s a little different from the reporting of Mark, as well as Matthew and Luke, of this event is that John has Jesus himself distributing the multiplied loaves to the crowd.  The 3 tell us that Jesus gave the loaves to the disciples to distribute, but John reserves that to Jesus himself:  “Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them” (6:11).  That may be unlikely, historically, for 5,000 men, plus women and children.  But John makes a theological point that our nourishment, our salvation, and of course the Eucharist, comes ultimately from Jesus.  It is he, and not the priest, not the bishop, not the Church itself, that saves us; clergy and sacraments and the Church are only the means Jesus uses.

I’ll mention one other unique part of John’s story.  “When the people saw the sign he had done, they said, ‘This is truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world,’” and they were about to acclaim him as king (6:14-15) and, presumably, start some sort of uprising against either Herod or even Rome.  The “prophet” is a messianic reference; Jesus is indeed the Messiah, the Christ, as all the signs he performs, to use John’s language, indicate.  But he’s not the kind of Messiah the people are expecting.  He’s not going to save them from political oppression.  As he’ll tell Pontius Pilate during his trial, his “kingdom is not of this world” (18:36).  His kingdom is spiritual:  a kingdom of truth, a kingdom of interior liberation, a kingdom in which people belong to God and freely act in God, and not as the Roman emperor may command them to act, nor any other earthly power.  Those who belong to his kingdom are set free also from Satan’s rule:  from their sins and from everlasting death.  Jesus will speak more about that as we continue to read from John 6 in the next 4 weeks.
Mosaic from floor of St. Peter's house in Capernaum. Photo by Bro. Tom Dion.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

By the Shores of Gitche Gumee

By the Shores of Gitche Gumee

Actually, it was the shore of Skenonto--Lake Skenonto in Harriman State Park.

Yesterday (Saturday) I was assigned the Sunday vigil Mass for the Christian Brothers (and attending layfolk), after which I was free for the weekend.  There was a fine forecast (no rain, clear sky, nite temp ca. 65 in Manhattan, which would be 5-10 degrees lower in Harriman; and Sunday temp going up to mid-80s).

So, after checking with Fr. Provincial (the director not being home, and not wanting to abuse my own office of v.d.), I headed off to the woods immediately after Mass.  An hour's drive brought me to the Victory Trail head along Rte 106; I was a little chagrined to see 7 cars lined up at the parking spot (and had passed another 7-8 a half-mile back at another trail crossing).

My destination might be a little crowded.

So it was a bit of a relief a short distance up the trail to see 4 guys camped up on a rise, having a good time.  I also figured some of the people parked there might have gone up to the Tom Jones Shelter via the Ramapo-Dunderberg Trail, which crosses the Victory about a quarter mile in.  I was more relieved when I met a couple of guys coming from the lake who said there weren't many people there.

A vigorous pace got me to the northern head of Lake Skennonto in less than an hour.  I went down the eastern shore--a paved road--for the 1st time (after 3-4 other trips to or by the lake, always on the western side), to get an idea of how to access camping sites I knew were there.  But they seemed occupied, so I returned to the unpaved woods road down the western shore.

There were several unoccupied camping sites, but I headed for the one I'd used a couple of times with Fr. Jim Mulloy, way down near the southern end, past where the Victory Trail bends away westward and you're on Triangle Trail.  But 3 sites, including the one I wanted, were taken.  So I doubled back to one I'd noted in passing, close by the 1st occupied site (by 2 Army-looking chaps--not surprising, so close to West Point).

By then the sun was near the horizon, but I had plenty of daylight to pitch my backpacking tent and go down to the water (steep descent) for a pot of water and a short, refreshing dip.  It was dusk by the time I put the pot of water on the stove for my freeze-dried chicken stew (not particularly luscious, but nutritious I suppose), followed by 2 little tangerines and washed down with Chrystal Lite.  It was too late to make a fire, in my reckoning, which in a sense was too bad because there was loads of firewood around; my 2 neighbors had a little one going.  I hung the more obvious foodstuffs (like an apple) from a tree limb, prayed Nite Prayer, and retired around 10 o'clock.  Such a fine nite, no need for a rainfly; I looked up at the stars, which weren't many, I'm afraid; maybe the sky wasn't so clear after all.

In fact, it seemed to cloud over during the nite, with only 1 star visible now and then.  But it was dry, and I was snug enuf, even if (as usual) I didn't sleep well.  So nice and quiet, with only occasional bird calls (and early in the evening while I was still setting up, I thought I heard a coyote).  Couldn't even hear any traffic, which is unusual wherever you may be in Harriman.

 I got up at 6:15, with the sun just coming over the mountain on the opposite shore

and a lovely mist drifting over much of the lake.  At the far end you may be able to see the dam that's responsible for the lake's creation.

The lake is just pretty--with the mist or in the full sunshine.

It was actually chilly enuf for me to put on a sweater!  But that didn't last long; as soon as the sun was over the mountain it burned off both the chill and the mist.

I had coffee, oatmeal, an apple, and almonds for breakfast, after another trip to the lake for water.

After Readings and Morning Prayer, I just loafed:  reading magazines from my "I'm way behind" stockpile, taking another short dip, and catnapping.  The ideal camping trip?  A couple of hours after breakfast, another cup of coffee and more almonds.
A late morning view of my camp and the lake beyond/below
Dozens of day hikers passed by.  The 2 guys next door packed up and left.  So did a couple of guys on the far shore.  Two pairs of day hikers were so brazen as to come into my site--the 1st pair just to look around and take pictures (only of the lake, I think), the 2d pair coming up from the lake, which they'd approached right along the rocky shore, and he'd gone swimming.  But I was really surprised at the breach of camping etiquette, especially by the 1st pair.  You just don't invite yourself into someone else's space.

I thought it would be good to shoot a video showing a bit of the lake and campsite:
You probably can tell that I haven't done this intentionally very often.  I didn't even think to comment.  So all you hear is some birds chirping (neat) and some crunchy-type noises, which may be my footsteps (otherwise, I have no idea).  And when I was done, I thought all I had to do was take my hand off the shutter button, but obviously that wasn't the case, and it keeps running till I eventually shut off the camera.

Around 11 o'clock I got the hungries, so prepared the 2d half of my freeze-dried meal for lunch, with just water to drink and a granola bar for dessert.  I read some more and did some of my packing.  After another little nap, I packed up sleeping bag, pads, tent, and the last of the gear.  I did a visual sweep of the area (I'd been picking up others' litter all along, but the site really wasn't too bad in that regard), and at 1:15 got on the homeward trail.

The trail in was pretty well blazed, and I had only one minor mistep that got me turned around and heading back whence I'd just come--which I quickly realized.  But coming out I went astray twice because of the lack of blazes, or of clear ones.  Still, it took only an hour, without hurrying, to get back to the car.  There was another long row of cars at the area.

Homily for 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Homily for the
16th Sunday
in Ordinary Time
July 22, 2012
Jer 23: 1-6
Mark 6: 30-34
Christian Brothers, Iona College, N.R.

“I myself will gather the remnant of my flock from all the lands to which I have driven them” (Jer 23: 3).

Jeremiah is the classic “bad news” prophet, the prophet of doom and gloom.  The shepherds of Israel—the kings of Judah and the priests of Jerusalem—have been leading the people astray.  They’ve tolerated, if not encouraged, idolatry.  They’ve made political choices at odds with God’s will.  They’ve thrived on social injustice, ignoring the needs of the poor.  For instance, 100 years before Jeremiah the prophet Micah had denounced those who “covet fields and seize them; houses, and they take them.  They cheat the owner of his house, a man of his inheritance” (2:2).  Jeremiah faulted nobles, priests, and people for adultery, slander, deceptive practices, and other crimes.

Consequently God has given Judah over to her enemies, the king of Babylon and his army, who have deposed one king and taken him, many of the nobles, army officers, and craftsmen into exile, and they’ve put a new king—intended to be their puppet—on the throne.  But the new king and the remaining leaders are no wiser than the old ones.

“You have scattered my sheep and driven them away,” Jeremiah decries, speaking in God’s name.  “You have not cared for them, but I will take care to punish your evil deeds” (23:2).  Worse things are going to come upon Jerusalem, the priests, and the royal family at the hands of the Babylonians.

But Jeremiah also has good news, a promise of better days.  God will bring back together the scattered flock, and he will find them a good shepherd, “a righteous shoot” from David’s house, who “shall reign and govern wisely, shall do what is just and right in the land” (23:5).  “In his days,” Jeremiah continues, “Judah shall be saved, Israel shall dwell in security.  This is the name they give him:  ‘The Lord our justice’” (23:6).

Whatever Jeremiah may have thought God had in mind about a new and righteous king from the descendants of King David, and a restoration of the kingdom to peace, prosperity, and justice on all levels, we don’t find that fulfilled in the history of Israel between Jeremiah’s days, 600 years B.C., and the destruction of Jerusalem and the province of Judea by the Romans in A.D. 70; nor does it look like today’s state of Israel is fulfilling what Jeremiah promised.

St. Mark, however, finds its fulfillment in that Son of David whose “heart was moved with pity for the vast crowd, for they were like sheep without a shepherd” (6:34).  The apostles have just been out on a preaching and healing mission, as we heard last week (6:7-13); they’ve come back, excited and, presumably, exhausted—this is where this evening’s gospel picks up.  Furthermore, Jesus and the 12 have heard the terrible news that Herod the tetrarch has executed John the Baptist—the passage in ch. 6 preceding our reading (6:17-29)—which we may be sure unnerves them, shocks them.  It’s also Mark’s subtle contrast between the shepherding style of Herod and that of Jesus; Herod proves to be no better than the kings and leaders whom Jeremiah denounced, a “shepherd who misleads and scatters the flock of my pasture” (23:1), who causes the flock to “fear and tremble” (23:4), who disposes of those sent by God, like John the Baptist.

So it’s a good time for Jesus and the 12 to disappear for a while, to “go away to a deserted place and rest” (Mark 6:31), to evaluate what they’ve been doing, what Herod’s done, what the scribes and Pharisees are saying; to ponder what God’s asking of them at this point; to do some pastoral planning.

But life intervenes; reality shows up.  The vast crowd of abandoned sheep shows up at their “deserted place.”  And Jesus, a true shepherd, responds to their hunger by “teaching them many things” (6:34).  Unlike the evil shepherds of Jeremiah’s age, he cares for the flock, gathers them together instead of scattering them, leads them securely with his teaching, his gentle manner, and (tho Mark doesn’t say it here) his binding up their wounds.  As we’ll hear next week, he even feeds them when they’re hungry for physical food as well as for sound teaching (John 6:1-15; cf. Mark 6:34-44).
From an altarpiece in a church in Copenhagen

All of which is a sign, a prelude, to Jesus’ saving of Judah, his establishing Israel in security, his role as the Lord’s justice.  The ultimate salvation, the ultimate security, that he offers to the flock is a right relationship with God (righteousness, or justice in the biblical meaning of the term).  He heals more than bodies.  His teaching brings God close to the flock and makes the flock want to stay with God.  “He is our peace,” St. Paul will proclaim (Eph 2:14), who has “reconciled us with God” (2:16) and given us access to the Father (2:18).

Each celebration of the Eucharist (or any of the other sacraments) is an invitation from Jesus, our good shepherd, to “come away and rest a while,” to be with him and receive access thru him to the Father; to be restored to a good relationship with the Father thru the forgiveness of our sins and a close union with the Son who cares so much for us poor, directionless, and scattered sheep.  So at the beginning of Mass we acknowledge our sins and our humble need to be restored; and we open ourselves to God’s work—liturgy is literally a “public work” in classical Greek, but here it’s God’s work, the mysteries by which he acts to save us, give us peace, lead us to an eternal dwelling in security.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Homily for 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Homily for the
15th Sunday
in Ordinary Time
July 15, 2012
Mark 6: 7-13
St. Timothy, Banksville (Greenwich), Conn.

“Jesus summoned the Twelve and began to send them out two by two” (Mark 6: 7).

Jesus has just been rejected in his hometown of Nazareth—our gospel reading last week.  His reaction is to expand his preaching and healing ministry by sending out his closest disciples, the 12, with his own “authority over unclean spirits,” both physical and spiritual.  They are to go out into the villages of Galilee and preach his message of repentance—Jesus’ 1st words in Mark’s Gospel are a call to repent and believe in the Gospel, for the kingdom of God is at hand and God’s promises are being fulfilled (1:14-15).  Those promises, that kingdom, reveal themselves in Jesus’ word and actions, and now they will be revealed also in what the 12 do and say in his name.  “The Twelve drove out many demons, and they anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them” (6:13).  Repentance restores the good order of creation, in our hearts and souls in the 1st place, but ultimately also in a broader manner, in the balance of created things.  If we don’t see miraculous healings of the body or of the mind every day, we do believe that on the Last Day we shall see all things, all persons, made new, made whole, and God’s rule completely secured on earth as it is in heaven.  Jesus’ ministry foreshadows that.
Bl. Catherine Tekakwitha
(Natl. Shrine of Immaculate Conception)

Jesus is sending out the 1st Christian missionaries, men (in this instance) who go forth in his name to preach his message and act as he would act.  Ever since Jesus sent those 1st missionaries out, the Church has been missionary, has gone out from the places and the communities where it is firmly established in order to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Good News of the kingdom of God, where it has not yet been heard or not yet accepted.  Yesterday we celebrated the memorial of Blessed Catherine Tekakwitha, who in October will be canonized a saint.  Called the Lily of the Mohawks on account of her exceptional virtue, she’s the finest flower of French missionary activity in Canada and upstate New York in the 17th century.  (For a good visual presentation of what that missionary activity was like, rent the movie Blackrobe, which is fiction solidly based on fact.)  Missionaries came with the earliest explorers and settlers in the Americas, they went west with the fur trappers and homesteaders in the 19th century, and they accompanied the hundreds of thousands of Irish, German, Italian, and Slavic immigrants who arrived on our shores in the 19th and 20th centuries.  In the 20th century, the Irish and American Churches were famous for sending out thousands of priests, sisters, and brothers as missionaries to China, the Philippines, Africa, and Latin America—all of them continuing what Jesus started with the 12.

I bring that out because Msgr. Cullen asked me to preach this week on the missions, and specifically on the Salesian missions.  (Actually, I got the message 3d-hand—on Thursday.  And I found out only when I got here this a.m. that you’re having a special collection for the Mission Cooperative Appeal.)

You may know that the Salesians, the 2d-largest religious order of men in the Church and the largest one of women, are primarily associated with youth ministry.  But St. John Bosco was keen also that we be missionaries, and since 1875 we’ve been a dynamic, far-reaching missionary force—which is why we’re ministering in 130 countries today, bringing to missions of people spiritual, physical, and social healing.

A few examples from the various continents:

A Salesian school in Haiti
In Haiti, after the government the Salesians are the largest provider of educational services in the country.  After the 2010 earthquake, in which 3 SDBs and several dozen of our pupils died, we also provided a great deal of emergency relief.  Now we’re rebuilding our schools and youth centers and one of only 3 nursing schools in the country.  The president of the Haitian Bishops Conference, Abp. Louis Kebreau of Cap-Haitien, is a Salesian; last Dec. 8 he was awarded the Notre Dame Prize for Distinguished Public Service in Latin America.

American SDB Fr. Larry Gilmore in Monrovia, Liberia, 2003
The Salesian missionary work in Liberia and Sierra Leone was started by American SDBs.  You may remember the bloody civil wars that wracked both those countries in the 1990s—recalled by the movie Blood Diamond a few years back, and by Charles Taylor’s conviction at the Hague in April on charges of war crimes.  The SDBs stayed in-country thruout those wars, stayed with the people, and witnessed some terrible events.  They remain there today, working with former child soldiers and street children, among other pastoral activities.

Ethiopia has been a largely Christian country since the earliest centuries of the faith; the Acts of the Apostles tells the story of the conversion of an Ethiopian court official.  It’s an extremely poor country with low literacy rates.  SDBs from Italy, India, and other countries offer education at 11 sites in all parts of the country; the FMAs have another 4 schools.  For the last several years we’ve also had young lay missionary volunteers from the U.S., Italy, and Austria teaching in some of the schools, especially skills like English and computers that will help the young find good jobs.  And of course after-school activities also keep kids busy, happy, and out of trouble.

The SDBs went to China in 1906.  Two SDBs are among the 120 Chinese martyrs whom JPII canonized in 2000, whose feastday was last week (Aug. 9).  In Shanghai in the 1940s, young Joseph Zen met the SDBs and decided to become one.  He was ordained a priest in 1961 in Turin and became a seminary professor in Hong Kong, Macao, and even on the mainland.  He served as provincial, and in 1996 was made bishop of Hong Kong;* he was made a cardinal in 2006.  Wikipedia says he “is famous for his outspokenness on issues regarding human rights, political freedom, and religious liberty, often attracting criticism from the Communist Party of China.”  Altho now retired as bishop of Hong Kong on account of age, he remains a very active champion of human rights and of freedom.  He delights in describing himself, relative to the Communist authorities, as “a troublemaker.”  Besides Cardinal Zen, the SDBs boast of some of the finest schools in Hong Kong and Macao, 11 of them in all, besides several on Taiwan; the FMAs have 9 schools in those places.
Cardinal Zen speaking with young Salesians (men and women) and candidates.
Ramsey, N.J., 2009.
Those of you of a certain age remember the crucial WWII battles fought on New Guinea and Guadalcanal, and younger folk may have seen them portrayed last year on HBO (The Pacific).  Now some of the scenes of the bloodiest fighting imaginable are the sites of SDB and FMA schools and youth hostels, where young Papuans and Solomon Islanders learn trades and professional skills, besides the 4 Rs: reading, ’riting, ’rithmetic, and religion.  The Salesian missionaries are mainly from the Philippines but also from other countries.

Students at the SDB school in Lahore
Philippine SDBs also run very highly respected technical schools in Lahore and Quetta, Pakistan.  Yes, Pakistan!  If the names of those 2 cities sound familiar, it’s probably because they’re often in the news in connection with terrorist activity.  So far, our schools and personnel have been not only respected but even revered—all the more because of the extensive relief programs they organized after 2 natural disasters, an earthquake in 2006 and widespread flooding last year.  Both education and disaster relief, of course, are offered to Christians and Muslims alike.

Auto mechanics students at the
Don Bosco trade school in Ulan Bator

Mongolia is a little larger than Alaska in area sandwiched between China’s northern border and Siberia.  Its population is a little over 3 million, less than that of Connecticut.  When the Communist regime there fell, there were no Catholics in the whole country.  The SDBs were invited to come in to set up parishes and youth ministry programs in the capital, Ulan Bator, in 2001, and in Darhan, the 2d largest city, in 2004.  Thus Vietnamese and Polish SDB missionaries staff half the parishes in the country:  2 out of 4.  They’ve provided some wonderful educational activity for youngsters and programs for street children and abused women.  Their parish activity has brought about hundreds of baptisms; today there are about 1,000 Catholics in Mongolia.  (You may have seen a little piece about all this in the March issue of the Fairfield County Catholic.)

I mentioned young missionary volunteers in connection with Ethiopia.  There are such programs sending post-college youths—and sometimes much older folk, even whole families—to the foreign missions from Italy, Spain, Germany, Austria, Poland, and the U.S.  Both the SDBs and the FMAs sponsor such programs.  Several SDB provinces in Latin America have programs that send young people to mission areas, including urban slums, in their own countries.  Here in the U.S. between 2009 and 2011 we’ve missioned 58 men and women (about 2/3 women), almost all of them in their 20s but some in their 50s, to Bolivia, Brazil, Cambodia, Ethiopia, India, Mexico, Rwanda, and South Africa to serve in orphanages, trade schools, academic schools, youth centers, and other services.  The American FMAs do something similar.  The volunteers commit for a year, and a good number of them re-up for a 2d year; there’s one in Cochabamba, Bolivia, now finishing her 3d year.  The 2012 batch, expected to number about 20, will start their orientation in a couple of weeks and be commissioned at the end of a retreat on Aug. 18.  If you’re interested in such service or know someone who is, someone who’d like to continue the mission of the 12, the mission of the Lord Jesus, especially among young people, let me know.

I hope all of you will support our Salesian missionaries—priests, sisters, brothers, and lay people—with your prayers.  In the 2d collection you’ll have a chance to give tangible support to the missions—in this case to the diocese of Jaffna in Sri Lanka.  God bless you.

               * Technically, he became coadjutor bishop of Hong Kong in 1996, and bishop (ordinary) in 2002 on the retirement of his predecessor, Bp. John Wu.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Homily for 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Homily for the
14th Sunday
of Ordinary Time
Mark 6: 1-6
Christian Brothers, Iona College, N.R.
July 8, 2012

(Note: As many lay people as brothers participate in the Saturday evening vigil Mass.)

“Jesus came to his native place” (Mark 6: 1).

The last place where many Salesians want to preach is in their own communities.  How much easier to talk to the kids, go out to a parish, even go to another religious community.  At home they’ve heard it all before.  Worse, they know us well.  Worst, we have to live with these guys, so we have to be wary of what we say and how we say it.

So we can identify a little bit with Jesus.  He’s been preaching and healing around the Sea of Galilee from a base in Capernaum, where he’s made his home (Mark 2:1).  Maybe he was practicing his carpenter’s trade.  It seems that it was in Capernaum that he raised the daughter of Jairus and healed the woman with hemorrhagic bleeding, our double gospel story last week (in the long form, Mark 5:21-43).  Now Mark takes us with Jesus on a trip back to Nazareth, about 20 miles inland from Capernaum and up into the hills.

Jesus grew up there, and according to Luke his mother lived there before his birth.  She and cousins (his “brothers and sisters”) still lived there.  Maybe he made trips like this periodically.  But now he’s become famous.

Jesus reading in the synagog.
Artist unknown; perhaps Tissot?
So someone invites the famous hometown boy to give the Sabbath sermon.  Mark offers no clues about the Scripture passage he used or about what he said.  Matthew’s account (13:54-48) is similar with a few details altered.  Luke’s version (4:16-30) is dramatically different; it may even be a conflation of 2 different episodes.  It ends not merely with the people’s rejection of Jesus, as in Mark, but with their intent to do him violence.

Why the negative reaction?  If he preached repentance, his theme from the beginning of his public ministry (Mark 1:14-15), they may have been offended.  That could be why they’d exclaim, “Where did this man get all this?  What kind of wisdom’s been given to him?” (6:2).  Some could have been resentful or jealous that he’d gotten away from their little town and become successful elsewhere.  A lot of small-town folk, in literature at least, take it hard when someone tries to open them up to a broader world; recall what many of the people in River City think of and gossip about Marian the librarian in The Music Man.  What?  We’re not good enuf for you?  The way we live and talk and make a living and entertain ourselves doesn’t suit you?

They note that Jesus is a carpenter, and perhaps this serves as a contrast with the “mighty deeds wrought by his hands” (6:3).  Carpenters—the term could mean anything from a craftsman who made tables and chairs and handles for axes and mattocks, who shaped door lintels and yokes for farm animals, who repaired carts, to a large-scale builder—framers and contractors in modern lingo; these all work with their hands, of course.  But Jesus’ hands are doing something else now; however “mighty” that is, it isn’t what Nazarenes are used to, and it’s not like he was trained in medicine.  Maybe they see here not something to marvel at, to praise God for, but something unbecoming, like Jesus has risen above his station in life.  The question sounds a little like, “Who does he think he is?”  “And they took offense at him” (6:3), apparently from his identity as well as his preaching.

It’s highly unusual that they refer to him as “the son of Mary” (6:3).  In Jewish custom a man was ordinarily referred to by his father, as we see in so many personal names in the OT and in the NT genealogies.  This is the only time that Jesus is called Mary’s son.  Otherwise, he’s “the carpenter’s son” (Matt 13:55) or “Joseph’s son” (John 1:45).  Possibly Joseph had died so long ago that people had become accustomed to associating him with Mary.  Perhaps Mark wants to stress that God is Jesus’ true Father—a point he makes in the very 1st verse of his Gospel:  “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” and which he makes again at the Gospel’s climax, when the centurion on Calvary exclaims, “Truly, this man was the Son of God!” (15:39).

Jesus doesn’t seem to be surprised by the reception he meets:  “A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house” (6:4).  This isn’t Mark’s only hint that Jesus’ kin are skeptical about his mission and his person.  When he’s preaching to such large crowds on so many occasions that “it was impossible for them even to eat,” “his relatives…set out to seize him, for they said, ‘He’s out of his mind’” (3:20-21)—he’s crazy!  Not exactly adulation!

There’s a deeper meaning here, however.  Jesus’ kin and his house aren’t just “James and Joses and Judas and Simon” and “his sisters.”  They’re not just the several thousand inhabitants of Nazareth.  And Jesus’ patria (it’s the same word in both Mark’s Greek and Jerome’s Latin), “native place” in our translation or his “country” in other translations, isn’t only Nazareth.  It’s Israel as a whole.  Recall the verse in the prolog of John’s Gospel:  “He came to his own”—his own home, his own country—“and his own people received him not” (1:11).  Most of Israel, God’s own people, doesn’t honor the prophet sent among them, this Son of God.  They’re not impressed by his verbal “wisdom” nor by his “mighty deeds,” and they take such offense at him that they hand him over to the Romans for crucifixion.  After the resurrection, they persecute his apostles and the other disciples.

The upshot is that “he was not able to perform any mighty deed there” (6:5) because they weren’t receptive.  “Their lack of faith” (6:6) stands in contrast to what Jesus has met almost everywhere else, e.g. in last week’s gospel.  However imperfect that faith may be—it’s based, according to Mark, mostly on people’s being amazed at what Jesus says and does (in today’s gospel, “many who heard him were astonished” (6:2), on what Jesus may be able to do for them here and now, and not on a religious faith, a conversion experience, a submission of oneself totally to God—it’s still a faith of some kind. And the Nazarenes don’t have even that.  Whereas bystanders are usually amazed at Jesus’ words and deeds, here he’s the one struck with amazement (6:6)—at their lack of faith.

How do we see Jesus?  Is he a kindly teacher, the wise man of the Deists, the Unitarians, and modern secularists?  Is he our master, teacher, companion on life’s journey?  Is he the Son of God, our savior, the way, truth, and life? 

What kind of faith do we have in him?  Is he someone we pray to when we need something?  Someone who forgives us when we’ve done something wrong?  Someone on whom to model our lives?  Someone who leads us to and unites us with, his Father?

How do we react to him?  Does his teaching disturb us?  Do we find it “nice” or “attractive” but not very practical?  Does Jesus induce us to “turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel” (Ash Wednesday; cf. Mark 1:15)?  Do we honor his prophetic words on weekdays as well as on Saturday evening, make him as welcome in our own homes as in church?

In short:  We are Jesus’ own people, his brothers and sisters by Baptism, his own flesh and blood thru the Eucharist.  What reception do we give him and his teaching?

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Homily for 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Homily for the
13th Sunday
in Ordinary Time

I was away on vacation from last Thursday afternoon (June 28) till early this afternoon (July 4). On Sunday I concelebrated at the Oakland Mills site of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Columbia, Md., my sister's parish. We heard a very good homily there. Following my custom, I offer here an "oldie" of my own.

July 2, 2000
Wis 1: 13-15; 2: 23-24
Mark 5: 21-24, 35-43
Our Lady of Pompei, Paterson, N.J.
St. Joseph, Passaic, N.J.

On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, representing 13 of the British colonies along the eastern seaboard of North America, voted their independence from Great Britain. The protest being fought to assert their equal rights as Englishmen became a war to assert their complete freedom among the nations of the earth.  Happy Independence Day!

The next evening, July 3, delegate John Adams of Massachusetts wrote home to his wife Abigail:

The second day of July, 1776, will be a memorable epocha [sic] in the history of America.  I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations, as the great Anniversary Festival.  It ought to be commemorated, as the day of deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty.  It ought to be solemnized with pomp, shews [sic], games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations, from one end of the continent to the other, from this time forward forever.

We have certainly done justice to Adams’s confidence in the outcome of the struggle and to his hopes for the celebration of our freedom—except perhaps for the “solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty.”  As you know, religion doesn’t get much play in our Independence Day festivities.  And except, certainly, for the day of our celebration.  Thomas Jefferson’s magnificent Declaration setting forth the reasons for independence so captured our hearts and minds that the day of its adoption by Congress, July 4, also captured the celebrations so fondly expected by his colleague Adams.
Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull--Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol (Office of the Architect of the Capitol)
We here do solemnly thank God for the blessings of liberty and pray him to continue them, as well as to pardon and correct our individual and our national, collective abuse of our liberty.

The War of American Independence was about political liberty.  Our 1st and 3d readings this morning address a different kind of liberty, one more fundamental, one more durable.  “For God formed man to be imperishable; the image of his own nature he made him” (Wis 2:23-24).  God made us to live; he “did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living” (Wis 1:13).

Yet death is a fact:  indisputable, unavoidable.  Even the little daughter of Jairus (Mark 5:21-24, 35-43) eventually died a permanent bodily death, as also did those others whom Jesus revived, the widow’s son and Lazarus.  With St. Paul, writing to the Romans, we can all cry out in exasperation, “Who will deliver me from this mortal body?” (7:24).  Who will liberate us from the tyranny of death?

“By the envy of the devil, death entered the world” (Wis 2:24).  This is the Book of Wisdom’s take on the fall of the human race in the garden of Eden.  Out of jealousy for the happiness of the human friends of God, the devil tempted them to spurn God’s friendship, as he himself had done.  And tempted, the 1st man and woman fell.  They chose a lie; they chose disobedience; they chose death.  “They who belong to [the devil’s] company experience [death],” Wisdom tells us (2:24).  Or, as St. Paul put it, to the Romans once again, “The wages of sin is death” (6:23).  Death is not God’s plan but the consequence of our own love for evil.

Paul’s earlier question, “Who will deliver me from this mortal body?”, he answered himself in the next line:  “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (7:25).  Jesus Christ came to set us free:  to forgive our sins and erase their mortal consequences.

Jesus’ power over death during his earthly ministry, demonstrated in this morning’s gospel, foreshadows his own permanent victory over the grave.  Tho utterly sinless in his own person, he was led like a lamb to the slaughter (cf. Is 53:7).  He died, as every human being must.  But his death was an injustice, because he was sinless.  Therefore, the devil and the netherworld had no claim on him, and undying justice (Wis 1:15) compelled them to give him up.  God the Father justified his own Son by raising him to a new kind of bodily life, no longer mortal.  This we celebrated during the 7 weeks of Easter.  This we celebrate every Sunday, the day of the resurrection.  This we look forward to ourselves—not because we’re innocent and without sin (cf. Job 33:9), but thanks to the grace of God bestowed on us in Christ Jesus.  We have been baptized into his death and resurrection.  We eat his body and drink his blood in order that we might be incorporated into his righteousness before God and into his immortality.

So, before all our suffering and death, and even before the memory of our worst sins—provided we have repented and confessed them—we listen to the words of Jesus:  “Do not be afraid; just have faith” (Mark 5:36).  Have faith that he has truly conquered both sin and death.  He has liberated us all from the worst the devil can do to us.