Thursday, August 30, 2018

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

As I reflected on our gospel for this Sunday from Mark 7 and considered the Pharisees' observation that Jesus and his disciples ate "a meal with unclean hands" (Mark 7:5), I was reminded of all the warnings public health officials give us about washing our hands especially during the flu season. They caution us to scrupulously wash our hands, cover our mouths when we cough or sneeze and thoughtfully remove ourselves from society at large if we think we have the flu virus.  I don't claim to be an expert on public health, but these simple precautions make a lot of sense to me.  Washing our hands and practicing basic preventive strategies keep us physically healthy and keep everyone around us physically healthy as well.

The focus of today's readings is not on clean hands.  Rather, the focus is on what makes us clean (pure, holy, virtuous and good) and what makes us unclean (impure, corrupted, immoral and bad) in the eyes of God. Moses gave the children of Israel the law to pull them together as a nation and to provide social order.  Over the centuries people became obsessed with the law adding multiple layers of detail and complexity called traditional law that determined what was considered clean and unclean. Traditional law controlled every facet of life. The Pharisees were the defenders of traditional law and they used the law to protect their elite status and oppress other people.

Jesus presents a radically different law.  He challenges the Pharisees saying, "You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition" (Mark 7:8).   The law Jesus gives is the law of the New Covenant, a law of the heart.  His law is designed to build the Kingdom of God. With one statement Jesus rejected many of the traditional Jewish laws including all the dietary laws, "Hear me, all of you, and understand.  Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile" (Mark 7:14-15).  If we eat without washing our hands we run the risk of catching the flu or a cold.  If we sneeze without covering our mouths we can infect others. These are not evil or sinful acts - they are thoughtless acts, they don't make us "unclean."  However, if we steal, murder, deceive, or blaspheme; if we are greedy, jealous, arrogant, malicious or unfaithful in our relationships, then we are unclean in God's eyes and are in a state of sin. 

In today's second reading St. James describes the new law that Jesus gave us, "All good giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no alteration or shadow caused by change" (James 1:17).  We can't change God's law.  What we can do is "Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in [us] ... to save [our] souls" (James 1:21).

Father, God of the ever-new covenant,
you have tied us to yourself
with leading strings of lasting love;
the words you speak to us
are spirit and life.
Open our hearts to your words,
that they may touch us
in the deepest of ourselves.
May they move us to serve you
not in a slavish way
but as your sons and daughters
who love you and whom you have set free
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Friday, August 24, 2018

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

For the past four weeks, we have reflected on the sixth chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus’ discourse on the Bread of Life and the  Eucharist.  We began our reflection with the story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes.  We heard Jesus tell us that he has something better to offer us, the bread of life, “bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die” (John 6:50).  Today we end the chapter with a reflection on personal faith and commitment.

Both the first reading from Joshua 24 and the gospel, John 6:60-69, pose a challenge, “decide today whom you will  serve” (Joshua 24:15). The tribes of Israel chose to “serve the LORD” (Joshua 24:18).  They made this choice based on a lot of tangible evidence, “it was the LORD, our God, who brought us and our fathers up out of the land of Egypt, out of a state of slavery.  He performed those great miracles before our very eyes and protected us along our  entire journey and among the peoples through whom we passed” (Joshua 24:17).

For the disciples, choosing to follow Jesus required a huge act of faith.  Although they had witnessed a number of miracles, they still did not understand everything Jesus said.  His words of “Spirit and life” were elusive and mysterious.  In addition, many found much of what Jesus said shocking, “hard” and verging on the unacceptable. And so, they left returning “to their former way of life and no  longer accompanied him” (John 6:66). The crowd of more than five thousand people at the beginning of this chapter now is reduced to twelve.  It is up to Peter to answer Our Lord’s question, “Do you also want to leave?”  His astounding answer is called the great confession, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “The first announce- ment of the Eucharist divided the disciples, just as the announcement of the Passion scandalized them: "This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?" The Eucharist and the Cross are stumbling blocks. It is the same mystery and it never ceases to be an occasion of Tidivision. ‘Will you also go away?’: the Lord's question echoes through the ages, as a loving invitation to discover that only he has ‘the words of eternal life’ and that to receive in faith the gift of his Eucharist is to receive the Lord himself” (CCC 1336).

Faithful God of the covenant,
in the daily choices we have to make
give us the courage to opt always for your Son and his ways
and to remain close to him.
Bless the difficult road we sometimes have to take
without seeing where it will lead us.
Keep us from making half-hearted decisions
where we have not enough faith, and
to accept all the consequences of our choice.
Keep us always faithful
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Friday, August 17, 2018

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Jewish dietary laws date back to the time of Moses.  These laws, called Kashrut, meaning proper or correct, are in the Torah, the first five books in the Bible.  Another term used to designate these laws is Kosher (which has the same root as Kashrut).  One of the principal Jewish dietary laws forbids consuming blood because “the life of the animal (literally, the soul of the animal) is contained in the blood” (Judaism 101).  And, blood is the symbol of life.  Therefore, all blood is drained from kosher meat.  So, when Jesus told his listeners in the synagogue in Capernaum “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you” (John 6:53), they were scandalized.  Eating human flesh violates our most basic human values and   according to Jewish law, drinking blood makes a person contaminated and ritually unclean.  No Jewish person in his or her right mind would do this.  It is no wonder they “quarreled among themselves” about what he was saying!

With these words, Jesus is challenging his listeners in Capernaum, his disciples, and us.  He is challenging us to unite with him, to share his life, to join with his soul to be one with him and to have eternal life.  We get a hint of what Jesus means in our first reading from Proverbs 9:1-6.  Wisdom, the personification of God, prepares a magnificent banquet and invites those who lack understanding (practically all of us) to eat her food and drink her wine so “that you may live; advance in the way of understanding.” 

Jesus isn’t offering us ordinary food.  This food transforms us.  The normal food we eat every day nourishes and strengthens our bodies.  The food Jesus gives us, bread that is his “flesh for the life of the world,” nourishes and strengthens our spirits.  This is the mystery of the Eucharist.  We are invited to the table of the Lord to share his body and blood in the sacrament so that we absorb the life essence of Jesus into our own lives.  In the New Jerusalem Bible translation Jesus says, “As the living Father sent me and I draw life from the Father, so whoever eats me will also draw life from me” (John 6:57). Having drawn life from Jesus through the Eucharist, we are commissioned to go out ourselves to be Christ’s “flesh for the life of the world.”  

Our living God,
you let us taste and see how good you are
by giving us your Son Jesus Christ
as the bread and drink of life.
Give him to us today as our daily bread,
that with him we may pass from death to life.
Let his life flow in us and overflow
on our brothers and sisters,
that we may become his body to the world.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.

Friday, August 10, 2018

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

I love bread.  Not just any bread, but freshly baked bread from the local, neighbourhood bakery in Dublin where I grew up.  When I was a small boy I would stand outside the bakery just to smell the baking bread.  One of my favourite errands was to run to the bakery to pick up bread for my mother.  That bakery is still there.  The last time I was in Dublin my sister and I walked by the bakery and we both stopped automatically just to take in the delicious scent of the baking bread.  The only problem with the bread from the bakery was that it never lasted very long.  In my big family all food disappeared quickly but the bread really went fast.  And, of course, as a growing boy, I never got what I thought was enough.

In today’s gospel from John 6:41-51, St. John continues Jesus' discourse on the Bread of Life.  Like the manna that sustained the Israelites on their journey through the dessert, the bread Jesus offers us comes from heaven.  Unlike manna, and unlike the fresh bread from my local Dublin bakery, the bread Jesus offers does more than feed our physical hunger.  Whoever eats the living bread Jesus gives us “will live forever” because the bread Jesus gives us is his “flesh for the life of the world" (John 6: 51).  The people who ate the manna in the dessert died in the dessert. “Everyone who listens to [God the] Father and learns from him,” everyone who believes in Jesus and believes that God the Father sent Jesus to us “will have eternal life.”

Jesus is the Bread of Life.  This bread sustains us through the good times and the bad times.  In our first reading from 1 Kings 19:4-8 God provided Elijah with heavenly bread to strengthen him for his journey of “forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb.”  The bread Jesus gives us strengthens us as we journey through life.  I often wonder how people without faith in Jesus  survive the traumas of life.  Without food for our souls, we could fall into the trap St. Paul warns us about in the second reading, Ephesians 4:31-32 and become filled with bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, reviling, and malice.

Jesus is our soul food.  Like fresh bread from the bakery, Jesus is our comfort food.  When we receive the Eucharist, we receive   Jesus, “the living bread that came down from heaven.”  We are united with him in his suffering and in his overwhelming love.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us “in the Eucharist the sacrifice of Christ becomes also the sacrifice of the members of his Body.  The lives of the faithful, their praise, sufferings, prayer, and work, are united with those of Christ and with his total offering, and so acquire a new value. Christ's sacrifice present on the altar makes it possible for all generations of Christians to be united with his offering” (CCC 1368).

God, Father of life,
your Son Jesus is our living bread
come down from you to give life
to us and to our world.
Let him restore our strength and courage
as we journey with him through life,
and give us the will and love
to share our bread with those who need it,
for in them Jesus cries out his hunger.
We ask this in the name of Jesus the Lord.

Friday, August 3, 2018

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Blessed Mother Teresa once said, "People are hungry for God.  Do you see that? Quite often we look but do not see. We are all passing through this world. We need to open our eyes and see." In  today’s gospel from John 6:24-35, the people who followed Jesus to Capernaum after the miracle of the loaves and fishes were looking for Jesus the prophet but they did not see God the Son even though he was standing right in front of them.  They wanted heavenly signs like manna in the desert, but they failed to recognize the miracle of the loaves and fishes that they participated in as a sign that Jesus came from God.  They wanted to satisfy their physical hunger, but they were ignoring their spiritual hunger.

The Bread of Life Jesus offered the crowd in Capernaum and the Bread of Life he offers us sustains more than our physical needs.  The bread Jesus offers provides us with fullness of life.  That fullness includes love, joy, peace, compassion, forgiveness, understanding and wisdom.  The Bread of Life unites us with God and fulfills all our inner longings.  The Bread of Life is anything that nurtures our spirits.  We receive the Bread of Life in scripture, in song, in art, in relationships, in family, in community, in worship, in our belief in Jesus and in Eucharist.

Like the Israelites in our first reading from Exodus, the crowd following Jesus wanted their daily bread, bread that would not keep.  Jesus wanted to offer them “food that endures for eternal life.” As Catholics, we consider the Eucharist our Bread of Life.  Eucharist is our manna from heaven. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us “What material food produces in our bodily life, Holy Communion wonderfully achieves in our spiritual life.  Communion … preserves, increases, and renews the life of grace received at Baptism. This growth in Christian life needs the nourishment of Eucharistic Communion, the bread for our pilgrimage until the moment of death…” (CCC 1392).

 Our living God,
we hunger for lasting life and happiness
and the fulfillment of all our hopes.
Satisfy all our hungers
through your Son Jesus Christ,
our bread of life.
And when he has filled us with himself,
may he lead and strengthen us
to bring to a waiting world
the food of reconciliation and joy
which you alone can give to the full.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.