Saturday of the Thirteenth Week in Ordinary Time
Today’s reading notes the importance of innovation and adopting to new things. New wine skins for new wine, or the old will be broken by the new. However, there is no disparaging the importance of old wine because even the amateur in the field of wine consumption knows the advantage of a mature vintage. The Gospel today comes from Matthew who notes wisely in another part of his gospel that it is a wise housekeeper who takes both old and new from his storeroom. One of our greatest challenges in life is establishing the balance between the necessity of innovation and the prudence and experience of past practices. As Ignatius states in his First Principle and Foundation, an action or a choice is good or bad only insofar as it takes us away or towards God, not whether it is traditional or innovative.
Friday of the Thirteenth Week in Ordinary Time
Carravagio, the master if not one of the great inaugurators of the baroque style, painted a series of images that portray the life of St. Matthew. In the Contarelli Chapel in St. Louis of the French in Rome, just a few steps from the Piazza Navona, one can stand before these paintings illustrating the conversion of St. Matthew, the writing of the Gospel, and the evangelist’s martyrdom. The deep contrasts of color, light, and shade make for dramatic portrayal of three aspects of the evangelist’s life. One painting in particular always grabs my attention. Matthew is sitting at the table surrounded by men. At the other end of the table Christ appears and points to the figure of Matthew who is absorbed in counting pennies, not gold florins, or scudi, but the equivalent of pennies. There Matthew sits counting one penny, two pennies, three pennies…. In the middle of the table one of the men looks at Jesus and gestures unbelieving to this pathetic figure whose life is caught up in counting pennies. No doubt he recognizes Jesus for at least a holy man and no doubt wonders what on earth Jesus sees in the young man whose life revolves around small change. Did the presence of Jesus completely transform Mathew or did Jesus call forth some inner spark which later flamed so much that Matthew could both articulate the life of Christ and die for what he knew. Whatever occurred at that calling, the picture always consoles me and helps me realize that God’s grace can transform our meager and sometimes misguided efforts. At times, like Matthew, we are face down counting pennies and God calls us to look up and become instruments for changing the world.
Thursday of the Thirteenth Week in Ordinary Time
Homicide certainly stands as one of the more heinous crimes. We are also familiar with the Church’s teaching on abortion. So when we read in today’s first reading the request of God to Abraham, to kill his only son, it does strike us as something rather contrary to the overriding message of the bible. We can make sense of this passage only in light of the life of Christ and the sacrifice Christ made for us. We understand biblical writing as a complex mix of truth but a truth that is described by means of cultural traditions and expressions. In light of these traditions, we assure ourselves of avoiding deviant and strange interpretations when we align ourselves with the sense in which the church interprets this and other complex passages. Of course God would never ask us to kill each other, but that is not the message of today’s reading. The reading is a story about commitment and trust, perhaps told in a manner that would require a different way if it were written today, and not almost 2,500 years ago.
Wednesday of the Thirteenth Week in Ordinary Time
There seems to be some discussion of late about the reality of the devil. This is really quite foolish; how can one argue against the presence of the devil that so clearly exists from roles in Broadway musicals to key protagonists in Hollywood films? Besides these astute reflections on the human condition, the devil certainly seems present in today’s scripture. Just recently, the devil made an appearance under the foot of St. Michael the Archangel with an image of this angelic triumph on a very large canvas unfurled in front of St. Peter’s Basilica for the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul. Not wanting to dismiss volumes on the reality of the devil we may want to place the real emphasis on where it belongs, the power of Christ. Today’s readings point to the reality of Christ’s power over evil, a power that is hinted at with the episode with the swine and fully manifested with the resurrection. Our understanding of evil of the world is correctly understood in light of this resurrection. We want to “give the devil his due,” but in light of the salvific work of Christ, he is owed very little. We cannot be ignorant or naïve about the place of evil in the world, but we cannot be men and women without hope and faith, virtues grounded in the redemptive work of the Trinity.
Today’s gospel reading recalls the storm at sea in which the apostles woke a sleeping Jesus, calling to his attention the fact that they were all going to drown. Jesus, commenting on their lack of faith, calmed the storm and everyone got off the boat safely. No doubt, the early years following July 4, 1776 felt like the storm at sea with Jesus sleeping in the boat. The boat of American Independence landed safely, after a few years struggle, when America began its history as an independent nation. In both cases, the apostles in the boat and the signers of the Declaration of Independence, saw themselves in the midst of a storm tossed sea. For the founding fathers, the only means for survival was a unified effort towards clear goals. Clarifying these goals was no small struggle and the vision of what was to be America was a highly debated point. However, a common vision did prevail and along with this common vision came a deep conversation concerning the necessary means to attain a working Republic. So too with the early Church. There was no lack of division and questioning concerning all sorts of issues. A quick read of the Acts of the Apostles reveals this point. In both cases, the forming of a new nation and the forming of Christ’s Church were occasions when division and lack of common identity became a time analogous to a rough sea. The creation of a community and the best means to attain that community takes a skilled person at the helm and I am thankful that for our church that person is ultimately Christ.
We are all familiar with the phrase, a doubting Thomas, someone who holds out until the irrefutable facts are laid out clear to see. Perhaps of all the apostles, we sympathize and have a connection to Thomas, the man who just could not fathom that somebody came back from the dead and was stopping by for a visit. The name, as is noted in the text, comes from the Greek Didymus, which means twin. We do not see or hear much about Thomas’ twin because that twin is not a real person. The twin is the everyday believer, like us, who has trouble understanding the radical nature and consequences of the Christian faith. John makes us the twin to Thomas and asks that just as we have shared in his unbelief, we may share in his belief as well. Although we can probe the side of Christ, the Church asks us to look into the lives of the great witnesses of our faith who serve as images of Christ and whose lives can help us transform our unbelief.
The gospel reading today certainly calls for a deeper understanding beyond an initial reading. The phrase “whoever loves mother or father more than me is not worthy of me,” could cause some distress if not understood within its fullest context. At the time of the composition of the Gospel of Matthew, families and friends were torn apart in light of their beliefs concerning Jesus as the Messiah. The emphasis Jesus points to is an absolute emphasis on God as the center of one’s life. However, Jesus states in the Gospel of Matthew the importance of continuing the commandments, which would include honoring one’s father and mother. This honor to parents was repeated by Paul in his Letter to the Ephesians found in chapter 6:1. This reading establishes a hierarchy, a hierarchy which is identified also by Ignatius in the First Principle and Foundation: Men and women are created to praise, reverence and serve God and the things on the face of the earh are created to help us towards that end. Therefore, the full love of God cannot but serve as the foundation for love of parents, and it assures that love of those who brought us into the world, so that we may know and love that same God.
Saturday of the Third Week of Easter
Today’s first reading contains a profound theological message, one that is often missed by less astute readers of the Bible.
“Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you. Get up and make your bed.”
The action of Christ in our life can be a dramatic healing, or a simple insight but however and whatever that insight is, any action of grace demands a response. And, the response usually should be practical. One of the surest pieces of evidence of God acting in our lives is when an insight turns to a practical action. No greater temptation and a sure cause of spiritual failure is the desire to perform some great feat or some heroic deed beyond our capabilities. American consumer culture has attuned us to the need to purchase the fantastic when in fact the practical is within our grasp. The simple admonition by Peter after performing this dramatic cure reminds us that our response to grace should reflect consistency and simplicity. After this cure, we would not be surprised if Peter commanded Aeneas to leave his family, quite his job, and become a roving missionary for Jesus. Instead, he tells him to make his bed. No better insight into this simplicity was expressed by Teresa of the Little Flower in her recognition that a simple act done in love is the surest path to sanctity.
“Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.”
Conversion stories have always interested me because I have often wondered what it takes to get people to change their minds. Perhaps at the conclusion of an academic year and my experience of teaching classes of Freshmen has left me with a somewhat Jansenist opinion of human nature, or at least questioning that aspect of human nature that should desire to compose a correct topic sentence. Today’s first reading tells the story of the conversion of Paul, which according to the Acts of the Apostles, was quite a dramatic moment. Even though the great Baroque painter Caravaggio has Paul thrown from his horse, no horse is mentioned in the text. Horse or not, the image of Paul being blinded by a flash of light and hearing an accusing voice from heaven seems to have done the trick. Our portrayal of Paul is of someone who did the proverbial “180 degree” change, a reversal so sudden and dramatic that the scene makes for good theater but not for a helpful example. For me, this story makes more sense if I imagine Paul to be actually attempting to do what he intended to do right before his conversion. We should not forget that he was a Pharisee who attempted to comply with the traditions of Israel which saw deviations in the covenant as both evidence and cause of spiritual death. His conversion really was not “total” since his fundamental direction was always towards God. In reflecting on this passage, I recall St. Ignatius’ admonition in the Spiritual Exercises to presume a good intention. Digging deep to find the presence of God in other’s intentions can, at times, be quite an excavation project. However, if history provides any insight, we note how famous Jesuits moved people towards God not by argument but by investigation, by investigating and discussing ultimate values and concerns and then moving them towards a more effective way of achieving these values. Although the moment of transformation may come like a bolt from the blue, perhaps the surest method for conversion comes from patience and understanding.
These week’s gospel readings are taken from the sixth chapter of John’s gospel, a chapter which places emphasis on the Eucharist as the bread of life. What should have been a rallying point for all Christians has, unfortunately, been a source of division. Very quickly within the reformation, arguments ensued with the protestant community dealing with the nature of the Eucharist. Luther held to a position closer to the Roman Catholic idea while Zwingli and Calvin opted for a symbolic presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Interestingly, the Catholics held to their position on the Eucharist by quoting the bible, especially this chapter, citing the words of today’s Gospel:
I am the living bread that came down from heaven;
whoever eats this bread will live forever;
and the bread that I will give
is my Flesh for the life of the world.
Catholic apologists based their insistence on the Real Presence on direct gospel quotes and were quick to criticize those who argued otherwise as holding beliefs not found in scripture. Over the past 150 years, many protestant communities have placed a greater emphasis on more frequent reception of the Lord’s Supper, arguing that they are not becoming more Catholic, just more biblical, a stance the Roman Catholic Church never abandoned. This emphasis on the Eucharist as the Real Presence, plays a crucial part in the Gospel of John, the early Christian community, and the life of the Church. Keeping in mind this emphasis, we may take this opportunity to reflect on the role of the Eucharist in our lives, particularly our frequency in attending Mass and time spent before the Blessed Sacrament, The Bread of Life.