Today we celebrate the feast of Saint Bonaventure, a saint whose importance for our day is such that Benedict XVI dedicated three consecutive Wednesday audiences to Bonaventure and his work (on the 3rd, 10th, and 17th of March 2010). In the last of these audiences, Benedict XVI states that Bonaventure deserves a place besides Thomas Aquinas in studies of Christian thought, and lists a number of areas where their differences can complement each other and help to broaden Catholic perspectives on the world. We should give thanks for the witness and work of Bonaventure, a humble disciple of Saint Francis of Assisi, even in the greatness of his intellectual endeavors. By reading Bonaventure alongside other thinkers in the Christian tradition, we can come to better appreciate the goodness and glory of God (which Bonaventure so emphasizes) which the Holy Spirit manifests in various ways through different saints, charisms, and schools of thought.
Even as we draw fruit from one thinker or another, whether Bonaventure the Franciscan, Thomas Aquinas the Dominican, Bernard the Cistercian, or others, we should never forget that even as each of these thinkers points rightly and truly to the source of life, they are not themselves that source. “No disciple is above his teacher, no slave above his master” (Mt 10:24): these great and saintly thinkers would be among the first to affirm this! But, of course, what Jesus points to in saying this is not so much a body of doctrine, but his own life. The disciple cannot demand to be served, when the one that he claims to have as Teacher and Lord himself makes himself a servant. Sometimes, we may worry that the service that we are called to offer will leave us bereft of the essentials that we need for our own life in Christ. But if the one whom we serve is genuinely the gentle Master who always does the will of his Father, then we can trust that the Father himself will see to our needs, for he even cares for the sparrows that are sold two for a penny. “So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” (Mt 10:31).
Normally, when one has a wolf problem, one does not send out sheep to defeat the wolves. Common sense would suggest that by doing so, all one does is feed the wolves. And yet, this is exactly the image that Jesus uses in indicating the way he intends to conquer the forces of evil: he will send out sheep (wolf-food!) out to defeat the wolves. And the apostles—and by extension Christians—are the sheep who are sent out.
Now, if sheep really do defeat wolves, then it is evident that the wolves are defeated not by any inherent quality of the sheep, but rather by the power of the God who sends them out to defeat the forces of evil. It is striking that God does not give his servants any of the natural means by which one would think of defeating the wolves. The sheep do not get claws. Likewise, the apostles get no protection from persecution or imprisonment; in fact, persecution and imprisonment are even promised to them! What they are promised is defeat, if one sees through the eyes of their enemies. However, this seeming defeat is, in fact, victory, since God was never interested in playing the silly manipulative games of power, prestige, and wealth that the enemy plays. The enemy cannot comprehend love, true love, sacrificial love (the enemy does not understand genuine, self-less sacrifice). So the enemy thinks that he has won when he kills God’s Son on the cross, but the Son has truly won, for his love has never faltered in the face of all the sin and hatred of the world, and that love will conquer the whole world and win over all those whom he calls to himself.
Kateri Tekakwitha, the lily of the Mohawks, walked among those who persecuted her as a sheep among wolves, exemplifying the lessons of today’s gospel (Mt 10:16-23). As an orphan girl, disfigured and near-sighted by small pox, she felt a stirring towards virginal purity that was incomprehensible in her milieu. She sought baptism and consecrated herself to Christ in spite of the opposition and hardship that she received from her own family and people. She “did not worry about how she was to speak” (Mt 10:19) but was “shrewd as a serpent and simple as a dove” (Mt 10:16). She did not play the hero, but more courageously, she was a true handmaid of the Lord, for even as she was “hated by all because of His name” (Mt 10:22), “when they persecuted her in one town, she fled to another” (Mt 10:23) thus bringing the gospel witness of true life and freedom to many people who encountered Christ for the first time in and through her. Let us turn to Kateri to help us to be such handmaids and servants of the Lord ourselves, out of love for Him and for those people who persecute us, for they are the ones for whom he gave up his life, and for whom we are called to give ours.
In today’s first reading (Gn 45:1-5), the Pharaoh’s administrator reveals to his disbelieving brothers that he is Joseph, whom they had sold into slavery. But he adds, “do not reproach yourselves for having sold me here. It was really for the sake of saving lives that God sent me here ahead of you” (Gen 45:5).
“Do not reproach yourselves…” Joseph’s brothers chose Joseph for death because they were infuriated that their father Israel (inspired by God’s own choice), had chosen (elected) Joseph for a life set apart. The choice coincides: the one whom God chooses to bring life to world, Joseph, is the one whom the world chooses for death, since the world does not understand God’s designs and flees from the life that God offers. This happens here among the sons of Israel, who will need to learn to accept God’s having chosen Joseph from among them before they can really understand what it means for they themselves to be the chosen people of God. To the brothers, the choice of Joseph was unfair and intolerable; we see that even Joseph did not properly understand what this election meant, since he initially tried to lord it over others (which is what happens when clergy fall prey to clericalism or Christians presume to be better than others because of their baptism). But over time (in Gn 37 and Gn 39-48), Joseph must learn, through fidelity to God’s promise even in the midst of great hardship, that election is not about an earthly pre-eminence, but rather that God chooses the elect to prepare the way for all who are to follow.
Joseph is chosen, not for himself, but so that God can choose and save all of the son’s of Israel through him. Likewise, Israel is chosen not for Israel’s own sake, but so that all peoples might be blessed through Israel. This is the sense in which Christians are called: if we are invited to share in God’s life, it is not to give us any sort of pre-eminence over our brothers and sisters, but rather so that, by letting ourselves be handed over to them and then raised up from the depths by God, as Joseph was, we too might walk ahead of them and prepare the way, so that the very people who sold us into perdition might find salvation through the path that God offers us. For it is really not, in the first place, our brothers and sisters who send us into Egypt, but it is rather our Lord who invites us to walk with him in the dark valley as his companions, for the salvation of the whole world. For Joseph is but an image of Christ, and we too are called to be likenesses of Him for the salvation of our fellows. It is through this following, and not through any sort of magical power, that we will “cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and drive out demons” in loving obedience to our Lord, even if all we see is following through the dark valley (Mt 10:8). It is in this following that the “kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 10:7)
The “wrestling with God” that we considered in yesterday’s reflection does not end when Jacob receives the name Israel at daybreak. It is only just beginning, and it will continue through the sons of Israel, for generations to come, as God works out the mysterious plan of God’s covenant with humankind through Israel (cf. our earlier reflection on the history of salvation). The “sons of Israel” begin with Israel’s actual sons, whose wrestling among themselves in some way reflects the wrestling with God that occurs in Israel’s own heart. Once we human beings turn away from the simplicity and trust in God’s love that God offers us in faith, we begin to judge and second-guess the rightness of God’s decisions. This is especially the case when God makes a choice; we tend to rebel against God’s choices. Why did God choose Jacob to be Israel and not Esau (or me)? Among Israel’s sons, why did God choose Joseph as his beloved and not a brother who was more humble and hard-working and less full of himself? We may fault Israel for the favoritism he shows Joseph, but then we should fault God, for Israel’s predilection simply reflects God’s own election.
Joseph himself did not really understand what it meant to be chosen by God. He originally is very happy to tell his brothers that he dreamt that they would have to bow down to him, but he does not yet understand that—though this dream will come true, as it does in today’s first reading (Gn 41:55-57; 42:5-7a, 17-24a)—this will not be some triumphant moment in which he will lord over his brothers, but rather a reckoning in love. Joseph will be called to help his brothers grow in the humility and love that he had to learn through his many years of servitude and imprisonment that he had to endure in Egypt before Pharaoh raised him from the depths of the dungeon and asked him to administer the harvest of the land so as to save his people (read Gen 37 and following for context). When his brothers come to Joseph to beg for food, they do not recognize him, and Joseph will not reveal himself until they are ready to see him, but, without imposing himself upon them, he weeps for their salvation, as our Lord weeps for ours. He knows that it is not enough to give his brothers bread, which is all they seek. He wants to help them arrive at that deeper healing that can only come through a recognition and confession of that evil that they have chosen in place of God’s love, and the free surrender of that evil to God in order to return to the simplicity and light of the life that God so desires to offer them. Here we see a salvific “wrestling” among the son’s of Israel, one that no longer primarily concerns some imagined superiority, but rather is ordered to the greater glory of God and the genuine salvation of all the “sons of Israel.”
Memorial of Saint Benedict, Abbot
In today’s first reading (Gn 32:23-33), we hear how Jacob becomes Israel. We must not forget that Jacob inherits the “yes” of his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac. They pronounced a “yes” to God’s covenant not only for themselves, but also for their descendants. Likewise, let us not forget that Jacob himself wanted to inherit the birthright through which this covenant passed, though he does not seem to have grasped the true import of the covenant relationship that involved (but then again, who can claim to grasp the breadth and depth of God’s covenant?).
The covenant, however, was never primarily about God’s relationship with isolated individuals, but was God’s way of inviting all of Adam’s seed, that is, all of “Man” back to the fullness of life that God offers all human beings. But this life that God wishes to share with us—God’s own life—is a life of love that must be freely chosen: love cannot be forced. And so here, we discover the importance of Jacob’s wrestling with the angel (God’s messenger). God does not want us to do his will in such a way that we externally do what God wants, while internally rebelling or judging or second-guessing continuously, in growing frustration under the hands of one we consider to be an oppressive taskmaster. Nor does God want us to become automatons who simply execute commands like a computer program, without any personal choice or interiority. No. God wants us to love truly, freely, as God loves. God invites us to that profound union in the Holy Spirit that the Son has with the Father (Jn 17:22-23). Part of saying a full and complete “yes” to God is recognizing where we rebel against such a “yes” and wrestling with God in those places so that God can have a chance to bring us more and more to the fullness of life in those places where we resist. If we hide these areas or pretend that they are not there, our “yes” may always remain superficial, because we avoid letting God engage us in precisely those places where we most stand in need of God’s grace.
Jacob was far from a perfect man when God sent the angel to wrestle with him. It is significant that God, in his freedom, did not desire that Jacob be overpowered by the angel, but rather wanted the result to be a draw. God does not leave us to our own devices, but actually “wrestles” us through the circumstances of this created world. But, at the same time, God does not overpower us, because God wishes for us to make the decision to love as God to be free and not coerced. The wrestling presupposes a “yes” to God, and occurs within a global “yes” to God’s way in which one desires to grow.
Jacob receives the new name “Israel” because he has “striven with God and with men” (Gn 32:28). No longer merely “Jacob,” this man Israel has the vocation to strive, to “wrestle” with God and with men: with God, so that he and his seed might grow into the fullness of life that God offers, and with men, because insofar as Israel lives this life among men, Israel will be something of a scandal to them, for he shows them that there is another, more human way of living, and that way is the way that God offers. In fact, Israel becomes God’s messenger to all of humankind in a way that is similar to the way the angel represented God to Jacob. “Man” will wrestle with God through Israel, as Jacob wrestled with God through the angel. This reality will only be fully revealed in Jesus Christ, true God and true man, who will strive with God and men and prevail, as God and man, and thus open the gates to eternal life for all of humankind.
Monday of the Fourteenth Week in Ordinary Time
In order to better appreciate the importance of Jacob’s dream in today’s first reading (Gen 28:10-22a), we may recall its place in the history of salvation (see http://www.magisspirituality.org/ignatian_reflection/17-03-11/). After Adam and Eve chose to chase after their own imagined “god-like” life (which they imagined to be a “life” in which they could know good and evil, instead of simply the good), God sought to invite humankind back to the simplicity and fullness of the life of love (alone) that is God’s own life and Man’s true life. God sought allies from within the human family through whom God could work to reveal “from within” the reality of this life to all nations. First among these stands Abraham, from whom God promised to fashion a people “more numerous than the stars in the sky… through whom all peoples will be blessed” (Gen 22:17-18). This promise passes to Abraham and Sarah’s only son Issac (Gen 22:2), through whom God tests Abraham, who does not withhold his son from God (Gen 22:12). For his part, Issac fathers Jacob, who inherits the covenant with God as his birthright through a deception that challenges our moral sensibilities (Gen 27). The events that we hear about in today’s reading from Genesis take place shortly after Jacob has tricked his father Issac, as he is fleeing his brother Esau.
Whatever one may think of Jacob at this point (read Gen 25 and 27 for context), he is the one who has inherited God’s promise, and that promise is more important than Jacob’s worthiness: indeed, even if he were to appear more “just” in our eyes, he could never merit the awesome gift and responsibility of God’s promise. Jacob’s worthiness for this task is primarily God’s concern and not ours. And it is clear that God intends to make Jacob task-worthy to an extent that neither he nor we can fully grasp. Jacob does not find the Lord through his own devices, but rather, the Lord comes to Jacob in a dream in which Jacob sees a stairway between heaven and earth and God’s messengers moving between heaven and earth on that stairway. Jacob actually identifies the stairway with a physical place, which he names “Bethel,” but when seen through the arc of salvation history, it is clear that the “gateway to heaven” where “God abides” (Gen 28:17) is not to be sought in some hidden Bethel that an archeologist may stumble upon by chance, following Jacob’s footsteps. No. The true physical location that is the “gate” between heaven and earth is the body of Jesus Christ (John 10:7).
We should not forget, however, that Jesus does not magically appear some Christmas day. Jesus comes from “Jacob’s loins;” he is, as man, a child of the covenant that God makes with Man through Abraham, Issac, and Jacob. The “gateway” between heaven and earth is the flesh of Jesus Christ, but the stairway through which this gateway passes includes the generations of Abraham, Issac, Jacob, and many others. It is from this flesh that the flesh of Jesus Christ will come. The human history of this people is that history which Christ will receive as his own at his incarnation through his mother Mary, and through his eternal Father, who prepares this people for his Son through working of the Holy Spirit. Let us pay attention, then, to God’s relationship to this man Jacob who will become, as we will hear tomorrow, Israel, the man through whose seed all nations will be blessed.
Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
We ought to never forget who this God is who calls us into relationship with Him. This God challenges our notions of what it means to be god-like. Often, when people today strive to be “like-god” (whether they believe in God or not), they do so by grasping after power and seeking to impose that power over others, whether for their own profit (think of social climbers, for example), or even for the good of others (as social crusaders might seek to do). But this sort of attitude is precisely the sort of thing that Paul critiques in the letter to the Romans as being “according to the flesh,” (Rm 8:12) whereas Paul invites us to live rather according to the “Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead” (Rm 8:11).
Both the first reading from the prophet Zechariah (Zec 9:9-10) and Jesus’ invitation in today’s Gospel (Mt 11:28-30) reveal that the One who saves is “meek and humble of heart” (Mt 11:29; cf Zec 9:9). This does not mean that our God is a “push-over,” however. God is LORD of heaven and earth, and all things fall under God’s dominion. But that dominion can only be properly understood as love, and even God’s wrath must be understood as the passionate love of One who is not indifferent to the good of his beloved creatures and wishes to call them out of the destructive death-dealing illusions that they have chosen into the fullness of life for which they were created. The life and love to which we are called is simple and is revealed to little ones. Often, however, we cannot see this true life, because we are in love instead with the carefully crafted political realities, social theories, economic models, or even that “spiritual wisdom” which hides the simplicity of Christ’s life, a life hidden in plain sight among us, to which we are called. Often we seek this “knowledge,” whether political, social, economic, spiritual, etc., in order to identify the yokes of ordinary existence and free ourselves from them, imagining that we would then be truly free. But, fleeing these yokes, we only create greater burdens for ourselves and others. Let us stop fleeing from the simple yoke that Jesus himself offers us, for it is in taking up the ordinary challenges of daily life, meekly and humbly, with and in the Lord Jesus that we will finally find rest for ourselves (Mt 11:29).
Philip does not ask about Jesus, whom he thinks he knows. Rather, he asks Jesus to show the disciples the Father. But Jesus responds by expressing surprise at how little Philip knows him: “Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip?” Then Jesus adds, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9). Unlike those of us obsessed with “making a name for ourselves,” or “being our own man (or woman),” Jesus comes not in his own name, but in the name of the Father who sent him. “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” Jesus does not speak on his own, but rather, “the Father who dwells in me is doing his works” (Jn 14:10).
When we persist in doing things on our own, in our own name, for our own glory or the glory of anyone or anything but that of the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then we serve an idol that promises us all things (above all our supposed independence!) but offers us nothing that is truly worthwhile. But Jesus offers us the incredible grace of sharing in his own Triune life—life for Another—through the Spirit of Love that animates those that believe in him. Such people believe, not only notionally or with their lips, but in such a way that they recognize him to be the source of their very being and the way to the Father. Jesus thus is the one whom they strive to follow in all their intentions, their thoughts, and their actions.
Jesus assures us that, “whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father” (Jn 14:12). What are these greater works? They are the works prompted in us by the Holy Spirit. If the Holy Spirit should prompt us to feed five thousand, then we will ask it in Jesus’ name, and he will accomplish it so that the Father may be glorified in the Son (Jn 14:13-14). But, perhaps there is even a greater work than this that the Lord would have you accomplish in Jesus’ name, a work that seems so near to impossible that it would be proof to you of the greatness of God’s grace even more than if you fed five thousand. Perhaps there is a person in your life whom you find it incredibly hard to love, whom maybe you do not even want to love, or have tried and failed to love. But perhaps, if you were to live no longer in yourself, but were to abide in the Son, through his Holy Spirit, as the Son abides in the Father, perhaps you could accomplish this work, of actually loving and forgiving this person. Only you can accomplish this work, through your own free decision to accept Jesus’ help. This would be one of the “greater work than these” which Jesus assures us that we can do in his name to glorify the Father through the Son, and maybe this work, rather than feeding the five thousand, is what the Holy Spirit is asking of you now.
Beginning yesterday and continuing through the coming weeks, the gospels that we hear in Mass will largely be drawn from the profound and beautiful words that Jesus offers his disciples on the night before he died. These words are not superseded in any way by the resurrection. Rather, it is in the light of the resurrection that we hear them anew in order to begin to live ever more deeply from the life that Jesus hands over to us as our own that night. There is no greater life, nor love than this.
With deeper gratitude, now, we hear Jesus’s exhortation, “do not let your hearts be troubled” (Jn 14:1), for if Jesus is going, it is to prepare a place for us. He promises, “I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be” (Jn 14:3b). And then Jesus adds, baffling Thomas—and us, too—“where I am going you know the way” (Jn 14:4). We might protest, with Thomas, that we do not know the way, even after hearing Jesus say, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6a). It might seem that Thomas is asking for a concrete path to take to follow Jesus to the Father, but that Jesus indicates his own person as a metaphorical (rather than concrete) answer. But is this really the case? In light of the readings that we have heard this week, especially 1 Pt 2:20b-25, which we reflected on this past Sunday, we see that Jesus really does open up for us a very concrete way in which we can follow him to the Father: the path of living his life in (and as) our life!
Jesus’ path through the passion enables us to walk upon this way, for we cannot walk this path on our own, but we can, by God’s grace, do it with a loved one: this Loved One. On the cross, Jesus has suffered all that we cannot bear but he offers us more still: he helps us to bear what we can bear (as redeemed sinners) so that we can not only say truly that we have been loved, but also that we have also loved, with Christ’s help! Yes, Jesus is the way, and through this way he prepares many dwelling places in the Father’s house (Jn 14:2). There is no other way, and you do know it, as Thomas does. The only way to the Father’s house is the way of love that Jesus prepares for us, a way that is revealed and shared through his own life, truly offered to us as our own. Deep in our hearts we know that it is true: “No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn 14:6).
The light of the risen Lord purifies and strengthens us so that we can begin to do in Christ what Christ does for us, that is, to love those who wrong us and to forgive them, thereby setting them free to love anew. This is not something that we are capable of without Christ’s help, and even when we are capable of it, it is Christ who is forgiving and setting free in and through us. But if the grace of the resurrection now enables us to love as Jesus loves us in the passion, then it means that we can now see the passion with new eyes in the light of the resurrection. Loving, grateful eyes of faith will now recognize Christ’s freedom to love in the passion, and will ask for the grace of this freedom to love with a liberating, forgiving love, recognizing that whatever hardship living out this love this may bring us cannot even begin to compare with hardship that Christ freely bears in a love that desires our genuine freedom.
Today’s gospel (Jn 13:16-20) ends with what Ignatius of Loyola would recognize to be a great promise. Ignatius proposes that those who share in Christ’s sufferings will also share in his glory (SpEx 95). Let us not think that we are “above” the Lord’s self-gift, for “no slave is greater than his master nor any messenger greater than the one who sent him” (Jn 13:16). Irenaeus says, “the glory of God is the living man, and the life of man is the vision of God” (AH, 4, 20, 7). We are God’s glory when we become a “vision of God,” loving as God loves. When we do so, God works through us to set others free as we have been set free, since, “whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me” (Jn 13:20). The glory that we share with God is not only the glory of being set free to love even through suffering, but the even greater glory that sets other people free through our forgiving love and offers them the life of love that God has given us.