Monday, December 10, 2018

Advent III C

3rd Sunday of Advent C

Readings: Zephaniah 3:14‑18  Philippians 4:4‑7  Luke 3:10‑18

            "Cry out with joy and gladness;/ for among you is the great and Holy One of Israel."  This Sunday's responsorial (Isaiah 12) calls us to confidently rejoice in the approach of the "mighty savior" (Zeph 3:17).  Those who are willing to do the practical acts of repentance demanded by John the Baptist in today's Gospel selection can await the arrival of the Messiah in joyful peace and without frantic anxiety.
            Zephaniah was a prophet during a time of idolatry and apostasy from the covenant in seventh century B.C. Judah.  Most of his short book is filled with oracles of judgment describing the Lord's Day of doom and judgment against Judah and the nations.  But his prophecy ends on a note of hope and a promise of joy for the purified remnant left in Jerusalem/Zion (3:10‑11).  Once the judgment is over, Zion is commanded to "Shout for joy!", because the presence of "The King of Israel, the Lord" will guarantee her safety.  Jerusalem is even promised that "The Lord, your God" will himself "sing joyfully because of you, as one sings at festivals." “On that day, it shall be said to Jerusalem:/ fear not, O Zion, be not discouraged!/ The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior;/ he will rejoice over you with gladness and renew you in his love./ He will sing joyfully because of you, as one sings at festivals.
            The second reading from Philippians continues the tone of confident joy as Paul, while in prison, exhorts his beloved community: "Rejoice in the Lord always!  I say it again.  Rejoice!"  Their perpetual gratitude to the Lord should lead to acts of kindness.  "Everyone should see how unselfish you are."  Despite the sufferings both he and they are enduring, Paul is convinced that "The Lord himself is near." Therefore, they can "dismiss all anxiety from (their) minds."  Paul ends his exhortation by encouraging the Philippians to present their "needs to God in every form of prayer and petitions full of gratitude."  He then assures them that "God's own peace, which is beyond all understanding, will stand guard over (their) hearts and minds, in Christ Jesus."         

            In the Gospel from Luke, John the Baptist presents concrete ways of properly preparing in repentance for the arrival of the Messiah.  In the previous section from last Sunday’s reading from Luke’s gospel, John warns the crowds who have come to be baptized: “produce good fruits as evidence of your repentance” (Lk 3:8).  Now various groups ask him, “What shall we do?”  John's advice is specific and within the means of each group.  He commands those who have extra goods to “share with the person who has none.”  He orders the tax collectors, who were notorious cheats, “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.”  Finally, he charges the soldiers, who were tempted to use their military might for their own advantage, “Do not bully anyone.  Denounce no one falsely.  Be content with your pay.”
            John's duties also include pointing to the arrival of the Messiah.  His father Zechariah had sung of him at his birth: "And you, child, will be called/ prophet of the Most High,/ for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways./ to give his people knowledge of salvation/ through the forgiveness of their sins . . .” (Lk 1:76)  So when the people, "full of anticipation," want to know if he "might be the Messiah," John fulfills his mission by saying: “I am baptizing you in water, but there is one to come who is mightier than I.  I am not fit to loosen his sandal strap.  He will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire” (Lk 3:16).
John's last warning announces the Messiah's coming as a harvester with “His winnowing‑fan . . . in his hand” about to  clear the threshing floor by gathering the wheat into his granary and burning the chaff in unquenchable fire.  For those prepared to follow John's preaching this is not a threat but the "good news" of the arrival of God's long awaited justice.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Immaculate Conception

Immaculate Conception (December 8)

Readings: Genesis 3:9-15, 20   Ephesians 1:3-6, 11-12 
 Luke 1:26-38

            The Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary celebrates the mystery that God the Father prepared the Virgin Mary to be the worthy mother of his Son by letting her “share beforehand in the salvation Christ would bring by his death and kept her sinless from the first moment of her conception” (Opening Prayer).  This mystery is not directly attested in Scripture but gradually came to be believed in the course of the Church’s traditional understanding of Mary’s special place in salvation history.  It was finally defined by Pope Pius IX in 1854 in the decree Ineffabilis Deus.  The readings for the feast celebrate God’s saving love which triumphs over the power of sin and evil through Christ’s death and resurrection and the obedience of Mary in cooperating with God’s saving plan.  Let us rejoice in God’s saving deeds in the words of the refrain for the responsorial psalm: “Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous deeds” (Ps 98).
            The Genesis reading recounts the Lord God’s searching out Adam and Eve after they have sinned by eating of the forbidden tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden.  Rather than abandon them in their sin, shame and hiding, the Lord God asks Adam, “Where are you?”  This is not simply a question concerning his physical location but one about his existential condition now that he has sinned.  It is addressed to all of us in our choice of selfishness and sin.  Adam’s answer reflects the telltale signs of the alienation brought on by sin: “I heard you in the garden; but I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid myself.”  Adam and Eve’s attempt to become “like the gods knowing good and evil” (3:5) has only brought them fear and shame and caused them to hide from the Lord God.  In an attempt to get Adam to accept responsibility for his sin, the Lord asks, “Who told you that you were naked?  You have eaten, then, from the tree of which I have forbidden you to eat!”  Rather than taking full responsibility for his deed, Adam feebly blames the woman and even the Lord God for his sin.  “The woman whom you put here with me—she gave me fruit from the tree, and so I ate it.”  Likewise when she is asked by the Lord God, “Why did you do such a thing?” the woman blames the serpent: “The serpent tricked me into it, so I ate it.”
            Our reading concludes with the first of three punishments the Lord pronounces on the serpent, the woman and the man (3:14-19).  The serpent as “the most cunning of all the animals the Lord God had made” (3:1) had earlier tempted the woman into sin by suggesting that God had forbidden the eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil out of divine jealousy: “You certainly will not die!  No, God knows that the moment you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is bad.”  Now the Lord God punishes the serpent to “be banned from all the animals” and crawl on his belly and eat dirt “all the days of (his) life.”  The conclusion of the serpent’s sentence speaks of the ongoing enmity between his offspring and that of the woman.  Christian tradition has called this the Proto-evangelium, the first good news of the victory of Christ over Satan who will undo the sin of Adam by his obedience to the Father’s will. “I will put enmity between you and the woman,/ and between your offspring and hers;/ he will strike at your head,/ while you strike at his heel.”   Adam’s naming of his wife Eve, “mother of the living,” ends the episode on a hopeful note.  Despite the harsh realities of sin and suffering, life will go on in the hope of a victory over sin.  This hope begins to be realized when Mary, in contrast to the selfish Eve, consents to her role in God’s plan.
The reading from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians is taken from the opening doxology which praises God for the choice of the early Christian communities to share in God’s plan of salvation to unite all things, including the once antagonistic Jews and Gentiles, through redemption in Christ.  Ephesians is a theological tract written for Gentile Christians who are now called to share with Jewish Christians the privilege of membership in the community of the saints (cf. Eph 2:11-22).  A major theme which runs throughout Ephesians is “the mystery” of God’s plan which calls both Jews and Gentiles into a single body, the Church, destined to be the cosmic presence of Christ, its head, who will eventually integrate “all things in the heavens and on the earth.”  This opening hymn highlights the gratuity of God’s favor to both groups.  The Jews were chosen “before the world began, to be holy and blameless in his (God’s) sight,” and now they have been favored with redemption from their sins and insight into the mystery of God’s plan to unite all things in the universe in Christ.  The Gentiles have also now been chosen to hear “the glad tidings of salvation,” to believe in the good news, and be sealed by the Holy Spirit.  Mary in her Immaculate Conception is the prime example of the chosen who “were predestined to praise his glory by being the first to hope in Christ.”
The Gospel for the feast is Luke’s story of the Annunciation.  With an aura of solemn wonder and joy, Luke’s narrative describes the beginning of the fulfillment of the long-awaited time of salvation.  In the style of birth stories in the Old Testament, the angel Gabriel announces Jesus’ birth and destiny to Mary, as he had previously done for John the Baptist to the doubting Zechariah (see Lk 1:5-23).  The scene is filled with improbabilities.  The site is Nazareth in Galilee; there has been no Davidic court in Jerusalem for almost 600 years.  The recipient is a virgin, who is “deeply troubled” by the angel’s greeting and later has to ask, “How can this be since I do not know man?”  Rather than normal human conception, the child will be conceived by the power of the Most High, and the confirming sign that Mary’s baby is indeed to be called Son of God is that her kinswoman Elizabeth has conceived a son in her old age.  In language reminiscent of the annunciation of Isaac’s birth to Abraham and Sarah (see Genesis 18), Gabriel ends by affirming “nothing is impossible to God.”  In contrast to the incredulous Zechariah and her laughing ancestress Sarah, Mary acquiesces to the mysterious divine plan. “I am the maidservant of the Lord.  Let it be done to me according to your word.”  Mary’s obedient and humble participation in God’s mysterious plan of salvation stands in stark contrast to the selfish attempt of Adam and Eve to “become like one of the gods, knowing good and evil.”

Advent II C

2nd Sunday of Advent C

Readings: Baruch 5:1‑9  Philippians 1:4‑6,8‑11  Luke 3:1‑6

The second and third Sundays of Advent always feature the ministry of John the Baptist, the herald who announces the coming of the Messiah.  Today's readings are filled with joyful confidence because the time of salvation is dawning as "the word of God (is) spoken to John son of Zechariah in the desert."  Let us pray, in the words of the responsorial psalm:  "The Lord has done great things for us;/ we are filled with joy" (Ps 126).
In the first reading from Baruch, the desolate city of Jerusalem is commanded to cease its mourning and "put on the splendor of glory from God forever" because he is bringing her dispersed children back from the Diaspora.  Like the high priest, Jerusalem is to wrap herself "in the cloak of justice," bear on her head "the mitre that displays the glory of the eternal name." This gathering of Jerusalem’s exiles is meant to be a revelation of God’s kingdom to the whole world. “For God will show all the earth your splendor:/ You will be named by God forever/the peace of justice, the glory of God’s worship.”  Jerusalem is commanded to “stand upon the heights” and witness the solemn procession of her scattered children returning to their homeland. “Up, Jerusalem! Stand upon the heights;/ look to the east and see your children/ gathered from the east and the west/ at the word of the Holy One,/ rejoicing that they are remembered by God. Led away on foot by their enemies they left you/ but God will bring them back to you/ borne aloft in glory as on royal thrones.” In a second Exodus God has prepared a path for his people by commanding “that every mountain be made low,/ and that the age-old depths and gorges be filled to level ground,/ that Israel may advance secure in the glory of God” (see Isa 40:3‑5).  He even orders “the forests and every fragrant kind of tree to overshadow Israel,” as he leads his people in joy “with his mercy and justice for company.”

Paul's prayer for the Philippians, in the second reading, continues the theme of waiting in joyful expectation.  Despite his own imprisonment (see Phil 1:7,12‑26; 4:10‑20), Paul is  filled with joy and gratitude because of the way the Philippians  have "continually helped promote the Gospel from the very first  day."  He assures them that God "who has begun the good work in you will carry it through to completion, right up to the day of Christ Jesus."  As they await the "harvest of justice," Paul prays that their "love" and "understanding" of "what really matters" will continue to grow "up to the very day of Christ." 
Luke's account of the beginning of John the Baptist's preaching has a tone of joyful solemnity.  Because of the universal significance of these events, the evangelist carefully dates them by specifying the Roman and Jewish rulers of the time.  The day of salvation dawns at a very particular and portentous moment in history.  Roman imperialism has absorbed the whole of the  Mediterranean world, including Judea and Galilee, but only to serve God's purposes so that "all mankind shall see the salvation of God" (Lk 3:6; Isa 40:3‑5).  Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate,  Herod the tetrarch of Galilee and Annas and Caiaphas are all  destined to play roles in God's plan for salvation through Jesus. 
John's proclamation of   "a baptism of repentance which led to the forgiveness of sins" is also carefully linked to prophecy in the Hebrew Scriptures.  The Book of Isaiah spoke of "a herald's voice in the desert" which would announce the return of Babylonian exiles to Jerusalem through the forbidding Arabian desert (see Isa 40:3‑5 and our reading from Baruch).  Luke relates this passage to John's call for repentance in the desert region near the Jordan.  In this context, Isaiah and Baruch’s imagery takes on the tone of a moral preparation which will culminate in God's salvation through Jesus. "A herald's voice in the desert, crying,/ `Make ready the way of the Lord,/ clear him a straight path./  Every valley shall be filled/ and every mountain and hill shall be leveled,/  The windings shall be made straight/ and the rough ways smooth,/ and all humankind shall see the salvation of God.’” In next week’s gospel we will hear John’s very concrete ethical teaching specifying how we may “make ready the way of the Lord.”

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

ADVENT I Lectionary year C

1st Sunday of Advent C

Readings: Jeremiah 33:14‑16  1 Thessalonians 3:12‑4:2  
 Luke 21:25‑28,34‑35

            In our activist culture waiting is something we grudgingly endure, but rarely do well.  Yet during Advent, we are asked to wait, not in meaningless boredom, but with active hope.  Today's readings proclaim the promises of the Messiah's coming to complete God's kingdom.  Let us pray in the words of the responsorial psalm: To You, O Lord, I lift up my soul/. . . . Guide me in your truth and teach me,/ for you are God my savior,/ and for you I wait all day” (Ps 25:4‑5).
            In the Old Testament reading, Jeremiah's oracle promises a Messiah, a just shoot from the royal line of David who will do what is right and just in the land.  His rule will bring safety and security for Judah and Jerusalem.  The land will be renamed: "The Lord our justice.” “I will raise up for David a just shoot;/ he shall do what is right and just in the land./ In those days Judah shall be safe/ and Jerusalem shall dwell secure;/ this is what they shall call her: ‘The Lord our justice.’”
Jeremiah spoke this prophecy in the darkest hours of Judah's history.  Its recent kings had been corrupt and ineffectual, and now Jerusalem is under siege from Babylonian armies and is about to be destroyed, along with the Temple.  The prophet himself is imprisoned for warning of these disasters (see Jeremiah 32‑33).   Despite the bleakness of Judah's hopes, he boldly proclaims the nation will be reborn after its destruction and exile.  He even enacts this hope in symbol by buying a plot  of land that he had the right to purchase in the tribal system of  family land inheritance in order to say to discouraged in Judah: "homes and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this  land" (Jer 32:15).
            In the reading from Paul's First Letter to the Thessalonians, the apostle prays that this struggling young Christian community will endure in faith by living a life of love for one another, as it awaits "the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones."  Paul is trying to correct two extremes in the Thessalonian community.  Some are living morally irresponsible lives by indulging "lustful passion as do the Gentiles who do not know God" (1 Thess 4:4).  Others have neglected the needs of the poor and their daily duties of supporting themselves, because they believe that Jesus' triumphant return in glory is near (see 1 Thess 4:9‑12).  Paul exhorts both groups to conduct themselves "in a way pleasing to God" (1 Thess 4:1).

            The Gospel reading for the First Sunday of Advent always picks up the themes of the last Sundays of the previous church year by speaking of Jesus' second coming to complete God's  kingdom.  During this year's C cycle of readings, we will be reading Luke's Gospel, and so this Sunday presents us with Jesus' apocalyptic discourse from the end of Luke.
            Luke's version of Jesus' warnings about the apparent terrors of the apocalypse is consoling, rather than frightening.  He assures the disciples: “When these things (the signs of the end time) begin to happen, stand up straight and raise your heads, for your ransom is near at hand.”  Only if the community lapses into a life of indulgence, drunkenness and worldly cares will the day come upon it “like a trap.”  If the disciples live watchful and prayerful lives, they will have the strength ‘to stand secure before the Son of Man’ (Lk 21:36). “Be on guard lest your spirits become bloated with indulgence and drunkenness and worldly cares.  The great day will suddenly close in on you like a trap. . . .Pray constantly for the strength to escape whatever is in prospect, and to stand secure before the Son of Man.”

Monday, November 19, 2018

Christ, the King

Solemnity of Christ the King B

 Readings: Daniel 7:13-14  Revelation 1:5-8  John 18:33-37

On the last Sunday of the Church year, the feast of Christ the King, we are reminded of the ultimate triumph of God’s kingdom through Jesus, “the faithful witness, the first-born from the dead and the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev 1:5).  Although the readings may seem to have an almost triumphal tone, each hints at the conflict between God’s kingdom and the powers of evil in the world.  In the midst of our secular culture, we must take a leap of faith to pray today’s responsorial psalm: “The Lord is king/ He is robed in majesty” (Ps 93).
Daniel’s account of his apocalyptic vision in the first reading was originally meant to offer hope to the Jewish community experiencing a terrible pogrom from the wicked Seleucid king Antiochus IV in the years 168 through 163 B.C. (see 1 Maccabees).  In the first part of his vision Daniel sees four terrifying beasts coming out of the chaotic sea (7:1-8).  More detail is given to the fourth beast, especially to a boastful “little horn” (a symbol for Antiochus; see 7:19-27).  Daniel next sees the heavenly throne room of “the Ancient of Days,” God, and witnesses the destruction of the fourth beast and the removal of the dominion of others (7:9-12).  This is followed by our reading in which a human figure, “one like a son of man,” ascends “with the clouds of heaven” into the heavenly court and receives from the Ancient of Days “everlasting dominion and glory and kingdom” (7:13-14).  At this point an anxious Daniel asks a figure in the heavenly court (the interpreting angel of apocalyptic visions) to explain the vision to him.  He learns that the four beasts are four kingdoms which shall arise out of the earth (7:17).  These represent the nations who have dominated the Near East from 600-168 B.C., but have ultimately lost their great empires (Babylon, Media, Persia, and the Greeks under Alexander).  Daniel then learns that the human figure is a symbol of “the saints of the Most High,” who will receive God’s kingdom and possess it forever.  The angel also informs him that the arrogant little horn will “speak against the Most High/ and oppress the holy ones of the Most High” but will ultimately lose his power when kingship shall be given to the “holy people of the Most High.”  Despite the apparent triumph of the world’s evil powers, God’s faithful (the Jews dying for their faith) will be vindicated in the end.

The second reading from Revelation is also part of an apocalyptic vision offering hope for persecuted peoples: seven Christian churches in Asia Minor (Revelation 2-3) in the midst of trials to their faith and persecutions from the Roman government for failure to either recognize the Roman state-gods or to participate in the emperor cult.  Their hope rests in the triumph of the risen Jesus who has himself endured martyrdom but now reigns in heaven. Our reading is taken from the opening salutation to the seven churches, greeting them with grace and peace from the seven protective spirits before God’s throne and especially the triumphant Jesus, who was himself a faithful witness (martyr) and is now “the first born from the dead and ruler of the kings of the earth.”  The salutation continues with two doxologies consoling the churches with their status as a kingdom of priests, freed from their sins and awaiting the coming of Christ with the clouds (recall Daniel’s vision).  The final words are from God himself, who assures them that he is in control of all history.  I am the Alpha and the Omega, the One who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”
In the Gospel reading from John’s account of Jesus’ trial before Pilate, Jesus challenges the Roman procurator, and us, to accept “the truth of his kingdom that does not belong to this world.”  Throughout John, characters in dialogue with Jesus are asked to move from an earthly to a spiritual understanding of Jesus (see chs. 3, 4, 6, 9, 11).  This gives an ironic tone to the whole Gospel.  Pilate thinks he is putting Jesus on trial and begins his interrogation by asking, “Are you king of the Jews?”  In reality, Jesus is inviting Pilate to move from his earthly and political understanding of kingship to a spiritual one rooted in his act of love in laying down his life (see 10:14-18).  He tells Pilate: “My kingdom does not belong to this world.  If my kingdom were of this world, my subjects would be fighting to save me from being handed over to the Jews.  As it is my kingdom is not here.”  At this point Pilate shows some interest in Jesus’ kingship, asking, “So, then, you are a king?”  But Jesus brushes aside the implication that he is an earthly king and invites Pilate to believe in the truth of his heavenly kingship: “Anyone committed to the truth hears my voice.”  In John’s Gospel, “the truth” always refers to Jesus identity as the One who has come from the Father to reveal his love for the world by laying down his life (see 5:33; 8:40,45-46; 14:6; 17:17,19).  In the remainder of the trial, Pilate chooses the earthly kingship of Caesar and gives in to the demands for Jesus’ death (see 18:37-19:16).  We might ask ourselves if we are the subjects of the powerful earthly Caesars of worldly expediency or of Jesus, who says, “I am the good shepherd.  A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).

Monday, November 12, 2018

33rd Sunday B

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time B

Readings: Daniel 12:1-3  Hebrews 10:11-14,18  Mark 13:24-32

On this next to last Sunday of the Church year the readings proclaim the ultimate triumph of God’s kingdom and the vindication of the faithful who serve God in the midst of evil and persecution.  As we dedicate ourselves to this fearless service, let each of us pray the refrain of the responsorial psalm: “Keep me safe, O God; you are my hope” (Ps 16).
The first reading is from Daniel, an apocalyptic book written during the violent persecutions of the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes (r. 174-163 B.C.), who was determined to destroy the Jewish faith and enforce Hellenistic culture and the worship of Zeus upon his Jewish subjects (see 1 Maccabees 1).  During this time of terrible suffering many Jews chose to die rather than abandon fidelity to God and the Torah (see 1 Maccabees 1-2 and the stories of the Jewish martyrs in 2 Maccabees 6-7).
Dan 12:1-3 is an apocalyptic vision announcing the future deliverance of the faithful.  It is the only unequivocal statement of a belief in the resurrection of the dead in the Hebrew Scriptures. (See also the belief in the immortality of the soul in the Greek Book of Wisdom, written slightly later).  For the author of Daniel the persecutions of Antiochus evoke thoughts about the sufferings at the end time, and he expects that those Jews who had died for their faith will be vindicated by a bodily resurrection as a part of the triumph of God’s kingdom.  In the vision, Daniel is assured that Michael, the protecting angel of the Jewish people, will arise to deliver the faithful “whose names shall be found written in the book.”  The faithful/wise “who turn many to righteousness” will awake to everlasting life and will shine like stars in the firmament.  But those who have been unfaithful will awake to shame and everlasting contempt.
The second reading from Hebrews continues the contrast between the permanently effective one sacrifice of Christ in the heavenly sanctuary which has achieved forgiveness of sin and the ineffectual sin sacrifices of the Levitical priesthood in the temple.  Using language drawn from the royal and priestly Psalm 110, the author describes the completion of Jesus’ work as being exalted to God’s right hand in the heavenly sanctuary where he awaits the defeat of his enemies.  This exaltation and battle language fits the situation of a community that has also known persecution (see 10:32ff) and now is in need of endurance in a time of testing (see 10:35-39; 11).

The Gospel is taken from the conclusion of Jesus’ apocalyptic sermon announcing to his disciples the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple.  Mark is the most apocalyptic of the four Gospels, and it may have been written for a persecuted Christian community in the midst of a crisis, possibly precipitated by the fall of Jerusalem and its Temple to the Roman armies in 70 A.D. (see especially Mk 8:34-38; Mk 13:3-23).  Many false messiahs and prophets apparently expected that the fall of Jerusalem and its temple would be the sign of the end, but according to Mk 13:3-23, the Roman Jewish War of 66-70 A.D. and the concomitant persecution of Mark’s community are only “the beginning of the birth-pangs.”  In this time of crisis, the community is called to endure in giving heroic witness to its faith and is assured that this is a time for the Gospel to be proclaimed to the Gentiles (Mk 13:9-13).
Our selection is meant to console this community by assuring it that Jesus, as the suffering Son of Man was also delivered up to death (15), but has now triumphed over death in his resurrection (16:1-8; see 8:31-38; 9:30-32; 10:32-34) and will return as the glorious Son of Man to gather his elect.  Mark’s picture of this event is similar to other apocalypses, including Daniel (see Daniel 7).  After the period of trials, the cosmos will be reordered and the Son of Man will come on the clouds of heaven with great power and glory to dispatch his angels to gather the faithful from the four corners of the earth.  Using the lesson of the fig tree whose branches run high with sap just before summer, Jesus says, “In the same way, when you see these things happening (the cosmic signs), you will know that he is near, even at the door.”  Although Jesus assures his disciples that the generation that witnesses these signs “will not pass away until all these things take place,” he ends by prudently reminding the disciples that the exact time of these events is known only to the Father. “As to the exact day or hour, no one knows it, neither the angels in heaven nor even the Son, but only the Father.” Because the ‘day or hour’ is unknown, Jesus concludes by commanding his disciples to be alert and watchful, like faithful and dutiful servants awaiting the return of their master. “Be watchful!  Be alert!  You do not know when the time will come.  It is like a man traveling abroad.  He leaves home and places his servants in charge, each with his work, and orders the gatekeeper to be on watch. Watch, therefore, you do not know when the lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning.  May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’”

Monday, November 5, 2018

32nd Sunday B

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time B

Readings: 1 Kings 17:10-16   Hebrews 9:24-28  Mark 12:38-44

As the Christian community moves toward the end of the Church Year, this Sunday’s readings present us with two women, both poor widows, and Christ himself as models for the charity that leads to God’s life-giving victory over the forces of sin and death.
In the reading from 1 Kings the prophet Elijah is engaged in a life and death struggle with Queen Jezebel, the Phoenician wife of King Ahab, who has brought the cult of the Caananite god Baal into Israel.  In order to prove to Ahab that the Lord, not Baal, controls the life-giving rain which brings fertility to the earth, Elijah has announced to the king that there will be neither dew nor rain for the coming years except at his word.  In the ensuing drought, the Lord sustains Elijah with drink and food, first in the ravine of Kerith east of the Jordan through a stream and a raven (1 Kgs 17:2-7), and then by the widow of Zarephath, a village of Sidon in the very territory of Jezebel and her reputed god, Baal (1 Kgs 17:8-16). 
The widow’s generous hospitality to the prophet, despite her poverty, is life-giving and stands in sharp contrast to the destructive actions of the power-hungry and ruthless Jezebel.  Although she has only a handful of flour and a little oil in her jug and is about to die along with her son, the widow gives the prophet drink and food because she trusts his word that the Lord will provide flour and oil.  As a result, she and her son are sustained for a year.
The second reading continues the selections from Hebrews by contrasting the one and permanently efficacious sacrifice of Christ, the high priest after the order of Melchizedek, with the old sacrifices offered repeatedly by the high priests in the Temple each year.  Hebrews is addressed to a community that has endured great suffering because of its faith (10:32-34) and now is tempted to apathy or apostasy (see 3:7-4:13; 5:11-6:12; etc.).  The author interweaves theological exposition about the permanence of the salvation God has accomplished in Christ with moral exhortation to continue firm in the hope of salvation.  Throughout the theological exposition Hebrews contrasts the changing, repetitious and ultimately ineffectual rituals of the old covenant with the permanent, once for all, and lastingly effective saving actions of Christ.
In this section Christ’s saving death is contrasted to the ineffectual sacrifices of the high priests in the earthly temple.  Christ has entered the heavenly sanctuary, as opposed to the one made by hands, to offer his own blood once to take away the sins of the many, as opposed to the repetitious sacrifices of animal blood offered in the earthly temple.  For the author of Hebrews, Christians have already received the gift of salvation when Christ offered his sacrifice to take away the sins of the many; they now must eagerly and faithfully await the return of Christ who will bring salvation.

The Gospel story of the widow’s gift comes from Mark’s account of Jesus’ Jerusalem ministry (Mark 11-13).  In the midst of several hostile controversies with the temple leaders, Mark has two positive examples of proper responses to the kingdom of God: the scribe from last Sunday’s Gospel, who sincerely asks Jesus which is the greatest of the commandments (12:28-34) and the poor widow whose donation of two copper coins into the Temple treasury Jesus contrasts with the hypocrisy of the scribes (12:38-44).
The difference between the pompous religiosity of the scribes, as Jesus describes them, and the true spirituality of the widow could not be greater.  For the scribes, religion is a matter of public prestige.  They are the revered doctors of the law who parade through the streets in their long robes and receive signs of public respect: greetings in the street, the chief seats in the synagogues and places of honor at feasts.  But these doctors of the law are the same ones who undermine the true law by “devouring the savings of widows” and reciting long prayers simply for appearance sake.  In contrast, the poor widow is to all appearances a destitute failure who has only “two small copper coins” to donate to the temple treasury.  Yet, her generosity, like that of the widow in the Elijah story, is boundless, and Jesus holds her up to his disciples as a model for their charity. “I want you to observe that this poor widow contributed more than all the others who donated to the treasury.  They gave from their surplus wealth, but she gave from her want, all that she had to live on.”