Monday, November 27, 2023

A New Liturgical Year 1st Sunday of Advent B

 1st Sunday of Advent B

Readings: Isaiah 63:16-64:7   1 Corinthians 1:3-9     Mark 13:33-37

We all know what it’s like to await the return of a loved one.  During Advent the whole Christian community waits in partial darkness, but also in hope and trust, for the Second coming of our light: Jesus the Messiah.  The liturgy for the First Sunday of Advent in the B Cycle confronts us with our sin and need for God but also challenges us to await Christ’s return in hope.  We pray in the words of the Entrance Antiphon: “No one who waits for you is ever put to shame.”

The Isaiah reading is a lament pleading that God save the Jewish community which has just returned from exile in Babylon.  Haunted by guilt over their sin, the returning exiles, through the voice of the prophet, beg in desperation that the Lord come in a mighty theophany as on Mount Sinai: “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,/ with mountains quaking before you. . .”  They pray that the Lord will find them living justly.  “Would that you might meet us doing right/ that we were mindful of you in our ways!”   Although tortured by guilt over sin, the exiles must have a deep confidence in the Lord who has saved them in the past.  The prophet both confesses the nation’s sins and places absolute trust in God’s care: “We have all withered like leaves,/ our guilt carries us away like the wind./ . . . O Lord, you are our father;/ we are the clay and you are the potter;/ We are all the work of your hands.”

The second reading from the thanksgiving section in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians captures the mood of the Church during Advent.  We Christians live in hope because of the gift of salvation brought by Jesus’ death and resurrection, but we also confidently await his future return in power.  We, like the Corinthians, have been “richly endowed with every gift of speech and knowledge,” and therefore we can trust that we will “lack no spiritual gift” as we “wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus.”  But our challenge is to be found “blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The Gospel reading for the First Sunday of Advent always dove tails with the readings at the end of the previous Church year because they are about Jesus’ second coming to complete the Kingdom of God.  During this year’s B cycle of readings, we will read Mark’s Gospel, and so this Sunday gives us part of Mark’s version of Jesus’ apocalyptic sermon to his disciples at the end of his public ministry.

The setting is ominous.  Jesus has just cleansed the temple and been engaged in violent controversy with the temple leaders over his authority for this prophetic action (see Mark 11-12). Now he and his disciples have left the temple, and when they express admiration for its building, Jesus announces, “Do you see these great buildings?  There will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down.”  When Mark is writing his gospel, these events have probably already happened, as the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem temple in 70 A.D. during the Jewish-Roman war.

In the first part of his sermon Jesus warns his disciples about wars and persecutions that will threaten them from without and the false prophets and Messiahs from within the community who will attempt to lead them astray.  Despite the apparent signs of the end time, Jesus insists that the day or the hour is known only to God,  therefore, he urges the disciples to be alert and watchful like servants put in charge by a master who travels abroad or like a doorkeeper who is to open to the master of a house upon his return at some unknown hour of the night.  Although these images emphasize the need for being watchful, they do not provoke anxiety.  The completion of the kingdom will be the work of the returning Son.  Each disciple is only expected to be doing the assigned task.  There may be no better way to keep Advent than to be attentive to our assigned duties as we long for the return of our Master.

Monday, November 20, 2023

Christ the King A


Christ the King A

Readings: Ezekiel 34:11‑12,15‑17  1 Corinthians 15:20‑26,28  Matthew 25:31‑46

            The Feast of Christ the King marks the end of the liturgical year with readings that speak of Christ's triumph over sin and death and the final judgment in which he as shepherd will separate the nations, like sheep and goats, on the basis of their kindness to his suffering brothers. With confident faith, let us pray for the completion of Christ's kingdom of peace and justice in the words of the responsorial psalm: "The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want" (Ps 23).

            Ezekiel's shepherd allegory speaks of the Lord God coming to rescue the strayed and lost sheep and to destroy "the sleek and the strong" who have abused them.  The prophet was living with the Jewish exiles in Babylon, and in the first part of his allegory he denounces Judah's latest kings and leaders as "shepherds . . .  who have been pasturing themselves" and fleecing the flock entrusted to them.  Because of their selfish rule, the nation has gone into exile; its people have been "scattered for lack of a shepherd and become food for the wild beasts."  But now, through Ezekiel, God announces, "I myself will look after and tend my sheep."  God will restore the nation from exile; the lost and strayed sheep will be sought out and brought back; the injured and sick will be bandaged and healed.  "The sleek and the strong," who have taken advantage of their weaker brethren, will be destroyed, as the Lord God judges "between one sheep and another, between rams and goats."

     In the 1 Corinthians reading, Paul is responding to those who claim that Christians already live in a resurrected state and that there will be no resurrection of the body at the end time.   Paul argues that Christ's bodily resurrection is the heart of the Christian good news, and, in this section, he insists that the resurrected Christ is like the first fruits of a harvest which will affect all humanity.  Paul understands Christ as the new Adam: as "death came through a man (Adam)," so resurrected life has come through the new man, Christ.  In the interim between Christ's resurrection and the final resurrection, "Christ must reign until God has put all enemies under his feet . . ."   The greatest and "last enemy to be destroyed is death" which has already been defeated in the resurrection of Christ.                                                                                       

            Jesus concludes his final discourse in Matthew with the scene of the Last Judgment (Mt 25:31-46) in which acts of mercy will be the criteria by which all will be judged. When the nations are assembled before him as the glorious Son of Man seated upon his throne, they will be separated like sheep from goats and blessed or cursed by the mercy or neglect they have shown to the hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick, and prisoners—the traditional corporal works of mercy in the Jewish and Christian traditions.    The surprising feature of the judgment is that in showing mercy for or neglecting these needy they have been encountering Jesus himself who in his public ministry has identified himself with the poor and suffering and who has come “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (20:28). “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”  Jesus is truly Emmanuel, God with us, present in the neediest of all until he returns in glory.

Monday, November 13, 2023

33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time A

 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time A

Readings: Proverbs 31:10‑13,19‑20,30‑31  1 Thessalonians 5:1‑6   Matthew 25:14‑30

      As we approach the close of the liturgical year, the readings continue to remind us that we are to be "children of the light," engaged in wise and productive activity in anticipation of our Master's return.  The responsorial psalm promises that those "who fear the Lord" by walking in his ways will be happy and will enjoy the fruit of their labors (Ps 128).

      The reading from Proverbs is part of an alphabetic acrostic poem (each verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet) in praise of the worthy wife.   It is the conclusion of Proverbs and echoes the themes of the entire book where Wisdom is personified as a Lady who is to be courted by young men.  The "worthy wife" is the practical and concrete "incarnation" of the divine and exalted figure of Lady Wisdom (see Proverbs 1‑9). 

      The poem begins by praising her inestimable value to the husband who finds her: "When one finds a worthy wife,/ her value is beyond pearls."  Her gifts come from her ceaseless activity in providing clothing, food, economic security, and wise counsel for both her own household and the needy.  Such concrete and practical care for others is what Proverbs means by "fear of the Lord."  The poem ends by contrasting the deceptive and fleeting character of charm and beauty with the enduring worth of "the woman who fears the Lord."

      In the reading from 1 Thessalonians, Paul continues to address their concerns about "the day of the Lord" when Jesus will return in glory.  Paul does not want them to speculate about "specific times and moments."  They already know "that the day of the Lord is coming like a thief in the night."  Jesus' sudden return, however, should not cause anxiety.  Using an apocalyptic contrast between darkness/night and light/day, Paul reminds the Thessalonian Christians that they are different from the children of darkness who live with a false sense of security, like people who are asleep or drunk.  As the "children of the light and day," Christians should not be caught "off guard," because they are "awake and sober."  Paul goes on to describe this sobriety as  living a life of faith, love and hope‑‑ the very virtues he  praised the Thessalonians for at the beginning of the letter (see  1 Thess 1:2‑3).

      The Gospel parable of the talents continues Matthew's theme of the need for responsible behavior by the church when the Master's return is delayed.  The disciples are challenged by a parable about servants who are entrusted with funds by a very demanding master while he goes on a long journey.  They are to see themselves in the servants, because they too have been left in charge of the Christian community after Jesus' resurrection.

      The three servants are given amounts of money ‘according to each man's abilities,’ but they are judged on the basis of whether they prove to be ‘industrious and reliable’ while the master is gone.  The servants who received five thousand and two thousand talents ‘invest’ their money and thereby double the master's funds.  Upon his return, he praises and rewards them: “Well done! You are an industrious and reliable servant. Since you were dependable in a small matter I will put you in charge of larger affairs.  Come, share your master's joy.”  The third servant, however, is paralyzed by fear of failure and brings the master no return upon his gift.  He really condemns himself in his speech to the master.

      “My lord, I knew you were a hard man.  You reap where you did not sow and gather where you did not scatter, so out of fear I went off and buried your thousand

      silver pieces in the ground.  Here is your money back.”

He is summarily condemned by the severe master as a "worthless, lazy lout."  His money is taken away, and he is thrown "into the darkness outside."

      In Matthew's earlier missionary discourse to the disciples (Matthew 10), we learn that the threat of persecution and suffering for the preaching of the gospel may cause the disciples to fear (Mt 10:16‑33), but Jesus consoles them with the following words.

      “And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one  who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.  Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin?  Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father's knowledge. . . . So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” (Mt 10:28‑31).

Monday, November 6, 2023

32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time A


32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time A

Readings: Wisdom 6:12‑16  1 Thessalonians 4:13‑18  Matthew 25:1‑13

          As the Church year draws to a close, the liturgy reminds us of the return of Jesus in glory to complete the Kingdom of God in judgment.  Our readings stress the need for vigilance and preparedness as we await the arrival of the Master.  Let us pray for the coming of God's kingdom in the words of the responsorial psalm: "My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God" (Ps 63).     

      The first reading from the Book of Wisdom is a praise of Lady Wisdom who personifies the justice and power of God which rules the universe and human affairs.  This section is part of an exhortation to the kings and magistrates of the earth to act justly in behalf of the lowly and oppressed (Wisdom 6:1‑21).   Those in authority will be judged severely if they do not "keep the holy precepts" of Wisdom.  In this context, the ruler is urged to love and seek for Lady Wisdom who is "resplendent and unfading."  "She makes her rounds, seeking those worthy of her."   Only those who are "watching for her at dawn" and prudently "keeping vigil" will be found worthy of her gifts.

      In the reading from the First Letter to the Thessalonians, Paul addresses their fears that loved ones who have died before Jesus' return in glory will be forgotten by God.  Paul initially expected Jesus' triumphant coming within his own lifetime, but this apparently led some to conclude that only those "who survive until his coming" would partake in the completion of Jesus' victory over sin and death.  Lest they "yield to grief like those who have no hope,"  Paul reminds them that Christian hope is founded upon the belief "that Jesus died and rose, (and) God will bring forth with him from the dead those also who have fallen asleep believing in him."  Speaking as if he were the Lord himself, Paul assures the Thessalonians that the living "will in no way have an advantage over those who have fallen asleep."  Paul tells them to console one another with the message that "those who have died in Christ will rise first," and then the living will "meet the Lord," and all "shall be with the Lord unceasingly."

     The Gospel parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids is part of Jesus' final apocalyptic discourse in Matthew.  In this section Jesus is warning his disciples that his return will both be delayed and will come suddenly.  He uses an image from prophetic literature where the final age is often depicted as a wedding feast (see Hos 2; Isa 62:1‑5; and Matt 22:1-14).  In the parable the ten bridesmaids, who are to welcome the groom, are judged by whether or not they are prepared for the delay in his coming to the wedding feast.  The foolish bridesmaids “brought no oil along,” while the sensible ones “took flasks of oil.”  When “the groom delayed his coming” and suddenly arrived at midnight, the foolish virgins had no oil to keep their torches burning and frantically asked the sensible ones, “Give us some of your oil; our torches are going out.”  The wise, however, replied, “No, there may not be enough for you and us.  You had better go to the dealers and buy yourselves some.”  At this point, the groom arrived, and only those “who were ready went in to the wedding with him.”  When the foolish bridesmaids return, the door has already been barred.  Their cry, “Lord, lord, open the door for us,” only brings the master's sharp reply: “I tell you I do not know you.”

      Elsewhere in Matthew's Gospel we learn very

 specifically what it means to be prepared for the hour

 of the master's return.   At the conclusion of the

 Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns that  

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the  kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my  Father in heaven” (Mt 7:21).  

      The Father’s will is spelled out very clearly in the

 Sermon on the Mount where Jesus teaches the

 demands of God's law including the command to

 “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and unjust” (Mt  5:43‑44).      

Monday, October 30, 2023

All Souls (November 2)


All Souls (November 2)

Readings: Wisdom 3:1-9  Romans 6:3-9  John 6:37-40

            The readings for the feast of All Souls proclaim the Christian belief in God’s victory over the powers of sin and death through the resurrection of Christ and his will to save all humans who are called to turn from sin and embrace a life of self-sacrificing love. In the Roman Catholic tradition we pray for the souls of the faithful departed who at the moment of death may still need to be purified from the power of sin.  The Church provides many options for the readings at the Masses for All Souls, but all of them affirm these Christian beliefs.

            The reading from the Book of Wisdom was originally written in Greek for Jews about a century before Christ who were living in a worldly Greek culture that tempted them to give up their faith in immortality and obeying the Torah’s commands and adopt a worldly pleasure-seeking way of life.  In chapter 2, “the wicked” argue, “Brief and troublesome is our lifetime” (2:1-5) and then pursue lives of wanton pleasure, making their own strength the norm of justice (2:6-11). Finally, they decide to persecute and kill “the just one” who “reproaches us for transgressions of the law” (2:12-19).  They reason: “Let us condemn him to a shameful death/ for according to his own words, God will take care of him.”  But the author of Wisdom believes that these worldly men have erred because they did not know “the hidden counsels of God” who rewards the innocent soul of the just (2:21-22) and who formed man “to be imperishable; the image of his own nature he made him” (2:23-24).     

            Our reading proclaims the final fate of the just.  Contrary to the foolish thoughts of the wicked who presume that the just are dead, afflicted and destroyed, they are “in peace” with God.  Although in the sight of others they seemed punished, the just, after being chastised and tried, have been found worthy of God and shall be greatly blessed.  “As gold in the furnace, he (God) proved them/ and as sacrificial offerings he took them to himself.”  Their final eschatological destiny will be to “judge nations and rule over peoples” with the Lord as “their King forever.”  The just will “understand truth,” abide with God “in love: because grace and mercy are with his holy ones,/ and his care is with his elect.”

            In the second reading from Romans 6, Paul proclaims the effect of resurrection faith on the present and future life of the Christian.  Paul’s diatribe in this section (6:1-9) raises and answers a possible objection to the gospel he preaches; for both Jews and Gentiles salvation from sin’s power is through faith in the crucified and risen Christ rather than through observance of the Torah.  The question is: does Paul’s gospel, which insists that both Jews and Gentiles were under sin’s dominion when Christ died for them, encourage continuation in sin “that grace may abound” (6:1)?  Paul’s answer is a definitive no, which he substantiates by reflecting on the effect of the baptism that Christian converts received.  Paul interprets Christian baptism as an entrance into Christ’s death and resurrection, in which the old self is crucified; the Christian is to be no longer enslaved to sin but to live in a newness of life.  Christian baptism involves an ethical conversion, a “death” to sin and a “resurrection” into a life of being “alive for God in Christ Jesus.” Freed from the power of death, the baptized Christian is filled with hope.  “If, then, we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him.  We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more; death no longer has power over him.”

            In the Gospel from John’s bread-of-life discourse Jesus solemnly announces to those who have seen his miracle of the loaves and fishes that all who believe in him as “the bread of God” come down to give life to the world shall have eternal life and be raised up on the last day.  Jesus proclaims that he has come down from heaven, not to do his own will, but that of the Father who sent him.  Then in two parallel statements Jesus affirms God’s will is to save all humanity.  First, he announces that it is the will of the one who sent me “that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but raise it up on the last day.”  Secondly, he proclaims that the Father’s will is “that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life, and I shall raise him on the last day.”  On the Feast of All Souls we celebrate this saving mystery in behalf of all our beloved departed. 

            We should also never lose sight of the fact that behind John’s image of Jesus as “the bread of life” stands his passion, death and resurrection.  The Jesus who is the bread that gives life to the world is the self-sacrificing Jesus who has come to lay down his life for his friends.  He is also the Jesus who teaches his disciples at the Last Supper to imitate him.

                        I give you a new commandment: love one another;

                        just as I have loved you, you must love one another.

                        By this love you have for one another,

                        everyone will know you are my disciples.  (John 13:34-35)   

 All Saints (November 1)

Readings: Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14  1 John 3:1-3  

Matthew 5:1-12

            The feast of All Saints marks a shift in the character of the readings proclaimed in Ordinary Time from the theme of the Christian community’s growth in grace to a concern with the last things.  The readings for all Saints reflect the feast’s original character as a celebration of Christian martyrdom in connection with the Easter season; they present the challenge of a way of life modeled on Jesus and the great heroes of the faith in the context of belief in the ultimate triumph of God’s kingdom over sin and death.

            The reading from Revelation 7 offers a consoling vision of the future that awaits the saints who have endured trial and persecution from the powers of evil in the present world order.  Revelation is an apocalyptic work written in the late first century C.E. by the prophet John of Patmos for seven churches in Asia Minor who were faced with Jewish hostility, public suspicion, sporadic Roman prosecution, imprisonment and even execution.  Many believers were tempted to renounce their belief in Christ and conform to the decadence of Roman society.  John’s visions of God and the lamb’s ultimate triumph over the forces of evil, especially Rome, are meant to strengthen Christian whose faith was wavering, by assuring them that death for Christ is not defeat but victory.

            Revelation 7 is part of the vision of the seven seals (6:1-8:6).  In an interlude between the sixth and seven seals, John describes two visions which assure the faithful that they are protected from God’s judgment.  Following a pattern found in Ezekiel 9, John describes the instructions for sealing the servants of God (the faithful) before the four angels ravage the land and sea.  A symbolic full number of 144,000 from every tribe of Israel are so marked.  In the second vision, John sees a huge crowd from every nation, race, people and tongue joyfully participating in the heavenly liturgy before the throne of God and the lamb (the crucified and resurrected Jesus).  They are dressed in long white robes of glory and are holding the palm branches of victory in their hands.  The vision’s climax comes when John learns from one of the elders that “these are the ones who have survived the great period of trial; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

            The second reading from 1 John 3 is a theological reflection and exhortation based on what God has bestowed on Christians through the act of divine love given in Christ.  In the tender language of first-person plural address, the author reminds us that we are already “children of God,” and though the mystery of what we shall later be has not yet come to light, we may be confident that we shall see God as God is.  This hope should give us the assurance to keep ourselves pure, that is, to love one another as Christ has loved us, in the face of the world’s hostility which does not recognize us just as it failed to recognize the son.

            The Gospel is the beginning of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, the first of the evangelist’s five great discourses proclaiming the prophetic fulfillment of God’s law (Matthew 5-7).  The setting and tone are solemn and apocalyptic.  Jesus goes up a mountainside, a place of revelation like Sinai in the Book of Exodus (Exodus 19-40).  Seating himself in the position of teacher, he proclaims the fulfillment of the law in the way the Lord first announced the law on Sinai (Ex 20:1-17).  His disciples will have the role of Moses: handing down the revelation to the nations (Matt 28:16-20).

            Jesus’ proclamation begins with the beatitudes, a joyful announcement of God’s final blessing for the `anawim who totally depend on God for their vindication.  Five of the beatitudes reflect what might be called “passive” qualities: being spiritually poor, mourning, hungering for justice and being persecuted.  Three are more active: showing mercy, being single-hearted and making peace.  All mirror Mathew’s Jesus, the truly happy person who embodies the joy the kingdom brings and, obediently trusting his Father, suffers death for the sake of the kingdom (see Matt 10:24-42; 11:25-30).

 31st Sunday of Ordinary Time A

Readings: Malachi 1:14‑2:2,8‑10  1 Thessalonians 2:7‑9,13  

  Matthew 23:1‑12

            This Sunday's liturgy is concerned with leadership in the community of God's people.  The reading from Malachi is a stinging indictment of the Levites for careless neglect of their duty to instruct Israel in Torah, while Paul provides a positive example of a leader who was willing to share his very life in preaching "God's good tidings."   Finally in Matthew, Jesus attacks the teaching of “the scribes and Pharisees” because “their deeds are few” and “all their works are performed to be seen.”  Let us be mindful that true leadership in the Christian community is service to God and others, as we sing the  responsorial psalm, "In you, Lord, I have found my peace" (Ps  131).

            The prophecy in the Book of Malachi was spoken after the Jewish people returned from their captivity in Babylon and rebuilt the temple.  Unfortunately in the post‑exilic community the Levitical priests did not provide proper leadership.  The prophet castigates them for their failure to "lay . . . to heart" the glory of Lord's name and for "turning away from the path" of the Torah which they were obligated to teach.  Because the Levites were partial in their judgments in legal matters, the prophet condemns them in the name of the Lord of hosts:

                        You have made void the covenant of Levi . . .

                        I, therefore, have made you contemptible

                        and base before all the people . . .

            In sharp contrast to the negligent leadership of the post‑exilic Levites, Paul defends his preaching of the gospel among the Thessalonians by recalling how he and his apostolic co‑workers "were as gentle as any nursing mother fondling her little ones."  Rather than being a financial burden on the Thessalonians, Paul's group "worked day and night" while they were preaching the gospel.  Paul can look back at his preaching to them with gratitude to God because they did not confuse it with "the word of men" who use rhetoric and teach for a fee; rather, they received his message as "the word of God."

            In the Gospel Jesus tells "the crowds and his disciples" not to follow the example of leadership set by “the scribes and Pharisees.”  This means that Matthew intended this warning for his own Christian church.  Although the scribes and Pharisees are to be respected because their teaching office goes back to Moses, they are not to be imitated because of their hypocrisy in using their authority to oppress others and to advance themselves.   The first example Jesus cites is that “Their words are bold, but their deeds are few.”  Rather than teaching a heartfelt love for the important commands of the Torah, the scribes and Pharisees “bind up heavy loads . . ., while they themselves will not lift a finger to budge them.”   Secondly, Jesus laments that “all their works are performed to be seen.”  They have made religion a matter of prestige rather than service.  Jesus cites several examples of their concern for status symbols: their wide phylacteries and huge tassels which give them higher visibility at prayer and their fondness for places of honor and for obsequious greetings and titles.

            In contrast to the oppressive and pompous hierarchy of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus tells his disciples that there is to be no rank and hierarchy among them.  The reasons are simple.  They have only one teacher, “the Messiah,” and they have only one father, “the One in heaven.”  Greatness in the community of Jesus' followers is based on service and humility rather than prestige of office.

                        The greatest among you will be the one who serves

                        the rest.  Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled,

                        but whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.