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Goodbye Columbus

Posted on 13 October 2014 by patmarrin

“This generation … seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah” (Luke 11:29).

Today is Thanksgiving Day in Canada and a national holiday honoring Columbus in the United States. The Gospel randomly assigned for Mass today prompts us to reflect on the role of the Word of God in human history. Jesus issues a warning to the people of his own day who want a sign he is from God. The only sign they will get, he says, is the sign of Jonah. As the prophet Jonah preached to the Ninevites and they repented, so should God’s chosen people also repent, “for a greater than Jonah is here.”

The civil holidays might seem an odd moment to preach repentance, except that both commemorations beg for deeper reflection. Canada pauses in gratitude for the many blessings First World countries enjoy relative to the rest of the world, and in the United States, we are honoring the Italian explorer Columbus, whose landing in “Hispaniola” set in motion the European colonization of the Western Hemisphere.

Another seafaring figure named Jonah preached to Nineveh, the ancient capital of Assyria, the brutal enemy of Israel. The sudden conversion of Nineveh is the comic highpoint of the parable we know as the Book of Jonah. It was unthinkable that such an evil empire would repent and find God’s forgiveness, yet it did repent. Jesus compares that startling repentance to the rejection by his contemporaries of the Good News he was preaching.

The liturgy calls us to be conscious that our material blessings often come at the expense of others in a global economy that exploits and plunders so many to enrich the few. Some might say that the “conquest” of the New World has never ended. Our cultural celebrations are possible only because of historical amnesia.

The Word of God comes to us in today’s Gospel in which we hear the prophetic voice of Spanish Jesuit Ignacio Ellacuria, martyred with his companions in El Salvador in 1989 for his eloquent defense of the poor, whom he called the “crucified of history.” If we want a different, more just future, then the trajectory of history set 500 years ago in this hemisphere must be altered.

In his last public address before his death, Ellacuria said this: “There is a lot still to be done. Only utopianism and hope can enable us to believe and dare to try, with all the poor and oppressed people of the world, to turn back history, subvert it, and send it in a different direction.”

A different world is possible. A different world is necessary.

Come to the Feast

Posted on 11 October 2014 by patmarrin

"The Kingdom of Heaven is like a wedding" (Matt 22:2).

This Sunday, like last Sunday, gives us one of Matthew’s longer parables from the end of his Gospel in which Jesus warns his audiences that the time of decision is near. There is an ominous tone to these stories about the vineyard owner whose son is murdered and today’s story of the wedding feast so many of the invited guests fail to attend. This apocalyptic mood reflects the situation in Matthew’s community, under increasing pressure and even persecution after the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70, when this Gospel was being composed.

The apparent layer of allegorical details added to the original parable about a joyful wedding feast open even to the street beggars and sinners suggests that the early church was dealing with the question of whether to excommunicate some of its members (represented by the wedding guests without proper garments) and the even more serious conclusion some Christians were reaching that they had replaced the Jews as God’s chosen people.

This idea, called “supersessionism,” held that because Temple Judaism rejected Jesus, God had rejected the Jews in favor of the rapidly growing new church of Jewish converts and gentiles. A new covenant had superceded the old covenant with Israel. Animosity between Christians and rabbinic Judaism would later lead to the notion that the Jews were to blame for the death of Jesus, thus setting in motion the long history of anti-Semitism that has so scarred relations between Jews and Christians. It took until 1965, when the Vatican Council officially declared that God’s covenant with the Jews remains in effect, that the church definitively rejected the ahistorical and distorted theological charge that the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus.

At today’s liturgy, we peer back beyond these controversies into the mind of Jesus, who characteristically promoted God’s infinite and unconditional mercy in his parables. For him, God’s covenant was a nuptial, a joyful marriage of divinity and humanity, what John’s Gospel celebrated at Cana with excellent and overflowing wine and at which Jesus himself was foreshadowed as the bridegroom. This image comes directly from the Hebrew testament. God’s love is everlasting, and Jesus preached that all are included.

We might even think of every Eucharist as a wedding, the culmination of a love story that touches every heart and transforms us in love. This the Good News we hear in today's Scriptures and the mystery we celebrate at the Table of the Lord.

St. John XXIII, pray for us.

Posted on 10 October 2014 by patmarrin

“Every kingdom divided against itself will fall” (Luke 11:16).

When Pope John XXII was beatified, the first step toward sainthood, the day assigned to honor him was originally October 11, marking the first day of the Second Vatican Council in 1962. St. John XXIII now watches over the church, and today’s Lectionary readings offer us a reflection on the importance of his leadership 50 years ago, now still present and at work in Pope Francis.

In today’s Gospel, Luke takes up the text he found in Mark about the underlying spiritual struggle between demonic control of the world and Jesus’ announcement of the coming of the Kingdom of God. This Marcan theme was brilliantly explored in Ched Myers’ 1988 book “Binding the Strong Man.” Its central thesis was that Jesus’ preaching, healing miracles and exorcisms were a sign that the “prince of demons” had already been defeated. Luke uses the image of a strong man guarding his house, which is broken into by a stronger man who binds him up and then despoils his possessions. Jesus is that stronger man. The rule of Satan has been shattered and God’s grace is loose in the world.

Jesus’ enemies acknowledged his remarkable power, but attributed it to Satan. Jesus dismisses their claim and its convoluted logic that he could use the power of Satan to overcome Satan. “A house divided against itself falls,” he replies. No, he has entered the world with the power of God.

One message is clear. The defeat of any pervasive force begins with going to the cause. A disease manifests many symptoms; heal the underlying illness and the symptoms disappear. An organization filled with dysfunction will not change unless its leadership is replaced. A culture based on distorted ideology or injustice must be attacked at the roots.

Jesus did not come just to encourage, heal, forgive and comfort people without also liberating them from the deeper causes of evil in the world. His redemption was a decisive strike at the roots of collective human sin. All that is needed to complete this gift of freedom and new life is for people to believe in it and live it. The strong man has been bound. Evil has no power over us except what we give it by falling under its deceptions and intimidation.

Hearing the Gospel in our lives opens us to this deep freedom. The church is itself a work in progress in announcing and living God’s reign of grace. New leadership is challenging the church from the top down and the bottom up to find the joy and freedom of the Gospel. All that is needed to complete this revolution is for every baptized member of the church to claim and live the redemptive love God has poured out on all of us. Holiness is God's gift. It was given to John XXIII and it is evident in Pope Francis. It is also at work in us if we open our lives to its guidance and power.

Praying with Confidence

Posted on 09 October 2014 by patmarrin

“Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you” (Luke 11:10).

All religion is about making contact with God. The Latin root of the word is religare — “to bind,” from which we also get English words like ligament and obligation. We call this desire for connection “prayer.” We negotiate our needs with God, exchanging obedience, praise and thanksgiving for a favorable answer to our petitions. At its deepest and best, prayer is an intimate conversation between friends, an ongoing encounter that forms a mutual bond.

For most of Jesus’ audience, success in prayer required keeping the law, offering sacrifice and observing the annual feasts. Jews practiced fasting, daily recitation of scriptural prayers and almsgiving as the pillars of religion.

Jesus sought to draw people into an even deeper intimacy and trust with God. He called God Abba, “Papa” or “Daddy,” to emphasize the unconditional nature of God’s love for his children. Jesus says little about sacrifices or law, except the law of love. Whatever our worthiness or credentials, if we persist in simply going to God, asking, seeking and knocking, God is eager to respond. The very act of turning toward God is the essence of prayer, to acknowledge that God is the source of everything, including our own existence. As German theologian Paul Tillich put it, “God is the ground of our being.” It is as natural for us to pray as to breathe.

The challenge for us in prayer is to stir up our faith, then express our deepest needs to God, even if we do not know how to pray or what to say. Paul reassures us: "The Spirit helps us in our weakness ... interceding for us with sighs and groans” (Rom 8:26). Only by gradual discernment do we know what we want, what we are seeking from God, what door we are knocking on. The Spirit breathes wisdom, courage and trust into our conversation with God.

The only way to know if prayer actually “works” is to pray, to begin our day by placing ourselves in the presence of God and asking what to do next. God is eager to teach us how to pray, for this is what life is about and what eternity is for.

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Teach Us To Pray

Posted on 08 October 2014 by patmarrin

“Forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us” (Luke 1:4).

Aristotle wrote: “A small mistake at the beginning is a big mistake at the end.” For example, even a small error in the orientation of a rocket at launch will alter its trajectory and destination downfield by a much larger distance.

This principle is powerfully illustrated in today’s first reading. The spread of the faith from its Jewish origins into the gentile world was possible only because of St. Paul’s insistence that we saved not by keeping the law but as the pure gift of salvation from God in Christ. Paul challenged the leaders of the Jerusalem church who were asking gentiles to become Jews before they could be Christians. This, Paul argued, nullified the gift of salvation by adding other requirements such as circumcision, kosher rules and observance of the 614 commandments derived from Torah. Either we are saved by Christ or we are not, but no additional criteria should be applied.

Paul saw that two standards for church membership would create separate communities, a rejection of the central truth of the Good News, that Jesus overcame all divisions by the blood of his cross. Separate groups would make a mockery of the Eucharist, the effective sign of our communion in love in the one body of Christ.

Paul’s description offers us an important window into the early church and how basic beliefs emerged from crisis. If the outcome had been different then, our church would be much different today, if it existed at all. A similar ideological struggle appears to be unfolding in Rome at the synod on the family, with Pope Francis espousing the Church of Mercy while some bishops emphasize strict legal observance as determining church membership. Love and Law must find that perfect balance Paul knew was crucial to advancing the church in the real world, where real people struggle with real life problems.

Because today’s scripture readings are also being celebrated at Eucharist by the Synod participants today in Rome, it will be worth watching how the Spirit moves through the Word to influence the debates in the closed meetings.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus also defines first principles when he teaches his disciples the “Our Father,” his own summary of the First Commandment of love. We are centered and grounded in God, who provides for all our needs, asking only that we love one another as we have been loved. This means forgiving one another as God has forgiven us. The whole law and all the commandments are contained in this one prayer. If we live the prayer, everything else will take care of itself. If we fail to answer the call to love and forgive, everything else will be distorted in our basic relationships with God and one another.

A small mistake at the beginning becomes a big mistake at the end.

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Praying with Mary

Posted on 07 October 2014 by patmarrin

“He set me a part from my mother’s womb and was pleased to reveal his Son to me” (Galatians 1:15).

We commemorate today the Marian devotion of praying the rosary.

Though the practice of saying the rosary may not appeal to everyone, the underlying cyclical pattern of pondering the life of Christ mirrors the liturgy and invites a believer into a process of intimate spiritual formation equal to any mantra-based meditation. The five sets of 10 Hail Mary’s in each rosary representing the joyful, sorrowful and glorious mysteries invite us to consider Jesus through the eyes of Mary. The rosary provides a complete catechism, while also inducing a transcendent mental state open to personal memories and intentions that inform genuine prayer.

I am of a generation of Catholics devoted to the “family rosary.” My parents introduced their seven children to reciting the rosary before bedtime each night. What we resisted at the time I now remember with nostalgia. We kept a large array of rosaries on a shelf in the dining room, some of them crafted at church-sponsored summer camps. My mother often led the prayer, saying the first half of the Hail Mary, which we then finished in chorus. Years later, my mother and father were still ending their day saying the rosary in bed (while watching baseball games on television). It is an ideal form of prayer for older Catholics, though a senior friend once confided to me that she didn’t think it was very inspiring to say “now and at the hour or our death” 50 times in the a row.

Today’s Gospel reading from Luke gives Mary the nod over her busy sister Martha in Bethany for taking her place at the feet of Jesus rather than help with supper. Most homilies on that story affirm that both active and contemplative prayer are needed for a full spiritual life.

But it is Paul’s letter to the Galatians, today’s first reading, that best exemplifies the reason we must continually ponder the mystery of the Christ within us. The goal of Christian formation is to free the image and likeness of God that dwells within us by virtue of our baptism. This is who we really are, and to uncover and consciously activate this authentic self is the purpose of life. Paul’s conversion transformed him from a rigid persecutor of the church to its greatest Apostle. Our continual conversion strips away the masks and false agendas imposed on us by culture and our own immature choices to liberate our unique identities before God and the world.

Mary is honored as the most authentic person who ever lived, next to Jesus himself. Her simple prayer was to weigh all her life experiences in her heart in the light of her relationship with her son. Today we are invited to imitate her on the path to our own transformation.

Love is the Answer

Posted on 06 October 2014 by patmarrin

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25).

Every word in Luke’s brilliant presentation of the parable of Good Samaritan is important. A “scholar of the law” confronts Jesus to test him. Not just a scribe, but a scholar. He knows the answer to his own question, so his purpose is not to learn but to trap Jesus. His question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” is loaded. It assumes that the chosen people, especially anyone who is perfect in the law (as he is) is entitled to eternal life. It is his “inheritance,” something that passes from father to son by law.

Jesus addresses him on his own terms, answering his question with another question: “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” Jesus traps the lawyer in cross examination, saying, in effect, “Answer your own question,” which the scholar does, exposing the artificiality of the entire exchange. Forced in public to display his great knowledge of the law, the scholar recites the sh'ma, the one prayer every Jew says twice daily to ground all of life in the commandment to love God and neighbor. It is Torah 101.

Embarrassed to be upstaged by an untrained hill country preacher, the scholar asks a second question: “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus tells the heart-rending tale of a fellow Jew robbed and beaten on the road to Jericho, neglected by a priest and a Levite, but aided by a hated Samaritan. Again, Jesus turns the question back on the scholar: “Who was neighbor to the victim?” Not his Jewish brothers, but their worst enemy, one outcast according to the law. The scholar’s world, defined by law, is turned upside down and inside out by the commandment to love.

How are we to hear this amazing story today? The Word is a living voice addressed to our church leaders as they meet in Rome to debate pastoral practice and needs of the family. How many issues regarding sexuality, marriage and divorce have been defined exclusively by law, when love is what is needed to minister to those struggling with complicated family issues? Jesus’ message to all of us is that the one who shows compassion to anyone who is suffering is the one who fulfills the whole Law.

My Friend Planted a Vineyard

Posted on 04 October 2014 by patmarrin

There was a landowner who planted a vineyard” (Matt 21:33).

Jesus’ parable of judgment is made more poignant in that it is based on one of the great love songs of the Bible. Isaiah 5:1-17 describes the covenant God established with his chosen people with the imagery of a vineyard. “Let me tell you about my friend who planted a vineyard.” Each part of the vineyard is a described in loving detail. If you know someone who has planted a garden and is eager to walk you through it, you know the pride and the feelings invested in this special place.

What happens to God’s vineyard defies both logic and love. Those who would have been blessed by its bounty betray the owner and turn a love story into a tragedy. By confronting the religious leaders of his own time with this story, Jesus ties their rejection of him to the murder and rejection of a long line of prophets before him.

The story recorded in Matthew takes what may have been the original parable to the level of an allegory. The successive messengers sent to the tenants are the prophets. The owner’s son is Jesus himself. Matthew is composing his Gospel toward the end of the first century, so what happened to Israel and to Jerusalem is already known. The city was destroyed by the Romans, over a million people were killed, and the survivors were dispersed into the ancient world. Temple Judaism was destroyed and replaced by a diaspora of rabbis and their communities in cities like Alexandria, Rome and Antioch. It was there that the first Christian communities were established as the early church spread into the Mediterranean basin.

The produce of a vineyard is wine, a symbol of joy and celebration, especially at weddings like the one at Cana in John 2. Disciples spread the joy of the Gospel as workers in God’s vineyard. We are all called into this love story, not just as laborers but as branches grafted onto the vine of Jesus, sharing his life intimately, producing the fruits of his redemption with all those who thirst for the love of God. Our worship culminates in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup. Each time we receive the Beloved Son, body and blood, we say yes to God’s invitation to share the joy of both divine love and human love within the community. The owner has sent his only-begotten Son to receive the harvest of our own lives, planted deeply in his garden.

Guardian Angels

Posted on 02 October 2014 by patmarrin

“See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my heavenly Father” (Matt 18:10).

Jesus lived in a time and culture in which children had no status, were used as cheap labor and often subjected to physical and sexual abuse. His teachings and example regarding the inherent dignity of children surely had in mind the widespread abuse of children in the ancient world allowed under slavery and family codes.

The horror of this is brought home to us in reports of child labor, human trafficking and sexual abuse in today’s world and even inside the church. The scandal caused by clergy sexual abuse of children has shaken the church to its foundations, caused many to depart, damaged the church’s witness and eroded confidence in church leadership.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus goes to the heart of this tragedy when he describes the natural innocence and transparency of children as a window into their closeness to God. The Feast of Guardian Angels invokes an image of this intimacy between God and children. They are in direct, face-to-face relationship with God. To despise or abuse a child is not only a crime; it is sacrilege, an affront to God so serious that, in another passage, Jesus says that it would be better for someone who causes a child to stumble to have never been born, or to be thrown into the sea with a millstone around their necks. It would be hard to find a stronger warning in the Bible than this. Jesus is talking about behaviors that can cause spiritual death.

Even as our understanding that pedophilia is an illness deepens, the responsibility for safeguarding children only grows more serious, as does the accountability of those in authority who might have prevented abuse by removing offenders from all contact with potential victims.

As we pause to commemorate today’s feast, we should also stop to acknowledge and praise those who have had the courage to act as guardian angels on behalf of the youngest and most vulnerable treasures of the church and of every society.

Hit the Road

Posted on 01 October 2014 by patmarrin

“Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests,but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head” (Luke 9:58).

The radical nature of discipleship is no better expressed in the Gospels than in today’s reading.

Jesus responds to three applicants to his movement with images that confirm the total loyalty required of a disciple. Jesus himself has nowhere to rest his head; he has gone beyond all accepted ideas to a place that transcends human logic. The deep connection people have with their own tribal or family identity is now secondary. “Let the dead bury their dead,” he says to a man who asks to go first to bury his father, an essential act of piety for any Jew. Or to another who asks to say goodbye to his family. The image of the plow is one of absolute attention to the purpose at hand. Anyone who hesitates, looks back, is "not fit for the Kingdom of God."

The severity of this language strips all romantic or purely idealistic notions from the reality of discipleship. It is not a weekend activity, an occasional or partial commitment, but rather a way of being. If we choose to follow Jesus or, in another image, once we step into the harness with him, we are accepting intimate personal transformation. We cannot withhold ourselves or harbor conditions and reservations should the demands increase. The first band of disciples must have grasped this as they approached Jerusalem and realized that Jesus, as he said, was going to lay down his life.

If we rightly feel overwhelmed by the same realization, we are on track. Only the grace of God cane enable any of us to continue the journey that will bring us to full union with the death and resurrection of Jesus. What God began in us when we first said yes will be brought to perfection. And not because of our courage or determination, but because it is God’s will, God’s work, not ours alone.