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From Disciple to Apostle

Posted on 24 August 2016 by patmarrin

“How do you know me?” (John 1:48).

The call of Nathaniel, also known as Bartholomew, tells us a lot about how disciples become apostles. A disciple is someone who is learning about Jesus. An apostle is someone who knows Jesus enough to be sent to share him with others. The root of the word apostle is “to send.”

In his journey from learning to sharing, Nathaniel is at first a seeker, someone who wants to find God through prayer and reflection. When Philip tells him about Jesus, Nathaniel has already been looking for the messianic figure foretold in the Law and the Prophets. But he is skeptical when Philip tells him Jesus is from Nazareth. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?’ he replies, repeating what was probably a common slur about the hill country of Galilee, the northern part of Palestine, where pagan influences permeated the culture.

“Come and see,” Philip answers. Thus begins Nathaniel’s transformation from curious doubt to intimate encounter with Jesus, who has already called Nathaniel when he was at prayer under a fig tree. The imagery and allusion the author of the fourth Gospel uses to describe this meeting recalls the story of Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel after his night of wrestling with God and after he had dreamed of angels ascending and descending between heaven and earth.

Nathaniel is a "true child of Israel," transparent to truth. And before his time with Jesus is complete, he will have come to know him as more than a prophet or even the messiah. He will know Jesus as the one who unites heaven and earth, divinity and humanity, as foretold by Jacob’s ladder. Blessed with this revelation, the Apostle Nathaniel, called Bartholomew in the other Gospels, will be sent to share news of God’s reconciliation with the world in Jesus Christ.

Because of our baptism, each of us shares in the miracle of Jacob’s ladder, with angels ascending and descending continuously in the everyday graces God has for us. We are disciples called to learn about our new life in Christ. And each time we share that life with others we are apostles. This is what we celebrate today.

Love, First and Last, Above All Else

Posted on 23 August 2016 by patmarrin

“You have paid tithes on your spice garden but have neglected judgement, mercy and fidelity” (Matt 23:24)

Jesus calls the religious leaders hypocrites for paying attention to small things but neglecting the weightier demands of the law. In numerous confrontations over the first commandment, Jesus affirmed that love organizes the whole moral and religious life. If we do not understand or if we ignore this priority, keeping every lesser commandment will not add up to real holiness.

The scribes and Pharisees had multiplied the basic Torah into 618 separate commandments. Only they knew the intricate system of rules about every conceivable kind of personal and social behavior, so ordinary people were consigned to a confusing state of failure and sinfulness. Only by going to the rabbis and priests could they learn how to please God.

Jesus’ attack on the leadership was because they were misguiding the people, blocking access to a loving and merciful God, using their official status to enrich and empower themselves. Matthew’s Gospel focuses on Jesus as the new Moses, sent to liberate people from the slavery of all these legal and ritual systems that were ignoring the primary commandments. God did not want sacrifice or legalism; God invited everyone to experience and show love.

Pope Francis’ emphasis on the mercy of God is a continuation of this same lesson in priorities. Come to God without fear. Forgiveness is always being offered. The path to holiness is a lifelong struggle, but never lose heart, just keep going forward. Failure and weakness teach us compassion. God loves sinners and works with them to learn from their mistakes. Seek first the Kingdom of God, and everything else will be provided.

While this approach confounds some religious leaders who want obedience to the letter of the law and hard sacrifice as proof of worthiness, Pope Francis’ message is "good news" to real people caught in the ambiguities of life. The truth is that love is far more difficult and demanding than keeping rules. Love is never finished, always a work in progress, a goal and not an achievement. But it leads us to God, and in the end, this is the only thing that really matters.

The Door is Open

Posted on 22 August 2016 by patmarrin

“Woe to you ... hypocrites, who lock the door to the Kingdom of heaven before others. You do not enter yourselves, nor do you allow entrance to those trying to enter” (Matt 23:13).

When Jesus arrives in Jerusalem for the last time before his death, he levels his harshest criticism at the religious leaders who are obstructing people’s access to God. Instead of opening the door to a loving, merciful God, they have made the path to salvation an obstacle course of legal and ritual duties, sacrifices and oaths that serve only to keep them in control.

Jesus seems able to absorb any criticism and resistance to himself, but he erupts in indignation at this misrepresentation of God and at any abuse of power that keeps ordinary people from finding God’s love.

Matthew’s gospel continues the theme we found in Sunday’s gospel from Luke about the door to God. God is eager to welcome everyone into the Kingdom, but the door narrows for those who try to exclude others or who see themselves as superior to others.

When religion becomes a game of control and power, attracting leaders who make it a source of status and privilege for themselves, it is worse than nothing at guiding people to spiritual health and purpose. Jesus avoided all forms of special status and warned his disciples against seeking power over others. The early church was presented as a way of life rather than a religious cult. Faith came from a direct invitation from God to the hearts of seekers and those who saw the power of love in the community of believers.

The Word of God comes to each of us today, urging us to simplify our path to God with love and joy. The merciful face of God looks at us in every experience. All we need do is step into the harness of life with Jesus, who embraced our humanity in all its challenges and opportunities. His yoke is easy and his burden is light. The door is open, and all are welcome who come in love and without judgement of others.

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Enter by the Narrow Door

Posted on 20 August 2016 by patmarrin

“Lord, will only a few people be saved?” (Luke 13:23).

The path to salvation passes through a narrow gate. Jesus’ own mission took him through a baptism of fire. Every disciple must lose his life to gain it. The treasure we seek will cost us everything. Only those who pick up their crosses can follow Jesus.

With these and other metaphors and parables, Jesus tries to prepare us for our own paschal passage, when we must surrender ourselves to the paradox of his own death and resurrection.

In today’s Gospel, people who had thought they had fulfilled every ritual requirement and earned every credential as faithful Christians are shocked to find themselves excluded. What was missing? The Master of the House does not recognize them because in all their busy focus on formal church membership they have never nurtured a personal relationship with God.

Other parables like the story of the wise bridesmaids who had extra oil or the wise man who built house on rock teach the same message. The essence of salvation is to enter into a personal relationship with God and to build your life on a foundation of carrying out the Word of God. Those who do this, even if they are outside the formal circles of faith and church affiliation, will be recognized as true children of God. Outsiders will become insiders, the last will be first.

In his emphasis on encounter and surprise, Pope Francis has tried to free Catholics from any complacency or sense of entitlement simply because they are members of the church. God comes when we least expect it, and in ways we cannot anticipate or control. Every day is filled with new challenges and opportunities, and only if we are free enough to go with the flow and respond to each grace do we discover God in the moment.

How different this encounter with the living God is from rule keeping and merit counting. Discipleship is a way of life, a love story and an adventure. We will know we are alive and living it when we feel the joy of the Gospel.

The Bones of the Covenant

Posted on 19 August 2016 by patmarrin

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” (Matt 22:35).

Today’s first reading from Ezekiel 37 is about God’s promise to breathe new life into the “dry bones” of a defeated, exiled nation. As the word of God is spoken through the prophet, a defeated people rises up to renewed life.

In today’s gospel passage from Matthew, we see what the “bones” of a living, breathing faith actually are. Jesus answered the lawyer’s question about which of the commandments of the Law was the greatest. It is the commandment to love God totally—heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. This commandment is the fundamental structure of lived faith, what holds everything together in right relationship.

The broad sweep of salvation history includes failure. God not only brought his people into existence as Creator, named, loved and guided them to life. God also was there as Savior to rescue and restore them when they turned away from the Covenant and had gone into exile. The full story is not just about the original blessing and promise; it is about the revelation that when we fail to respond to grace, God is merciful.

Psalm 34:20 says that the bones of the Servant of the Lord will not be broken. This image is applied to Jesus by the evangelist John (19:36), who presents Jesus as the paschal lamb sacrificed at Passover, the ritual meal that prepared the people for their exodus from slavery into freedom. Unlike all previous animal sacrifices, Jesus’ self-offering is perfect. He is unblemished and, even in his violent death, his bones are not broken. Jesus is the model of perfect obedience to the Great Commandment of love.

This biblical imagery is meant for us as we live out our small stories within the larger story of Salvation. If we align our lives in right relationship with God and neighbor, we will come through death to new life, not by our own efforts or merits but because of God’s mercy. If we keep our eyes on the prize -- Jesus himself -- we will knows how to live in the joy of gospel obedience.

The Bones of the Covenant

Posted on 19 August 2016 by patmarrin

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” (Matt 22:35).

Today’s first reading from Ezekiel 37 is about God’s promise to breathe new life into the “dry bones” of a defeated, exiled nation. As the word of God is spoken through the prophet, a defeated people rises up to renewed life.

In today’s gospel passage from Matthew, we see what the “bones” of a living, breathing faith actually are. Jesus answered the lawyer’s question about which of the commandments of the Law was the greatest. It is the commandment to love God totally—heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love your neighbor as ourselves. This commandment is the fundamental structure of lived faith, what holds everything together in right relationship.

The broad sweep of salvation history includes failure. God not only brought his people into existence as Creator, named, loved and guided them to life. God also was there as Savior to rescue and restore them when they turned away from the Covenant and had gone into exile. The full story is not just about the original blessing and promise; it is about the revelation that when we fail to respond to grace, God is merciful.

Psalm 34:20 says that the bones of the Servant of the Lord will not be broken. This image is applied to Jesus by the evangelist John (19:36), who presents Jesus as the Paschal lamb sacrificed at Passover, the ritual meal that prepared the people for their exodus from slavery into freedom. Unlike all previous animal sacrifices, Jesus’ self-offering was perfect. He is unblemished and, even in his violent death, his bones are not broken. Jesus is the model of perfect obedience to the Great Commandment of love.

This biblical imagery is meant for us as we live out our small stories within the larger story of Salvation. If we align our lives in right relationship with God and neighbor, we will come through death to new life, not by our own efforts or merits but because of God’s mercy. If we keep our eyes on the prize, Jesus himself, he will show us how to live in the joy of obedience.

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Come to the Wedding

Posted on 18 August 2016 by patmarrin

“The Kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son” (Matt 22:1).

The Parable of the Wedding Feast, recorded in Matthew’s Gospel after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, interprets that tragedy as the result of the failure of the Temple leadership to acknowledge Jesus as the messianic bridegroom. Those invited to the wedding did not come, so the invitation was extended to outsiders, the gentile nations at the margins of the original promise. Matthew makes a point of including both the good and the bad among those brought into the banquet hall.

The biblical image of a wedding feast makes clear that what God wants for us is a love story. The union of divinity and humanity is revealed fully in the Person of Jesus, but it is meant to extend to all of us by our incorporation into Christ through baptism. We are united to God in Christ. When God sees us, God sees his beloved Son.

Human failure to understand or respond to God’s invitation has always been part of the story of salvation. It is a love story marked by broken hearts and second chances, exile and return, sin and redemption. The wedding is on, even if it takes us a lifetime to grasp the meaning of the gift God is offering us in Jesus. He is the bridegroom who lays down his life for his beloved. We say yes to God’s love each time we love one another, for there can be no wedding without guests. Come to the wedding today, and bring a friend. Or even better, bring someone who does not know God or who has been estranged from God. Let the wedding hall be filled.

Mercy Is God's Gift

Posted on 17 August 2016 by patmarrin

“The Kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard” (Matt 20:1).

The Parable of the Vineyard Workers was another attempt by Jesus to present God’s unconditional gift of mercy. It was addressed to the good people who resented Jesus’ outreach to sinners. They could not understand why God would love sinners as much as those who had been obedient all their lives. They were the vineyard workers who had worked all day in the heat of the sun for the promised full wage. Why should latecomers and slackers enjoy the same full pay they had earned?

The parable applied again a generation later to Jewish Christians who wondered how gentile converts could be welcomed into the church without having to observe the Mosaic Law they had kept. The cry against such unlimited mercy for everyone: “It isn’t fair!” echoes down through history. How can God set aside the moral meritocracy that has made virtuous people conclude that they were better than others because they had somehow “earned” heaven?

It was precisely this self-righteous divisiveness that Jesus was addressing in his many parables of mercy. No one can earn eternal life with God because it is a gift. Virtue is its own reward and vice its own punishment. Human systems of morality bring order in this world, but they do not automatically promise life after death, and certainly not the “full wage” of salvation, divine life forever. The essence of that life is love, which is the very nature of God. God’s love is offered to saint and sinner alike. Only those who cannot bear such infinite and unconditional love will be excluded from it, but not by God. They will exclude themselves, the ultimate tragedy of pride that cannot accept the divine gift.

Jesus taught in parables because no single revelation of God is enough. The Parable of the Vineyard Workers continues to challenge our logic and sense of fairness. Only when we understand that we are all latecomers and slackers, lost sheep, prodigal sons and daughters, indebted servants and sinners, will we break through the illusion that we can earn heaven because we are better than others. Only then will we be able to open our hearts with gratitude to realize that God’s love is there for us, has always been there in full, needing only our surrender to the face of God, Who is Mercy. This is the Joy of the Gospel.

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Love's Narrow Door

Posted on 16 August 2016 by patmarrin

“Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the Kingdom of heaven” (Matt 19:23).

The hard saying Jesus utters regarding a rich man entering the Kingdom shocked his disciples, who in that time and culture saw wealth as a sign of favor from God. Jesus saw instead how material possessions preoccupied the rich, consuming them and distracting them from the more important gifts of life—relationships, community, intellectual and spiritual development, humility and dependence on God. A rich man became like a fully loaded camel trying to get through a narrow door.

We see this mentality in the rich man who comes to Jesus to ask how he can guarantee his place in heaven. He thinks like a rich man. He has amassed virtue by keeping the commandments, but wants to top off his spiritual wealth with something more. Jesus challenges his quid pro quo approach to earning heaven by telling him to go and sell all his possessions, strip off his status and influence to come on the road as a disciple.

For Jesus, entry into the Kingdom was not a quantitative gain but a qualitative leap into grace, a total surrender to a relationship with God, which is a pure gift. The man cannot buy this gift or earn it with his virtue. He is too full of himself to receive God into his life.

This paradox confronts us all. We come before God with open hands and open hearts. The love we have is the love we give away. Our emptiness and powerlessness is what enables us to receive the gift of life only God can give. We enter this discipleship each day when we surrender ourselves to God, who will give us everything we need to find true wealth and abundant life.

Mary's Assumption Reveals Our Future

Posted on 15 August 2016 by patmarrin

“How does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:41).

If Jesus Christ is the cosmic bridge between God and Man, then Mary, as mother of the Incarnation, provides the bridge between divinity and humanity. A divine Person enters history though a human mother. His flesh and blood is her flesh and blood. As Mary makes Jesus human, so Jesus sanctifies her. The Assumption of Mary is the culmination of her role in the Incarnation. The mysterious transformation of all those who are embodied into Christ by baptism is celebrated today in the Assumption of Mary, the first human being to have claimed the destiny that awaits us all — eternal life in God.

All of this theology tries to tell the much more tangible mystery of all the mothers giving birth in the great genealogy of salvation history. From Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel, down through the tortuous twists and turns of the blood line that includes Tamar, Ruth and Bathsheba, comes Mary of Nazareth. Her Yes to the Angel Gabriel, opens time to eternity, history to a divine destiny. The Spirit of the promise already present in the story that began with Eve becomes flesh in Jesus, son of Adam, son of David, son of Joseph and Mary, Son of God.

Even the cosmic scene in the Book of Revelation affirms that the New Creation is inaugurated by a woman giving birth. The woman surrounded by stars is pregnant with the future of the universe, and no evil or resistance can prevent God’s ultimate design from being born.

We rejoice to be part of this immense and enduring story of hope. Our birth, then rebirth by grace, initiates in us the same journey from "Yes" to our share in the paschal mystery of Jesus. Each time we die to self we consent to the challenges of love; but we rise to new life in the same surrender, until we complete our own baptismal journey. Mary knows the way because she has led the way through her son Jesus to the glory in God that awaits us all. Her Assumption reassures us that we, too, will be born to glory in the passages we make each day by faith.

How many births have been prepared for by saying the humble "Hail Mary," repeating her consent, asking for her help as we go forward in Christ? This is the joy of the Gospel.