The Veiled Face of Glory

"Holy is the Lord our God" (Psalm 99).

God's presence in the Bible is manifested as light. Creation occurs when God says, "Let there be light." The brooding, shapeless waters of the void suddenly reflect the image of God mirrored on the face of the trackless wastes, and in that moment the divine image is imprinted on Creation. God, Source and Creator of all that is, continues to sustain the world  as the life-giving light within all things.

The encounter between Moses and the Lord in Exodus is an encounter with the pure Light of the divine Being. After each meeting with God, Moses emerges from the tent with his face radiant. The people see this glow and are frightened of so direct a contact with the holiness of God, so Moses wears a veil when he speaks with them. But when he speaks with God, he removes the veil. This dramatic imagery conveys something of the mystery of God's glory, which is what human's experience when in the divine presence.

Many people have had some kind of experience of God that they cannot explain in ordinary terms. It can be as simple as a series of coincidences that seem to point to special care in a time of suffering or trouble.  It can be a jarring sense of transcendence when everything stops and a kind of breakthrough contact occurs that takes us out of the moment. We know after the fact that everything has changed, and we feel uplifted, liberated from some oppressive weight. God is near, and we feel reassured and strengthened. 

The whole idea of the sacraments is that even ordinary reality-- birth, water, food, forgiveness, vocation, crisis and death-- is only the visible surface of an invisible world of spiritual revelation and encounter. God is in all things, and if we are alert and attentive to the divine presence we catch glimpses of grace at work, love capable of working small miracles, hope holding on in times of despair and darkness.  A light shines through, and we know that we are not alone. 

The parable of the treasure and the pearl invite us to look below the surface, to pursue holiness wherever we find it-- in nature, in human relationships, in challenges and opportunities, in all our decisions. We discover that the light of God is the very sustaining substance of our lives and all of creation. We are meant to glow with God's presence, to be light for others, especially in times of darkness and suffering.  Some day the veil will be lifted and we will see what has always been there -- God -- loving us and guiding us to our destiny in glory.

The Scandal of Mercy

"The Lord is kind and merciful" (Psalm 103).

Whenever we find an interpretation of one of Jesus' parables, most scripture scholars believe that it is a later addition to address some issue in the faith community the gospel was written for.  Today's parable of the wheat and weeds is a good example.

The original parable presents the ambiguity of good and evil in life, a field sown with both wheat and weeds. The farm workers are frustrated and are eager to tear up the field to purge the bad from the good, even if it is hard to distinguish these before harvest.  The central figure in the parable is the owner who is patient and wise. He counsels the workers to wait until harvest, when justice and truth can be applied. It is a gift of mercy to everyone who is still a work in progress. 

The interpretation of the parable reflects the eagerness of the righteous to purge those they think are evil. The situation names the bad seed as the children of the evil one and the sower as the devil. The angels will arrive soon to rescue the good people and cast the bad people into the fire of hell.  This may have described conflict in Matthew's community some 50 years after the time of Jesus, when Jewish Christians were being faced with gentile converts. 

We will not understand the scandal of mercy until we reach the limits of our own forgiveness for those who offend us. But this is the same threshold we are being invited to cross to know the mystery of God's unconditional love. If we can cross over, we will hear the voice of Jesus telling us to forgive 70 times seven, to leave the 99 in the wilderness and go after the one lost sheep.  This is the radical call to holiness that even the early church struggled to embrace and live. 

Parables of Growth

The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed ,,, like yeast" (Matt 13:31). 

The history of the church holds examples of every kind of growth and decline, failure, reform and renewal. When wealth and power threatened to corrupt the church, St. Francis of Assisi appeared and by his radical example was able to draw the institution back to Gospel ideals. In times of laxity and division, St. Ignatius of Loyola inspired a disciplined cadre of scholars and missionaries to bring fresh purpose and direction to the church. 

Throughout that history, Jesus' remarkable little parables have seemed an inexhaustible source of guidance. The mustard seed and the leaven were both small and mysterious causes of enormous potential growth. These images have inspired many generations of Christians who felt discouraged because their efforts seemed small in comparison to the problems they faced. Yet when small seeds were sown, great things happened.  When a small amount of leaven was applied to the larger culture, the results were often astonishing.  

The parables are like the gospel in miniature. If all of scripture and canon law and theology were somehow lost, one of these little images would go far to reconstitute the spirit of the movement Jesus proclaimed.  

A tiny seed blown into the wind finds its hold on soil, germinates, sends down roots and sends up shoots that become plants that grow large enough to shelter the birds.  This natural miracle reveals God's plan for all of creation. It inspires confidence in the power of even our smallest efforts. It teaches us perseverance, generosity, hope and hospitality. Behold the Kingdom of God!

A woman in a village rises early to prepare bread for her family. A small amount of leaven mixed into flour, salt, flour and oil bursts into an expansive miracle of rising dough filling the pans, crowding the ovens, until the aroma of fresh loaves and rolls awakens the community to another day of shared life and labor. Behold the Kingdom of God!

What small resource do you possess that could be multiplied today to bless others? Do not underestimate the power God can draw from your littleness, your inadequacy, your desire to help others. These are mustard seeds and yeast waiting to be multiplied among the many small miracles that will make our world better.

The First Gift

"Do you understand all these things?" (Matt 13:51).

King Solomon was praised as the wisest man on earth because, when he was offered anything he wanted, he asked for wisdom. Proof of his wisdom was that because he asked for wisdom instead of a long life or riches or power over his enemies, he received all of those things as well.

Solomon only prefigured the wisdom Jesus had. The three parables in today's Gospel were all about the gift of discernment as the key to possessing the kingdom of God.  The man who found the treasure in a field quickly devised a plan to get ownership of that field in order to claim the treasure. Though it cost him everything he owned, the man seized the opportunity with joy.. Likewise, the merchant had a discerning eye for fine pearls, and when he found an exquisite one he sold everything he had to buy it. 

Wisdom is both insight about value and the practical skill to sort through all the possibilities to choose what is best. The net fishermen catch many things, but they must know what is worth keeping.  The point of these parables was that the kingdom of God was being offered to anyone willing to make it their highest goal, their heart's desire above all other desires. 

The most discerning listeners in Jesus' audience understood that the treasure, pearl and catch of the day in these compelling stories was none other than the storyteller himself.  Jesus was the the gracious invitation to enter into a new relationship with God that would bring joy. We might imagine that in the crowd was a rich man who realized that all his wealth could not bring him joy, and so he went to Jesus to ask what more he needed to do, Jesus looked at him with love and said, "Sell your possessions and come with us."  Unlike the people in the parables, the rich man was unable to take this crucial step and went away sad. 

On another occasion, a blind man cried out to Jesus, who called him to himself and asked him, "What do you want me to do for you?" This was the same scene in Solomon's dream: "Ask for anything and you will receive it." Like Solomon, the blind man asked for the gift of sight. And when his eyes were opened, what was the first thing he saw?  The face of Jesus. From that encounter he used his newfound sight to follow Jesus on the way. This was his new life of joy.

We are meant to hear this same invitation to come to God in these parables. It is both an exercise of the imagination that one of faith. God continually waits for our response, and those who surrender their hearts will know the joy of the Gospel. 

Word of Life

"Lord, you have the words of everlasting life" (Psalm 19). 

The strength of any culture or society can be seen in the way it uses language.  For the Jews, creation itself was the result of God's Word. Sacred language was the basis for reality and the right relationships that flowed from respecting the underlying structure of the world as an expression of God's design.

In today's first reading from Exodus, the words of the commandments were so immutable that they were carved on stone tablets. They summarized the behaviors and attitudes that gave stability to society, based on keeping God at the center and then treating others the way you wanted to be treated. Obey these basic rules and you will grow and prosper. Neglect these and chaos will ensue.  

Jewish study of the Word was a kind of love affair with the heart of God, cherishing every command, praying over every letter, every nuance or possible application of the law. Meditation on the word or phrase could lead to spiritual ecstasy. The communal scholarship built up by rabbis and their schools gave the world not only the sophisticated analysis of sacred language but also the methods of study that applied to philosophy and science.

Jesus was part of that Jewish culture of praying the scriptures and delving into the Word as an encounter with God. His knowledge of the stories of Genesis and Exodus, the Psalms and the poetry of the Prophets is reflected in his parables.  The Word had to be welcomed into one's inmost being, like seed germinating in good soil, supported by moisture and nutrients. It was not a mental exercise; it was a way of life. 

Face Time

To anyone who has, more will be given ..." (Matt 13:13).

What would direct contact with God be like? The Scriptures offer several accounts of encounters between people and God. Adam is said to have spoken with God as they walked in the garden in the cool of the evening. This intimacy reflects a relationship before sin disrupted creation and estranged humanity from its Creator. 

Abraham speaks with God; Jacob is described as wrestling through the night with a divine figure; the prophet Elijah sees God from behind while hiding in a cave on Mount Horeb. Moses encounters God in the burning bush and later is invited up onto the mountain to confer with God, an intimacy that causes his face to glow so that he wears a veil to protect the people from the refection of God's glory.  

In today's reading from Exodus, God comes down onto Mount Sinai in a theophany of thunder, dark clouds and earth-shaking power. The people are terrified and only too grateful that Moses is their intermediary, for it was believed that no one could survive seeing the face of God. It would be like being struck by lightning. 

God is also veiled, but in a different way, in the New Testament. Jesus was in fact God incarnate, but people were no more prepared or capable of a direct encounter with God than they were at the time of the Exodus. The identity of Jesus was hidden from their eyes. And like the Exodus story, meeting God in Jesus was so intense and transforming an experience that filters and layers were also needed to protect someone's sense of reality from so powerful a revelation.  Glory is glory. Gradual approaches, stage-by-stage understanding was needed until a person could grasp what they were seeing.

St. Paul was blinded by his conversion encounter with the risen Jesus. The disciples after the resurrection needed time and instruction to see Jesus in the breaking of the bread on the road to Emmaus. Their eyes were blinded until they were ready to grasp the implications of their encounter wth the mysterious stranger. 

The cloaking was achieved by the way Jesus revealed himself and the divine Mystery within him. He revealed himself in parables, stories with many layers, so that only those with faith could interpret and enter the Mystery.  The experience was like falling in love, which also involves layers of revelation that prepare people for the breakthrough moment in their relationship that shows who they really are. Strangers become friends, friends become beloved companions, glory meets glory, and an intimate bond is formed. 

Jesus is the parable of the hidden God. He is the treasure hidden in a field, the pearl of great price, leaven mixed into the ingredients of life, the seed in search of the good soil of an open heart.  Let us pray for ears that can hear the deeper meaning of these parables, for they lead to a face-to-face encounter with Jesus our God.  

God's Grandparents

"This is the bread the Lord has given you to eat" (Exod 16:15).

Jesus had grandparents, and we acknowledge Joachim and Anne in today's liturgy. How often did Jesus' family join Mary's parents for meals and overnight visits? What did Jesus learn from his grandparents as he was growing up? These questions remind us of the depth of the Incarnation. God became one of us and shared in every aspect of human development. 

Both readings today deal with food.  Once in the desert, the Hebrews turned their attention to survival and their need for food and water. Moses takes their grumbling to God, who provides quail and manna, a mysterious substance that appeared on the ground with the morning dew.  In today's gospel from Matthew, we return to the parable of the sower, which was also about the food security of the community.  The failure to sow and reap an adequate harvest meant famine, so the apparently haphazard way the seed was tossed onto all kinds of unproductive soil was the tension in the story that is resolved by the abundant yield of some good soil. 

Our common humanity is bound together by our obligation to share food, without which millions of members of the family cannot survive.  Our brothers and sisters in the Sudan and in Somalia are now being ravaged by famine and political instability. They cry out to God, but the answer to their prayers involves us, who have more than enough. This crisis is our chance to ask Joachim and Anne to intercede, for grandparents are always alert to hungry children. 

St. James, Apostle

"We hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us" (2 Cor 4:7).

The lives of the Apostles after the resurrection are lost to history but rich in legends and stories.  St. James, honored today, was one of the Zebedee brothers, fishermen and firebrands (dubbed the "Sons of Thunder"). Their father gave them up to follow Jesus, but their mother pursued Jesus to gain them key posts in the kingdom. James "the Greater" to distinguish him from another apostle named James, was said to have spread the gospel as far as Spain, where his shrine is a destination for walking pilgrims. 

St. Paul, in today's first reading, gives us a glimpse into the hardships faced by an apostle, "afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not given to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. What made them apostles was sharing in the sufferings of Christ, so as to experience the life of his resurrection, already evident in their faith.  

Paul says poignantly that they were only earthen vessels carrying a treasure -- Jesus Christ, dwelling in them and acting through them. Their apostolic mission was to spread this same pattern of dying and rising with Christ as the way of life all baptized Christians are invited to imitate. 

When James and John were presented to Jesus by their mother as worthy of places at his right and left in glory, Jesus replied, "You don't know what you are asking."  They were slow to understand that the journey ahead would end in glory, but by way of the cross. These two brothers would in fact be favored by Jesus, who invited them with Peter to witness the Transfiguration and to join him as he prayed on the Garden of Gethsemani the night before he died. But, like all the other apostles, they would learn only by crisis and conversion the deeper meaning of their vocations. 

We honor James by imitating him. We, too, are earthen vessels carrying the treasure of Christ. We will know Jesus more and more by conforming our lives to the pattern of his suffering and death in order to know the power of his resurrection. 
 

Don't Be Afraid

"Stand your ground, and you will see the victory the Lord will win for you today" (Exodus 14:16).

The dramatic rescue by God of the Hebrews fleeing the Egyptian army was the founding event of a group of slaves who became a nation. The memory of that liberation became the basis for their Covenant with God and the annual liturgical celebration of Passover. The Hebrews were God's people because God chose them from other nations and called them out of Egypt.  

The memory was woven into the Bible as a theme of God's trustworthiness. When your backs are to the wall and there is no way out, a way will open before you. Don't be afraid, stand your ground, then go forward, for God will be with you. 

Jesus relied on this assurance throughout his ministry. Even as his enemies surrounded and closed in on him, he trusted that his Abba would show him the way forward. Even when it seemed clear that his obedience would take him to the cross, he trusted that his death would lead to victory. 

The words,"Don't be afraid," are repeated often by Jesus. He knew that fear can drain us of confidence, cause us to shrink from the challenge or become paralyzed when we need to act. When he sensed that someone was faltering in their faith, Jesus said, "Fear is useless."  We have the phrase, "He who hesitates is lost." Some are defeated even before the real challenge appears, and if they had only acted decisively, they would have succeeded. 

Seeking signs or proof before we trust God is one way of hesitating. Grace comes in the form of insight and courage when the moment is right. If we miss the moment by insisting on some condition or miracle, the grace is lost. Timing is everything. 

One of the great Marian prayers to sustain believers in times of fear and doubt is the "Memorare," Latin for the first word to "remember". "Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known, that anyone who fled to your protection, implored your help or sought your intercession was left unaided."  

"Never was it known." "Never."  Whatever the outcome, we can trust that Mary accompanies us through a crisis, representing God's absolute promise to guide and protect us on the journey of life. As Jesus reassured and modeled for us, even suffering and loss become part of the grace of the moment, and the outcome will always reveal the will of God. 

The Patience of God

"Though you are master of might, you judge with clemency and with much leniency you govern us" (Wisdom 12:16).

The patience of God is a mystery to those of us who want results. In three parables, Jesus confounds his own disciples and the early church so eager to show success at any cost.

The parable of the wheat and the weeds was an accurate picture of the frustrations of trying to make community with imperfect people. As in any conflict of views or practice, one group wanted to kick the other group out. Jesus compares them to a farm in which some are eager to weed out the bad and save the good, but the two seem difficult to distinguish and hopelessly intertwined.

The patient owner insists on letting the crops mature side by side until harvest, when judgment can separate them. Exclusion is a familiar temptation. What parish or ministry couldn't be made more efficient with discipline and order, but often the people most eager to weed out the garden are selective in their zeal.  It also becomes clearer to the wise that coexistence and charity are the real harvest God looks for, not success. Charisms are mixed in with the chaos of competing interests and the inefficiencies of collaboration. 

The parable of the mustard seed and leaven likewise held hidden lessons that stretched the early communities.  A farmer who let mustard seed escape his herb garden into his fields was inviting a takeover by the sturdy bushes that spread like kudzu and attracted crows, no friend to a cash crop. The parable of the leaven was about abundant bread but also about the mysterious power of a woman to introduce a dark and mysterious enzyme into the community with pervasive power. These nuances were essential to a gospel intended to grow a church filled with diversity and dynamism, a revolution of attitude and energy that would expand like new wine in the skins of old traditions.   

Jesus told stories that continue to infiltrate and even subvert an organization that prizes conformity over creative dissent, in which some think patriarchy can be preserved by refusing to discuss female leadership, or who believe that Communion should be a reward for obedience instead of medicine for the weak. Jesus, who ate and drank with sinners, preached openness, process and unconditional love. 

The revelation that is postponed for us while we think of ourselves as wise, just and in charge is this: Only when we need mercy, our second chance, will we understand the Good News of Jesus.  When we arrive at the gates late and without excuse or merit, our lives more weed than wheat, only then will we rejoice that God is patient and forgiving. 

Jesus' parables are good news for failures, the poor, hungry, lost sinners like us.  The divine Sower will waste three quarters of his broadcast on rocky, thorny, bird scavenged ground in order to find even a small patch of good soil in our lives. It is the poor day laborer who finds a treasure in the field. The woman toiling in her kitchen multiplies bread for the hungry with her feminine genius. The lost sheep is rescued and carried home, the birds of the air deserve branches for shade and food for their young. Sinners sit down at table with Jesus, and he makes them lovable with his love.  Don't we long to belong to this church?  

How blessed are we that we are not in charge of the universe, or the church or that all our prayers are not answered. God's patience rules and, even when we feel frustrated, we are the beneficiaries of this amazing grace. 

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