Called by Name

"Jesus spent the night in prayer, and whe day came, he called his disciples to himself" (Luke 6:12).

Names held a special significance in the Bible. Someone's name contained their vocation and the grace to complete it. When Jesus called his disciples to himself, he was also identifying their role in his ministry. To be called by Jesus was to receive the power to do what he had called you to do. 

This was evident for those who actually received new names, like Simon, who became Peter. But all of the disciples were chosen with a special purpose in mind and after a night of prayer on the mountain. Jesus knew those he wanted because he had already seen them in the presence of God. 

Parents name their children with something of this same dynamic in mind. They want their children to be unique, to be successful, to be an extension of the family story and its heroes.  Our names hold the power of their hopes for us, and we often carry the promises of the past in our names. 

Christianity is all about networks of relationships. Baptized into Christ, we are united to him and to every other baptized person. We live out our lives in communities of faith, find our vocations in the webs of relationships that support us and invite us to serve the greater good.  Even if we feel small and insignificant, we are being carried and guided by the larger mystery of our identity as members of the Body of Christ.  

Each of has a secret name known only to God, and it describes the person we are meant to become. Even as we make our pilgrimage on earth, God has already seen us in glory. This is our destiny, to become our real selves before God. Nothing can separate us from the love of God, drawing us forward toward this destiny, even our mistakes and sins along the way. As long as we "keep our eyes on the prize," we are bound for life in Christ in the Trinity. 

Expanding Our Hearts

"Stretch out your hand" (Luke 6:10).

Today's readings beg to be connected to the anniversary of September 11, 2001, our national 9-11 remembrance of the tragic day when some 3,000 lives were lost in terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania. What can the Word of God say to us today as again this year public officials attempt to gather the lessons of that event.

This year's ceremonies will to some extent be overshadowed by other tragic assaults, not by terrorists by by the terror of Hurricanes raging in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean that have devastated Texas and Florida. Billions of dollars needed to rebuild major cities will get the attention of many political leaders who have ignored climate change warnings. The cleanup and restoration of storm-battered areas will carry lessons for others who have been zealous about driving out immigrants. After Hurricane Katrina, an estimated 100,000 Hispanic workers, many of them undocumented, shoveled out the mud, replaced roofs, repaired buildings and roads in the Gulf. After Harvey, contractors are going begging to try and fill over 200,000 construction jobs in Houston alone as many workers disappear into the shadows for fear of deportation and the failure to address the need for comprehensive immigration reform. 

Lessons to be learned this 9-11 include the memory and example, then and now, of thousands of people joining together to help one another. Differences of race, class, ethnicity and politics disappear in crisis when a common humanity is uncovered and people rediscover the power of community working together for the common good. Situations that might have brought out the worst in people can also bring out the best.

Sixteen long years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq suggest all too clearly that the disaster of 9-ll led to other disasters as politicians and profiteers beat the drums of war and vengeance over the chance for an international examination of conscience about the many global problems fueling tensions and violence around the world. A world bristling with threats and violence again cries in the hope that peace built on justice might still be possible. 

Jesus, surrounded by hypocrites and narrow minded legalists, cries out, "Stretch!" To the crippled man, he says, "Stretch out your hand." To his critics he says, "Stretch your minds and hearts." Their failure to respond to suffering in their midsts, to even use a crippled man as a pawn in their plotting to trap Jesus over the Sabbath law, exposed them as willful obstructionists and blind guides.  

As problems mount and warnings grow louder and clearer in our time, Jesus cries out to us, "Stretch!" Go beyond your tribe, your prejudices and your self-interest. Think and act bigger and more generously than ever before to solve real problems while there is still time, before they overwhelm you and send the world spiraling back into yet another round of useless delay and inevitable conflict.  

The Good News is always there for those with eyes to see and ears that hear. Now is the time to stretch our worldviews and imagine a new future, or be cast into more and more disasters of our own making 

Reconciliation

"The one who lives has fulfilled the law" (Rom 13:9).

If mercy is the heart of the Gospel, then reconciliation is the mission of the Gospel. And it is the most challenging and difficult ministry of all. Witness the journey of Pope Francis to Colombia this week, a country that has endured a brutal 50-year civil war that cost 220,000 lives and has left deep wounds, resentments and unresolved divisions. 

The pope wnet to Colombia to plead for a national commitment to reconciliation, a chance to start over, a chance to renew hope for a different future. It was to Colombia 50 years ago that another pope, Paul VI, went  to attend an important meeting of Latin American bishops who were also facing a time of fear and division as the forces of liberation were rising up against entrenched military regimes protecting enormous inequality between rich and poor.  It was at Medllin, Colombia, that Paul said, "If you want peace, work for justice." The two are inseparable. 

In today's Gospel, Jesus' words about reconciliation were being applied by the early church to their own situation,   facing persecution from without and divisions and conflicts from within. The church's message of love was being put to the test by the public scandal of Christians quarreling with each other over doctrine and pastoral practice. Matthew's church in Antioch had converts from both Judaism and the Gentile world, and they were struggling over how much of the Mosaic Law new members of the church had to observe to be good Christians. Differences were so deep that thc church felt it needed a step-by-step process to decide whether some dissenters should be thrown out. 

Critics of religion say that it has caused more conflict and bloodshed than any other factor in history. People who claim to have God on their side have felt free to destroy their opponents kill their own members as heretics. 

Jesus' teachings about mercy and reconciliation are perhaps the most radical part of the Gospel, for they place love and unity above every other value.  Jesus himself surrendered his life as an act of love for his enemies. St. Paul says that by his death on the cross Jesus sought to reconcile the world.

Every celebration of the Mass is a reminder that Jesus offered up his life to announce God's unconditional love and forgiveness. The mission of the church is for us to take that message from church into the world.  We do this by example. It was at Antioch that people first said, "Look at the Christians, how they love one another."  Is this the witness we dare offer the world today? 

Mother of God

"This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about" (Matt 1:18).

The story of the mysterious conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit is preceded by the complete genealogy of the promise going all the way back to Abraham. It is important for the Gospel and for the full meaning of the Incarnation that we see Jesus emerging not as an isolated event but from the history of the the Chosen People. 

Jesus is grounded in our humanity and our history. Because he is both human and divine he can bridge the two. He is our way to God. By living a complete human life, he transformed every human experience with grace. Our human nature is incorporated into the life of God. We do not leave our bodies behind to become holy; we find the holiness already inherent in our bodily lives because of Jesus. 

Mary, the mother of Jesus, gave birth to a Being who was both human and divine. The God who was conceived in the womb of Mary was also present by the power of the Holy Spirit within the womb of human history, a timeless divine Person appearing in time, the Word of God spoken into the silence of creation longing for revelation, eager to know its destiny.  

Because of Mary, our genetic inheritance is both bodily and full of grace. Her witness to us is that we must also say yes to God's Word so completely that it becomes flesh in us. We must carry Jesus within our humanity and share him with the world, as she did.  She was the first Christian, a model for us all. 

Do-over

"Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch." (Luke 5:3).

An experienced fisherman like Peter knew the frustrations of spending the night on the water and catching nothing. The fish were simply not biting. Wherever they dropped their nets, the fish were nowhere to be found. 

So when a carpenter from little Nazareth told him to go out again, he might have hesitated. But as the story is told in Luke's Gospel, there was something about this preacher from the hill country that had already touched Peter to the core. So he orders the nets loaded onto the boat again and the crew to take it out into deep water.  As soon as they lower their nets, they are filled with thrashing fish straining in the mesh and pulling the boat over to the side almost to the point of sinking.  

Peter realizes that this is more then fisherman's luck or a carpenter's guess. He has witnessed a miracle, a theophany, and Peter knows that his life is about to be changed radically. He falls to his knees before Jesus and begs him to depart, for he is a sinful man, totally unworthy and unprepared for the work of preaching and ministry.  No, Jesus says, I have chosen you because you know how to catch, and with me you will catch people in the nets of God's mercy. 

The Gospel stories are for us, meant to inspire faith in us, that if God has chosen us, God will use all our gifts and talents to help bring to fullness the Kingdom of God. Our human failures and frustrations will matter less than what God can accomplish through us. No matter how hard you have tried or how long and dark the night of your searching has been, go out again. Take your small boat out into deep water, and their lower your nets for a catch.  

Inspiring Service

"She got up immediately and waited on them" (Luke 4:39).

Jesus is chased from his hometown of Nazareth, but the people of Capernaum receive him with faith, and the miracles never stop. As a tumultuous day ends and the sun is going down, the crowds bring their sick and possessed and Jesus lays hands on them and cures them.  

The day of miracles begins with Peter's mother-in-law, who must have been anxious for Jesus' arrival, then is felled by a severe fever and cannot get out of bed. Jesus immediately goes to her and heals her.  In response, she rises up immediately and waits on Jesus and his disciples.  Her miraculous healing leads to an outpouring of generous service. 

From this important start, we might imagine just how all the healings must have impacted on the city. With each cure, how many families must have overflowed with gratitude and the determination to pay it forward in service to others. Thus the Kingdom of God appears as a wave of compassion radiating out from the center of grace initiated by Jesus. Faith builds on faith; love inspires love; holiness becomes contagious. Where Jesus finds faith, miracles multiply.

We are called to pass on every grace we receive. If healing or reconciliation comes to our house, it must not remain there, but be repeated and shared with gratitude. In this way, we become not just receivers of peace but channels to others. This is the joy of the Gospel. 

Authority

"They were astonished at his teaching, because Jesus taught with authority" (Luke 4:32).

The word "authority" describes the source of something. An author is the creative source of a book or play. Someone in a position of authority determines the shape and direction of policy.

Jesus astonishes the crowds in Capernaum because as they listen to him teach they realize that his words are coming from the source, which is God.  Their own teachers, the scribes and high priests, lacked this originality, this connection to the source of truth. Their teaching was derivative and secondary, like bottled water compared to the Well itself.  

What makes this scene ironic is that Jesus has just come from, his own home town, where the people who thought they knew best where he had come from rejected his authority and ran him out of town for calling himself a prophet.  In Capernaum, the first one to publicly acknowledge Jesus' direct relationship to God was the demon who had possessed the man in the synagogue: "I know who you are -- the Holy One of God!"

The Word of God has its full effect only if we receive it fully and believe it in our hearts. Just as a lack of faith limited Jesus' ability to work miracles in Nazareth, so our hesitation and unwillingness to surrender our hearts to him in faith weakens the action of God's grace in our lives.  The Letter of James says that those who pray with hesitation are like those who hold out a cup to receive water but withdraw it as the gift is being poured out. If we do not pray with faith, how can we expect to receive the blessings God is eager to give us? 

Christian discipleship grows as our faith grows. Let us stand in the very Source of God's love so that it can fill us to overflowing at every moment of our lives. To believe in Jesus is to open ourselves to the fullness of God.  

Labor of Love

"Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing" (Luke 4:24).

Jesus inaugurates his ministry in his own home town of Nazareth by reading a crucial Messianic passage of Scripture from Isaiah, then telling the crowd in the synagogue that it has been fulfilled in their hearing. The work of redeeming the world will focus on the poor, the blind, oppressed and imprisoned anawim, God's beloved. 

As he defines his mission, Jesus has no illusions that it will be easy or a matter of using power and miracles to change the world. He will be rejected and crucified for preaching repentance and love. The members of his own family and his neighbors will first be amazed at his newly found eloquence and his reputation as a healer, but this will turn to disdain and anger when Jesus challenges them with the adage that prophets are accepted everywhere except in their own native place.

Because of their skepticism and lack of faith, Jesus will work no miracles in Nazareth. The crowd is enraged and tries to seize him and throw him over a cliff, but he passes through their midst to continue his ministry in other towns.  

Thus begins the pattern of acclaim followed by rejection Jesus will experience on his way to Jerusalem. He will be a sign of contradiction, a disappointment to those who were expecting a powerful messiah. His message will challenge the self-righteous and welcome sinners and outcasts. He will draw the wrath of the scribes and Pharisees, the elders and high priests, Herod and the Romans. He will be betrayed by one of his own disciples and surrender to an ignominious death as a criminal and a heretic.  

The paradox of Jesus' rejection will reveal God's unconditional love for sinners. His death on the cross will open the way to new life for us all.  He fulfills the Word announced by Isaiah that God's Spirit would inspire him to bring good news to the poor, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed.  That same word is meant to comet true in our lives.  This is the labor of love we are called to on this Labor Day. 

Duped by God

"You duped me O Lord, and I let myself be duped" (Jer 20:7).

The Prophet Jeremiah bore the wrath of Judah for delivering God's judgment that the city of Jerusalem would be conquered and its people carried off in bondage to Babylon. When he was called to be a prophet, he may have envisioned a much different role-- that he would have brought good news or been the one to save Judah by his prophetic warning. But he is destined to prophecy doom and to be himself a man of sorrow and derision.

For this reversal of expectations, Jeremiah denounces God for duping him. Some translations say, "seduced," that he felt he had been drawn to God in love, then betrayed. Yet he is remembered as one of the greatest of the prophets for his courage to deliver bad news as the path to ultimate good news.  After great suffering, he will accompany Judah into exile and there become the voice of consolation and return.  God's purposes will be accomplished by a profound paradox-- that glory comes with suffering and full surrender.  

Jeremiah's experience previews the journey to awareness and submission that Jesus makes. His ministry begins in a whirlwind of success, miracles and acclaim. But by the time he and his disciples reach the apex of popularity and Jesus begins the long journey south from Galilee to Jerusalem, it is clear to him that he will fulfill God's will not by triumph but by his rejection, suffering and death.

 In today's Gospel passage, Jesus has just quizzed his disciples on who they think he is. Peter, inspired by God, proclaims that he is the Christ, God's anointed one. When Jesus tells them that he is about to be rejected and killed, the same Peter, inspired by Satan, tries to dissuade Jesus of such a fate, and Jesus rebukes him. Three times, Jesus will tell his disciples that he will suffer and die to accomplish God's plan, and that they, too, will suffer with him. Unless they pick up their own crosses -- their own burden of discipleship -- they will lose their lives. Only if they imitate him will they save their lives. 

This story in the Gospels is a turning point because it marks the crucial entry into the paradox of the Christian life. If we think we will succeed by avoiding deeper and deeper commitment to Jesus, we have not yet understood the seduction of God's call to us to enter the suffering of the world in order to help redeem it. Only by losing our lives for the sake of others can we save our lives. Only if we die with Jesus will we rise with him.  This is the meaning of our baptism. This is the heart of the Eucharist, our commemoration of the death of Jesus in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup. This is the essence of our Christian formation and mission, to be totally available to God as prophets, servants and witnesses (martyrs) for the sake of others. 

We ponder the mystery of God's love in sending his son to lay down his life to save the world. We ponder our own readiness to accept this reversal of expectations to continue the journey with Jesus to Jerusalem and to the cross. We consider the paradox of seeing our own sufferings and sacrifices not as curse but as blessing, because they unite us to Jesus, who loves us so much he is teaching us how to save our lives by losing them.

Is this not the strange and wonderful joy of the Gospel?

 

The Mercy Door

"Stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour" (Matt 25:13).

Many of the parables of Jesus recorded toward the end of Matthew's Gospel have a sense of urgency and decisiveness about them. Disciples need to stay alert and remain faithful at a time when the early church was expecting the return of the Risen Christ.  It will be a time of judgment, reward and punishment.  

This expectation was heightened by the first waves of persecution in the Roman empire after the end of the Jewish revolt and the destruction of Jerusalem.  The church remembered and adapted the parables of Jesus to their situations. 

There is an element of fear in these stories, which can be a strong motivator. The five bridesmaids who fail to bring extra oil are unprepared for the late arrival of the bridegroom, and they are shut out of the wedding. The allegorical uses of this parable are evident as we ask what this oil might be that keeps our lamps burning into the night?  Is it faith? Is it our baptismal anointing that must be renewed constantly by living its commitment?  The story ends in deep sadness for the five bridesmaids who are told by the bridegroom that he does not even know them!

In this novel, "The Last Temptation of Christ," author Nikos Kazantzakis has Jesus tell this story, but he changes the ending, All of bridesmaids are brought into the wedding feast,  even the foolish five, now much wiser regarding extra oil.  The wise five who refused to share their oil with the others -- a disturbing detail that mars their proud readiness -- are also let into the wedding. Everyone gets in, the wise and the foolish, the lax and the righteous, the prepared and the unprepared, for this is a love feast after all.  

Kazantzakis might have gotten the original parable right, for Jesus was always about mercy.  It is a parable to ponder as we consider just how open we are to the Lord who will come when we least expect him. 

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