Perfect Joy

"You are the salt of the earth" (Matt 13:5).

Salt and light are so basic that we hardly notice them. We take them for granted as they enable us to live and work, or bring savor and quality to life in so pervasive a way.  We remember the content of a conversation or activity, but do not notice how its tone and energy was seasoned with humor and affection. Our relationships are brightened by love or filled with shadows created by doubt or suspicion.

Why is one encounter uplifting and another a burden? Some people set us at ease or invite us to share by their careful and sincere listening.  Another person, without even knowing it, will fill th room with their moodiness or shut down the conversation with their superior air.

Jesus sent his disciples to proclaim God's freedom not just with words but by their manner and bearing. People would know they had encountered good news and received the blessing of peace.  Today's Word invites us to ask if we bring light and salt to those around us.  It is a simple lesson with large implications.  

The Way

"As Christ's sufferings overflow in us, so through Christ does our encouragement also overflow" (2 Cor 1:5). 

Paul's letter to the churches were in circulation a decade or more when Mark wrote his Gospel. All four Gospels show the influences of Paul's idea that all baptized members of the body of Christ got to share in the suffering and glory of the Risen Jesus. This spiritual formation was called the Paschal Mystery. We die with him in order to rise with him. 

So when Mark records the Beatitudes in his Gospel, he is describing what life in Christ looks like. The Christian community has already encountered rejection and some persecution. There is a real cost to being a disciple, but it is experienced as a blessing. How blessed are you who are poor, who mourn, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who show mercy and work for peace.  As Jesus suffered, so are you invited to suffer with him, but this is the path to Glory. 

The first followers of Jesus did not see themselves as involved in a new religion. They simply described their life in Christ as the "Way."  It was a way of life imitating Jesus, whose radical emphasis on care for the poor, acceptance of sinners, as witnesses to mercy and reconciliation, eventually brought him into conflict with the authorities. His followers likewise experienced opposition, rejection and persecution. The Beatitudes helped them interpret their experience as sharing in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. 

We find our baptismal maturity and fulfillment in following the same Way.  Our Beatitudes are revealed each time there is some cost to our discipleship: When do not insist on our own status and honor, we are poor in spirit, but set free from the need for approval. When we show compassion, we are blessed by solidarity with the suffering of others. When we long for a more just world, we share the work of changing the world others are doing. When we seek clarity and truth, we uncover God's purpose in our world.  When we do not take sides but seek to resolve conflicts, we help repair the world and create community.

To live this way is to know Christ more and more, and there is no greater blessing possible. 

  

God With Us

"If I find favor with you, O Lord, do come along in our company" (Exodus 34:8). 

We approach the mystery of the Trinity by keeping in mind that everything we know about God we have learned from Jesus. He is our point of entry into the unfathomable question of who God is and who we are. 

The early church experienced Jesus first as a human brother and fellow human being, the man from Galilee who went about announcing a radical notion of God and the purpose of life. Unlike the images of God people heard from organized religion-- a distant, unapproachable judge --, Jesus spoke of God as his "Abba" a loving father who offered his children, including sinners, unconditional love and acceptance.   The essence of Jesus' message was that God was filled with mercy and compassion, a generous father willing to take back his prodigal children, a good shepherd out looking for lost sheep. This was the Good News.

His death on the cross seemed to shatter their dream of a restored Israel, but his resurrection from the dead took believers to a whole new level of understanding, that this man Jesus was much more than a charismatic leader meant for their time and place. He was God's chosen one, the Christ, whose death and resurrection had to do with redeeming the whole world. He had fulfilled the Law and the Prophets, overcome sin and death. He was none other than the Lord, the revelation of God present in history. 

This awesome realization began a profound theological reflection in the light of their experience and of the many images and prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures that produced the letters of St. Paul and the four Gospels about who Jesus was in relation to the One God. This reflection evolved within the faith communities' experience of the risen Christ, still with them and active through his Holy Spirit given to the baptized members of the church.

The translation of the Christian faith in Jesus through Greek concepts during a time of competing understandings of his identity led to the creedal formulas of the first church councils. Jesus was the Son of God, yet equal to God the Father, and united in the Holy Spirit, three persons in one God, the divine Trinity. These words somehow contained the truth about Jesus but as a mystery that could not be explained logically. It could only be believed and lived. 

How we understand this brings us back to the same starting point of our encounter with God in Jesus.  We only know about God and about Jesus from our own human experience. Because we were made in the image and likeness of God, we already know something about the Trinity-- the challenge of love that produces unity in diversity  We also know from experience that we only know ourselves in relationship. No human individual is complete in himself or herself but only becomes fully alive in community. And just as our desire for maturity and wholeness leads us to community, so our journey toward God is toward the Community of God, the inner life of God as Persons united in love -- the Trinity.  

God comes to us in encounter. On this celebration of the Holy Trinity, we pray to encounter Jesus, our brother, who draws us through his human nature and experience toward his divine identity. This is our destiny, to share the life of the Trinity.  We will know it by seeking an intimate knowledge of Jesus, who is one of us.  He is also our point of entry into the inner life of God.  

Encounter

"The Lord keeps faith forever" (Psalm 146).

Todays's short gospel seems to reflect some the of theological questions being argued in the generation of early Christians with their Jewish protagonists. According to the scriptures, the messiah, God's anointed one, was to be a descendant of King David. Yet this Christ figure, as identified with Jesus, is proclaimed as Lord. How can he be both Lord and a descendant of David? 

The Gospel writers were keen to show that Jesus fulfilled the prophecies regarding the messiah. We see this in Matthew and Luke's infancy narratives, which establish that Jesus is born in Bethlehem, the city of David, and is of the house of David through Joseph. But it is also evident from what then happens to Jesus that he was much more than a human descendant of David. His resurrection reveals him in glory as the Lord of history. Mark's gospel begins with the assertion that Jesus is the Son of God. 

The members of the early church are confronted by an event that shatters their entire sense of reality. Their leader, Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph, a carpenter from Galilee, is put to death by the Romans at the instigation of their own high priest and Sanhedrin. He was vilified and rejected as a false messiah, a dangerous heretic whose popular following and provocative attack on the Temple at Passover threatened the establishment. 

But after his death, he is again alive and with them, both as restored to life and transformed by a new kind of life. The end of history is revealed in the middle of history, and his disciples experience Jesus as Lord, as the culmination and redemption of humanity. By his death Jesus has healed the great wound of sin that had separated creation from its Creator, humanity from its destiny, now redeemed by divine love that rescued him and rescues all of us from death. 
Jesus as human reaches back to claim David and all the patriarchs, the entire people of the covenant, the human race itself, and as Lord carries everyone forward through death to new life.  

For them and for us, theology gives way to an encounter in faith that goes beyond our concepts and our desire to control the mystery. Pray for this encounter, to know the risen Christ, Jesus as Lord, This is the goal of faith, why we belong to faith communities that witness the truth of his presence and power among us. Receive Jesus in the Eucharist, seek his face in prayer as a conversation that begins with your first conscious moment each morning and ends with your last breath at night.  This is our path to life, more life here and now, and abundant life forever. 

Jewish Jesus

"You are not far from the Kingdom of God" (Mark 12:34).

In today's Gospel we see why the Sh'ma, the prayer said daily by Jesus and all Jews, was regarded as the First Commandment that encompassed all other commandments of the Law.  

The scribe who asked Jesus what was the greatest commandment, was so moved by Jesus' recitation of the sh'ma (the Hebrew word for "hear"), that he joyfully repeats the entire prayer himself: "Hear, O Israel! The Lord your God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength." 

This prayer was the foundation of Jewish spirituality. It was God's compelling invitation to acknowledge and obey the most basic reality of all -- that we are totally dependent on God, who called us into being, created us from nothing, gave us the divine image and likeness, named us and loved us. Because God initiated our very existence, there is only one relationship we can base our identity on and direct our lives by. We live and grow and have our being in responding to God in the same way-- by loving God as God has loved us, totally and unconditionally, with all our heart, all our mind, all our soul, and all our strength. To respond less than this would diminish our very being, for we would be withholding ourselves from the dynamic flow of love that is the source of our existence. 

Jesus lived this basic invitation with perfect obedience ( a word whose root is also "to listen"), and every aspect of his life followed within and from this prayer. He preached this commandment. His ministry to the poor flowed from the implications of this prayer (the "second" commandment to love neighbor as self). His confrontation with the religious leaders of his time and the Roman state was the result of his obedience to the commandment to put love before every other gain or goal in his life. This uncompromising priority challenged the status quo of a world based on injustice and oppression. His death on the cross was therefore also the result of his obedience, as was the divine affirmation of his resurrection. 

Can there be any other spirituality or form of discipleship for us as imitators of Jesus?  To be good Christians, we need only to begin again as good Jews. If we pray as Jesus did we will live as he lived.  Everything else will follow from this foundation and organizing principle. For it is the first and greatest of all the commandments.
 

Seven Brothers, One Bride

"God is not God of the dead but of the living" (Mark 12:27).

The Sadducees, the wealthy, conservative aristocracy of Israel, rejected resurrection because it was not in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. Without an afterlife, they put great emphasis being rewarded for their piety in this life and on having progeny as a form of immortality. You lived on in your children. The example of a man who died childless, requiring his brothers to marry his widow to raise up a descendant for him, was the logical extension of their theology.  

In their confrontation with Jesus, an absurd case was presented to ridicule resurrection; if the poor woman had to marry all seven brothers, whose wife would she be in eternity?  Jesus tells them they think in these narrow terms because they know neither the scriptures nor the power of God.  

Life in this world and beyond this world consists in having a relationship with God. To know God is to be alive in a way that does not end with death. Just as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and even Moses were friends of God, they must be alive, for God is the God of the living, not the dead. 

The challenge of the Gospel is to be fully alive, to grow more and more alive by deepening our relationship with God in prayer and in being like God, full of compassion for others.  The Sadducees lived self-satisfied but very limited lives, failing to respond to the poor and oppressed all around them. (Why should they care, since there was no afterlife or judgment?) The rich man in Luke's parable about Lazarus was a Sadducee, and he learns too late that by neglecting the poor man at his gate he had cut himself off from God. 

Heaven begins here and now for for those who seek God, know God and live in God's love, which flows through them to others.  This is life.  This is the joy of the Gospel. 

Caesar or God

"Whose image and inscription is this?" (Mark 12:15). 

The famous story of the confrontation between Jesus and the scheming Herodians and Pharisees has a great ending. Jesus turns their trap back on them by getting them to show that they are carrying the Roman coins and the allegiance this implies, and that they have a far greater dilemma than they thought. Do they belong to God or to Caesar?

Jesus also taught them -- and us -- that image determines ownership. Are we carrying Caesar's image on our lives and our values, or are we displaying the image and likeness of God? This basic brand loyalty reflects our fundamental option and our organizing principle. We only need to imagine someone immersed in the capitalist-driven consumer and consumption culture that dominates so much of the Western world to realize how much it defines that person.

We can literally spend our lives shopping for what some compelling ad campaign has convinced us is essential for our success and happiness. That this seldom proves to be true does not stop people from discarding the old and buying the latest style or gadget to keep up and to please whatever group they want to belong to. 

Jesus models for us the freedom that comes from not needing to please anyone as long was we please God. This is to wear fully and joyfully the image God gave from the moment we were called into being. We bear the divine inscription when we live by the Word of God.  We become our authentic selves when we embrace the truth of who we are. 

Today's first reading begins the amazing tale of Tobit, one of the great love stories found among the Wisdom books of the Bible. Take time to look it up and read it in its entirety. It is wonderful an inspired story telling.   

The Vineyard of the Lord

"Blessed are they who fear the Lord" (Psalm 112.

Hope is the virtue that enables us to believe in things not seen. Abraham trusted in God's promises though they seemed endlessly delayed. The prophets foretold blessings they would not live to see. Salvation history is a long series of setbacks and disappointments that challenged faith and hope in God's eventual promise of redemption. 

Jesus came to the end of his earthly sojourn as a total failure. After a public ministry of powerful preaching and miracles, he arrived in Jerusalem to face hatred and rejection. He wept over the city for its failure to know the hour of God's visitation. 

Today's parable of the vineyard reaches back to a central theme in the story of God's covenant with Israel. Isaiah and Ezekiel had used the image to describe God's desire to bless the nation with bounty and fruitfulness. Isaiah's song of the vineyard is a love story that ends in tragedy. Jesus uses the theme to confront the religious leaders who are already plotting his death.  Their ancestors killed the many messengers God had sent to demand an accounting for their failure to care for the vineyard and produce a harvest. Like the tenants in the parable, they would also kill the owner's son.

Hope takes the long view and perseveres even when all the evidence points to failure. The Gospel Jesus preached and witnessed to by his death and resurrection is that truth is greater that falsehood and love is stronger than death. Goodness shines all the brighter in the darkness that blinds human purpose and motivation. Hope endures when it seems clear that things will get worse before they get better, when conflicts spiral out of control and violence begets more violence. 

Who will tend the vineyard of hope, laboring quietly to cultivate peace, promote dialogue, preach compassion and reconciliation? Pope Francis is an unwavering model for hope at a time when his message of mercy and prophetic warnings about the consequences of war, injustice, destruction of the planet for profit, the politics of division, the abandonment of the poor and displaced are being ignored. He continues to be the voice of conscience and the common good in a world struggling to regain its humanity and sense of solidarity.  

Our lives find meaning in the Paschal Mystery when we die to ourselves to be alive in the risen Christ, whose redemptive work never ceases and whose triumph is assured over every earthly effort to sow despair and futility. We are invited each day to become with Jesus that "perfect sacrifice of praise" promised at every Mass when the Holy Spirit  is invoked to transform us into the body of Christ. 

We enter the season of Pentecost. The harvest is great and the laborers are few. The Lord of the vineyard is calling each of us to labor when the fruit we dream of has still to appear, believing that what God is inspiring in us will happen. 

What Pentecost Does

" Jesus breathed on them and said, 'Receive the Holy Spirit'" (John 20:23).

How will we know if Pentecost has come to us? The readings for today's solemnity describe the followers of Jesus as receiving the power to forgive one another and to reconcile others to God. This is the essence of Pentecost.

The scene in the upper room when the risen Jesus appears is worth imagining. The disciples gathered behind closed, locked doors were filled with fear and guilt. When Jesus was seized by the authorities, nearly all of them had run away. Judas, one of their own inner circle, had betrayed Jesus to death. Peter, their supposed leader, had denied he even knew Jesus. Only one disciple, identified as "beloved," had remained with the women at the cross. The male disciples had failed Jesus utterly and tragically. 

Since then, rumors were flying around Jerusalem that Jesus had been seen alive. Mary Magdalene came early that very morning to report that the tomb was empty. Peter and the beloved disciple had gone with her to see and had come back dumbfounded but still blind to the meaning of the missing corpse. If Jesus was dead, all their hopes had died with him. If he was somehow alive, what would he say to them? They had abandoned him in his hour of need,

What could they possibly say to one another in their grief and fear of judgment? Surely Peter did not dare to offer any assurance, and their cowardice was only multiplied by the tension and anger they must have felt toward one another. Once it was safe to depart the city, they would scatter in every direction, never wanting to see each other again. 

It is into this gloom and anguish that the risen Jesus suddenly appears. His first words to his disciples are "Peace be with you." Peace! Their Master is alive and greeting them with peace. He shows them the signs of his suffering and death. His pierced hands and open side are before them. It is true! He is alive and with them again. 

Jesus then breathes on them. The last gesture at his death on the cross becomes the first gesture of his gift of new life to them. They are like the lifeless clay of Adam at the moment of creation. Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into his disciples, recreating them to be what they could not possibly have become before this moment. His holy breath enters and transforms them, enabling them to do what they could not have imagined before -- accept forgiveness for their sins and then turn and forgive one another. The Peace of Christ is the gift of his Spirit, and it transforms his disciples from a distraught huddle of broken men into bold ambassadors of peace and reconciliation.

The Acts of the Apostles tells the same story. On Pentecost, the great festival of harvest and the giving of the Law, the Holy Spirit descends like wind and fire on the disciples. They emerge shaken from their hiding place as new creations. Strangers from every part of the great diaspora crowd around them, and the Apostles preach the Good News of Jesus in every language. The scattering of Babel that had divided the world into strangers unable to communicate with one another is overcome and healed. Unity is possible again as the Holy Spirit reconciles everyone in the name of Jesus.

The Church is recreated at Pentecost to reconcile us to God and to heal the divisions among us that have led to constant war and misunderstanding, competition, fear and hated. Evangelization is the ministry of reconciliation, within the church and to the world.

 How do we know if Pentecost has come to us? If we are filled with the desire to resolve conflict, to promote dialogue, to bring people together around their common hopes and desires, the Spirit is with us. If we have the courage to be peacemakers in our own families and neighborhoods, the Spirit is with us. If we seek to disarm our culture of weapons and hate speech and can be witnesses ourselves to the power of listening and welcoming those with whom we disagree, the Spirit of Jesus is alive within us. 

The risen Christ is also the crucified Christ. He shows us the wounds of hate, now glorified by love to defeat death. Let him embrace and breathe new life into us today. This is what Pentecost is about. 

 

The Holy Spirit of Mercy

"Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you" (John 21:17). 

On the eve of Pentecost, we are reminded that the birth of the church is made possible by mercy. It was not because the followers of Jesus had succeeded and shown themselves worthy of the gift of the Spirit, but because they had failed so completely they could only be restored by mercy.

Peter and Paul are the churches greatest leaders because they model perfectly this process of rehabilitation.

In today's reading from Acts, Paul is on his way to Rome and the judgment of Caesar. His long journey as the Apostle to the Gentiles began some 25 years earlier on the road to Damascus. There, Saul, a determined enemy of Jesus and a persecutor of his followers, was knocked to the ground by mercy and then lifted up mercy to be the churches greatest announcer of the Gospel of Mercy.  A reborn Paul would call himself the least of the Apostles, untimely born by God's paradoxical decision to choose to befriend an enemy to convince the world that divine love was being poured out on sinners, a free gift on a rebellious, undeserving humanity. 

In today's Gospel, Peter is restored to his role as leader in an anguished, intimate exchange with Jesus on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias. His life without the master he had denied had become one long night on the water catching nothing. In his encounter with the risen Christ, Peter erases his triple denial with a triple declaration of love. "You know everything, Lord; you know that I love you." From total failure to rebirth, Peter would prove his love by caring for the flock that Jesus had laid down his life to redeem.  Peter would arrive in Rome just in time to join Paul, also reborn by mercy, to witness to their Master's love by their martyrdoms. 

Pentecost is meant to internalize these heroic stories in us, also saved by mercy. The Gospel pure and simple is that God has rejected rejection to save us while we were still sinners. Everything we will become is not because we are worthy or virtuous, but because God has loved us into lovability, "mercied and chosen," in the words of Pope Francis' motto: "Miserando atque eligendo."  

Pentecost is for sinners like Peter and Paul, like you and me. All we have to do is open our hearts and say yes.  This is the joy of the Gospel. 

 

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