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. 

 

Choose Life

"You will show me the path to life, fullness of joy in your presence" (Psalm 16).

Jesus' prayer for his disciples is that they be drawn into the relationship he has with his Abba. The dynamic exchange of love that is the essence of his being as divine Son is now being extended to them. As the Abba has loved him, so he has loved them, and in the same way they are to love one another. Their love must radiate into the world. This all-encompassing love is what will transform the universe into the beloved community. This community will fulfill the purpose of creation -- to reveal the glory of God, the inner life of the Trinity. The Christ in every baptized member of the church reflects the image and likeness of the Trinity. 

Pentecost is needed to reveal this mystery. Jesus must depart from history for the focus of this divine mystery to be transferred into the followers of Jesus. By the power of the Holy Spirit they will experience themselves as possessing the mind of Christ and the power to continue his ministry. The birth of the church on Pentecost repeats and completes  the incarnation of Jesus, now revealed in his followers, the body of Christ extended in time and space. 

The Acts of the Apostles are about the growth of the church in time and space, from Jerusalem to Rome, representing the two centers of the ancient world. Paul will arrive in Rome under house arrest about the same time, according to the tradition, Peter is also there. They will be martyred together during the persecution of Nero. Their deaths will make Rome the center of a unique authority over the early church, a status we know as the pope and the Vatican today. 

From the papal pulpit of Pope Francis, 266th successor of Peter, will come an urgent message to the world on Pentecost. Go forward; there can be no delay or turning back. History will judge our time as either courageous or foolish,  a choice to embrace sustainability, peace, the common good and reconciliation or to retreat into tribalism, denial, fear and the betrayal of future generations. We will live the consequences of this choice, which is why Jesus told his disciples to pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit.

"Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful with the fire of your love. Send forth your spirit and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth."

My Soul Magnifies the Lord

"God indeed is my savior; I am confident and unafraid" (Isaiah 12:2).

Mary, it can be said, was the first to experience Pentecost. What happened to the disciples in the upper room first happened to Mary some 30 years earlier in Nazareth, where she was overshadowed by the same Holy Spirit and conceived Jesus in her womb. The Word become flesh. 

We celebrate on this feast of the Visitation the recognition of that conception when Mary hastened to the hill country of Judah to share her joy with Elizabeth. Two pregnant women carrying the future of salvation history embrace and proclaim that God keeps promises.  

This coming Sunday we will celebrate the birthday of the church. The followers of Jesus, gathered in prayer with Mary, are animated by the Holy Spirit and become the body of the Risen Christ, the firstborn of the new Creation, Redeemer of the world, present in history through us. 

Mary's song of thanksgiving is also the song of the church. It is a song of praise that God chose to accomplish something so great through a seemingly insignificant and anonymous young woman from a small village in a forgotten corner of the world. The first shall be last, and the last first. It is also a bold song declaring justice for the poor and oppressed of history. God's might will be revealed in the lifting up of the lowly and the casting down of the so-called powerful and satisfied of this world. No suffering will be forgotten; every prayer will be heard and every promise will be  kept. 

How can we prepare for Pentecost? Today's feast reminds us that Mary brought her faith and her experience to that upper room where a small huddle of anxious disciples awaited the rebirth they were promised by her son, Jesus. Mary is the model and midwife for all of us on Pentecost. 

Obey the Holy Spirit

"Compelled by the Holy Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem" (Acts 17:22).

As we get closer to Pentecost, we are invited to contemplate the many gifts of the Spirit given to the members of the body of Christ. Each Christian ought to consider his or her role in the building up of the body of Christ, for charisms are given to all, not just those in office or those called to formal religious duties.

The real reform and renewal of the church proposed by the Second Vatican Council was not from the top down but from the bottom up. As a second Pentecost, Vatican II called for the "full, conscious, active participation of all the baptized" in the lif and the mission of the church. 

St. Paul understood that incorporation into the body of Christ defined our lives as belonging to God, so that every natural gift we possessed would be touched by grace and directed toward service. Preachers, teachers, administrators, pastors, parents, workers, artists, healers and counselors would find inspiration and guidance from the Spirit to build up the community. The imitation of Christ is the heart and goal of every spirituality, so that every believer would go through the day asking, "What would Jesus do? What would Jesus say?"

As Paul's ministry encountered resistance and suffering, he rejoiced because he was imitating Jesus. He also discovered that the Holy Spirit that had directed him on his missionary journeys was telling him to return to Jerusalem. As Jesus knew that Jerusalem was where all prophets went to die, so Paul goes to Jerusalem where he will be arrested and sent to Rome for martyrdom. 

We pray to embrace the will of God at Pentecost. The Holy Spirit poured out into the church will teach us how to imitate Jesus. Our natural gifts will find fulfillment in service. We will find joy in the indwelling of the Spirit. But we should also expect at some point to be summoned to the personal "Jerusalem" where all the issues on which our integrity depends will converge and the full meaning of our journey will be revealed in the laying down of our lives for others. 

Unity in Love

"In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world" (John 16:33).

Both of today's readings are descriptions of the early church. Paul's outreach through Asia Minor into Greece followed the diaspora of Jews. He found followers of John the Baptist and instructed them that there was another baptism besides one for repentance, and they welcomed the baptism of the Holy Spirit of Jesus. Paul went into the synagogues to make the case that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, the messiah they had been waiting for. 

Jesus' discourses in ​John's Gospel show second and third generation believers struggling under persecution and internal divisions to keep their eyes on the prize of the risen Christ. The "Beloved Community" that had formed around the "disciple Jesus loved." probably in Ephesus, was facing its own theological questions (see the letters of John). Jesus had foretold that in his absence the disciples would scatter like sheep without a shepherd. Only by gathering around the Word and the Eucharist would they keep the faith and grow through these difficult times. The antidote to division was to remain in the central gift Jesus had given them -- God's love. 

The history of the church has shown how easily different doctrinal approaches and ideological quarrels can divide the community into sectarian groups Even in our own time, battles over the meaning the Second Vatican Council often seem to result in different churches, different worship styles, different emphases on legal purity versus pastoral ministry, divisions among the hierarchy and the clergy.  Pope Francis, clearly a promoter of the renewal of Vatican II, has been publicly confronted by some bishops for taking the church in the wrong direction. 

As we pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we are praying for church unity around the mystery of divine love. Pope Francis' theme of mercy encompasses every aspect of the life and mission of the church. This highest priority must contain lesser questions and a diversity of opinions that require sincere dialogue and consensus in love. This is how a fractious world will know that the church can practice the reconciliation it preaches. 

To lose sight of Jesus, whose death overcame all divisions and gathered the flock into one fold, is to risk being scattered.  The Holy Spirit does not promise the church a life without conflict or trouble. It does promise us the unity only unconditional love can produce among the children of God. 

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

"And now I will no longer be in the world, but they are in the world, while I am coming to you" (John 17:11).

It has been said that life is like a sentence; we do not know its full meaning until the last word has been said. This gives us some perspective on the central theme of today's scripture readings. Only when Jesus has departed from history do his disciples begin to understand his mission as it is transferred to them.  

Some dioceses will celebrate the Ascension today and some will celebrate the Seventh Sunday of Easter. It does not matter since the message is the same. Jesus' absence from history thrusts the mystery of his continued presence through the Holy Spirit into the faith community. We are now the body of Christ in the world, the church. The Eucharist we celebrate on the Lord's Day is the memorial that "re-members" Jesus as the head of the body, united to us who are incorporated into him by baptism. 

The Acts of the Apostles visualizes Jesus' departure as a literal ascension like that of Elijah the Prophet, taken up into the sky in a fiery chariot. And just as Elisha, his successor, received his mantle and a double portion of his spirit, so the disciples receive the mind of Christ and the gifts of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. 

But it is John's mystical reflection recorded in the last discourses that explores the hidden meaning of Jesus' divine identity as Son of God, sent to repair creation and restore the divine image and likeness to humanity. His mission complete, Jesus returns to his Father, promising the disciples that he will not leave them orphans but will come back to them in a little while. His return, with the Father and Spirit, fulfills this promise at Pentecost. The God who entered the world incarnate in Jesus now dwells in every Christian and in the church. 

What are we to do with this beautiful theology? The world we live in challenges our faith and the values of the Gospel. What difference does it make that we gather in our churches to hear the word, break the bread, share the cup and exchange the peace of Christ with one another? How will the world know that we carry God? 

If Jesus is the last word of history, we are the question that drives his message through time toward its fulfillment. Living  the question is the work of our discipleship and the focus of our prayers. The tension between the kingdom that is both here and not yet is our life in the world.

This is why we must pray with all our being, "Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth."

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