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. 

Passover from Law to Love

"I desire mercy, not sacrifice" (Matt 12:7).

The Law of Moses on observance of the Sabbath had become an absolute rule regardless of circumstances. The Pharisees, always looking to find fault with Jesus, accused his disciples of breaking the sabbath by "harvesting" handfuls of grain to eat as they passed through a field.  Jesus cited an incident where David defended his soldiers for eating the bread of sacrifice when hungry.  His disciples were only applying the same standard. 

The controversy was still being played out when Matthew wrote his Gospel, with Jewish critics accusing Jesus of having been a lawbreaker. The point for Jesus and later for Matthew was that something new had happened. The Son of Man gave priority to human need over legal or ritual observance. The old way was one of sacrifice; the new way was one of mercy. 

The precedence of mercy arrives very slowly in biblical history. The first reading about the Passover meal and the blood of the lamb smeared on the door posts to indicate which houses would be spared when the angel passed over Egypt, was part of a larger story of divine revenge. As pharaoh had ordered the killing of every firstborn Hebrew,male, so God would inflict the same penalty on Egypt. Israel's departure from Egypt after increasingly destructive plagues and the despoiling of Egyptian treasure would include the drowning of pharaoh's entire army. It was a contest of power, and the Hebrew God would show prove to be absolute.

The revolution at the heart of the Gospel was that Jesus proposed a different kind of God-- the God of mercy, a God who forgave offenses and loved his enemies. This evolving image of divine compassion was a challenge to established religion based on the power of the clergy to enforce the law. Jesus was recovering the long tradition of prophets like Elijah, Micah and Isaiah who had highlighted the mercy of God as preeminent. "I desire mercy, not sacrifice."  The thunder of Mount Sinai was now the tiny whisper of Mount Horeb, or the voice from the heavens: "This is my beloved-- listen to him.."  Passover would find fulfillment in the blood of Jesus, the Lamb of God, hanging on the cross. 

We all can make the journey from sacrifice to mercy, from law to love.  Discipleship leads to an encounter with the God of Jesus, His heavenly Abba is the measure of perfection we grow toward by the gift to grace, the One whose name is Mercy. 


Weary and Burdened

"My yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Matt 11:30).

I have been reading "All the Way to Heaven: the Letters of Dorothy Day." Much in the news these days after Pope Francis mentioned her during his speech to the US Congress as an example of an outstanding American Catholic, Day is also under consideration for canonization for her service to the poor and advocacy for peace. 

Day's letters reveal a long and full life of passionate engagement in issue of justice, first as a journalist and then as the co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement and first editor of its newspaper. They also show a woman devoted to her daughter and immersed in the full range of challenges as a parent and grandparent. She tried to balance this with her many roles serving the homeless and hungry ot Depression-era New York City and her life as a writer, speaker and protestor for worker rights, the rejection of all war, and as a witness to radical Christianity.

If any contemporary figure fits Jesus' invitation to the weary and burdened, it would be Day, who died at age 83 in 1980 of congestive heart failure after a life emptying herself into the needs of others. 

The title of her collection of letters is part of the longer phrase "All the way to heaven is heaven," which captures the truth that it is the destination of your life that give meaning to the journey. Day's focus on God meant that her days were filled with God, in her devotion to prayer and the sacraments and in her encounters with people in need.  Even when exhausted physically and emotionally and weighed down by criticism and apparent failure, Day never lost her confidence that she was in harness with Jesus, who promises every disciple that the yoke we share with him will lighten our burdens and bring joy to our service. 

Time and Eternity

"The place where you stand is holy ground" (:Exod 3:6).

One way to enter the story of the burning bush is to imagine that Moses, who exists in time, encounters God, whose all encompassing Being is absolute and timeless.  The burning bush is the interface between history and eternity.. The bush is on fire but not consumed because it is happening in a timeless moment-- the eternal Now in which God us revealed as I AM.  Everything that exists, including the bush, the mountain, Moses, the land of Midian, Egypt, the entire universe, is dependent on I AM. 

The first act of God's mercy is to make possible this encounter. The heart of history is God's decision to create a world in which a relationship between Creator and creature could occur. Moses will be known a personal friend of I AM, and his many encounters with God will give his face a glow, for he will burn with intimacy with God but not be consumed. He is a living interface between time and eternity that channels the giving of the Law, God's will for the universe. 

Other prophets will approach God in similar but limited ways.  Elijah will see God from behind-- after the fact-- as the divine Present passes the cave on the mountain. Ezekiel and Daniel will describe theophanies with images of fire and wheels turning within wheels, or countless heavenly beings massed around the Throne in awe.  But all of this is to prepare us for the most direct revelation of all. 

Jesus appears in history in such a way that God is hidden in plain sight.  The face of Jesus is so ordinary, so perfectly human, that the world does not recognize the image and likeness of God where it has always resided-- in a human being. The visible face of Jesus is the encounter with  the invisible face of God. Jesus is on fire with the Love of God, and people, especially the poor. the vulnerable, the humble are drawn irresistibly to him in the way that Moses was drawn to the burning bush.  It is here that Moses receives his call and the assurance that he will be able to fulfill it because God will be with him. 

In todays gospel passage, Jesus thanks his Abba for revealing to little ones the mysteries hidden from the wise and the learned.  We pray to be among these little ones, the pure of heart who see God. For the goal or all prayer and every spirituality is to be able to see the image and likeness of God everywhere and in all things.  

The Cry of the Poor"

"In your great kindness answer me" (Psalm 69).

The story of Moses is the beginning of the story of the rescue of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. The God who brought Israel's children there under Joseph is about to make them into the Chosen People with the founding event of the Exodus.  
If there is a discernible motive for God's choice of the Hebrews, it is expressed in the revelation Yahweh makes to Moses from the burning bush.  He has heard the cry of his people, so God will act, for Compassion is God's essence, the divine name. 

The genius of the scriptural account is seen in the early, preemptory expression of this motive as the key to the story. When pharaoh orders the destruction of all male Hebrew babies, the unnamed mother of Moses places him in a floating basket in the Nile for pharaoh's daughter to find. When she sees the crying child, she is moved with pity for him and arranges to adopt him as her own.  

A birth mother's compassion refuses to surrender her child. An adoptive mother's compassion rescues him and takes him into the royal household.  Both women are moved to pity and reject the official policy of infanticide to protect the regime that fears an uprising by its enslaved workforce.  Their compassion lays the foundation for the story of God's decision to save his people from slavery. The founding memory of the nation of Israel will be that God heard the cry of the poor and called his children out of Egypt. 

This principle will also be the heart of the covenant God forms with Israel, the core of the Law and the Constitution that constantly reminded them that as God treated them so they were to treat others.  God showed compassion on you when you were slaves, alien residents, refugees wandering in the desert, so you must show compassion to others.  The failure to care for the poor, widows and alien residents was an affront to God and a failure to live up to your identity as a people chosen by God and rescued from suffering. Other nations will know that you are the People of God if you hear the cry of the poor. 

Is this not also our identity?  Isn't his how God will recognize us as disciples of Jesus?  Have we heard and been moved to pity by the cry of the poor?  Then we are part of the story.  

Total Commitment

"Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will lose it" (Matt 10:38).

Discipleship is about a relationship with the Risen Christ that is total. By baptism we enter an intimate union with him that encompasses our entire lives, entering our human experience in all its aspects. Our joys and sufferings help us grow to maturity, but grace takes these moments and prepares us to transcend this life as we are bridged in Christ to our divine identity as children of God. 

Jesus made clear to his disciples that their new identity was deeper and more significant than even their blood ties to family or loyalty to tribe and culture. Once united with Christ, we are where he is, doing what he is doing, guided by his mind and Spirit. This is evident in his promise that anyone who receives us will be receiving him. Even a cup of water given to one of his disciples will be regarded as an act of kindness to him

Matthew will extend this identity in a special way to the poor. Whoever gives them food or drink, clothing or comfort will be caring for the risen Christ. HIs mission moves through the disciples into everyone they serve. The unity of Christ with the members of his body in the world is a sign of the ongoing extension of the transforming power og God's grace reclaiming the world.  No small act will be forgotten. 

The challenge of faith is to keep a lively sense of this mysterious and not always evident activity of Christ in our everyday lives. We may feel ordinary and small, but God's redemptive work never ceases where it finds a believer. The life we lose in the service of Christ is the life we will find in him for all eternity. 

Sower, Seed and Soil

"A sower went out to sow" (Matt 13:3).

The parable of the Sower is the first and most characteristic of Jesus's parables in Matthew. It a parable about telling parables, and it explains how faith grants access to an audience in stages, determined by the readiness of the hearer to hear and respond to the message.

As Jesus tells the story, some hear only a simple tale about the risks of farming. Others hear its invitation but do not let it take hold.  Others are impressed but easily distracted and do not pursue or apply the insight. Finally, some in the audience enter the drama of three successive failures to plant the harvest the community depended on, averted by some patches of good soil that yield the bounty that saves the day. 

Matthew, looking back on Jesus' preaching and the the apparent failure of his crucifixion, uses the parable to help explain the "messianic secret"  -- the fact that so many people did not grasp how God was at work in the paradox of Jesus' death and resurrection.  Isaiah had foretold this selective reception by some that was hidden from others. The crowds did not understand the meaning of the parables, but the disciples had it explained to them. They were the good soil that ended up yielding  the harvest God intended. 

Jesus' use of parables to convey such an important message can seem overly subtle, since so many don't get it, but his method also illustrates that our approach to God is possible only with full freedom. The goal is real intimacy, a face-to-face encounter akin to falling in love, or finding mutual friendship.  The mob will never get it. The crowd looking for miracles will fall away, the fans will need a quick fix to hold their attention. Only those listeners who let Jesus capture their hearts and imaginations will stay long enough to be grounded in the hope he offered. Only those with eyes that see and ears that hear and hearts that grasp the love being offered in the story will find their lives rooted in the Kingdom of God Jesus preached, then made possible by his death and resurrection, the seed that fell to the ground to be multiplied in glory.  

The art of preaching is to make God so accessible and so attractive that people will go past the preacher to the relationship they realize is being offered in the graced moment of hearing. Long after the sower is gone, the harvest will appear. The one sown will become the sower, and the sowing will begin all over again, an exponential, radiant source of joy and love needing only more good soil to be multiplied. Hear then the parable.  

Trusting the Story

"Whoever endures to the end will be saved" (Matt 10:22).

The story of Israel (Jacob) and how he and his family went down to Egypt) is part of a longer rhythm of events that show how bad things come from good things and good things come from bad.  There is wisdom to be found in this lesson that helps us keep going forward, no matter what happens. 

The narrative begins with the betrayal of Joseph by his jealous brothers, who sell him into slavery. But from this tragic event, Joseph positions himself in Egypt to be the one who saves the family in a time of famine, a very good outcome. But the survival of Israel and his people requires that they go down to Egypt. At first they benefit from relocation, but over time a new pharaoh comes to power who enslaves the Israelites. 

After generations of oppression, the stage is set for Moses to be called to lead the descendants of Israel-- the Hebrews -- out of slavery. They are liberated, but then find themselves in the wilderness for 40 years. Conquest of the land of Canaan gives the Hebrews their new homeland, a great blessing, but with success they soon want to imitate other nations by accepting a king.  Glory is followed by corruption and the eventual collapse of the kingdom and deportation to Babylon. 

This pattern of success and failure was hardly evident as each event occurred. Who could know that something good would occasion the next disaster, or that each disaster would purify the people through suffering for the next covenant with God? But the message was clear. What seems like misfortune leads to success, and what seems like success leads to failure. 

Jesus sends his Apostles into the world knowing that his same pattern will prevail. He wants them to be prepared so they will not lose heart in times of adversity and persecution. They must be able to discern the hand of God in each event, to be as shrewd as serpents while keeping their innocence as doves.  So the church would survive successive ages with the rhythm of constancy and change, gain and loss, success and suffering, growth and reform.  

Each Christian will find this same wisdom through the ups and downs of life. The Holy Spirit accompanies us and interprets for us the deeper meaning of each turn in the road, each advance or retreat. The message is that God will never abandon us, but will see to it that we reach our destination, the fullness of life.