All posts for the month January, 2014

Our Lady of Lebanon Catholic Church, Norman, OK

Malachi 3, 1-4 + Psalm 24 + Hebrews 2, 14-18 + Luke 2, 22-40

Until now, we have been observers as the mystery of salvation unfolds in the Gospel. We heard about shepherds and then about magi. Until now, they were the privileged ones who saw with their own eyes the promised one. Today it changes. With the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, his presence among us becomes public for all to see. In Simeon and Anna, we must find ourselves among those who wait and watch as faithful people who, in the Temple of this Church, find the joy of salvation and the fulfillment of our hopes.

They are not significant people by the standards of their day. He is an old man waiting all his life to see the Messiah. Most people probably thought of him as an old fool, useless, and silly hanging around the Temple every day wandering through the crowds. Most people probably tried to avoid him, averting their eyes if he approached, or perhaps even turning away. He must have been a familiar sight to the regulars who had their shops and stalls selling what was needed for the rites. Those in charge probably thought he was a nuisance, and I suspect they probably brushed him aside so they could be about their duties. The old widow hangs around all day with her prayers, and she is probably not silent with those prayers either. Even the pious who came to pray probably avoided her. Suddenly a poor couple with a questionable story from a no-count village in a no-count country show up with a baby. It is a tender scene when you stop to think about it: old people and babies. They make a joyful match. The old ones near the end, and a little one at the beginning. There is something complete about this setting, and in it there is for us now a revelation. The Shepherds had one and the magi had theirs. Now it is our turn. Forty days have passed since Christmas. It is the mid-point of winter, and the light of the sun is returning to us as we assemble here in this temple to reflect upon the revelation that has been given to us.

This is our story now. We are Simeon and Anna, the ones who come to the temple with hopes and dreams resting on the promises we have heard from the prophets and in scriptures. When I think of this story I always wonder, “What if Simeon or Anna had not been there that day? What if they had stayed home or gone on vacation to the mountains or the beach. They had their experience because they were there, waiting, expecting, and open to whatever the Providence of God willed for that day. There is no reason to believe that Mary and Joseph were the only couple fulfilling the law that day. There is no reason to believe that there was anything special about Mary and Joseph that would have caught anyone’s attention. They were simply doing what was expected of them in the simplest way possible.

The sacrifice of turtle doves suggests a poor simplicity. The wealthy might have sacrificed a lamb, something much more costly. Remember, when a sacrificial offering is made it is way of setting something aside totally for God – by destroying what is offered, it can be used for nothing else – and by no one else: only God. If a portion of the first fruits of the field were offered back to the God who provided the harvest, it was the same with the first boy-child – in gratitude to God who provided the life, the first is offered back symbolically by a substitute offering. As the story of our salvation unfolds from this day in the Temple, the doves will be replaced by the sacrifice of the Lamb of God.

As always in Luke the Spirit is active, and it is that Spirit that drew Simeon and Anna to a child that day. Our hope and our prayer in this temple must be for that the same Spirit to move among us to praise God and speak about this child to all who look for redemption. With the Presentation in the Temple, this is no longer a private event that happens at night or in secret lest Herod find out about it. The word is out. The Word is Flesh among us. The Light has come. Yet, it is still a dark world that waits for the light. It is made all the more dark by the power of violence, hatred, and revenge. The darkness of racism, sexism, and prejudice still holds us in darkness. Injustice and poverty dim the glory that has been promised.

The favor of God no longer rests just upon Mary of Nazareth and her Son. The story we tell today is that the favor of God rests upon an old man and a widow in the Temple. Understanding what that story holds for us means that the favor of God rests upon us as well. It is time on this Feast to present ourselves to God. It is time to present what we have, what we do, and what we become. It is time to go from here as light and healing in a broken and dark world. We have the faith. We have the Spirit. We have the favor of God.

Third Sunday of Ordinary Time

Isaiah 8, 23-9, 3 + Psalm 27 + 1 Corinthians 1, 10-13, 17 + Matthew 4, 12-23

And so it begins for Jesus. The preliminaries in Matthew’s Gospel are over, and the break with John the Baptist is made. To initiate the beginning and the break, Matthew moves Jesus out of Nazareth and up to Capernaum, big city for its time in a strategic location. Because of its importance it was a city full of gentiles unlike Jerusalem, so exclusively Jewish. Something is a little different in the way Jesus goes about his work from the very beginning. Rabbis at the time were sought out by their disciples. They did not go looking or inviting. It was the other way around. Already we can see that with Jesus things are not going to be the way they have always been.

There is an important, but easily missed detail to this call that is essential to understanding the universality of this invitation. Without understanding this, the invitation seems special making the call somehow unique setting those called apart from the rest. Given the inclusive nature of the mission Jesus begins, I’m not sure that this was his intent.

Notice that he calls fishermen to fish. He does not ask them to stop fishing. A response to his call does not mean that they had to forget what they knew or quit using the skills they had. This description of the call is about a transformation of their life’s work that would be possible were they to leave some things behind.

When we then hear the call to repentance a question should arise. “From what?” We must ask ourselves again and again what it is we must turn away from in order to prepare for the Reign of God. From our work?  I don’t think so. Based on the fact that he expected them to continue to fish, I do not think repentance means quitting or changing jobs. For these fishermen it means they will no longer be merchants out to gain something for themselves. They would no longer work only for profit, money, power, prestige. Competition among them would be over with. They would not work together, not chasing the fish or the mighty denarii or the “dollar” of that day. They would offer themselves in service for others seeking the Reign of God.

This is a real, personal, and serious kind of repentance that does not mean you run off to a monastery or convent to respond to the call. It suggests that everyone is called, and that the call is universal. Everyone is invited into this life and mission. Responding does not then mean quitting your job and what is necessary to sustain daily life. It does mean accepting the call and the grace to be free from the encumbrance of our own opinions and viewpoints, ideologies and prejudices that prevent us from joining others to proclaim and live in the joy of God’s Kingdom. It does mean that the purpose of our work and how go about our work is different. Instead of being totally focused on profit and career advancement, those who hear the call of Jesus will be always aware of those around them. They will be conscious of and careful about the how their work and the decisions they make affect and impact the lives of others. This is a radical transformation. This is exactly what is involved and required of Disciples of Christ.

Our Holy Father, Francis has spoken of this recently. He reminds us that we are all called first to live charitably which means not looking out for our own interests, but carrying the burdens of the weakest and poorest among us. He recently said this: “How marvelous it would be if, at the end of the day, each of us could say: “Today I have performed an act of charity towards others.”

Becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ does not require a degree in theology. As we sometimes say today, it is not “rocket science.” It is simply charity, an openness to all without judgment. A willingness to be free from opinions and the confines of prejudice and open to what may happen with a life lived in harmony with Christ and God’s will.

Centuries ago a group of fishermen was chosen by Jesus to bring good news to their land and culture. Jesus was a light shining in a very dark world, a nation that had been invaded, conquered, and subjected by foreign powers. The people he chose were to carry his light to the far reaches of the civilized world. They did that, and each of us is living proof. Yet we are still in a very dark world. Our culture is dark too, shouting a message that money, looks, and material goods are the measure of our value and success. Yet we must believe that the measure of greatness for a society is found in the way treats those most in need, those who have nothing apart of their poverty. The mission has not changed, and God is still calling people to the mission, calling them at work to work. Calling them from darkness to light. God is still calling us where we work and where we live to be transformed by the light. We can change our society by changing ourselves. Then Light will break forth again, and darkness will fade. With joy we shall become fishers of men as we are called to become by our baptism and the light we received on that day.

Please note that this reading is not the Gospel for the Latin Rite 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Maronite Rite follows a different Lectionary
Our Lady of Lebanon, Norman, Oklahoma
The Third Sunday of Epiphany
January 26, 2014
Galatians 3, 23-29 + John 3, 14-21

We know very little about Nicodemus. He shows up suddenly out of nowhere. John tells us he is a leader, a Pharisee, and a member of the Sanhedrin. We can tell from the conversation that he is smart, savvy, and a thinking man. We know that he comes at night probably not because he’s busy all day or that Jesus is running a night school. This man has a lot to lose because his questions reveal that he has gone a step or two further than the other Pharisees. His questions are not legal. They are sincere inquires. He comes seeking understanding, and as John’s Gospel moves along, he will be back.

 This is a story of confrontation. John uses it to launch one of his episodes between darkness and light. At another level it is about the confrontation of evil deeds and good deeds. At a personal level it is a confrontation between Jesus and Nicodemus, and so it become a story of fear.

From the very beginning it is clear that fear is in control and is being challenged. Nicodemus speaks in the plural, but oddly, he comes alone. He has slipped away from his buddies, the crowd, and other professionals among whom he has lived his life and with whom he has shaped his opinions and views. We do that all the time: hanging around people who share our opinions and views, and avoiding people who do not. He does not want them to know. He is caught between his old tried and true ways and a new opportunity that Jesus presents. He is afraid, and in him we see a dimension of fear and its power over him. He is more concerned about the opinion of others than the Judgment of God. He prefers the approval of his peers to the truth!

John’s Gospel is always full of symbols, and darkness and light are very important and often show up. Darkness in John is always about sin. Nicodemus comes in the darkness of night making us wonder what he has to hide. He is afraid of the light. He does not want to be exposed. Trapped, he is drawn to the light by coming to Jesus, but it threatens him and the hidden darkness of his life. He is called to change, and he is afraid.

Another level appears then, the fear of change or having to change. There is in this conversation an almost pathetic desire for approval in the way he speaks to Jesus. He offers a compliment wanting one in return. He does not get it. What he does get is a summons to abandon his fears and rely on God rather than the prestige of his position. He is invited to start over forgetting about the ideas he has used to build his career and his whole life. Then his biggest fear  emerges, the fear of not be able to change. “How can a person once grown old be born again?” It is an anguished cry. You can hear it in his voice: “It’s too late for me. I’m too old, too set in my ways. How can I start over?” He is locked in his past and who he has been. He thinks that who he will be is determined by who he has been. Deeper than the fear of other’s opinions, deeper than the fear of revealing his actual flawed self, worse than the fear of having to change is the fear of being unable to change. But here comes the message of this Gospel, the truth which John proclaims as good news to all: You can change. It is the essence of the gospel: “Repent, Change; the reign of “God is at hand.”  In other words, believe that you can change.

We can become the person God has created. We do not have to be the poor substitute we have created instead of what God has created. There is a power at work in us. We do not have to do it alone, because that’s part of the fear. We have the grace. We have the power. We have the gift to overcome these fears: the one thing that always overcomes all fear: the Spirit we call Love. A person filled with love, filled with the spirit is free, totally free and totally alive, sharing in God’s own freedom and God’s own life. This Spirit, Love, frees us from the fear of other’s opinions. It frees us from the fear of admitting our own sinfulness. It frees us from the fear of having to change and from the fear of being unable to change. It all happens by grace for those who will accept and trust that grace. Only those willing to come to Jesus even in the night will ever know the truth and stand in the light. Only those who seek the power of grace can know freedom that is given to the children of God. We are telling the story of Love here, the one power that casts out fear. We are living the story of Love here as a family of faith gifted and loved by God: loved enough to share our very existence. For this we can only give thanks, and bow down in wonder and awe at what has been given to us by the faith Paul speaks of this day because we are no longer slaves, but free children of God.


Isaiah 49, 3-6 + Psalm 40 + 1 Corinthians 1, 1-3 + John 1, 29-34

Last Sunday we had an image of Jesus standing in line with sinners to be baptized. It is  an image that unmistakably reveals how God seeks us and sends his Son to become one with us even in our sinfulness. Today with John’s Gospel we are drawn a little deeper into this mystery of God’s love proposed by John the Baptist. The fourth gospel is a gospel of symbols and just a week after proclaiming Matthew’s version of the Baptism of Jesus, we pick up John’s Gospel which curiously does not record any Baptism at all. With the other Gospels a voice from the heavens identifies and speaks of the indentity of Jesus. In John’s Gospel there is no voice other than that of John the Baptist: Behold the Lamb of God!

For the Jewish people of the time, and even today, a Lamb evokes no image of a meek and gentle creature that is cute and cuddly. Far from it. For people steeped in the images of the Old Testament, a Lamb evokes two memories. The Passover image of the victim lamb whose blood sprinkled on the doorposts saves the People of God from the angel of death, and the Lamb of the Atonement Feast sent into the desert to die after ritually taking on the burdon of the people’s sins.  There is no hint of meekness or the romantic ideas we have about sweet little white wooly lambs.

When John uses this image, it is about sacrifice. So what we inherit with this Gospel is the earliest church’s reflection upon and expression of their understanding of Christ’s death and mission, to undo the consequences of sin and lead us back to union with God.

Before a single miracle takes place, before Jesus utters a single word, his identity and his mission are established here. Everything he does and everything he says from now on  in John’s Gospel will lead to this new sacrifice. Someone has finally come to take away sin, once and for all, and they will do it by sacrifie. To understand this we must undertand what sacrifice is all about. Those Temple sacrifices were a way of returning something to God: the first fruits of the harvest, the Lamb, a Dove, whatever. The whole point was offering something to God on behalf of one’s self. A returning to God as a signal of one’s desire to be with God or return to God. By offering sacrifice, the alienation that sin causes is reversed. In giving up the life of the victim, the sinner gives up their own life – returning it back to God. Since sin is a turning away from God, sacrifice turns one back to God. It is not that God needs the offering, but that the one making the offering or the sacrifice needs to be lifted up or turned back to God. So any idea that God is expecting or demanding some suffering sacrifice has this all wrong. We need the sacrifice, not God.

I find it fascinating that John leads the people out of Jerusalem, away from the Temple. He takes them out of that old sacrifice context and leads them to a new Temple, Jesus. He leads them to a new, final, and perfect sacrifice: the Lamb of God. John is saying that Jesus will be the one who offers the final sacrifice uniting divinity and humanity. The Old Testament sacrifices never were enough. They never dealt with the real problem of sin. They had to be offered again and again and again. In Jesus however, it is finished, as Jesus himself says at the final moment of his sacrifice.

Already then in the first chapter of John’s Gospel, we are brought to the last Chapter. The theme is set. The Word that was with the Father from the beginning took on our human condition, sin, in order to lead us back to his place at the right hand of thte Father. This is the nature of sacrifice. The suffering of the Lamb is the suffering of sinners turning back, dying to sin, and returning to the Father. This is the nature of the Son, the eternal Son, always one with with Father; and oneness with the Father is our nature as well as God intended it. Therefore, the obedience of the Son undoes the consequences of the disobedience in the human condition.

In the climax of his life Jesus Christ bore the sin of the world, experienced the seperation, the loneliness, and agony of sin becoming sin on the cross. Yet, under this weight of this human disfunction, he remains one with the Father. In his humanity, he turns us back to the Father. He does this for us. He obeys the father and brings us back together before the Father. Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

The work of Jesus Christ was always and still is a sacrifee that reunites us with God. This should leave us stunned in silence and awe before Communion in the Eucharist where the sacrifice continues to draw us from sin into the mercy and grace, peace and joy of union with God in sacrament. The words of the Bapatist will soon be spoken again: Behold the Lamb of God; and then, surprised once again by mercy and love, we shall be counted among the blessed as we are called to the supper of the Lamb.

Isaiah 42, 1-5, 6-7 + Psalm 29 + Acts 10, 34-48 + Matthew 3,13-17

We all suffer from a bad case of “habituation.” The symptom of “habituation” is that nothing surprises us, and there is no place where our case of this shows up than with the Bible. So, nothing surprises us, and therefore nothing leads us to deeper reflection. That is not good. This Gospel story should cause us considerable surprise, and lead us to a lot of soul searching about what is going on and what it means for Jesus to be Baptized. What does it mean for Jesus to be numbered among the sinners? It’s as though you might come into a church and find Jesus standing in line for confession! What’s that all about?

It is not by chance that this feast completes the season of Christmas and our annual celebration of the Incarnation. The Baptism of Lord, feast and fact is perhaps the ultimate affirmation by God through Jesus Christ assuming our humanity.  All of our humanity, even the sinful part. The whole life of Jesus was about embracing humanity, the sickness, the poverty, the helplessness, the dying and the sin! He took it all upon himself. By his choice to be with and among publicans and sinners, he was judged by some to be a sinner. Guilt by association. Remember how they criticized him for the company he kept? This was his way of being with those he came to save, heal, and redeem. His association with them was the beginning of their salvation.

The Jewish people in the first century were not an aquatic people. Water was something to be feared. It represented the power of chaos. To be baptized involved loosing control. Being swalloed up by water was a departure from the order and contol of the universe. His immersion in the Jordan anticipates the chaos of his death.

In reality, at this moment of his Baptism, Jesus is Adam He is everyone. See the similarity between this moment and the moment of his death. The sky opens. In this account, a voice from heaven speaks. At Calvary, the voice of Centurian speaks in behalf of us all. It is the same message. In Jesus, the whole sinful mass of humanity is accepted and loved by God. At this moment Jesus knows something that no one else knows: in spite of sin, there is no longer any seperation between heaven and earth, between God and the human family. Sin which is that very seperation is finished. Even while we were sinners, God’s love is more powerful. Even if we do not go to God because of our sinful ways, God comes to us!

This is the very heart of what Jesus preached, and the very goal of his mission.

Here is the challenge. As long as we we do not recognize our sin, the gratuity, the grace of God’s love, is undsicovered. To think that we are without sin fakes our relationship with God. It is the awareness of our need, the acknowledgement of our guilt that provides us access to God’s merciful love. It is only through the door of mercy that we find access to the heart of God.

Something happened at this point in the Gospel: a carpenter’s son became the hearld of God’s Kingdom. At this moment it became clear to Jesus that the relationship he experienced with the Father in the Spirit was accessable to all, and the doorway of that relationship was recongnition and acceptance of the truth that he is one with us. Everything he did was for our sake and for our salvation.

We celebrate today the humanity of Jesus in its totality. In him we see our own humanness more clearly. Because he was willing to be associated with us sinners we never find in him that attitude heard in the prayer of the man who said: “Thank God I am not like the rest of men.” We cannot find salvation in our own private world. The man of that prayer was isolated, stuck in his individualistic life.  We see that our isolation from God isolates us from one another making us lonely and sad, empty, and alone. The Incarnation we celebrate is our reunion with one another as well as our reunion with God. The human family is restored.

Pope John Paul II insisted that individualism “leads to the denial of the very idea of human nature” This thinking and this behavior leads us to trample on the rights of others, destroys the foundation of the human community, and corrupts and saddens those who embrace it. This leads to the exploitaton of others.

Philosophers made a distinction between being a “person” and being an “individual.” A person means being in relationship with others; being an individual means we are distinct and seperate. Personhood allows us to grow in cooperation with others. Indiviuality only asserts that we are different. Jesus chose not to be different. His Incarnation breaks the isolation of sin and draws indiviuals back into personhood as God created us.

Rejoice today, my friends. Look around. See those around you. See what God has done in Jesus Christ by drawing us together, healing our divisions and our sins. Stand in the strength of God’s Spirit in the face of what sin remains, and let it be overcome by never seeing a stranger or by never making one. The more the human family comes together, and the more we risist alienation and seperation. The more we love our neighbor as ourselves, the more the Kingdom of God is revealed. The message that springs from the waters of the Jordan is that God is one with us, and nothing can seperate us from God and nothing must seperate us from one another. What a surprise it is to find Jesus among us.

Isaiah 60,1-6 + Psalm 72 + Ephesians 2,2-3a, 5-6 + Matthew 2,1-12

As I sit quietly with this Gospel story that is so familiar, full of nuance and theological implications, I am aware that it is also one in which deep cultural traditions keep telling the story. Earlier this evening I took a walk up the street to a grocery store here in Paris where I am presently, and there was large display of round pastry about two inches thick about the size of a pie. Under the plastic covering was a gold paper crown folded up. Somewhere in the cake is a small plastic image of the baby, Jesus. As the local tradition goes, tomorrow and all through Christmas Season when this desert is served, the person who finds the plastic image in their serving wears the paper crown for the rest of the evening. Carried over into some parts of our country, this is known as the “King Cake”.

Matthew is a great story teller, and this one is full of details, and unique characters, suspense, intrigue, and multi layers of meanings and mystery. The mysterious star, those unique gifts, the suspense of Herod’s plot, the charm of these foreigners that has delighted artists as much as theologians since the story was first told all weave together to excite the curious and tease the ignorant. The struggle between light and darkness is so significant providing us with such an important title for Jesus Christ as Light of the World!

What has left me wondering over the past several days with this Gospel is how or why those experts in the Law remained behind and did not join the strangers. Of course, what sense is there in following someone who is lost? It makes me think of my father who would never consider asking directions to the constant aggravation of my mother. Of course, as  child it was hard to image that my father was ever lost! So, here come these “Wise Men”, these “Kings”, depending on the translation you prefer. The gifts they bring suggest that they are in for a surprise. They have it all wrong. When they have no light, they head for Jerusalem, the seat of power in their search for a King. They plan to visit a King, which is probably why they checked in with Herod. There is no light in Jerusalem; only darkness and ignorance. Light leads them to Bethlehem, a no-place hardly fit for a king. There they find a baby belonging to a simple, ordinary couple, probably rather poor who are  must have been as surprised as they are by the visit.

What strikes me this year in the telling of this old story and continues to give me reason to reflect is these experts of the law and the prophets. They confirm everything the visitors had been led to believe, but in spite of what goes on between them, the experts do not join the journey. The Wise Men go on alone. It seems to me that with this confirmation they would would all have joined the journey to see this one so long awaited, and so clearly promised. But, they do not. They stay where they are content or satisfied to study about Jesus rather than to go and see Jesus, or get involved, or have their own experience of Jesus.

Those scholars simply spectators who will study and watch. They never go to see. There is a big difference between watching and seeing. Even today, there are so many in this world who like to “study” the Bible; but never seem to get beyond the study part into the action. These wise men, in contrast to the experts were willing and wanted to do more than study, or watch. They wanted to see!

In English we have an interesting use of that word: “see.” We often use it in conversation to express the fact that we have come to understand. “I see what you mean.” we sometimes say…….The experts were not interested in “seeing”, and certainly Herod was not interested in seeing anything that might threaten his power there in Jerusalem. But how could anything in little-old Bethlehem threaten that great power?  With that question, the story we tell begins to make sense, at least for believers who tell this story again and again. Those who want to see, who seek, like those who eat the cake looking for the little piece will wear a crown!

We proclaim today the heart of the Gospel Message: a promise fulfilled, Light in the Darkness, earthly power overthrown by the power of God discovered in the least of all places and poorest of people. Those who want to see, who want to see the face and presence of God ought not look into the face of power and prestige, but into the face of little people, weak and vulnerable people where the power of God and the presence of God has taken flesh. We who hear and who tell this story are a people living in the Light and as children of the Light, we can see: see God’s presence, see God’s mercy, see God’s love in this simple family in Bethlehem.

The lost can hear in this story a call to enter the light, and in that light see the God who seeks them. The “experts” who study and study without ever seeing and doing anything about what they study can hear a call to experience the salvation promised long ago, a call to live the joy and the peace promised by the prophets and the law.

There is way more here than simply a revelation suggesting the inclusion of gentiles among God’s holy and chosen ones. There is a call to seek, to see, to experience, and to live in the Light discovering that those who follow the light of Christ will ultimately be led to Jerusalem where God’s power in the resurrection of Christ will pull down the mighty from their thrones and lift up the lowly.