All posts for the month November, 2014

The great Temple of Jerusalem is in ruins. The Babylonians wiped Jerusalem off the face of the earth and had taken most Israelites into slavery. Then the Persians did the same thing to the Babylonians permitting the Israelites to return to their homeland. Many did not, because the first ones to return sent word back that it was better to stay where they were than face the destruction and misery in the homeland. Here is the dilemma faced by the prophet whose words open this Advent Season and our new year of grace, praise, and thanksgiving. How is it possible to convince an entire generation to spend their lives rebuilding a new city and Temple? Most of the captives felt their lives were just fine the way they were. Imagine the prophet standing in the ruins of the destroyed Temple speaking the words we just heard.

The Temple was built by a people who had a relationship with God and a covenant with God that could be celebrated and renewed generation after generation. The prophet now wonders what good it would do and how it would be possible to build the Temple again when there is no relationship and covenant with God. The building is symbolic. It represents the faith of the people in their relationship with God. That ruin is only a sign of the ruined relationship with God once enjoyed by the Israelites. It will do no good to build a Temple when there is nothing to do there. It will do no good to build a Temple when there is no relationship to celebrate and no covenant to affirm with its sacrifices. No relationship with God means no Temple and no Jerusalem.

None call upon your name, none rouse themselves to cling to you; for you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us up to our guilt” cries the prophet. It almost sounds as though he is blaming God until that last word: guilt. It is that recognition and admission that shifts the blame back upon the guilty, those guilty of abandoning the covenant and the God of covenant.

It is a timeless message, and an experience of every age and generation. It is the focus of this season, and the challenge of our time: rebuilding our relationship with God. Our celebration of Christmas is a celebration of God breaking into human lives, and these weeks of prayer must awaken our awareness of God’s presence and God’s action all around us and within us. There is no way to notice God’s presence without a desire for that presence.

The prophet still cries out to this world and our generation. Half of this world looks like the Jerusalem he saw. All around the ancient world ruins of churches dot the desert and the countryside. Great centers of faith like Ireland are littered with ruins and empty churches. Huge urban Cathedrals built by people of great faith are filled with foreign tourists while simple country churches are boarded up. In our own country, the church struggles painfully with the burden of abandoned and empty urban churches while angry people in the suburbs protest the closure of places filled only with memories of their parents. Old memories is all they have because they make no new ones. Country parish churches are abandoned as rural life fades away with the migration to the glamor of city life. We sit here week after week wondering where others have gone, missing our children, and watching the number of people at Mass decline year after year. The prophet cries again.

The prophet speaks to you and me about our relationship with God and our awareness of God’s presence in our lives. In the Gospel Mark speaks to a people who live with the risk of missing the return of Christ, who do not see the very real and powerful presence of God always and everywhere at work for good all around them. Wake up and pay attention is the message from God today. Wake up to the presence of God and pay attention to what God is doing.

Our faith is not about rules and obligations. It is first of all about a relationship, and then the responsibilities that come from that relationship. A relationship with the living God brings some responsibilities when we have entered into it just like a marriage brings some responsibilities. No parent sits up all night with a sick child because of a rule, but rather because of responsibilities lovingly accepted.

Christmas, just like the Thanksgiving holiday we have just celebrated always reminds us of relationships as family gathers and friends are remembered. The feast we soon will celebrate only makes sense when we are prepared and pay attention to the God who still has more to do with us; the God Paul speaks of today when he says: “God is faithful, and it was God who called you to fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

 Ezekiel 34, 11-12  15-17 + Psalm 23 + 1 Corinthians 15, 20-26, 28 + Matthew 25, 31-46

 With the approach of this feast, I found myself humming a melody that is not found in any of the hymn books we use around the country, and it is not likely to find its way there any time soon. The closer time came to putting down some thoughts about this annual celebration of Christ the King the more dominant that song became in my mind. I am sure you all know what it is like to have some tune running in the background of your mind for hours or days at a time. That is what has been going on with me. The song comes from “The Lion King”, a classic tale that portrays themes of honor, loyalty, bravery, and most of all, love. It is a sentimental tale, and the Disney movie with a song by Tim Rice performed by Elton John only makes it more so. Sentimental or not, the message comes through, and the song “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” fits in perfectly to tell about unconditional love shared by the two main characters. Striking metaphors reveal the message of love’s unstoppable power despite the tribulations and hardships often found in this life.

The lyrics work to emphasize the strength of love. The image of a “restless warrior” emerges in the song, and with it, the restless warrior, Jesus Christ emerges for me. The warrior who does battle with sin and hatred, betrayal and arrogance, a religion gone dry by legalism and its heartless enforcers. Then in the lyrics comes a “wide eyed wanderer” evoking images of the Nazareth carpenter’s son who has no place to lay his head and invites his followers to a life of wide-eyed wonder at the inclusive and powerful love God has for those who like God’s only son find refuge in the mystery of love which the lyrics call an “enchanted moment”.

The story and the song within it encourages optimism and great hope because of love’s presence in life. The way love is expressed in the song suggests that love provides the power to survive every challenge and pain providing shelter from many of life’s obstacles. The singer suggests that one day everyone, from Kings to vagabonds will discover the wonder and power of love.

I have never thought that Jesus would have been or is even today comfortable in the role of a King. Something about the image we have of him from the Gospel is contrary to a Royal Sovereign lording over subjects. However I do not think Jesus Christ would have any trouble at all with the thought of you and me as royal people lifted up, robed, and living with dignity restored to us by his suffering and death. The triumphalism too often suggested by this feast is hallow and deceiving as long as one of God’s loved ones lives like a stranger, hungry, thirsty, naked or imprisoned with no one to visit.

Like wide eyed wanderers we have now completed a year-long telling of the story of God’s love revealed in Matthew’s Gospel. It is a story of hope that speaks to the hungry and the thirsty, the immigrant stranger, those without clothes and those imprisoned inviting them into the wonder of God’s love. We take the image of Christ in Matthew’s Gospel that begins with gifts for a King brought by three wanderers who in come in hope. We tell the story of his rejection and alienation ultimately concluding with his crucifixion, and then we tell the story of love’s victory and triumph with the resurrection. It is all a story of hope that reaches out to embrace and sustain us all. It is a story that sustains our hope because, as the song says: “There is a time for everyone” that leads us to believe the very best.

Proverbs 31, 1-13. 19-20. 30-31 + Psalm 128 + 1 Thessalonians 5, 1-6 + Matthew 25, 14-30

The parable we have today comes in Matthew’s Gospel just before the beginning of the Passion. It is spoken to and directed to us, disciples of Jesus. For the leaders of the people, the Scribes and Pharisees, time is up. The focus for Jesus now is upon his own. This parable as we have it suffers from cultural and language conflicts. Just picking up these verses of Chapter 25 and hearing the words we have in English never begins to adequately set the scene.

The unfortunate use of the word “talent” sets us up for a shallow reading which results in a less than surprising and emphatic response. That word has nothing to do with abilities or skills. A talent at the time this parable is proposed is a measure of weight like pounds or tons. So with that understanding, there is a proposal here that this man about to depart has a “ton of money” so to speak. Historians, Scripture Scholars, and Economists estimate that what he has in weight would equal nine million dollars. They tell us that one talent has a value of one million dollars today.

So with that thought, the parable goes on to tell us that having taken out what he needs for his journey, this man is handing over a huge amount of money to three of his trusted servants. Notice that he left no instructions about what they were to do. He simply left these talents in proportion to their abilities, and then he leaves town. Put yourself in that situation, and this parable sounds a little more problematic. You have been given for a time more money than you would ever earn in a lifetime. What are you going to do with it until the master returns?

These were all trusted servants who knew the master well, and they knew how he operated. They understood and had likely participated in the amassing of this great wealth. Two of these trusted servants learned from the master, and they imitated his ways. They did what he did. However, the third servant was an insult to the master. The third servant ignored the master, and in some ways he shamed the master by hiding the money and doing nothing. If he had learned anything from the master, it doesn’t show in his behavior which might well be seen as a negative critique of the master himself. Actually the loss of income was nothing compared to this refusal to follow the master’s example. This third servant is really more lazy than fearful, and when finally caught in his laziness, he resorts to blame! He blames the master for being tough and demanding.

Catch the parallel here. The master is going away. We don’t know why or where, but he is leaving for a long time. He leaves his trusted servants in charge, and wants them to act on his behalf. There were no instructions, and no one is in charge. They were to continue his work. If he had wanted that money buried, he could have done that himself, but he expected to reap what he did not sow.

Matthew presents this parable to his church which is still very much aware both of the master’s absence after Christ’s ascension, and yet very much aware that he will come again. Now we tell this story on an autumn Sunday in a season that constantly reminds us of a harvest because there is the danger after all this time of forgetting that the master will return and that we have seen and learned what to do in his absence. The danger of ignoring what we have learned from the master about forgiveness, inclusiveness, generosity, and hospitality is ever present, and the culture of blame in which we live makes it all the more easy for us to do nothing and pass the blame to someone else or to some other circumstance that allows us to take the easy and safe way through these times.

When we gather next week, a complete cycle of the church’s year will be completed, and the image of Christ, a King coming in glory, ought to make us a little anxious to consider once again what we have done with what has been entrusted to us, and how well we have imitated the master in the ways in which he has initiated this royal real we will celebrate not with triumphant glory but with humble gratitude.


2 Kings 2, 1-16 + Ephesians 6: 10-25 + Luke 3, 1-6, 1-15

“Do not forget that the value and interest of life is not so much to do conspicuous things as to do ordinary things with the perception of their enormous value.Teildard Chardin

This simple idea and this profound wisdom guided much of John Vrana’s life as a child of God and as a priest. Those two identities were never opposed nor separate in John’s life. He was always a child of God. The curiosity, the interest, the delight, and the mischief of a child was always there. Never childish but always child like, John found interest and excitement in anything new and the simplest of things and ideas. It was a quality of being that made him ageless and youthful in spite of a failing and frail body.

Our Sacred Scriptures identify 55 prophets in the Old Testament. In the Second or New Testament, there is no counting of prophets, but that certainly does not mean that there are none. According to some views, prophecy is not a gift that is arbitrarily conferred upon some people; but rather, it is the culmination of a person’s spiritual and ethical development. When a person reaches a sufficient level of spiritual and ethical development, the Shechinah, the Divine Spirit comes to rest upon him or her.

When the prophet of the first reading today left this earthly realm, that Shechinah did not depart with him, but remained upon another who had imitated and reached for the prophet’s spiritual and ethical values. Never was Israel without such prophetical figures. From my own perspective, Israel itself became prophetic often speaking and revealing to us the will and nature of God who loved and favored Israel for so long. It would seem that Israel may have preserved this story to claim the prophetic role and to remind itself that seeking spiritual and ethical perfection was the only fitting response to the love and favor God had shown.

As a remnant of prophetic Israel moves into the Second Testament, the role of the prophet and the priest merge together first in Jesus Christ and then in those who follow him to continue his work of service and revelation. In some ways, the passing of John the Baptist is like the passing of the First Testament Prophet we heard of today. No sooner is John gone than the ministry of Jesus begins. The role and the work of the prophet passes on not just to Jesus Christ, but to the new Israel he has prophetically called to spiritual and ethical perfection.

We are a people who acknowledge today the presence of a prophet in our midst; for John Vrana was more than a priest for us. He was a prophet as well in the image of Jesus Christ. In his prayer and in his preaching he urged us all to deeper spiritual and ethical values. He was a man who stood before the Lord somewhat like the gifted man of this gospel and asked the same question: “What must we do?” Those who were his students know that he often insisted that we ask the same question and act upon it. He lived those stirring words of Paul to the Ephesians we just heard.

Asking that question all through his life is what made John a real child of God. It opened his mind and his heart day after day, book after book! From that openness he spoke like a prophet among us crying out for Justice and for Peace; and was never silenced by the hatred and ugliness of those who attacked him personally. In the face of it he simply suffered their insults and rage growing more peaceful and centered on the priest and prophet, Jesus Christ whose spirit overshadowed and inspired him.  Those of us who lived with him through those years know well how it hurt, but John knew that a prophet suffers silently and patiently for the sake of the truth. It now looks as though that silent patient suffering prepared him for these last years and months of his life.

He once said to me when I was a seminarian: “The whole of life lies in the verb of seeing.” I was very impressed. In those days everything he said impressed me. Because he was a man of few words it was not hard to remember what he said. I still remember that wisdom because John could see. Perhaps that is why he lived and loved so magnificently; and John could live so that many of us could see.

In the Divinisation of Our Activities, Chardin worte: “Those who spread their sails in the right way to the winds of the earth will always find themselves born by a current towards the open sea.”

John, the priest and prophet has gone from us now having spread his sails in just the right way leaving us with the Spirit of God that put light in his eyes and fire in his heart. He encouraged many of us to do the same: spread our sails to the winds of the earth. He now sails ahead of us toward the open sea, the open arms of God his creator, redeemer, and sanctifier. Eternal Rest Grant unto him, O Lord.


Ezekiel 47:1-2, 8-9, 12 + 1 Corinthians 3:9c-11, 16-17 + John 2:13-22

 There is no doubt in my mind that there are many who prefer to think that this day on the calendar of the church is all about an ancient basilica in Rome. While I have been there several times and would quickly name it as my favorite among the great Roman basilicas, the feast of November 9 on the Roman Church calendar asks more of me than memories and images of a big church building. It is a grand place that still has a 4th century baptistery I delight in seeing every time I can. There are precious relics of Peter and Paul above the great altar, and there is a simplicity that ignites the imagination of anyone who steps into that enormous space knowing that it holds the chair for the Diocese of Rome and was the scene of many significant councils in our history. At the same time my knowledge of its history reminds me that it has not always been so grand, and that the Dedication we remember today was not actually of the building we see in the 21st century. It was once an abandoned derelict of a building without a roof and doors. If fact, the doors it has were looted from the Roman Forum!

For me, and I hope for you, this Feast comes to remind us and awaken us again to the wonder and mystery of the Incarnation, of the truth that God has come among us to make a dwelling place with us and for us. This day is about sacred space, all sacred space. It is about the place and the times when God and humankind come together. It is a day that can celebrate our healing and freedom from sin and our elevation by grace and mercy restoring us to the condition we enjoyed before sin had wrecked its havoc and broken our relationship with God.

We rejoice today not just that a basilica was dedicated and set aside for the Christians of Rome, but we rejoice because there is sacred space everywhere the Christian family gathers to celebrate the Eucharist and rejoice in the gift of God’s mercy and love.

We rejoice today because this space is holy and because we are free to gather here again to meet our God and share the love God has poured on upon us in the holy place.

We are reminded today that this place and every place dedicated and set aside exclusively for a Divine encounter is holy and unique, worthy of great respect and honor.

These places are not auditoriums, concert halls, or museums.

These places are sacraments in a way that speak to us of God and unite us to God.

The dates of dedication for many of the Churches in which we worship are long forgotten or have simply faded into archives in dusty files locked away.

So today comes for us all to remember and rejoice that someone with great faith, devotion, sacrifice, and commitment built this place just like workers for Constantine first built the Church of the Savior, St John, at the Lateran Gate next to the Lateran Palace.

Years ago in my own ministry, I began to recognize that a building has a great deal to do with shaping the spirit and the identity of the community that assembles within its walls. Those people are that church, and every church building, big or small, grand or simple is us. This is where we measure and mark our lives. It is why in many places at this time, the closing of churches no longer in viable use or no longer able to be maintained is so painful. It is why during times of revolutions church buildings are so often desecrated and destroyed. Yet all of this goes beyond brick and mortar, glass and marble.

Thomas Merton once recorded this truth, “I thought churches were simply places where people got together and sang a few hymns. And yet now I tell you … it is that Sacrament … Christ living in our midst … it is He alone who holds our world together.”

What we really celebrate today is Christ living in our midst, holding our world together through all that we do in here because of this place. We do it because of the One who draws us into this sacred place. There is One here who nourishes our hopes, who calms our fears, and who makes each of us—with all our flaws and imperfections— his tabernacle. It is all because of Christ in the Eucharist. It is as simple as that. This is something to remember, to cherish, and celebrate.

Wisdom 3, 1-9 + Psalm 42 + Romans 5, 5-11 + John 6, 37-40

Autumn comes now. The crops are in. Here in Oklahoma, the seed for the next harvest is in the ground. The days are short, and the nights are long and chilled. The breeze no longer refreshes as in the summer, and it will soon become the sharp cold winter wind we know too well. Halloween has come and gone. The laughter of the children and their delight in costumes and candy is stilled, and the temptation for all of us is to look back on picnics, the pool, vacations, and long lazy sunsets is strong. Saying good bye to all of that which we have enjoyed is not something we relish, but it is something we do. Farewell is a part of this season, and it is a part of this day.

This season and this feast can remind us that death, just like life, is a gift. While from one side it looks like a separation, our faith suggests another side that is reunion, or a coming together of what life has separated. Yet a world short on faith, and long on denial would, it seems, prefer to concentrate on the separation. The gift of death, of course, is lost on a world that looks with disdain on surrender and helplessness choosing always power and self-determination in opposition to Divine power and God’s determination. A culture of death is really a culture of power. Rather than accept the weakness of death and surrender to the fullness of life death can provide, there are those today who seize every opportunity to take control of death itself and tell the Creator of Life that they are in charge or would like to be.

So we live in a time when euthanasia seems to appeal to some and is promoted as being merciful and humane when it fact it is simply a fancy name for suicide: a final act of defiance in the face of our Creator and the Lord of Life. It is one more sign, as if we needed any more that we are living in a godless age when faith and the hope it provides are only a convenience and at best an ideology.

The real Christian and always the Catholic stance is clearly on the side of life no matter what it looks like or how it feels. Death is still and always the great sign of our limit, and the constant reminder that we are not really free. What is revealed in Jesus Christ is that death is a gift, a way of living that provides an assurance that in surrender and helplessness one can discover the strength of the peace of Christ.

The beauty of November and the wonder of All Souls Day is that without dying there is no fullness to life. Out of the decay of what has lived and died comes the beauty and fruit of what will live tomorrow. This day and this season teaches us that whatever is surrendered in faith is what gives life to the world. Weakness and sickness are reminders to us all that this is not our home and that the life we have here is never quite full. Suffering awakens us to the possibility of a future when there will be no sickness and every tear will be wiped away. To avoid this is to separate one’s self from the one who will raise us up.

We remember today those who have suffered, who have found through their surrender to death the fullness of life. We believe that they are all around us here and that they fill this place with glory, and so one with them in the Bread of Life, we surrender to the truth of our weakness and the power it has to transform and transfigure us into Life itself.