Sunday, February 25, 2018

2nd Sunday of Lent

Gen 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18
Rom 8:31b-34
Mk 9:2-10

The first reading from Genesis described Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac.  Unfortunately, the passage was discontinuous. The details of the journey to the place of sacrifice were skipped over.  That Isaac carried the wood for the sacrifice on his own back was omitted. Isaac's confusion was left out. We are left with two things: Abraham's obedience and the confirmation of God's promise that he would be the father of a great nation.  This is a rich narrative.  Relevant details should not be left out.

To those with the mindset common to Freudian psychiatrists or those hostile to faith, the narrative is disturbing.   God asks a man to sacrifice his only son.  The man prepares to carry out the sacrifice without question.  Many people whine, whimper, and emote about this narrative along the lines of "I could never believe in a God who could be so cruel, sadistic, irrational, or . . . ." (fill in the blank with a favorite pejorative).  There is no sadism here. There is no cruelty in the narrative. There is only faith.

In the comments on this passage the Jewish Study Bible describes what it calls Abraham's last and greatest test as, "A magnificent story, that is one of the gems of biblical narrative."  It also notes a translation problem. "There is no good English equivalent for the Hebrew 'hineni' that is translated as 'Here I am.'  Hineni indicates readiness, alertness, attentiveness, receptivity, and responsiveness to instructions."  It indicates obedience to the will of God without question.

In the second reading from Paul's Letter to the Romans we heard that, God "did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all."  God asked Abraham to give him all, to give him everything, to give him his only son, to give him his future, and the existence of a people yet to come into existence. 

Once Abraham demonstrated his obedience God returned everything to him. 
Once Jesus demonstrated his obedience God returned everything to us.

The Suscipe of St. Ignatius of Loyola is one of the first prayers a Jesuit novice learns when he enters. It begins, "Take Lord, and receive, all my liberty, my memory my understanding, my entire will, all I have and call my own." 

Take all.
Not that which I am willing to give,
Not that which is left over,
Not that which is easy
but ALL. 

That is what Abraham was willing to give.
That is what God the Father gave us. 

Jesus' Transfiguration points us towards, and draws us into, a mystery that is beyond historical reconstruction. The Transfiguration is beyond scientific explanation.  It is beyond geographic specificity.  None of these factors matter.  When, how, and where are unnecessary distractions.  It is sufficient that Jesus was transfigured in front of three of the apostles. 

Imagine the scene. Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets, standing with Jesus.  Put yourself into that scene.
Where are you standing? 
What are you seeing? 
What are you feeling?
What are you thinking?
How are you acting?

The apostles were confused and frightened.  As he became more anxious Peter began to speak without thinking what he was saying.  Despite today's vogue for apostle bashing none of us would have acted any better.  Most likely, we would have acted worse and pulled out an Ancient Near East smart phone, snapped pictures, to tweet to the rest of the apostles, and tried to get a selfie with Moses.

As the tension increased the voice of God the Father declared, "This is my beloved Son."

This is the beloved Son who was like us in all things but sin.

This is the beloved Son who took on the human condition to redeem us from our sins and save us from death.

This is the beloved son, God incarnate, who, like Isaac, carried the wood for the sacrifice on his own back.

This is the beloved son, who, like Abraham, acted in perfect obedience to the will of the Father. 

Then, the apostles, and by extension, each one of us, received a mission from the Father: "Listen to him."  Listen to his teaching, the teaching of His words and the teaching of His actions.  As we listen to Jesus words and imitate his actions, as we take His teaching to heart, and allow that teaching to transform us, we move that much closer to witnessing the glory of His Transfiguration. 


Sometimes an abstract photo transmits the message better than a figurative one.  This is a shot of the lights of Koper, Slovenia taken across the water from Piran.  It has been heavily processed, manipulated, and flipped into a vertical.

Very busy week coming up.  Away from Thursday to Monday.  Once a few meetings are done it is time to lock myself in a room and begin preparing for Holy Week at the Abbey where I will celebrate most of the liturgies and make my annual eight-day retreat.

 +Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Sunday, February 18, 2018

1st Sunday of Lent

Gn 9:8-15
Ps 25:4-9
1 Pt 3:18-22
Mk 1:12-15

The Gospel for the first Sunday of Lent is always about Jesus' temptations in the desert.  Each of the three synoptic gospels places this narrative just after Jesus' baptism by John. The challenge with Mark's Gospel is that unlike Matthew and Luke he gives no detail about the temptations.  Mark simply notes that Jesus was tempted.  Even in its brevity, it is an important reminder that Jesus was like us in all things but sin, that he too struggled with desires, with temptations, with tests, (call them what you will) just as we do. 

Unlike the consistent theme of the gospel reading for this first Sunday in Lent, the first and second readings are different in each of the three years of the cycle of readings. Today the first reading describes God's covenant with Noah, in which He promised that flood waters would never cover the whole earth again. 

The Talmud is a collection of commentaries on the Torah, the first five books of  scripture, or, what we call The Old Testament. In its commentary on this passage The Jewish Study Bible cites the Talmud which notes that, the covenant with Noah laid down seven commandments to which all were obligated. They were: to establish courts of justice, to refrain from blasphemy, to refrain from idolatry, to refrain from sexual perversion. The covenant forbade bloodshed and robbery. Finally it demanded not eating meat cut from a living animal. Those who observed the "seven commandments of the descendants of Noah" would meet with God's full approval.

With the exception of eating meat cut from a living animal, essentially avoiding meat that was not first properly slaughtered, the seven commandments are almost identical to the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments given to Moses.  The modern world, especially the U.S., would do well to take notice that blasphemy, false gods, sexual perversion, robbery, and murder--including the killing of children in the womb or the ill elderly--have been forbidden for millennia rather than being inventions of the Catholic Church.

The second reading from the First Letter of Peter makes reference to the Torah in recalling Noah.  God waited patiently while the ark was built such that eight persons in all, and thus all of mankind, were saved through water.  Peter correctly links this saving water to baptism.

Water is a powerful symbol for the Church. It is a symbol of life and salvation in both the Old Testament and the New. Thus we read about: the water in which the basket holding the infant Moses floated, the water that was parted as the Israelites fled Egypt, the water of the Jordan in which Jesus was baptize, the water mixed with blood that flowed from Jesus' side at the crucifixion.  Water is much more important to human life than food.  We can live for many days without food.  We can only live a few days without water. 

Physicians spend a lot of time, particularly in the hospital thinking and worrying about fluid balance and adjusting fluids, particularly for the critically ill.  Water is crucial to our day-to-day physical lives.  Vitamins, organic locally grown food, or any of the food fetishes prevalent today are, in comparison, completely irrelevant.  Water is even more crucial to our spiritual lives, water is more critical to life of our souls.  

The water of baptism is the only way in which we are able enter into life. Only after having received this saving water can we partake fully in the life in the Church.  Without the water of baptism there is no spiritual life.  Without the water of baptism there is no light of Christ.  Without the water of baptism there is no partaking of the Eucharistic banquet.  Without the water of baptism there is nothing. 

There is only a void.

There is a void like the one that existed before God said let there be light.  The light of Christ is visible only to those who have received the waters of baptism.  It will never be otherwise.

Lent is described as penitential.  However, it should also be transformational.  On Wednesday there were two formulae for the imposition of ashes.  I sometimes think they should be combined into one.  The first, "Remember, thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return" reminded us of our common mortality.  The second, "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospels" reminded us of our vocation as Catholics.

As we move from this first Sunday of Lent toward the joy of Easter we are called to meditate on one and to live according to the other.


Photo of the Franciscan Church of the Annunciation in Ljubljana, Slovenia during Lent.  I made my 8-day retreat there last year.  This year will be at a nun's monastery as primary celebrant for most of the liturgies while making the retreat.  
 +Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Ash Wednesday 2018

Joel 2:12-18
Ps 51
2 Cor 5:20-6:2
Mt 6:1-6; 16-18

Lent begins with the ancient custom of the imposition of ashes; a custom that is apparently gaining favor in some Protestant denominations. Thus, today we begin our 40-day procession through a season described as penitential.  But lent is more than penitential.  It is, or it should be, transformational as well.  

The first reading from Joel puts today into context.  Joel calls for an assembly. He decrees a fast in the setting of a liturgy.  Blow the trumpets.  Gather the people.  Everyone is invited from the youngest to the eldest. The same is true of the Eucharistic banquet. The young and the very old are invited along with all those in between, if they choose to accept the invitation, if they are appropriately disposed.

Thus we gather in assembly to listen to the word of God. We gather to receive the ashes that simultaneously remind us of our mortality and call us to undergo a change of heart so as to live more closely in accord with the Gospel.  We come together to receive the Body and Blood of Christ whose passion death and resurrection we will recall and celebrate at the end of these forty days.

Lent is not just a season of “give ups,” of abstaining from the usual suspects: smoking, chocolate, desert, meat, beer, and so on.  It is a time of taking on: taking on time to meditate on the Gospel, taking on time for spiritual reading, making additional time for prayer or adoration.  It is a time to heed the advice of St. Jane de Chantal, foundress of the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary,  “We cannot always offer God great things but at each instant we can offer little things with great love.”  Offering those little things with great love may be a more difficult mortification than giving up desert and beer for the next forty days, if not for life.

The second reading in today’s Office of Readings is a letter from St. Clement, pope, to the Corinthians. It lays out a road map for Lent. “We should be humble in mind, putting aside all arrogance, pride and foolish anger. . . . Recall especially what the Lord Jesus said when he taught gentleness and forbearance.  Be merciful, so that you may have mercy shown to you.  Forgive, so that you may be forgiven.  As you treat others, so you will be treated . . .” Lent is a time to challenge ourselves to be more fully what we want to be but may not know how to become.  If that process of becoming involves quitting smoking, so be it.  If it involves spending extra time in prayer or contemplation, so be it.  Ideally we will move through lent in a combination of penance and prayer, contrition and contemplation.

There are two formulae for the imposition of ashes. The first reminds us of our common mortality: “Remember, thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.”
The second is advice for living: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospels.”

At the beginning of this holy season of Lent, we are called to meditate on the first and to live according to the second.

 Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Sunday, February 11, 2018

There are good days and bad day

Have no clue why the blog entry from Thursday 8 February has the equivalent of a football field of space between the paragraphs.  Can't figure out how to fix it so it will have to stand until Ash Wednesday when I post that homily.  When I switch into the edit page everything looks  normal but going to the blog page and  the spacing problem is not correctable.

I suspect the only option is c'est la vie c'est le guerre.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

5th Friday of Ordinary Time

Is 35:4-7a
Mk 7:31-37

The Gospel is fascinating on three counts. We recall and reenact it every time we baptize in one of the final rituals called the Ephphatha. The rubrics indicate that "the celebrant touches the ears and mouth of the child with his thumb, saying:
"The Lord Jesus made the deaf hear, and the dumb speak.
May He soon touch your ears to receive His word
and your mouth to proclaim his faith
to the praise and glory of God the Father."

The second count is that it is one of the few miracle narratives in which Jesus seems to struggle to effect the cure. He seems to exert physical force in the battle against the evil one. We heard "He groaned." Why? What did the groan sound like? Did the tone rise, fall, or remain steady? Was it a groan of pain, of effort, of relief? Was it all, some, or none of the above?

Finally, there is the question we can ask after almost every healing miracle in the New Testament. What happened to the man afterwards? We know the crowd did not obey Jesus' injunction against telling what they saw. I suspect the grapevine overheated quickly. Imagine the comments and replies if there had been Twitter or the Internet. Crossan and the Jesus Seminar dudes would have probably been apoplectic in the Twitter-verse. But nothing more is said of the man. We don't know his response to the gifts of hearing and speech. Did he become a local celebrity? Did his life go on as usual? Did he follow Jesus?

Travel into the unwritten part of the narrative and beyond during your meditation over the next day or so. Suppose you are the man's friend, or child, or neighbor. Did he change? How? Did your relationship with him change? How? What was the effect on this renewed man of being able to hear the Good News of Jesus and to share it fluently with others? What is the effect on you of having witnessed the miracle?

"Open our hearts, O Lord, to listen to the words of your Son."

The gospel antiphon is a short prayer that responds to the Gospel. Today's Gospel is part of our individual biographies. It summarizes our vocations to the Society. At some point Jesus touched each of us, our eyes and our ears. He said, ephphatha. Our eyes, ears as well as our hearts and our minds were opened. And we followed.

As we prepare to begin Lent on Wednesday we have the opportunity to revisit that ephphatha. We have the opportunity to answer once again with both our minds and our hearts.

"Open our hearts, O Lord,
to . . . the words of your Son."
Posting a bit early. Tomorrow is looking very busy. I have the Friday evening community Mass for the first time. Always a little daunting preaching to a congregation made up entirely of one's peers, colleagues, and friends. Because the congregation is going to be almost entirely Jesuit (though a Chinese priest who is a friend but not a Jesuit will also be there) I am able to talk about our vocations and how this gospel reflects those moments.

The photo was taken from the grounds of the Avila Motherhouse of the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm in Germantown, NY. This is a great congregation of sisters who run assisted living facilities and nursing homes for the elderly. I spend a lot of time at Carmel Terrace and/or St. Patrick Manor in Framingham. The buildings are separate but connected and a real nightmare for a man with no functioning sense of direction. When there I celebrate Mass, visit patients and residents, and periodically celebrate funeral Masses.

Carmel Terrace has around 40 assisted-living apartments for either singles or married couples. The Manor is a 350 bed nursing home with a rehab wing and a memory disorders wing. Excellent care. Love the sisters. Because of the impending snow for early Christmas morning I spent the night in guest quarters at the facility so as to be able to celebrate both Christmas Day Masses. It was a good move as the roads were ugly until about noon, when the last Mass was over and I was able to drive back to BC.

The motherhouse grounds overlook the Hudson River and the Catskills in Germantown, NY. Beautiful setting.

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD