Friday, March 30, 2018

Homily on Good Friday

St. John Passion

"Ibi ergo propter parasceven Judaeorum quia juxta erat monumentum, posuerunt Jesum."

"So they laid Jesus there because of the Jewish preparation day; for the tomb was close by."

The drama had ended. Everything seemed to have ended. We now enter deeper into the silence of the Triduum. We enter into the silence of the tomb. We try to comprehend the incomprehensible.

The second reading in the breviary tomorrow begins with the haunting words. "Something strange is happening. There is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep."

In this profound silence of Good Friday, a silence that continues into the oddness of Holy Saturday, we are placed in the tomb with Christ. We meditate on that which we cannot grasp. We contemplate how Jesus, Son of God and Son of Man, chose to become vulnerable. We are mute as we consider how He who is infinite, the Alpha and the Omega, accepted the humiliation of the cross, a death reserved for the lowest of the low. We stand in awe at Jesus' ultimate act of self-emptying love. 

They laid the King there for the tomb was close by.
Silence covered the earth.

We adore thee oh Christ
and we bless thee,
because by Thy holy cross
Thou hast redeemed the world.
The photo was taken while on the long retreat during tertianship in Sevenhill, South Australia. We made the retreat during Lent, ending just before Palm Sunday and then returning to Sydney for the Triduum. The crucifix was in the choir loft of the church in preparation for the veneration of the cross on Good Friday. Just finished the Good Friday liturgy about an hour ago.

Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

A reading from the Gospel According to Matthew (27:3-10)

When Judas, his betrayer, saw that he was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.”  They said, “What is that to us?  See to it yourself.”

And throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple he departed; and he went and hanged himself.  But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money.”  So they took counsel, and bought with them the potter’s field, to bury strangers in. Therefore, that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day.

Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him on whom a price had been set by some of the son’s of Israel, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord directed me.”

Imagine the scene in the chambers of the officials. Place yourself there.  Become a bystander or a servant. Perhaps you are one of the elders or the doorkeeper.  Place yourself in that room and observe the scene. Are the officials passing out cigars?  Are they slapping each other on the back because they got the conviction they wanted?  Are they relieved because this trouble-maker, this “King” of the Jews, will no longer be a force to contend with?  And then the door slams into the wall.  Judas Iscariot pushes his way past the doorkeeper and through the crowd. What does his face look like?  How does his voice sound as he blurts out, “I have sinned.”?

What do you feel as you observe the scene?  Are you annoyed?  Are you confused?  What’s going on?  Suddenly, the thirty pieces of silver hit the floor, clanking as they scatter. Judas flees. He looks stricken. Impulsively you follow him out.   You want to say something—anything.

You follow him but he is moving fast. You try to catch up but you have to rest and get your breath.  You start to move again. He can only go in one direction. You try to pick up your pace.  You must catch up with him but your legs are like lead.

And then in the distance you see his silhouette.

He is mounting a tree stump.

The rope is looped over the tree.

He loops the noose around his neck and tightens it. 

You try to scream . . . DON’T!

Before the scream can form he leans forward and the stump tumbles to the ground.

It is over.  

The sun is setting.  The breeze is picking up. You draw your cloak more tightly to your body as a defense against the chill wind.  Judas’ body swings in the breeze.  You begin to retrace your steps, walking slowly back toward town.

The pathos is more than Judas betraying Jesus.  Peter also betrayed Jesus.  The pathos is that, unlike Peter, Judas could not imagine being forgiven by the one against whom he had sinned.

We’ll never know what drove Judas to betray Jesus. But we can wonder. Some scholars suggest that Judas betrayed Jesus because he had become disillusioned with Him. Like many others, even today, Judas was expecting and wanting a political Messiah.  He wanted a Messiah who would lead the Jewish people out from the Roman occupation. By turning him over to the authorities Judas may have been trying to force Jesus to act like the revolutionary leader he wanted him to be.

No matter what Judas’ motives were, these verses from Matthew’s Gospel following his act of betrayal describe one of the great tragedies in scripture, the tragedy of Judas' despair.  The tragedy, too common in the lives of many today, the tragedy of ceasing to believe in God.  Judas betrayed Jesus.  Judas was, in his turn, betrayed by those who used him to get to Jesus.

Did Judas kill himself from despair over having betrayed Jesus?  Or did he kill himself because he was angry that he himself was betrayed?   Did he take his own life because he was played like a cheap guitar?   “What is that to us?  See to it yourself.”  Harsh words. In the end at least two things drove Judas to suicide:  anger at being a fool and despair upon thinking he could never be forgiven by one whom he had betrayed.

A few years ago, I was sorting the belongings of a just deceased Jesuit.  On his bookshelfI found a battered book of daily meditations written by an anonymous Jesuit. The original was very old having been translated from French into English in 1868.  A meditation based on this Gospel passage gives sound advice even for today. It reads in part:  "Never let us count on help, sympathy, or respect, from those whom we have served against our own conscience and against the law of God."  In short: Never trust the untrustworthy.

A bit later the writer gets to the heart of Judas’ sin, his belief “that his crime was unpardonable was disbelief in God . . .”  When Judas believed his sin could not be forgiven he stopped believing in God. It was then that despair spiraled down and drove him to violent suicide.

Standard dictionaries define despair as loss of hope, hopelessness, to give up, to be without hope.  In this narrative, however, despair has a more complex meaning. One theological source defines despair as the voluntary and complete abandonment of all hope of saving one’s soul.  The voluntary abandonment of hope in salvation. The intentional denial of the meaning of Jesus’ saving act, that saving act we recall today.

Despair is not passive, it is a conscious choice.  The sin of despair is an act of the will. It is an act that chooses to give up any hope of eternal life.  Despair whispers in our ear that God will not pardon our sins.  And we believe that whispered message just as Judas believed that God would not pardon his sin. 

We can only pray that that kind of despair never controls us, no matter what, no matter when, no matter why.  Yes, we are sinners.  But we are sinners loved by God.  We are sinners loved by God who pardons our sins when we acknowledge them, when we confess them, and when we seek pardon, while resolving to amend our lives. 

As we ponder Judas' action, as we stand speechless over his ultimate act of violence that grew out of despair, we recall Jesus’ words on the cross: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

Judas was included in that forgiveness.  Or could have been included in that forgiveness.  But, it was too late.  He ceased believing he could know God’s forgiveness and love.  He rejected the possibility and condemned himself to a death from which he could not be saved.
Spy Wednesday.  The plans hatched for Jesus' betrayal by Judas.  Obviously more of a tradition that something one can know for sure.  This morning's gospel was from the chapter of Matthew preceding this one.  This particular homily was one I wrote several years ago when asked to preach at the service of the Seven Last Words at the Welsh Baptist Church back home in Plymouth, PA.  Rev. Anita Ambrose, recently retired long time pastor, invited me to preach there for several years in a row.  It is too far to make the trip now and there are no longer many reasons to go to Plymouth.  This year I am celebrating the Triduum at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, CT, an abbey of cloistered Benedictine nuns.  

 +Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Monday, March 26, 2018

Homily for Palm Sunday

Dag Hammarskjöld wrote:
"On Christmas Eve
Good Friday was foretold them
In a trumpet fanfare." 
Despite Hammarskj√∂ld's insight, nothing of our celebration three months ago today prepared us for the narrative just proclaimed. The festivity that marked Jesus' entry into Jerusalem turned quickly to fury. The hosannas and palm branches became the sarcastic 'Hail, King of the Jews' and blows to his head. The community of the Passover Supper dispersed leaving Jesus alone. The cacophony of the parade in Jerusalem devolved into the silence surrounding death. 
Today we begin our own journeys to Jerusalem, journeys that each of us must experience in a unique solitude. 
On Holy Thursday we will recall the institution of the Eucharist, the True Body and Blood of Our Lord. On Good Friday we will silently venerate the cross, the instrument of our salvation. After dark, the odd emptiness of Holy Saturday will finally be filled with light. 
And so we say of the one who came to save us from sin and death, "Blessed is He, who comes in the name of the Lord." 

Monday, March 5, 2018

3rd Sunday of Lent

Ex 20:1-17
Ps 19
I Cor 1:22-25
Jn 2:13-25

The readings today are rich.  Each could be the basis for a very long homily. It is a temptation I will resist.  God as revealed in the first reading is not a God of relativism, accommodation, negotiation, or adaptation to social trends. The same is true of the Jesus we encounter in John's Gospel.

The Ten Commandments are short and to the point.  Among the 'thou shalt nots' are prohibitions against killing, stealing, adultery, and lying.  Among the 'thou shalts' we find honoring God's name, keeping holy the sabbath, and honoring one's parents.

"Thou shalt not kill" does not make an exception for abortion because it is called delivery of women’s health care. 

“Honor thy father and mother" does make permit asking to have mom or dad, grandma or grandpa put down through what is now called, "physician guided death,' a euphemism I would label hilarious were it not so frightening. 

While the prohibition against adultery should be self-evident, it doesn't take long wading in the moral swamp of modern American life to get the idea that it is frequently ignored.  The first three commandments lead into the gospel.

"Have no false gods . . . "
This includes the false gods of commerce, sports, and ME.

"Thou shall not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain . . . " 
This includes using Jesus' name as punctuation, a punch line, or a filler for the inarticulate.

"Keep holy the Sabbath . . . ."  This nicely covers the scene described in today's Gospel.

The second chapter of John‘s Gospel is 25 verses long. In the space between the end of verse 12, the Wedding at Cana, and the beginning of today's reading with verse 13, there is a massive change in tone. This particular gospel reading forces us to confront our ideas of who Jesus is and how He acts.  It is not a warm and fuzzy scene.  There is no warm, huggy, and smiling Jesus here.  For those for whom zeal for God’s house or observance of the commandments is a sometimes thing, for those whose faith and observance shifts with current social trends, the meeting with Jesus here is uncomfortable. 

As already mentioned the Jesus of the gospels is not a Jesus of accommodation to current social mores.  He is not one to adapt to what people want, to what everyone is doing. "Oh, c'mon Jesus, get with it, everybody is selling animals in the Temple these days."  "Keep your religion out of my life." "My body, Myself."  "I am the only one who can determine what is moral for me." 

The Jesus of the gospels challenged political authorities.  He challenged society at large in condemning adultery, divorce and extortion, among others.  The Jesus of the gospels called a spade a spade.  He did not cave into secular society.  He would not tolerate desecration of His Father’s house.   We do well to remember that. The scene of Jesus overturning tables in the Temple while driving the money changers out with a whip, bothers many. They are bothered because Jesus is not gentle, affirming, or negotiating. There is no way to manipulate his words to be anything than what they are.

The late Jesuit Father Stanley Marrow, made an insightful comment on this gospel passage in his commentary on John's Gospel.  “One puzzling aspect of the narrative is how generation after generation can hear this account and persist in clinging to their cherished image of Jesus. . . so 'gentle and mild' as to be incapable of overthrowing anything, (including) the reader’s smugness. . . . The Jesus in this, or any other gospel, is not a standard-bearer for bleeding hearts. The aim of the Gospel is not to provide us with the biography of an inspiring hero, who fits . . . our ambitions, conforms to our ideals, or meets our conceptions of what constitutes greatness.”

Perhaps Stanley might have included that Jesus was not a standard bearer for political correctness or the politics of either the left of the right.  Without zeal for God’s house the Church cannot survive.  Without that zeal we might as well stay in bed on Sunday and watch the shopping channel, football reruns, or 'The View.'  Only zeal for God's house, only time spent in prayer and contemplation, will allow us to understand the basic truth heard in the psalm.

“The law of the Lord is perfect,
refreshing the soul;
The decree of the Lord is trustworthy,
giving wisdom to the simple.

The precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart,
the command of the lord is clear,
enlightening the eye."

The Lord truly has the words to everlasting life.

If we are willing to hear them.

The photo was taken at the National Shrine of the Immaculate conception in D.C. several years ago. It is of the altar rail gate at the main altar. Any man age 65 and up who was an altar boy in grade school has those words seared into his memory. They were the first words after the sign of the cross at the foot of the altar. Father intoned these words and we responded, ad Dei qui laetificat juventutam meam. Translation: "I will go unto the altar of God." "The God who gives joy to my youth." 
Homily late being posted. The weekend did not go according to plan. Originally was to be in D.C. yesterday to celebrate the monthly Slovenian Mass at the chapel of our Lady of Brezje at the National Shrine. Left Boston Thursday about 10 AM. Nice easy drive down. Was raining as I pulled into my cousin's house in the Poconos (the very edge). Rain just beginning. Rain quite hard a few hours later. The snow began at 6 AM. The wind shortly afterwards. The power went out at 11 AM. Fortunately restored at 8 PM or so. When all was said and done 8 inches of snow with much more in some surrounding areas. 
Saturday was not good. Roads locally a mess. Had no plan to take 81 to Baltimore (I avoid 81 unless it is warm, sunny, and no foul weather predicted in the next two weeks. Too many nightmare drives.) Got back yesterday afternoon. Crashed after supper. Once on 81 N and 84 E the trip was OK. Many fewer 18-wheelers than usual on a Sunday. No significant snow along 84 after Port Jervis. Matamoras was a different story.  
+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD