Sunday, June 24, 2018

Solemnity of the Birth of St. John the Baptist

In 1971 a new rock-musical burst forth Off-Broadway, eventually traveling to Broadway and throughout the world.  It was, and is, very different from most Broadway offerings of the past, and is radically different from today's productions.  After a run of over 2000 performances off-Broadway it went on tour and was eventually made into a movie--though it is better as a stage musical than it is on the screen. Thus "Godspell: A Musical Based on the Gospel of St. Matthew" entered American life.  

Rather than an standard overture the show opens with the sound of the shofar—an appropriate beginning given that Matthew wrote his gospel for a  Jewish-Christian community that would have responded viscerally to its simultaneously haunting and harsh sound.  Then, a lone male voice intones: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”  He repeats these words four times.  A soft organ accompaniment enters for repetitions three and four.  Then the organ, electric guitars, drums and the cast explode singing:  PREPARE YE THE WAY OF THE LORD.  The cast dances and sings its way down the aisles and jumps onto the stage all the while continuing the sing.  

Flash forward to the finale, a highly stylized depiction of Jesus' passion, crucifixion, and death on the cross.  Midway through the scene when the tension has become unbearable, one hears a mournful chant sung in a hoarse almost strangled voice, the voice of Jesus: "O God I'm dying."  After a few riffs on the electric guitar one hears, "Oh God I'm dead" as the chorus answers, "Oh God, you're dead."

The women of the chorus then begin softly, “Long live God”  in a variation on the melody of the opening chant. Then the men enter singing "Prepare ye the way of the Lord." The two chants bounce off each other in the manner of medieval antiphonal chant. 

Long live God.
Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.

The chants augment each other, weaving together until once again 
the guitars, drums, organ, and singers explode in a delirious celebration that ends with the words that began the show: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”

Who was this herald? Who was the man who came to be known as John the Baptist?  John was the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah and a relative of some sort to Jesus. He was the herald par excellence.  He was the bridge from Old Testament to New and the voice crying out in the desert. John is the model for all those called to be heralds announcing and proclaiming the Gospel of the Lord, that is all of us in some fashion.  He is the model for those who are called, and accept, the call to prepare the way of the Lord. 

Fortunately, we have testimony about him from multiple sources. Luke’s Gospel places John’s appearance around A.D. 27.  He appears in the other two synoptic gospels as well as in John.  He is also mentioned in the Antiquitiesof Josephus, a gentile historian who lived from about A.D. 37 to 100.  He wrote about John as follows: “He was a good man who exhorted the Jews to lead righteous lives, to practice justice toward their fellows, and piety toward God, and in so doing to join in baptism.  In John’s view this way of life was a necessary preliminary if baptism was to be acceptable to God.  Baptism was not to be employed to gain pardon for sins, but as a consecration of the body after the soul was already thoroughly cleansed by right behavior.”  He was a man who did not hesitate to name sin for what it was. That fearlessness cost him his life at the hands a Herod who was moved to homicide by the rage of his "wife" Herodius, when John named the illicit immoral union she had entered into with her brother-in-law for what it was: sin. 

John is oftentimes depicted as something between a drugged-out hippie and a wild-eyed lunatic, looking something like the pagan-baby wannabes who cavort around Stonehenge annually around the time of this solemnity.  Mostly he comes across as a very practical man.  

It is written that John dressed in animal skins and subsisted on a diet of locusts and wild honey.  John’s clothing was no different from that of any other desert dweller.  The fur was necessary for warmth during cold desert nights.  And his diet had nothing to do with radical veganism, a misplaced ethic of animal "rights", or a penchant for weird food like the fat guy--or perhaps it is better to say, one of the fat guys--on the Food Channel.  John's diet reflected the need to maintain ritual purity in his diet.  In contemporary terms one can say that he kept a kosher kitchen.  In the end, however, his dress and diet are irrelevant.  His message, on the other hand, is as relevant today as it was for the ancient Jews who sought him out.  As Josephus noted, he “exhorted the Jews to lead righteous lives, to practice justice toward their fellows, and piety toward God.”  

Leading righteous lives.
Practicing justice toward others. 
Showing piety toward God. 

There is no better way for us to celebrate the birth of John the Baptist and simultaneously prepare for the Nativity of Our Lord six months from today.
The photo below is from this morning.  It is the bell tower at the Charterhouse of the Transfiguration.  Very foggy from about the roof line on up to the bells.  The bells are rung by hand to signal the important parts of the day.  When the angelus rings a monk stops what he is doing, kneels, and bows to kiss the floor each of the three times it rings.  It is a deeply consoling action.  

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Sunday, June 17, 2018

11th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Ez 17:22-24
Ps 92
2 Cor 5:6-10
Mk 4:26-34

The Bible is many things. It is a rule of life containing both prescriptions and proscriptions.  It instructs on how to treat others and how to respond to God's love.  It is a source of moral teaching.  It is a history of the world.  It is a collection of biographies.  It is, finally, an exquisite form of literature that will never be surpassed.  

Both the Old and New Testaments use multiple forms of literary images to transmit the rule of life, the moral instruction, the history, and the biographies in ways that make them indelible and eternal.  Today's readings define and instruct in the simultaneously simple and complex idea of faith using the image of the tree.

Think about trees and what they mean to us.  Trees supply shade and give us food.  They are a source of fuel and things of great beauty. The beauty part is particularly apparent during a New England autumn.  In the deserts of the Ancient Near East the tree marked places where water allowed life to flourish.  It is no accident that the tree became a symbol of life.  In the reading from Ezekiel God uses the image of a cutting from a cedar to represent the restoration of and care for His people. 

In the Ancient Near East the cedar exceeded 125 feet in height.  It was a symbol of strength and a sign of God's creation.  It was a place of safety for the birds that took shelter in its branches.  It was a place of refreshment for those who took shelter from the heat under its branches. It was truly a tree of life.  All from a small shoot.

Many of Jesus’ parables turn on the question of faith, how faith is nurtured and how it is strengthened; how it directs, or should direct, our lives.  Jesus also teaches how faith, though given freely and without cost, requires care and attention.  Nurturing our faith as Christians and living according to that faith is the path to the eternal life promised by Jesus' act of self-surrender.  Jesus tells us in both of the short gospel parables that once the seed of faith is planted, it germinates and grows.  

In the first parable the seed grew though the farmer could not describe how.  Indeed, he was unaware of the early stages of growth, trusting that it would.  With time a small seed buried in the ground, lead to the mature plant of ripe grain ready for harvest.

The mustard seed of the second parable is tiny. It is only one or two millimeters in size, about 1/25th of an inch.  When I was in high school the Protestant girls wore small necklaces with crosses or a small globe with a tiny mustard seed while the Catholic girls wore either a crucifix or a Miraculous Medal.  Despite its diminutive size, that tiny mustard seed grows into a large bush that, while technically not a tree, can be a dwelling for birds. and a source of shade, as if it were a tree.  Indeed, a mustard tree can be three or more times taller than a grown man.  

Just as it takes a long time and favorable conditions, for the mustard seed to grow from 1/25th of an inch into a huge bush or tree, so it is with faith.  As we live our faith, cultivate it, and attend to it through prayer, reflection, meditation on scripture, regular confession, and frequent reception of the Eucharist, it matures.  It becomes stronger and more resilient. It becomes more able to sustain us. It allows us to sustain those whose faith is weak, it allows us to be a shelter for those who need to rest in the branches of our faith when theirs is shaky.  

Paul writes in the Second Letter to the Corinthians, "We walk by faith, not by sight." That is the faith of the farmer who plants the seed but sees nothing until it has germinated, taken root, and begun to grow.  Faith is perfectly explained in the Letter to the Hebrews as:  " . . .the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen."

Through the eyes of a faith we come to see the cross as the tree of all life.  Only through the eyes of faith can we see the cross as the tree through which we were granted salvation. The cedar of the first reading, the palm tree of the psalm, and the tree that grows from the tiny mustard seed, all remind us of the promise to restore the House of David.  A restoration accomplished through Jesus, in his obedience .who by hanging on the tree of life defeated death forever.  
Had a few free hours on Tuesday AM after taking one of the men from the house to the airport at 6:15 and then nothing until Mass at 9:30 out in Framingham.  I didn't want to go back to the house.  Already had the camera with me.  Drove up Storrow Drive and pulled off at the large public lot adjacent to the river.   Spent two hours taking shots of the rowers before heading off to Mass.  After the Mass at 9:30 I had the great pleasure to take photos of the newly ordained Fr. Henry Shea, SJ who had been ordained five days earlier.  His grandmother is a guest at St. Patrick Manor.  

First the rowing photos. 

Two guys on an early morning workout.

The Northeastern University boathouse in the distance.  The rowers were competing with Canadian geese.   Nasty.  Dirty.  Aggressive.  Hate them.

Boats parked in the lot.  It is a sign of spring when the large trucks with trailers are pulling with the flatbeds holding the boats.

Fr. Shea at the consecration of the Mass.  I've known him since he was a freshman at Georgetown.  

 +Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ

Ex 24:3-8
Ps 116
Heb 9:11-15
Mk 14:12-16.22-26

Jesuits are described as contemplatives in action.  Unlike our Trappist or Carthusian brothers, who live in the silence of monastic cloister contemplating the Word of God and the mysteries of our faith, we move around.  A lot. Were you to have asked my mom how many phone numbers and addresses I had in my early years in the Society she would have laughed.  In the beginning she carefully erased the old one before putting the new one in her address book.  Then she simply scribbled it in pencil on used sticky note figuring that she wouldn't need it for long before another move.  Several years ago upon being informed that (this time) I was going to be in France for two months followed by a month in N'Djamena, Chad my oldest sister Lorraine and I had the following dialogue. 

Lor:     Do you know the difference between the three of us and you? (number of             siblings)
JRS:   There are a number of them.  To which are you referring?
Lor:     WE go to another country for a week or two on vacation. You get a new     zip code.
JRS:   Uh . . . you have a valid point there. 

Jesuit Jerome Nadal noted that a Jesuit’s cloister is the highway.  Our frequently mobile work on mission drives our prayer lives, and our prayer lives, oftentimes experienced while on the move, drive our work.  Sometimes action seems to trump contemplation.  The quiet of monastic cloister is always a welcome respite from the multiple interruptions of an active life whenever I am privileged to spend time there.  The Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ reminds us of the contemplative side of our lives. This is true not only for Jesuits; it is a reminder of the contemplative dimension in the lives of all believers.  This splendid feast pulls us into the contemplative for a good reason. It is a feast that does not recall a specific event.  

The Church's liturgical calendar is crammed with feasts that recall specific events in the history of salvation: the Nativity of Our Lord, the Resurrection, the Ascension, and the Annunciation among others.  These feasts recall specific moments in the history of the world.  We can close our eyes and, particularly through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, see the events unfold on an internal movie screen.  They are events with a narrative flow.  There is a story that can be told and retold.  There is action we can imagine. We can--and indeed Ignatian prayer demands that we--place ourselves in the action, that we participate in that history, and then allow that history to form us.   

On Corpus Christi, however, we have to sit back.  We must remain in silence.  There is no script.  There is no “story line.”  There is no historical event.  We, Jesuit and non-Jesuit, are forced to be less mentally active.  For a little while we are compelled to be more contemplative. Were one to ask what we contemplate on this great feast the answer is: the gift of Christ truly and substantially present in the Eucharist.  It is almost overwhelming to consider the Real Presence in the bread and wine consecrated on the altar, in the elements that we receive at Mass, and in the Eucharist that we adore in the tabernacle.

Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist is a stumbling block for some.  They can understand symbol. They can understand simile. They can understand metaphor.  They can understand allusion.  They even have a grasp of onomatopoeia. But they can’t seem to understand the meaning of real.  It is a pity. 

We heard in the first reading how the blood of animals was used to ratify the covenant God forged with Moses.  Blood is the ultimate seal on a promise.  How many of us sealed some kind of childhood or adolescent pact with our own blood or chose to become blood brothers?  "This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words of his."  And the people responded, "All that the Lord has said we will heed and do." Of course we know things didn't quite work out that way.  Thus, as noted in the Letter to the Hebrews, Jesus "entered once for all into the sanctuary . . . with His own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption." 

Commenting on today's gospel would be an absurd exercise in gilding the lily.  In just a few minutes you will hear the words of consecration: "This is my body . . . This is my blood . . ." Listen carefully.  

Today, we recall the great gift of the Body and Blood of Christ.  Real.  Substantial. And transubstantial.  With that in mind we can only sit back in stunned silence, overwhelmed with gratitude and say with the psalmist: 

"How shall I make a return to the Lord
for all the good he has done for me?
The cup of salvation I will take up,
and I will call upon the name of the Lord.

To you will I offer sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and I will call upon the name of the Lord."


Every year the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ or Corpus Christi represents a personal milestone.  The solemnity was observed on Sunday 10 June in 2007.  I don't have to look it up.  It was the date of my first Mass following ordination the day before.  Ordination was at St. Ignatius Church in Boston while the Mass was at Campion Center in Weston.  

The photo is from Slovenia taken during a Eucharistic procession in sv. Jo┼że at the Divine Mercy Mass on the second Sunday of Easter.  I participated in a Eucharistic procession once in D.C., carrying the monstrance the total a city block with three stops to bless the doors at the Visitation Monastery and school.  The monstrance was getting very heavy by the end.  

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD