Gospel Reflections

August 29,  2021

20th SUNDAY INORDINARY TIME                                                                                

       In our first reading we hear of Moses enjoining upon the Jewish people the laws of the Lord. The Lord gave these laws because they were not only good living principles for people to live by and would make life better for them, but, in addition, by following these teachings the Jewish people  were aptly giving homage and obedience to God.  Thus Moses teaches the people: “ In observance of the commandments of the Lord, you shall not add to what I command you nor subtract from it. “  God did not give us the Ten Commandments to restrict our freedom. Maybe that is why so many of our contemporaries do not adhere to submitting oneself to follow the teachings of the commandments. A prevalent philosophy today is that the individual should be in total command of his or her life, and laws of any kind, especially religious laws, are looked upon as restrictions to one’s freedom. God gave us the Laws because they will make us more godlike and secondly, if they are observed, life will be better for everybody.  Take the ten commandments. The first three pertain directly to our obligations towards God. In essence, they teach us to observe these commandments because we owe respect, gratitude, and obedience to our Creator. If a person has profound respect for the Lord, the other seven commandments which pertain to our treatment of others will be done because we, first of all, love the Lord and want to do what He wants us to do because we reverence Him, and secondly, we would do such because their observance makes for a better world. What a better world it would be if more people really loved the Lord and tried to love others as the last seven commandments enjoin upon us.  Considering, for time’s sake, just one of the Ten Commandments. Take for instance the fifth commandment which tells us to respect each person’s life, and not to kill anybody. If more people observed that commandments what a more peaceful world it would be. I think we are all appalled when we hear of wanton killings that take place in our world, our nation, our area every day; yet, we hear of wanton killings going on constantly whether it be in Afghanistan, Chicago, or Allentown. Besides enjoining us not to kill others, which encompasses every human life from conception to death, there are certain interior psychological states-of-mind which we should control which often bring about the act of murder. These are implicit realities relative to the Fifth Commandment which we should control if we wish to obey the fifth-commandment.  We should quell those underlying emotions which give birth to killing, whether it be anger, jealously, hatred, vengeance. If people out of love for God tried to control these motivations which might impel a person to kill, how much more of a peace-filled world we would live in. We can take each one of the commandments and imagine if everyone observed them what a better world this would be in which to live. A better life and world are one of the reasons God issued the Ten Commandments.

Our Lord in criticizing the Pharisees in today’s Gospel, is condemning them not because they were observing the commandments, but because they made their own additions and subtractions to the Laws which God had given to them.  Rather than observing the real values which had been taught to them, the Pharisees did what Moses told them to avoid: they added their own interpretations to the teachings.   Hence, they were critical of the Apostles because they had not observed the Pharisaic maxim of washing one’s hands before eating. Such a practice is a good thing to do, as we as we all have been reminded amply during these Covid days, but the Pharisees were not motivated by hygienic reasons about which they probably knew little, but they had made the obligation to wash one’s hands before meals a religious obligation. In other words, do this action because it is an obligation you have before God. They made hand-washing rituals religious obligations, and if you failed to do them, you were failing in the observance of your religion. The gospel of today reminds us that they made a lot of ordinary actions like the washing of cups and kettles into similar religious obligations. These actions are fine to do for practical reasons of cleanliness, but they were not something upon which one’s righteousness before God depends.  A lot of times we add to or subtract from what God has given us to follow and make our additions or subtractions absolute beliefs or practices.

I have used this example before of a person who observed certain religious practices, which are fine practices in themselves, but in this man’s mind he made these practices the essence of what faith is all about. When I was pastor in another parish there was a man who was widely believed to be involved in organized crime. He lived very close to the church, but he did not practice his faith, yet, he would break his neck to have his throat blessed on St. Blaze Day, or ashes placed on his head on Ash Wednesday. Invariably he would call the rectory to find out the exact time throats were to be blessed or ashes distributed, and when he found out that they were often in the context of the Mass, he would try to time himself so that he could appear at just the right time to receive these sacramentals, and then he would disappear from the church. He was missing the mark on what was really important in the following of his faith and apparently substituted these practices as the fulfillment of his duties toward God. He forgot, that the reception of ashes is nothing more than a symbol that the recipient is wanting to reform his life. There were no indications that he was intent on doing that.  The receiving of Ashes on Ash Wednesday is not some kind of magical black mark needed for protection, or an action to guarantee one’s salvation.  This is the kind of thinking Our Lord is criticizing in the gospel.

As St. James tells us in our second reading: “ Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deluding yourself.”  

The following of our faith and religion should flow from our love for God which is expressed authentically and consistently by our adherence to living by the teaching of the commandments. We should not reduce our obligations to God by making secondary practices or our own added or subtracted interpretations essential to our relationship with God.


August 08,  2021

19th SUNDAY INORDINARY TIME                                                                                

 

The gospel readings during these weeks pertain to St. John’s treatise of the Holy Eucharist. We hear of a continuation of that in today’s gospel. Last week I said that the Eucharist is basically three things: it is the presence of the Lord vailed in the form of bread and wine, a participation in the sacrifice of the Lord, and communion with the Lord. Last week I spoke about the unique presence of the Lord in the Eucharist. The Lord becomes truly sacramentally present in the offering of the Mass and remains present in that form in the tabernacles of our churches. That is why people visit Catholic churches even if a Mass is not going on. We have opportunities to be in the presence of the sacramentally-present Lord at Mass or in times when we visit a church. Come to a church, especially when it is offering exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and you will find your time before the Lord to be refreshing and it will restore tranquility to your soul, especially if you believe that Christ is truly present in the sacrament of the Eucharist.

Another aspect of the Eucharist is that it is a sacrifice, specifically the re-presentation of the Lord’s sacrifice on the Cross. The notion of ritual sacrifice is foreign to modern mentalities, as a matter of fact it is repugnant to the modern mind to sacrifice innocent animals for some religious purposes, but we find that the practice of sacrifice to be present in many different religions which are not related to one another. The Indians of South America, for instance, practiced human sacrifice. Not all forms of religious sacrifice though, needed to be bloody sacrifices.  Perhaps this notion of rendering a sacrifice to the gods or to God is part of the religious sub-conscious of human beings. I say this because it is so very much present in so many forms of religion. 

A sacrifice if an offering, usually done for the worshippers by a representative call a priest.  Sacrifices are made to a deity to show worship, to express sorrow for failings, to make a petition, to render thanks for blessings received. The Old Testament is replete with examples on the part of the Jewish people to render sacrifices to their God. For five hundred years sacrifices were offered almost exclusively in the Temple in Jerusalem, the most significant of which were the sacrifices at Passover time. It is interesting to note that the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans just decades after the Crucifixion of the Lord and never rebuilt to this day. When that happened, sacrifices were no longer part of Jewish worship and they are not to this day.  Could it be that whatever purpose sacrifices served in the Temple were no longer needed,  replaced and eclipsed by the power of Christ’s saving sacrifice on the cross?   In Jesus’ time thousands of pilgrims would descend into Jerusalem at Passover time and the priests in the Temple would sacrifice thousands of lambs to be used for the celebrations of the Passover in homes. We hear numerous times in the Old Testament that the Lord does not need the plethora of animal sacrifices which were offered to Him. They were, by and large, not efficacious; they did not bring God to Man and Man to God. But we do hear in the Scriptures that someday an efficacious sacrifice will be offered to the Lord, and that it will be re-presented in many places and throughout the hours of the days. Such a reference is given to us in the Book of Malachi and understood by the early church to be a prophecy that Christ will die on the Cross and his offering will be presented anew day by day in all the corners of the world. We hear, for instance, St. Irenaeus, a bishop and martyr of the second century, saying this about the eucharist and the prophecy contained in Malachi. He says, “ This is why he took bread, gave thanks and said, ‘This is my Body’. In the same way he declared that the cup was his blood. He taught them that this was the new sacrifice of the new covenant. The Church has received this sacrifice from the Apostles. It was foretold by Malachi, one of the twelve prophets, in the words of God delivered to him, “ I take no pleasure in you, says the Lord Almighty, and no sacrifice will I accept from your hands. For from the rising of the sun to its setting, the Gentiles will glorify my name, and in every place incense and a spotless sacrifice are offered to my name; my name is great among the Gentiles says the Lord Almighty.”  Not only Irenaeus, but other Fathers of the Church interpreted those words of Malachi as a prophecy that at some time a perfect sacrifice will be offered to God ( and that is the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross) and then that sacrifice will be re-presented every day, from the rising of the sun to its setting in every corner of the world. The third Eucharistic prayer which I will pray in a few moments reflects this reference of Malachi to the sacrifice of the Mass when it says “ You never cease to gather a people to yourself so that from the rising of the sun to its setting a pure sacrifice may be offered to your name. “

What does it mean to say that the Eucharist is a sacrifice? Christ on the night before he died,  involved in a Passover meal, took the matza bread and  said “ This is my body which is given up for you,”  and took the Cup of Blessing later in that Passover meal and said over it,” this is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the eternal covenant which will be poured out for you and for many  for the forgiveness of sins. “  In saying those words he was aligning what He did at that Passover meal with an occurrence that did not even happen yet, but would happen within a few hours:  his suffering and death on the Cross.  Whenever this meal would be celebrated henceforth, it would have a connection to his sacrifice  on the cross in which his blood would be drained from his lacerated body and death would ensue, but it would be a sacrificial death which would bring salvation.  Christ died on the cross only one time but when he said, “do this in remembrance of me,” he was saying that when this ritual would be celebrated in the future, it would bring-alive to the present moments the power and the reality of his Sacrifice on the cross. Bishop Barron in one of his latest books says it in this way: “ The Mass is indeed described as an anamnesis ( a remembrance) of the Last Supper and Calvary, but this term ( remembrance) is meant in much more than a merely psychological sense [ of thinking back] . Since Jesus is divine, all of his actions, including and especially the sacrificial act by which he saved the world, participate in the eternity of God and hence can be made present at any point in time. To “remember” him, therefore, is to participate even now in the saving events of the past, bringing them in all of their dense reality into the present day. “ 

The prophesy of Malachi has indeed been fulfilled. At any given time,  on any given day, from the rising of the sun to its setting, ( and the sun is always rising and setting someplace)  the efficacious sacrifice of Christ is being celebrated and brought alive somewhere in our world, and it just so happens that at this time and in this place we are bringing the reality of Christ’s sacrifice into our midst.


 

August 01,  2021

18th SUNDAY INORDINARY TIME                                                                                

This section of John’s gospel began with a miraculous feeding of a multitude, which we heard about in last week’s gospel. Jesus left the scene and returned to a costal town of Capernaum. Some of the crowd followed him, probably most of them walking along the coast-line to get to where he was. They caught up with the Lord in a synagogue and when they met up with him, he issued with a mild chastisement as to why some of them were there. He had fed the multitude with bread and fish, and the Lord infered that the motivation of some of them to follow him to Capernaum was based upon this miraculous feeding. Perhaps some of them thought that if they followed him, he would always provide food for them in the same way he did when he performed the miracle. He began with a mild admonishment to them, “ Do not work for food which perishes, but for food which endures for eternal life which the Son of Man will give to you.“  Bread was a staple of nourishment for the people of that time, and the Lord began his discourse with them by saying that just as material bread nourishes, he himself can be a source of sustaining nourishment if people assimilate him into their lives. He says that in this way, “ I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger and whoever believes in me will never thirst. “  The first meaning of this comparison between bread and the Lord  is relevant for each of us who hear it, no matter what century we live in. If a person has a deep relationship with Jesus, He will sustain them in life just the way bread is a sustaining source of nourishment on a day-to-day basis for many people in the world. This is the first layer of meaning which the Lord issues in saying he is the bread of life, but there will be a deeper layer in subsequent verses of Chapter 6.  This discourse will continue and take a new direction as it unfolds.  In an ordinary year we would hear the full teaching of this section of John’s gospel for four weeks. It began last week with the miraculous feeding and continues today, next week and , ordinarily,  in the week after that, but this year we will not hear the final parts of this teaching since two weeks from now,  we will be celebrating the Assumption of Mary and the readings of that feast will take precedence over the ordinary readings of the day.  To capture the whole meaning of this section, the Lord switches from his first teaching by saying if people incorporate him into their lives, they will find great support and direction in life, “ I am the bread of life.” to a new meaning of being the “ bread of life.” The latter part of the teaching will have Jesus say : “ Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life. For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.“  These words were understandably baffling and even repulsive to the ears of the assembled, and many of them, we are told, became disillusioned and walk away from Him  in spite of the miracle they had experienced in the miraculous feeding.  Jesus never backed down on this teaching; nor did he try to re-interpret it, he simply let them go.

The gospels of Mark, Luke, and Matthew have Jesus institute the Holy Eucharist in the Passover meal on the night before he died. The gospel of John incorporates the Last Supper in his gospel,  but does not mention the first Eucharist in that context. Instead, he incorporates the teaching on the Eucharist in this sixth chapter, part of which we have just heard. Since our diocese is emphasizing the real presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist during this year, I thought I would speak about this topic this week and next week.

What is the Holy Eucharist?  It is three things. It is the Real Presence of the Lord, whether it is received or not received ; it is a Sacrifice, and it is a profound union with the Lord. I would like to speak about the very first today, the Presence of the Lord in the Eucharist, and continue next week explaining the Eucharist as  Sacrifice and the source of a real union with the Lord when received.

 The Catholic Faith has always taught in its two thousand years that the Lord is truly present in the Eucharist.  If you are standing in front of your house, and a policeman, comes and asks you, “ Who owns this house? And you answer, pointing to the house “ This is my house!” the policeman would  immediately understand that the word this and the word house  connected by the word is  refers to one and the same thing.  “ This is my house” does not mean it belongs, somehow,  to someone else. When Christ held the Matza bread in his hands at the Last Supper and said referring to it, “ This is my body, and later holding what is known as “ the cup of blessing” in his hands and uttered, “ This is my blood” he didn’t mean something else than what he was saying. He was saying that the bread and the wine were transmitting his very presence through their agency. An extraordinary statement to be sure, but a clear identification of the bread and wine with his very presence. Only God who made all things could bring such a presence about.  The Eucharist is not just a symbolic presence, as many believe,  but a real presence. To back this up we can go first of all to the Sacred Scriptures and listen to the words of St. Paul in his letter to the Corinthians:“ Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself first, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. Anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks a judgement upon himself. The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? “  St. Justin in the second century, wrote  this in explaining the Eucharist, “ For this food is called among us the Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake except one who believes that the things we teach are true. For we do not receive these things as common bread nor common drink,  we have been taught that the food eucharistized though the word of prayer that is from Him  is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who became incarnate.”  St. Irenaeus, also in the Second Century writes this: “ He took that created thing, bread, and gave thanks and said,’ This is my Body” and the cup likewise, which is part of that creation to which we belong, He confessed to be His Blood. “  We see this teaching reflected consistently by the teaching authority, the Magisterium,  throughout the two thousand years of our Church’s existence.    

The people hearing this for the first time in Capernaum found this to be a “ hard saying, “ as they said, and many walked away. The Lord left them walk away because he wanted to emphasize that what he said, he meant, as hard as it was to believe.  To make an even deeper impression on his Apostles, he turned to them in John’s gospel and said, “ Do you want to walk away also?  Peter, as usual, spoke for the group and said, “ Lord to whom shall we go, you have the words of eternal life.”  Peter undoubtedly did not understand how, at that time , the full meaning of this new  teaching, but he had enough faith in the Lord to affirm that if the Lord taught this, somehow it must be true. Many people today, also,  find this teaching to be a “ hard saying “.   Do not be one of them! Like Peter place your trust in the Lord who identified the elements “eucharistized” as the Real Presence of the Lord.


 

April 18,  2021

3rd SUNDAY OF EASTER SEASON                                                                                   

We are still celebrating the Easter season and will be doing so until Pentecost Sunday, and in today’s gospel we hear of the appearance of the Risen Jesus to his Apostles and others who were gathered in the Upper Room where just a few days before the Passover meal and the Last Supper had taken place. Those present still harbored fear and undoubtedly confusion as to what had happened in the past few days. This rendition of the appearance of Jesus on the first Easter Sunday night comes to us from the gospel of Luke, and in the gospel of Luke we first hear, not in today’s segment of Luke, of the wonderful experience of two followers of Jesus who walked with him on the 7-mile trek from Jerusalem to Emmaus, and had the surprising revelation that they had been walking all along with Jesus in whom they had been disappointed.  That recognition did not happen until they entered the place in which the two disciples were planning to dwell for the evening.  We can imagine that the dwelling was somewhat dark, just as the road had been, since in those days people only had oil-lamps to illumine any room. It might have been that factor that kept them from recognizing Jesus upon entrance, as well as the fact that they were certainly not expecting him to show-up.  We know the name of only one of these hosts, Cleopas, and it is sometimes conjectured that the other person may have been the wife of Cleopas since they were sharing a common dwelling, but we do not know that for a fact. They are usually pictured as being two men, but we do not know any more about them than what the text of Luke tells us. At any rate, recognition does not come until these two followers recognized Jesus in, as they said, “ the breaking of the bread.” When Luke uses this phrase, he means more than the sharing of a meal. He is really speaking of the meal Jesus shared at the Last Supper, the Eucharist. Could it have been that these two had also been at the Last Supper just a few days before? Or had they heard from the Apostles a description of the new twist that Jesus made to the meaning of the Passover meal on the night before he died, and recognized that twist as Jesus unfolded it before their eyes?  At the “Breaking of the Bread” is experienced, the Resurrected Lord disappeared from their sight, and the two excited followers immediately high-tailed it back to Jerusalem, seven miles away, to inform the assembled Apostles what they had experienced.  It is here that our gospel of today takes up. Having come to the Upper Room we are told that the two recounted “ “what had taken place on the way to Emmaus and how Jesus was made known to them in”  the breaking of the bread.” The gospel tells us that while they were still speaking about this, Jesus stood in the midst of all of them and said to them “Peace be with you, “ and then explained to them why it was that the Messiah had to suffer and die, and enjoined upon them to give witness to His resurrection, as Peter dutifully does in our first reading.

I have often thought of how fortunate those two disciples were to have encountered the Risen Jesus two times on that first Easter night. Many believers in Jesus’ Resurrection would love to have that empirical experience of having encountered the Risen Jesus just once. Those two must have been very special people in God’s eyes to have experienced two physical manifestations of the Resurrected Lord on the very day of the Resurrection. None of us have had the privilege of having seen the Resurrected Lord even once, but we know the Lord through the gift of faith. The gift of faith, given to us by the Holy Spirit, enables us to hold to the authenticity of Jesus’ Resurrection. As the scriptures tell us, “ We walk by faith, and not by sight.” Walking by faith and not by sight may sometimes be accompanied by the same kind of experiences of doubt that the two disappointed disciples knew and expressed to Jesus when he first joined them, unrecognized, in the dusk of the evening. If you at times experience disillusionment in your faith as initially did the two disciples, pray to the Holy Spirit, the giver of faith, to dispel the doubts which might emerge in your soul as you make your own faith- journey not on the road  to Emmaus but on the road of life of life.

Until we see Jesus in the actual way those who were privileged to see him in the days after his resurrection, he has given us the great gift of encountering him as the crucified and resurrected Lord in the “Breaking of the Bread.” Our church of two thousand years has always held the very real Jesus becomes present to us when we receive Him in the Eucharist. He is not just symbolically present, but actually present in this divinity and humanity, and comes to nourish our faith and our spirits in the form of food. He is food for journey on the road of  life.   May we   have the same experience of recognizing the Lord in the two ways that the two disciples did on that first Easter night : through his actual presence in the “ “Breaking of the bread, and eventually by experiencing Him face to face when we share in His resurrection ourselves.


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