One of the walking routes I’ve enjoyed for a number of years now is the one that winds around a section of the Wachusett Reservoir, at times the walk going right along the water’s edge. It’s a beautiful area with some very picturesque scenery.
One thing I like is that I can begin the walk in any one of a half dozen starting points, and by the time the walk is finished between 57-60 minutes later, the same scenery and same amount of ground has been traversed. And even better, it’s a route that can be covered in reverse, where the opposite of yesterday’s walk can be the forward direction today. And each direction offers scenery that reveals the awesome talent of God’s hand at work. Not to mention that it makes for a nice spiritual walk with the opportunity to pray the Rosary for the many prayer requests I receive. I like to think the entire walk in a small way mimics Jesus from this Gospel when I’m out there doing the 3 to 3-1/2 miles.
In the Gospel we heard words proclaimed that cause us to stop and use our imaginations. After leaving Nazareth his home, Jesus walks the route of Zebulon and Naphtali, the way to the sea, being the land of the Gentiles beyond the Jordan. The Lamb of God is walking by the land beyond the River of Baptism, and as he does so, he leaves his scent, his heavenly odor, his presence, and his wind, eventually drawing all the Gentiles beyond the Jordan to the River for Baptism.
This walk around the Sea of Galilee has an immediate purpose, though, before we the Gentiles are invited to share in the Banquet of Life. The purpose being to call his Apostles to drop their nets and follow him. But also, if there are any “nets” in our lives that hold us back from fulfilling the personal mission our Lord has mapped out for us, then drop those nets so we can move forward around the sea and let the Lord speak to us. Drop any nets that entangle our ability to fulfill our mission.
This image of Jesus leaving Nazareth, passing through towns and villages, fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah, and entering the land beyond the Jordan is called the road of salvation. It begins in Nazareth, makes its way to the sea, or the Wachusett Reservoir or your favorite body of water, and walks right into ministry.
The road of salvation is a road that fulfills the truest purpose of our lives. It’s the highway of Jesus Christ. It may take us at times to places we may not want to go outside our personal comfort zone, shattering at times our comfortable little world.
The road of salvation may wind around some dark and dangerous corners on our path, where one bad step may lead to us meeting our Maker a few years sooner than we wish to.
The road of salvation is without question filled with surprises –for those who like surprises – and with the unknown, inviting a deep level of trust to be necessary in order to finish the walk. How much trust did it take for Peter and Andrew, James and John to walk away from their guaranteed income, their familiar employment, their comfortable surroundings in the boat, and enter a new world where they would become “fishers of men?” What did Jesus even mean by such words? Fishers of men and women? They would realize the full extent of those words when they were crucified in like manner of their Master. What parts of our lives are in need of carrying a Cross and being crucified for the Lord on the road of salvation so that our calling through Baptism at the Jordan River may be filled with the same trust the two sets of brothers had to possess?
Jesus has walked the ground we walk. In his creating the world and all that is held within, our Lord has touched the ground that we walk on by virtue of his creating it. Most especially the walk of suffering. He has left his scent, his heavenly odor, his presence, and his wind that has drawn us from beyond the Jordan to its very waters, where we were buried with him so that we may rise to new life with him. We are no longer beyond the Jordan, but are now in the Jordan and past the Jordan, called by Jesus to do his bidding in this world.
The road of salvation that winds through the waters of our hearts and souls and carries us through Zebulon and Naphtali, past the Jordan River, incorporating us into the Body of Christ, is to be a path of joy. As we all struggle to one degree or another in our lives, for no one’s life is perfect because this is not heaven, the Christian is to walk this path with joy. How do we come to know joy?
Joy is realized in repentance, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand on this walk. Meaning, we are living in the first phase of eternal life. Joy is realized through faith that Jesus is alive and so are we beyond the walls of this life. A place has been prepared for us. Get ready! And joy is realized in the many good works of Christian charity that reveal to those around us that God is in fact alive within us.
Our walk through Zebulon and Naphtali, through Worcester and Holden, to the way of the sea (the Mediterranean) and the Wachusett Reservoir, beyond the Jordan and the Nashua River, is a walk that captures our hearts for our Father in heaven. Allow your hearts to be called and freed for the Lord. For when the Lord calls us, like Peter and Andrew, James and John, we are set free. Free to travel the particular, unique journey He has mapped out for each of his disciples.
Whatever path we walk or ride, Jesus has already been there. If it’s repentance we need, it’s repentance we are given. If it’s mercy we need, it’s mercy we are given. If it’s love we need, it’s love we are given. If it’s trust we need, it’s trust we are given. As the Psalm says, “Trust in the Lord, for he is an eternal Rock.” He is a Rock that walks, calling us to him.
Today in the United States we remember the dreadful decision in the Roe vs. Wade case made in 1973 that legalized abortion in our country. I offer a few thoughts on this issue.
First, This decision is by far the first time the United States Supreme Court, with its many talented justices, came to a horrific decision that has adversely affected our nation and her conscience. In 1857, the Dred Scott decision was almost as in error as the Roe vs. Wade decision when Justice Roger B. Taney – a Catholic justice – declared that those of African descent were not 100% human beings, but rather 2/3 human. How he arrived at this figure of 66 or 67% human is not important. What the Supreme Court Justice did was to make a human being less than human. Thus, the United States Supreme Court with its many talented justices has a track record, a precedent if you will, for making some decisions that work completely against the human person and their worth, and that person’s claim for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Second, the decision in 1973 in Roe vs. Wade was made with a complete disregard and blind’s eye toward the equal rights of the human person inside his or her mother’s womb. A person is a person, and all persons have equal dignity. The way to skirt this fundamental truth is through a lie; the lie being that the child is in fact not a child, but rather a mass of tissue. Make it sound like something it is not in its essence. A mass of tissue is something we find in a box of Kleenex, not in a mother’s womb. In the mother’s womb, what we have is a growing life. A person.
And third, the Pro-Life movement over the past 41 years has done much to expose the countless false ways on the issue of abortion. From calling the child what it is, a life with a soul, to the untold amount of hurt and suffering abortion causes women; depression, guilt, suicidal thoughts – in some cases carried out -, the physical pain from the procedure itself that lingers for long periods of time, sometimes permanent. Reflecting today’s readings in the Church, it really is a case of David trying to slay the Philistine Goliath, because abortion supporters are rich, vocal, and have people in places of power to ensure that this act that ends human life continues. The individual right is held supreme over the equal rights of the child. But inroads have been made; through prayer, through truth, and through forgiveness. We pray that one day this Goliath called abortion that is strangling the neck of the United States along with soiling her soul will be ended.
There is a time for everything under the sun. A time to be born, and a time to die. A time for love, and a time for hate (of one’s sins). A time for light and a time for darkness. A time for peace, and a time for war. And so forth and so on from the Book of Ecclesiastes.
There’s a time for every sort of emotion and action under the sun. This is not to say that God is in agreement with every action under the sun. Far from it. He is the Prince of Peace, not the god of war. He is the Light of the world, not the Prince of darkness. God is love, not hate. Jesus is filled with mercy, compassion, and pity, not vengeance, violence, and revenge. He is Truth, and not lies. The lies are put forth by someone else, who didn’t embrace his creation as an angel but sought rather to be like God. The same as any human being who thinks that he/she is a god.
There’s a time for everything under the sun, but not everything is kosher with the Lord. But John the Baptist is, and so is Pope Francis.
John the Baptist is pleasing to God because he knows his limitations and he knows when to pull back. He knows when to put the motor of his prophetic calling into drive, and when to put it into neutral. He knows when to stop his car so that the Driver who is coming after him may take over and sit in the Driver’s seat of our salvation.
And Pope Francis knows when to push, challenge, and prod so that we may grow deeper and deeper in faith. Pope Francis knows when and how to put his car into drive, and then into overdrive, and make disciples of Christ uncomfortable in their mission of serving others and bringing Good News to the world.
I was speaking recently with someone I know about a parish here in our Diocese. It’s a parish with a Pastor and an Associate Pastor, and a large staff of dedicated people who serve the parish’s needs. And at their early Sunday morning Mass, when the Associate Pastor preaches something the folks in the pews don’t want to hear, some of them go the extra mile, call up the Pastor, and complain about the Associate Pastor and what he spoke in the homily. My guess – and this is only a guess – is that the Associate Pastor was making the folks sitting in the pews a little uncomfortable with his message. My guess is that he was preaching truth, but not the sort of truth they want their ears to hear. My guess is that he was preaching Pope Francis style, and they didn’t take to it.
In the words of Jesus, “Whoever has ears, ought to hear.” Meaning, have an open heart to the truth of the entire Gospel, and not just the parts that we enjoy hearing. Have an open heart to the teachings and dogmas of the faith, as well as to social justice in our faith. It’s all the same faith.
The group of people complaining in that situation? My guess is that they have their faith – along with the Pastor – in a nice little comfortable container, and whenever anyone shakes it, like an upstart Associate Pastor, they get verbally violent. They go crying to papa Pastor, who in turn makes them feel good about their lack of embracing the entire faith.
If I ever stop making you good people of Immaculate Conception uncomfortable, and provide for you every Sunday the best cushioned seat of faith that you could sit in as you take in these homilies, then Fr. Riley is probably traveling on the road to Hades with my soul, because I will be utterly failing to carry out my responsibility of preaching throughout the year the entire Gospel message. A message of truthful teachings, which includes a Cross, and a message of action. There is a time for everything under the sun. Including in our faith.
We are all in need of the humility of John the Baptist. This guy has no pride. He is filled with love for his Savior, and love for the people of Israel. He knows his limitations. When Jesus appears in his life, he allows the Lord to take over. The one who “ranks ahead of him because he existed before me.” John is the perfect expression of pulling back and allowing Christ to take over. Put the car in neutral, and change drivers so that the one driving now is the one who knows all that is good for us. Even better than ourselves. He may even take us to places we may not want to go. But they are places where he wants us to go.
And this is where Pope Francis comes in. Pope Francis understands the Gospel because he wants us to go places that we may not want to go. But where Jesus commands us to go! Places such as serving the poor in the streets, as Church. Places such as visiting the sick, the homebound, the depressed, and all those who suffer in any way. And not just living life for ourselves. The Holy Father is telling us there’s a lot of people who need us. Or how about bringing the Good News of Jesus’ salvation to the entire world? Pope Francis says do it, as he imitates the Lord. If we sit back and convince ourselves that all these places make us uncomfortable, or it’s not politically correct to do any of this, then we have raised the white flag on our faith in Jesus Christ.
Our Christian faith is one faith consisting of numerous parts of discipleship. John the Baptist teaches us the need to pull back at times, put our lives in neutral temporarily, rediscover Christ, and allow him to drive forward. Pope Francis teaches us to put our lives into overdrive at times, and serve the needs of the many.
They are an excellent combination of faith and discipleship. Their lives express that there is a time for everything under the sun in our faith, and embracing all of it. Which is much better than complaining to the Pastor.
Jesus approaches the Jordan River to receive the baptism of John. John sees him for who he is; “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” John has a vision, a set of eyes that recognizes who is standing before him. Thus the words, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?”
Right away, without hesitation, John tells Jesus that he, the Lord, has it backwards. But John is not insulting when telling Jesus that this whole approach to who’s baptizing who is backwards. He doesn’t insult Jesus with his words, as would be the case in most situations where we may consider something to be backwards. You know how if we tell someone they have an understanding, a discussion, or a belief to be backwards? Such words generally mean that the topic being discussed is way off target in one person’s interpretation. Backwards generally means to be misinformed.
For example, if someone says to you, “You Catholics worship Mary. You worship those dead people you call saints. People who have died, you pray to them. You worship them by praying to them instead of praying to the resurrected Jesus, who is the one Mediator between God and man.”
I’m not sure about you, but I’ve heard these words. And part of my response has been, “Well, you have that sort of backwards. No where in Catholic theology and Catholic teaching does it say or teach that we are to worship Mary and the Saints. We worship God alone. But God in his generosity, his eternal wisdom, and his invitation to living in communion extends the role of mediating for our benefit through his Son to all the holy men and women who have been loving examples of Christ over the centuries. And this has come to us through the Holy Tradition of the Church led by the Spirit of God.”
All the intercessions we seek through the saints are prayers that those holy men and women lay at the feet of our Lord. It’s just one way of many on how God expands the presence of heaven. So, to claim that we somehow replace Jesus with his Mother or any soul in the Communion of Saints is backwards. Meaning, it is a statement that is way off the target.
But with the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan, the backward statement of John, “I need to be baptized by you, yet you are coming to me,” is not a statement that is way off target. It is a “backward” observation by John that is totally and completely true. The truth, of course, being that John and the rest of us need to be baptized by him, and in him. In the One of whom it is spoken, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
So why does Jesus allow for his own baptism to proceed with John doing the dunking? It’s done for the reasons that we need to be baptized into the One who is dunked…into the river. Our baptism into Christ is in essence the first form of worship – true worship – that occurs in our lives. The issue for many of us is that we don’t recall our own baptism because we were infants. If you were baptized as an infant and you can remember it, then you’re memory is the best one I’ve ever heard of! Our parents brought us to the Jordan River of the Church, we had cold water poured over our heads three times – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and we were brought back home where we were fed, our diapers changed, and all the adults celebrated. Some too much.
But with our parents presenting us for the sacrament, which is not dependent upon our memory for validity, but rather upon trust, trusting that this event really happened to us, in the moment of the sacrament’s reception at the font our souls were forever united to our Savior. For all who are baptized at whatever age, it was our first true form of worship. Our parents knew exactly what they were doing. They introduced us to our Creator and Savior, and taught us Christian values over the years, which is the awesome responsibility they take on at the baptism of their children.
This first form of worship is a sacramental act that opens the door to our worship of God alone. This truth is dripping all over the words of John the Baptist. John’s admission of needing to be baptized by Jesus, and not the other way around, are backward words of truth that enlightens us with the spiritual insight that all praise, glory, and worship belong to God alone. And that all other worship is in fact backwards, meaning wayward, where false worship is lived.
Also, the acceptance on our part of John’s words to Jesus being the good sort of backwards result in the good choices of Christianity as we grow in age, wisdom, and grace. As some folks age today, they leave behind wisdom and grace. They become defined by their politics. Or by their sexual preference. Or by their material goods. Those who do so reject their own baptism into Christ, tossing aside the words of John the Baptist. However, what begins as our first true act of worship in baptism is meant to grow into, well, Mary and the Saints. All those sub-intercessors who worship and pray to Jesus on our behalf, and do so in perfect communion with the Lord. They have a perfect relationship with God in heaven.
The good choices of Christianity are first lived in our imitation of Christ, and then those who followed him with obedience and love. In the Acts of the Apostles, Peter speaks in the house of Cornelius the words, “He went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” These words are our baptism as adults who are spiritually mature and devoted to living in our families a life for Christ. Doing good and praying for the healing of those who suffer in any way, including ourselves, is how we bring those good backward words of John alive. Doing good and praying for healing is baptism growing old and wise.
Just as Jesus grew in his baptism to become the Suffering Servant, we too are never to remain stagnant in our first form of true worship. Grow in deeds. Grow in prayer. By doing so, we grow in faith, until we arrive at that place where others may seek our intercession in the presence of our Lord beyond the Pearly Gates.
When in the Holy Land a couple of years ago, one of the many sites we visited on our tour was the holy town of Bethlehem. After reading and hearing and pondering and reflecting on the birth of Jesus for so many years, trying to picture what it must have been like to be there, it was more than special to be in the area of where God became human. It was very moving.
Today it’s difficult to picture the stable of 2000 years ago because the entire area of where it’s believed that Jesus was born is now surrounded by what is called the Church of the Nativity. The Holy parents of Jesus certainly would have loved having that Church present on the day they arrived in Bethlehem long ago, if for nothing else than protection from the elements.
I recall the day that our group was there, and there was a bunch of ropes keeping the people in check, to one side of the Church, because there was an “important” person from another country who was being given a personal tour by an Israeli guide while everyone else had to wait until the personal tour was finished. My memory bank also recalls that my thoughts that day went along the lines of; “This flies in the face of the purpose and simplicity of Jesus’ birth.” Our Lord’s birth is not a birth for worldly dignitaries and kings, or diplomats and “important” people. It’s a birth of Good News for the poor, like the shepherds, who angels appear to instructing them to visit the site. And it’s a birth for all those poor people waiting behind the ropes for some big-shot to finish his personal tour. I’m glad I kept my mouth shut at the time.
The Feast of the Epiphany is a feast for the humble, the poor in spirit, the rich who are graced by God with the capacity to love those who God loves, and for all people where pride is put aside, and one’s life sits in the middle of a manger filled with stinky animals. Beautiful animals, but stinky animals who don’t use aftershave or deodorant. I wonder if that dignitary would have showed up if the smell of the stable 2000 years ago was in the Church that day a couple years ago?
The one disturbing part of this Epiphany Gospel is the phoniness of Herod. Herod pretending to want to worship the newborn King of the Jews is about as convincing as the Red Sox wanting to worship the Yankees. Granted, the crazy king had an opportunity to do the proper thing. But pride and envy will toss all good values out the window and bring a person to make disturbing decisions, which he goes on to do.
However, on the flip side of the disturbing part of this story we have what Jesus, in his ministry years later, calls “the better part.” As in Mary choosing the better part over her sister Martha by sitting at the feet of our Lord. The better part here is the message of who is now included. Of who no longer has to stand behind the ropes of prophecy and salvation. Of who is forever incorporated into God’s plan of bringing home His own. And that’s us, who are not given a personal tour by an Israeli guide while hundreds of people wait behind the ropes.
In a funeral we had here this past week, I chose the Gospel of the Roman centurion who sends his friends to ask Jesus if he will come and cure his dying servant. The story arrives at the point where the centurion says, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof, but only say the word and my servant will be healed.” Jesus’ reaction to this statement is one of amazement at the centurion’s faith, saying, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” Because of this, the Roman centurion is really like the 4th Wise Man, many years after the first 3 Wise Men show up at the manger offering their gifts to the new King of Kings. What the centurion did was to open up a door that was constructed by the visit of the original Magi. The Roman centurion opened a door of faith for the Gentiles, which is us. The people behind the ropes at one time in the Old Testament.
All these non-Israelites who approach Jesus, either in person or through intermediaries because they humbly believe they are not worthy enough to be in his holy presence, these are all our brothers and sisters who built the stage of faith for all people to stand on. They are the ones who removed the ropes around the manger so that the entire human race could bow down before him and proclaim good news of great joy.
It would be well short of Good News if only some were invited to come. The star the Magi followed is still up there. And everyone with a spiritual set of eyes can see it. Those who are spiritually blind cannot. Those who live for the false glory of this world alone are tied up by the rope that worships false gods. They need to loosen their chains and come home to the Lord.
As the 3 Wise Men offer their gifts to Jesus in the form of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, their guide is a personal guide also. Their guide is a star that remains. The star that God created in the skies can still be seen by those who believe that Jesus places no restrictions on our willingness to come to him. Rope must be a human invention, because I’m certain that God doesn’t use any.
The 3 Wise Men set the stage for the Gentiles to be included in God’s plan of salvation. The 4th Wise Man, the Roman Catholic Centurion (RCC), is the model for what it takes for our being included in God’s graces. His faith, his humble faith in Christ, amazed even Jesus. Our faith stands on them, as well as the countless men and women over the centuries of Christianity who are now enrolled in the Communion of Saints.
Human authority may force us behind the rope at times, causing us to wait for someone important to finish their personal tour before we can pray and meditate at a holy site. But with Christ, there are no restrictions, no roadblocks, no ropes, and no waiting when humbly approaching the Lord in faith.