Due to the impending snow and icy conditions, Religious Education Classes have been canceled for Sunday March 10th. Stay safe.
Looks like everyone cleaned their foreheads from the other day. That day of fasting and being reminded that we are dust, and that same dust awaits our return. But before we arrive back into dust – no time soon, I hope – we need to talk about a few temptations.
The first one, on the surface, is about food. Command stones to turn into bread. What’s the big deal? “I know you’re very hungry right now Jesus. You just spent 40 days not eating, and I know those stones look more like bagels with cream cheese.”
Why is this temptation so horrendous? What’s so bad about telling Jesus to turn rocks into food? Doesn’t the devil want Jesus’ appetite satiated? This is the problem with looking at the surface only. There’s usually a motive, and from the devil there’s always a motive.
Our Lord comes to us, not for any purpose to satisfy his physical needs. Rocks to bread satisfies the physical hunger, leading to more hunger about 5 hours later. Lent leads us to satisfy our spiritual dimension, which is why I highly recommend spiritual reading above and beyond what we may or may not already do. Pick a holy thought from that person’s brain, and make it our own. For example, the day after Lent came this observation from one of our spiritual books: “Only one day after the start of Lent, and already the resolve of yesterday takes a hit from the challenges and chores of day-to-day life …. I need to make a sincere commitment to the practices of Lent – prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.” Lent is not about tailgating, or backyard cookouts, or even, dare I say, Wright’s Chicken Farm.
Jesus does away with this seemingly unharmful temptation because, first, the devil doesn’t tell God what to do and succeed. He’s still living in his fantasy world of thinking he’s in control, when the Lord is, always and forever. And second, our Lord’s food must match up with our daily diet, being the food that endures to eternal life. Prayer, fasting, almsgiving, works of mercy, Eucharist, God’s word. That’s the daily diet of a Catholic.
Nazareth is in the rearview mirror of Jesus’ life. Meaning, Mary the Mother is not cooking her Son’s meals anymore. The rocks into bread temptation says to Jesus, “Why don’t you go back to Nazareth and be fed by your mother. Just be nice and comfortable there, stay there Jesus, die there too, and I’ll take care of things here on earth.” Jesus responds, “No thanks, Satan. My food is to do the will of my Father.” That’s our everyday food.
The second temptation is much more serious on the surface; the worshipping temptation. Fortunately for us and our redemption, Christ has not even the tiniest desire to share his worship. Even though many adults today – and always – fall for this temptation because of oversized egos and inflated self-praise, Jesus remains firm, and some of us hate it.
What’s hated here is that God doesn’t share with us – or any fallen or non-fallen angels – even a fraction of worship that is transferred to sinful humanity or the angelic world. “You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve.” This temptation more than the other two drives many egomaniacs crazy, because they dare think they’re worthy of being worshipped. And here we have the devil working hard at getting God to transfer all of the worship owed to Christ, and is rightfully his, to this pitiful, wayward angel who made the eternal mistake of rejecting God.
Lent for us is a continual transformation of being rid of any worship of any person, and the devil, and staying centered in Christ. Because the Word is near you, in your mouth in your consuming the Eucharist, and in your heart in the Spirit.
And the third temptation could actually be the most human for many of us; testing God. “Why are you doing things that way, Lord? That’s not my plan, how can it be yours?” The urge to test God and tell Jesus to throw himself off the parapet of the temple is symbolic for us controlling God, even to the point if it means his death in our lives. This urge is always before us. The urge we can have that commands the Lord to conform to our weak human wills and desires.
But Christ won’t throw himself off the hanger, allowing ourselves to become the devil. The result would be us making up our own religion, satisfying our ego, and become the boss of our own little world. We can have that if we want, but it isn’t Christian.
Lent, for us, when practiced faithfully with effort and time, this holy season allows us the opportunity to further conform our lives to God’s plan. To see him as he is, and ourselves as we are. The devil in this temptation speaks like he has no chance at being one with his Creator again. Which is true for Satan, but that’s not so for us. The devil is attempting something in temptation number 3 that we must never do ourselves; to create an eternal separation from our Beloved. Some folks do so, may we not be one of them. Our joy is realized in conforming our lives to God’s will, and not putting the Lord, you God, to the test.
Rocks to bread; false personal worship; and diving off parapets. Three spiritual dimensions to avoid, knowing who is at the center of them. Replaced by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, knowing who is at the heart of those. Christ the Lord.
Our Mass schedule for Ash Wednesday will consist of 3 Masses: 7:00 a.m. 9:00 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.
We all know how some people can talk a mile a minute, and others who are on the rather quiet side. Personalities abound in God’s good creation. It’s the same with nature too. Birds love to chirp, especially in the spring and summer, at times waking us up from our slumber, telling their tales to each other from a distance or close-up. Yet, deer who inhabit the woods are the quietest animals, walking softly, not barking like dogs needing attention, not howling like coyotes. Nature runs the entire spectrum of sound, from quiet to loud, like the neighbor’s dog who never stops barking.
One theme for this week’s readings as we prepare for the upcoming penitential season of Lent, is that of speaking. Knowing when to and when not to, having the wisdom to remain quiet, and the fortitude to speak, and knowing when to do each. But even more, speaking in such ways that produces fruit, or the store of goodness that Jesus calls it, and doing away with the store of evil that produces nothing good.
The first topic in this regard would be that of gossip. Gossip produces evil because it sets us up as the momentary ultimate judge of another person, when God is always the final arbiter. So, if we say, “Hey, that guy over there, that billionaire over there who owns a football team, did you hear that he was caught in a massage parlor doing something he wasn’t supposed to be doing?”
I had a priest friend from another unnamed state call me up last week to tell me that story, with a little hint of glee in his voice. He felt I needed to know. “Hey, did you hear that Bob Kraft got caught in a prostitution sting?” He’s lucky I didn’t hang up on him. Gossip is a killer, whether we speak the truth or not. Gossip has nothing – ZERO – to do with truth. It has everything to do with judgment, and even more than everything to do with the wooden beam in our own eye. Because while my priest friend was speaking the actions of the owner of a local football team, he was also, at the same time, producing from his “store of evil.”
So, as Christians, what are we to speak? What words, or actions, speak to the truer reflection of Christ, where the labor of our words are not spoken in vain? I suppose we can always go right to the first importance that touches our lives, that being death is swallowed up in victory, as St. Paul so kindly reminds us.
When’s the last conversation we had with someone where the topic was solely focused on the topic of death, and how the sting of death and the so-called victory of death has been destroyed? If we want a positive conversation, where the Spirit will provide words for our mouths that will bring hope to others and to ourselves, there it is. Death, and how death has been trampled upon by Jesus, crushed by his Cross, flattened by the sandals on his feet, and done away with like a dead mouse.
So, next time you’re sitting next to someone you don’t know in a restaurant or some other setting, say to them, “Hey, have you heard that Jesus destroyed death, and I look forward to seeing you again in heaven?” And they’ll look at you and say in between bites, “Really? That’s pretty cool. That’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me. Enjoy your meal.”
The Christian life is a journey toward building up God’s Kingdom through our voices and actions, while at the same time speaking and addressing certain important truths that are taking place in our society under our noses. Truths that are at times wonderful and uplifting, and other times truths that produce the evil Jesus refers to. Such as the truth of the present expansion of abortion bills in states where certain government leaders have created laws that destroy human life even after he or she has been born.
That stuff does not belong in a loving, caring, compassionate society, which is what we’re supposed to be here, are we not? That language on paper, and those actions in medical clinics and hospitals, is from what Jesus calls “the store of evil” in this Gospel. And that revelation on the Church’s part must be spoken, revealed, and seen for what it is.
In the midst of that horrific messiness created by some very sick human souls, we as Christians do not pull back from proclaiming the Good News. The Good News that death is swallowed up in victory, even the death of infants who will die at the hands of a law that belongs only in a barbaric culture. We speak the Good News that the Master has conquered the wooden beam and all the splinters in our eyes. He has conquered the effects of our sinful human weakness.
This is a rightful thought walking into Lent this coming Ash Wednesday, receiving ashes on our foreheads that coldly remind us that we are not long for this world. We’re created for life eternal.
Speak the good things of Christ in our daily vocabulary. Death is destroyed, sin is overcome, blood has been poured out for us, and the God-Man on the Cross is still the King of the Universe.
I remember well my Church History class in seminary, taught by Fr. Tim Kulbicki, a Polish Franciscan who had in his head every fact about the Church’s history, large and small, all wrapped together in one human Catholic brain. Fr. Tim could spout facts about some obscure event in the 11th century connected somehow to the Church like he lived through it, providing every little detail along the way. Really, to the point where a student could ask, “How does he keep all that information in one human brain?” It was important to be a good notetaker in his classes, Church History I, followed up the next semester by Church History II, just in case we didn’t get enough info in the first semester. Those 2 notebooks had more paper used than all my other classes combined in 5 years of studies. And the end of each class came with a sore hand. Lots of teaching; lots of facts; lots of knowledge; lots to study and ponder and try to squeeze some of that info into my own brain. Those Church History classes remind me of today’s Gospel from Luke, this small section from chapter 6 – only 12 verses – but it comes across like 50 teachings by Jesus in this short space. As a preacher, we look at these central teachings by our Lord and say, “Well, which one or two of them is best to preach on?” But at the heart of these many Christian teachings right from the Master Teacher himself are two words that stand out on these topics of enemies, money, and measures; love and forgiveness. It’s like Jesus takes those two words and builds a mountain of Christian discipline around them. By the time the Lord is finished building his virtuous hill, the heads of the Disciples are spinning, they have sore arms from all their note-taking, and most important, a new way of worshipping God. Jesus builds this Divine mountain on top of the word love. Love is the foundation of his mountain. It’s taught in a way the disciples never heard or read before in all the Hebrew Scriptures, and a teaching we still grapple with today after 2000 years of Christianity; love your enemies. Truth be told, if we can love an enemy, or enemies, we can love anyone. Enemies are the first test of Christian love. We know well who the first enemy is; the one with the pitchfork. But that’s not the enemy Jesus is commanding us to love. Under no circumstances is that to be the case. The Devil is the enemy of all mortal beings, who seeks our total destruction and misery for eternity. He’s the enemy of God, and our enemy forever. But especially now in this life where his evil influence can reach us. When our Lord builds a huge portion of his mountain on top of the word love in regard to enemies, he’s referring only to other persons. People we know, and people we don’t know. The longstanding goal of Christian living is to build a world – through God’s grace – where love is the virtue that first defines our lives, in like manner of Christ. I don’t need to go into the million possible scenarios we encounter along the way that will directly test “love your enemies.” We don’t live in a monastery up in Spencer making beer and eating chocolates. God bless those guys up there in the long robes, but they don’t deal with “love your enemies” to any large degree. We live in the world; they don’t. They just pray for everyone. And our Church and our world need what they do in a big way. Then our Lord continues to build his mountain of love in a way that addresses money, repayment amounts, and this fundamental Christian teaching, “Don’t lose your head over it.” Threats, civil lawsuits, and personal anxieties are tossed around because of money more than any other issue. On this part of Jesus’ mountain, of course, are the words generosity and kindness. But also the word “credit.” “What credit is that to you?” Jesus asks, because you received back what you doled out in one lump sum. To better understand this new teaching of Christ on repayment and forgiveness, which also cannot be found in the law of Moses, it’s best when tied into the teaching on redemption. On us being redeemed by God. And how Jesus has paid the debt, snatching us from eternal death and bringing us to eternal life with the Saints. We owed God bigtime for Adam & Eve’s disobedience. The Lord never looked for us to pay it back. Our repayment to God is found nowhere in the 10 Commandments or any New Testament reading. God paid back what was owed him from the Adam & Eve debacle by way of his Son’s death. Good Friday is the day we became square with our Creator, all thanks to his Son, and no thanks to us. And on top of this mountain is the word “forgive.” We’re all familiar with this word. We all struggle with it at times. We may even despise that word at times. But there it is, sitting on top of love, like whipped cream on a hot fudge sundae. “Forgive” can be addressed in a thousand different ways. But for the sake of our Lord’s teaching in Luke 6, we understand this Christian virtue in terms of measurement. All of us here will need forgiveness the day and hour we look into the face of God. If our present measurement is in the negative, that’s not a good place to be for judgment. If we give an inch of forgiveness, what happens if God’s face is a mile away? That makes him out of reach, which is better than being in the negative, but not good enough. What if we give a mile or two, or coast to coast where needed? Then that will come back to us when most needed. Jesus has built his mountain with many trees, shrubbery, bushes, rocks, and open trails in today’s Gospel. But his entire mountain is built on love and forgiveness, in every part of our lives. With God’s grace, we can move this mountain in our lives, without having to take a lot of notes.
As a priest, I’ve believed for a long time now that the strongest and closest presence of Jesus is found, after the Eucharist, among the suffering. Among the dying, those dealing with any number of illnesses; those fighting the awful battle of depression or any sort of addiction. Those of us who are healthy on the other side, awaiting our turn for something to come along and snatch away our good body, mind, or spirit, our reaction towards those who are fighting some difficult condition, such reactions will run the gamut. Reactions will go from true compassion and understanding to the point of getting deeply involved in the life of someone we know and love, and sometimes even a stranger. It could be someone dealing with addiction or any life crisis, knowing they may have little time left on this side of the grave. From that reaction to the other end that totally dismisses and avoids a person who is suffering, because we may not know how to be around someone who is ill, which is never a comfortable situation. It’s like, “What do I say? What do I do? I’m too uncomfortable in those situations, so its best to avoid them.” Or, telling an addict to just get over their problem, grow up, and move on. If it were only that easy! One thing’s for sure, though, and you can take this to your religious, spiritual, Christian bank; where suffering is found, whatever the reasons and whatever the cause, you can bet that Jesus the Cross-carrier is intimately present. I believe his deepest, most loving presence is found, not even in the beauty of nature where God can be experienced in moving ways, but rather in a place like a hospital, or nursing home, or anywhere where human brokenness and bondage is found. How can the poor, the hungry, the weeping, those who are hated and insulted time and time again, how can they be called blessed by Jesus? What’s so blessed about any of those real, human conditions? So, all those hundreds of people; men, women and children who appear most days at the St. Francis Xavier Soup Kitchen at St. John’s Church on Temple St. here in lovely Worcester, Jesus says all of them – every one of them – is blessed for being hungry. Have you seen that crowd? If looks mean anything, then they don’t look blessed. Yet, looks mean something to Jesus. Remember the Gospel where the Lord is openly critical of the religious leaders wearing their long robes, their beautiful tassels and phylacteries, the best shoes around, sit at the best places at the banquets where they can be seen by all, but they don’t lift a finger to ease someone’s burden? Looks do matter to the Lord. And the number one look for Jesus, if you will, is not found on the big screen, or the athletic field of any professional sports team, as impressive as Fenway Park is. Our Lord’s number one look is found in the person or the group, no matter what they wear, who dress themselves every day with the shirt of compassion, the pants of mercy, the tie of kindness, the dress of love. Better known as the look of love. These are the ones for whom these words in Jeremiah are written; ‘Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose hope is in the Lord.” In the 4 blessings of Luke’s Gospel in chapter 6, each blessing that Jesus speaks is not only for one type of person; the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the hated. Every blessing addresses two types of persons; the poor, and those who ease their burden. The hungry, and those who feed them, such as the many at the Soup Kitchen who volunteer, being just as blessed as those who walk through the doors in search of a meal, where each volunteer and each hungry person become one in Christ. It’s a form of social Christian marriage in that moment, where the feeder is feeding the feedee. And there’s the weeping, and those who remain strong enough to offer comfort and solace to a sorrowful soul, being another form of Christian marriage, if you will, where the sorrowing and the comforter become one in Christ. And the fourth blessing of Jesus, the hated, the despised, and the insulted, and the “lover.” The one who brings spiritual love to the many whose reputations are torn asunder, to the prisoner, to those who are insulted for being true to God’s holy teachings. In each blessing there are two people; the one who is tormented in some way, and the one who eases the torment instead of piling it on. In each of our Lord’s blessings we’re in need of finding ourselves in there somewhere. To not find ourselves in these blessings is a matter of being indifferent, or being fearful of becoming a partner in any social Christian marriage, to which Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.” Divine presence is most deeply found in the suffering, the suffering of body, mind, and spirit. In those real situations, we’re invited to turn them into blessings by becoming one with another person in the name of Christ Jesus our Lord.
Do you think Simon Peter, who would go on to become St. Peter, our first Pope, someone crucified upside down according to tradition, and someone the other Apostles would look to as a leader among equals, do you think he really meant what he said when he spoke these words to Jesus, “Depart from me, Lord?” We know he meant every word in the second half of that phrase, “For I am a sinful man.” He was certainly a sinful man for doubting the request of Jesus to toss the net onto the other side of the boat, because the side he chose was not producing any catch. Yet, there’s Simon Peter totally exasperated by the request from someone who knows a thousand times better than him. Exasperated at someone who can see all the fish in the sea, all the souls in the world in one vision, both our personal world and the entire world, guiding us where to locate and throw our nets, never for our demise, but always for our benefit. What does our Lord benefit from Peter catching all the smelly, delicious fish from the Lake of Gennesaret, also known as the Sea of Galilee? Do we really think that Christ receives any benefit from leading us to a place each day where we can make a big catch for him? Yes and no, but much more yes. At the end of the day, if Jesus wanted to take that net from Simon Peter’s boat and throw it to the other side without assistance from anyone, and haul in a huge catch, don’t you think the Holy Spirit and his Father in heaven would have helped, and finished the work on their own? Of course! God can do whatever he wants to do on his own, without any assistance from weak, feeble, doubting, crazy human beings. In order to catch us and save us for eternal life and all the joys of heaven, as well as all the Christian joys in this present life, God is quite capable of catching the fish on his own. He’s the best Net-Thrower there is. That’s the “no” answer to needing our assistance. But, as I suspect we know, the “Yes” answer is God’s desire for us, because the “Yes” answer to Jesus receiving some benefit to the daily catch has been happening since the time Simon Peter threw the net to the other side of the boat, even with doubt in his heart. So, I offer a couple thoughts that we love about Jesus in this scene on the lake. First, when our Savior receives many benefits from the catch of fish, so do we. Our lives are intimately tied in with the work of Christ spread throughout the world, where he receives benefits everyday through our actions of love. Every work of mercy, large or small, is not only a catch for our Savior, it’s a catch for us. So, may we stop this foolish thought where it exists that any act of love that a person performs originates from our own power and capacity. Like Colonel Potter used to say on MASH, “That’s a bunch of Horse-Hockey.” Peter tried catching fish all night long on his own and came up empty. That’s the result for anything in our culture without God at the helm. Without our Lord giving the command. But when we heed his command, even with a snicker towards him like the great Peter did, the catch is large. And second, in the words of Simon, “For I am a sinful man.” The most honest and loving words Peter ever spoke. While Simon Peter is denigrating himself for doubting, snickering, and not trusting, our Lord’s heart is smiling at those words of Peter. No wonder why he made St. Peter the leader among equals! Anyone who is capable of looking into the deepness of their soul and openly admit their sinful weakness, that’s the person you want running the operation. It’s this type of healthy spiritual honesty that will cause the Lord to not depart from Peter, and from us too. Our solemn belief is that God doesn’t give up on anyone. Look at St. Paul – the other great Apostle – in this second reading today as he writes about himself; “For I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God, I am what I am.” Paul created for himself a universe of separation between he and the Lord when persecution was his livelihood. But even a universe of separation was not wide enough where Jesus couldn’t close the gap. There’s no giving up on God’s part, and I’d like to think that all of us here can relate to that truth in a very personal way. He loves us too much, such as unconditionally. But unconditional love is not, “Do whatever you feel like doing.” God’s unconditional love commands us to conversion and repentance. Not to continue to live in sin, like Peter and Paul could have done. But instead to throw the net to the other side of the boat where we find holiness and Christian virtues. “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.” Peter certainly meant the second half of that spoken reaction, for he was a sinful man doubting the potential catch found in the words of Christ, “Throw the net over there, Peter!” But, “Depart from me?” Not in a million years. Maybe Peter meant these words too, in the moment. But it was a request that was – and still is – impossible for God whose symbol is a Cross. The love that flows from the Cross is far greater than any willingness for God to depart from us. Divine love is far superior to Divine separation, because of a Cross. And the same Simon Peter will come to know this firsthand, upside down, in his love for Christ.
Nobody knows us like God does. He knows the ins and outs of our lives, the ups and downs, the external and the internal. “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. Before you were born I dedicated you.” These words of God to the great Prophet Jeremiah speak not only to the intimate closeness of God’s presence to us, but they also speak to the first half of the Super Bowl game. How so, you ask? God is the only one who knows the outcome of the contest, unless you subscribe to the conspiracy theory that the game is already rigged and fixed. We’ll assume for the sake of this Super Bowl homily, that the game is not jeopardized in any way prior to the opening kickoff. Because prior to the opening kickoff of our birth, which for some of us was long ago, God had a plan. Some of that plan has been as smooth as a Tom Brady drive with less than two minutes to go. And, some of that plan was like having the football ripped out of our hands, causing a fumble in our lives. However, the first half of life is a time when only God knows the eventual outcome. Most football games are not won or lost in the first half; just ask Dismas, the guy who was crucified next to Jesus and gladly heard every one of those saving words spoken to him by Jesus in the most compassionate and loving Aramaic, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” The first half of our Super Bowl does not dictate the outcome. We always have time for a comeback of immense proportions if needed. We hope the Patriots don’t need to do so, again. God formed us and knew us, and loved us and saved us. We shouldn’t lose this insight in the first half of the Super Bowl of Life. But perseverance is the key that opens the door to a better second half. At halftime, we sing, using the refrain of today’s psalm, “I will sing of your salvation.” I doubt they will be singing of the Lord’s salvation at halftime at the Super Bowl in cold Atlanta, unless one of the teams is losing by three touchdowns, where they will need his saving intercession. The halftime show, we’re sure, will be entertaining. But I prefer the melody of the Lord’s salvation. The 3rd quarter of life’s Super Bowl is similar to this world famous 2nd reading from St. Paul on the greatest of all virtues, love. How so, you ask? After being formed in the womb with God knowing the span of our entire lives even before our conception, and addressing the uncertainties of the first half, wise people come to embrace, understand, and implement the power of love. Faith is the virtue that moves mountains. Love is the virtue that moves God. It’s in the 3rd quarter of many of our lives when we need to score more points on behalf of Jesus. The 3rd quarter is when – for many of us – the outcome of this game begins to set in. It’s when we start watching the clock of age, knowing that love is the best preparation for entering the final quarter of our lives. There’s nothing sadder than an angry elderly person. There’s nothing more beautiful than a loving elderly person. The 3rd quarter is the time to search harder for the many attributes of love that Paul writes. To be patient; to be kind; to not be jealous, pompous, inflated, or rude. The bad stuff, where it exists, is for the younger years, the less wise, those who think they’re going to live forever. Or those who have no fear of God. Love is the greatest of the trio of faith, hope, and love, because it never fails before God. and. Love is the most perfect imitation of our Savior. The 3rd quarter is the time to score many points through love’s power, because there is no better preparation for the 4th quarter of the Super Bowl of Life. Therefore, this Gospel that moves from the synagogue to Jesus being chased out of town to the edge of a hill, is a most fitting Gospel for our Super Bowl. How so, you ask? Because, probably like tonight’s game, it was a close call. You see, when we become more loving in our lives, there’s someone who doesn’t like it. The guy with the pitchfork! Luke left that part out of the Gospel story; they chased their native Son Jesus out of the town with pitchforks in their hands. The 4th quarter is a time for trusting even more in the Lord, for he is an Eternal Rock. Some rabid fans would consider this eternal rock to be Tom Brady, but it’s really God. At this point in the game, as we approach the end of life itself, the question still remains, “Who’s going to win this game? Who’s going to win our soul?” The 4th quarter is the most serious quarter of this game, by far. The first 3 quarters and halftime were a buildup to the 4th quarter. A very important buildup. A buildup that will form and shape the outcome of this game. For those who are winning by 5 touchdowns in the 4th quarter because you’re entire life you’ve been true to the Lord your God, you’re in a great place spiritually. Stay there and finish the game without changing any of your plays connected to your faith and good works. For those of us with more uncertainty of the outcome of our personal Super Bowl, there’s no need to allow ourselves to be pushed to the edge of a hill at this stage of the game. Jesus will walk through the midst of all that danger, and he will come to you. The 4th quarter is the time to remain intently focused on Christ, every day, because they can’t kill our Lord. And when they finally do put him to death, he returns to the field 3 days later. He formed you in the womb because he loves you, and has a plan for you, whatever our age. Sing along the way whenever you need a halftime. We all need a joyful halftime in our lives. Allow the greatest of all virtues, love, to score many points for you. And, in the final 15 minutes of life, or 15 years of life, trust in his presence walking with you, because he is alive forever. Not even Tom is a better quarterback than Jesus. But we’ll settle for Tom tonight as the Patriots win another Super Bowl.
The first theme that comes to light in today’s Gospel and the 1st reading from the Book of Nehemiah is that both settings for each story takes place in an assembly. There’s a crowd of people – men, women, and children old enough to understand in the Old Testament reading – listening to Ezra the priest proclaim the statutes of the law Moses carried down from God’s holy mountain. And, there’s a crowd in the synagogue listening and looking intently at Jesus the High priest as he proclaims and preaches from the Prophet Isaiah his divine purpose for being born. Both crowds like what they hear. So far. The assembly of Israelites gathered before Ezra as he reads from the book of the law from daybreak until midday. That’s a long time to listen to someone. They like what they hear being read, nod their assent in agreement, shout out some “Amen’s,” being roused up like a Super Bowl crowd; this assembly will eventually move forward to deny the Lord their God. They will take up ways of living that are foreign to the law of Moses, such as stealing from one of their own, cheating one of their own, or the children old enough to understand will not honor their father and mother because in the blink of an eye they are now teenagers, or, unlike Job who had every reason to, they will curse God, taking his name in vein. As an assembly. As a people. And then there’s the synagogue assembly, probably packed to overflowing because the native Son Jesus has returned after performing some miracles down the road. Nothing fills up an assembly quicker than the presence of a miracle worker. This same assembly so in love with one of their own will reverse the course of their collective mood of admiration in a short moment and push their native Son to the brow of a hill to hurl him over headlong, treating him as an enemy. As an assembly. As a people. As an entire town. This Gospel is why I pray the Bishop never assigns me to my home Parish of St. Bernard’s across the tracks from here, unless he wants me crucified, which I don’t believe he does. Assemblies are a funny animal. They can go either way – love you or hate you – or both in just a moment’s time. The Gospel and the 1st reading today address the main concern of St. Paul to the Christian community at Corinth; that of being one body in Christ. But not just a body of one in mind and heart, but one body that genuinely loves one another, cares for one another, grounded in the determination that the law of God, being the law of love is what keeps an assembly together in Christ. I’ll be very honest with you, which is nothing new. Nothing breaks the heart of my priesthood when members of the Church assembly tear each other apart, shoot each other down, judge one another in harsh terms, and turn their back on mercy and forgiveness. That’s the number one heartbreaker for my priesthood. It isn’t death, for God will care for his own who come before Him. It isn’t even sickness or disease, as awful as that is. We will all have our cross to carry, or more than one, assisting those who carry the heavier ones. It’s more the sniping between so-called brothers and sisters in the Lord, the dart-throwing, the glares, the looks that if only they could kill, the entire assembly would drop dead. I can’t wait to find out in heaven one day what I suspect is true from this Gospel; that when the synagogue assembly rejoiced in Jesus one moment, and then chased him to the edge of a hill the next moment, that after he walked safely through their gauntlet, that the assembly went back to Nazareth, that sleepy little village, and began sniping and biting each other. Because that’s how it works. In a religious assembly, in the office, in the classroom, wherever the crowds gather. Eventually, a crowd that loses the virtue of love will perform collective actions of hatred toward one another, and at God too. In the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, he tells Theophilus that he -Luke – writes down everything in orderly sequence so that Theophilus may realize the certainty of the teachings he has received. The 4 Gospel writers leave no doubt as to who Christ is, and to his preeminent teaching of love. Doubt is the tool of the Devil, as is confusion. And in case you haven’t noticed, our culture and our world is a bit confused in the present, especially in the area of morality and sexual behavior. The Devil has his fingerprints all over the name-calling, the baiting, the biting, and all over the strong anger controlling so many hearts in both large and smaller groups. How about ½ a million fans suing to replay a football game because one referee missed a call he should have made? That’s a lot of anger because of a football game. That’s not who we are. That’s not who Christ calls us to be. Jesus leads us into the synagogue, not because of his miraculous power that I pray all of you will be deeply touched by in whatever way is most important to you at this moment. Jesus leads us into this synagogue as many parts of one body; as hands, as feet, as ears, as teachers, as prophets, as apostles, as ones who perform mighty deeds, to go out into the world and transform it according to the law of love. Not according to our personal interpretation of what we think love is. That will lead to biting, fighting, and confusion, knowing who is at the center of it. But go out with God’s law of love that we learn and embrace in the holy teachings of our Catholic faith, received from the Apostles of the Lord. It begins here as one body in Christ. Kindness, compassion, being respectful to one another. Politics and the Devil – which can be one and the same- do not stamp a Christian assembly. Christ does, the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
The family dynamics in today’s Gospel are quite apparent. If there ever was a Gospel story on any given Sunday, or any weekday for that matter, that reveals the popular thought that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, this is number one on that list. The Wedding at Cana. The wine is running low, because the couple invited a bunch of guests who took their wine consumption very seriously. Free wine for everyone! “We can’t wait for that wedding in Cana, but we really can’t wait to indulge in the free wine,” is what the wedding attendants thought. “This is going to be a fun three days.” Except the pace of consuming the obviously delicious wine was that of a NASCAR Race. They hit the 200 MPH mark in their imbibing early in the wedding celebration, and ran out of gas – aka wine – earlier than expected. They needed more gas (wine) to finish this drinking race, but the contents were all consumed. (Are we sure the Wedding at Cana didn’t take place at a pub in Ireland?) Fortunately, the family invited to the wedding Venus, also known as Mary, the mother of Jesus. As mothers do, they become very concerned when some part of an important event is about to collapse, such as no wine for the world’s best wine-drinkers. A horror to someone like Mary, whose love and concern for all things good and proper is apparent. So, Venus turns to Mars, also known as Jesus, because she knows in her heart that he is, as she heard years ago, the cause for the rise and fall of many in Israel, which includes Cana. Mary does not want this Hebrew wedding to fall before it gets off the ground. So Venus says to Mars, “They have no wine.” Jesus gives the perfect Mars response; “Woman, how does that affect me? My hour has not yet come.” It seems like Jesus is saying – although this is really not what he’s saying, “How can those wedding people be so dumb and let the wine run out so soon?” What he’s really saying to his mother is, “The time for my great purpose – crucifixion – has not yet arrived. But since we have a lesser purpose before us here in Cana, let’s take care of it.” So, Mary, aka Venus, gives the attendants, and in fact the entire human race, her own commandment, “Do whatever he tells you.” Rightfully, we center our faith on the commandments of Christ. The right, healthy, and moral living; the Godly values; the personal respect and how to address any wine running low in our lives, brands of wine such as mercy; compassion; caring for the poor, the sick, and the elderly; loving neighbor and enemy, and so many other brands of wine commandments that Jesus teaches us. We rightfully center our lives on his shelf of various wines that bring peace, confidence in his way, and hope that no one else can offer for our good consuming. Even the brand of wine known as a Cross at times. However, this one commandment – this particular brand of wine – that Mary creates through the grace of her Son, is so necessary for our spiritual well-being. In her Venus role, her motherly, caring, wanting all things to be right and happy role, she speaks a “commandment of reminder” for the good of our faith journey; “Do whatever he tells you.” She’s not the voice of the Master Teacher. But she is the voice of one who knows him best, and better than we ever will. Venus has spoken, and Mars is going to do something about it. Jesus does not laugh off Mary’s intercession. He does not lack concern for the imbibing situation developing in his presence. He does not say, “Take care of it yourself.” He does not leave them in a position of asking, “What do we do next?” He takes control. But his control is not the typical macho man form of Mars; his “control,” if you will, is centered in love. This is where his form of being Mars is so radically different from guys like Herod and Pilate, like the Chief Priests and Pharisees, the crazy ones who use power to destroy others, or those who are so consumed with power, they will protect it to the point of crucifying an innocent man, when his hour does arrive. They make the lives of other people miserable. They set themselves up as false gods in the presence of the one true God. The brand of wine that Christ delivers is a brand that solves problems; a brand that walks with us with understanding and empathy; a brand that draws close to us in the way he drew close to the 2 disciples on the Road to Emmaus after his resurrection. His wine not only fixes the potential collapse of a marital relationship that he should be the center of, but his brand of wine addresses the greatest threat of all, original sin. His brand of wine is called justification, meaning we are now capable, through his hour and his power, to love him and neighbor. Herod and Pilate care nothing about this brand of wine. When they drink this sort of wine, they spit it back out. They hate the taste of it, as do all the Herod’s and Pilate’s in power today in our own country and throughout the world. We worship Christ because he gives us the good wine to drink. The best tasting wine for the human person, for the family, for our culture, for peace in our world, and for eternal life. Any wine you encounter that is outside of Christ, reject it! Listen to Venus; listen to Mary; “Do whatever he tells you.” He’s the only wine we need, aside of the Voice of Mary reminding us of who we listen to.