Sunday, August 31, 2014

Duped by the Lord

Jeremiah in the Sistine Chapel
"You duped me, Lord, and I let myself be duped."
It sounds like Jeremiah is not in a good spot right now. This is kind of a shocking line to open our readings with, so we should deal with this. This line opens us up to an aspect of following God that perhaps many of us feel, but maybe we're afraid to voice. It might also help us illuminate the cross that Jesus is talking about in the Gospel.

So who was Jeremiah? He was an Old Testament prophet. After Israel was established as a kingdom, they regularly stopped following the commandments of the God who gave them this kingdom in the first place, so God would send different prophets who would speak God's word to his people. If the people obeyed God, good things would happen, if they didn't, bad things would happen. This is Parenting 101. Doing good meant worshipping the Lord alone, and doing bad meant worshipping other gods. Well, Israel routinely did bad, so God would send his prophets to try to bring them back to the right path.

Did God really trick Jeremiah? Did he really dupe him? The rest of the reading helps to put this line into context. Jeremiah's basic complaint is that when he prophesies, when he speaks the word that God gives him, he's persecuted by the people. He says, "The word of the Lord has brought me derision and reproach all the day." So when he tries to not speak God's word, when he tries to keep it to himself, it builds up inside him and he just can't contain it. He said, "I say to myself, I will not mention him, I will speak in his name no more. But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones." Jeremiah is finding out the hard way that following the Lord is not all sunshine and rainbows. Sometimes it's hard, sometimes it feels impossible.

But on the other hand, sometimes you hear in the world about a gospel of prosperity, where basically if you are generous with your money and resources you will be rewarded, and having money is a sign of God's favor. Not a lot of people buy into this anymore, but sometimes we fall into similar lines of thinking. Sometimes we think that if you do good, if you're a good Christian, then good things are going to happen to you. After all, it's only fair, right? This is not the gospel we preach! Jeremiah was a good Jew, which was the equivalent for his time to being a good Christian, he followed the Lord better than anyone else in his time, and yet his life was filled with hardship.

Jeremiah reminds us that following the Lord is not all sunshine and rainbows. If you heard a message like that, if ever you thought Christianity was going to be easy and then found that it's not, then you may think you've been duped. But if we turn our attention from Jeremiah in the first reading to Jesus in the Gospel, then we find that he's talking about suffering as well! This Gospel follows right on the heels of last week's Gospel where Jesus declared Peter to be the Rock of his new Church. Now that the Rock is established, it's time for Jesus to turn his attention to his coming Passion. This is the first time Jesus predicts his coming suffering, and we can see that Peter couldn't handle it. Peter wanted sunshine and rainbows.

Jesus knows that there is a time for sunshine and rainbows, and there's a time for the cross. So when he says to us, "Take up your cross, and follow me," we have to take him at his word. Sometimes we think that Jesus wasn't being serious about the difficulties involved in following him, but he called Peter Satan just for suggesting that Jesus should avoid suffering. Jesus knows that salvation isn't going to be won without the cross. And whatever your cross is, it might be very public, maybe everyone knows about it, or it might be very personal, and maybe you and Jesus are the only ones that know about this cross. You know what your cross is, you don't need me to tell you about it.

But for those who follow Jesus closest, they tend to experience more of the weight of the cross than those who follow him at a distance. St. Teresa of Avila, a 16th century mystic who spent her life reforming her religious order, once said to God about her suffering, "If this is how you treat your friends, it's no wonder you have so few of them." The closer we follow the crucified Christ, the more our lives are bound to resemble his.

El Greco's Jesus Carrying the Cross
For ourselves, we shouldn't go out seeking more suffering or more crosses than what we already have. Each of our lives, lived well, contains in it is exactly the cross that Jesus wants us to bear. And the trick to living this life of crosses well is to stay close to Jesus, and let him show you how to carry the cross, and let him take some of the weight for you. Because if we endure the cross, then we will experience the Resurrection. In fact, it's the only way to experience the Resurrection. The last line of this passage tells us that "the Son of Man will come with his angels in his father's glory, and then he will repay all according to his conduct." If Jesus says that we are to be repaid according to our conduct, then what we have to do is clear. If we share in Jesus' cross in this life, then we will share in his Resurrection in the next.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

You are the Christ, and I am not

"I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven"
We actually heard this gospel not too long ago. At the end of June this gospel came up when we celebrated the feasts of Saints Peter and Paul. That was my first full weekend of priestly work, when I got to celebrate Mass at the Denver parishes where I had worked during my time as a seminarian. It was fun to have the same gospel come up again and to get to reflect on it from a different angle.

In the gospels last week and this week, the location of the stories were crucial for setting the stage. Last week Jesus travelled into the region of Tyre and Sidon, non Jewish areas, where he encountered the Canaanite woman. That location allowed Jesus to have a very frank discussion with her. Today, we still find Jesus traveling in non-Jewish areas. Today, we saw Jesus enter the region of Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi was a Roman town, not a Jewish one, so here Jesus is able to have a conversation that he couldn't have when he was down in Galilee or Jerusalem where all the Jewish crowds might listen in.

Because Jesus needs to talk about something big. This question that he poses to the disciples is not just casual conversation. Such a question could start a riot down in Jerusalem, so he traveled far out of his way to discuss it. "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?", and then  "But who do you say that I am?" These questions obviously go to the heart of Jesus' identity, but almost as importantly, they go to the heart of the apostles' identity, and the heart of our identity as well. Because to answer this question about who Jesus is might make demands on who I am and what I am doing with my life. If Jesus is God, then that means I'm not. If Jesus is God, then he is in charge of everything.

So the people, those ambiguous people out there, have made up their minds. Jesus is probably a prophet of this or that sort. In the Old Testament, most of the prophets were good, but there were a few bad eggs in there. So if Jesus is a prophet, he might be worth listening to, but he might turn out to be one of the bad eggs. He could be right just as much as he could be wrong, so I'll listen to his message, but I'll reserve judgment for myself.

But Peter gets it right: "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God." In acknowledging this, this fact that was not revealed to him by flesh and blood, but only by the heavenly Father, it seems that Peter is setting the course for the rest of his life. Because if I say Jesus is a prophet, that means I still get to live my own life in my own way, but to say that he's the Son of God places obligations on me. It means that everything in my life has to be measured against him. It means that the things he says are not mere suggestions but actual commandments. It means I might have to reorient my whole life to account for this new reality, that God is right in front of me, and I am not alone.

At this point, Peter had no idea what was coming for him in his life. He only knew that Jesus was in fact the Son of the Living God. He maybe didn't know it before, but he knows it now. And Jesus takes this acknowledgement and indeed uses it to transform Peter's life. Look at what he does to Peter: he makes him the rock of the new Church, the sure foundation of this edifice of people that will never fall, a Church that hell itself cannot topple, try as they might, and he puts into his hands the power to forgive sins, the very power of God. Yes, Peter certainly had his life course altered when he acknowledged Jesus to be God.

Similarly for us, when we consciously acknowledge Jesus as God and everything that implies, either at our baptism or later in life, nothing can be the same. If he is God, then everything in my life has to be oriented towards him. This may call us in a couple of different ways, depending on where we're at in our own lives. This acknowledgement that Jesus is God requires that every decision in my life be oriented towards him. This is a daily work. I have no illusions that acknowledging Jesus as God once, which sounds a bit like accepting him as my personal lord and savior, is a one-and-done sort of thing. Each and every day, I need to acknowledge Jesus' divine sovereignty over my life, and every day, I need to work to make every decision I make be one that brings me closer to him.

Peter's keys
But there's one other element of Jesus' sovereignty that we need to consider. If Jesus is God, if he's Lord of all, if he gets everything that I am, then he even gets my sin. It was once pointed out to me that the only thing I really have to offer God, that isn't from him in the first place, is my sin. Everything good thing I have, every good deed I might do, came from him in the first place. The only thing that really has its origin in me is my own sin. So I need to offer to God even my own sins, and let him heal them. I can't hold back my heart and my life from God until it's a sinless heart and a sinless life, and then offer that to God. I can't wait for the day that I stop sinning before I present my good deeds to God. It's different than when you invite guests over to your house and you apologize for the mess in your house. When you invite God into your heart, you don't apologize for the mess, you ask him to help you clean it. And he is happy to do so. God wants everything we have, including our sins.

And he wants our sins because here in this passage he has given us the remedy for it. Here in this passage we get to the heart of what God wants to do about sin. He gives Peter the keys to heaven and earth, to bind and loose sin. It's like coming into dirty heart armed to the teeth with mops, vacuums, dusting cloths, cleaners, and everything else you can think of. He wants Peter and the other apostles to be his representatives and to go around loosing people from their sins.

And he didn't just want that to happen in first century Palestine. but he wanted it to continue down to the present time. So he made sure that the rock that is Peter would continue in the Pope, and the keys that he had would continue to be used in the sacrament of Confession. So whenever the world feels like too much, acknowledge who is God. It's Jesus, and not you, so you don't have to solve everything or have all the answers. Run to the rock that Jesus established, and run to the keys that loose us from our sins.

Friday, August 22, 2014

7 Quick Takes, vol II

Archbishop Coakley of OKC
I thought the Archbishop of Oklahoma City took a clever course of action to stop the planned satanic black mass scheduled for September 21st in Oklahoma City. Read the Archdiocese's statement here. Not surprising, this deeply offensive "mass" received little attention from the main stream media. But to insure that the Eucharist was not desecrated, Archbishop Coakley filed a legal claim that as Archbishop of the local area, he was responsible for all Consecrated Hosts in that area, and therefore the Host that the satanic group possessed was in fact stolen property. It has been returned. A terrible sacrilege has been averted.
It turns out I'm going to be a school teacher this year :) I have been asked to teach 6th through 8th grade religion at Holy Name Catholic School. I'm looking forward to teaching them, but I'm trying to readjust what I know of education from "seminary master's degree program" to "middle school religion." Is it possible to teach with more than just a lecture format? Is it possible to teach such that the students understand more than half of what you're saying? These are questions to which seminary says "no" but I think middle school educators say "yes."
I managed to install curtains in my room yesterday. I like it dark when I sleep, and the cheap blinds weren't cutting it. So, through more trips to Home Depot than I care to recount in which I agonized over the selection of curtains (because I want things to match but I'm a guy so I'm not good at these things) I finally settled on curtains and successfully hung them yesterday. In one of my more clever moves of recent memory (if I may say so myself), this morning I used race medals as curtain tiebacks. I may let this be a permanent solution.
Season 8 of Doctor Who premieres on Saturday. To say I'm excited would be a tragic understatement. The excitement would overwhelm the other six quick takes if I let it, so I'll stop here.
I finally started running again this week. Several weeks ago I bruised my foot playing a game of tag with the Totus Tuus kids. I let it rest and let it rest and let it rest. And I went a bit stir crazy. This week I started easing my way back into running. It feels wonderful to be running again! And I have to start somewhere if I want to run the Bighorn Trails 50 Miler next summer. There! I put it out there! I want to run a 50 miler!
As a Catholic and a preacher, I am also excited for this Sunday's gospel. I think Matthew's gospel is my favorite and this is one of the most important passages in the whole gospel. Thus: excitement. Check back for the weekend's homily sometime on Sunday.
The Doctor Who episode for this Saturday is called Deep Breathe.  Analogously, I feel like the whole area is taking a deep breathe before the school year begins on Monday. Except for one home school family I know who begins school in early August, and as a tradeoff the summer break begins in early May. So if you begin school soon, good luck and God bless!

For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Failures and Persistence

In this gospel, in this exchange between Jesus and the Canaanite woman, we have insights into what Israel was supposed to be, and what Israel never lived up to. Israel was supposed to be a light to the nations, Israel was supposed to be like a big brother to the other nations, helping them along God's path. All of this is alluded to in his exchange between the Canaanite woman and Jesus. So what's going on in this very exchange? Is Jesus talking down to her. Is he calling her a dog?

It'd be an insult to compare her to our old dog Millie

What he is really saying is, "I was sent by the Father to his children Israel, but they rejected me. I will constitute a new Israel, one that listens to the Father." That's what's going on here. When Jesus says that it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs, he is saying that the blessings he brings are primarily for the Israelites right now. God's plan, and the way history played out in the early Church, was for salvation, the good news of Jesus Christ, to be offered to everyone through the Jewish nation.

So we need to look briefly at this woman and her emotions,what she was dealing with. But first we need to understand what she represents in this story. Who was she? The passage tells us she was a Canaanite woman. So she was in this land, but she wasn't a Jew. She was a reminder of Israel's past failures. She was a member of the people the Jews were supposed to defeat in order to claim their Promised Land so long ago. But if we read the Old Testament, we find that the only way Israel was going to have victory in battle and prosperity in their endeavors is if they were obedient to God. God entered into covenant with Israel, where he promised to bless them if only they loved him and kept his commandments.

If we look at the Ten Commandments, the Israelites kept getting hung up on the first one, "Have no other gods before me." They never dealt seriously with commandments two through ten, because commandment number one was tough enough. When Israel went to conquer the Promised Land and drive out the Canaanites and other people that were there, instead of driving them out they started adopting their religious practices, which is the exact opposite of "Have no other gods before me." And because they disobeyed the one true God and started adopting the religions of other people, they were never able to fully drive the foreign nations from the land that God had promised them. Even into the time of Jesus, the Canaanites continued to live in the land the land alongside the Israelites. So the presence of this woman is a reminder of Israel's past failures. I can only imagine that's part of why the disciples asked Jesus to send her away.

But Jesus didn't so much tell her "No" as he told her "Not yet." Like I said earlier, God wants to bless all the world, but he wanted to do it through Israel. So he told her "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." He meant that Israel was supposed to be like a big brother and spread God's blessings to the world. This is how God wants to use the Church today, this New Israel. God wants to bless and sanctify the whole world through us, through you and through me. So we have to step up to the plate and be the kind of people through whom God can bless the world. That means we have to be receptive to how he wants to work in our lives, and we have to have the courage to take his love out into the world

Jesus and the Canaanite woman

Now we need to look at this woman's emotions. When Jesus says to this woman "Not yet" and she persists anyway, she becomes for us a model of faith and prayer. This woman was supposed to be a part of the people who had harassed the Israelites for generations, she was supposed to be outside of God's promise, and yet she, better than almost anyone else in Israel, recognized Jesus' power and authority over the demons that plagued her daughter. She knew that only Jesus could heal her daughter, and she didn't have time to wait. So when he said "Not yet" she persisted anyway, determined to get the only answer she wanted from the only person who could give it.

In just the same way, we too should be persistent in our prayer. But first we should examine our prayer and make sure we are asking for the right things. If we're asking God for the death of our enemies, he's probably not going to say "Let it be done for you as you wish." Even if you're only asking for a Red Ryder BB gun, he may still say no because he knows that you'll just shoot your eye out. But let's deal with the big things. When I ask God to heal someone I love, someone dying from a terminal illness, just like this woman was asking, and it doesn't happen, what do I do with that? We have to remember that Jesus didn't come to take away all the suffering of the world, but he came to suffer it with us. That's why he went to the cross. No other religion in the world believes in a God who suffers. And few other denominations of Christianity embrace this suffering God so much as to put an image of it up in every one of their churches. Jesus never promised to make all the suffering or evil go away, that's a lie the atheists try to tell us about ourselves to discredit our religion. But Jesus went to the cross to suffer this world with us.

But still, the suffering of our loved ones, the diseases and deaths that just seem to be a part of the human condition, they're intolerable if we forget the glory that awaits each of us in heaven. I realize that when you watch your parent, or your spouse, or your child sick in a hospital bed, you aren't thinking about anything else. The sun isn't shining, the breeze isn't blowing. This reality consumes your whole focus. And yet, even though you can't see it, heaven is right there. And it's ok that you can't see it, heaven is there anyway, and Jesus is right there with you, hurting just as much as you are. So be persistent in your prayer, but know that Jesus is suffering the crosses of this life with you.

Friday, August 15, 2014

7 Quick Takes Friday

I've never done this before, I've mostly been a lurker around this blog thing. But it seems fun and relatively simple, so I'm trying to expand my homily-blog into more of an all purpose blog. This 7QT will be some general info stuff then. I've been a priest not quite two months at this point. I'm assigned to Holy Name Catholic Church in Sheridan, Wyoming, and am absolutely in love with being a priest.
Sheridan is far from anywhere, and I suspect many of the residents like it that way. The airport has a couple of (expensive) flights each day to Denver, although I understand they are subject to frequent cancellations due to lack of passengers or lack of pilot. When Sheridan folks want a big city, they drive two hours to Billings, Montana.
The whole parish is taking a deep breath before the school year begins. Once school begins and all the parish programs start up again, I won't spend a week away from the parish like I just did. This fall, it appears I will be a school teacher and a YDisciple leader in addition to being an associate pastor.
Speaking of a week away, I spent a week on the road visiting my spiritual director in Denver (the location of my recently-finished seminary education) and being a substitute priest in beautiful Jackson Hole, Wyoming. At my meeting with my spiritual director I had the opportunity to go to Confession, and I found that going to Confession after having been a priest and hearing Confessions was a very peaceful experience, because I knew from experience that the priest really doesn't care what my sins are and I can't shock him.
Me skirting the side of Big Kahuna
While in Jackson I had the opportunity to reconnect with old friends and take an inflatable kayak (usually called a ducky) down the white water of the Snake River. I love white water kayaking! This time I survived the river's biggest wave, Big Kahuna, that sent me into the river four years ago. Full disclosure: I survived it this time by avoiding it (discretion being the greater part of valor), although in retrospect I wish I hadn't.
Also while in Jackson, I was blessed to celebrate the Sunday Mass at their mission of Holy Family, located in the Star Valley of Wyoming. When I was assigned to Jackson and its missions about four summers ago for a summer assignment, the people of the Star Valley were very kind to me so I was eager to return and offer Mass with and for them. About two years ago, Holy Family dedicated their new Church building, after having worshiped in a building that looked like little more than a pole barn from the outside for the first several decades of their existence. The new church is absolutely beautiful, simple and beautiful. Builders of Catholic Churches take note: this is how it's done on a budget!
The interior of Holy Name in Thayne, WY
Traveling for a week is fun, and it's a necessary part of a Wyoming priest's life, but it's nice being home in Sheridan.

For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary!

The Assumption

St. Mary's Cathedral in Cheyenne, WY
"...After we have poured forth prayers of supplication again and again to God, and have invoked the light of the Spirit of Truth, for the glory of Almighty God who has lavished his special affection upon the Virgin Mary, for the honor of her Son, the immortal King of the Ages and the Victor over sin and death, for the increase of the glory of that same august Mother, and for the joy and exultation of the entire Church; by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory" (Munificentissimus Deus 44).

With this solemn proclamation from the apostolic constitution Munificentissimus Deus on November 1st, 1950 Pope Pius XII declared the fact of Mary's Assumption into heaven to be a part of our faith. So we need to understand what this feast is all about, largely for our own good and partially so we can explain to our Protestant friends just why we are coming to church on August 15th. So I want to look briefly at the term "Assumption," the history of if the feast, and what it means for us today.

The term "Assumption" refers to Mary being taken body and soul into heaven at end of her life. We say Jesus "ascended" into heaven, which indicates that he went to heaven by his own divine power, whereas we say Mary was "assumed" into heaven, meaning she was taken into heaven by the power of God. One important note: Pope Pius XII said that "having completed her earthly life," Mary was assumed into heaven. We don't know if Mary was assumed before or after the moment of her death, so the Pope intentionally left it unclear. In the East they call this feast the Dormition of Mary, which refers to her "falling asleep."

His Holiness, Pope Pius XII
Although the dogma was only declared into 1950, practically just yesterday in Church time, the way the Pope phrased this proclamation was meant to indicate that it was something that the Church already implicitly believed from the beginning, and now he was inviting everyone to believe in it explicitly. So how do we determine what the Church believed from the beginning? Well, we can read dusty manuscripts from long ago of theologians arguing back and forth about Mary, or we can look at the liturgy. There is an old principal that says that what we pray as a Church is what we believe. Lex orandi, lex credendi. The law of prayer is the law of belief. The liturgy isn't something we created out of nowhere to try to find the right combination of excitement and boredom. The liturgy is where we discover our deepest beliefs. So if we do in fact look into those dusty manuscripts from the past, we find that even though Pius XII only declared this belief in the Assumption to be dogma in 1950, there have been liturgical celebrations of it dating back to the mid 500s.

But even if the history doesn't interest you, it's still important to consider what Mary and her Assumption mean to us today. The Assumption is the result of a sinless life lived in perfect union with God. She was the ark that carried God himself, she was the blessed one who heard the word of God and observed it. By her sinless life and her perfect obedience, she enjoys already that perfect union of body and soul that we will all enjoy after our resurrection. This is important: what Mary has now, we will all have also when Christ destroys death once and for all. It's only logical that Mary, the one who never sinned, the one who didn't suffer the corrupting effects of original sin, wouldn't have to wait for the resurrection at the end of time for her body and soul to be united. We honor her for this because it reminds us of what we hope to enjoy one day.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Jesus and the Jewish Perspective

As I was praying with these readings and reading about them, I realized that these readings are steeped in Jewishness. I mean, the whole Bible was written by people who were either Jewish or recent converts from Judaism, so you kind of expect that, but with these readings in particular, they're full of images and allusions that a Jew would immediately pick up on, but we might miss. So our understanding of them will be helped if we look at them from a Jewish perspective for just a bit. So for just a few minutes, let's look at these reading from the perspective of a Jewish person living just after the time of Jesus, and from that perspective we will hopefully learn a bit about what it means to be a Christian.

And we're pretending to be a Jew in just after Jesus' time because that's the sort of person who is being addressed in Matthew's gospel and being talked about in Paul's letter to the Romans. If you're a Jew living in the first century, you know yourself to be the inheritor of a rich tradition. You are part of God's chosen people. People like Elijah in the first reading figure richly in this tradition because God spoke personally to him. God revealed his presence to him. You are proud to claim Elijah as one of your guys the same way a 21st century American is proud to claim people like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln as part of their heritage. But since you're a first century new right now, you have no idea who I'm talking about.

St. Paul
St. Paul, even though he became a Christian, recognized that the first promise of God was made to the Jewish people, and he summarizes it perfectly in this letter to the Romans: "theirs the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises." And yet, Paul wants them to follow Christ so badly that he says he would even cut himself off from Christ if this were possible if it would mean that his Jewish brothers would follow Christ.

Obviously, Paul loves Christ and so can't be cut off from him, but the willingness speaks to how badly he wants his Jewish brothers to follow Christ. Closer to our own time, St. Therese of Lisieux, the little flower, expressed her own willingness to go to hell if it could mean that even one soul there would love God. Obviously, the desire to be cut off from Christ out of love for Christ is in fact non-sensical, but the point still stands. St. Paul and St. Therese would do anything out of love for Christ.

St. Therese
So Paul is highlighting the rich inheritance of the Jewish people, and then he says that the final fruit of this inheritance is Jesus himself. The reading continued "...theirs the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, is the Christ." Paul's point is that everything in Judaism leads to and culminates in Jesus Christ.

Matthew, too, is going to great lengths also to explain this in his Gospel. Matthew's is writing to a Christian audience who still had a lot of Jewish ideas mixed into their thinking, so Matthew uses Jewish imagery to teach that Jesus is God. He does that by showing that Jesus says and does things that only God does. The first and most obvious thing that Jesus is doing here that only God does is walk on the water. Throughout the Old Testament, images of God controlling the water are quite common. The Book of Job describes God as the one "who alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea" (Job 9:8). Psalm 69 is a cry to God to save the person from drowning: "Save me, God, for the waters have reached my neck." Psalm 144, 18, 107 recount being saved from the waters: "Draw me out from the might waters" (Ps 144:7), "He reached down and drew me from the deep waters" (Ps 18:17), "He hushed the storm to a murmur, the waves of the sea were stilled" (Ps 107:29). So in Jewish tradition, God is the one who rescues miraculously from the dangerous waters of life, and yet Matthew is trying to show that Jesus does this, because Jesus is God. Jesus calms the storms, and Jesus rescues us from the dangers of life.
Walking on water by Veneziano
And if that wasn't enough, Matthew goes further in demonstrating that Jesus is God, almost to the point of being scandalous. When the disciples were confused and scared and said "It's a ghost" and Jesus said "Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid," the phrase that we have translated as "It is I" in Greek is "Ego Eimi." Now in Greek, the phrase "Ego Eimi" is the great name by which God identifies himself from the burning bush. When Moses asks who it is and God says "I Am Who Am" or just "I Am," that name is translated in Greek as "Ego Eimi." So when Jesus says "Do not be afraid, it is I" what he is really saying is "Take courage, I Am." He is claiming for himself the name reserved to God. If you're a first-century Jew reading this, then you're starting to pick up on the fact that Jesus is not a normal rabbi, that, if the stories are true, maybe Jesus is a little bit more.

And finally the disciples get it. After seeing Jesus calm the storm and rescue Peter from the water, things that in their Jewish background only God does, then they too can proclaim that this is the Son of God. This is the first time that men have made this proclamation in Matthew's gospel, so it carries some weight.

So what's our Christian takeaway from looking at these readings through a Jewish lens? Its in the last line of the Gospel. It's important for us to be reminded that God sending his Son as the means of our salvation was something totally unexpected. I mean, ever since the Fall of Adam and Eve we had expected a messiah of some sort, someone to rescue us from this mess we got ourselves into, but nowhere could we have predicted the overflowing abundance of God's love. We never could have predicted that he wouldn't just sent a rescuer, but that he would his only Son, who was himself truly God.

This reality and this message that the apostles preached, that God became man and even died for love of us, broke upon the Jewish world like a tidal wave. It shocked, it scandalized, it amazed, and it gave people hope. If we're paying attention to what we believe, it should still shock and amaze us even today. But even more than that, it should give us hope. That God became man, that he can calm the storm and rescue Peter from the waves, that he experienced real human suffering and death, somehow in that is the answer to everything wrong with the world. Somehow in that is the only solution to all the pain we experience on a daily basis.

But for Jesus to be that answer, we have to keep our eyes on him. For us to walk over the waves of this world like Jesus invited Peter to do, we have to keep our eyes on Jesus. The Greek text of the gospel today tells us that Peter didn't just notice the wind and waves out of the corner of his eye, but he turned his attention away from Jesus and focused on them. When he turned away from Jesus to focus on the wind and the waves of this world, the wind and the waves nearly overtook him.

In just the same way, when we focus on the problems of this world without Jesus, then those problems will overtake us. But if we keep our eyes on Jesus, and see those problems through the God who loved us enough to suffer for us, then we will walk over all the troubles of this world, with Jesus holding our hand the whole way.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Eucharist, Confession, and a Big Picnic

The basic story of the Old Testament is the story of God's chosen people Israel not living up to their role as God's chosen people. It's the story of God remaining faithful to his people Israel when Israel was constantly unfaithful to him. So then the New Testament is the story of God sending his Son, the only one who was ever faithful to him, and this Son establishing around himself a new people, a new Israel, who would remain faithful to the Father. This new Israel would remain faithful not by their own efforts, after all their own weak efforts were the source of all their past failures, but because this Son would remain in their midst and they would remain in the Son.

Isaiah in the Sistine Chapel
The first reading is a beautiful plea from God through his prophet Isaiah. It's beautiful, but it's a little bit sad. God is pleading with his people to just depend on him, to rely on him for everything, because they constantly try to supply their own needs. One way to understand the basic sin of Israel is that they constantly tried to attend to their own needs instead of relying on God.

All of that is background for understanding today's gospel. To really go in depth for this reading from Matthew's gospel, we need to understand what's been happening in the story so far. In the last few chapters, Jesus' authority has been shown by means of a series of miracles, and then he talked about how that authority was going to belong to the disciples. Then we saw the Old Israel, the unfaithful Israel of the leaders and authorities, reject Jesus, and Jesus issued a judgment on the Old Israel by means of parables, where he told a hard-to-understand parable and only gave the explanation to his disciples.

Everything that has happened so far has been to prepare for the New Israel, the kingdom of heaven, the Church, that Jesus will establish. And today's gospel is another step in establishing the kingdom. Over the next several weeks, we are going to see Jesus firmly establish this New Israel on Peter and the apostles. Today we see an early step in the establishment of this New Israel. The New Israel, the new people of God, will consists of those who hear Jesus and allow themselves to be nourished by them. That's what the New Israel will look like. It will be those who let themselves be nourished by Jesus.

But there are details here we have to notice, because Matthew isn't just telling us the story of a picnic. Matthew wants us to understand this as an allusion to the Eucharist, and Matthew also wants us to understand the role the apostles have in this New Israel that relies on Jesus. So let's look at those two things.
Feeding of the 5000 by Tintoretto. Clothing may not be entirely accurate :)
First, the Eucharist. Matthew uses four deliberate verbs here that he will use again at the Last Supper. Mark does the same thing in his gospel, and so does Luke. So what are the words? Today's gospel read "Taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds." The four verbs used to describe Jesus' actions are" took," "blessed," "broke," and "gave." Jesus took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it. Matthew will use the exact same verbs at the Last Supper to describe Jesus' actions with the bread at that table. By this, Matthew wants us to see in this miraculous feeding a foretaste of the Eucharist.

And each time the mass is offered, the priest uses the same words to recount the Institution of the Eucharist. The priest says "He took bread, and giving you thanks, he said the blessing, broke the bread and gave it to his disciples." We still recognize that the Eucharist nourishes us just like the bread and fish nourished that crowd of 5,000 when they received it.

As a side note, this should help us to understand how we are to receive Communion. When somebody gives you a gift, you don't take the gift, you receive the gift. So when we receive communion, we should receive it, not take it. I am a fan of receiving Communion on the tongue, I think it's a good gesture of humility to not even touch the Body of Jesus with our hands. But you may receive Communion in your hands, and at that point you should place one hand over the other and let the priest or extraordinary minister place the host in the palm of your hand. Don't take it from the priest, that tends to make him very uncomfortable, but receive it from him. Obviously this isn't absolutely required, so if you have one hand on a cane or your hands don't quite work normally, don't worry about it at all. Receive Communion however you can. But in general, we receive on the tongue or with one hand placed in another.

Now, the second thing we need to discuss is the role of the apostles in this New Israel. If we look again at this gospel passage we see that Jesus didn't feed the 5,000 directly. He gave the bread to the apostles, and they gave it to the crowds. Now, if Jesus wanted to feed the people directly he certainly could have. He was in the midst of feeding over 5,000 people with just five loaves and two fishes. Physical limitations were not an issue here. So Jesus wanted to use intermediaries to care for the people.

Throughout the gospels, we see that in Jesus' ministry some people were closer to him than others. Jesus liked hierarchy. Closest to him were the apostles Peter, James, and John. They were the only ones who got to see the Transfiguration and the Agony in the Garden. Then there were the 12 apostles, and then the 70 disciples with a lesser share in the work, and then the crowds. Jesus wants a personal relationship with you, after all he rebuked the disciples when they tried to keep little kids away, but in this New Israel he also wants you to know him through his apostles and disciples.

So hopefully we meet Jesus through the bishops, the heirs of the apostles, and the priests they have ordained. At the very least, this is a call to me to be to try to be such a person in whom you can see Jesus. And for you, the call is to recognize that Jesus wants you to find him through the imperfect people he has chosen as priests. Once we recognize this, then when it comes to confession we can no longer say "I confess my sins to Jesus in my heart" (I hear that sometimes) because Jesus says "No, that's now how I set the system up, I set it up so you can tell your sins to me through my priests." And Jesus doesn't arrange a second-rate system. He set it up this way because he know's it's the best for us.

So our role as members of this New Israel is to stay close to our Lord who founded it. We do this by recognizing him in the breaking of the bread, and by recognizing him in the ministers he left behind to continue his work. And by doing this, by faithfully being this New Israel, we will come to the heavenly Jerusalem where there will be no more hunger and no more sin.