Friday, August 28, 2015

Obedience from the heart: The twenty second sunday in Ordinary Time

In this twenty second Sunday in ordinary time the Church offers us a series of readings that center on the nature of true obedience. One of the most important questions that one can ask is: what does it mean to obey God? In turning to this week’s readings, we find valuable guidance regarding the obedience that God requires, beginning with our first reading from Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8.
FIRST READING: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8.
Moses said to the people:
“Now, Israel, hear the statutes and decrees
which I am teaching you to observe,
that you may live, and may enter in and take possession of the land
which the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you.
In your observance of the commandments of the LORD, your God,
which I enjoin upon you,
you shall not add to what I command you nor subtract from it.
Observe them carefully,
for thus will you give evidence
of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations,
who will hear of all these statutes and say,
‘This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people.’
For what great nation is there
that has gods so close to it as the LORD, our God, is to us
whenever we call upon him?
Or what great nation has statutes and decrees
that are as just as this whole law
which I am setting before you today?"
In giving Israel his law, God offers his own people the roadmap for obedience and, in particular, the obedience that leads to life (Deut 4:2, Lev 18:5). Moreover, in obeying God, Israel’s virtue serves to demonstrate to the entire world that Israel’s God is the true God, for no other nation has gods so close to it as the LORD.

However, mere external obedience to the law is not sufficient, for Moses states that Israel is to love God with all their heart (Deut 6:4-8) and Moses vividly elaborates on this mandate by calling on Israel to circumcise their hearts in order to love and obey God (Deut 10:10-16). To do so, is life; failure to do so leads to exile.

In Deut 30:1-6, it is clear that the curse of exile is inevitable, and it seems right to infer that this is due to Israel’s inability to circumcise their collective hearts. Instead, upon return from exile it is God who will circumcise Israel’s heart so that they would be enabled to obey him.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

"The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and Life": Readings for the Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time

This Sunday we complete the trek through the lectionary's reading of John 6. We begin this Sunday by reading from yet another story linked to the Exodus traditions that form of the backdrop of imagery of the Bread of Life discourse. Specifically, the First Reading is drawn from the story of Joshua.

Notably, Jesus' name is essentially, "Joshua". Thus, in the First Reading we find what the tradition of the Church would see as a "type" of Jesus, a figure in the Old Testament who foreshadows the person of Christ in some significant way. (The language of "type" draws upon imagery used by Paul in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15).

Let us take a moment to carefully examine these readings.

FIRST READING: Joshua 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b
Joshua gathered together all the tribes of Israel at Shechem,summoning their elders, their leaders,their judges, and their officers. When they stood in ranks before God,Joshua addressed all the people:“If it does not please you to serve the LORD,decide today whom you will serve,the gods your fathers served beyond the Riveror the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are now dwelling. As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”

But the people answered,“Far be it from us to forsake the LORDfor the service of other gods. For it was the LORD, our God,who brought us and our fathers up out of the land of Egypt,out of a state of slavery. He performed those great miracles before our very eyesand protected us along our entire journeyand among the peoples through whom we passed. Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God.”
Anyone familiar with the wider context of the story in the First Reading can't help but read it with a knowing smile. Here Joshua insists that the Israelites must decide whom they will serve: the Lord God or the pagans. They can't have it both ways.

The Israelites insist that they want to follow the Lord: "Far be it from us to forsake the Lord. . ."


Of course, anyone familiar with the narrative knows the Israelites "doth protest too much." They have already forsaken the Lord multiple times.

What makes their rejection of God especially heinous is that they have turned to other gods even after witnessing the mighty acts of God: "He performed those great miracles before our very eyes. . ." 

Before moving on, let me highlight something that bears emphasizing. As Chris Tilling has recently shown in his excellent book, Paul's Divine Christology (Eerdmans, 2015), by Jesus' day it was understood that monotheism for Israel was not merely about conceptualizing God in the proper way (i.e., he is the only God). Monotheism entailed a relational dimension--one only worships this God, namely, the God of Israel.

Friday, August 14, 2015

The Feast of Wisdom: The 20th Week of OT

As I approach this weekend's Readings, I remember “Babette’s Feast,” a beautiful movie about a french cook in Denmark who wins the lottery and spends her entire earnings to throw a lavish feast for the two old spinsters she works for and all their friends.  It's well worth watching if you haven't seen it already!  Babette is a French Catholic, her employers are some sort of "free church" Danish Protestants. 

The feast that Babette throws for twelve guests at the end of the movie is an obvious and intentional Eucharistic allegory.  Like the Eucharist itself, the feast is not fully appreciated, and only one guest realizes how good it really is.   The readings for this Sunday (20th of Ordinary Time), which are all closely united by the themes that also run through that movie: eating, wisdom, and thankfulness.

1.  Our first reading is taken from Proverbs 9:1-6:

Thursday, August 06, 2015

"I am the Bread of Life": Readings for the Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

This Sunday, we continue our trek through John 6. There are five weeks devoted to this chapter in which we first hear of Jesus' multiplication of the loaves and fish before moving into the famous Bread of Life discourse.

Is the Bread of Life discourse about the eucharist? The language of eating Jesus' flesh and drinking his blood has long been interpreted as a reference to the Christian sacrament.

At the same time, not all interpreters have been convinced. Interestingly, the Council of Trent, recognizing that not all of the early church fathers agreed on the meaning of this passage, decided against using it as a proof for the Catholic understanding of the sacrament.

Just recently, a new book has been released that argues against a sacramental reading of Jesus' teaching in John 6: Meredith J.C. Warren, My Flesh is Meat Indeed: A Nonsacramental Reading of John 6:51-58 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015).

Here we cannot address every aspect of the debate. Indeed, the reading from John 6 continues into the next couple of Sundays, so some of the key passages involved in the discussion (e.g., John 6:63) won't be read until next Sunday.

In this commentary, then, I'd like to look specifically at the passages in view and highlight the relationship of the Gospel to the First Reading.

FIRST READING: 1 Kings 19:4-8
Elijah went a day’s journey into the desert,until he came to a broom tree and sat beneath it.
He prayed for death saying:“This is enough, O LORD!
Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”
He lay down and fell asleep under the broom tree,but then an angel touched him and ordered him to get up and eat.
Elijah looked and there at his head was a hearth cakeand a jug of water.
After he ate and drank, he lay down again,but the angel of the LORD came back a second time,touched him, and ordered,“Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you!”
He got up, ate, and drank;then strengthened by that food,he walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb.
In this Sunday's first reading we hear the story of Elijah's journey into the wilderness. The Gospel, of course, will highlight the story of Israel receiving the manna in the wilderness, the story highlighted in last Sunday's First Reading. So what connection is there between Jesus' teaching that he is the new manna, and this story from 1 Kings?

Let us first back up here and look at the larger context of the Gospel account. The Bread of Life Discourse comes on the heels of the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fish. Although some have argued against seeing this story as a miracle account, the plain sense of the text would militate against such skepticism, which inevitably must establish their meaning by reading something into the story.[1] A few considerations:
  • The author of the Fourth Gospel understood that the story related a miracle is clear from the fact that he refers to it as a sēmeion (cf. John 6:14), “sign”, a term he uses for miracles (cf. John 2:11; 4:54). 
  • The Fourth Gospel explicitly states that the fragments left over which filled twelve baskets came “from” the original five loaves (John 6:13: ek tōn pente artōn tōn krithinōn).[2]  

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Bread from Heaven: Readings for the 18th Sunday of OT

What does it mean to be a human being?  What are we really?

The answer our children are taught in school is that we are just animals, the result of a long process of accidents in which an amoeba became a fish, became a lizard, became a monkey, became us.  So all we are is a material body, a fluke of the universe, a "selfish gene," and when we die, that's it.

Of course, virtually no one can or does live consistently with this "materialist" view of human beings.  Even radical atheists like Richard Dawkins get "mad" at Christians for the supposed "wrong" things they do.  But getting "mad" and moral concepts like "right" and "wrong" make no sense if we are simply material beings, biological robots.

Jesus Christ, and before him all the prophets of Israel, emphatically renounced the view that all we are is animals.  The readings for this Sunday point relentlessly to the fact that we are something more: spiritual beings, personal beings, made for communion with God and eternal life.

We are in a stretch of the Church calendar when the Lectionary takes a leisurely stroll, week after week for five weeks, through St. John's account of the Feeding of the 5,000 (John 6).  Each week, the next section of John 6 is read, and paired with different Old Testament type of the Eucharist in the first reading.

1.  The first reading this week is Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15:

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: The Importance of Mystagogy-Elisha, Jesus, and Miraculous Food

In paragraph 1075 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, it states that “Liturgical catechesis aims to initiate people into the mystery of Christ (It is ‘mystagogy.’) by proceeding from the visible to the invisible, form the sign to the signified, from the ‘sacraments’ to the ‘mysteries.’”
In our readings for this week, the Church offers us the opportunity to receive mystagogical instruction and as a result, we have an important opportunity to be further initiated into the mystery of Christ, beginning with the first reading from 2 Kings.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Shepherd Teaches the Flock: 16th Sunday in OT

After my conversion to Catholicism, I can remember the first time I witnessed a Mass celebrated by a bishop who preached with his crosier in hand.  I believe, in fact, was Bishop (now Archbishop) Vigneron of Detroit.  I was so powerfully impressed by the symbolism of the bishop teaching in the person of Jesus, the Good Shepherd.

At this time in the Church year, we are working our way through the Gospel of Mark, approaching the record of the Feeding of the 5,000 (Mark 6).  In the next five weeks, we are going to take a break from Mark in order to meditate on John’s account of the same event (John 6), which will provide a lengthy opportunity to reflect on the theology and biblical basis for the Eucharist.  This Sunday, however, we will only read the introduction of the account of the 5,000, and focus on the issue of leadership for God’s people rather than the Eucharist itself.

1.  Our first reading comes from the prophet Jeremiah:
 Jer 23:1-6

Monday, July 13, 2015

The Seven Deadly Sins discussed by Scott Hahn, Fr. David Meconi, and Regis Martin

This was a wonderful episode of Franciscan University Presents.

By the way, Fr. Maconi's monograph, One Christ: St. Augustine's Theology of Deification (Catholic University of America, 2013) is a spectacular study. Pick it up here.

Friday, July 10, 2015

"Go, prophesy to my people Israel": Readings for the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Here are some thoughts on this Sunday's lectionary readings. I always find that looking at the readings in advance helps me prepare me to better enter into the Church's liturgical celebration. I hope you will find this helpful. . .

FIRST READING: Amos 7:12-15
Amaziah, priest of Bethel, said to Amos,
“Off with you, visionary, flee to the land of Judah!
There earn your bread by prophesying,
but never again prophesy in Bethel;
for it is the king’s sanctuary and a royal temple.”
Amos answered Amaziah, “I was no prophet,
nor have I belonged to a company of prophets;
I was a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores.
The LORD took me from following the flock, and said to me,
Go, prophesy to my people Israel.”

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Choosing Unlikely Messengers: Readings for 15th Sunday of OT

The readings for this upcoming Sunday are united by the theme of God’s choice of his messengers.  And, as is typical for God, he chooses some unlikely candidates. 

1.  Our first reading is from the prophet Amos 7:12-15:

Thursday, July 02, 2015

The Little Way: The Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

 For this fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, I would like to offer a reflection on the readings informed by St. Thérèse of Lisieux and her “little way.” While there are other potential ways of uniting the readings for this Sunday, it appears fitting to draw on the wisdom of St. Thérèse in order to illuminate the readings the Church has selected, beginning with the first reading from the prophet Ezekiel.
First Reading: Ezekiel 2:2-5

 As the LORD spoke to me, the spirit entered into me
and set me on my feet,
and I heard the one who was speaking say to me:
Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites,
rebels who have rebelled against me;
they and their ancestors have revolted against me to this very day.
Hard of face and obstinate of heart
are they to whom I am sending you.
But you shall say to them: Thus says the Lord GOD!
And whether they heed or resist—for they are a rebellious house—
they shall know that a prophet has been among them.

In giving Ezekiel his prophetic commission, God sends Ezekiel to the exiled house of Judah, a people that God describes as hard of face and obstinate of heart.
It should come as no surprise that the theme of hardness of heart plays a major role in the message of Ezekiel to Judah in exile (see Ezek 3:6-7; 11:19-20; 36:26-27), and this directly follows not only from the words God speaks to Ezekiel, but from Israel’s covenantal relationship to God.

In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people of Israel to circumcise their hearts in order to offer God the kind of obedience that he can bless. In fact, it is possible to connect the admonition that Israel circumcise their collective hearts with the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4-7, for there Moses famously tells Israel to “love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut 6:5). Quite significantly, Moses then states that “these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart” (Deut 6:6), and this is not only for the conquest generation, but they are to be taught “diligently to your children” (Deut 6:7).

In Deuteronomy 10:16, Moses commands Israel to circumcise their hearts, yet only after admonishing them once again to love God with all of their heart, for this is what Yahweh requires of his people (Deut 10:12). While Moses is clear that God has set his electing love upon Israel, they are not free to confess that it is due to their own righteousness that he has chosen them to be his people (Deut 9:4). Therefore, in light of Israel’s repeated disobedience, from the worship of the golden calf at Mt Sinai (Exodus 32) to idol worship at Beth-Peor (Numbers 25), the call to circumcise their hearts is not mere rhetorical flourish but absolutely necessary for covenant fidelity. As a result, God is also clear that failure to circumcise their hearts through genuine love for him would be an act of provocation, for he is a God who is impartial and executes justice (Deut 10:17-18).

This sets the backdrop for Judah’s exile, for it is due to their failure to circumcise their hearts that they are sent into exile in Babylon, an exile that the book of Deuteronomy takes as inevitable (see Deut 30:1-2). Therefore, when God sends Ezekiel to prophesy to exilic Judah, he sends them to a people with a “heart problem.”

It is against this backdrop that I will jump ahead to the Gospel reading in order to best connect the readings for this week.  

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 123:1-4

R. (2cd) Our eyes are fixed on the Lord, pleading for his mercy.
To you I lift up my eyes
who are enthroned in heaven —
As the eyes of servants
are on the hands of their masters.
R. Our eyes are fixed on the Lord, pleading for his mercy.
As the eyes of a maid
are on the hands of her mistress,
So are our eyes on the LORD, our God,
till he have pity on us.
R. Our eyes are fixed on the Lord, pleading for his mercy.
Have pity on us, O LORD, have pity on us,
for we are more than sated with contempt;
our souls are more than sated
with the mockery of the arrogant,
with the contempt of the proud.
R. Our eyes are fixed on the Lord, pleading for his mercy.

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 12:7-10

Brothers and sisters:
That I, Paul, might not become too elated,
because of the abundance of the revelations,
a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan,
to beat me, to keep me from being too elated.
Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me,
but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you,
for power is made perfect in weakness.”
I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses,
in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.
Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults,
hardships, persecutions, and constraints,
for the sake of Christ;
for when I am weak, then I am strong.

Gospel: Mark 6:1-6

Jesus departed from there and came to his native place, accompanied by his disciples.
When the sabbath came he began to teach in the synagogue,
and many who heard him were astonished.
They said, “Where did this man get all this?
What kind of wisdom has been given him?
What mighty deeds are wrought by his hands!
Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary,
and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon?
And are not his sisters here with us?”
And they took offense at him.
Jesus said to them,
“A prophet is not without honor except in his native place
and among his own kin and in his own house.”
So he was not able to perform any mighty deed there,
apart from curing a few sick people by laying his hands on them.
He was amazed at their lack of faith.

In our Gospel reading from Mark 6, we find Jesus preaching in his hometown synagogue on the Sabbath, and his fellow Nazarenes are astounded at Jesus’ wisdom. To further contextualize this Gospel passage, the Nazarenes could have reasonably hoped that they were the recipients of the post-exilic promise that when Yahweh brings Israel back to the land he will circumcise their hearts (Deut 30:6).

While all of the northern tribes had not returned to the land, Judah returned from the Babylonian exile around 539 BC, and what is more, Israelites from other tribes certainly lived in the land at the time of Christ, including in Galilee. In rejecting Jesus, the Nazarenes show themselves to still be uncircumcised of heart, like Judah when Ezekiel was sent to them.
It is tempting to view both exilic Judah and the Nazarenes as remarkably sinful in rejecting the mighty works of God so clearly put before them. However, to view it from this angle alone is to run the risk of missing an even deeper point, namely, that without true faith, all humanity is left in the hardness of their hearts, unable to both see and receive the liberating work of God. In order to drive this point home, I turn to the Apostle Paul for help.
In his letter to the Romans, after issuing his introduction (1:1-15) and famous thesis statement (1:16-17), Paul offers a scathing critique of Gentile sinfulness (1:17-31). From there, Paul turns and indicts anyone who judges another, for the one who judges is guilty of hypocrisy, and their hard heart will be judged by God (2:1-5).
At this point a Jewish reader of Paul’s letter might be tempted to place themselves outside of this indictment, for they have the law to guide their conduct so as to be righteous before God. However, Paul indicts Israel along with the Gentiles due to Israel’s failure to do what the law requires, thereby demonstrating that they lack the promised circumcision of the heart (Rom 2:28-29; Deut 30:6). As a result, Paul is able to conclude that both Jews and Greeks alike are under the power of sin (3:9-20) and thereby lack the glory of God and stand in need of his justifying grace (3:23-26).
Why do I use this example from Romans in reference to exilic Judah and the Nazarenes? The reason can be stated as follows: no one is able to indict the hard-heartedness of Judah and the Nazarenes without also indicting themselves as well, for apart from God’s grace everyone has a “heart problem.”
If we all have a heart problem apart from grace, what should our proper response be before God? Both the responsorial Psalm and the second reading from 2 Corinthians offer important guidelines in this regard, for the Psalmist declares the importance of fixing our eyes on God, pleading for his mercy.
In the second reading Paul recounts his request that the Lord remove a thorn in the flesh, yet the response is no, for Christ’s power is made perfect in Paul’s weakness. Why is this so?
I would suggest two interconnected reasons, the first being directly related to our analysis to date, and that is that left to himself, Paul, like all humans, is weak and sinful, and should he overvalue his position and abilities as an apostle, he would inevitably fall into failure. In order to keep Paul humbly dependent upon him, Christ gives Paul a thorn in the flesh, one that demonstrates that it is by God’s power that Paul is able to fulfill his apostolic mission.
With this being said, there is a second reason that I would suggest illuminates how God’s power is made perfect in weakness and that centers on the nature of divine grace. Paul is told that Christ’s grace is sufficient, and this is precisely what Paul repeatedly tells his various Churches in numerous ways throughout his letters.
In a previous letter to the Church at Corinth, Paul states that he is the very least of the apostles, and although he works harder than all of the apostles, it is not Paul but the grace of God within Paul (I Cor 15:8-10). In fact, Paul tells both the Romans and Galatians at length that it is only by grace through faith that one made just by God and empowered to do what the law calls for without being under the law as such. Therefore,  Paul is able to tell the Romans that “boasting” in one’s own self-generated efforts is excluded (Rom 3:27), yet if one is to boast of one’s work, Paul is clear that such boasting can only occur on the basis of God’s grace empowering the work to be truly praiseworthy (Rom 15:15-18).
Conclusion: When I am weak, I am strong, the “Little Way” of Thérèse of Lisieux

In summation, how are we to respond in such a way as to not follow the hard-heartedness of exilic Judah and the Nazarenes in the Gospel reading? Our response should not be to think that we are intrinsically better than they are and would never reject Christ. Instead, we should follow the Psalmist and plead for God’s mercy.
As for a clear example of what this looks like in practice, we have the example of Paul, for in his weakness God’s grace empowered him to change the world perhaps more than any other man other than Jesus himself.
As for the kind of conclusions we should draw from this analysis, I would like to highlight the “little way” of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. In her “little way”, St. Thérèse calls on those who belong to Christ to embrace the reality of their littleness and weakness and instead of self-reliance and self-promotion, depend entirely on the grace of God. Her approach to the spiritual life can appropriately be summarized by Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 12:10 found in the second reading, When I am weak, then I am strong. While spoken to her sister, I would like conclude with the following words of  St. Thérèse, words that all of us can apply to our lives as if addressed to us:
Whenever you are lacking in virtue, you should not excuse yourself by throwing blame on physical causes, on the weather, or some other trial. Instead, you should make it a means of self-humiliation, and then go take your place in the rank and file of little souls, since you are so weak in the practice of virtue. Your soul’s urgent need at present is not the ability to practice heroic virtue, but rather to acquire humility.



Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Goodness of Life: 13th Week of Ordinary Time

The readings for this Sunday focus on the theme of life, and God’s desire for it.  They discuss God’s relationship with, and intentions for, the natural world: topics that resonate with Pope Francis’ newly-released encyclical on the environment. 

1.  The first reading poses some issues that have to be discussed:

Reading 1 Wis 1:13-15; 2:23-24
God did not make death,
nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.
For he fashioned all things that they might have being;
and the creatures of the world are wholesome,
and there is not a destructive drug among them
nor any domain of the netherworld on earth,
for justice is undying.
For God formed man to be imperishable;
the image of his own nature he made him.
But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world,
and they who belong to his company experience it.

The modern person, of course, will immediately object that natural history seems to indicate that death was always a part of nature.  Plus, there are poisonous plants and animals, and isn’t nature “red in tooth and claw,” etc.  So what do we say?

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

What I Like about Peter Singer

Peter Singer, the atheist ethicist who teaches at Princeton, just got disinvited from a philosophy conference in Cologne after this interview with a Swiss newspaper was published:
Neue Zuricher Zeitung: You do not consider an infant to be more worthy of protection than an embryo. On the other hand, you do not necessarily ascribe a higher status to humans than to animals.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

"Who then is this whom even the wind and sea obey?": Readings for the Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time

In the Gospel reading for this Sunday Jesus silences the storm, prompting the disciples to wonder about his true identity.

For ancient Jews, God was the one with power over the wind and the sea. Here Jesus demonstrates that his disciples' fears were an expression of their lack of trust in him.

Indeed, the book of Job, which is read in our First Reading expresses similar concerns; the problem of suffering raises the question, "Does the God of the universe really know what he is doing?"

The lectionary readings for this Sunday tackle this very question. Let's have a look at them.

FIRST READING: Job 38:1, 8-11
The Lord addressed Job out of the storm and said:
Who shut within doors the sea,
when it burst forth from the womb;
when I made the clouds its garment
and thick darkness its swaddling bands?
When I set limits for it
and fastened the bar of its door,
and said: Thus far shall you come but no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stilled!
The First Reading is taken from the Old Testament book of Job. Suffice it to say,  this chapter represents a key moment in the book. After Job and his friends have gone back and forth about the meaning of Job's suffering (e.g., is it evidence of his sin?) and the question of how a good God could allow such misery to befall him, the Lord finally appears and speaks.

Indeed, it's a dramatic moment. Up until now the human speakers have been offering their opinions on God's nature and on his ways. Now God speaks for himself.

In fact, earlier in the book Job confesses his yearning to speak to God directly:

3 Oh, that I knew where I might find him,
that I might come even to his seat! 4 I would lay my case before himand fill my mouth with arguments. 5 I would learn what he would answer me,and understand what he would say to me. 6 Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?No; he would give heed to me. 7 There an upright man could reason with him,and I should be acquitted for ever by my judge. (Job 23:3–7)
Amazingly, Job's wish is fulfilled. Job finally gets to have that conversation with God. 

So what does God do? In sum, in Job 38, God speaks of his omnipotence and, implicitly, of his wisdom. He has power over all creation and has given it order. He has fixed the boundaries for the raging sea.

But here's the key point: even after God appears to Job, Job still does not get an answer as to why the Lord permitted all of the suffering in his life. 

Earlier, Job claimed that if he had the chance he could somehow make a case against God. After seeing the Lord, however, Job acknowledges that he can find no fault with God.
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. (Job 42:3b-c)
Job learns a truth that is beautifully articulated by God in the book of Isaiah:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. 9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isa 55:8-9)
Understanding divine provine providence is beyond the powers of human reason. 

In chapters 38-39, God gets Job to understand this by asking him rhetorical questions about the the created order. Take, for example, Job 38:16-18:
16 “Have you entered into the springs of the sea,
or walked in the recesses of the deep?
17 Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?
18 Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?
Declare, if you know all this.
Of course, no human has walked in the recesses of the oceans or can comprehend the expanse of the earth. 

Why does God ask such questions? Thomas Aquinas paraphrases the Lord in his Commentary on Job:
From all these things you can understand that your reason fall short of the comprehension of divine things, and so it is clear that you are no suited to dispute with God.
Why has all of this befallen Job? Is it his sin? No--that's made clear. So then what's the reason for his suffering? 

At the end of the day, the full story is never revealed to him. Faith must embrace mystery. The reader is left to conclude that Job is a model of faith. The reader is meant to learn that we too must trust in the Lord even when we cannot fully understand his ways; even when it means enduring suffering. 

RESPONSORIAL PSALM: Psalm 107:23-24, 25-26, 28-29, 30-31
R. (1b) Give thanks to the Lord, his love is everlasting.
R. Alleluia.

They who sailed the sea in ships,
trading on the deep waters,
These saw the works of the LORD
and his wonders in the abyss.
R. Give thanks to the Lord, his love is everlasting.
R. Alleluia.

His command raised up a storm wind
which tossed its waves on high.
They mounted up to heaven; they sank to the depths;
their hearts melted away in their plight.
R. Give thanks to the Lord, his love is everlasting.
R. Alleluia.

They cried to the LORD in their distress;
from their straits he rescued them,
He hushed the storm to a gentle breeze,
and the billows of the sea were stilled.
R. Give thanks to the Lord, his love is everlasting.
R. Alleluia.

They rejoiced that they were calmed,
and he brought them to their desired haven.
Let them give thanks to the LORD for his kindness
and his wondrous deeds to the children of men.
R. Give thanks to the Lord, his love is everlasting.
R. Alleluia.
The Responsorial Psalm picks up a theme which we already encountered in the First Reading, namely, God's omnipotent power over the forces of nature. 

Specifically, God is here described as the one who has the power over the wind and sea. We shall have more to say about this later when we treat the Gospel reading. 

Here, however, we should simply note the point of this reflection: Let them give thanks to the Lord for his kindness and his wondrous deeds to the children of men. 

SECOND READING: 2 Corinthians 5:14-17

Brothers and sisters:
The love of Christ impels us,
once we have come to the conviction that one died for all;
therefore, all have died.
He indeed died for all,
so that those who live might no longer live for themselves
but for him who for their sake died and was raised.
Consequently, from now on we regard no one according to the flesh;
even if we once knew Christ according to the flesh,
yet now we know him so no longer.
So whoever is in Christ is a new creation:
the old things have passed away;
behold, new things have come.
In this section of 2 Corinthians, Paul describes the result of Christ's work: believers are made new, i.e., a new creation.

Much could be said about this reading, but here let me make one observation. Paul contrasts that which is "of the flesh" with the new creation. The former describes the old creation, the latter the "new things" that been inaugurated by the resurrection of Christ.

The old things--which Paul elsewhere associates with our sinful passions--have passed away. Christ thus frees us from sin and enables us--impels us, to use Paul's language--to put them away once and for all and be remade in him. We cannot do this on our own, but by God's grace we are empowered to become a new creation.

In Ordinary Time, the Second Reading is not necessarily correlated with the First Reading and the Gospel. The Second Reading in the lectionary for the Sundays in Ordinary Time usually involves a continuous reading of a New Testament book from week to week (last Sunday we read the passages immediately before this passage and next Sunday we will from a passage in 2 Corinthians 8).

Nonetheless, in this case there is a fortuitous connection between the themes of the First and Second Reading. For if God is described as the creator of the cosmos in the First Reading, he we learn how he brings about a new creation--through Christ's death and by his resurrection.

GOSPEL: Mark 4:35-41
On that day, as evening drew on, Jesus said to his disciples:
“Let us cross to the other side.”
Leaving the crowd, they took Jesus with them in the boat just as he was.
And other boats were with him.
A violent squall came up and waves were breaking over the boat,
so that it was already filling up.
Jesus was in the stern, asleep on a cushion.
They woke him and said to him,
“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”
He woke up,
rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Quiet! Be still!”
The wind ceased and there was great calm.
Then he asked them, “Why are you terrified?
Do you not yet have faith?”
They were filled with great awe and said to one another,
“Who then is this whom even wind and sea obey?”
As we have already seen in the First Reading and the Responsorial Psalm, for ancient Jews, God was the one with power over the wind and the sea. Jesus' act of stilling the storm, therefore, would seem to highlight his divine identity. 

Interestingly, this reading is affirmed by a New Testament commentary written by contemporary Jewish scholars, namely, The Jewish Annotated New Testament, edited by A.J. Levine and Marc Brettler. There we are told that Jesus' act of rebuking the wind and the sea 
"takes up an ancient Near Eastern and Israelite evocation of the god who conquers the sea (e.g., Ps 65.7; 89.9; 107.29).[1]  
(Note here the reference to the text of our Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 107.)

It is sometimes claimed that Jesus is only presented as divine in the Gospel of John. People who make that claim haven't carefully read the Synoptic Gospels. Here--as even non-Christian scholars acknowledge--Jesus is identified as a divine figure. 

The stilling of the storm also, of course, bears similarities with the scene from Job. As Job felt he had a case against God, the apostles appear frustrated with Jesus, mistaking his act of sleeping in the boat as an indication that he doesn't care for them.

Nothing could be further from the truth--he stills the storm. Yet Jesus reprimands them: "Do you not yet have faith?" 

Patristic writers applied the story to the lives of ordinary believers. Origen writes, 
"For as many are in the little ship of faith are sailing with the Lord; as many as are in the bark of holy church will voyage with the Lord across this wave-tossed life; though the Lord himself may sleep in holy quiet, he is but watching your patience and endurance: looking forward to the repentance, and to the conversion of those who have sinned. Come then to him eagerly, in prayer."--On Matthew, Homily 6[2] 
Let us ask the Lord for the gift of faith so that we may trust in him even when it seems he is sleeping while we are in the midst of a storm. Let us ask him to help us recognize that his presence among us means we need never be terrified.

[1] A.J. Levine and Marc Brettler, The Jewish Annotated New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 69.
[2] Cited in Thomas C. Oden and Christopher A. Hall, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament II, Mark (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 64.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Plato and Marriage Redefinition

I majored in Classical Languages in my B.A. program, and despite the fact that it made me perhaps less employable than not having any degree at all, I have never regretted the decision, for a variety of reasons.

One of the reasons I appreciate the study of the Classics is that it provides some perspective from which to evaluate and analyze contemporary culture.  To enter into the world of ancient Greek literature, for example, is to enter a society and culture quite different from twenty-first century America.  By doing so, I became more aware that many of the values, opinions, and customs that Americans accept as obvious or natural, were not shared by all people at all times, and are in fact the product of our unique cultural and intellectual history.

One of the shocking aspects for Christian students of the Classics—at least it used to be shocking—is to discover the widespread practice and approval of same-sex physical relationships among ancient Greeks.  Take, for example, the term “Platonic relationship.”  If modern people have heard of this concept, they think it refers to a non-sexual friendship between a man and a woman.  But Plato was not actually much concerned with male-female relationships.  The discourses he wrote which gave rise to the terms “Platonic love” or “Platonic relationship” were actually advocating non-sexual friendships between men.  Male-to-male eroticism was widely practiced among elite Greek men in Plato’s day; in fact, it was assumed that the ideal love relationship between to human beings was not between a husband and wife, but between an older man and younger (usually adolescent) man.  

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Jesus, Trees, and Seeds: The 11th Sunday of OT

In this week’s Mass readings, Jesus teaches us about himself and the Church using agricultural images.

It is the Eleventh Sunday of Ordinary Time.  The last time we had a Sunday of Ordinary Time was on February 15th, and that was the Sixth.  The logical question is, what happened to the 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th?  The 8th, 9th, and 10th Sundays were pre-empted this year by Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, and Corpus Christi, and the 7th was squeezed out because otherwise the calendar would not end with the 34th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Christ the King) prior to Advent 2016.  As a result, we get no Gospel Readings from Mark 2-3 this year.  

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Knowing the Love of Christ: Solemnity of the Sacred Heart

This Friday we celebrate the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, a wonderful feast day in which we meditate on the love of Christ for us, symbolized by the icon of his sacred heart. 

The Readings focus on expressions of the love of God.  Our First Reading is Hosea 11:1, 3-4, 8c-9:

Thus says the LORD:
When Israel was a child I loved him,
out of Egypt I called my son.
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
who took them in my arms;
I drew them with human cords,
with bands of love;
I fostered them like one
who raises an infant to his cheeks;
Yet, though I stooped to feed my child,
they did not know that I was their healer.