Voce mea ad Dominum

Random thoughts from an amateur theologist.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Riches and goodness

Jesus answered him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone." - Mark 10:18

This statement is a prelude for Jesus' teaching to the rich young man. The young man comes to Jesus and asks, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Some have said that Jesus is repudiating the young man for calling him good, but I think that what Jesus is doing is subtly telling him something different.

When Jesus spoke, he spoke with authority. He did not teach superficially but taught with the fullest possible meaning to his words. On the surface it would appear that this scripture verse would repudiate the long held Tradition that Jesus is God in flesh. As a matter of fact, I was cornered on this by a Muslim who was at the time better versed in the gospel of St. Mark than I was, and embarrassingly I was not able to defend my belief in the divinity of Jesus with anything that was remotely convincing.

That was about ten years ago. In all honesty, I should thank Dr. Ibrahim because were it not partially for his nudging, I would not have contemplated this much, and I would still not be able to answer convincingly, and not so much for him but for myself. If I do believe in the divinity of Jesus (which I do), how do I reconcile his words addressed to the rich young man? Knowing what I do now, I wish I could go back ten years and discuss this charitably with him again.

"Why do you call me good? Only God is good." Indeed this is truth. Only God is good. But if you simply read the words on the page, you only get half of the truth that Jesus is revealing, and that is "only God is good." A little bit of contemplation will reveal the fullness of his meaning. Applying the transitive property to the discourse, what we get is this: rich young man calls Jesus good. Jesus says, "Only God is good." Therefore, Jesus is God as revealed by the rich young man. Jesus is merely posing this question: "Are you really aware of the truth you are revealing about me when you call me good? Only God is good. Do you really recognize who I am? And if you do recognize me, do you know my true nature?"

That is why Jesus presses the man further...keeping the commandments. "I have kept all of those!" the man smugly replies. Jesus then tells the man that in order to inherit eternal life, to be united with God, he must sell all of his possessions. This proves to be too difficult for the man, and he walks away sad. But this is God's justice. To be united with God means to give completely, not holding anything back.

Then Jesus makes the statement that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. The disciples are astonished and say, "Well who can be saved?" Jesus looked at them and said, "For men it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God." There is the counterpart to God's justice, that of God's mercy.

In this dialog we see Jesus revealing God's true nature of justice and mercy, for the reality is that we cannot do anything to inherit eternal life. We can only rely on God to be saved. So the point Jesus is making when he says, "Only God is good" is that it is only through the goodness and mercy of God that we can inherit eternal life, the goodness and mercy which is fully revealed in the passion, death and resurrection of the Son.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Worth his salt

"Everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is a good thing, but if salt has become insipid, how can you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another." - Mark 9:49-50

Salt. We take it for granted, but at one time, it was as valuable as gold is to us. Its importance as a preservative led to the foundation of civilization since it allowed for food to be stored for long journeys. Roman soldiers were paid with salt (in part), something called salarium, hence the English term salary. Its worth would have been well known to the people of first century Palestine.

Jesus has just finished his teaching to the apostles which would have a person who just picks up the bible and reads it wondering if heaven is filled with maimed souls. "Pluck out your eye, cut off your hand, cut off your foot!" Jesus says, "if it causes you to sin. It is better to enter heaven with one eye or one hand or one foot than to end up in Gehenna with an intact body." Christians realize that Jesus is telling us to avoid sin at all cost.

But then he brings up salt. Besides being a preservative, salt is a seasoning and a purifying agent. So when Jesus says we will be salted with fire, he is saying we will be seasoned and purified through our sacrifices and sufferings, a purifying or seasoning fire much like the fire which refines gold or silver. By "cutting off our hand" to avoid sin (an allusion to suffering), we become purified and pleasing sacrifices to God. If we remain pure, we will be at peace with God and one another.

Today we celebrate the memorial of St. Polycarp of Smyrna. He was taught by St. John the Evangelist and was the bishop of the Church in Smyrna (yes the same one mentioned in the Book of Revelation). He was also a friend of St. Ignatius of Antioch. At the age of 87 he was martyred for his faith in Christ by being stabbed, and his corpse was burned at the stake. It is written that on the pyre "surrounded by the fire, his body was like bread that is baked, or gold and silver white-hot in a furnace, not like flesh that has been burnt", a literal image of what Christ calls being "salted by fire."

May the intercession of St. Polycarp give us the courage to share with him the cup of suffering and help us to seek Christ with all our hearts.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam

And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. - Matthew 16:18

Today is the feast of the Chair of St. Peter.

Few verses of scripture elicit heated debate in such a manner as Matthew 16:18. For Catholics, this verse defines the role of St. Peter as chief of the apostles. Jesus asks the disciples who they say he is, and Simon speaks up and says that Jesus is the "Messiah, the Son of the living God." For his faith, Jesus gives Simon the new name "Peter" which is translated from Greek as "rock" or "stone".

Catholics say that St. Peter's faith in Christ and his confession is the "rock" on which the Church is built. Orthodox and Protestants will agree that the "rock" is the faith which is the foundation of the Church. Where we disagree is that Catholics say that St. Peter himself is the personification of that faith in Christ, and because St. Peter was given the keys to the kingdom of Heaven, keys which are symbolic of the dynastic authority which is to be handed on to his successors, the Bishops of Rome, they will therefore hold the keys as well and will become the personification of that faith in Christ, living symbols of the faith of the Church.

Jesus himself defines the source of the Church's faith when he says, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father." (Matthew 16:17) The faith of which St. Peter is the personification comes from above, and since it is derived from God, it is without error. Therefore, when the Pope, the successor to St. Peter as Bishop of the Church in Rome, speaks on matters concerning this inerrant faith, his words are protected from error as well. This does not mean that the Pope is incapable of making a mistake (because even the Pope goes to confession). It means that God is incapable of making a mistake.

When we profess our faith that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, Christ calls each of us blessed as well and reveals to us that the Father is the source of that profession of faith. The faith which all Catholics profess and which unites us is most visible in the man who sits in the Chair of St. Peter, the man who confirms his brothers and sisters in that faith, the man chosen by Christ to tend his flock, the man who holds the keys to Christ's kingdom. While our faith is the "rock", we are not. That title is reserved for him who holds the keys. This is what we celebrate today.

Holy Father Peter, pray for us.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Effective prayer

Jesus, on seeing a crowd rapidly gathering, rebuked the unclean spirit and said to it, “Mute and deaf spirit, I command you: come out of him and never enter him again!” Shouting and throwing the boy into convulsions, it came out. - Mark 9:25-26a

As Jesus descended the Mount of Transfiguration with Sts. Peter, James and John, he comes upon a crowd gathered. It is made known to him that the remaining disciples have attempted to drive out a demon from a man's daughter without success. Jesus scolds them ("O faithless generation, how long will I endure you?") and proceeds to drive the demon from the girl. This prompts the disciples to ask why they were not able to drive the demon from the girl to which Jesus responds, "This kind can only come out through prayer."

A couple of things came to mind when I contemplated this passage from St. Mark's gospel. First of all, Jesus scolds the disciples for their lack of faith. This is why they could not cast the demon out. This is why Jesus tells them that "this kind can only come out through prayer." It is only through their faith in God manifested through prayer that they will be able to drive out the demon. Prayer is communicating with God and therefore being united with him. The disciples learned a valuable lesson in that they were taught that they have the authority to remove demons only through their communion with God through prayer. It is not a power that they possess of themselves.

The second thing is that Jesus merely speaks the word, and the demon is dispelled. Christ's words are efficacious. They always produce the effect that he desires because of the authority that his words command. The gospel writers use this authority and effectiveness as evidence of the divinity of Christ. We can see that this is a characteristic of divinity from the very first chapter of the book of Genesis when God says, "Let there be _____ (fill in the blank) and there was _____ (again, fill in the blank)." God's word effects what he intends, and Jesus, God's only begotten Son and one in being with the Father, carries that same effectiveness when he speaks.

Lord Jesus, may your words effect in us true faith, hope and charity.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Peering through the divine window

It is good to give thanks to Yahweh,
to make music to your name, Most High,
to proclaim your faithful love at daybreak,
and your constancy all through the night,
on the lyre, the ten-stringed lyre,
to the murmur of the harp.
- Psalms 92:1-3

I am going to digress a bit from the weekly readings proclaimed at Mass since I have already cogitated about this week's gospel reading from St. Mark
here. (Although that particular day the rendering from St. Luke's gospel of the paralyzed man was proclaimed, but with the synoptics, the message quite often is the same.)

Today I was thinking about music in the worship of the church. I have come to a new understanding of its role in worship through my private and family prayer at home. I have started praying before icons in a corner of my home specifically set aside as holy space. (If anyone is interested in seeing what I am talking about, go
here.) What I have come to realize is that the images that I have hanging lift my mind and heart to God. I do not worship the images, but through them, I am made acutely aware of God's salvific plan manifested through his Son, Jesus and the subsequent roles played by Mary, the Mother of God and the saints. Through prayer with the aid of the icons, God comes more into focus for me. The icons truly become what their definition is, a "window to the divine."

So, what does that have to do with music? Prior to 1965, the Mass was completely in Latin (except for the Kyrie eleison which is Greek). With the second Vatican Council and through the leadership of Pope Paul VI, the vernacular was re-introduced. Suddenly there was an influx of all sorts of music into the liturgy. Some of it was good, some bad. But to a large extent, the Latin music used in liturgy prior was relegated to the history books and replaced with music in the vernacular. People could finally understand what they were singing, although I seriously doubt they were completely in the dark prior to 1965.

Unfortunately, in the beginning there was a free for all, so that anything and everything was allowed to be sung in the liturgy. (Case in point, I went to a wedding where the offertory hymn was Roberta Flack's "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." I still shudder at that one.) This led to the music being catered to the tastes of those who were in charge of the music programs or to certain groups within the church like the teens or the charismatics. In a sense, people would go to certain Masses because they liked the music better.

What I now know is that I do not go to Mass for any purpose other than to worship God. The music, the readings, the decor, the vestments, all of this is meant to draw my focus away from myself and the world around me and toward the Lord in the Eucharist, the heavenly banquet in which we are participating. All of this is not meant to entertain me or anyone else for that matter. What does this all have to do with my icons? Well, I now see all aspects of worship become icons, and above all the music. The music should not draw attention to itself, rather it should make us aware of our communion with the divine, and through the Eucharist, our communion with one another.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Contemplating resurrection

As they were coming down from the mountain, he charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone, except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what rising from the dead meant. - Mark 9:9

The Transfiguration of Christ is a big event in the gospels. Jesus goes to a high mountain, traditionally thought to be Mt. Tabor, and before the eyes of St. Peter, St. James, and St. John his glory is revealed to them. Moses and Elijah converse with Christ (a symbol that Christ is the fulfillment of the law and prophets), and a cloud settles over them like in the old testament accounts of the cloud surrounding the tent of meeting or the temple at its dedication (symbolic of God's presence among his people), and the voice of the Father is heard instructing them to listen to the Son. Quite the drama!

Simply put, the Transfiguration reveals that Christ is the fullness of the presence of God. He is the law and the prophets and he has taken on flesh to be united with his people in the most intimate way possible. Of course, the disciples didn't get it. We have St. Peter wanting to set up tents for the three of them. Honestly, you can't really fault them. If put in a similar situation, I doubt any of us would really know what to say.

But I was mostly intrigued with the above statement, that Jesus does not want them to tell anyone what they had seen until after he had risen from the dead. I don't think it is because Jesus wants the disciples to be tight lipped about it because of its sheer incredibleness. I think it is because they would not be able to begin to understand its significance until after the resurrection. It is not about Jesus wanting to keep things hidden, rather it is about Jesus wanting things to be revealed in the proper time.

Another thing. The disciples contemplated what rising from the dead meant. When I first read that I thought, "Wow. What a difference hindsight makes. We know what he was talking about." But after I thought about it for a while, I realized, the only difference between me and the disciples in this passage is where they are in time in relation to the resurrection. The audacity of me to think I understand what it means to rise from the dead because I most certainly don't!

The concept of resurrection was not unfamiliar with the Jews of the time, however, we have the knowledge that it has actually happened with Christ, although how it happens, and what we will be like when it happens remains a mystery. This mystery of the mechanism of the resurrection remained even after Jesus revealed himself to the twelve after he rose as is evidenced in the first letter of St. John, "Beloved, we are God's children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is." (1 John 3:2)

So, even in this post-resurrection age, we contemplate what it means to rise from the dead just as the apostles did when they descended from the mountain with Christ after the Transfiguration.

St. Simeon, bishop of Jerusalem and martyr, pray for us.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Who do you say that I am?

At this he turned around and, looking at his disciples,
rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan.
You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
- Mark 8:33

"Who do people say that I am?" This is a question posed to the disciples by Jesus on the road to Caesarea Philippi, and their answers vary from John the Baptist to Elijah to one of the prophets. "But who do you say that I am?" Jesus then asks. St. Peter is quick to proclaim, "You are the Messiah." Jesus then begins to teach openly of his coming rejection by the Jews, his passion, death and resurrection. St. Peter then took Jesus aside and rebuked him for this to which Jesus turned and rebuked St. Peter with the above statement. In this passage of scripture we see the dichotomy of human beings, that of humility versus pride.

First we see St. Peter proclaiming that Jesus is the Messiah. St. Matthew goes as far as quoting Jesus as saying that St. Peter was blessed for this proclamation because this was a revelation from God alone. It is only by God's grace that we can know that Jesus is the Christ. It is not possible to come to this conclusion through human faculties alone.

In the second part we see Jesus rebuking St. Peter and calling him Satan. Is it because suddenly St. Peter has become evil? No. It is because St. Peter is using his human faculties and understanding to rebuke Jesus for talking about his passion, death, and resurrection and thus rejecting God's plan for salvation. St. Peter is no longer relying on God's grace for understanding but attempting to understand using human reasoning, and this human reasoning leads him to logically reject the suffering of the Lord, his friend.

Jesus asks each and every one of us the same questions: Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am? The answer seems simple enough for us today, however, the answer still requires us to respond to God's grace. It requires discernment. If we are attuned to God's grace, we can then and only then answer truthfully, "You are the Christ! The Son of the living God!"

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

A pinch of yeast ferments the whole batch.

The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. Jesus enjoined them, “Watch out, guard against the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” - Mark 8:14-15

The setting for this discourse by the Lord with disciples comes after Jesus multiplies the loaves for the crowd and after he has the "give me a sign" run in with the Pharisees. Jesus left the Pharisees and crossed to the other shore by boat with his disciples. While they were crossing, the disciples noticed they had forgotten to bring some bread with them. At this point, Jesus pops off the warning to the disciples to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.

Now, I can only imagine the frame of mind that Jesus was in at this point, and I can only imagine what the disciples were thinking as well. Jesus is their leader, and he has just told off the Pharisees who were regarded very highly in the Jewish faith. We have all been in this position before, when say our supervisor and his boss exchange words in front of us, and we are left in an awkward and uncomfortable position. Then the supervisor pipes up with some statement that makes things only more awkward. This is what is happening here with Jesus and his disciples, so when Jesus warns them about the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod, I am sure that they were thinking, "Huh? What is this leaven he is talking about? Is it because we didn't bring any bread?"

Jesus then becomes even more flustered because it would seem that the disciples have completely missed the significance of all the events that they have just witnessed. As Jesus says to them, "Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not understand, still not realize? Are your minds closed? Have you eyes and do not see, ears and do not hear?" The disciples are focused on the materialistic aspects of the miracles, that of bread and fish rather than the compassion of Christ and his feeding of the hungry crowd with multiple baskets of bread left over, an image of the overflowing nature of God's love and mercy.

So what of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod? Leaven or yeast has a corrupting action on bread due to fermentation which makes the bread rise. In the process, the bread becomes more palatable and easier to digest. When Jesus speaks of the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod, he is speaking of the corruption of God's truth which would make it easier for the listener to accept. So, the leaven of Herod would be that of the decadent hedonistic world in which prudence and sound judgment are thrown to the wind, and the desires of the flesh are put above all else. But the leaven of the Pharisees is perhaps more dangerous because it is the outward show of holiness which serves the self before God or others, i.e. hypocrisy. Both of these scenarios are at odds with the gospel which is love that is selfless and sacrificial in nature.

This is the point that Jesus is trying to drive home with the disciples. It is the same lesson that he teaches to all generations. Thank heaven he is patient with our ignorance!

Through the intercession of Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius, may Christ our God have mercy on us and save us.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Sighs and signs

He sighed from the depth of his spirit and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Amen, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” - Mark 8:12

The Pharisees were always trying to test Jesus, and it is obvious in this verse from St. Mark's gospel that it sometimes got to him. We don't often hear that Jesus sighed from the depth of his spirit, but it would be a sure sign that he is frustrated. In this case, they were looking for a sign from heaven which would verify his claim of having come from God, proof that he was who he said he was.

Even today people seek signs from above, although more often than not they do not have the same motives as the Pharisees did with Jesus. Most often today, people who seek signs are looking for hope rather than proof. What we need to realize is that God is not some magician who is going to perform when we ask him to. The problem is not a lack of signs but a lack of discernment. The signs are there. The question then becomes are we too blind to recognize them?

Today and everyday our challenge becomes to not put God to the test, but rather to read the signs around us and have true faith and hope.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Lawful or Beneficial?

Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. Avoid giving offense, whether to the Jews or Greeks or the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in every way, not seeking my own benefit but that of the many, that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. - 1 Corinthians 10:31-33

St. Paul was questioned by the Church at Corinth about many things, and in this case he is responding to their question about eating meat offerred in sacrifice to pagan idols. It would appear that the Christians at Corinth had questioned whether certain meats offered in the market or at the homes of pagans would be lawful to eat. St. Paul says that in good conscience, if you buy meat in the market place or eat meat at a pagan's house and you were not informed that the meat was from a sacrifice to an idol, then it is lawful because all things belong to God in the first place. However, if they were specifically told that the meat had been offered to a pagan idol, that was a completely different circumstance. Take home message? It ain't the meat that is the problem, it is who is offering it and for what purpose.

But I was most interested in the summary that St. Paul offers at the end of chapter 10. It is a summary of what it means to follow Christ. We should not fight and bicker with one another. We should not offend anyone, but we should always consider the other person and what is in their best interest in all that we do. When we act in this manner, then everything that we do will give glory to God the Father through his Son, Jesus Christ.

Put simply, St. Paul is appealing for us to be imitators of Christ by imitating him. And even more profound, St. Paul is entreating us to love, because love always puts the needs of the beloved above our own needs. This love that St. Paul describes is the virtue of Christian Charity which means that we will seek the benefit of all, even those with whom we are at odds (such as the Jews and the pagans or the guy at work or school who is on our last nerve). After all, isn't this exactly what Christ did for us while we were yet sinners?

Saturday, February 11, 2006

You are what you eat

Then he instructed the crowd to sit down on the ground, and he took the seven loaves, and after giving thanks he broke them and began handing them to his disciples to distribute; and they distributed them among the crowd. - Mark 8:6

This passage of scripture recounts the second miracle of the loaves found in St. Mark's gospel. In this account, Jesus is moved to pity for the crowd (four thousand people in this account) which had been following him for three days because they had nothing to eat. He did not want to send them away hungry, so he asked the disciples what provisions they had with them which turned out to be seven loaves of bread and a few fish. Jesus took the bread and fish, said a blessing, and had them distributed. All were satisfied.

The miracles of the loaves have a deep eucharistic significance. Those who are attentive at Mass will see the parallels which are steeped in the ritual which plays out every Sunday in our churches. We who follow Jesus gather at a place which is typically deserted of people except for set times. We listen to the Lord as he speaks to us through the words of the scriptures. The words of scripture spoken by Christ through the lector, cantor, deacon or priest leave us longing for communion with him.

Jesus knows our hearts are hungry for the nourishment which only he can provide, so he asks what food do we have. And we bring up gifts of bread and wine which the priest takes and blesses and through the power of the Holy Spirit and Christ's words of institution ("Take this all of you and eat it. This is my body which will be given up for you." "Take this all of you and drink from it. This is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all so that sins might be forgiven. Do this in memory of me.") the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of the Lord.

Jesus then gives his Body and Blood to his disciples (priests and deacons as well as extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion) who then bring it to the waiting crowd who eat and are satisfied. The disciples then gather what is left over, enshrine what is left of the Lord's Body and Blood in the tabernacle so that it may be both adored and brought to the sick, and purify the remaining vessels in the same manner that the disciples collected the scraps of bread and fish which were left over after the crowd had been fed.

As Jesus sent the crowd on its way that day, he dismisses us to go into the world and proclaim his power and might which is manifested in the feeding of the many on a single loaf and a single cup which was transformed into his Body and Blood and therefore, has transformed us into his Body and Blood. After all, you are what you eat.

Our Lady of Lourdes, come to our aid. Through your intercession, may Christ our God have mercy on us and save us.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Children and Dogs

He said to her, “Let the children be fed first. For it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”- Mark 7:27

It would appear that Jesus was insulting this Greek woman who had come to him asking him to drive out a demon from her daughter. What we are actually seeing here is a witty exchange between the Gentile woman and Jesus. Jesus is aware of her need, but the message he is attempting to get across to her is that his ministry is first to the children of Israel, the Jews. He is "the food of the children" not meant to be thrown to "the dogs" which was a derogatory term the Jews had for the gentiles. The woman in return says, "But even the dogs under the table get to eat the children's scraps!" Jesus rewards her faith which is manifested in her quick wit by driving the demon from her daughter.

The lesson to be learned from this exchange is fairly simple. Jesus rewards people for their faith in him, not for their status. While it is true that Jesus came to minister first to the Jews, his ministry was not to be limited to them. Through Jesus, all people will be brought to salvation. All nations will be fed. All will become "the children" so that there will be no dogs to eat the scraps under the table that fall from the children.

But even more interesting is the context of this story and its place in St. Mark's gospel. Just yesterday we read about Jesus declaring all foods clean, a new teaching for the Jews, and today we hear about Jesus giving to this Gentile woman the food for the children for her faith in him. It is another prediction about the coming kingdom that Jesus will found, a kingdom founded on faith and not ritual law, a kingdom that would include the gentiles who heretofore had been referred to as "dogs."

So, in reality, Jesus was not attempting to insult the woman, but trying to ascertain her faith in him.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Will the real defilement please stand?

“Hear me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile.”- Mark 7:14b-15

When Christians read this verse of scripture from St. Mark's gospel, we are apt to think, "Duh!" But we read on to find that the Apostles apparently were dumb struck by the comment. Keep in mind, they were faithful Jews who adhered to the Law of Moses which said that certain foods were unclean, so for Jesus to say that things ingested are not unclean was something foreign to their way of thinking.

This teaching had huge implications for religious practice. Slowly but surely, Jesus is revealing that he is freeing them from the enslavement to the Mosaic Code, a freedom which was completed with his death and resurrection. Jesus is revealing that it is not possible for us to climb to highest heaven to meet God through adherence to written laws. God must come to us in order for us to have communion with him. It is now revealed that what makes us unworthy or unclean is not something from outside but a misguided heart which is the source of all sin, and the truth is that the only thing that can cleanse us from this inner filthiness is God himself, who has stooped down to offer us a way to achieve holiness through his Son Jesus. However, because God is love, he will only wash us clean if we let him. He certainly will not force us because force is not love.

Now I see Psalm 51 in an entirely new light, and I rejoice that God has stooped down to me so that I can have communion with him, and in stooping down, he has released me from the chains of the law which once bound all men. He has made me clean.

Cleanse me with hyssop, that I may be pure;
wash me, make me whiter than snow.
For you do not desire sacrifice;
a burnt offering you would not accept.
My sacrifice, God, is a broken spirit;
God, do not spurn a broken, humbled heart.
- Psalm 51: 7,16-17

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Tradition and traditions

He responded, "Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites as it is written, 'This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts.' You disregard God's commandment but cling to human tradition." -Mark 7:6-8

Jesus was rather harsh with the Pharisees. He would refer to them with titles like "hypocrites" or "blind guides" or "unseen graves", and he lamented their strict adherence to traditions because those traditions often imposed a heavy burden on people. This got me to thinking about my own faith.

For Catholics, traditions play a role in our everyday journey of faith. We abstain from meat on the Fridays of Lent, we have a celibate priesthood, we light candles and pray before icons, we bless ourselves when entering the Church with holy water, and we genuflect to the Blessed Sacrament prior to entering our pews. Does this mean that Jesus would frown on these traditions of ours as he did on those of the Pharisees?

I don't think so, and here is why. The traditions which I have just outlined are not imposed upon us as doctrines. They are disciplines which aid our growth in holiness. They are ways that we show piety toward God and thus give him glory. This is the big difference between our tradition and the Pharasaical traditions. When the Pharisees observed a tradition, they did not do it to give glory to God. They did it for personal gain even if it meant burdening others.

These traditions are not to be confused with Sacred Tradition which is something quite different. Sacred Tradition is that which was given to the Apostles by Jesus and is a deposit of the faith. The Scriptures are part of Sacred Tradition in that the correct way to read them is in light of the teaching of the Apostles. Sacred Tradition is not human tradition, rather it is divine revelation, and since it is revealed by God, it must be believed by all. For example, that God is triune yet one is Sacred Tradition.

So long as our traditions aid in our understanding of God and growth in holiness, they are appropriate. However, when these traditions become more important than the Lord himself, they will cease to be effective ways of growing in holiness. At this point, we will become "hypocrites", "fools", and "blind guides."

Monday, February 06, 2006

Tangible grace

Whatever villages or towns or countryside he entered, they laid the sick in the marketplaces and begged him that they might touch only the tassel on his cloak; and as many as touched it were healed. - Mark 6:56

The above verse from St. Mark's gospel is pretty much self-explanatory. Wherever Jesus went, crowds of people would recognize him and would bring him their sick to be healed. Pope John Paul II used to attract crowds as well, and many people lamented the fact that he was like a rock star because wherever he went, stadiums were filled to capacity. I suppose there are people who want the Pope to be holed up in the Vatican out of sight, much the same way that the Pharisees wanted Jesus to be out of sight.

But on to other things. The people who were brought to Jesus in order to be healed only had to so much as touch his tassel in order for their afflictions to be cured. Of course, it wasn't the tassel that did the healing but their faith in Christ, but it is interesting that this passage of the gospel doesn't say, "Many people were brought to Jesus, and because they had faith alone they were healed." No, it says that the people wanted to touch the tassel and if they did, they were cured. It was necessary for their faith to be made manifest in the touching of Jesus' tassel in order for the healing to take place. It was necessary to put that faith into action in order for it to be realized.

We Catholics get a bit of grief from people who say that faith alone is necessary for salvation, for we believe that salvation can only come about through faith working in love. As St. James says in his letter, "You now see that it is by deeds, and not only by believing, that someone is justified...As a body without a spirit is dead, so is faith without deeds." (James 2:24,26) The above passage from St. Mark's gospel reveals just such a situation, for the faith of the sick did not result in healing until they touched the tassel of the Master; it had to be put into action to bear fruit. With contemplation we come to realize that the faith and the act are as inseperable as the three persons of the Blessed Trinity.

God knows that we are people who are bound to our five senses. God communicates spiritual reality to us through our own physical reality. Therefore, in order to fully experience God's grace it is necessary for us to experience it through tangible signs. These tangible signs are not magical visions or warm and fuzzy feelings, on the contrary, they are simple gifts. And God uses exceptionally common things in order to reveal to us that we have been graced: water, bread, wine, oil. We can feel, taste, see, smell and hear these physical realities, and through the eyes of faith we can know that something miraculous has occurred, that God's grace, his Divine love has been given to us. While the fact that God's grace is given to us is a miracle in and of itself, it is also miraculous that such a powerful thing can be given to us under the sign of something which seems so insignificant.

St. Paul Miki, you and your companions who were martyred by crucifixion, pray for us.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Faith and understanding

Job spoke, saying: Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery? Are not his days those of hirelings? He is a slave who longs for the shade, a hireling who waits for his wages. So I have been assigned months of misery, and troubled nights have been allotted to me. - Job 7:1-3

The book of Job is a book of wisdom. God allows Satan to test Job to see if he will remain faithful to God despite great misfortune. He loses his possessions and his children but remains faithful. Then he is stricken with physical ailments which are painful and repulsive, yet he remains faithful despite calls from his wife and friends to curse God and die. A couple of things come to mind when I ponder the book of Job.

First, it is interesting that God allows Satan to test Job. This tells me that God is ultimately in control of Satan. Furthermore, Satan is called the accuser and what happens to Job gives us insight into his nature. In a sense, Satan is like a prosecuting attorney in a trial where God is the judge. Situations (even situations which Satan himself has conceived) which result in us tripping up and falling have Satan accusing us before God as inferior creatures not worthy of God's mercy. So often we hear the phrase, "The devil made me do it." In reality, the devil doesn't have that kind of power over our wills. If we have done anything wrong, it is by freely chosing to do so. Satan merely uses our wrongdoing to humiliate us and spotlight our weakness. In a way, it is the nastiest of evils, exploiting our weakness for his gain and ridiculing us when we fall. This is why it is imperative that we inform our consciences well so that we will be able to make wise choices while resisting those choices which may seem good but end up being not so wise in the end.

Secondly, Job, through all of his suffering does the one thing that is only natural and human. He seeks to understand. Here is a man who is righteous, who serves God with all his heart, and yet suffers greatly. While his friends tell him that his suffering is certainly due to guilt of sin, Job maintains his innocence, and while he is certain of his innocence, he is puzzled as to why his innocence would be so rewarded. He turns to God for answers but gets nothing at first, yet rather than turning away from God, he continues to trust. God finally does answer him by revealing how impenetrable is the depth of who he is and how unfathomable are his designs. As God was silent while Job questioned, now Job is silent as God answers. Job understands that he will not always understand.

The final theme? Our faith in God must not be shaken by a lack of understanding, even if that means that we must suffer. The book of Job paves the way for the revelation of the redemptive character of suffering which is manifested through the passion of the Lord, for Jesus trusted despite great suffering and even death, and for this faith he was rewarded by being raised to eternal life.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Lost Sheep

When Jesus disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. - Mark 6:34

I was thinking about our priests today as I pondered the gospel reading at Mass this morning. The Apostles had gathered and were telling Jesus about all that they had done and taught and Jesus replied, "Ok. Let's go away to a deserted place to rest." But word got out that they were going to said "place", and there was a crowd waiting for them when they got there. I can imagine that most people would have been exhausted and rather dismayed to see such a crowd waiting for them as they were preparing for a much needed rest. It must have been like going on a vacation that you are looking forward to only to find out that your office has relocated to the place you are vacationing!

But Jesus saw the crowd and was moved to pity because he knew their hearts, and he knew that they were hungering for God. Jesus who was never one to put his needs above anything else recognized their great need and despite his need for rest, sat and taught the crowds. Like the Good Shepherd that he was, he tended his sheep who were in need.

I witness a similar event in the life of my own parish. People are so in need of spiritual guidance that the priests are seldom given the opportunity to just stop and recharge. And the most awesome thing is that they, like Jesus, are usually quick to recognize the needs of the people whom they serve and are willing to stop and spend time teaching and ministering to their flock, often times putting their own plans on hold even if just for a few minutes to do the Lord's work.

I am no different from those people who sought the Lord and the Apostles back in first century Palestine, and I am one of those parishoners who will stop to chat with the priests looking for some little morsel of spiritual nourishment to help me through the day. So, in this blog entry, I would like to say that I am grateful to God for the shepherds that he has sent to our parish. Father John and Father Kenny, both of you are truly an inspiration and a shining example of Christian charity. May Our Lady keep you close to her heart, and through her intercession, may God bless you and save you.

Thursday, February 02, 2006


They [Mary and Joseph] took Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, just as it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord, and to offer the sacrifice of a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons, in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord. - Luke 2:22b-24

Today is the feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple by Our Lady and St. Joseph. The ritual law of Israel required that 40 days after the birth of a child, a period of time in which the mother would be legally impure and unable to touch anything sacred, that every child born be presented to the Lord, and as part of that presentation, the mother of the child was to offer a year-old lamb and a turtledove in sacrifice as an expiation of sin. If the woman could not afford a lamb, then she was to offer two turtledoves instead.

This brings a couple of things to the forefront of my mind. First of all, the Blessed Mother offers two turtledoves instead of a year-old lamb. This means that Our Lady was a woman of modest means, she was a "lowly handmaid" of the Lord. In her lowliness, the Mother of God was full of God's grace, she was aware of her complete dependence on God, and she proclaimed his greatness in the Magnificat. In a sense, her poverty is all the more impressive because in spite of it, she is the most blessed of all women, blessed in that she was completely and humbly accepting of her role in salvation history, and therefore, blessed by God.

The second thing is the idea of the Blessed Mother offering a sacrifice to God for the expiation of sin. The constant Tradition of the Church has taught that Our Lady was without sin from the moment of her conception. There are those who would say that because she offered the two turtledoves, she must therefore have sinned in some fashion. I believe, on the contrary, that she was being obedient to the Law of Moses to which she was bound, and had she not made the offering of two turtledoves, she very well would have sinned, the sin of disobedience to the command of the Lord. It is along the same lines as what Christ did on the cross, not exactly the same, but along the same lines. Even though he was without sin, Christ obediently offered himself in sacrifice to the Father for the expiation of sin, being obedient to the point that he allowed himself to be cursed (by being hung from a tree), yet no one would dare say that Christ had sinned and as proof of his sinfulness, he offered himself in sacrifice for those sins.

So, let us follow the example of humility and charity which is the Blessed Virgin Mary: always obedient, always leading us to her Son, always immaculate.

Lord Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary, have mercy on us and save us!

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The Hometown Crowd

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. - Mark 6:4-6

A few things come to mind when I contemplate the beginning of the 6th chapter of St. Mark's gospel. Jesus is back in his hometown amongst people who know him, and he is teaching in the synagogue. To their amazement, Jesus teaches with great authority, and they are astonished by this. They ask, "Isn't this the son of Mary? Aren't his brothers and sisters here? Where on earth did he get this wisdom?" Then the gospel goes on to say, "And they took offense at him." (Some say "And they did not accept him.")

First of all, the people of Nazareth are intimately familiar with Jesus and his work as a carpenter. For him to show up as a teacher in synagogue, and one who appears to know what he is talking about at that, obviously sets people aback. This is the sin of pride. It is one which we often encounter when we become jealous of the special talents of someone with whom we are familiar, especially if there is no prior witness of the talents. It is fairly easy to see what the people in the synagogue were aiming to do. Because they were familiar with him, they were attempting to denigrate Jesus by saying, "What's so special about him? That's just Mary's boy, the carpenter."

God is always offering to us all that we need, however, we are free to reject his gifts, and if we reject them, what can they do for us? Similarly, Jesus offers much to the people of Nazareth, but in their rejection of him, he is not able to do much for them. While this rejection prevents "mighty deeds" from being witnessed, it is not because of a lack of the ability of Jesus to do so, rather it is out of love because Jesus will not force upon anyone something that they themselves are not willing to accept. To do otherwise would be self-centered, something that is foreign to God.

I really liked the last sentence: "He was amazed at their lack of faith." What a paradox! The people in the synagogue were amazed at the wisdom which Jesus displayed and at the works he had done, yet despite this, they resented the Lord. Just as Jesus was familiar to the people and this led to them being offended by him, so the people were familiar to Jesus, and rather than being unaffected by their response to him, he is amazed, amazed that people whom he loves so well, whom he would serve so willingly would be so quick to reject him.