Mass Readings and Scripture Reflections

When I studied abroad in Paris as a sophomore in college, I had the privilege of visiting the magnificent gardens at Versailles. If you have ever experienced this exquisite vestige of royalist France, you will likely appreciate how much painstaking, dedicated and deliberate care must go into its uptake. Yes, these gardens are a treasured gift for the people of France. However, with this great gift also comes great responsibility to preserve their beauty for all generations to come.

This is even more so the case with the Kingdom of God. As the great prophet Isaiah tells us the vineyard of the Lord, the gift of his magnificent kingdom, must be tilled, cultivated and diligently tended to. As Isaiah makes clear, we must deliberately tend, irrigate and cultivate this spiritual vineyard in our own hearts as well as in the world. How? By ushering in the glories of his reign through announcing his truth to the world. Like the Versailles gardens, the Kingdom of God must be constantly tended to so that it continues to bear forth great fruit. In this case, the salvation of souls in Christ Jesus through his Church. We do all this, St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Philippians, by doing “whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, [and] gracious.” We are called to elevate our hearts and minds to the things of God—eternal life, objective truth, the teachings of the Church, scripture, the sacraments, the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints, holiness, etc.—and to help others to do likewise.

Indeed, our Lord Jesus Christ tells us in the Gospel of Matthew that we must actively accept him and receive him into our lives with great love, admiration and zeal, unlike the wicked tenants who rejected the Master and all who came in his name, even his son. We must always strive to conform ourselves not to the constantly changing standards of the world, but to the eternal standards of Christ, who is love and truth himself. This will allow the loving presence of Christ to grow in our own hearts so that we might courageously bring about his reign here on earth, in every element of society. May Our Lady help us to always be good, saintly tenants of her son’s royal vineyard.

While there is much to explore and study in Matthew’s Gospel reading offered this Sunday, I found myself focusing on the second reading, from Paul’s letter to the church in Phillipi. To me, the most fascinating part of the history of the Christian Church is its infancy, those mysterious early years, and the movements and activities of the Apostles and other disciples, especially Paul of Tarsus. 

Christianity, in its first few decades, had a slow start, and in fact, seemed to be on its way to a quiet demise. Many of its early adherents were probably Essenes, committed to celibacy, and the numbers just could not be replenished. Without some serious evangelization, it may very well have gone the way of many other short-lived Jewish sects, lost to history. Paul, however, logged thousands of miles in his travels around the Mediterranean world, helping to establish and to encourage emergent Christian communities, making his way through modern-day Turkey, Greece, to Rome, and perhaps even as far as Spain. Paul and other missionaries found audiences receptive to the Christian message of love, ministering to the poor and the sick, and the apocalyptic undertones.

Paul and Timothy visited Phillipi in Greece (the first Christian community in Europe) between approximately 49 and 51 AD, and this letter to the Phillipians is actually a composite of fragments of probably three different letters that Paul sent to the Phillipian church over the ensuing decade or so. The second reading we hear this Sunday is from the second chapter. It has a broad tone of optimism, unity and encouragement. Perhaps its most interesting element is a poem that describes the nature of Christ and his act of redemption. Scholars think that this poem was composed by someone else, prior to Paul's writings, as early as the mid- to late 30s AD. That Paul is citing it here indicates its enduring theology and influence.

Religious Education classes begin this week.  The school is back in full swing.  All of our parish children will gather once again to learn and share what they so distinctly have in common—their Catholic Faith.  In our First Reading from Isaiah, we are reminded that the Lord’s way is the only right way and that to be one with him we must follow his way.  We can be reminded of what true faith is by watching children who believe and don’t question their faith the way we adults do.  The Second Reading reminds us of this as it tells us that we have jobs to do for the faith as long as we are here on earth and in our earthly bodies.  Paul made a choice to suffer for his faith.  He sat in prison holding firm to his belief, when denying what he believed could have spared him.  Paul made it clear that he could not lose and he continued to rejoice in the hope that he would be saved whether through his life or his death.  What a strong testament to faith!

In Matthew’s Gospel we hear the parable of the landowner in regard to the kingdom of heaven.   We are all God’s children and God equally loves us all.  Through this gospel we are instructed, “The last shall be first and the first will be last.”  God doesn’t care who we are or how much money we have.  God doesn’t care what color skin we have.  His followers were always accusing him of dining with sinners and tax collectors, or in the case of this gospel, treating those with less with even more love and attention.  What a great reminder to be humble and to follow in every way we can.  God shows us just how generous he is to all people regardless of how long they worked or who they were. 

As school and Religious Ed. begins again, we understand the importance of teaching the children that we are all God’s children, regardless of where we have come from or where we go to school.  God loves us all and that is very freeing! 

The theme for all three readings today is about how to deal with people (in the church community) who sin, do wrong, are wicked. In the First Reading, the Lord tells
Ezekiel that he is the watchman for the Lord’s people. It is Ezekiel’s responsibility, and in turn ours, to convince people to stop their wrongdoing. In other words, if we lead a horse to water, we have done our job. It is not in our power to change anyone. Only they can do that. We have to pray and rely on the grace of God to enter into their
lives to help them change.

St. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, breaks down the commandments and makes it easy. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Very simple. Put yourself in the other guy’s shoes. How would you feel? Tina (Parish Support Specialist) and I were having a conversation in the office the other day about our Book Drive for Wentworth School in Englewood. She commented that she never thought about “not having characters that looked and acted like me” in books she read as a child. I never did either. What if Ann in Ann Likes Red (my childhood fav) was Black and not white? Would I have been drawn to the book as I was? I don’t know. But I never thought about it before.

In the Gospel, Jesus gives specific instructions to the disciples about how to resolve situations in which one of the members of the church sins, yet wants to stay in the community. The more I learn about Jesus, the more I strengthen my relationship with him, and the more I love him! He’s a pretty phenomenal guy that I wish I could have known “in person!” (And I will one day.) I love that he gets operational about things, and he is not only ethereal. He ends with, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Again breaking it down to the simple: you ask and I will be there. Period.

I have to admit, the first time I read these readings, I wasn’t really sure what they had to do with me, with us, now. But the more I sat with them, the more it became clear. Pretty powerful stuff. Now I need to pray for the discipline to do this every week!

Often in Holy Scripture you come across remarkable wisdom. Today’s reading is one such example. The exchange of words between Jesus and Peter in Matthew 16 is one of the most defining passages in Holy Scripture. It’s defining because it perfectly contrasts heavenly wisdom and earthly wisdom. It’s hard not to feel some connection to Peter’s response to Jesus, a response that is a very human response. Who can foretell their own death and willingly accept it? That concept for many is one of the hardest realities to transcend. Why didn’t Jesus just leave and continue his mission elsewhere rather than be killed? We are conditioned and programmed to preserve our lives at all costs and to maximize our material utility. Tales of uncommon valor might give intrigue to a passive listener, but what Jesus is saying goes well beyond feats of bravery. Jesus’ foretelling of his death is something else entirely the world has yet seen.

A careful reading of the Old Testament reveals that it is God who will ultimately renew his people. That renewal is manifest in the person of Jesus. The Israelites living at the time would have known about this promised renewal and the coming of the Messiah. In verse 16, just five verses before the start of today’s Gospel reading, Peter proclaims Jesus as the Messiah. In a very short amount of time, Peter is then being rebuked by Jesus for his rejection of the foretelling of the crucifixion. By all earthly standards we might agree with Peter: why Lord, why do you have to die? This is a lesson Peter will not learn for some time yet. St. Gregory the Great says, “For unless a person departs from themselves, they do not draw near to Him who is above them.” Jesus is the living incarnation of Love. The single greatest act of Love ever seen in this world was achieved on the cross. It is an exemplification of what God is willing to do for us and his beckoning for us to return to him who is Love. The crucifixion is not something derived from a parable or a witty lesson, it can only be wrought in reality. 

The teaching of Jesus is not to decry material existence but to fulfill it with unbelievable longing for the divine. The earthly is perfected in the heavenly. It shows us a path toward something outside of ourselves so that we can truly be ourselves, sons and daughters of the one true God. A God who created us to share in his bliss.

Who do you say that Jesus is?

Jesus said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

Simon Peter said in reply,

"You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

I don’t know about you, but I find that Catholics don’t really talk about our faith. When I see athletes on TV after a great game, thanking Jesus Christ, their Lord and Savior, sometimes I feel a little uncomfortable with that, or just admit that different Christian denominations are more vocal about faith. “Sure, I believe in Jesus, but I don’t need to go announcing it like that. People will think I’m weird or preachy.” Why and when did that start for Catholics? Has it affected the strength of my faith? Has it affected my relationship with Jesus?

Maybe we just go through the motions sometimes: we were raised Catholic; we believe it is important to be good people; we think Jesus sets a great example of kindness to all. But when things are hard (which seems like all the time right now!), am I turning to God? What do I believe?

I’m lucky, I work at St. Josaphat Parish, where people talk about their faith all the time. And I see the efforts that our parish is making, trying to bring people into closer relationship with Jesus, such as Bible Studies and prayer groups. Have you just been writing those off, saying, “things are fine in my life; I don’t have time; I don’t need to become more religious.” Are you a little curious about Alpha? My favorite session was the one that asks “Who Is Jesus?” It explored Jesus in historical context. And it gave me some solid answers when my daughter came to me with questions.

I don’t have all the answers. I have doubts and questions. But I’m still trying to learn and grow in my faith. I invite you to join me.

Naturally, we enjoy being around people who are like us—people who have the same backgrounds, education level, socio-economic status, views and interests make us comfortable.  What I find particularly troubling in today’s society, however, is the number of people who take this tendency a step further by disparaging and denigrating those people who are not like them and who do not share their views.  Expressing our disagreement with others does not demand that we also disparage and denigrate them.  

Today’s readings remind us that we are all God’s creatures and that God loves us all, including those who are different from us.  In the First Reading from the prophet Isaiah, the Israelites have returned to the Promised Land from exile in Babylon.  Because the Babylonians had required all of their subjects, including the Israelites, to live in proximity with other peoples and encouraged them to intermingle to lessen the risk of rebellion, the Israelites continued to live closely with other peoples when they returned to the Promised Land.  Isaiah reminds them that God loves even non-Israelites (foreigners) who respect and obey the Lord.  Similarly, in the Second Reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Romans, Paul speaks to the Gentiles about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, but laments that many Jews (Paul’s own people) have not accepted Jesus as the Messiah.  Paul instructs both the Gentiles and Jews that God’s mercy is for all.

Finally, in today’s Gospel, Jesus accedes to the prayers of a Canaanite woman to heal her daughter, after initially responding that his primary mission was to his own people, the Jews.  Again, the lesson here is that although God initially revealed himself to the world through the Jewish people, God is God of all peoples.  Accordingly, when we are about to criticize, or lash out against, those who hold different views, beliefs and interests from our own, let’s remember that God loves them every bit as much as he loves us.  As Christians, we are called to express our disagreement with respect, reason and compassion, instead of through vitriol and name-calling.  Most importantly, if we treat others with respect, reason and compassion, perhaps we too can assist them to come to Jesus Christ.

Today’s reading is a revelation of who Jesus is in the midst of chaos, and a good example of what it means to walk faithfully in fearful circumstances.

Jesus ordered his disciples to travel ahead of him in the volatile Sea of Galilee, to take some private time with God.  He is alone on the mountain in prayer late into the night while his disciples find themselves in a life-threatening situation.  After being awake for many hours helping Jesus to feed 5,000 people (the only story contained in all four Gospels) they encounter a fierce storm.  A test of endurance and faith for sure! 

One can only try to imagine the toll that exhaustion and fear must have taken on them.  It would have been quite something to remain faithful in the face of such impending doom – and I imagine that the disciples might have at least been tempted to wonder why such a struggle was happening. They had just finished working hard all day serving Jesus and were doing exactly what he told them to do, so why now are they fighting for their lives? 

It was common for the sea to be represented as the abode of demonic forces hostile to God. And it’s easy to see why - the sky is black, the storm is howling, waves are lashing against the boat, the spray of the attacking waves are making it difficult to see or hear much. It is then, in the midst of this crisis when their energy reserves are spent, that Jesus reveals himself after “the fourth watch of the night” (somewhere between 3-6am), walking on the chaotic sea. Well, OF COURSE they think he is a ghost (staying up all night can make you delirious!) and are afraid.  Even after hearing the Lord’s reassuring voice, Peter isn’t so sure.

It’s Peter’s faith that keeps him above water.

Paradoxically, the storms of life can be blessings. When things are going badly, our hearts are more receptive to God. A broken heart is often a door through which God can find entry. This passage brought great comfort to the early Christians. While not spared suffering and death, they were confident that Jesus would save them even if they were to die. 

When Jesus comes to us in the midst of the storm - the storm does not hold the upper hand!  God is present with us in the most turbulent places. 

Jesus was fully human. Completely and totally human. Sometimes it is easy to forget this important facet of who he was. And is. It is easy to forget Jesus’ humanity because he was also completely and fully divine. The Son of God.
 
The early Christians who remembered, told, re-told, and wrote the stories of Jesus’ life really wanted us to remember that he shared our humanity completely. This seems to be clear in the Gospel reading we share today. Sadly, it touches home in ways that are possibly more poignant as we continue to navigate our way through the current pandemic, too.
 
Jesus experienced the loss of people he loved. He experienced the fear that his people felt during the time of Roman occupation, diseases, poverty, and displacement. All of these things were part of his waking, preaching, teaching, sleeping, and living. Jesus was fully human and attuned to the challenges of his day.
 
In Luke’s gospel, we read Jesus’ response to the death of his dear friend Lazarus. He weeps. As far as I know, this is the only scripture passage we have that tells us Jesus cried and shed tears. This is such a human response that comes from a very real human being who feels the loss of a loved one to death.
 
Similarly, we see Jesus in today’s Gospel reading from Saint Matthew responding to the death of his cousin John the Baptist. He just wants to get away. Retreat to a deserted place. Deal with his loss in private. So human!
 
And yet his love for the people to whom he is called to served bubbles up and surfaces above the sadness of loss. He looks out and realizes others who have experienced loss, fear, despair, and alienation follow him. They follow him for his miracles. They also follow him because he knows what it is like to be them. Jesus understands and feels their fear and pain, confusion and frustration.
 
Isaiah, in the first reading, reminds us that God provides for us. “All those who are thirsty … come to the water.” Jesus would have been very familiar with this passage. Remember how he read from the Book of Isaiah when he began his public ministry? When the people followed Jesus to the deserted place, my guess is that he remembered this passage from the prophet. The people were hungry for meaning, consolation, guidance, and healing. Just like Jesus after the death of his cousin.
 
And so, he feeds them from almost nothing. Five loaves and two fish. This becomes enough for five thousand others who are hungry, thirsty, and looking for comfort.
 
Today’s world is confusing, scary, and calls out our best selves. Jesus, yet again, offers us an example of how we can embrace our humanity, accept its limitations, and look to God to increase what little we may think we have. Let us continue to pray for one another, take care of one another, and look to our very human brother, Jesus, for guidance. His divinity as Christ will continue to shine through as he helps us along the way.
“Brothers and sisters: We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
 
In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul tells us to not permit fear to overshadow God’s goodness. As baptized children of God the Father in Jesus Christ, we are children of the light, not of darkness. Because the light that we are called to bear forth is none other than Jesus Christ himself, nothing in this world can separate us from God’s love, unless we let it. Our Lord frequently tells us to not be afraid precisely because fear prevents us from fully and completely trusting in God’s goodness and truth. Though the healthy and reverent fear of the Lord is, indeed, a gift of the Holy Spirit that we receive at confirmation, the fear that comes from an unhealthy fixation on the things of this world is not. Whether it has to do with health, finances, family, politics or the news, this kind of fear involves anxiety, despair and restlessness. This paralyzing fear prevents us from seeing and freely choosing the goodness, beauty and truth of God. Such fear makes us vulnerable to things and ideas that are not of God.

The fear of the Lord, though, instills a loving awe and respect for God and his laws. It sharpens our focus and heightens our awareness of God’s goodness and, therefore, helps us to grow in love of God. This desire for God’s goodness and truth is what leads King Solomon in I Kings to ask not for riches or power but for “an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong.” Here, Solomon seeks to do right by God and his subjects. True wisdom always seeks God. True wisdom realizes that God is always calling us to himself. Whereas an attitude of fear prevents us from seeing and acting on this fact during times of difficulty and pain, Christ’s perfect love enables us to become holier and more courageous during these moments. As illustrated in Matthew’s Gospel, Christ and his kingdom are, indeed, the pearl of great price! They are more valuable than all the riches on the face of the earth combined! May our Blessed Mother help us to draw ever-nearer to her Son’s sacred heart, this “pearl of great price,” whose perfect love triumphs over darkness and fear.

The Parable of the Mustard Seed may perhaps be the most evidently prophetic parable attributed to Jesus. He begins, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed...” A seed so extraordinarily small becomes a tall mustard plant that can grow to more than twice the height of a man and provide shelter for the birds of the sky.

Consider the smallness of the origin of the kingdom: the humble birthplace of the Savior, a vulnerable baby born among beasts; son of a carpenter and a peasant girl, who were neither wealthy nor of great prestige; the beginning of his ministry in not-so-important Nazareth, without pomp or fanfare; the nature and character of his disciples as rural fishermen, illiterate peasants from Lower Galilee.

Consider now the progress of Christ’s kingdom: in the decades and centuries after Jesus’ death, the rapid spread of the Gospel throughout the eastern Mediterranean, and ultimately the Roman Empire and much of the Western world; Christianity’s tremendous impact on world affairs in the last two millennia. 

How did that happen? How did such a local story, such a small group of followers, dedicated though they were, come to influence global affairs in such a powerful way? One answer to that may be the author of today’s second reading, Paul. One could argue that, for its success and growth, Christianity owes as much to Paul as it does to Jesus. 

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he explains that the Spirit of God receives even imperfect prayers, that “the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.” Despite human failings and the inadequacy of words, the Spirit takes the meaning from the heart.

What a wonderful message we receive in our scripture readings this weekend. Jesus is “meek and humble of heart” and coming to save us.  

Zechariah announces that the Lord is sending a savior who will be “riding on an ass.” When a king was seen riding on a horse it meant battle; a donkey was a sign of opposition to war. Obviously Zechariah was a prophet exclaiming to the people that when this meek and “just savior” arrives he will do away with war and “proclaim peace to the nations.”

In St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, he reminds who this just savior is coming for.  It is through our baptism that we are given the spirit for the first time, and within us baptized that the spirit lives. I had the privilege and honor of witnessing the baptism of Keenan Fix last Saturday. Keenan was our RCIA adult Catechumen who was baptized, confirmed and received his First Eucharist. Witnessing this young man receiving Jesus’ spirit for the first time was truly amazing! Sometimes I think we adult Catholics can take our baptism for granted and forget the true meaning of being baptized into the spirit with the “Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Our other four candidates who were fully received into the Church last Saturday, Paola Huitron, Iryna Shafoval, Patrick Ahrens and Brendan Gruenwald-Smitz received the spirit again through their Confirmation. It is comforting to remember that our savior is coming for us, those living in the spirit, the baptized. Our savior is “meek and humble of heart” and is coming to save us!

Pandemic. Injustice. Fear. Despair.

Where can we find God in all this?

The 2nd Reading (2 Corinthians) speaks to us today: “Brothers and sisters… Mend your ways, encourage one another… live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you.” Fix what is wrong. Support each other. Do it peacefully. And God is with us.

Where is God? 

God is in the hospital workers, senior care facility staff, and loving family members who continue to care for the sick and dying.

God is in the millions of people who stayed in their homes over the past months to protect vulnerable populations from illness.

God is in the peaceful protestors, trying to repair a broken system.

God is in the neighbors who helped small business owners clean up after destruction.

This weekend we honor the Holy Trinity, an essential mystery of our faith as Christians. The 2nd Reading references the three persons of the Trinity in the recognizable words that we hear in Mass: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” 

Where is God? God is IN YOU.

How will you show Christ to others?

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May God the Father, who loves me unconditionally, help me to be a loving and protective guardian. May I always choose to be a creator of goodness instead of a destroyer. 

May God the Son, who understands human suffering because he lived it, be with those who are ill. May he guide me in loving my neighbor as myself, in ensuring that all are treated with fairness and kindness, and by making it happen in a peaceful way.

May God the Holy Spirit, who is present with us, guide me to do God’s will. May the Spirit move and work and live in me, to bring me closer to understanding the physical and mental suffering of others. To give courage to those who are afraid, and hope to those in despair.

The Feast of Pentecost was one of the three principal Jewish pilgrimage festivals (Pesach (Passover) and Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles/Booths) are the others) in which Jews from throughout the world would gather in Jerusalem to celebrate. Pentecost represents the fiftieth day (from the Greek word “Pentekoste”) after Passover. In today’s 1st Reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus’s eleven disciples are holed up in the upper room to celebrate Pentecost. As today’s Gospel reading from John tells us, the doors to the room were locked “for fear of the Jews.” The disciples were afraid to show themselves in public for fear of persecution, imprisonment, and even death. Yet when the Holy Spirit falls upon them (by tongues of fire in Acts, by Jesus’s breath in John), they find the strength and courage to go forth into the world and preach the Gospel, notwithstanding the continued threat of persecution, imprisonment, and death.

This reminds me a bit of our present situation where each of us are quarantined in our respective homes for fear of contracting COVID-19 from straying out in public. Although we are not all gathered in one place, as St. Paul reminds us in today’s 2nd Reading from his First Letter to the Corinthians, we truly are bound together by “the same Spirit,” “the same Lord,” and “the same God.” We should take comfort in that. That doesn’t mean that we should all venture out in public without masks or without maintaining the requisite social distancing, relying upon the Holy Spirit to protect us and others. But we should allow the Holy Spirit to work within each one of us to spread the Gospel by other means, through telephone calls, Zoom calls, letters, and voluntarily delivering necessary items to those in need. We also need to allow the Holy Spirit to help us to alleviate the stress that each of us may be feeling. In this feast of Pentecost during these troubling times, may the Holy Spirit continue to guide and strengthen each one of us.

We are not accustomed to waiting. If a plane is delayed, I might feel outraged. We’ve all been at a stoplight when cars honk a nanosecond after the light turns green. When the wifi in my house doesn’t meet my kids’ expectations, I have yet to hear any of them calmly say, “Just wait, it will be back.”
 
I place great value in knowing when things will happen; that gives me a sense of control. When schedules are disrupted, like right now, it is a source of anxiety for me. I want to know when can we walk at the lakefront, when I can return to my job, when my children will be able to go back to school, when can I hug my friends, when there will be a vaccine, and for goodness sake when Costco will have Lysol in stock again! I feel more comfortable when I know exactly what I am dealing with but when information is lacking, I can’t help but panic a little. This is when faith is so important.
 
The apostles must have had moments of anxiety when Jesus’ instruction to them wasn’t specific enough too. The last thing they asked Jesus, before his ascension, was about the kingdom - they wanted to know when Israel would be back to the way things were. Naturally, they were expecting a temporal kingdom with a political victory, a revolution and a king.
 
When they had gathered together they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He answered them, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you,
and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria,
and to the ends of the earth.”
 
But this was not the type of kingdom that Jesus had in mind. Rather than answer the question, he tells them to wait for the Holy Spirit. Jesus knew that they were going to need help following him without a “him” there to follow. He wanted God not to just be with them but to dwell in them to help them understand and perform their mission.
 
We, too, receive the gift of the Holy Spirit at confirmation. Admittedly, when I was confirmed, I didn’t understand this gift as I do now. When I am anxious, I call upon him to guide me. And when I take time to reflect and recognize the ways in which God calls to me through the Holy Spirit (you know, those “coincidences”), I find comfort and peace.
 
And much like I reassure my kids about our wifi, I think about what the angels who appeared after Jesus ascended who said (something like,) “Just wait, he’ll be back”. And just like that, I too am reassured.

What has your prayer been like during these odd days of staying at home, remote learning, and only being able to gather virtually online for Eucharist? My prayer has been sometimes pretty dry, other times amazingly rich and full, while still other times I am prayerfully afraid of the unknown or simply sad.

These are odd days, no doubt about it.

There was a post and a kind of reflection going around social media a few weeks back that reminded us that our experience is similar to that of the first Christians. After Jesus died they hid out in their homes. They were isolated from one another.

Some believed while others, like Thomas, did not believe. The online reflection reminded us that we have a lot in common with those first Christians who were forced to remain in their homes, for safety, while waiting for the next step in God’s unfolding of his saving plan.

This weekend’s readings move our attention to that next step. The Holy Spirit. The word spirit means breath in Greek. One of the challenges of those who are afflicted with the new coronavirus is the impact on being able to breathe. This is physical. But we are all sharing in the emotional or spiritual impact of this pandemic. We want to simply be able to breathe without fear, isolation, or danger.

In a different way, as we await Pentecost, we continue to embrace the experience of the very first Christians as they huddled in safety, awaiting a time when they could come forth and share what they had learned. We are like them in awaiting the gift of the advocate, the Holy Spirit … the very breath of God … that will fill us with the faith, courage, and love we need to take the next step.

This is hard stuff, at least for me. Very hard.

That said, those early Christian believers left us a journal of their own times that might be helpful in our times. The First Letter of Peter says, “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence.”

Why do I hope? Because God is good. God is goodness itself and has sent Jesus into the world to remind us of all that is good. Even more deeply, I have hope because people are so good. This is true even when they do not realize it themselves. While we are isolated, people are sharing, connecting, and praying. The hungry are being fed in creative ways. Healing is only possible because people are helping each other heal. Learning continues with difficulty yet with amazing ingenuity. Love continues. The Body of Christ lives in these days and in our times.

And each of us is part of the Body of Christ. After all, if the Holy Spirit, the Advocate … the breath of God … can only fill the lungs of believers who have hope, remain loving, and continue to step forward with faith. It is not a cliché. We really are in this together. God bless you!

Yes, it is certainly true that the present state of the world is chaotic and frantic. It might even seem at times that other than death and taxes the only certainty in our life is that there is no certainty. Though this notion may be tempting to entertain, we know from scripture and tradition that this is not true. Yes, the world and the spirit of the age certainly are in flux. They are governed by chaos rather than order. However, this is nothing new. The world waxes, wanes and changes with the passing of each age; it always has and always will. This is so even in “normal” times. Christ, however, is the constant “living stone” upon which our eternal life and hope is built. It is Christ and his one, true Catholic Church who remain the constant source of truth, love, refreshment and joy through the ages. Christ never disappoints!

In St. Peter’s 1st Letter we read that we Christians are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a consecrated nation, a people set apart to sing the praises of God who called [us] out of the darkness into his wonderful light.” We are, therefore, called to bear forth the light of this truth within our families, first and foremost, through prayer and Christian living, and within society in whatever capacity we are able—be it virtually or in person. Indeed, the apostles ordained the Church’s first deacons in the Acts of the Apostles to not only ensure the fair and just distribution of food to the needy, but to bear forth the light of Christ through their preaching and sacramental ministry. True Christian charity demands, therefore, that we not only be concerned with the wellbeing of someone’s body but, even more importantly, the wellbeing of the person’s soul. After all, eternal happiness with God, our Blessed Mother, the angels and saints in heaven is the goal!

In fact, this is why we as Christians are called not to conform ourselves to the world for which nothing is certain but, rather, to seek to conform the world to Christ who, according to the Gospel of St. John, is “the Way, the Truth and the Life.” After all, Christ makes it clear that he, himself, is not just one way amongst many equally valid ways, but the only way to God the Father. Heaven is only possible, therefore, through Christ. Even though our ability to receive the Holy Eucharist and Confession is currently limited, we still have our marching orders from this Sunday’s readings: help Christ convert and restore the world to God’s loving design, one soul at a time. Starting with ourselves and our families, with our gazes fixed on heaven, we do this by remaining faithful to Christ, growing in our own spiritual lives, adhering to his teachings, committing ourselves to courageously spreading His Gospel and persevering in prayer. May our Blessed Mother always keep our hearts full of her loving Son’s hope, truth and zeal for souls.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus makes 7 "I AM" (Greek: ego eimi) statements using a metaphorical image. I am... the bread of life (JN 6:35), the light of the world (JN 8:12), the good shepherd (JN 10:11), the resurrection and the life (JN 11:25), the way, the truth and the life (JN14:6), and the true vine (JN 15:1). In this Sunday's Gospel, from John's 10th chapter, we hear Jesus explaining to the Pharisees, "I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture."  (For more on these statements, check out Fr. Peter's video for us.)

I like to imagine that the competing philosophies in Jerusalem and greater Judea at the time were just that -- competing. Through scriptural and theological debate, the different factions (Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, Essenes) attempted to win followers and influence in the region. Then here is Jesus the Nazarene, this upstart from Galilee, telling a scholarly establishment of Pharisees that they are "thieves and robbers," and the only way to salvation is actually through him. Now, I also like to imagine the reaction of both the Pharisees and others present. Certainly, the Pharisees would not have taken it kindly, but others might have relished witnessing the Pharisee leadership taken down a notch.

Perhaps out of a sense of rivalry but most definitely rooted in love, Jesus persists in challenging his listeners, and in ways accessible to common people at the time. He uses imagery of sheep and shepherds, vines and branches, bread, light. Literacy not required, scriptural scholarship not required -- these are images and ideas that everyone can understand.

Hope and belief are two powerful words in not only today’s readings but in our current situation.  These times right now can seem especially difficult and challenging. Some of us are dealing with too much togetherness.  Others are struggling with missing the loved ones we are not able to be with. We are trying to juggle our children’s e-learning while working full time jobs from home.  We are attempting to stay connected with friends and family through phone calls, Facetime and Zoom. This might be one of the many times in our lives when we find it hard to  hope so we just have to trust God and ask him to restore it. Even though we cannot see the end of this struggle right now, I am so thankful that I have my belief in God, and that he will bring us the hope we so desperately need right now.  Even death couldn’t separate Jesus from his disciples. He showed them his wounds so they would believe and have hope.  

In John’s Gospel Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”  Thomas had to have proof before he would believe that Jesus had risen and was with them.  Are you a “Doubting Thomas'' who needs to see it to believe it? Do you need to put your fingers in the wounds of the Risen Christ to have hope?  Or are you a believer who believes that after all of this is over and you can live again, you will live a kind of “new birth?” What will that new birth look like?  How will this latest experience, with its ups and downs, its struggles, its sadness, its loss, its loneliness, change you? Maybe you will appreciate the little things in life more, i.e. going out to dinner, watching your children play in the park, meeting a friend for coffee.  Maybe you will find a new gift in our Masses together as a community, and center your scheduling around coming to St. Josaphat on Sunday mornings.

When we come out on the other side (and we will!) how can we turn this tragedy into a blessing through our belief and hope?  Perhaps we have had more time to pray. Maybe because we are forced to stay home and can’t be out shopping or dining or running errands we have had the time to join Fr. Francis’s Zoom bible study on Wednesdays at 9 am or we have had the time to join the Women’s Group on Friday mornings at 9 am.  Maybe we will sign up for the online Alpha on Tuesday at 7 pm. Maybe we’ll have an overwhelming response to our Lunchtime Reflection with Fr. Peter this Tuesday from 12 - 12:45 pm to reflect on ways in which we can grow closer to Jesus. Maybe our personal relationships with friends and family will be stronger due to our agenda changes during these weeks.  Will our most important relationship, with Jesus, be stronger because we have belief and hope? I hope so!

Today’s Gospel takes us from the preparation of the Last Supper to Jesus’ crucifixion and burial.  This account is the “cut to the chase” of Christianity. God loves us so much that he sent his only son, Jesus, to die for our sins and open the gates of heaven for us. To remind us of this is why the crucifix is prominently displayed in all of our churches, and is our primary Catholic symbol.

Did you ever try St. Ignatius’s method of imaginative prayer with this familiar scripture passage?  (This type of prayer lets you “live into” a scripture story with all your senses and imagination. Check out your St. Josaphat Parish Prayer Guidebook for more information :-)  The women don’t get much coverage in this story, and of course I understand the cultural reasons why, but, “There were many women there, looking on from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him.” 

Would I have been one of these women who followed Jesus walking 3+ days to Jerusalem from Galilee?  If we were friends, would he have wanted me to be there for support? Maybe I could have wiped his face like Veronica is said to have? Or maybe I could have helped prepare what was to be the Last Supper? 

I would have felt that being with Jesus and going with him to Jerusalem would have a bigger impact on spreading his Good News than lugging laundry to the washing pool, chasing after toddlers, and cooking over a hot fire.  But if I had little kids or ailing parents to take care of, there is no way he would expect me to shirk those responsibilities. To serve him best, he would want me to fulfill my duties as best I could, and with love. He would want me to listen closely to what God was calling me to do, and to do it well and cheerfully, even if it was not being in the midst of the action. And he would want my prayers for him to the Father.  

I liken this to my situation during this pandemic.  I’m not a scientist inventing a cure; I’m not in government making public policy; I’m not a nurse in the emergency room.  God put me here, at home, and is asking me to take care of my family and do what I can to help others while obeying the restrictions in place.  I can be positive, hopeful, patient and kind. (Well at least I can try!) And I can pray, a lot, for those that he has called to be on the front lines.  That they stay strong, healthy, clear-headed, honest, and collaborative. And for those who are suffering and those that care for them. That they get the support and comfort they need.  And for all of us. That we emerge from these days with a stronger reliance on God, and each other.  

I encourage you to spend those minutes right before you fall asleep or when you first get up in the morning to ask God what he wants you to do, who he is calling you to be.  (Even if you think you already know.) Then challenge yourself to listen for his answer. Maybe it will be clearer in these very unusual times.

Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me. “These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.  (John 14:23-26)

 

I interpret this Gospel as saying that no matter what, God is with you and will always be there for you if you are willing to listen to him. It’s saying that you have to love God and believe he is there in order to have him in your life. The Gospel says, “These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you,” meaning that he is always with us even if we don’t know it. We need to believe in God and put our trust in him by knowing he is there, even if we don’t feel like he always is.

 

I apply this to my everyday life as a newly confirmed Catholic by realizing that in times of hardship, God will always be there for me if I love and trust him. Although I am still young and haven’t experienced many hardships, I still have to love him so he can be with me through those tough times that I have yet to go through. Right now, the world is going through COVID-19, and it’s a very difficult time for everyone. I have to trust God and know he’s there to guide us to the light at the end of the tunnel. If I believe he’s there and love him, I can have faith in him to carry us through this pandemic. This Gospel has made me reflect on how I see God in everyday life and how I need to always love and be aware of God.

In today’s Gospel, we see a very intimate side of Jesus. We regularly read about Jesus healing the sick and infirm, but this healing has a different character. Jesus heals and raises a friend, someone he knew. Upon hearing about Lazarus’s death Jesus was perturbed. We also hear that he was troubled when he encountered Mary, the sister of Lazarus, in distress.

In the seminary, we learn a lot about what ecumenical councils and dogmas of the Church have said about the nature of God. However John has a very unique insight into the life of our savior. Jesus is the second person of the trinity, God made flesh, the Son of Man and Messiah. God could have instantiated himself in any way in our world, but he chose to bend down and meet us on our level. That’s not just a way of explaining that Jesus is fully divine and fully human. Being on our level includes all that comes with being a human, including sadness and grief. God did not make himself above how we experience, he embraced it.

This is perhaps one of the most astounding aspects of our faith, or at least one that I tend to return to in prayer. The incarnation is not just a nice theological term. It’s all encompassing, it extends to every part of the human experience, and this is incredible! God is not some faraway principal governing the universe from a distance. He became us; he is us! The prologue of John’s gospel tells us that this was the plan from the very beginning. Not only did he become us, but he did so that we might become like him.

He did so that Lazarus, and you, and I might be raised, spiritually and corporally. Jesus wept for his friend Lazarus. A God beyond all praising wept for us. God is not indifferent to our suffering and death, because he’s experienced it himself. This gospel passage is very timely in light of the current pandemic. Some might ask where is God in all of this? Does he even take notice of the sick? Are we left alone to die? Today’s Gospel answers that. In Jesus we are healed in more ways than one.

“Even though I walk in the dark valley, I fear no evil; for you are at my side.”


I don’t know about you, but I feel like I am in a very dark valley these days. And it changes from hour to hour. In my less selfish moments, I am thinking about the vulnerable populations for whom this virus is deadly. I am thinking about small business owners and workers in social environments, whose entire livelihood is at risk. Other times, I feel overwhelmed by the thought of empty grocery store shelves, and not having stored up enough. In my most selfish times, I worry about my savings account dwindling away. I think about how frustrating it is to be at home, trying to be productive, trying to guide my daughter through her e-learning, trying to stay out of my husband’s way as he works from home in a dismal economy.

But today’s responsorial (Psalm 23) reminds me that God is at my side. We need not fear. I keep forgetting that, but I’m working on it. Over the past week, I watched Mass with Fr. Francis online, I called in for a Bible Study and I’ve really been trying to pray more. And you know what? I usually feel better afterwards. I get out of my head and into my heart, and I feel God’s presence. Despite our social isolation, we are not alone.

Maybe, like the Pharisees in today’s Gospel (John 9), I have been blind to what is truly important. Maybe this whole experience will help me to refocus and come to a new appreciation of things. May God open our eyes to his loving presence. And open our eyes to what really matters—family, friends, having our basic needs met, connecting with others.

John 14:23-26 23 Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me. “All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.

I think Jesus is trying to say that if you follow his guidance/guideline/rules you will be rewarded, in the end, with God's love. Jesus is also not telling you to listen to him, he's asking you because it is God’s will.