ISAIAH 6:1-2A, 10-11 | THESSALONIANS 5:16-24 | JOHN 1:6-8, 19-28
The Pastor’s Reflections
As I write, the war in Ukraine grinds on with massive death tolls on both sides. The Holy Land is once again on fire. The political atmosphere in our country is toxic. If we listen closely we even hear whispers of civil war. People are telling me that they can no longer watch the news, local nor international, because it’s so distressing. I understand their response, and I admit that I, too, have been limiting my daily news consumption. Reading today’s scriptures was like grabbing on to a life jacket.
Advent is our yearly dose of hope, and this third Sunday, in particular, ignites a beacon of hope. We so need this Sunday. We begin with Isaiah’s messianic prophecy. “The Lord has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.”
Every one of us is the poor whether we have a stable income or not. Each of us is poor when we feel stuck and don’t know which way to turn. We’re poor when we don’t know how to solve our personal problems, our children’s problems. We’re poor when we feel little or no hope for ourselves or for the world we live in.
Isaiah calls to us to raise our heads. To look at the sun. To feel God’s warmth on our
faces. To give our broken hearts to the divine healer. To grasp the freedom that’s offered us as children of God. The time has come. Look with hope to the one who can “make justice and praise spring up before all the nations.”
Paul piggybacks Isaiah’s message by encouraging us to reclaim the spirit of joy, to “rejoice always,” to “pray without ceasing,” “to give thanks.”
We need to hear the prophets’ message this Sunday. We need to fix our attention on hope and the possibility of joy. Let’s conclude this reflection with one final prophecy of hope.
“Jerusalem, take off the clothes you have worn in your mourning and distress, and put on the eternal splendor of God’s glory. Put around you the cloak of God’s righteousness. Place on your head the crown of the glory of the Eternal God.” Baruch 5:1-2
DO NOT LOSE HOPE!
Prayer “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked upon his lowly servant…he has remembered his promise of mercy.”
ISAIAH 40:1-5,9-11 | 1 PETER 3:8-14 | MARK 1:1-8
The evangelist, Mark, begins his gospel with a most marvelous sentence. “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” It’s so simple that we can overlook it and miss what it’s saying. So let’s spend some time di- gesting it’s content.
Let’s start with word the “gospel.” In Greek, the original language of the gospel, the word is “euangeleon.” It’s a combination of two words, “eu,” meaning good, and “angeleon,” meaning messenger. In ancient days when a King, for example, was victorious in a battle, messen- gers were sent throughout the realm carrying the good news of the victory. The meaning of gospel is, first and foremost, an announcement declaring good news. The angels in Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus, for example, were messengers declaring good news. “Today, in the city of David, a savior has been born for you who is Savior and Lord.” That news was so good that the angels were joined by a multi- tude of angels proclaiming, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men of good will.”
Mark introduces the messenger to us today by using the words of the prophet Isaiah. “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way. A voice of one crying in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’” In the next sentence, he identifies the messenger, John the Baptist. His message is startling and pow- erful. “One mightier than I will come after me… he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
This first sentence of Mark’s gospel is not only an announcement, it’s also a very short, but powerful, creed. “The beginning of the Gos- pel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus is a man like all of us, but Mark is telling us that he’s much more than that; he is the Christ, the Messiah that the prophets spoke of and prom- ised. But, he’s more than the Messiah. Jesus Lord. He’s the Son of God.
Mark’s marvelous first sentence has a power- ful message for us. Jesus is Messiah and Lord. He’s the Son of God. If we believe this, truly take it into our hearts and invite Jesus to be our Lord, how blessed we are. There isn’t anything greater. But…there is something we must recognize. This acceptance of the Lord in our lives is only the start, the beginning. We’ve heard the good news and have accepted it. Now we act, we become the messengers. We declare it to the next generation, to anyone who can hear. As John the Baptist told us today, we’ve been baptized in the water of re- pentance and new life. Now we, move with the power of the Holy Spirit. Today, we’re the begin- ning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God. We’re the euangeleon.
ISAIAH 68:16B-17 | 19B, 64:2-7 1 CORINTHIANS 51:3-9 | MARK 13:33-37
“We are the clay and you the potter, we are all the work of your hands.”
Isaiah begins our Advent reflection. We hear him open his heart to God, confessing his sins and the sins of his people. “We are angry and we are sinful; all of us have become like polluted rags. We have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind.” Along with his confession, he reaches out to God in a most intimate way. “You, Lord, are our father, our redeemer.” “We are the clay and you the potter, we are all the work of your hands.”
Isaiah’s prayer forms the foundation of our Advent hope. We begin by examin- ing our personal lives, and then, extend- ing our gaze to the world around us. Isaiah gives us two questions to ask of ourselves. First: have I alienated myself from the Father’s love. Second: have I contributed to the world’s alienation from God?
Isaiah’s confession is followed by a prayer that directs us to a renewed rela- tionship with God by offering our lives totally to God. “We are the clay, you are the potter: we are all the work of your hands.”
The founder of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, St. Peter Julian Eymard, spoke at length of this total giv- ing of oneself to God. He called it the gift of self. The insight sprang from the words of Jesus. In the garden of Geth- semane Jesus handed his will to his Fa- ther: “Not my will, but yours be done.” On the cross he released himself entirely to the Father: “Into your hands I com- mend my spirit.”
Advent time brings us back to the ba- sics of our Christian spirituality. We re- flect on our relationship with God, a rela- tionship of complete dependence. We see ourselves as clay in the hand of the di- vine potter. We ask God to determine who and what we are. The gift of self isn’t only the placing our lives in God’s hands, it’s also the pouring out of our lives for others.
This is what we hope for – a world liv- ing as Jesus lived, living for God and for one another. One this first Sunday of Ad- vent we renew our hope for a new me, and a new world. We hope for the coming of the kingdom of God.
EZEKIEL 34: 11-12 | 1 CORINTHIANS 15: 20-26 | MATTHEW 25: 31-46
The great shofar is sounded, and a still small voice is heard. The angels tremble. Fear and dread seize them, and they exclaim: The Day of Judgment is here! All created beings pass before You, one by one, like a flock of sheep. As a shepherd examines his flock, making his sheep pass under his staff, so do You cause every living soul to pass before You. (From a prayer recited on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur)
Jesus uses the imagery of the sheep passing under the shepherd’s crook from this well known prayer as the basis of his teaching on the Last Judgment. He paints a picture of “the Son of Man” separating humankind the way a shepherd separates sheep from the goats. The sheep enter eternal life, the goats eternal punishment.
What’s so interesting about this teaching is Jesus’ criteria for judgment. It isn’t what immediately comes to mind. When I think of the great judgment day, I think of God judging sins like pride, greed, murder, theft, adultery, deception, pride, anger. But Jesus doesn’t go that way at all. Instead he, as judge, intimately links himself to suffering humanity.
“I was ill. I was hungry. I was thirsty. I was a stranger. I was in prison. I was naked. You didn’t care for me. You didn’t feed me. You didn’t give me something to drink. You didn’t welcome me. You didn’t visit me. You didn’t clothe me.” What he seems to be teaching is that the primary commandment that the human family is expected to adhere to is to care for one another’s basic needs. Maybe he’s saying that what we think of as sins are actually symptoms of a more profound sinfulness – humanity’s disregard of the suffering poor.
Jesus presents this commandment that calls us to care for one another in a very personal and intimate way. I was hungry. YOU didn’t give me something to eat. He’s not condemning us for not setting up a welfare state to assure that everyone has enough to eat. He’s commissioning ME and YOU to reach out, to touch the lives of our suffering brothers and sisters. The welfare systems we’ve constructed are dehumanizing and humiliating. My mother, a teenager during the great depression, told me of the times she wept because her family was forced to beg for food stamps. Is the situation any better today? Our welfare system has no compassion, no humanity, no heart.
On this Feast of Christ the King each of us stands in judgment before Christ. Each of us are being asked the same question. “When I was hungry, did you feed me?” Standing before him and hearing that question, how do you think you’ll be judged? Whatever the answer may be, hopefully, he’ll give us another chance. Hopefully, he’ll say to us what he said to the adulterous woman he saved from the condemnation of the religious leaders, “Go, and sin no more.”
PROVERBS 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31 | 1 THESSALONIANS 5:1-6 | MATTHEW 25:14-30
We all know the parable of the talents. It’s one of those parables that goes on and on. Very quickly: a wealthy man, preparing to go on a journey, entrusts three of his servants with his wealth. He gives five talents to one, two to another, and one to another. When the man returns he settles accounts with his servants. The servant entrusted with five returned an additional five, the one with two an additional two. The servant with one talent confesses that he had buried the talent given to him. The wealthy man rewards and promotes the two who invested their talents doubling their investments by giving them more responsibilities. The servant who buried his talent was thrown out “into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” Where do we go with this?
The parable is challenging us to consider what it means to be a disciple. When we first said “yes” to Jesus’ call to follow him we teamed up with him. God has given us all we need to continue the mission, and expects each of us to give our all to continue that mission.
The last line of the parable describes the soul’s regret when realizing that it lost the opportunity to partner with Jesus in his mission. This isn’t a punishment from God. This is self-generated inner suffering over missed opportunity. It’s soul loss.
This parable challenges us to consider our commitment as Christians beginning with our participation in the Eucharist. It’s not enough to “go to church” every Sunday. We must recognize the gospel event that it is. Jesus continues to teach and heal at the eucharist. We have to gather with open hearts so that we can hear and be touched by his teaching. We have to pray for the healing of the fears that prevent us from saying “yes” to his invitation to follow him. The parable is telling us that we can’t sit on our hands and consider ourselves Christians. A “yes” to Jesus is a commitment to take up the ministry he began.
WISDOM 6:12-16 | 1 THESSALONIANS 4:13-18 | MATTHEW 25:1-13
It’s the time of the year is when we begin to see nature preparing for her winter sleep. It’s also the time when the Church presents us with scriptures that speak to us of death. This Sunday is one of them. Saint Paul speaks directly to the topic in his first letter to the Thessalonians. “We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, about those who have fallen asleep, so that you may not grieve like the rest, who have no hope.” He assures us that, if we believe that Jesus died and rose from the dead, if we enter the paschal mystery with him, we’ll walk with him to glory.
The selection from the book of Wisdom adds an interesting nuance to this Sunday’s reflection on death. Wisdom “is readily perceived by those who love her…and whoever, for her, sake keeps vigil shall quickly be free from care.” Wisdom is presented as our hearts’ deep yearning for God. Wisdom is our search for God, our pathway to God and the divine reality itself. Wisdom is the light of hope within us.
The Gospel uses a marriage custom to teach a lesson about death. Newly married couples didn’t go on a honeymoon. Instead they celebrated with their close friends for several days or even a week. The festivities began with the arrival of the bridegroom. At an unscheduled time he and his entourage of friends began a procession through the streets. A drummer usually preceded them announcing his arrival to the entire neighborhood. They were greeted in the street by the bridesmaids who carried oil lamps that lit the street as the procession continued to the house where the bride was waiting. Once the bridegroom entered the house the doors were closed and the celebration began. No one was admitted after that.
In the parable some of the bridesmaids were foolish and didn’t bring extra oil for their lamps. Late into the night the bridegroom finally arrived. The wise bridesmaids jumped up, added oil to their lamps, and went out to meet the bridegroom. The foolish ones, their lamps about to burn out, asked their wiser friends for some of their oil but they refused lest they themselves run out of oil. The foolish bridesmaids had to go to the town to purchase oil. It was too late, though. By the time they returned the bridegroom had arrived and the doors were closed. They missed the wedding celebration.
The moral of the parable is simple. At whatever time the bridegroom might come, each of us must be ready to greet him. We can’t rely on others to make up for our personal lack of preparation. We might state the moral this way: Live every day as if it were your last. But, and this is a serious but, this isn’t the same as, “Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.” For the Christian, being in constant readiness to meet the bridegroom means that we’re prepared to enter the paschal mystery every day and every moment of our lives. This means living in the light of wisdom. This means never fearing to die to my own ego so that I can be more alive for someone else. This is the path of wisdom. This is living the paschal mystery. This is the path to our longed-for glory.
MALACHI 1:14B-2:2B, 8-10 | 1 THESSALONIANS 2:7B-9, 13 | MATTHEW 23:1-12
Let’s put today’s Gospel passage into its context. Jesus had recently entered Jerusalem with great fanfare, cheers and waving of palms. He went straight into the temple where he performed a prophetic act. Quoting from the prophecy of Isaiah, “My temple shall be called a house of prayer for all nations,” he overturned the tables of the money changers and those selling pigeons. The chief priests and elders confronted him the following day when he returned to the temple. They demanded to know by what authority he had performed the prophetic act. As an answer, Jesus confronted them with the parable we’re reading today.
A man had two sons. He asked both of them to work in the vineyard. One refused, but eventually went. The other said he would go, but never did. Jesus then directed a question to them. “Which of the two sons did what the father wanted?” They had no choice but to say it was the one who refused to go but eventually did. It was the better of the two choices, but neither was pleasing to the father. They knew that Jesus was comparing these two sons to them – stubborn, rebellious, contrary. Neither son was a joy to his father. Just in case they didn’t get the point, Jesus moved in with the big artillery.
The religious leaders looked down on the ordinary people. They were smug and judgmental. They scrupulously obeyed the laws, but never allowed the spirit of the law to touch their hearts – melt their hearts transform their hearts.
“The prostitutes and tax collectors are entering the Kingdom of God ahead of you!”
This parable about the two sons is a call to conversion. A person may follow every letter of the law but isn’t guaranteed entrance into the kingdom of God. The heart is the path to the kingdom of God. The prostitutes and the tax collectors opened their hearts when they heard Jesus’ message, the religious leaders hardened theirs.
We’re being called to conversion, to open our hearts to God, to follow the new commandment Jesus gave us. “Love one another as I have loved you.”
EXODUS 22:20-26 | 1 THESSALONIANS 1:5C-10 | MATTHEW 22:34-40
Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore you must love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, will all your soul, and with all your strength.
Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your fellow countryman. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
In the gospel passage today we see Jesus being tested by a group of Pharisees. They asked him which commandment in the law was the greatest. There were 613 to choose from. Jesus picked the two I quoted before I began this reflection.
Quick question. Why didn’t he pick one of the major ten? Because most of them are juridical: it’s a crime to steal, to kill, to perjure oneself.
Jesus picked the commandments that govern the heart. They’re not as easy as not killing or not stealing. They’re commandments that challenge us to change – over and over again.
The commandment from the book of Deuteronomy is called the schema. It’s a creed, the foundation of the Jewish faith. It’s recited at the daily morning and evening prayer. It’s a challenge to love God completely, holding nothing back, loving God with all our heart, soul and strength. Twice a day this commandment challenges our hearts.
The second commandment from the book of Leviticus is an even greater challenge. Love your neighbor as yourself. This commandment is difficult on two levels. Don’t hold a grudge or lust for revenge. Love your neighbor instead. Love your neighbor as you love yourself. This is the second challenge in this commandment, to truly love yourself. The more we love ourselves, forgive ourselves, nurture ourselves, the more we’ll be able to love our neighbor.
These commands are truly challenging but Jesus doesn’t stop there. He added a new commandment at the last supper he ate with his disciples. “Love one another as I love you. There is no greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” He added, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (John 15:12-13)
Jesus added a new and radical ingredient to the two greatest of the laws. He called his disciples to lay down their lives for their friends. He added sacrificial love.
Saint Paul spoke of this love in his letter to the Christian community in Philippi. “Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus. Though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness. And found in human appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5-8)
Jesus’ answer to the religious leaders’ “trick question” was just the beginning of a truly profound call to love: love of God, love of neighbor, love of self. Then prove that love by pouring your life out in the service of others.
The cross we hang in our churches and in homes, or wear around our necks is a reminder, and an invitation, to love one another as he loved us. The heart is the road to the Kingdom of God.
ISAIAH 45:1,4-6 | 1 THESSALONIANS 1:5B | MATTHEW 22:15-21
“Pay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” is certainly on the top ten list of biblical quotes. Jesus said this to circumvent a difficult situation. Two groups, hostile to each other, united in an attempt to take him down. The Herodians were a political party loyal to Herod who was set up by Rome and worked hand in hand with it. The Pharisees were a conservative, ultra-orthodox Jewish group that wanted Israel to be a theocracy. Both groups felt threatened by Jesus. As a popular Jewish preacher, he was seen as a threat to the stability of the Roman occupation. As a rabbi, his “liberal” approach was seen as a threat to Jewish orthodoxy. They thought they had come up with the perfect trap to stop this Jesus once and for all by asking, “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”
If Jesus answered “yes,” the Pharisees would condemn him as a traitor to the Jewish people.
If he answered “no,” the Herodians would have him arrested for inciting revolt. Jesus’ answer was simple – you know your obligations to the state and to God; now act on it!
Jesus’ answer is of utmost importance for us to hear today. We’re in the midst of a tremendous existential challenge. The divisions that are tearing our country apart have become so toxic that the future of our democracy is in jeopardy. We cannot allow ourselves to be sidetracked by any one particular political issue.
Jesus looked at the big picture, collaboration and harmony. And so must we. It’s the only remedy for the healing of our republic. Another teaching of Jesus is closely related to this one and well worth taking note of at this moment. “Every kingdom divided against itself will be laid waste, and no town or house divided against itself will stand.” We need to discard our boxing gloves. We need to find ways to clasp hands again so that we can work for the common good.
The work that lies before us is daunting. Hard-headed focusing on one issue or another can only intensify the divide. We must keep our focus on the big picture. We must never forget the ideal our republic is built on. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Can there be any ideal more profound than ours?
Father, I pray for myself
and my brothers and sisters
throughout our nation.
We’re drowning in hate and anger.
Deliver us from the grip of the evil one.
Rend our hearts
that they might beat in rhythm with your own.
Heal us that we might love
as you love and forgive as you forgive.
ISAIAH 25:6-10A | PHILIPPIANS 4:12-14 | MATTHEW 22:1-14
Today we have a double parable, an interpretation, and a warning to think about. The first parable is very well known: the story of a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. (This is a big-time celebration – no sane person would skip this bash.) But…in the story, people found excuses not to come! They were too preoccupied with the day to day: a farm, a business. The interpretation may, at first, seem obvious. The invited guests were the Jewish people, the first to receive the invitation to the wedding feast. Many rejected the invitation, and some even killed the messengers God sent them.
So, the king sent his messengers out to the roads to invite everyone, good and bad alike, and the banquet was full. An interpretation: The Jewish people were the first to receive an invitation to the wedding banquet, and now everyone is invited. At this point an interpretation was inserted into Jesus’ story.
This Gospel was written between 80 and 90 CE, shortly after the Jewish revolt of 66 CE and the subsequent destruction of the temple in 70 CE. Hence, the interpretation: “The king was enraged and sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.” The destruction of the temple, and the permanent transformation of Judaism that followed, was interpreted as God’s punishment of the Jewish nation for its lack of faith. (A dangerous interpretation that has fed antiSemitism through many generations of Christians.)
Now, the second parable…..A man came to a wedding not wearing a wedding garment. Seeing him, the king commanded his servants: “Bind his hands and feet, and cast him into the darkness outside where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” He missed the opportunity to enter the kingdom because he wasn’t dressed properly. He tried to pour the new wine of the kingdom into his old wineskin. This would have been a more appropriate, and less toxic, conclusion to the first parable.
Every time we gather for the Eucharist we pray, “your kingdom come.” These words are a continual reminder that everyone is invited to the kingdom – there are no exclusions. But the invitation to eat at the table in the kingdom isn’t without a stipulation. It calls for a change of heart, a separation from worldly distractions, and an uncompromising focus on the kingdom.