15TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2018

A couple of weeks ago, I was shopping at my local supermarket when I found myself next to a young mother pushing a baby carriage. I noticed that she was leaning on the large handle of the carriage and was bending down as close to her infant’s face as she could be and with a radiant smile was saying something to her in soft and tender tones.

The baby responded with a smile that went from ear to ear accompanied by random motions of her tiny limbs expressing, I judged, pure, ecstatic joy.

It was a moment of indescribable beauty and love that I know I’ll remember for a long, long time.

As I continued my walk toward my next purchase, I suddenly stopped and said to myself, “Wait. Go back. You can’t allow that happening to go unacknowledged.” And so I did.

As I approached them, the mother seemed for a moment to be a bit startled by my appearance. The thought occurred to me that, since I was attired in light summer wear, she may have thought I was a store manager about to correct her for some infraction of the local laws. So I quickly said, “Excuse my intrusion, but I must tell you that I am certain I’ll see nothing more beautiful today than your inspiring exchange with this baby that I just happened to witness.”

She thanked me graciously, to which I said, “No, no. It’s I who must thank you. I cannot think of anything this world needs more than what you are giving to your child. Imagine what life would be like on this planet if every person had such a start.”

In the hours and days that followed, the memory of that incident recurred frequently, revealing to me that it contained another dimension that must not be overlooked: the presence of God! St. John said that God is love and that whoever lives in love lives in God. We need frequently to be reminded of that phenomenon: that any manifestation of genuine love is at the same time a revelation of the mysterious reality that we call God.

My mother was a voracious reader; among the publications she received, her favorite was the National Geographic, which we four kids also very much enjoyed, of course. How often did she say, as she was viewing a photo of one of nature’s “miracles,” like maybe a bird doing something spectacular in the care of its young, “Look at this, children: isn’t God wonderful?”

God’s presence is everywhere. We have only to pay attention to perceive and enjoy it, to be inspired and strengthened by it. We mustn’t allow ourselves to be so distracted and absorbed by the busyness of life around and within us that we cannot perceive and connect with Love that is so much to our benefit and joy.

I wish you peace!

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14TH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR 2018

We can’t help but wonder about this “thorn in the flesh” that St. Paul claims to have been given and that he asked God time & again to take away from him. Some think it may have been a speech impediment; others suggest it was a distracting relationship with another person. I’ve heard the suggestion that it was an embarrassing illness — or poverty that left him virtually homeless. And so on. I guess that we will never know for sure what it was.

What we do know is this: Paul learned to accept this condition of his life and asked God to turn it into power for good. He came to the revolutionary conclusion that this weakness, this disability, this negative, destructive, maybe embarrassing thing in his life was actually a major blessing in disguise — for himself and for those he served in Jesus’ name.

Why? Because it reduced him — with all his pride and self-determination and resourcefulness — to complete dependence on God. It forced him to his knees, so to speak, in which submission he could finally face his human limitations, his near-nothingness, and admit that ultimately he was powerless. Having done that, he could then become the channel through which the awesome power of God would flow.

It is so important for us also to see this great light that came to Paul, because there is not one of us who does not have some sort of disability, whatever it may be. We can react to it in one of only two ways: 1) We go on fighting it vainly, permitting it and our frantic efforts to sap our strength and distract us from our Christian course of life. Or 2) We accept it as inevitable but recognize that it offers us the opportunity to empty ourselves in an act of abandonment to our Creator, inviting the Spirit of God to use us as an instrument of power for good.

Many years ago I had a priest friend who was afflicted with the disease dystonia, which is a progressive destruction of the central nervous system. He walked with his head at knee level, bumping into walls and doorways to guide his course. His whole body shook constantly with what is called disconesia. Despite all that, his mind was clear and his sense of humor was sharp. On a visit to him one Christmas, I asked what he was most grateful for during that season that he so loved. He answered simply, “Everything!” I took the bait and put a question to him that I had wanted for years to ask: Does that include the disease? His answer: “The disease? Above all! You’ll never know what a powerful tool for good it has been in my life as a priest.”

If Paul thought that his personal cross was given him by God, I must say that I do not agree. I cannot imagine God as giving any sort of suffering to us creatures. The truth is that creation is unfinished and very imperfect; therefore, all kinds of terrible things happen to all forms of life before and after our birth. They just happen – that’s all. They are planned by no one, God included.

In the meantime, we take Paul’s excellent advice and invite God to turn even our weaknesses into power for good.

13TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2018

My mother always assured us that our father prayed. We saw him make the sign of the cross at the table and recite with us the prayer before meals. We knew that he went to Mass on Sunday, almost always alone, since he had his own schedule and would assure us that he would “make the 7 at St. Paul’s.” I was certain that he sat as close as possible to the exit door on the gospel side!

On the other hand, my mother came from a solidly Catholic family, whose father was a seminarian before meeting his future wife Catherine and becoming the parent of ten. So Mother assumed the exclusive and permanent job of being our prayer leader and our faith teacher.

Except once. Just once.

I remember that occasion very vividly. I was 7, Bob was 6, Barbara was 2, and David had not been born yet. The toddler, Barbara, had contracted whooping cough and was in imminent danger of death. It was a hot summer day. Dad was called from the textile plant he managed and quickly came home in a white shirt and dark blue tie, I remember. He looked up at the second floor balcony of our Spanish style home where Mother stood outside Barbara’s room in which the doctor was attending to her. Dad got the signal that his baby’s condition was critical. He put his hands on the shoulders of his two little sons and said, “Let’s kneel and ask God to make her well.” We said the Lord’s Prayer, the three of us — that one time — never to be forgotten. Dad ended it with, “Please, dear God, make my daughter well.”

I suspect that the good doctor is more to be credited than divine intervention, but, whatever the truth may have been, my sister got well soon after and grew up to be happily married and the mother of six.

True stories, like the one I just shared with you, or like the one about the man Jairus and his desperately ill young daughter, bear witness to a truth that most people hold in their heart-of-hearts: that God, despite all appearances and contrary evidence, is actively and lovingly present to the human condition and listens to the prayer of every person, whether spoken or silent.

It’s so important to profess that over & over throughout our lives because it can so easily be ignored or forgotten. Where is God when a bloody war rages? Where is God in the conflicts that tear our families apart? Where is God in the deadly drug scene? Where is God in AIDS or cancer? “I turned to you, Lord, and you did not answer me” is also very common human testimony.

My faith is that God cannot be capricious or partial. God cannot be indifferent or insensitive or uncaring. I believe that God always hears our prayer and that God wants us to recognize that we are always being created, minute by minute, and always being saved from what could destroy us. I am convinced that ultimately prayer is simply recognizing that fact of our lives, that on-going relationship with our creator.

So, how God answers or when God answers we cannot always know and often do not. It is not a score card of wins & losses that maintains our faith; it is, rather, the firm conviction that we live our lives, in good times and in bad, in the Mystery of Mysteries that we call God.

You’ve heard me say this before: a high school classmate of mine lost his 19-year-old daughter in a freak accident in New York City. At her jam-packed funeral, he said, “In this, too, we know that God is good and merciful and asks of us only faith and love.” Of all the homilies and talks I have heard on the topic, those words stand out as the truest and most important of all.

Who would dare limit the power of God, especially in the troubles of ours lives?

A Creed for the Slightly Irreverent

I think God must enjoy playing with gender.

That is, if we are talking about the real God:

the One beyond all beyonds and closer than sin,

unbridgeably distant and unavoidably near.

Seems that with a god like that

you could call her him or him her

and it wouldn’t make much of a never-mind.

Of course, ‘it’ wouldn’t fit.

 

Jesus? He was all guy —

but shaped and stamped beyond all our imagining

by 30 years walking with that incredible woman.

Haven’t figured out the genes thing yet;

not sure we’re meant to.

 

He hung out with operators and ladies on the edge.

Not much truck with bigots and religious puff-balls.

Always came back to the down-home folk

and had real weird ideas about picking his team.

 

He was finally done in by pygmies protecting pieties and political privilege.

Seems like “he died for our sins” is a later spin on it all.

Fact is, he was murdered;

apparently the real scandal of the cross is that

we follow a criminal.

 

But then he showed up again.

He was anointed and became the Christ,

and that makes all the difference.

Now he touches everything.

 

 

 

His Spirit is all over the place,

— gathering, gathering, gathering —

ecclesia, communio, church.

Bridging every divide,

woman and man, Jew and Gentile, slave and free,

IRA and CIA,

Sojourners and Wanderers.

Drawing together in spite of.

Holified sinners.

 

And a great, motley cloud of witnesses cheering on;

the holy, the completed, the at-rest,

us,

restless for final embodiment.

And joy.

 

That’s about it.

 

 

[George Wilson, S.J., is a retired church guy
out of Cincinnati, Ohio.]

THE BIRTHDAY OF ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST

You know how there are certain moments and events in our lives that impress us so deeply that we never can forget them. One of mine was the Broadway play, The Elephant Man. It was the very moving, true-to-life story of a man who was horribly afflicted with a disfiguring abnormality. He is frighteningly ugly in appearance, hardly recognizable as a human being. He became a piece of property for an unscrupulous merchant, who displayed him in a carnival where people paid to see him.

A medical doctor, realizing how valuable the elephant man could be in scientific research, took him to a hospital, where he lived for about four years, all the time revealing the beautiful person that lived inside such a repulsive body.

A glamorous actress was brought to meet him — but only after she was carefully instructed on how to regard him, what to say and what not to say, and, above all, which of his two hands to grasp. (Of his four limbs, only the left arm and hand were normal.)

She met him face to face and found the sight of him to be as repugnant as she had been told it was. After a long conversation between the two of them, in which she already began to appreciate the warm person he actually was, she reached out to shake his hand and to tell him what a pleasure it was to meet him. He responded with the normal hand, at which she withdrew hers and simply waited. He understood and gave her instead the sorry lump of misshapen flesh that was his other hand. It was a touching moment of rare tenderness and human love.

Jesus often asked his friends what people were saying about him, who they thought he was. In answer, they told him that many people thought he was a kind of miracle, an ancient prophet who had come back from the dead as a sign of the power and love of God. Jesus dismissed the speculation quickly and asked a question that seemed more urgent to him: “You, my followers and friends, who do you believe I am?” Peter responded for them all: “You are the one we’ve been waiting for, the savior promised to our ancestors.”

It was the wrong hand the crowd and even Peter had been offering to Jesus. Nothing should have been concealed or denied or held back. Jesus wanted to identify with the worst of the human condition. His intention was to make its disfigurement his own and to suffer its pains, even its death. His true followers, he insisted, would have to do the same, taking up their personal crosses and following in his footsteps.

The church celebrates a birthday today, that of St. John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin and the one who first recognized him as God’s special gift to the human race. Jesus’ message was so simple: it consisted of just one word: LOVE — that we love our creator and love our fellow human beings at least as much as we love ourselves. That we accept each other with all our faults and forgive one-another as God always, without hesitation, forgives us. We are to forgive generously what we might call the ugliness in one-another, those qualities that we find distasteful, annoying, and sometimes hurtful.

When we are willing to lose our life, as Jesus puts it, by such personal sacrifices, we invariably discover that we have saved it, for our good and the good of others.

I wish you peace!

11TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2018

How could Jesus even come close to describing the Kingdom of Heaven, which he talked about and referred to so often? He must have thought a thousand times, “They’ll never understand!” And so he did what any other competent teacher would do: he used what was familiar to his hearers to give them some idea, however incomplete, of what God’s Kingdom is like.

In fact, that’s the very word he kept using over and over — “like.” The Kingdom of Heaven is like a valuable pearl…It’s like a great feast…a lost coin…a vineyard…a tiny seed… Each parable, each metaphor, each symbol conveyed some significant aspect of this mysterious “kingdom” that was so important to him that he wanted to arouse interest, curiosity, even passion, in the hearts and minds of his followers.

The main point of today’s lesson seems to be a contrast between small beginnings and spectacular results. Something as fragile and utterly dependent, something so tiny and weak, as a nearly invisible seed, if placed in the right conditions becomes a new being, a structure so sturdy and full of life that it even provides protective shelter for other creatures.

Think of what those “right conditions” are for the sprouting of the little seed: isolation, darkness, immobility, cold, dampness, vulnerability, disintegration. Not very exciting or desirable, for sure. And hardly a description of a glorious spectacle in the making. But it is precisely in these trying and apparently hostile circumstances that the new life begins to emerge, to assert itself, to conquer and thrive and grow to maturity.

The lesson is obvious: it is from weakness that dependable strength comes and gradually evolves! It isn’t a pep talk that Jesus is giving us. He’s no Dale Carnegie teaching us how to harness our latent human powers and by struggling against the odds achieve victory and success. Jesus talks on a plain much, much higher than that. This is the one we call Lord assuring us that God’s word will never return to God unfulfilled. His word is here, in our world and in our hearts, perhaps so small that it is often hardly noticed — but it is here and it is destined to triumph over all opposing forces, including those that lie within ourselves.

Our own moral weakness, our sins, our tiredness, our doubts and confusion, our shaky faith — what are these but the symptoms, the characteristics, of our frail condition? Nonetheless, the seed is firmly implanted within us, and we are destined to claim the indescribable inheritance that is our gift!

There may be someone you love very much to whom you have wanted to give new life in a particular form, but you are discouraged by your apparent powerlessness. Has it ever occurred to you that Jesus must have felt the very same way many times in his challenging life? Would you not agree that the same must have been the case with his disciples and apostles? Why not? They were made of the same stuff that we are.

I remember fondly a world-renowned American nun by the name of Sister Jose Hobday, whose gifts of compassion and wisdom to the poor and the needy were, to say the least, inspiring. I asked her one day how she prays after spending every ounce of her energy in caring for others.

Her response was simple and direct: “When I get to that point, I just lie on my bed and I say, ‘Loving God, my prayer today is all that I’ve got: my exhaustion.’ And then I drift off peacefully to sleep.”

And I add: while she slept, the seed of God’s word grew, ready to be shared by others.

10TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2018

At funerals occasionally, in the course of the homily, I share with the mourners a saying, the author of which I do not know. It has long intrigued me. It’s a simple sentence that goes like this: “Death is the ultimate embarrassment of the human race.” I assume that it is based on our awareness that there is no power on earth that can prevent death; that we have no power to break its hold on us. Death can be staved off for a while, delayed by modern medical science; but ultimately it takes over completely. Even the billionaire is as much a hapless victim of death as any other person, no matter his or her station in life. “Embarrassment” seems like too mild a term for so fundamental a fact of our existence; but it’s a good start for at least causing us to think more deeply.

The second reading in this Mass for the 10th Sunday in Ordinary time, a passage from St. Paul’s second letter to the new Christians in the city of Corinth, tells us that as God raised Jesus from death so will God raise each of us from our inevitable deaths. There is no empirical evidence that I know of to support such a belief: we accept it and cling to it solely on the word of Jesus and those men and women who, more than 2000 years ago, were the first to hear the Good News he was so eager to share with them — and with us. The older I get, the more — and the more frequently — do I think of the death that cannot be too far into the future and that waits for me. I always resolve my anxiety by dwelling on the consoling and exciting assurances of Jesus.

There’s a provocative term found in one of the Mass prayers by which we are told that in the life to come we will find not even any “shadow of death”. That suggests that everything in this present life that hurts us — saddens, worries, or in any way diminishes us — is directly or at least remotely related to death: they are “shadows of death.” It’s as if we were being prepared by these never-ending confrontations for the great and final death that lies ahead.

But what should be the experience of a faith-filled person as they occur? The faithful Christian interprets them as being used by the Holy Spirit, who transforms them into various kinds of new life. These can include an intensified, purified relationship between persons; a sorting out and prioritizing of values; the discernment of vocation; a deeper appreciation of life and love; more compassion toward the suffering and the needs of others; a greater reliance on the powerful presence of God; and so on. In each case, what appeared to be as empty as death — a “little death”— was used by God as the vehicle for the gift of new life.

So we are, not infrequently, dying men and women hoping to be restored to life. And time and again Jesus touches the stretcher on which we lie and we get up and breathe and walk and smile again, with an otherwise unexplainable sense of peace and joy. Why does this happen if not to assure us that it will not be death finally and permanently that claims us, but God, who is love and life both now and forever?

Recognize such happenings in your own life. Try to understand that, although they are perfectly natural, the Spirit of God exchanges them with you, in return giving you new life.

(picture: “Christiana And Mercy In The Valley Of The Shadow Of Death” by Daniel Huntingdon)