Tag Archives: Bible

ASCENSION 2017

Our ancestors concocted wonderful and enduring stories about the mysteries of faith, taking them from what they saw around them. For example, they marveled at how a potter makes a beautiful vase out of a lump of clay, and they said “That’s how God made us!” The facts were wrong, but the message was right: that God is the creator of all that is, and that human beings were created to resemble that God in ways not possible for any other creature.

It is the meaning of what they thought and said and wrote that counts, not what facts it contains or doesn’t contain. They didn’t have access to those facts, as we do today. But fundamentalists even now insist that the Bible can make no error of any kind, and they calculate, therefore, that the universe is only 6,000 years old – while solid science tells us that the universe is some 15 billion years old!

What is written in the Bible about the feast we are celebrating today is a significant case in point. Consider that, of the four gospel authors and St. Paul, out of those five, Luke is the only one who has left us with a step-by-step account of the events of Jesus’ life, death, Resurrection, and Ascension. Nowhere else in the Bible will you find the purported “facts” that he offers. John bunches up the Resurrection of Jesus, his Ascension, and the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples into one brief day. Mark and Matthew make no mention of an Ascension; they tell only of Jesus’ Resurrection. And Paul, the first New Testament writer – before Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — treats the two events, Resurrection and Ascension, as if they were one and the same.

So, we’re not going to get much in the way of factual reliability from those five! But who should care about a little contradiction here & there? Like a good spice, it makes the story tastier!

It is the meaning of what is passed on that is the important thing, not whether or not it is historically or scientifically accurate. The scriptures, let us say again & again, are not history books; they are not biographies; they are expressions of faith.

There’s a message for us in these Ascension accounts and references; namely, that we who have heard and accepted Jesus as the ultimate life-giver, the ultimate expression of the mystery that we call God, are called, not only to believe, but to imitate! We are to carry on what he began: a ministry of love, healing, forgiveness, and peacemaking. We are to do that, not depending on our limited human resources alone, but on the Divine Spirit whom God would share with us always. The story of his “Ascension,” even though it may not have been the lifting of his living body skyward, implies that he is with God in a total union of the most intense love and that we are here to be him to others by allowing the Spirit that worked through him to work through us.

He has left us — only to be with us always!

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31ST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME 2016

You’re aware, I’m sure, that the Bible as we know it is actually a collection of very small books by different authors who lived at different times in a variety of places. The selection of this particular set of books called the Bible was made by the bishops of the early church out of many other documents having to do with the life, the person, the actions, and the teachings of Jesus.

But why in the world was the passage we just heard from St. Luke’s version of the Good News preserved, the one about a tiny man who shinnies up a tree – a sycamore tree, the author bothers to tell us – in order just to get a glimpse of this Jesus about whom he has heard so many glowing comments? Anyone is entitled to a guess, of course, but we must also be guided by what the church itself some 2000 years ago judged to be the meaning of the homely narrative.

To appreciate what is being said here, we have to keep in mind that in Jesus’ day and in his society tax collectors were among the most despised of all persons. The reason for this was that the tax collectors were themselves Jews in the employ of the Roman government. It was their job to force their own people, poor as most of them were, to pay taxes to this occupying government that they hated with a passion. It had to baffle the enthusiastic followers of Jesus that he would respectfully address this tax collector — this public sinner — and, moreover, ask to eat at his house. There must have been some in the crowd who abandoned Jesus that day because they no longer could accept his strange, disturbing ways. Interesting, also, that Jesus took that chance, knowing what damage he could be doing to his own image and his reputation.

What Christian tradition has always seen in this dramatic happening is that Jesus respected everyone, found the good in everyone, even those who, for valid reason, were scorned by others.

I once heard a psychologist say that the word “respect,” that we use as a synonym for “honor,” can also mean “to look again” – “re-spect.” “Spect:” to see, to look. (These are spectacles that I’m wearing.) “Re:” again. Respect: to take another look. For what purpose? To pierce the obvious, visible surface of this other person and penetrate as nearly as possible to his or her core. To see not merely what presents itself exteriorly, but, far more important, also what lies deep within.

That’s what Jesus did with Zacchaeus and what he does with each of us. By allowing the man to do a good deed – in this case, to provide hospitality for a hungry, weary itinerant preacher, he in turn calls forth the man’s better self, the Zacchaeus that no one had ever seen as he went about his nasty job as a low-level civil servant.

Many years ago, I experienced something very much like that, when I worked on a physically demanding community project with a group of persons, some of whom I did not know very well at all. We put our heads together to plan the project largely on the spot, and then for a few days we strained our aging & aching muscles to the limit. We ate together a couple of times; we shared personal stories and lots of good laughs. And what happened was so similar to what occurred between Jesus and Zacchaeus: we discovered goodness in each other that we had never noticed before; we found reason to love and honor each other; I felt that we found God in each other.

You’ve experienced the same, I’m sure. Maybe the message for us is to welcome it again as often as we can.

HOMILY FOR 4TH SUNDAY IN ADVENT 2014

In the first year of my priesthood, almost six decades ago, I had the good fortune of starting out as a full-time hospital chaplain.  That was unusual in those days, and several times I was asked by concerned observers what I had done to deserve such a punishment.  (I remember one person asking me what window I had broken!)  In those days hospital assignments were considered handy outposts for priests who got into one sort of trouble or another.  The five years I spent there were among the happiest of my life.

Among the blessings and advantages that I enjoyed were my friendships with the medical staffs and the opportunity to be with them every day in a variety of situations. I can still recall many of the conversations that enriched my life.  One came back to me as I was preparing this homily.  Several of us had just left the chapel after celebrating a Holy Week liturgy, maybe Holy Thursday.  I was very conscious of the presence of a young doctor, only a few years older than I, who was coming from the Mass. He was regarded as an extraordinarily good doctor; how many times I heard nurses say, “If ever I am suddenly in need of a doctor, don’t call anyone but…” – and then they’d mention his name.

I was especially aware of his presence because I was feeling embarrassed over the archaic, unscientific, largely mythical character of the ancient scripture readings we had just heard, and I wondered what this learned man of medical science was really thinking.

As we waited for the elevator, I said to him, “Pretty hard to swallow some of that old stuff, isn’t it, Doctor?  I think it’s about time the authorities bring it up to date.”

He answered quickly, spontaneously, “I’d much prefer the poetry we just heard to the lifeless prose of a medical journal.”

He was even smarter than I had previously judged him to be!  In what was considered my field, not primarily his, he taught me something I have never forgot.  In that wise comment, he showed himself, as a Catholic Christian, to be way ahead of his time.

Poetry.  The bible, we now increasingly understand, is full of poetry.  They are not historical accounts or scientific reports that we find there; mostly they are, rather, poetic outpourings from the hearts and minds of men and women who had come to know that the one and only God of Love is always with us.  They knew that that divine presence was the ultimate source of our energy and our destiny.  They could not find enough ways to announce to the world, “Emmanuel,” God with us!  And so, where to begin but with human language at its colorful best?

At this time of the year, we hear the familiar ancient messages about a divine architect, and heralding angels, and a guiding star, and mysterious stargazers, and awestruck shepherds, and reverent animals, and a most unusual birth.  All exquisite poetry! Profound message!  And the doctor was right: It beats a dispassionate reading from a scientific journal any day of the week!

What are we being told in such a resilient and enduring way?  It is being revealed to us that in Jesus we have a new window on the mystery of God!  What we see through that window is that we do not need a bridge between us and a supposedly distant God.  No.  Jesus saves us from that ancient misconception and lets us in on the hitherto secret that God is in everyone and everything, in every particle of this vast and incomprehensible universe!  Emmanuel: God with us!

A truth as fundamental as that cannot, should not, be left to mere factual statement.  It deserves to be and it needs to be celebrated with every means at our disposal.  Let’s keep listening to the ecstatic biblical authors with our hearts and minds as open as we can make them!  Let’s enjoy what they have written for us!