Tag Archives: Scriptures

FOR 5TH SUNDAY IN LENT, 2018

After 60 years of writing homilies every week (that’s approximately 3000 to date), I am increasingly wondering if their meaning is really reaching the faithful people for whom they are intended. Composed as the bible was in an age that was almost totally lacking in the most basic scientific knowledge, and having passed through translation after translation, what are we 21st century Christians able to, and supposed to, be getting out of it? What are preachers and teachers expected to be transmitting of “God’s word” from the Scriptures to others?

Consider the Gospel excerpt we just heard: Jesus is said to have said, “…whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.” In order to make sense of the otherwise objectionable word “hates”, I am certain that most sincere hearers automatically say to themselves something like, “He couldn’t have meant ‘hate’ in its ordinary definition; he must have meant that we should care more for the life promised us beyond death than the life we live now and should be willing to give up at times some worldly living if it gets in the way of our path to eternal life — what martyrs do, in other words.”

Adjustments like that wear thin after a while and we have reason to wonder how such puzzling statements can really be what they are proclaimed to be — the “word of God.” If they really are that, could not the infinitely intelligent and loving God speak more plainly for all to understand?

What we’ve got to come to grips with is that the bible is a collection of writings from different cultures at different times in the history of the world and that its authors and its original audiences did not perceive the world and the life of its human inhabitants as we do today. If, by some sort of time warp we could spend just one day with any of them, we’d be amazed at the radical differences between us and them. We would think of them as backward, uninformed, even childish; they would be shocked, scandalized at our apparent Godlessness.

To begin with, their very concept of God clashes with ours. They saw God as a super human being, male of course, perched somewhere above the clouds and surrounded by angels who serve him. Jesus was God’s son, whom he sent into our evil world precisely to suffer and die for our sins and restore us to God’s paternal love.

Now we know that that is all the product of human imagination. But had we lived in their day, we can be sure that without question or doubt we would have espoused the same ideas.

As all living beings do, we humans grew and learned more and more of the real truth — not completely yet, but significantly, even as we look forward eagerly to what we will in the future come to understand.

As we listen to the Scriptures every Sunday at Mass, it should be with a sincere attitude of honor and gratitude to those millions of people who lived on earth centuries before us and grappled with the Mystery of Mysteries called God. We must not sneer at their immature beliefs; we mustn’t grumble and ask ourselves why we are paying attention to such outmoded piety. We should instead thank those authors for leaving us a record of the primitive faith of their times and thank their hearers for passing on the religious faith that Jesus greatly advanced while commissioning us to develop it further under the guidance of the Spirit of God.

It’s a grand process we are privileged to be participating in.

 

 

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TRANSFIGURATION, 2017

Transfigurazione_(Raffaello)_September_2015-1a

A priest in my home diocese was assigned many years ago to the church in which I was pastor. Everyone loved him for his natural goodness, his humility, his generosity. To this day, I respect him highly and think of him as a good and loving priest after the heart of Jesus. When he became a pastor himself many years later, the bishop sent him a young priest assistant. However, that young man was ultra-conservative and from his very first day there was troubled by what he was seeing and hearing in the pastor’s theology and ministry.

At one Sunday Mass, at which my friend was presiding and preaching, the assistant barged into the sanctuary, raised his hands and shouted to the congregation, “Don’t listen to this man! He is not giving you the Gospel of Jesus; he is giving you his own gospel, his own opinions, and you must not accept them!”

Of course, that very week the young priest was removed from the parish, and what has happened to him since I do not know in detail.

But why, you may be thinking right now, am I beginning today’s homily in such a way? The answer is simple: every Monday or Tuesday, as I begin the long and difficult process of writing a meaningful homily for the coming Sunday, if the readings contain something like what we heard just minutes ago (in this case, Jesus lighting up like a neon sign), I agonize over how to speak of it. Aware that different minds in the congregation react very differently, I wonder how I can reach everybody with an interpretation that all can accept.

If I answered, “That’s not possible,” I would be forced to say nothing — just let it pass without comment as though it had been heard by no one.

So, for all the years that I have been with you, I have tried my best to speak to you in carefully measured words, giving you, each time we have been together, just enough to think about as you try to understand these ancient writings through 21st century eyes and ears.

And that is necessary because with the passage of 3000 years we humans now know that God doesn’t cause rain by sending angels to open the portals that will allow the waters above the earth to irrigate our fields and fill our reservoirs. But that totally unscientific idea — and hundreds of others like it — are part of what you find in the bible.

The writing of the Sacred Scriptures is a never-ending process. It is going on even as we speak. What we call the Word of God is not forever fixed and static; it is a living masterpiece that is carried from generation to generation, century to century, and requires constant updating. Its many languages, so long unspoken, have to be better understood; its understanding of the universe has to be brought up to date; the bits of historical data it contains must be constantly checked and double checked to certify their accuracy.

You and I may not be literary scholars or scientists or trained theologians; but we possess common sense enough to at least suspect that what is passed on as objective truth may indeed at times not be that at all. The message the Scriptures contain is infallible; the literary device that carries it is not.

Now that I have used up every minute allotted for this homily and have said nothing about the Gospel passage for today, but have chosen to speak instead of what underlies it, let me conclude by assuring you, as best I can, that there is profound meaning for each of us in that passage that would render us the poorer if we were to miss it; and it is this: the Transfiguration of Jesus on that mountain top is far more about us than about Jesus. It tells us that we must seek and allow a change in us, not in him, in order that we might recognize him beyond his humanity that was obvious to anyone and to recognize, to see clearly and appreciate, that he is the perfect image of the invisible God and, therefore, that to know him is to know God!

FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT, 2017

It’s clear that it is the woman —Eve — who is the primary evildoer in the ancient story of the creation of the world that we’ve just heard once again from the Book of Genesis. She was attracted, we are told, by the forbidden fruit because it seemed to her that eating it would enable her and her mate to acquire the awesome power of the Creator.

After all, hadn’t the serpent told her that God was deceiving her by saying that she and Adam would die if they ate that fruit? Wasn’t that obviously a poorly disguised way of God protecting God’s exclusive power?

Eve took the bait and then the fruit, ate it, and gave some to her husband, who foolishly trusted her. The fantastic fable goes on to inform us that they both lost their innocence and began the world of sin and shame that we have inherited.

The Scriptures, the bible, are the product of both human and divine authorship; in order to encounter what is of God in them, we have first to deal with the human element, which often enough is false. And so we have animals that speak, God creating humans the way an artist molds pottery, and much later the devil taking Jesus to high places, tempting him with the gift of all the kingdoms he sees.

In the passage in today’s liturgy we are told that it is the woman who leads the man into sin and death. It would be impossible to assess how much damage that passage alone has done in the course of human history by painting women as a source of corruption of men and by leading men to regard women as naturally inferior to themselves.

We have chosen to be Christians because we believe that Jesus, above all other human beings who ever existed, shows us how to be the humans we were created to be. Lent is that special time of the church year that invites us to examine our conduct, our lifestyle, our version of being human — and to compare it with the model we see in Jesus.

Attempts at changing our behavior, our habits of so many years, I’m sure you agree, will be a far greater penance than giving up candy or alcohol or movies for the 40 days of Lent.

Why not start with that most basic matter of how we honor and respect and listen to each other as equals before our creator — or how we don’t? Why don’t we work, starting today, on the prejudices and mindsets we’ve inherited or learned along the way? Why don’t we try to be humbly and sincerely open to what others tell us about our offensive behavior and the attitudes it reveals?

That passage from the Book of Genesis and the bad rap it seems to have given women isn’t really about two historical persons. They are fictional and it is a story, a fable, in which those characters are really you and I. It’s we who tend to do what pleases us, all else notwithstanding. You and I who may never have fully outgrown our infancy. Deep down, we want to be like God — totally independent and autonomous. That’s what the Scriptures warn us about: we are creatures, never more and never less. But our creatureship is not to be regretted. It should be cherished because we are the creatures of God’s infinite love! And what is promised us is an eternal share in the Creator’s own life!

What more could we live for than that!?