Sign of Contradiction

It took the 10th reading of the gospel to strike gold, but we finally did. I was with a group that I do not know yet how to define (it is a pilot program for a ministry we want to start at Sacred Heart), and we had some time left, so I shared with them my hesitations about this weekend’s homily. They wanted to help. We read both the previous blog post and the gospel…and I cannot figure out why it did not strike before. With crystal clarity we heard Simeon telling Mary, “This child will be a sign of contradiction.”

There it is. We are called to be “signs of contradiction”. My complaints about the Presentation not helping with our global theme (we are to make and grow disciples) suddenly disappeared: A disciple is a “sign of contradiction”.

The homily becomes very clear: explain what it means to be a sign of contradiction, by first looking at how Jesus was a sign of contradiction, as Simeon realized early on. If a disciple is someone who strives to become like Jesus, how are we then to become signs of contradiction ourselves? And how to do that in our society, in our faith community, with our friends, with our families…


The Presentation of the Lord

It was really a “liturgical bummer” to find out that Feast of the Presentation of the Lord was this Sunday and that we would not be reading the Beatitudes at Mass. It would have been a good follow-up to the theme at the core of the homilies this year: any parish should be a place where disciples are made, and the Beatitudes are the New Commandments for the followers of Christ.

The gospel text of the Presentation is a story unique to Luke’s gospel (Luke 2:22-40). It is “evangelically” ironic that the same Law that Jesus will challenge takes Mary and Joseph to the Temple, the institution that will later condemn Jesus. We may also wonder, did Mary and Joseph need any purification? Did Jesus need a presentation? What do we do with a gospel like this?

A quick application of the Historical Criticism (a literary method to approach the meaning of a text, placing it in its historical context–for more info, click here) may come to our assistance. The legal custom of presenting the first-born to the Temple was a “ransom” the Israelites paid in memory of the deliverance from the slavery in Egypt, the night of Passover. In Exodus 13:2-3 we read: “The Lord said to Moses: Consecrate to me all the firstborn; whatever is the first to open the womb among the Israelites, of human beings and animals is mine. Moses said to the people, ‘Remember this day on which you came out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Thus, from the very beginning of Jesus’ history in Luke’s account, there is a connection with the Exodus-Passover theme.

I do not know if the homily will follow this hint, yet, and your comments will be very much appreciated as I admit being unforgivably behind this week. But let me say that I believe the biggest gap between the original readers of the gospel and ourselves is our lack of knowledge of Old Testament scriptures and traditions. I also believe the theme of the Exodus is one of the less explored in Catholic preaching and imagination.  It seems clear that the life of Jesus is an exodus, and the gospels contain multiple symbolic references to it: the desert, the sea… Even when the text states that Jesus goes to pray during the night, it is a clear reference to the most important of Nights, the Passover.

Read the gospel for this Sunday and let me know what you think. Your pastor (me or someone else) will appreciate it.

The Beatitudes as the New Commandments

A clear theme has emerged in the last few weeks in our faith community: We are in the “business” of making disciples. We are not a country club, or a Walgreens where people choose what they want to buy, or a theater where we offer some kind of show (even though I would have loved a career in the entertainment business, and I admit being a priest fulfills that a bit). We listen to God’s word and apply it to our lives so we can become and grow as disciples: people who follow, who listen, who care, who generously help (yes, money helps).

This Sunday we celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, as it falls on a Sunday. Otherwise, the gospel reading would have been the one of Jesus’ sermon in the mount, the Beatitudes, and it would have been a great continuation to the theme.  While another homily will have to be prepared, I can tell you what I think I would have preached this Sunday if we had the “normal” readings. I have always thought that the Beatitudes are set by Jesus in contrast with the Ten Commandments. Mostly, the commandments are prohibitions, things you should not do. You could sit down in a chair and do nothing for a whole day and you would not break any of the commandments. They were given to a nomadic people of shepherds, thousands of years ago. In contrast, the Beatitudes are a call to do something about peace, about justice, about the poor. While not breaking the commandments makes you an “ok” person, fulfilling the Beatitudes makes you a saint. And it is good to remember that we are not called to be “ok” people, but we are called to be holy, to be saints. One idea that we may develop this weekend is to “re-write” the Beatitudes in the way the commandments are written: You shall care for the poor; You shall work for justice; You shall speak up for the oppressed… The Beatitudes are the new commandments of the person who wants to become a disciple. Not just an “ok” person, but a disciple who strives to become holy, not perfect, but holy.

Change, because the Kingdom is here, now.

At least I know where the homily will start this weekend: “Life is a process of continuous change.” A process has a certain beginning and an uncertain end. We look at the gospel and it gives us from the very beginning a sense of a new stage, a new era: only when John the Baptist is removed from the scene, Jesus begins his ministry. Something new begins. This process has a geographical beginning: Galilee of the Gentiles, away from center of power (the Temple in Jerusalem), already diverse in which it mentions the gentiles from the outset. The process has a “guiding principle” that Jesus proclaims right away: “Repent, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Here we do a bit of exegesis, or interpretation, when we realize that the Greek word of repent is the same used for change. The change that Jesus preaches is not precisely a moral change—as we tend to think—but a change in the way we live.

The wording of Jesus’ core preaching poses an interesting question. We have understood that Jesus is inviting us to change. Do we have to change so the Kingdom will be at hand or we have to change because the Kingdom is at hand? The proper translation from Greek dispels the doubt: Jesus is telling us the Kingdom is already here, whether we change or not. We have to change if we want to enjoy, be participants, of a reality that is already here now, available to us. As a good preacher, Jesus applies His message to himself: He also changes. He realizes what He has to do, as He sets himself out to do it: He begins a ministry of healing, and He calls His first disciples—Jesus understands the need for community.

Following today’s gospel, our preparation for Lent has a clear blueprint: we also set ourselves to a process of intentional change, to heal ourselves and others, and to call others to the daunting task of embracing the Kingdom which has been made available to us.

We are Followers of Jesus, not of the Baptist…

On the third Sunday in Ordinary Time, we return to Matthew’s Gospel. The text tells us about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (Mt 4:12-23). Jesus only begins his ministry after the Baptist has been arrested. During Advent, we already reflected about the difference between the baptism and the respective messages of John and Jesus: water vs. Holy Spirit; repentance vs. mission. So often, as individuals and as Church, we seem to emphasize more sin and repentance instead of embracing the mission to which we are called by baptism. We seem to be more followers of the Baptist than disciples of the Christ.

Jesus begins his ministry by “saying”, “healing”, and “recruiting”. He says that “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand”; he cures every disease and illness among the people; and he realizes early on that the task at hand requires a group of faithful (albeit stubborn!) disciples. We, too, are called to proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand — meaning: the rule of God is to happen here and now. We, too, are called to heal the many diseases of the people. We, too, are called to call others to the amazing adventure of becoming followers of the Christ.

I read a book written by a pastor who takes his homilies very seriously. He contends that in any homily, the preacher should give the congregation “something to do”. Thinking about this gospel, and the message of “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand”, perhaps I could invite the congregation to do something for somebody during the week that may make that person realize that, actually, the Kingdom of Heaven is indeed at hand. I had a priest friend that would always give a 25% tip at restaurants, and when asked why, he would just say, “Because I have to make sure the waitress knows that the Kingdom is at hand”. Even with our small congregation of 500, can you imagine how much good can be done if we would all commit to doing that next week? A small, but powerful way to set this text in real motion. Tell me what you think…

The Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him…

The gospel text to inaugurate Ordinary time is a challenging one. Despite being in the Matthean Cycle (Cycle A) the text is taken from the Gospel of John (John 1:29-34) and it describes again the encounter between John the Baptist and Jesus. One very clear message arising from this gospel has the challenge for me that it is something I already have preached on a number of times during the last months, including last week: John describes his baptism as one of cleansing, of repentance from sin; John himself says that the baptism of Jesus will be one of Holy Spirit–therefore, a baptism of mission. Interestingly enough, we have retained both meanings in our ritual of baptism: we use the water of cleansing, but also the Chrism oil of anointing for a mission. While this would have been my primary message, I believe that I may have to see if there is something new arising from the text.

At these initial stages of preparation, my attention has moved to the beginning of the text: “John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and said ‘Behold the Lamb of God…’ John, encapsulating all the Old Testament prophecy, is able to recognize Jesus and to call him the ‘Lamb of God’. Recognizing Jesus and recognizing Jesus’ identity is one of the general themes in John’s gospel. Upon listening to this gospel we should wonder also about our capacity to recognize Jesus in our lives and whether we know who He is.

The text says that John recognizes Jesus because he sees the Spirit coming down and remaining on Him. John sees this at Jesus’ baptism which we celebrated last week. I believe that, in the same way, the Spirit still “comes down and remains” in people, and also in projects, today. As a pastor, it is one of my most difficult: of everything we do, what things are of the Spirit and which ones are not? of all the people I meet, who speaks on behalf of the Spirit to us and who does not? Each time I have an idea about something we should do as a Faith community, is it of the Spirit or is it not? It is called discernment, and it is, precisely, one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  The process will continue, but this is where I am right now.

On Being Intentional.

I am gladly surprised with the reception of the new blog: 489 views (minus my own 🙂 ) and five comments (only one from mom). I have thought that one of the things this blog will do is to show the preparation for the Sunday homily. Here you will be able to read where I am in that process. I usually get to read the readings for the first time the Sunday before. During the week I keep thinking about it. I will share the directions of my thoughts here. Sometimes, they will end up being part of the homily, other times the ideas may be totally dismissed. I am not sure if it will be helpful for those of you who will read the posts, but it will certainly be helpful to me–and I hope you comment so I know if I am hitting someplace or not. If you are a parishioner to Sacred Heart, it may help you to prepare for our own liturgies… So here it goes for this week: Sometimes a word pops up during the process of homily preparation. Sometimes the word is in the text of the Gospel, sometimes it is not. In reflecting about the meaning of Jesus’s baptism, the word that came to mind and has stayed is “intentional”. Jesus does not need a baptism of repentance, he was without sin, but he needs a point in his own history and development in which he realizes his mission and embraces it. From that point on, he is “intentional” about his vocation. So we too are invited to become more “intentional” about our vocation. What vocation? Way before we start speaking about our “faith” vocation and how intentional are we about it, we should start by reflecting how intentional we are about our many other vocations: because being a mother, a wife, a husband, a father, a grandparent is a vocation. Being a friend–Facebook allowing–is also a vocation. Many professions are a vocation…and being a member of a Faith community should also be a vocation. The reflection this Sunday may be about this: how intentional are we about our vocations? and then How intentional are we about our very important vocation in faith. Blog to you soon!