NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL JUNE 5, 2016
10th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME LUKE 7: 11-17
Link to all three readings on USCCB site
Jesus journeyed to a city called Nain,
and his disciples and a large crowd accompanied him.
As he drew near to the gate of the city,
a man who had died was being carried out,
the only son of his mother, and she was a widow.
A large crowd from the city was with her.
When the Lord saw her,
he was moved with pity for her and said to her,
“Do not weep.”
He stepped forward and touched the coffin;
at this the bearers halted,
and he said, “Young man, I tell you, arise!”
The dead man sat up and began to speak,
and Jesus gave him to his mother.
Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, crying out
“A great prophet has arisen in our midst, “
and “God has visited his people.”
This report about him spread through the whole of Judea
and in all the surrounding region.
The Easter Season ended with the conclusion of the Feast of Pentecost back on May 15, and with it the resumption of Ordinary Time. However, with the special feasts of the past two weekends—Trinity Sunday and Corpus Sunday—it is only next weekend that we return to the sequential narrative of St. Luke. Because of the peculiarities of the calendar, there is a large hiccup in the Sunday Lukan narrative. The last piece of the narrative, on the Sunday of February 7, just before Ash Wednesday, described Jesus’ intervention in the miraculous catch of fish and the invitation to the laborers to become “fishers of men.”
In the several chapters of St. Luke that were not proclaimed in this year’s calendar, Jesus has been about many things. He continues to perform impressive miracles, including the cleansing of a leper (5: 12-16); the healing of a paralytic (5: 17-26); and the famous text that has worked its way into the very missal of the Mass, the healing of the Roman centurion’s slave (7: 1-10). In this last account Jesus offers to travel to the centurion’s home to perform a healing, but the military officer sends messengers to inform (command?) Jesus not to enter his house. This is an intriguing passage; the centurion admits through his representatives that he is not worthy “to have you under my roof.” But then he goes on to say that he (the centurion) knows something of authority, too, and a command to heal is just as effective as a personal intervention.
Interspersed with these miracles is a good deal of other matter. Jesus invites the tax collector Levi into his inner circle (5: 27-29) and he constitutes the body known as the Twelve (6: 12-16). Like Matthew he delivers a form of teaching we know today as the beatitudes (6:20-26) though he adds what I would call a “damnation clause” or a series of negative parallels where, for example, the reward of the poor is sharply contrasted to the ultimate destiny of the rich. Jesus goes on to teach a new moral spirit (6: 27-36), where he speaks of loving enemies, avoiding judgment of others (6: 37-42), and a variety of other assorted sayings in what we might call a wisdom vein of moral and human experience—building a house on a sound foundation, etc. Jesus has two notable confrontations with Jewish opponents: questions about fasting (5: 33-39) and observance of the Sabbath (6: 1-11).
So by the time we get to this Sunday’s Gospel a lot of water has passed under the bridge. (The movie mogul Sam Goldwyn famously mangled this saying when he remarked, “we’ve all passed a lot of water since then.”) When I reached the Franciscan major seminary in 1969, my older confreres told me about a professor who would begin his lectures by saying, “moving ahead by way of review….” For the biblical reader, and certainly the preacher, something of a review is necessary this weekend. This Sunday’s Gospel is a popular narrative of Luke. Theologians might anguish over whether this miracle was a true raising of the dead or a resuscitation—a question of massive importance in the study of Christology—but pastorally this text is truly one of the “feel good” stories for which Luke is famous, and we can easily understand its placement in a Gospel that also contains the story of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. “Feeling good” is not meant here in a derogatory sense—the coming of God’s kingdom ought to rouse sympathetic euphoria, as the old Christmas hymn “Joy to the World” acclaims so well.
As our in-house commentator on St. Luke this year, Joel Green, explains in his commentary on this text, (pp. 289-293), the raising of the widow’s son is intimately connected to the preceding texts, and actually to the entire themescape of Luke’s Gospel. If one returns to Chapter 1 of this Gospel, the identity of Jesus as the uniquely Spirit-filled being from his conception will empower him to do the impossible. It is no accident that Sunday’s first reading, from 1 Kings, describes a raising of a woman’s only son by the Prophet Elijah, “The Man of God,” as he has been revered in Jewish history. Over the years I have come to amazement at the way in which Luke engages Hebrew Scripture and faith into a Gospel written for a cosmopolitan Christian Church. As you might recall, on Easter Sunday Jesus went to great pains to explain to the two Emmaus disciples how his own life—and particularly his gruesome death—were ordained by God through the Hebrew Scriptures. The parallel between Elijah and Jesus—delivers from death—is no accident and the Church has arranged Sunday’s Lectionary to reflect this reality.
Luke’s Gospel has been singled out for its sensitivity to the poor, and Green comments upon the “catastrophic state” of the widow of Naim. With the death of the one remaining man to support and reflect her, “she is delegated to a status of ‘dire vulnerability’—without a visible means of support and, certainly, deprived of her status to the larger community and any vestiges of social status within the village.” (p. 291) This is a marked contrast to the miracle that precedes this one, where the petitioner is a well-heeled Roman male centurion seeking recovery for a slave who, quite frankly, could be easily if perhaps sadly replaced in the centurion’s household in the event of his death.
So, in addition to the actual miracle of the son’s healing, Luke is making a social statement, one that is consistent with his entire Gospel. The poor are as worthy, probably more so, of the riches of the kingdom of God. From Mary’s Magnificat through miracles, teachings, and warnings, Luke portrays Jesus as the ultimate prophet of God’s mercy. Even on the cross, Jesus extends unthinkable mercy and promise to a dying man whose life’s work was criminality. His intervention next Sunday in Naim is no isolated act of charity, but a sacrament of Jesus’ identity in God’s Providence.
I'd like to submit some thoughts on next Sunday's Gospel, but today I am up on the Appalachian Trail, where we started a four day trek near James Madison University in the Shenandoah National Park. Yesterday I completed about 10 miles; the highlight coming as we were navigating a treacherous rocky stretch when a hail storm broke out.
When we reached our lodgings in mid-afternoon I could not walk without a limp and a grunt, so it may be that this kind of mountain hiking is better left to the young folks and my wife, though I will get a better read on her stamina when she arrives here this afternoon. I drove here to our second night's accomodations and presently enjoying coffee and blogging in a spacious living room overlooking three mountains I was supposed to climb today. I'm thinking of using the rest of the week for a little retreat or getaway of sorts.
Next weekend is the Feast of Corpus Christi. I don't have Sunday's texts at my fingertips, but the feast was inspired in the Middle Ages both by heresies regarding the Real Presence and the brilliant defenses of the Sacrament by St. Thomas Aquinas and others. Aquinas is attributed with the classic Eucharistic hymn, Tantum Ergo.
As luck would have it, at the last minute before heading up here I packed a copy of the sacramental treatise "Doors to the Sacred" by Joseph Martos, in the wheel well of my Sportage. I didn't think I'd have time to look at it, but as the Latins say, semper paratus or "always prepared." Now to see if the gift store here has a highlighter.
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL FEAST OF THE HOLY TRINITY
JOHN 16: 12-15 Link to all three readings at Bishops’ site
Jesus said to his disciples:
"I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.
But when he comes, the Spirit of truth,
he will guide you to all truth.
He will not speak on his own,
but he will speak what he hears,
and will declare to you the things that are coming.
He will glorify me,
because he will take from what is mine and declare it to you.
Everything that the Father has is mine;
for this reason I told you that he will take from what is mine
and declare it to you."
The Feast of the Trinity has an interesting history in the Church. It is not a feast that dates to antiquity. In fact, in the pre-1970 Missal there is a format for the “First Sunday after Pentecost” though the Missal instructs that it be used during the week as the Feast of the Trinity replaces it. The establishment of the liturgical feast of the Trinity took nearly a millennium; the very use of the term “Holy Trinity” was not formalized until the time of the Great Councils (325-451 A.D.) though the phrase “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” is found in the Scriptures. Sunday’s Gospel from John is a good example of the earliest thinking about the nature of God. Christians were accustomed to thinking of God in a three-fold way, particularly in proclaiming Jesus as Lord.
The integrity of a three-fold God came under fire with the appearance of the Arian Heresy of the fourth century, the contention that Jesus was not truly divine. The Emperor Constantine summoned bishops to a council at Nicaea in 325 A.D., which defined the divinity of Christ. Other councils were summoned to formalize definitions of the nature and relationship of the Godhead, culminating in the Council of Chalcedon in 451. After the Councils the Church began to promote devotion to God under the title of “Trinity,” for both devotional and educational motivations. Written traces of public prayers have been discovered throughout Western Europe from the time of the Dark Ages through the medieval era, and a formulary for a votive or private Mass of the Trinity dates to around 800 A.D. In monasteries in Germany and France the custom arose of a feast of the Trinity on the Sunday after Pentecost.
However, Rome resisted the innovation. According to liturgical historian Adolf Adam, Pope Alexander II (d. 1077) is reported to have said that no particular day should be especially devoted to a feast of the Blessed Trinity, any more than to a feast of the Blessed Unity (of God’s three persona), since the commemoration of both was celebrated every Sunday and even daily. It would be almost another three centuries before one of history’s most controversial popes, John XXII, introduced the feast to the universal Church during his exile in Avignon, France in 1334. (p. 167ff) John XXII was attempting to suppress the Franciscan Order during his reign, and his writings about the beatific vision were considered marginally heretical. It may be that establishing the feast of the Trinity, as well as canonizing St. Thomas Aquinas, won him some measure of redemption in the Church.
John XXII is long dead (and perhaps discovered to his delight that his writings about seeing God immediately after death were wrong) but the Feast of the Trinity remains. Homilists, preachers, and catechists have labored ad infinitum to explain the feast (difficult) without claiming to explain the Trinity itself (impossible). I came across an interesting understanding of this feast from an obscure saint, Rupert: “As soon as we have celebrated the Advent of the Holy Ghost, we celebrate in song the Feast of the Holy Trinity in the office of the following Sunday. The place is well chosen, for immediately after the descent of this divine Spirit, began the preaching and belief, and, through Baptism, faith and confession in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”
There is considerable realism and theological insight in Rupert’s description of the feast. From Luke’s account of Acts 2 it is clear that the Church understood its mission to preach the threefold reality of God and to baptize in the name of each persona, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Located where it is, immediately after Pentecost, Trinity Sunday celebrates the “content” of Apostolic preaching and the “detail” of the Church’s work. It would seem that among the aspects of Sunday’s feast is a celebration of what the Spirit has enabled the Church to do.
In Thomas Aquinas’s day, to be sure, and even among the works of post-Enlightenment philosophers, there exists a principle of sorts that our sense of mystery about God—or our hunger to know what is beyond our ken, as the reality of the Trinity, for example—is somehow a proof or at least an indication of God’s existence. A thoughtful person is from time to time overwhelmed by what he or she does not know. Some will approach this existential unrest by domesticating it in a variety of ways. In the case of the Trinity, I was catechized to believe that the formula “three persons in one God” was a test of my blind faith. In other words, an eternal mystery was reduced to a loyalty pledge, if you will.
What I do not see very often in catechetics is the free reign of personal mystery. The Church has always found the human experience of divine mystery unnerving. The above-named Pope John XXII found himself in conflict with the “spiritual wing” of the Franciscan Order, a group whose mystical experiences from reading the Gospel and the Rule of St. Francis led them to believe that the Church approved rule was a violation of the wishes of Francis and even Jesus himself. Such experiences led to serious suspicion of personal mystical experience. In fairness, I know of persons who under the guise of meditational communion with God are pushing personal agendas, which is why the old maxim “by their fruits ye shall know them” is as valid today as it has ever been.
All the same, exercise of the religious gifts of wonder and imagination, true gifts of the Spirit, are what energizes the creed and the worship of the Church. To reflect upon God and his works—as Father, Son, and Spirit—is absolutely necessary to animate the “things” we do as Catholic. Martin Luther, himself a mystic, never abandoned the Church teaching on sacraments, in large part because of his profound personal experiences of each. To let the mind soar to thoughts of our origins (Father), the infinite extent of love (Son), and personal potential and destiny (Spirit) to the point of quickening pulse and oblivion to distractions is communion with God—and probably the entire point of a feast of the Godhead.
SATURDAY, MAY 14 VIGIL MASS OF PENTECOST
JOHN 7: 37-39 Link to all readings at USCCB Site
On the last and greatest day of the feast,
Jesus stood up and exclaimed,
“Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink.
As Scripture says:
Rivers of living water will flow from within him who believes in me.”
He said this in reference to the Spirit
that those who came to believe in him were to receive.
There was, of course, no Spirit yet,
because Jesus had not yet been glorified.
SUNDAY, MAY 15 THE FEAST OF PENTECOST
JOHN 20: 19-23 Link to all readings at USCCB site
On the evening of that first day of the week,
when the doors were locked, where the disciples were,
for fear of the Jews,
Jesus came and stood in their midst
and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side.
The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.
As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them,
“Receive the Holy Spirit.
Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them,
and whose sins you retain are retained.”
JOHN 14: 15-16, 23B-26
Jesus said to his disciples:
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
And I will ask the Father,
and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always.
“Whoever loves me will keep my word,
and my Father will love him,
and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.
Those who do not love me do not keep my words;
yet the word you hear is not mine
but that of the Father who sent me.
“I have told you this while I am with you.
The Advocate, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name,
will teach you everything
and remind you of all that I told you.”
Now did you get all that? Don’t shoot the messenger. And if you click the link to the bishops’ site above, you will note that there are four options for the first reading of the Vigil Mass alone, including the famous Tower of Babel story from Genesis. I have attended Mass on the Pentecost Vigil where the Mass of the Sunday was used with no apologies. You might get information about your own parish’s plans from last Sunday’s bulletin, right there on the refrigerator. I just ran downstairs for more coffee and glanced at our refrigerator, and it appears we are using the short Johannine Sunday option at all the Masses including Saturday. So be it. It is probably true that there isn’t a church in the galaxy that doesn’t use the Midnight Mass readings of Christmas at all its Christmas Masses, morning, noon, or night.
I do hope that wherever you celebrate Mass this weekend, the Sequence Veni Creator Spiritus or Veni Sancte Spiritus (Come, Creator Spirit or Come, Holy Spirit) is sung with solemnity before the Gospel. The text is included in the bishops’ link cited above, but I have a YouTube link here if you have never heard this poem sung in Gregorian Latin style.
The feast of Pentecost marks the end of the Easter Season. Monday of next week is officially Monday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time, vestment color green, and the Church will progress through the year till the end of November and the Feast of Christ the King. We will resume St. Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ deeds and works for the next six months, as people changed by the experiences of Lent, Easter, and Pentecost.
The Feast of Pentecost observes the outpouring of God’s enduring life animating the individual and group identity of the followers of Jesus. This act of God is portrayed in multiple ways in the New Testament—in some cases through the agency of Jesus himself, or, as in the fiery episode in the upper room portrayed in the Acts of the Apostles’ Chapter 2, through a direct intervention of the Father. This is fitting in that traditionally the Church has spoken of the Trinity in terms of operations: creating, redeeming, animating. It is impossible to separate the personhoods of God and it is equally impossible to separate the works of God.
In Genesis 2:7 [a text not included in the weekend smorgasbord] God literally blows life into Adam’s nostrils, making him a living being. Creation itself begins the Pentecostal experience, making man of the image and likeness of God. Once the human experience had taken traction God extended his self-revelation and sharing of life in Jesus of Nazareth. In the Vigil Gospel Jesus cries out during a temple feast, “Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink.” The evangelist St. John explains in the text that Jesus is speaking here of the Spirit, who will come when Jesus is “glorified.”
One may argue that God’s life among us has been a constant since creation, and this would be correct; the entirety of the Hebrew Scripture is testament to that fact. The event(s) of Pentecost mark a new turn in God’s story: the glory of the Kingdom, the eternal afterlife, has begun. The future is indeed now. St. John’s observation that the Spirit would not be poured forth till Jesus was glorified in his Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension is his way of telling us that we have seen everything we need to see and, equally importantly, heard everything we need to hear, to join Jesus. “I go before you, to prepare a place for you.”
The greatest mistake in addressing the feast of Pentecost would be to interpret the Scripture texts metaphorically and poetically. In fact, the ongoing life of God has become pointed and directed. We now know precisely how God created us to live, we have been changed and redirected in our personal baptismal/confirmational encounters with the Spirit (whether the ceremonies were adequate signs of that change or not). And perhaps most importantly, the grace of God and the knowledge of God will never be lost in the community that professes Jesus as Lord.
In my youth the Feast of Pentecost used to be called the birthday of the Church, and there is much truth in this. Theologically speaking, the community of those baptized in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit has been assured of its sacred responsibility to hand on the Jesus event without error. The Church’s power to teach and its power to effect God’s salvation in the sacraments are genuine powers because the Spirit lives in the Church. I will concede that many times it is as hard to see the Spirit at work in the Church as it is to see Mount Rainier from Seattle. But at the end of the day, I have to be honest with myself and ask: would the Church look better if everyone leading it had attained my current “level of holiness?” I doubt it very much.
The fact that God breathed life into Adam, or that the Spirit gives life to the Church, does not mean that ipso facto we are God, individually or as a church, but rather that we have God to sustain us through sin and the uneven path toward virtue. The Feast of Pentecost celebrates that enduring continuity of God’s love and truth as handed along by his flawed creatures, history’s true miracle if there ever was one.
SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: LUKE 24:46-53
FEAST OF THE ASCENSION Link to USCCB all three readings
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Thus it is written that the Christ would suffer
and rise from the dead on the third day
and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins,
would be preached in his name
to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
You are witnesses of these things.
And behold I am sending the promise of my Father upon you;
but stay in the city
until you are clothed with power from on high.”
Then he led them out as far as Bethany,
raised his hands, and blessed them.
As he blessed them he parted from them
and was taken up to heaven.
They did him homage
and then returned to Jerusalem with great joy,
and they were continually in the temple praising God.
The setting and history of the Feast of the Ascension has been the cause of considerable discussion in recent decades, not least because for many centuries the feast was known as Ascension Thursday and celebrated precisely forty days after the Resurrection. The only biblical source for a forty-day period between the Resurrection and the Ascension is Acts 1:3, which happens to be this coming Sunday’s first reading. In truth, the Gospels are not as specific. Most Gospels describe an Ascension or departure of Jesus sometime after the Resurrection, though John’s text strongly suggests that the Ascension occurred on Easter Sunday. The USCCB has an interesting comment on John 20 here.
There was further debate in the United States when permission was granted by the Vatican for regions of the Church in the United States to celebrate the feast on the Seventh Sunday of Easter instead of Thursday. The USCCB requested this permission because of poor attendance on Ascension Thursday, a week day. Only a handful of regions opted not to make the change; if my memory is correct only New York City, Boston, Hartford, Newark, Philadelphia, and Omaha observe the feast on Thursday. There is an old joke that some bishops objected to the change to Sunday because of the loss of the extra weekday collection. But in truth, aside from custom, there is no compelling Biblical or theological reason to celebrate the fast on Thursday.
A more important question is the nature of the feast—what is the meaning, and perhaps even more to the point, what are the implications for us, the living? Adolf Adam, in The Liturgical Year (1990), describes the feast as an observance of the return of Christ to his Father and his place at the right hand, while at the same time celebrating his abiding presence with us. This is best understood if we consider the early Church practice of celebrating the Ascension and Pentecost as one feast, an exchange of the early Jesus for the abiding Holy Spirit. A number of sermons from St. Augustine of this “combined feast” survive to this day. In Sunday’s Gospel from Luke, Jesus states his promise of sending the Father upon them (through the Spirit) just as he rises from their sight.
The Gospels for the Feast of the Ascension are drawn from the year’s Cycle, and we are rejoined to Year C’s Gospel of St. Luke. There are some interesting points in this text; for example, Jesus engages in virtually the same instruction he provided the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, a text that precedes this reading in Luke’s narrative. Luke includes a theme that John has emphasized over the past few Sundays, that Jesus must leave in order for the Spirit to empower the disciples to do their work.
Scholars today are in general agreement that Luke’s Acts of the Apostles was intended as the second half of his Gospel—a description of how the work of the Lord Jesus would prosper under the missionary efforts of the Spirit-filled apostles. The first reading of Sunday’s Gospel is in fact the opening of the Acts of the Apostles, and it includes a more detailed account of the Ascension and Jesus’ final instructions than we see in the Gospel itself. In the Acts account, the disciples ask if now is the moment when Jesus will return the kingdom to Israel.
In the Gospel account, there is no mention of any questions from the disciples. In Acts, though, the disciples do speak, and they ask a peculiar question about the future that that is not precisely in sync with what Jesus has been conveying to them. (There is a faint parallel between the Acts narrative and the Emmaus confusion.) Throughout, Jesus has counseled them to prepare for the Paraclete or the Holy Spirit, a moment when they will be clothed “in power from on high.” In the Gospel, they seem to get some sense of this, as they return of their own accord in joy to worship profoundly in the temple. In Acts, though, there is a sense of forlornness, and it takes two mysterious men in white to reorient the disciples from the sky to the realities of the ground. I believe that in Acts Luke may be describing something of the early Church’s coming to grasp with the nature of the Spirit and how Jesus would remain present through that Spirit and the Spirit-inspired works the Church would soon undertake.
After the liturgical feast of the Ascension the daily Mass readings and Liturgy of the Hours will turn to the coming feast of Pentecost, on the following Sunday (May 8). Pentecost will mark the end of the Easter Season, specifically with the observance of Evening Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours that Sunday evening. And, those of you of a certain age will remember that the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of this week (the three weekdays before Ascension Thursday) were observed as Rogation Days, prayers of penance and petition marked by a procession of the litany of the saints. This colorful observance can be traced back to a Roman goddess named Robigus or Robigo, Latin for “rust” or “mildew.” Although the Church divested itself from the pagan roots, the observance of a procession through the fields—to ward off mildew and other crop vulnerabilities—was very popular, and later expanded as prayer to ward off earthquake and calamities.
For those of you in Omaha, next Sunday is the Seventh Sunday of Easter and the day after tomorrow is your Holy Day. What happens if you happen to be in Orlando on Thursday and Omaha on Sunday? Where is your obligation? In 2001 I flew from Orlando on Thursday to Boston for the weekend and literally lost the feast…the lesser of many of my problems on judgement day, I assure you.