Reflection - January 6, 2019

“When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea,
in the days of King Herod, 
behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, 
‘Where is the newborn king of the Jews?
We saw his star at its rising
and have come to do him homage.’
When King Herod heard this,
he was greatly troubled, 
and all Jerusalem with him.”

Today, we celebrate the Epiphany. In this context, it is the revelation of who Jesus is by the magi following a star to find a king. Their search, which leads to the encounter with a baby in Bethlehem, reveals to all that this baby is indeed a king, worthy of the gifts given to him. There are many other moments of epiphany in the gospels (e.g., Jesus’s baptism, the transfiguration, and his death on the cross, itself) and, in fact, Jesus’s entire life can be considered an epiphany, a revelation of God the Father. Jesus is the bringer of the truth and is the Truth, himself. 

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Reflection - December 16, 2018

“Brothers and sisters:
Rejoice in the Lord always.
I shall say it again: rejoice!”

The Third Sunday of Advent is “gaudete” Sunday. From the Greek word for “rejoice” in Paul’s letter to the Philippians above, which we read today, this Sunday gets its name. We are admonished to rejoice. In the first reading, it is to shout for joy, sing joyfully, and be glad and exult with all our hearts. It seems like an odd thing these days. We witness plenty of fear, anxiety, frustration, anger, division, criticism, jealousy, offense, and even hatred, but not much joy.  We see plenty of distractions, entertainment, adrenaline rushes, virtual reality, social media, altered states, and even pleasure, but not much joy. We hear of natural disasters, wars, terrotism, mass shootings, starvation, oppression, persecution, forced migration, suffering, and even abuse, but not much joy. Way back in 1975, Pope Saint Paul VI wrote in his apostolic exhortation, On Christian Joy, “Technological society has succeeded in multiplying the opportunities for pleasure, but it has great difficulty in generating joy...yet boredom, depression and sadness unhappily remain the lot of many...sometimes go as far as anguish and despair, which apparent carefreeness, the frenzies of present good fortune and artificial paradises cannot assuage...the sum of physical and moral sufferings weighs heavily: so many starving people, so many victims of fruitless combats, so many people torn from their homes...and they overwhelm people's minds.” Where did all the joy go?

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Reflection - November 11, 2018

“He sat down opposite the treasury
and observed how the crowd put money into the treasury. 
Many rich people put in large sums.
A poor widow also came and put in two small coins worth a few cents. 
Calling his disciples to himself, he said to them,
‘Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more
than all the other contributors to the treasury. 
For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth,
but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had,
her whole livelihood.’”

“All they do is talk about money!” This is a common (not the most common, though) reason people stop going to church or stop being a part of a faith community. What I think they generally mean is, “Whenever they talk about money, all they do is ask for money!” Which I think is translated to, “All they want is my money!” I can imagine the priest, who has very little training in finances, faced with the stress of a major bill, debt, repair, or payroll crisis resorting to repeated guilt ridden appeals for more money. It happens. Nobody wants to be the leader who has to close a parish or or fail to sustain facilities because of a lack of money. It is a real pressure and I’m sure there are real experiences of this happening. 

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Reflection - October 21, 2018

“When the ten heard this, 
they became indignant at James and John. 
Jesus summoned them and said to them,
‘You know that those who are recognized 
as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them,
and their great ones make their authority over them felt. 
But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you
will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. 
For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve 
and to give his life as a ransom for many.’”

The seminary was an environment filled with evaluation. It was not bad practice for what it means to be a public person as a priest, but each day carried with it the observation of fellow seminarians and faculty about how you were (or rather, how I was) living an outward life of holiness in personal interactions, liturgical ministry, academic courses, prayer, service, and leisure. This was most significant in the annual seminarian evaluation for moving forward to the next year of human, intellectual, spiritual, and pastoral formation. A bad evaluation and lack of faculty approval could lead to dismissal from or “discernment out of” seminary. A tongue in cheek joke in response to this environment was a play on Jesus’s words above, “...did not come to be served, but to serve.” We would say, “It’s not so much to serve, but to be seen serving.” It wasn’t really that funny back then, either. 

This touches on a deep human motivation that many of us feel: ambition. James and John had it, so did the rest of the apostles. Why else would they be indignant? Jesus addresses this ambition, but not by saying it’s bad to be ambitious. In fact, he taps directly into that motivation, “whoever wishes to be great among you...” Most of us have this motivation to be great, recognized, or accomplished. Jesus, himself, had great ambition: ushering in the Kingdom of God, transforming every human heart, fully revealing the unlimited and unconditional love of God, saving the whole world, giving his life as a ransom for many. It’s not that ambition is bad, Jesus just turns the meaning of that desire on its head. We need to be ambitious, just not for ourselves. It is for service to others and the glory of God. 

Many in Jesus’s day, especially those who saw him as a threat, misinterpreted his ambition. They thought he wanted political power to establish an earthly kingdom. They were afraid of his ambition, even as they misunderstood. In some way, his true ambition was both greater than they could imagine and a secret. It almost had to be, so that his crucifixion wouldn’t be the end of his ambition, as his enemies had hoped, but the beginning. You see, it is not about being seen serving, for which the reward is evident, but the possibility of serving without earthly reward. As with Jesus, it is our secret ambition to give our lives away. Michael W. Smith had a song about this secret ambition. The chorus follows:

Nobody knew His secret ambition
Nobody knew His claim to fame
He broke the old rules steeped in tradition
He tore the holy veil away
Questioning those in powerful position
Running to those who called His name
But nobody knew His secret ambition
Was to give His life away

Reflection - December 9, 2018

“I am confident of this,
that the one who began a good work in you
will continue to complete it 
until the day of Christ Jesus.”

The day of Christ Jesus is, in its most common sense, Jesus’s return in glory, when all things are made new. The End. That is, an eternal beginning. As I have written before, it is also the day each of us will walk through the doorway of death to our eternal destiny, when our personal life on earth has ended. There is another sense in which the day of Christ Jesus is today: no sense in putting off love. Jesus comes here and now. There is a fourth sense, in this Season of Advent, in which we are preparing for Christmas. The day of Christ Jesus can be that for which we are preparing. Namely, the celebration of Jesus’s birth in just a few weeks. 

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Reflection - November 4, 2018

“‘Which is the first of all the commandments?’
Jesus replied, ‘The first is this:
Hear, O Israel!
The Lord our God is Lord alone!
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
with all your soul, 
with all your mind,
and with all your strength.

The second is this:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no other commandment greater than these.’”

At 19 years old, my understanding of and belief in God had been growing. I was going to mass daily, singing in the Catholic Cadet Choir, participating in a weekly bible study, and praying intentionally each day. Something was still missing, however. Even though I was growing, my heart was still partitioned. God was an important, perhaps even the most important, part of my life. But that was just it: God was only a part of my life. I put God in a well defined box and still held on to my goals, relationships, hurts, and weaknesses (and sins). I was still in control, or so I thought, and kept God as an ingredient of my “well balanced life.” I was even proud, to a degree, that God was the steamed broccoli on the plate of my life. My relationship with God contributed to my overall health and well being without being my all in all. God may have even become my first priority, but first among many many things. 

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Reflection - October 13, 2018

“‘You are lacking in one thing.
Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor
and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’
At that statement his face fell,
and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples,
‘How hard it is for those who have wealth
to enter the kingdom of God!’
The disciples were amazed at his words.
So Jesus again said to them in reply,
‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 
It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle
than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’”

Uh oh. This is particularly troubling in Jesus’s day because wealth was seen as a blessing from a God, an indication of God’s favor. Further, it provided the wealthy one the opportunity to contribute to sacrifices in the temple, support for priests and rabbis, and promote orthodox practice outside of Jerusalem. Clearly, in Jesus’s day, the wealthy had an advantage in making it to God’s kingdom. That’s not, however, how the kingdom works. The kingdom must be received (like a child would) without any entitlement. It must be received as a gift, not purchased like property. It cannot be earned without God’s grace, because it is God’s work, not ours. 

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Reflection - November 25, 2018

“Pilate said to Jesus,
‘Are you the King of the Jews?’
Jesus answered, ‘Do you say this on your own
or have others told you about me?’
Pilate answered, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? 
Your own nation and the chief priests handed you over to me. 
What have you done?’ 
Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom does not belong to this world.
If my kingdom did belong to this world,
my attendants would be fighting
to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. 
But as it is, my kingdom is not here.’”

This man, Jesus, stands before Pilate accused of being the King of the Jews. It’s remarkable, really. Born in the little town of Bethlehem, likely never traveling more than 100 miles from the place of his birth, and growing up in Nazareth (can anything good come from there), his public ministry only lasted three years. No army followed him and even though he had some public success, almost everyone who cheered him also abandoned him. Perhaps Pilate is being sarcastic. It’s hard to imagine him seriously asking Jesus if he’s the King of the Jews. He knows he’s not. Pilate might just be seeking to find out if Jesus is delusional enough to believe he is the King of the Jews, as he has been accused of claiming by his own people and chief priests. Is this man, Jesus, that crazy?

Pilate can’t believe his ears. Jesus is more crazy. “My kingdom does not belong to this world.” Jesus is King of more than Israel, more than the Roman Empire, more than the Earth. We might be placated to think that Jesus is King of Heaven, an eternal spiritual realm. But that’s not really it, completely. Jesus is redefining kingship. He is not a political human king, but the king of God’s realm: of creation (everything that exists), revelation (truth), and salvation (God’s action). Jesus is the king of all reality, seen and unseen. Theological reflection through the centuries has brought clarity to our understanding of the Second Person of the Trinity: his role in creation, revelation, and salvation. To Pilate, he had to appear crazy. Theology has made Jesus’s claim more understandable for us, but the centuries of growth in knowledge have not made his claim any more believable.  

Traditionally, we call this weekend the Feast of Christ the King, but it’s official title is the Solemnity of Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. To take our understanding of creation, the universe as it were, as an example, our knowledge today is so much greater than what Pilate knew. The universe, which is all of space and time, began about 13.8 billion years ago. It has been expanding ever since, and is expanding now at an accelerated pace. Space, itself, (hold on) is expanding. It’s not just that the edge of the universe is growing, but that everything in between is growing, too. This means that we, on earth, can observe the distant past of stars from the light they emitted close to 13.8 billion years ago, but which are now 46 billion light years away (try not to get a headache). The observable universe from earth has a diameter of about 93 billion light years, but since the universe is expanding faster than the speed of light, it may be many times larger than we can or ever will be able to observe (ouch!). Just in what we can observer, there are 100 billion galaxies with an estimated average of 100 billion stars each (our own Milky Way has 300 billion). Jesus didn’t claim to be a political king, but to be King of All. He was either crazy, or he is God. 

Reflection - October 28, 2018

“On hearing that it was Jesus of Nazareth,
he began to cry out and say,
‘Jesus, son of David, have pity on me.’
And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent. 
But he kept calling out all the more,
‘Son of David, have pity on me.’
Jesus stopped and said, ‘Call him.’
So they called the blind man, saying to him,
‘Take courage; get up, Jesus is calling you.’
He threw aside his cloak, sprang up, and came to Jesus. 
Jesus said to him in reply, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’
The blind man replied to him, ‘Master, I want to see.’”

The blind man, Bartimaeus, was desperate. One definition of desperation is, essentially, giving in to despair. I think that actually misses our common understanding. Something is left out. A football team down by two scores with a minute left in the game makes the risky choice to go for it on fourth and long. They have no choice, really. They are desperate. A lone hiker with his arm trapped by a boulder for six days breaks his bones with a rock and uses his knife to amputate his arm to survive. He was desperate. A woman whose angry separated husband sends their kids to his parents for their safety walks into a meeting and is honest for the first time, “I’m an alcoholic.” She was desperate. These folks have not given in to despair. They have faced it, sure, but then something clicks. There is one path of hope and they risk everything to grasp it. The Cambridge Dictionary (online) defines desperation as “the feeling of being in such a bad situation that you will take any risk to change it.” Yeah, that’s it. 

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