A scholarly attempt at an interpretation of Sunday's liturgical readings.

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Free lunch?

We all have to face it.  Many of us enjoy parties.  Some of the semi-obligatory  occasions are Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays, weddings, and the list could go on.

A major portion of the party enjoyment comes from the fact that someone else is providing the ingredients.  In the Gospel for the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time (John 6:1-15), Jesus provided the ingredients for the “party” which was actually a free lunch.  It went something like this.

A large group of people followed Jesus to hear more of his message, but it was well past lunch time.  Jesus noticed this need and responded to it quickly. He saw that they were hungry. First, he told one of his closest disciples to hasten to the nearest store and see what food he could by.

But that disciple noted the size of the crowd was about 5,000 or more and realized that nobody had that kind of money to feed all these people.

Secondly, another of his chosen disciples, as if to belabor the obvious, told Jesus that there was a young lad nearby who had five loaves and two fish.  But he also added, “What are these among so many?”

Then Jesus took over the issue completely.  He took the five loaves and two fish, blessed them and asked his disciples to distribute them.  Surprisingly, not only did the people have enough to eat, but there were about twelve baskets of food left over!  The people realized that a miracle had taken place.

Now, what does the Gospel say to us personally?  First of all, Jesus responded to a need.  He saw the people in need, and responded to that need as best as he could.  We ourselves see others experiencing a need one way or another.  The big question here is “How soon do I respond to that need, if I respond at all?”  Are we aware that other people have needs even though they don’t outwardly manifest it?

Secondly, it is well to keep in mind that Jesus responded to that need with “bread” and “fish.”  Why is that significant?  Because since the beginning of Christianity “bread” and “fish” have been key symbols.

The “bread,” since New Testament times, has often symbolized the Eucharist.  We are reminded of the Last Supper when Jesus took the bread, blessed it and gave it to his apostles.  The word “blessed” comes from the Greek EUCHARISTIA meaning “gratitude,” “thanksgiving.”  (Cf. Matt: 26:26-30; Mark 14:22-26; Luke 22:14-23; and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 for similar accounts of the institution of the Eucharist).

The “fish” has long been a symbol of Christian identification.  When early Christians met, they would draw a fish which explained that they were Christians.  The Greek word for fish is Ichthus in which each letter stands for the beginning of a word that means “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.”

So, we have the bread and the fish signifying the Eucharist and our Christianity via our Baptism.  Every time that we go to Mass we have the opportunity for a “free lunch” with fellow Christians.  The Eucharist will provide us with encouragement  and support to respond to the needs of others.  The miracle will be if we decide to respond positively to those needs of others.

 

 

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You take the high road

Seems that the only thing missing was…the proverbial “backpack.”  In the Gospel for the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Mark 6:7-13), Jesus is sending his apostles on a long journey.  For that reason, he is telling them what to take and what not to take.  Ultimately, the idea is that they should travel lightly.

What are the apostles supposed to take?  First, a walking stick.  Second, strapped up sandals.  Third, only one tunic.  Why, these three items?

First, some background is necessary. The “journey” in the Bible is meant to be more than just going from here to there.  The journey quite often refers to the “life experience.” You walk and often come upon crossroads.  You choose one over another based on your motives.  The tendency is to experience good things and bad things while on the chosen road.  Then you encounter other crossroads and the above pattern repeats itself.

A classical biblical example is the Exodus.  The Israelites were on a journey leaving servitude in Egypt for freedom in the promised land.  They had to cross the Sinai desert, and during that life experience the people were faced with many challenges. They accepted some and rejected others.  Much of the book of Exodus tells us about that journey. This is what a “life experience” is all about.  Facing challenges and rejecting or accepting them.

Secondly, it seems to me that the three items that the apostles were asked to take were not only practical but valuable as well.  For example, the walking stick not only aided walking but also was a defensive weapon against dangerous animals.  In addition, the strapped up sandals signified that one was always ready to  move ahead–if one had to.  Finally, the single tunic suggested light packing which meant the journey would be easier.

So, what can this Sunday Gospel mean to me?  A positive answer could be found if we look at the three items Jesus asked his followers to take and see them symbolically.  For their journey (our “life experience”) they were to take a walking stick, strapped up sandals, and one tunic.

The walking stick was used as an aid to walking, and as a possible weapon to defend oneself against possible dangers.  Assistance in stability and a defense from harm.  For example, what is it that keeps me stable in my life journey?  My faith?  My use of the Sacraments?  My prayer life?  What defense to I have when others reject Jesus’ message to them?

The strapped up sandal was used as a symbol of readiness to move on when the message of Jesus (as well as the messenger) of peace, justice, compassion, forgiveness, and understanding  was not accepted. Instead of arguing, it was much better to move on to the next town.  One needs to have an open heart to listen and accept Jesus’ message.  If the messenger does not find an open heart, the messenger must be ready to move on.

The one tunic definitely indicates the notion of packing lightly. If you have ever taken an airplane trip, you would definitely understand the need of packing lightly.  For the follower of Jesus, this necessity of packing lightly means that one must have faith in God to help provide what is needed.  What is emphasized here is the belief that God will help us out, in spite of our fears.

Keep in mind that our life experience is a journey.  We will encounter challenges.  And if we take the items that Jesus  told his disciples to carry (our version of the “walking stick” “laced up sandals” and “one tunic”) then for certain we have chosen what is often called the “high road” because it is, most likely, the better road.

 

 

 

Let’s hear it for the ladies

Any parent who has had a child that has been sick or near unto death, undoubtedly feels very miserable.  Anything that will help heal the child will always be welcome.  Even if that means taking risks.

In the Gospel for the Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Mark 5:21-43) such a situation arose for Jairus, a synagogue official.  Jesus was passing by, and Jairus heard many things about Jesus so he took a risk and asked Jesus to come to his house and heal his daughter.

While on the way over to Jairus’ house, Jesus and the group were met by a woman who had been hemorrhaging for some time.  She also had heard about Jesus.  Yet she was somewhat frightened about having direct contact and about having to explain her health situation to those present.

So, she decided to do what she thought best.  Avoid personal contact with Jesus, but somehow make sure that there was some direct connection with him…so she touched his outer garment and was immediately healed.

The common belief in those days was that when there was some kind of “touching,” power was passed from one to another. Since the garment was touching Jesus, the lady thought that touching the garment was sufficient.

I suspect that Jesus wanted to  publicize the occasion, so he asked, “Who touched me?”  The lady became nervous and ultimately admitted that it was she who had done the touching.  Jesus told her publicly, “Your faith has saved you.”  This comment was made, most likely, for those present.

Meanwhile, people came from Jairus’ house to tell him that his daughter had died. There was no need for Jesus to go. But upon Jesus’ insistence the group went on to Jairus’ house.  When the group arrived, Jesus entered the room where the twelve year old girl was in bed, and grabbed her by the hand.  He said in Aramaic “Talitha koum” which means, “Little girl, I say to you arise.” And to demonstrate that the girl was not a phantom, she was given something to eat.

Now, what do we make of all this?  It seems to me that the one dominant theme in this Gospel is the the healing touch of Jesus.  The woman had the illness of a painful menstrual flow, but did not want to “broadcast” the issue to the crowd present around Jesus.  Hence, she “touched” Jesus because of the belief that power comes from a person once there is touching.  By way of the touching, the woman was healed.

Then there is the case of the little girl who died before Jesus could come and heal her.  But Jesus took her by the hand and raised her from the dead.  A death-life experience very mindful of Jesus’ own death and resurrection.  The accounts of Lazarus (John 11:1-27) and the son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7:11-17) were illustrations of Jesus’ power over the death-life experience.

For us personally, a major lesson stands out.  Ultimately, it is the healing importance of touch.  In the Gospel a woman touched Jesus and was healed.  Another woman (little girt) was touched by Jesus and was brought to life.  We are touched by Jesus when we receive the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and the sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession).  We touch others when we are compassionate, understanding, forgiving.  Touching = healing.

We have the example of two women pointing out the importance of the healing power of touch.  For that, I would say they merit a round of applause.  So, let’s hear it for the ladies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Primarily for Nature Lovers

I suspect that many of us are nature lovers since we live in a world that is virtually concrete.  Winters are often cold or rainy or snowy–or all three at virtually the same time.  When spring arrives we see signs of new growth.  Plants begin to blossom and give us thoughts of new life. It must have been great for farmers to have seen this.

When Jesus spoke to the people, a fair percentage of them were farmers.  So in the Gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Easter (John 15:1-8) many of his listeners knew what he meant when he spoke to them of the vine and the branches.

He begins by saying that he is the “true vine” and his Father is the “vine grower.”  The branches that are connected to him flourish, and those that bear no fruit are clipped off.  It seems that the key point in the Gospel is Jesus’ invitation to “abide in me.”  Why?  Because without the direct connection to Jesus the “vine,” the “branches” bear no fruit.

What does this mean?  Throughout his life Jesus gave multiple examples of how to treat the neighbor which was the principal message he gave his disciples.  Today’s Gospel tells us that the best way to do this is to “abide” in Jesus, because abiding in Jesus seems to be the best way to follow his example.

But, how does one “abide” in Jesus?  Today’s Gospel gives us some ideas.  For example, when we commit sin we are not abiding in Jesus the “vine,” and as “branches” we will be cut off.  However, as “branches” we can “abide” in Jesus by reflecting seriously on that imagery.

We can see the vine as a Eucharistic symbol, and thus see a connection with the sacraments as a way of “abiding” in Jesus. Jesus  said at the last supper as he held up the bread, “…This is my body.”  (Matthew 26:26)  This reference is to the Eucharist.  Then there is also the question of the fruitful vine–bearing grapes.  Reference to the wine at the Eucharist I would imagine.

To abide in Jesus is what today’s Gospel tells us to do.  For without Jesus we can do nothing.  To  abide in Jesus reminds us of our baptismal obligation to be of service to/for others.  This obligation is fortified by our frequent reception of the bread and wine of the Eucharist.

So the next time that we feel overwhelmed by our concrete surroundings, a serious look at the wonders of nature, with plants and trees growing and blossoming, we can be reminded of death and resurrection in our own situations.  But, I suspect, one has to be a nature lover to truly appreciate the experience.

 

 

 

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Handling temptations

How many times have we been confronted with the question: “Should I do this…or not?”  The welfare of someone else would be affected, so the moral choice should be made very carefully.

I’m speaking of temptation which very often makes us ask the above question.  Keep in mind that temptation, in itself, is not a sin but rather an occasion to commit a sin.  The sin is in the choice made.

How does one deal with temptation?  The Gospel for the first Sunday of Lent (Mark 1:12-15) gives us some ideas.  The brief gospel appears to be divided into two parts: Temptation and Belief.

In the first part (Mark 1:12-13), Jesus is driven to the desert (by the Holy Spirit) where he was tempted.  Unlike Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 4:1-11) where the temptations are specified, none are specified in Mark.  Simply put, Jesus is tempted but does not fall into temptation.

In the second part (Mark 1:14-15), Jesus is proclaiming the “Good News” in and around Galilee.  What part of the “Good News” was Jesus proclaiming?  “Repent” and “Believe,” two key issues which prepared the listeners to have an open heart to hear the fuller message.

Concerning “repentance” the Greek uses the word metanoeite which means “turning around.”  A change in behavior was what was being demanded by Jesus.  That “turning around” would make it possible to hear the whole of the Good News.  After the “turning around” what was asked was to “believe” in the rest of the Good News.

Now would be a good time to ask what the above Gospel reading would have to say to us.  This may seem weird, but I think that the underlying element of this gospel message was that of taking seriously our own Baptism.  Why?

The few verses before the above gospel reading speak of Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:9-11) and the role of the Holy Spirit  is specifically mentioned.  The Holy Spirit is the one who brings Jesus into the desert where Jesus is to overcome temptation.  Then Jesus goes into Galilee “proclaiming” the Good News.  It is fair to conclude that because of his baptism, Jesus was able to resist temptation and proclaim the Good News, because he had the support of the Holy Spirit.

So it is with us.  Because of our having been baptized, we are able to confront temptation with the support of the Holy Spirit.  If we consent to the temptation, repentance (Sacrament of Reconciliation) will help us open our hearts to listen to the Good News.

Our belief in the Good News will be conditioned by what our knowledge tells us about the Nicene Creed and our reading/hearing of the Holy Scriptures.  Remember that people will judge us according to our behavior. Then they will decide whether we are true disciples of Jesus…or not.

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Keys unlocking doors of hopelessness

Who of us has not had problems over the years?  When we planned for success, there was often failure.  No matter what we did, there was little if any success.  Failure seemed to become the regular outcome. In this and other kinds of similar situations, the result often appeared hopeless.  It was as if the doors of hopelessness were slamming shut all around us, so what we needed were keys of “hope” to unlock those doors.

And where could we find these keys?  The readings for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Job 7:1-7 and Mark 11:29-39) would make good candidates.  In the reading from Job we note that he appears to be in a hopeless situation because of what happened to him earlier.  His children have died, he has no belongings, and he seems to be suffering from a rare disease. He cannot understand why God has abandoned him.  His condition appears hopeless.

In the Gospel reading (Mark 1:29-39), Jesus cures Peter’s mother-in-law thus manifesting his healing power.  Whereas in the reading from Job we find Job experiencing hopelessness, nevertheless we note that in the Gospel reading that Peter’s mother-in-law experiences hope in having been healed by Jesus.

There are three phrases in the Gospel that seem to play a significant part of the healing process.  (1)-“He came and took her by the hand…”  There was actual contact between Jesus and Peter’s mother in law.  (2)-“…lifted her up…”  Jesus helped her to rise. Reminder of the resurrection.  (3)-“Then the fever left her and she began to serve them.”

Regarding the first phrase, “taking her by the hand,” manifests the healing power of Jesus which is communicated by physical contact.  This suggests that action is necessary to bring about healing.  We heal others by doing something on their behalf.

Concerning the second phrase, “…he lifted her up,” we can assume that illness is not the only thing that makes us fall.  The spiritual illness of sin can make our spirits fall, and the Sacrament of Reconciliation can raise us up again.

It is interesting to note that later in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 5:41), Jesus raises a little girl from the dead using similar words as in the current reading.  “(He) took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum,” which means “Little girl, get up.”  The first phrase had to do with touch, the second deals with lifting up.

The third phrase is: “…She began to serve them…” In the Greek the word is almost the same as for “deacon” who is  ordained principally to serve.  Every baptized Christian has the basic responsibility to serve others.

What can we learn from this Gospel?  Keeping the above three points in mind, we can reflect on them by trying to answer these questions.

TOUCH:  How are we touched by Jesus?  He touches us by virtue of the sacraments, esp. the Eucharist and the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  I touch others by virtue of my good example, namely, by doing things on their behalf.

LIFTING UP:  How seriously have I fallen into sin, especially if observed by others?  Constant images of the resurrection  should be the dominant image for me in terms of being lifted up.

SERVICE:  Is my sense of service geared principally for my benefit, or do I actually intend to serve others by my good example?

I strongly suggest that “touch,” “lift,” and “service” can function as serviceable keys of hope to unlock the doors of hopelessness that are all around us now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Are you talking to me?

During the celebration of the Oscar awards ceremony, the most anticipated moment is not the gawking at the somewhat “de rigeur” dresses the actresses are wearing, but, rather, the  moment that the names of the winners are called.  “Is my name going to be called…or not?”

The first reading for for the second Sunday in Ordinary Time (I Samuel 3:3-19) and the Gospel (John 1:35-42) speak to us in terms of names and responses.

In the first reading from the book of Samuel, the boy hears his being name called and thinks it is his mentor Eli the elder. It was late at night.  So the boy runs to Eli and tells him that he heard his name called, and went to see what he wanted.  Eli said he didn’t call and to go back to sleep.

This call-response event occurred twice again, and finally Eli told Samuel that it was the Lord calling him.  The fourth and final time Samuel heard his name called, he responded “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.

In the Gospel, John the Baptist and two of his disciples saw Jesus walk by and  John blurts out, “Look, here is the ‘Lamb of God'”   The disciples started to follow Jesus.  Andrew, one of the disciples of John, found his brother Simon and told him that they had found the Messiah (=the one sent), and then took him to Jesus.

Jesus sized up Simon and told him, “You are Simon, son of John, from now on you will be called Cephas (=Peter).”  What we note in these two readings is the name being called and a response.

In the first reading Samuel hears his name, and when he realizes it is the Lord calling him, he responds, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”  In the Gospel, Simon not only hears his name called by Jesus, but also his name is changed to Peter.  His response is one of discipleship which we see in the rest of the Gospels.

What does this mean for us?  First of all, the Lord is calling each of us by name to be of service to others, for example: justice, compassion, forgiveness, and other virtues of service.  It is up to us to recognize Jesus wherever we see him, likely in the poor, sick, homeless, and others in need.  The response of Samuel is crucial when our name is called: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is  listening.”  It is only by listening that we can hear the word.

Secondly, as in the Gospel Simon’s name was changed to Cephas (=Peter) which means “rock,” so our name is changed when we are baptized.  Because of Baptism, we officially called “disciple of Jesus” which means we continue his work on earth.

The fundamental question in this call-response dynamic seems to be: “Is there anything that is making me too deaf to hear the voice of the Lord?”  Attitude?  Temptation?

There is no response if I am not certain that I hear the voice of the Lord by asking  “Are you talking to me?”

 

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