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

Keep it clean

Over the years I’m sure that we have all received some kind of advice.  Sometimes from parents, fiends, the media, or someone else.  I remember some advice given long ago.  “Always wash your hands before eating.”  It was good medical advice because one didn’t always know what one had touched.  But, there were those who let the
hand washing become some kind of fixation.

If memory serves me well, years ago there was a TV series called “Monk.”  It was about a detective who had this hand-washing fixation.  He washed his hands before (and sometimes after) meeting people.  His secretary, standing next to him, was always ready with the box of Handy-Wipes.  Now that was a fixation.

In the Gospel for the Twenty Second Sunday in Ordinary Time (Mark 7:1-23), some Scribes and Pharisees appear to have a fixation on hand washing.  They ask Jesus why his disciples don’t wash their hands before eating.

Jesus takes this opportunity to distinguish among his listeners the difference between physical and spiritual cleanliness.  It boils down to this quote.  “Nothing that enters one, can defile that person, but the things that come out from within , are what defile.”  (Mark 7: 15-16)   That is to say, the physical (hand washing, cleanliness in general) and spiritual (ten commandments) must be distinguished.

The Gospel can tell us a couple of things.  First, it is a good and healthy idea to wash one’s hands before eating, but not to the extent that Monk, the TV detective, did.  Any kind of fixation is problematic.  What one puts inside goes to the stomach.

Second, It would be wise to follow Jesus’ advice which comes at the end of today’s Gospel.   “…It is what comes out of a person that defiles.  For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, deceit, wickedness, envy, slander, pride.  All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”  (Mark 7:20-23)   What comes out comes from the heart.

In effect, it is good to wash your hands before eating, but cleanliness should not be an extreme. (Physical)   But it is better not to give in to the vices mentioned above, because thoughts often become actions.  And from our Baptism we all have the responsibility to treat others with dignity.  (Spiritual)

If people really want to know what kind of people we are, they will judge us not by the cleanliness of our hands, but by the “cleanliness” of how we treat others, e.g. with justice, compassion, forgiveness, understanding. The message?  “Keep it clean” when dealing with others.

 

Advertisements

Does bread really nourish?

Have you ever had someone ever tell you, “Who do you think you are?”  This question because the other person may well have thought that your enigmatic explanation made that individual feel ignorant.

In the Gospel for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (John 6:41-51), Jesus is placed in a similar situation.  His statement is,  “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”  And the group of Jews surrounding Jesus becomes quite surprised by this statement and asks for an explanation.

What did Jesus mean by such a comment?  Seems to me that there are two important concepts here:  “bread,” and “from heaven.”  The first deals with nourishment, and the second deals with divine origin.

First, bread as nourishment.  Jesus tells the group that their ancestors ate Manna (bread-like edible food) in the desert.  The Israelites were crossing the desert as they were leaving Egypt for the promised land.

During this exodus  the people expressed hunger and called to God, via Moses, to give them food.  Then this Manna came from the heavens and the people were satisfied. (Cf. Exodus 16 for this narrative)  The people were nourished.  Then Jesus told the crowd that  this gesture occurred only once.  That is to say that these folks who received the Manna eventually died.  Consequently, this nourishment was totally physical.

Second, the concept of “from heaven.”  Manna came from the heavens as noted in the text from Exodus.  God sent the bread to nourish his people.  So, the gesture had a divine origin.

Now, what can we learn from the Gospel?  By reflecting on what Jesus said about himself.  Bread is nourishment.  We can become nourished by  receiving the Eucharist.  This is primarily spiritual nourishment and one can receive it more than once.

The Eucharist reminds us of the Last Supper and the use of bread to give life. Every time that we go to Mass, we become spiritually nourished by receiving the Eucharist.  This constancy of reflection and reception is almost a certainty for eternal life.

When Jesus says that he is “from heaven,” our background understanding brings to mind the liturgical seasons of Advent and Christmas.  For these seasons keep telling us that God became human in the person of Jesus Christ.  So what we understand when Jesus says that he is “from heaven,” we are in reality understanding his humanity and divinity. Our belief in this is reflected in our behavior toward others.

Nourished by the Eucharist (bread), and belief in the divinity of Jesus (from heaven), gives us pretty much of a guarantee of eternal life as long as we behave ourselves.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is interesting to note that the number 3 quite frequently  turns out to be a number that somehow represents fulfillment.  For instance, many authors tell a story embracing three parts–a beginning (introducing the characters), a middle (containing the plot and its development) and an end (containing the solution of the plot).

The Gospel for the feast of the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), appears to give us a clue as to how we can experience a sense of fulfillment once we are aware of the Trinity’s presence in our lives.

I know this sounds a little complicated (maybe it is) , but I think that we can make sense of it by reflecting on three (would you believe it?) key themes in the day’s gospel.  (Matt. 28:16-20)  These themes are: (A)-the mountain; (B)-the commissioning of the disciples, and (C)-the notion of “God with us.”

First of all, the mountain.  In the Bible, the mountain is often portrayed as the meeting place between heaven and earth.  When something special was about to take place, it happened on a mountain.  For instance there is Mt. Sinai where a mutual covenant between God and his people occurred.  It was mutual because both  God and the people committed themselves to each other.  “Now, therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all peoples.”  (Ex. 19:5)

Then, of course, there is the Sermon on the Mount.  “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain….” (Matt. 5:1)  and began to teach.  Jesus’ purpose was very clear.  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matt. 5:17)  His fulfillment of the law was to point out that it was as sinful to think about something evil as it was of doing it.  “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.”  (Matt. 28:16)

Secondly, the commissioning of the disciples.  Jesus was able to commission his disciples into continuing his work of justice, compassion, forgiveness, healing, and doing good for others because he had the authority to do so.  “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.'” (Matt. 28:18) Thus he was able to say, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matt. 28:19)

Thirdly, the notion of “God with us.”  In the Old Testament, we have the theme of God with his people.  They could do nothing without the belief that God would be present.  For example, the Ark of the Covenant was God’s presence among them.as was the Jerusalem Temple.  But above all, there was the idea of Immanuel  which in Hebrew means “God with us.”

The belief in Immanuel carried over into the Incarnation where God became human in the person of Jesus Christ.  The season of Advent and Christmas brings this out.

Matthew’s gospel ends with the verse in which Jesus says to his disciples “…And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  (Matt. 28:20)  The promise of Jesus to be with his disciples always continues the theme of Immanuel for today and beyond.

What have we learned from these reflections?  Actually, several things, taking into account the three gospel themes.  First theme: the mountain, being the meeting place between God and his people.  Where/what is my mountain?  How and where do I meet God?  Prayer?  Sacraments? In another person?

Second theme: the commissioning of the disciples.  My commissioning takes place at my Baptism wherein I assume the responsibility to be of service to my neighbor.  Beginning of discipleship.

Third theme: the continued presence of Jesus among us.  Carrying forth the Immanuel spirit means that I don’t have to be alone to face the challenges presented by folks who are hostile to Jesus’ message.

Mountain (encountering God), being commissioned (awareness of Baptism), and carrying on the Immanuel spirit (Jesus forever with us) are three things that can make us effective disciples.  So, every time that I make the sign of the cross with holy water, not only am I reminded of the Trinity involved in the death and resurrection of Jesus, but also of my Baptism.  Such a moment suggests fulfillment and as such 3 becomes a lucky number.

People often use items that have brand names.  This is true of soap.  I have often heard people talk about the wonders of “Dove” soap, but to those for whom it is of concern I also mention that we Christians often see the image of “dove” in another way.  That image is that of the Holy Spirit.  The feast of Pentecost reminds us that Jesus commissioned his disciples to carry on his work right before his ascension into heaven.  With the coming of the Spirit the disciples would receive encouragement and support while they continued spreading Jesus’ message on earth.

But just who/what is the Holy Spirit?  Before you start yelling “heretic” hear me out.  I strongly suspect that the Holy Spirit is the power of God.  Here are just a few of the many biblical references that bring this out.

To begin with, there is the first creation account.  We read that the  earth was formless and empty and darkness covered the face of the deep.  “…while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”  (Gen. 1:2b)  Then God spoke and creation occurred.  Now, that’s power.

A second example comes from the book of Judges.  Gideon, who is a warrior and a leader, is chosen to become a Judge who is both a warrior and a leader of the people.  “But the spirit of the Lord took possession of Gideon….”  (Jdg. 6:34)  These examples from the Old Testament demonstrate that “wind” and “spirit” refer to the power of God.  What is of import here is that the Hebrew word used for “wind” and “spirit” is RUAH, which basically means “breath,” something that comes forth from the inside of a person.

There are also New Testament examples.  When St. Paul wrote to the Romans, he said, “And God who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”  (Rom. 8:27)  Here we are told that the Spirit intercedes on behalf of the disciples.  Intercession is a manifestation of the power of God.

A significant example is that all four Gospels speak about the Baptism of Jesus.  (Matt. 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:29-34)  We can surmise that the Baptism of Jesus was considered a significant event, which is why all four evangelists utilize the same image.  Namely, in Matt., Mk., and Lk.  At the Baptism, a voice from heaven says, “…this is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased…”  Then the Spirit appears in the form of a dove.

John’s Gospel differs a little, perhaps because it was the last of the Gospels to be written thus allowing more reflection upon the deeds of Jesus.  The text reads, “And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him’.”  (Jn. 1:32.)

The next verse gives the explanation.  “I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.'”  (Jn. 1:33)  This last verse tells us that  the baptism with the Holy Spirit provides the recipient with the help and encouragement to proclaim Jesus’ message to the world.

What have we learned from this?  First, that the Holy Spirit is the power of God. The examples from Genesis and the book of Judges have brought this out, showing how “wind” and “spirit” were concretely effective.

Secondly, that Paul in his letter to the Romans says to us that the spirit intercedes for God, which is a manifestation of power. The four Gospels mention the baptism of Jesus in the presence of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove.

In effect, the Holy Spirit is the power of God.  Before his ascension, Jesus commissions his disciples to carry on his work of justice, peace, forgiveness, compassion, and mercy.  When we are baptized, we receive that same commission, and it is the Holy Spirit who gives us the encouragement and support to fulfill that commission.

Because of our Baptism, we have received a sharing of the power of God in order to fulfill the ministry of Jesus.  So for us Christians, the image of the dove is, in reality, the Holy Spirit and not just a bar of soap.

 

 

 

 

Tag Cloud

%d bloggers like this: