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

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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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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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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