Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Actions that speak

Read I Corinthians 11:23-26

Actions speak. A rose given to a bereaved friend speaks of our sympathy. A candle-covered cake speaks of our joy in sharing someone’s birthday. A hug speaks of our tenderness for a child. Yes indeed, actions speak.

They also speak in the religious sphere. We kneel to express our devotion to God. We lower our heads as a sign of respect. We bow deeply to show humility. We gather with others to express the union of our hearts in a common faith. Actions speak in this realm also.

On the day of Pentecost, after having proclaimed the death and resurrection of Christ, Saint Peter was asked what should be done. He answered: “Be baptized.” Baptism is a ritual action in which we express our desire for conversion, for the love and forgiveness God offers us in Jesus. It is an action which speaks.

This is true of all the sacraments of the Church. Confirmation expresses our openness to the mission which God entrusts to his people. Marriage is a living sign of the love Jesus has for his Church. Anointing the sick speaks of the trust we have in God’s healing power. Reconciliation tells of our faith in God’s faithfulness to us, poor sinners. Ordination is a manifestation of Jesus leading his people as a good shepherd. All these actions speak with great power.

Of all the sacraments, the greatest is the Eucharist, which we also call Mass. Saint Paul clearly explains that this also is an action that speaks: “When you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” 

The heart of the Gospel message is contained therein: Christ died for us and rose to give us life. The Apostles proclaimed this Good News everywhere they went. They never tired of repeating it, convinced as they were that God wanted to show mercy to all people.

As they evangelized, the Apostles did not restrain themselves to words. They also used an action, the same action that Jesus himself gave them as a memorial ritual the night before he died: taking bread and wine, giving thanks, sharing, eating and drinking. “Do this in memory of me,” Jesus said. And each time we respond to Jesus’ invitation, we proclaim to the world that he is the Messiah of God, the Saviour of the world, the Lord of the universe.

« Let us love, not only in words but in actions, » says Saint John in one of his letters. This is certainly true of our love for our brothers and sisters. It is also true of our love for God. Let us not only express our love for God in our prayer, let us also proclaim it by gathering to celebrate the Eucharist. For this action speaks even louder than words.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Bloody life!

Read Romans 5:1-5

When we citizens of the twenty-first century think of blood, we think of a liquid made up of plasma, red and white corpuscles, platelets, hemoglobin and such stuff. We think of the heart pumping this liquid through the lungs to be oxygenated and through the kidneys to be purified. We think of leukemias, cancers of the blood that can kill. We think of blood transfusions that can save lives. In other words, we think like the amateur scientists and doctors that we all tend to be.

It’s hard to imagine that in Jesus’ time none of this was known. People didn’t even realize that blood circulates through the body. All they knew was that if you lost too much blood, you died. Blood is life.

And life is sacred. If you wanted to offer a sacrifice to God, you slaughtered an animal and poured out its blood on an altar. You offered the animal’s life to God.

A great reversal was brought about by Jesus. He poured out his blood for us. He made this clear on the night before he died: “Take and drink. This is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new covenant, which will be poured out for you.”

Saint Paul carries this language even further. He states that in pouring out his blood for us, Christ was actually pouring God’s love into our hearts. In other words, God was sacrificing God’s being in order to give humanity a new life principle. The real source of a Christan’s life is not to be found in a red liquid, but in the very love of God, poured out not on altars but in human hearts. For all of this we must thank the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

One final twist: for the Jewish tradition, the heart is not the seat of emotions, but of thought and will. To say that God’s love has been poured into our hearts does not entail sentimental considerations, but rather a new way of understanding and a new motivation for our choices. This is what the Spirit of Jesus brings to his disciples. This is the great work of the Father, the Son and the Spirit.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Slave children, freeborn children

Read Romans 8:8-17

There are many sins against human dignity, but slavery has to rank among the worst. To consider a human being as the possession of another; to accept as normal the idea that a human being should serve another without freedom of thought, movement or will; to reduce a human being to a shadow of what it means to be human: all of this is truly a crime against humanity itself.

Unfortunately, slavery has been part of the human fabric since the beginning of society. In the time of Jesus, it was an accepted institution, particularly among the Romans and Greeks. Many of these slaves who lived in a situation of continual fear and uncertainty were bound to react positively to the message of the Gospel. For them, the idea that all people had dignity and worth was truly Good News.

Paul contrasts the situation of the slave with that of the child of a freeborn man. This child is free, cherished by parents, loved by family, destined to inherit the father’s wealth. What a contrast with the slave who lives in the same house, yet has no freedom, is cherished by no one, has no family, is destined to poverty throughout life.

Paul affirms that those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. They do not relate to God as slaves to a master, but as children to their loving, caring parents. They know they are protected and cherished. And they are destined to inherit their Father’s wealth, which is eternal life itself.

The Spirit leads us out of slavery into freedom. Slavery to whom? Actually, we are slaves to ourselves: to our passions, our needs, our insecurities and our obsessions. Paul calls this “the flesh.” It’s a symbol for him of everything that drags us down and stops us from being truly free.

If we remain enslaved to “the flesh,” then there is no hope for us: we are doomed to death. If, on the other hand, we open our hearts to God’s Spirit, leaving behind us the allure of “the flesh,” then we are promised to life, life to the full, life without end.

On Pentecost, the Spirit came down on the apostles and set them on fire. This same Spirit is offered to us today: a Spirit of truth and love, a Spirit that leads us out of slavery and fear and into life. Let us therefore celebrate the Spirit. And pray for the Spirit. And live in the Spirit.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Difficult reading - worthwhile message

Read Hebrews 9:24-28; 10:19-23

The prescribed readings for the Catholic liturgy are usually continuous, but not on this Ascension Sunday. The second reading begins with the end of chapter 9 of the book of Hebrews; it then skips the first eighteen verses of chapter 10 to pick up the text at verse 19, ending at verse 23. Let us try to understand these two blocks of text.

In the first, the author develops a particular interpretation of the passion, resurrection and ascension of Christ in the light of a Jewish ritual in the Temple of Jerusalem. This is an original, very creative reading that seeks to understand the meaning of the Paschal Mystery as the fulfillment of the rites of the Old Testament. The author compares Jesus to the high priest who, once a year, on the Great Day of Atonement ("Yom Kippur"), went into the most sacred space of the Temple, the "Holy of Holies", cut off from the rest of the Temple by a veil. There he sprinkled the floor with the blood of a bull he had offered in sacrifice for himself as well as the blood of a goat offered on behalf of all the people. He then returned to the people outside the Temple to recite the prayer of Atonement.

In fact, the ritual is much more complicated, but this sketch suffices for us to understand the author's comparison. He suggests that by his Paschal mystery, Christ came into the true "Holy of Holies" - heaven - in the very presence of God the Father. Thus, the sacrifice of his own life takes on an eternal value that the annual sacrifices of the high priest could not have. And the sacrifice of Christ, destroying the power of sin forever, becomes the perpetual source of forgiveness for all God's people. When at the end of time Jesus will "come back out" of this sanctuary in returning to us, it will not be in order to intercede for our forgiveness, but to make manifest the glory of the salvation he has already acquired for us.

The second block of our reading draws the consequences: with Christ and like Christ, we can enter the "Holy of Holies", in the very presence of God. The veil of Christ's body was "ripped" in his resurrection, so that his humanity - transformed by the power of the Spirit - would become not an obstacle but a path to God. Already in baptism, the "pure water" that washed our bodies, we have received new life, a life of faith, forgiveness and hope.

This text undoubtedly presents us with many difficulties because of the references to a Jewish ritual that no longer exists. Nonetheless, its invitation still speaks today, an invitation to courage and joy even in the midst of trial. With Jesus, we have access to the Father. Through Jesus, forgiveness is assured. In Jesus, we have boldness, "because the One who has promised is faithful."

The author of the letter to the Hebrews invites us to see the Ascension of Christ, not as a "separation" from him but as a stage in our own transformation. Jesus already takes us with him, beyond appearances, into the "Holy of Holies". Our life is already inhabited by the divine presence. Hallelujah!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Can a city really be holy?

Read Revelation 21:10-23 

"The Holy City." This is what Jerusalem had been called for a long time. Located on a small hill, it was almost impregnable. King David had managed to conquer it and decided to make it his residence and the capital of Israel. He moved the Ark of the Covenant there, with the stones on which were inscribed the Ten Commandments. He vowed to build a Temple to house the Ark, but it was his son Solomon who would successfully complete the vow, 968 years before the birth of Jesus Christ.

Four hundred years later, the Babylonians set siege to the Holy City. Their victory was marked by the destruction of the Temple. During the years of exile that followed this sad event, the prophet Ezekiel imagined the reconstruction of Jerusalem. In a dream he describes in his book, Ezekiel saw the glory of God come to down as a luminous cloud to dwell in a new Temple.

In fact, Jerusalem would be rebuilt in the following centuries, as well as the so-called Second Temple. Even at the time of Jesus, authorities continued to embellish it and to decorate it. Any good Jew had to go there three times a year for a pilgrimage. But Jesus foresaw its destruction. In fact, in the year 70 AD, a Roman soldier set fire to it. The Second Temple was destroyed, never to be rebuilt.

John, writing after the event, dreamed as Ezekiel did of a renewed Jerusalem. His dream incorporated several elements of the ancient prophet's vision, with this essential difference: in the New Jerusalem, there would be no Temple. Saint John explains: "In the city, I did not see any Temple, for its Temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb. "
Indeed, in the power of the Spirit, God inhabits the hearts of men and women who turn to him. The house of God is not made of stone. It is made of human lives that trust in him. 
For us Christians, a church is not the house of God. It is rather the home of the People of God, a place of meeting, of praise and prayer. We must always remember that the true house of God is each one of God's children. Let us allow this divine presence to shine forth in each of us. Every city can be a Holy City, as long as the people do not forget this loving, mysterious presence in their hearts.