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Archive for January, 2007

Preachers are fond of challenging their congregations with the question of what they would do if Jesus walked into their Sunday gathering disguised as a homeless person. An Episcopal priest in a small town in Wisconsin inadvertently became a living parable along just those lines.

Father William Myrick intended to dress as the beggar Lazarus for the feast of All Saints. The result was what he appeared to be a homeless man asking for money from his own  parishioners as they arrived for church services that Sunday.

According to an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, most ignored or even avoided him. They were shocked and, one hopes, chagrined, when he joined the entrance procession and sat in the priest’s chair at the altar, removing the fake hair that had effectively changed his appearance.

Later, one of his parishioners said, “Your attitude about another human being was thrown in your face. It certainly created an awareness…. It’s enlightening to know yourself, how you really react to those situations

The priest himself said, “I know when I was on the steps out there, I was getting angry seeing my friends pass me by. I realized it wouldn’t take much and I could get in that same situation, and I couldn’t count on those people anymore

In today’s Gospel, Jesus has been speaking to the people in the synagogue in his hometown of
Nazareth. While they are initially awed by his proclamation of the word, they quickly begin to resent what they see as a local boy getting too important for his good—or their comfort. They think they know all there is to know about him. How could he possibly be the fulfillment of the words of one of their greatest prophets

We’re quick to judge other people: by appearance, by background, by familiarity, by behavior. Too often we dismiss them because they don’t meet some actual or imagined standard. Or we ignore them because we tire of hearing their litany of complaints. The danger in this is that we can very easily miss the face and the voice of God speaking through unlikely prophets

Many of us will never be called to a public, prophetic ministry like that of Jeremiah or Paul or Jesus. We’ll most likely live out our Christianity as part of the gathered congregation of the faithful. The challenge for us is not so much to proclaim the word, but to recognize it when we hear it.

We learn to do this partly by knowing the word as it comes to us through the Scriptures. But we also learn by keeping ourselves open to other people from all walks of life. As difficult as it might be to learn to accept those who are strangers to us, it can be even more difficult to see our families, friends and coworkers with a deep respect. The people we think we know are often the hardest to take seriously—an elderly parent, a confused teenager, an ambitious and upwardly mobile young adult. We need to remember that all of us, like Jeremiah, are formed and called by God in the womb, and that at any time God can speak through anyone. How will you respond?

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A while back, Xerox had a TV commercial for their copiers that showed a medieval monk with a commission for several copies of The Bible and he goes into the basement and starts up the Xerox copier. Its humor, of course, lay in the choronological disjuntion of 20th-century technology available to monks in the Middle Ages. In something of a reversal of this irony, the Benedictines of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, have commissioned an entirely hand-illuminated, hand-illustrated edition of the Bible. Done on calf-skin vellum, with handmade inks and handground pigments, it is a stupendous work of art. Still a work in progress, facsimilies of the early volumes are already available to the general public.

 

The Bible throughout history has been revered as the word of God, of course, and because of that as a physical object. Christians and Jews are both known as People of the Book. Translations of the Bible were often the first and most lasting volumes of literature in many languages. The Gutenberg Bible provided the impetus for the first printing presses as a way of making the word of God more available to ordinary people at a time when only the very wealthy could commission a hand-illuminated copy of the text.

 

In both the first reading from Nehemiah and the passage from Luke’s Gospel today, we see how deeply affected our ancestors in faith were by the word of God. During the restoration after the Exile, the Book of the Law or Torah (the first five books in our Bible) was discovered and Ezra the priest read this text to the people, who wept as they listened. And Jesus unrolls the scroll of Isaiah to a passage that perfectly described his own ministry as the Word of God. He tells the people, “Today, this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” He makes this proclamation fresh from his temptation in the desert, when he told Satan, “Not by bread alone does man live but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

 

When we celebrate the Eucharist, we are fed by both the Bread of Life and the Word of God. The readings from the Hebrew Scriptures, the letters of Paul and the other early Christian leaders, and the four Gospels are selected to form us in faith day by day, week by week, year by year.

 

Pope Benedict has called for a world Synod of Bishops in 2008 to examine the role of Scripture in all aspects of the church’s life. Says Italian Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, “The church is born of the word of God, renews itself, regenerates itself every time it returns to the word.”

 

The Scriptures still have the ability to affect us deeply, whether read from the elaborate and elegant illuminations of the St. John’s Bible, the paperback study bibles designed for classes and small groups, the proclaimed word we hear at Mass, or the passages included in our daily prayer. The word of God is always new to us. While the word itself remains constant, our hearing of it changes as our life circumstances change and our understanding deepens. Let yourself be inspired by today’s readings to renew your own acquaintance with the Scriptures. Let the word be fulfilled in your own life today.

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A quote often attributed to British essayist Hilaire Belloc tells us, “Wherever the Catholic sun does shine, there’s laughter, friendship and good red wine.” Whoever coined this phrase may have been inspired by today’s Gospel. We see Jesus at a party with his mother and his friends, and when the wine runs low and the bridegroom is faced with a social embarrassment, Jesus offers an abundance of choice wine.

 

In John’s Gospel, the miracles Jesus performs are profound signs of his glory and his identity as the Son of God. And so the miracle at the wedding feast of Cana is far more than, say, a trip to the corner market to pick up a couple more bottles of wine for dinner. And it’s more than Jesus responding to a gentle nudge from his mother to do something about their friends’ awkward situation.

 

How fitting it is that the one who would in the end give his flesh and blood to be food and drink began his ministry with the sign of abundant wine. Jesus is, in fact, reflecting the prophecies of Isiah and the other Hebrew prophets who reminded the People of God that their covenant with the Creator was like the bond of a bride and bridegroom. And the sign of that covenant was described more than once by Isaiah as an abundant banquet of rich food and choice wines.

 

As Catholics, our spiritual life is deeply rooted in the things of the earth. We just finished celebrating the feast of the Incarnation, the mystery of the God of the universe taking flesh as a human baby. The incarnation is at the heart of our sacramental life. We believe that the signs of God’s presence in our midst are things that we can taste and smell and touch. For us, a spiritual life is not something that denies the body, the senses, the stuff of the earth, as somehow inferior to a life of the mind and the purity of a disembodied soul. It’s a spirituality that over and over again looks to creation for signs of God’s very life and presence.

 

In these Sundays between Christmas and the beginning of Lent, the Scriptures begin to show us what it means to be disciples of Jesus. In the Gospel of Luke, especially, Jesus’ ministry is one of eating at table with saints and sinners alike. Whether we’re gathered around the table of the Eucharist or around our family tables at home, today’s readings remind us that all is holy, all is sacred, and God’s presence can be found in the most ordinary and extraordinary expressions of human life.

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Epiphany celebrates the proclamation that Jesus Christ is Lord, the manifestation of the Savior, the revelation of God in the world. Isaiah speaks of this epiphany as a light shining in the darkness. In our Gospel we see the magi—astrologers, star-followers—seeking a new light, a new life. Perhaps they are looking for something unusual and exciting. Or perhaps they are genuinely searching for something that will change their lives. We don’t know what brought them together as companions except the shared quest. We’re told that they brought rich gifts to honor the new king and perhaps win favors, that they inquired at the palace of the reigning king for news. They did all the expected and conventional things.

We can discover in the experience of the magi questions about our own spiritual search. Often we begin our search in ordinary and expected ways. But in the course of asking questions and discovering answers, we suddenly come upon a manifestation of faith in God’s love for us that turns many of our conventional expectations upside down. Once the magi had seen the savior, once the manifestation of God in their lives was clear, they did something unexpected. “They returned to their country by a different way.” No longer were they interested in an alliance with Herod. Their gifts became symbols of a far greater reality. No longer were they comfortable and content with their familiar ways and habits. They accepted the challenge of new possibilities, new ways of looking at things, new ways of doing things. They were still on their journey but no longer searching with starry-eyed daydreams. They had seen the true radiance of the Lord.

In contrast to the magi, Herod wasn’t interested in new possibilities. He remained in the darkness because he didn’t understand the light. He feared the light—and the change it would bring to his life. If we’re honest, we know that at times we, too, resist change. Do we believe that the light of the new star will make us look dark and dim in our sinful, self-indulgent ways. Rather than living in the light of Christ, do we prefer to snuff that light so that ours might seem to shine all the brighter? Unlike Herod, the astrologers gave everything they had to follow the star. They recognized the light in their life and accepted the changes it brought. We don’t hear what happened to them after they returned home, but we know they went by a different route because that’s what God called them to do. Our lives too should be changed by the light that has come into our lives. And we should be willing to give everything that the light may shine through us. The manifestation of the savior should lead us along new roads to eternal glory. Our faith, like theirs, has to be strong enough that even though we only see a star in the night we follow it all day, we live our lives as people who have seen the light, who have been given the promise that a new king has come into our livesEpiphany reminds us that we come to the experience of Christianity from all walks of life, from a variety of attitudes and expectations. But once we have seen the Lord we travel as companions on a common journey, a different and life-giving way.

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