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Archive for June, 2007

So many wonderful images from the readings this weekend, but I was caught up in the family celebration of my great-nephew’s baptism. I was one of the lectors and was blessed to be able to read that wonderul passage from Isaiah: “The Lord called me from birth. From my mother’s womb he gave me my name.” That Evan was being baptized on this feast and that his name is the Welsh form of John just added to the significance.

My friend, the parish music director, commented wryly afterward, “That’s a lot of expectation to be putting on a small baby.” The Christian calling is a high expectation, and I was also struck by the fact that one of my godchildren is now little Evan’s godmother, while my nephew and his wife are godparents to her oldest daughter. I couldn’t help but be moved by the connections among us that are not only blood ties but also bonds in the Spirit.

I have to say that sitting behind the ambo during the gospel, looking at family from out of town in the pews, the line “all these matters were discussed throughout the hill country of Judea,” my thoughts were not on the wonders of God, but on how often in families even the smallest detail, especially if it’s in someone else’s life, gets talked to death by everyone else. The commitment of Zechariah and Elizabeth to name their child John in the face of family and community tradition and expectation is sometimes a special source of encouragement to those few in our family who have moved to a new geographical location—and perhaps to those who wish they could.

For a more focused reflection on the readings, let me refer you here. I have a baby to hold.

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I’ve been mulling over last Sunday’s readings and putting the first reading and the Gospel together, as the lectionary intends. Nathan’s words to David remind us that although the woman’s extravagant public display of affection seems to dominate the center of the reading, Jesus’ strongest words are for Simon, who was far more concerned about his reputation than about hospitality. Both were key issues in the culture of the day. Shame and honor governed social status. And a culture that had come from nomadic roots knew the importance of hospitality. Sharing food and shelter with another created a true interdependency.

Only the saints among us are without mixed motives, intentions and actions. And even they would say that they struggled every day with overcoming their faults. Jesus is asking us to let go of our fear of how we might appear and our judgments about other people and see the good that we can do, the love that we can show, the justice that we can bring about. And in the end, the only way that we do that is through the grace of God.

Like the woman in Luke’s Gospel, only when we realize how much we have been forgiven for are we free to set aside our fragile egos, to let go of our need for approval. When we have done that, we will be able to live and to love bathed in the only opinion that matters, the love of God who knows the worst we have done and loves us anyway.

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A positive attitude

I’ve been playing elsewhere at St. Blog’s this week, but it is the Feast of St. Anthony today and having worked under his patronage for the last 14+ years, I can’t neglect the Scriptures for the day. Maybe it’s because I’ve been immersed in comedy lately, but both Paul’s letter to the Corinthians about the life and glory of the new covenant and Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount about the fulfillment of the Law seem to stress moving beyond the past, beyond the constricted and limiting world of law and rule to a new freedom in the spirit. That new life makes demands on us. No doubt about that. But it’s a life lived in love and joy rather than a fear of condemnation. And so, in that spirit, I offer this video from the recent Religious Booksellers Trade Exhibit, Jesuit James Martin on “Laughing with the Saints.” Watch it here or click on the video to pick up parts two and three at You Tube.

Hat tip to Deacon Greg for posting this earlier today. And to Loyola Press for doing the YouTube videos in the first place. I’d just been saying to someone yesterday that I wished I could have heard the talk.

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For many reasons, some that I’m not even consciously aware of, I have always responded more readily to the word than the Eucharist. Perhaps the same hardwiring in my brain that made me love books, major in English and make a living writing and editing. Possibly as a lifelong Catholic, I’ve taken the Eucharist for granted in the way that you take family for granted. It’s always been there. It’s never been a question of not believing. I’ve had some special experiences of deep communion centered on the Eucharist. But today’s Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ always reminds me to take time to think about what it is that I believe. And so I look to the Scriptures to explore once again this central tenet of the faith.

The readings are deceptively simple, but the questions they raise are endlessly complex. The reading from Genesis, the mysterious figure of Melchizedek, a priest and king of Salem long before the Hebrew temple rituals, before the Law, brings bread and wine to Abraham. This imagery fascinated the early Church fathers and is part of our liturgy today in the first Eucharistic Prayer, the Roman canon. As with many things in Scripture, I’m content to understand this figure on an intuitive, enigmatic level. I don’t need to find some sort of prefiguring of the Messiah, Christ or the ordained priesthood. That kind of one-to-one correspondence has always seemed limiting. It reminds me of an American literature professor I had in college who insisted on finding an analogy of Christ and the Eucharist in every book we read. It seemed forced. The tradition of bread and wine as symbolic offerings moves through the scriptures and our tradition back into the mists of time.

As we come forward through the Scriptures, into Paul’s letter and the Gospels, the imagery becomes more concrete, more “real” if you will. Jesus’ multiplication of the loaves and fish feeds both the physical and the spiritual hunger of the people. And it reminds us that even today, both hungers need to be fed. Paul’s recounting of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper never fails to move me, beginning with that first line, “I hand on to you what I also received.” Tradition matters. The handing on of the faith can never be taken lightly. In the family, in school, in church, among friends, this sharing of the core of our belief is as essential as it is difficult. Fortunately it often happens without our realizing that it’s taking place. And like the feeding of the multitude in the Gospel, they were written to address a very real concern in the Corinthian community: a failure on the part of some in the community to share their food with the hungry. Commnunion with Christ necessarily involves communion with the Body of Christ in the world today.

Rambling thoughts on a Sunday afternoon, and the true irony in all of this is that at Mass this morning, I was struck by the fact that the homily missed several key opportunities to address the feast (and the readings) in ways that seemed painfully obvious to me. Perhaps I was looking for something to move me forward on this journey. I’m not one to engage in homily-bashing in public, even though I write and edit homilies for a living, but let me close with this. The trajectory went from a Melchizedek golf tournament to the role of priests in minstering the word and an upcoming priests’ convocation. And the main thing that lodged itself in my brain was that given the feast, if you’re going to talk about the priesthood and even the shortage of priests, (certainly a valid direction), isn’t it more important to make the connection to the Eucharist and not the word? The word will still be proclaimed and witnessed to and made real in the lives of believers, but in our Catholic tradition, if the Eucharist is indeed central, then doesn’t that need to be the focus of the ordained priesthood? Perhaps the struggle I’m having with this is that having taken Eucharist for granted for lo, these many years, I could lose it before I realize what I’d be missing….

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Continuing from the previous post, where we began taking an imaginative look at the Book of Tobit through the eyes of his wife Anna.

Once Tobit decided that it would be better for him to die, there was no shaking him from his depression. He lectured Tobiah day and night about the need to be virtuous, the need to keep the Torah, the need to marry within our tradition. All good advice, to be sure, but he was hardly a shining example of the blessings such a life would bring. Finally, he offered a bit of practical advice. He told Tobiah about the money he had left in Media, back before the roads became too dangerous for travel. He sent our son to find a trustworthy companion. Azariah is not the man I would have picked. I thought he seems a little too slick. How convenient that he happened to be loitering near by, that he happened to be related to us. But Tobit had no such concerns. He can be so gullible at times. Let the man mention a name or two and Tobit was willing to let our only son go off with him on a long and dangerous journey.

Is it any wonder I began to despair of ever seeing Tobiah again? Day after day I watched the road for his return, while Tobit stayed inside and made excuses: Maybe something unexpected came up, maybe Gabael is dead, maybe they couldn’t find the money…. Through it all he said over and over, “Anna, don’t worry. The man he went with is trustworthy.” But I want to know how he could be so sure. As I sat there looking down the road, I had visions of the man doing away with our son and leaving him in a shallow grave.

Little did I know that while I was fretting about Tobiah’s safety, his future in-laws were digging him a grave on his wedding night. And why? So that their neighbors wouldn’t ridicule them for their daughter’s misfortune. Why do we worry so much about honor and shame? Why do we spend so much time and energy trying to keep up appearances? When Tobiah told me the whole story, my heart went out to Sarah’s mother. She wasn’t trying to cover up the shame. She was weeping for her daughter and trying to encourage her to persevere. That’s what mothers do.

And now here I am at Tobit’s grave. He’s finally being buried with all the honor he gave to so many of our countrymen. He rejoiced when our son returned, and his good spirits returned with his sight. It turned out I was wrong about Azariah. He was trustworthy after all. And more than that, he tells us he was a messenger sent by God. And indeed, he did bring us blessings in abundance. Sarah and Tobiah had a good marriage, blessed with seven sons. Tobit continued to live a virtuous life but he was less boastful about it. He learned that the praise for his blessings belonged to God and not to his own good works. It made him easier to live with, and we settled into a comfortable old age. He made Tobiah promise to bury me with him, so as I look into his grace, I know that I am also looking into my own. But I don’t feel afraid, for I know that I will live on through Tobiah and Sarah and their children and their children’s children. It’s been a difficult life with Tobit and his virtue, but it’s been a good life. Praise be to God.

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Several years ago when I was studying Scripture at the Athenaeum with Fr. Tim Schehr, one of the assignments was to look at the book of Tobit through the eyes of his wife. I had a great time with it and thought that I’d share it here. It’s longer than I realized, so I’ll spread it out to correspond to the lectionary readings this week.

As I stood by Tobit’s grave, suddenly I realized that nearly our whole life has centered on graves. My husband’s commitment to burying his dead kinsmen became an all-consuming passion. I understood the importance of his activity from a religious perspective. It was a mitzvah. But I wonder if he realized the toll it took on our daily life. When he was reported to the king, he had to flee for his life, leaving me alone with our son. And while he was gone, the authorities came and confiscated all his goods. To hear him tell the story, it all sounds so virtuous., so upright, so courageous. Men only see the adventure involved, and the principles. Do they ever give a thought for the women and children left at home? Sometimes I almost understood why our neighbors mocked him for his actions. And yet, he was my husband. We were exiles, strangers here. Our neighbors didn’t understand our faith and they didn’t understand Tobit.

After he was blinded, I had to take in weaving work. His nephew was good to us, but we had to make some attempt to help ourselves. I was a good weaver and I liked doing the work, even if Tobit tended to dismiss it as “the work that women do.” The owners I worked for were good to me, often giving me gifts of food in addition to my wages. I usually prepared it without saying anything to Tobit. He didn’t mind accepting help from his nephew, but I was afraid he would object to charity from the non-Jews in Nineveh. So many of our countrymen had assimilated, been absorbed by the Babylonian culture. Tobit was determined we would hold fast to our faith, to the Law, to Adonai.

The day they gave me the goat, I wasn’t sure what to do with it, so I brought it home with me. Later I would take it to be slaughtered in accord with our Law. Tobit heard the goat bleat when we came in and had a fit. Where he got the idea that the goat was stolen, I don’t know. I was tired and I had been pleased with the gift. He insisted we give it back, and finally I lost my patience with his high ideals. “Where are your charitable deeds now? Where are your virtuous acts?” Did he think he was the only one who could perform acts of charity? It was so hard for him to accept help from others. And he made me feel as though I had betrayed him and our faith in accepting this gift. But he didn’t hear what I was saying. He was driven by some single-minded approach to life.

Next thing I knew he had launched into a prayer for death so that he would no longer have to endure insults. What was he thinking? They hadn’t been insulting him with this gift. Nor had I been insulting him when I told him his true character was showing. Well, I may have over-reacted just a bit. But it was the same story again and again. His concern for his own virture and reputation had blinded him to the day to day reality. He didn’t care about me, he didn’t care about our son. We were the props to his proper life. I began to think that all his good deeds were merely a way to make himself look good in his own eyes. How often had I heard him boast, “I, Tobit, have walked all the days of my life on the paths of truth and righteousness.” No wonder he took it so hard when other people failed to admire his virtue!

(to be continued…..)

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Today in the weekday lectionary cycle we begin the book of Tobit, one of my favorite books in the Catholic Old Testament. As I was reading through today’s selection, one of the things that I noticed was that the opening scene takes place on the Jewish feast of Shavuot or Weeks. Shavuot was a harvest festival, but it also celebrated the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai, and this is fitting for the beginning of Tobit’s story, because it’s one of those books of the Bible that reflects on what it means to live God’s law, often at a great personal price. In the case of Tobit, it’s also about living a godly life in a culture that often misunderstands and even ridicules its importance.

If we look at Tobit’s opening scene more closely, however, we see a character familiar in both the Old and New Testaments, someone who might be a little too impressed with his own righteousness. He’s sitting down to a splendid feast day dinner and sends his son out to find a poor man to share that meal with him. But listen to the qualifications: “My son, go out and try to find a poor manfrom among our kinsmen exiled here in Nineveh.If he is a sincere worshiper of God, bring him back with you,so that he can share this meal with me.” The question of the “deserving poor” is one that we still wrestle with in our own time. And as we go through the week, we will see many of Tobit’s notions being tested by the difficulties he himself faces.

Tobit, like many of us, gets a bit too complacent, a bit too sure of himself, in the good times, in the times of feasting and enjoyment. But when push comes to shove, when tragedy strikes, we see his true colors. He does what needs to be done, he does what he knows he’s called to do. He doesn’t do it perfectly, he doesn’t always shine, but he always tries to live a good life. I’m reminded of the well-known quote from Blessed Mother Teresa: God does not call us to be successful, he calls us to be faithful.

I’m looking forward to exploring these stories over the next few days, but now my tea water is boiling and it’s time to call it a night.

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