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Archive for the ‘Prophets’ Category

Several commercials for the VISA check card show a smoothly choreographed series of transactions at a store, a food court, a basketball game, until someone wants to pay with cash, and then everything grinds to an irritating halt.

Few will deny that we live in a world that glorifies instant gratification. We hate to wait—for anything! Stores are designed and managed to minimize waiting in checkout lines. “No lines, no waiting” over the loudspeaker starts a mad rush of carts toward a new register. The “buy now, pay later” world of easy credit tells us that we can have whatever we want—right now! The billion-dollar diet industry is built on the premise that the excess pounds we’ve put on over the years will simply melt away in a matter of weeks.

I admit that I’m often seduced by these “no wait” promises. I’m one of those people who take food out of the microwave five or six seconds before the bell goes off, just because I don’t want to wait any longer. And yet for all my tendencies toward impatience, I have always found the prophet Habakkuk’s message in today’s first reading strangely stirring:

The vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint;
if it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late.

Even the most impatient among us are willing to wait for the big things. This is what God is trying to tell us through Habakkuk. The best things in life can’t be hurried. Birth, death, the growth of a child, recovery after an injury, the blossoming—or healing—of a relationship.

Waiting and faith are connected. We can wait patiently when we have faith that the outcome will be worth the wait, when we feel the reason behind the waiting. Habakkuk adds another word into the mix: integrity. It’s a word with strong implications of wholeness. He reminds us:

The rash one has no integrity; but the just one, because of his faith, shall live.

We’re called to wait patiently, but not necessarily passively. There’s a big difference between a rash action and a faith-filled one. Careless actions most often lead to misunderstanding, even violence.

In the Gospel, the disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith, as though faith were something that could be measured. He tells them that it’s not a question of needing a bigger faith. It’s doing what that faith tells us we can—and must—do. Not necessarily uprooting mulberry trees, but perhaps uprooting the prejudice that keeps us from pursuing real justice in our society, or ending the mindless cycle of consumption and waste that threatens to destroy our planet.

The changes that need to happen, whether in our own lives or in the collective life of our world, aren’t going to happen overnight. In most cases, the things that are wrong happened over a long period of time, and the healing, too, will be slow in coming. But come it will, if we have faith in the rightness of God’s plan.

The words of the prophets call us to have faith in our unique abilities, our God-given talents, in the vision that waits to be fulfilled in our lives. Recently I read a quote from St. Catherine of Siena: “If you are what you should be, you will set the world on fire.” This is the kind of faith Jesus tells his disciples that they already have. This is the kind of faith we have, whether we know it or not.

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Sometimes the stories from the Gospels have become such a part of our cultural heritage that we don’t really hear them. Sunday’s parable of the Rich Man (sometimes called Dives) and Lazarus is one of those stories. The rich man neglects the poor beggar at his door, they both die, one goes to heaven, the other goes to hell and their roles are reversed. The rich man is now the beggar, pleading for just a drop of water to quench his thirst.

This is the stuff of all the classic stories, fairy tales, mythology. Even jokes rely on this notion of status shifts and role reversals. And we respond with a deep-seated recognition of both the oppression inherent in the situation and our desire to see bad people punished and good people rewarded, even if it only happens in the afterlife.

We know that we’re often indifferent to people who are suffering from poverty, hunger and disease. It might not be as close as a beggar at our front door that we literally step over to go to work. Or it might be. But we’ve become almost numb to the stories on the nightly news of the ongoing suffering in Darfur and other places in the developing where starvation is an ever-present reality, in Iraq and other war-torn regions, in the thousands who are still unable to return to their homes after Hurricane Katrina.

The best among us take an active role in helping these people. Most of the rest of us donate time, money and a collective voice lobbying in the halls of power when we can tear our attention away from the many distractions of our lives. At the least we occasionally feel guilty that we have so much when others have barely enough to survive.

The words of the prophet Amos remind us that this has long been a problem in human society. Words of contemporary prophets remind us that the problem continues unabated. An unlikely prophet, the Irish-born rock star Bono of U2, long active in campaigns to end AIDS in Africa and bring about debt relief and an end to global poverty, gave a rousing speech to the NAACP. Like a tent revival preacher, he closed with these words: “The poor are where God lives. God is in the slums in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house. God is where the opportunity is lost and lives are shattered. God is with the mother who has infected her child with a virus that will take both their lives. God is under the rubble in the cries we hear during wartime. God, my friends is with the poor and God is with us if we are with them.”

There are no easy answers to this problem. The least we can do is to stay aware of it, even when we’d rather not. The greatest hope for us lies in the heavily ironic words at the end of Jesus’ parable. The rich man has asked that Lazarus be sent to his five brothers to warn them to change their lives and avoid his fate. Abraham tells him: “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.”

We have heard the words of the Risen One. Are we persuaded? And if we are, what are we going to do about it?

Here’s a great advantage blogging has over publishing on dead trees. I found this student video on You Tube when I was looking for U2’s song “Crumbs from Your Table” from 2004’s How To Dismantle the Atomic Bomb.

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Today’s Gospel contains that oft-quoted line, “You cannot serve both God and mammon.” The key here is not the word mammon or money, but the word serve. If we let our concern for money or material goods overmaster us, we will be in trouble. Maybe not in the short term, maybe not in how we appear to others, but our eternal soul will be in peril. Someone, perhaps Benjamin Franklin, said, “Money is a good servant but a poor master.” Sir Francis Bacon said, “If money be not thy servant it will be thy master.” These quotes and others like them are commonplace, almost cliches, because there’s a deep truth to them.Sometimes when we hear Jesus’ parable, we get distracted by the fact that he seems to be praising the steward for what we might see as dishonest business practices. In fact, some commentators have suggested that the amount the steward was taking off the bill was the amount that would have been his self-determined commission. But if we focus too much on the business details, we miss Jesus’ point.

The steward seems to have realized that he has come to a point in his life when he needs to rely on the generosity, even the charity, of others. If he has been treating his business associates harshly in the past, he knows that he has no chance of getting another job. If he’s only been concerned about his proficts and doing well for himself, he will find himself alone and destitute. So he sacrifices his profits, uses his money to buy at least some sort of good feeling from others. While he’s probably as aware as any parent of a teenager that you can’t buy friends, he’s still at least on his way to a deeper truth, the awareness that he does need the good will of other people.

The prophet Amos reviles the people of his day who resent the sabbath for the way it interferes with their business, particularly as their business seems to involve not only commerce but a particularly vicious cheating that shows a complete disregard for others.

His words still hold a bite for us today. We pride ourselves on abolishing slavery, and yet when Amos says, “We will buy the lowly for silver and the poor for a pair of sandals,” we might recall images from the nightly news of children in developing countries being paid pennies a day for working in a sweatshop sixteen or seventeen hours a day making high-priced sneakers and brand-name clothing.

The underlying message throughout Scripture is that if we’re right with God, our only true master, we will be right with other people. If we put something in place of God, that misplaced desire will throw our other relationships out of whack. Money can never be more important than God. It can’t be more important than God’s creation, either—other human beings, the earth that supports us, the air that surrounds us.

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In Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation,” the main character, Mrs. Turpin, is a proper southern lady who has a very high opinion of herself and a very low opinion of nearly everyone else. But when she’s brought up short by an accusation from a mentally unstable girl in the waiting room of the doctor’s office, she wrestles like Job with questions of God’s intentions and her own place in the kingdom.

The story closes with a vision of “vast hordes of souls rumbling toward heaven.” At the very end of the procession she sees those with whom she most identifies, orderly and proper to the end. “Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.” This vision, this revelation, may finally turn her from her self-righteous obsession with other people’s failings. The story ends on a note of hope and expansiveness.

I always think of this particular story, not surprisingly, when I hear the line from today’s Gospel: “some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” The shock Mrs. Turpin experienced when her worldview was turned upside down must have been something like what the people in Jesus’ parable felt when the Lord said, “I do not know where you are from.”

It seems that we see a lot of religious posturing in the media these days, particularly from politicians who are already racing toward the 2008 presidential election. Religion has become a hot issue, and unfortunately people are too often more interested in presenting themselves as “religious” than in taking a genuinely faith-based approach to the issues and wrestling with Scripture and church teaching and the way to bring these things to bear on 21st century situations. It’s difficult to distill faith into a soundbite. There is also an increasing emphasis on “My religion is better than your religion” or “Inherent in the truth of my religion is your wrongness.”

Both the Gospel and the first reading from Isaiah remind us that religion is neither a popularity contest nor an exclusive club. Isaiah tells us that the Lord says, “I come to gather nations of every language; they shall come and see my glory.” There’s always going to be tension between being committed to one’s own beliefs and open to dialogue with those of other faiths. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures as the Chosen People interacted with the cultures around them. We see it in the New Testament as the early Christian communities worked to define themselves in relationship to their Jewish roots. We certainly see it in our pluralistic American society with its emphasis on a separation of church and state. And we even see it within the Catholic church as liberals, conservatives argue about who’s the most orthodox, who’s really Catholic.

The official stance of the church is clear in the documents of Vatican II, in the Catechism, in the writings of the popes and the bishops. It’s also clear in the Gospel. As children of the one God, we are to see all people as our brothers and sisters, created by God and held in the infinite mystery and mercy of God’s grace. Our focus needs to be on the Good News and the good works generated by our faith in God. We are heirs to the inclusive love Jesus practiced as he walked this earth.

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The lectionary readings for this 13th Sunday of the year, at least the first and the third, are linked by the image of a plow. In the reading from Kings, Elijah calls Elisha to follow him by throwing his mantle over his shoulders. Elisha leaves his plow and tells the great prophet, “Let me kiss my father and mother good-bye and I will follow you.” Elijah ignores him. Elisha then slaughters and cooks the oxen, using the plowing equipment for fuel for the fire (the hyperbole here is not likely to escape the original listeners). He feeds his people and then follows Elijah.

For Elisha to simply say farewell to his family wasn’t enough in Elijah’s eyes. He was looking for a total commitment. Elijah never did anything by halves. He comes upon Elisha after the tumultuous rout of the 500 prophets of Baal, a time of near despair in the wilderness, and a theophany in the form of a still, small voice. The successor God has appointed for him better hang onto his hat. He’s in for a wild ride.

Similarly in the gospel, Jesus challenges—almost taunts—those who would follow him, reminding them that he hasn’t even a cave to call home. He has set his course. He’s on the road to Jerusalem, to his destiny. Many have commented on the somewhat enigmatic line, “Let the dead bury the dead” and how strong a command the burial of the dead and honoring of parents was in the Law. What struck me about this passage, though, was the relentless forward movement. Once he’s headed to Jerusalem, Jesus isn’t going to let anything get in his way. And he uses the image of the plow in a way that would also be familiar to his listeners. Something else might be pulling the plow, but it’s the responsibility of the person holding its handles to keep it straight and true.

The two readings together remind me of the better know fish story when Jesus calls Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John to leave their nets because he will make them fishers of men. Here, we see Elisha leaving his plowing equipment to follow Elijah in the prophet’s mission, one that Jesus will describe as a metaphorical furrow.

Maybe it’s where I find my life heading these days, but what I hear in these readings is that God finds a way to use our work to accomplish his work. The Spirit provides the energy, the fuel, the inspiration. Our job is to hold true to our course. And the only way we can do this is by facing forward. Looking back leads only to confusion. Whatever we’ve learned from our experiences, from our families, from our past has brought us to today. The important thing now is to move into the future. It takes a lot to pull us forward. Maybe it’s only the hand of God that can really keep up steady. And so this might be a time to burn our plow, our bridges, anything that holds us back from wholeheartedly embracing the future God has in store for us. And I suspect we’ll be surprised when we find ourselves doing much the same work in a different context with a new goal.

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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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I went to the Tenebrae service at St. Peter in Chains Cathedral last night. This has become my personal tradition for entering into the Triduum. I first experienced it back in the late 1980s at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at Notre Dame, where it was sung after the Mass on the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday.

The centerpiece of the service is the chanting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, in this case in English, but each verse introduced by its proper Hebrew letter. These three sections were interspersed by congregational psalms (Pss 80, 69, 22, 4) classical motets (Poulenc, Victoria, Casals, Bruckner), the Bach passion chorale and scripture readings from Hebrews, Romans, the Gospels of Mark and John. The other piece I wait for each year is an exquisite performance of Allegri’s Miserere, complete with traditional countertenor.

What struck me this year is that this is a very theological reflection on the upcoming passion. Rooted in the prophets, in the world’s need for salvation, it offer some of the finest scriptural reflections on the fulfillment of the messianic promise. Even the reading from Mark is the gathering at Caesarea Philipi, when Jesus asks that question we each must answer: “Who do you say that I am?” The commemoration of Jesus’ last hours lies ahead; this service reminds me why that commemoration is important.

On a much more primal level, it’s an incredibly stirring ritual. Quiet, solemn, stripped to basics in many ways: a simple procession, music, scripture, candlelight. As the fifteen candles are quietly extinguished one at a time after each psalm or reading, the focus deepens. With the single candle burning in a completely dark cathedral, I find myself aware at a very deep level of the most basic struggle between the darkness of chaos and the light of Christ. The moment of being plunged into complete darkness (for the space of an Our Father) makes me realize like nothing else I’ve ever experienced what the darkness would be like without the Light that came into the world for our salvation.

Masterful ritual, indeed. This is not overheated, even maudlin emotional reflecting on a tragic death. This is the very core of our faith experience. As John puts it so well, “The light came into the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”

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