Archive | January, 2007

Rejection at Nazareth- Luke 4:16-30

25 Jan

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding, and my entire will.
All I have and call my own.
Whatever I have or hold, you have given to me.
I restore it all to you and surrender it wholly
to be governed under your will.
Give me only your love and grace
and I am rich enough and ask for nothing more.

-St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), Spiritual Exercise 234

The founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) wrote this magnificent prayer as part of his Spiritual Exercises, a series of prayers, meditations, and recommendations that are designed to lead to a more contemplative approach toward spirituality. By reading, reflecting on, and observing the Spiritual Exercises, one ideally allows God to transform interior weakness and worldly preoccupations into willful surrender to and welcoming of the Lord. Thus, God becomes the true center of one’s life.

Our transformation is usually not immediate. For example, the Jesuit Fr. Thomas Green, spiritual director at San Jose Seminary in Manila, Philippines, and author of “Opening to God: A Guide to Prayer”, writes that “God…always works in peace, and usually slowly.” (Green p.58 ) Yet God is so patient that His patience is mysterious to us. We as God’s people don’t comprehend it and may even be hostile toward Him because of it. For many of us, our experience of the Lord is similar to that of Jonah. (cf. Jonah 2:10- 4:11) The reluctant prophet is spewed forth from the fish on the shore near Nineveh. Jonah proceeds to convert the city from its wicked ways on God’s orders. Afterward, God changes His plan to destroy Nineveh, sparing the city from His anger out of love after Nineveh had converted. Jonah is displeased with God’s mercy upon Nineveh, and even asks God twice that he might die. After the first time Jonah wishes to die, God asks him: “Is it right for you to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4) God then summons a bush. This bush gives Jonah shelter, but a worm attacks and kills the bush. The wind becomes stronger and the day becomes hot.

In his discomfort, Jonah again asks to die. But Jonah doesn’t understand the message of the bush. God responds to Jonah: “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labour and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night”. (Jonah 4:10) The bush is symbolic of Nineveh and also relates to our own lives. God wills Jonah to be His instrument of conversion to the city. But the final destiny of Nineveh is in God’s hands alone, and God chooses to spare it. God also chooses to spare Jonah, despite his requests to die. God also chooses freely to save us through His Son Jesus Christ, despite our continued attraction to sin.

We are chosen by this Jesus to be His instruments of salvation, yet we are often reluctant to give our all to the mission. We respond to the initial calling to faith with youthful exuberance, as did St. Peter: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:2) But unless this faith is lived daily, the elation with which we confess our allegiance to the Lord who is the source of life for each person in community will give way to despair in times of trial. The bush in Jonah is like our faith in this sense. It springs up suddenly. It shelters us for short time. But unless we nurture it even when this is inconvenient, our faith will wither as quickly as it came to be.

Like Jonah, we often respond with reservation to God’s call to discipleship. This call of God’s may also be met by flat-out rejection. Thus it was at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry according to Luke. This Gospel passage was read during last Sunday’s Mass. As is done during the Mass, a knowledgeable preacher (Jesus, in these particular verses of Luke’s Gospel, or the priest and lectors at Mass) was asked to read from the Scriptures. Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because He has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

(Luke 4:18-19, cf. Isaiah 61:1-2)

Remarkably, Jesus returns to his place without continuing with the next line of his quotation from Isaiah, which warns of “the day of vengeance of our God”. (Isaiah 61:2) It is not a time of vengeance but a time of celebration. The people immediately respond favourably and with amazement, but the mood rapidly turns negative. (cf. Luke 4:22, 4:28 ) Jesus is recognized only as the son of Joseph by those in the synagogue, who do not accept Him fully even when it appears that they embrace His teaching. Lukewarm acceptance turns into the repudiation of Jesus, even in His hometown of Nazareth. Likewise, if the home we make for Jesus in our hearts is only somewhat welcoming, it cannot be fully open to the presence of the Lord. Thus, we reject Jesus within His home- ourselves.

In the face of rejection, the least likely people will accept God and will be met with His favour. When there was a famine, Elijah was not accepted by the starving Isrealites but by the poor “widow (from) Zerephath in Sidon”. (Luke 4:26) Naaman the Syrian was cleansed of leprosy by Elisha while the hard-hearted Isrealites were overlooked. (Luke 4:27) We must humble ourselves to be like these foreigners- completely open to the Word.

However, many times we can picture ourselves as the people in the synagogue who were preparing to run Jesus off a cliff. Rage controlled them, as it controls us in times of darkness and of distance from God. But Jesus escaped this deadly anger. His hour had not yet come. (cf. John 2:4, 21:22) He would be rejected again by all but His closest friends and relatives at an even more critical time, but through His death and resurrection He gives His whole self for our redemption because He loves us unconditionally.

We, too, are called to give of ourselves entirely in order to proclaim our “year of the Lord’s favour”. (Luke 4:19) The summons is urgent: “Today the Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21) We make the Mass a joyful sacrifice of praise. In our worship, we are strengthened. We go out sealed with and empowered by the Holy Spirit, so that we may accept Jesus and lovingly and patiently lead others into doing the same.

We pray for God’s aid in our journey of discipleship. May the Lord show us the way of patient love. May we be strengthened so that we do not reject God but instead accept Him wholly by abandoning ourselves to Him. In the words of Blessed Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916), whose prayer of abandonment I find strikingly similar to that of St. Ignatius with which I began this post, and to whom the order of the Little Brothers of Jesus is dedicated, we pray in order that we may abandon ourselves to the service of Christ our Lord and Saviour:

Father,
I abandon myself into your hands;
do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you:
I am ready for all, I accept all.

Let only your will be done in me,
and in all your creatures-
I wish no more than this, O Lord.

Into your hands I commend my soul:
I offer it to you with all the love of my heart,
for I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself into your hands without reserve,
and with boundless confidence,
for you are my Father.

Amen.

WRS

(Blessed Charles de Foucauld was assassinated by Touareg rebels in remote Tamanrasset, Algeria in 1916, before his Rule for the Little Brothers of Jesus was put into use at the order’s founding in 1933. I will write more on his life in another post.)

 

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God Is in the Silence

10 Jan

“He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire the sound of sheer silence.” (1 Kings 19:11-12)

As I’m typing this, Edmonton is bracing for a blizzard with wind gusts to 40 miles per hour (60 km/h) along with over four inches (10 cm) of snow forecast for overnight and into tomorrow. Another windstorm passed over two nights ago, with winds of 50 miles per hour (80 km/h) that had police responding to the din of burglar alarms. Needless to say, sleep has been at a premium so far this week.

During that last sleepless night, I also found it difficult to silence my mind. A storm of thoughts swirled and crashed around in my head unproductively. The book I had just finished reading about prayer and relationship with the Lord, Ignacio Larrañaga’s “Sensing Your Hidden Presence: Toward Intimacy with God”, seemed to do me little good. “Please God”, I prayed at one point, “allow me to rest. I need to work in the morning.” But rest wasn’t to be had…

I managed to slog through Monday at work, with the help of excess amounts of coffee. The day crawled by slowly. My fatigued mind had nearly ground to a halt. Somehow, though, God was there toiling along with me.

Recently, a friend and I were discussing the movie “The Nativity Story”, which we had seen just before Christmas. I won’t provide too many details here, for those who have yet to see the film. However, the passage from 1 Kings that I quoted above was used often in the movie. In one scene, the children are being taught in school to memorize the passage. It reminded me of a kindergarten class, where the little pupils are so eager to learn but can’t seem to sit still for very long. In yet another scene, Mary is shown reciting the verse with the children, who are attentive toward her. This is just before Mary is told by the angel that she is pregnant. She is told not to fear, but that is of little consolation.

In our lives, we may recite, study, and memorize facts and details. Sometimes, though, knowledge that is hastily acquired during sleepless, caffeine-aided cramming sessions produce little benefit. We are left confused by the muddled mass of numbers, text, and figures.

Our encounter with God can be much the same as a last-minute all-nighter or a sleepless night during a windstorm. In a fitting conclusion to his book, Fr. Larrañaga juxtaposes two responses to our day-to-day struggle before the Lord: the response of discouragement and that of hope.

Fr. Larrañaga returns to a scene he portrays earlier in the book: that of a newborn child. The baby is freed from the mother’s womb and forced to take its first breath. It is on its own. Eventually, breathing, feeding, and moving become routine. Then other more complex challenges become pertinent. The child learns right from wrong and thus makes choices. One who is raised according to religious faith may in turn feel close to God, but more or less often may sense isolation and despair. Any attempts to live righteously and faithfully are met with procrastination. This is true for even the most saintly people. For example, St. Augustine would pray, “Lord, grant me chastity and continence, but not yet”. (Confessions III, Chapter VII). This tendency to delay prayer, penance, and conversion, even when God seems far away and faith is arid, leads to misery. Ignacio Larrañaga, alluding to St. Teresa of Avila’s “The Interior Castle”, says that persistent hopelessness leads to the death of the soul- our interior castle- where God dwells in us intimately if we patiently allow Him in. One who is without hope will declare, “What I do know with certainty is one thing: there is no hope for me. What I was until today and what I am now, I will be until the end. My grave will rise upon the ruins of my own castle.” (Larrañaga, p. 328 )

St. Augustine may have met this end had his mother, St. Monica, and his mentor, St. Ambrose, not applied a persistent effort in prayer and teaching. Instead, the Church remembers St. Augustine as one of its greatest minds. St. Augustine’s life shows us the value of the response of hope. With such bold and joyful anticipation, we rise above impending ruin and seek our vocation. We find and welcome God who is in and of the sheer silence. It is God that passes by and beckons without making a sound as we stand attentively, awaiting Him. His call is therefore difficult to discern, but we believe in this Presence and make Him present in ourselves, becoming one with Him.

We are reminded daily: “Walk. The Lord God will be light for your eyes, breath for your lungs, ointment for your wounds, goal for your path, reward for your effort. Come. Let us begin again.” (Larrañaga, p. 329)

Lord, let us begin again when we are tired and the light of our faith is dimming. After we are shaken to attentiveness by the earthquake and by the wind, and purified by the fire, may you find us in the silence. We await your call. Help us to listen for and to respond to it. Amen.

WRS

Temptation of Jesus- Luke 4:1-13

4 Jan

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.This part of the Lord’s Prayer is perhaps the most difficult to comprehend. After all, why would God subject His own people to temptation? Why is it necessary to petition God not to lead us into temptation?

This theme is a proper continuation of that found in the Gospel stories of Jesus’ Baptism and of His genealogy. Luke ends his baptism narrative with the description: “…the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from Heaven, ‘You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” (Luke 3:22)

Firstly, I will focus on two phrases from within this verse: the mention of the Holy Spirit, and the depiction of the Holy Spirit as being “in bodily form”. Before the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the same Holy Spirit fills Christ and leads Him into the wilderness. (cf. Luke 4:1) The Incarnate God is led toward forty days of solitude and of fasting. He is in perfect union with the Father and with the Spirit. He is of course the same Godhead as these, but He freely takes on our human nature, including our bodily form. The Spirit that descended upon Him in the form of a dove is within Jesus as He goes into the wasteland, and fills Jesus such that the Spirit overflows from inside Him and is shared abundantly with all who believe. (cf. John 14:6, Psalm 23:5)

Jesus’ superlative strength is made manifest here. But the stronger He is, the more He is made subject to loneliness and temptation. Satan will not go down to defeat without a struggle. Jesus intimately shares in our battle with the devil. The Lord participates in the story of Israel, our “struggle with God”. He knows us even better than we know ourselves, because He is human like us. Thus the Lord, who has divested Himself of the glory of His divinity, is best prepared to wrestle with the slanderer* in the desert (cf. Luke 4:3), just as Jacob clashed in isolation with the man- God, actually, though this is not revealed at first- and was victorious at Peniel. (cf. Genesis 32:22-32)

Jesus is voluntarily led into battle in the wilderness by the Spirit. He, unlike us, is able to overcome temptation by His own power. We need His power. We are the formless void that requires God’s creative force to sow His goodness within us. (cf. Genesis 1:1, 1:31) Without God, we are a desert wasteland. We are nothing.

Christ knows this, so He invites us to petition the Father not to submit us to temptation to which we will succumb in God’s absence. In our petition, we ask Jesus therefore to fill our nothingness, our desertedness, just as the Holy Spirit fills Him. If we allow Our Lord to do so, temptations become mere tests and no longer pressures toward sin. Temptation will occur in our lives, as people from humanity’s beginning have been tempted. Not only is the Lord aware of this pressure on His people, but Scripture says that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15)

Scripture also provides other important insights into Luke’s account of Jesus’ temptation, especially the many Old Testament references to the number forty. For example, the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness relates back to the forty days during which Moses fasted on Mount Sinai. (cf. Exodus 34:28, Deuteronomy 9:9) Elijah is told repeatedly by an angel to eat in order to prepare himself for the journey to Horeb, the Mount of God. The food and drink that Elijah consumes lasts him until journey’s end, when he finds himself in the presence of God after forty days and forty nights. (cf. 1 Kings 19:4-10) The Lord led the Israelites into the wilderness, where they fought to build and to preserve their faith for forty years. (cf. Deuteronomy 8:2-6)

In Luke’s temptation story, Jesus quotes from or refers to Deuteronomy three times:

– “(One) does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Deut. 8:3, Luke 4:4)
– “The Lord your God you shall fear; Him you shall serve, and by His name alone you shall swear.” (Deut. 6:13, cf. Luke 4:8 )
– “Do not put the Lord your God to the test…” (Deut. 6:16, Luke 4:12)

Jesus’ three references to the Old Testament here highlight Luke’s likely intention to portray Him as one who came not to change existing Jewish law, but to fulfill what was written by His death and resurrection in accordance with the Father’s will.

Luke’s Gospel leans heavily on Scripture, not only to convey the perfection of God’s law, which Jesus quotes three times (the number three is shown again to be an important symbol of completeness or perfection in the Bible), but to warn against improper use of holy text. Satan referred to the Psalms to tempt Jesus:

“(For) it is written, ‘He will command His angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” (Luke 4:10-11, cf. Psalm 91:11-12)

Jesus withstands this enticement by the devil to put God to the test, thus to subordinate the will of the Father to His own will. He overcomes this temptation to push God aside, this force which has felled human beings since the first people bought into Satan’s deceitful words: “You will not die, for God knows that when you eat of (the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God…” (Genesis 3:4-5)

Appeals to authoritative texts are attractive, though false applications of Scripture often sway us toward evil. Shakespeare alludes to this in The Merchant of Venice:

What damned error, but some sober brow
Will bless it and approve it with a text,
Hiding the grossness with fair ornament?

However, Satan’s lies and misuse of Scripture fail to sway Jesus. Only the total unity with the Father, such that the Father and the Son are the same God whose love begets the Holy Spirit, satisfies the hunger of the fasting Lord…

Lastly, a brief comparison of the temptation accounts of Luke and of Matthew is useful in understanding the authors’ intentions. The order of the last two temptations is reversed in Matthew from that in Luke. Matthew concludes his temptation narrative with the devil taking Jesus atop a mountain and showing him the kingdoms of the world that Christ could have possessed had he bowed to Satan’s wishes. Mountains are important in Matthew’s Gospel. Many of Jesus’ important teachings, such as the Sermon on the Mount (cf. Matthew 5-7), were delivered from mountaintops according to Matthew. Luke places a different importance on mountains.

In Luke’s Gospel, mountains are sites of solitude, prayer, and contemplation. In contrast to the Gospel of Matthew, the setting for the most important events of Jesus’ life as recorded in the Gospel of Luke is in or near Jerusalem. In the Lucan temptation account, the devil makes his third attempt to trick Jesus in Jerusalem, “at the pinnacle of the Temple”. (Luke 4:9)

Also, though Luke has more of a tendency than Matthew does to accompany the high points of Jesus’ life with the presence of angels, there are no angels present when the devil departs from Jesus. This differs from Matthew’s focus, where angels wait on Jesus after He is tempted for the third time. In Luke’s Gospel, Christ is alone and is filled with the Holy Spirit, just as He was when He first went out into the wilderness. Furthermore, Luke ends on an ominous note: the devil will return “at an opportune time”- during Christ’s Passion. (Luke 4:13)

Lord Jesus, your apostle Paul commanded us to make our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:16-17). The wasteland of human weakness becomes a temple of beauty that you fashion and sustain. You were tempted on the top of the Temple in Jerusalem; be with us in mercy when our temple is crumbling under the advance of the prince of darkness. Do not submit us to temptations that are insurmountable, but aid us to overcome evil. Thank you, Lord for being one like us in flesh. Though we struggle with temptation as you did, we take comfort in your presence and we welcome you into our lives. Amen.

WRS

 

 

* In another difference between Matthew and Luke, the Lucan Gospel names Jesus’ tempter as “the devil”, which comes from the Greek word “diabolos”, meaning “slanderer”. Matthew names him as Satan, “the adversary”.A good reference I’ve been using on the Gospel of Luke is Fred B. Craddock’s “Luke”, from the series “Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching”.

 

The Holy Family and Happy New Year

1 Jan

As we inch toward the end of 2006 and the dawning of 2007, firstly I wish all who read this a Happy New Year. Today we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family, while tomorrow we mark the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, and the World Day of Peace.

This morning’s homily, given by the chaplain of St. Joseph’s College, was particularly fascinating for me because the priest delved into some basic biology. I work in a microbiology lab, where one of my primary responsibilities is to help in training students and new technical staff, so I often need to begin to teach at a basic level. The same is often true when teaching theology or any other discipline for that matter- most of us are at an amateur level.

In comparing basic biology to the notion of the Holy Family, our chaplain again showed his great teaching ability. He began by speaking about the biological terms “genus” and “species”. In taxonomy, the classification of biological organisms, life is grouped into seven levels of specificity*. Normally we hear of only the two most specific names given to an organism- the genus, which resembles the word “general”, and the species, which is a more narrow and “specific” grouping. For example, we belong to the genus Homo, in which we’re grouped with all human beings as well as our now-extinct ancestors. We’re then assembled in a smaller group, the species “sapiens”, which in Latin means “one who knows”. Much can be known about a living being from its taxonomy.

Likewise, much can be known about other areas of study by categorizing concepts. However, it becomes problematic to over-categorize when studying theology- literally, when examining the Word of God. When speaking of the Holy Family, people often focus too much on the characteristics that make the Holy Family unique. For example, Mary was the benefactor of God’s miracle when she conceived the Lord Jesus though she was a virgin. No word from Joseph is recorded in Scripture. The silence of Zechariah while he awaits the miraculous birth of his son John the Baptist is possibly a foreshadowing of the quiet obedience of Joseph to God. Little is known of Joseph, and he is not even mentioned in the Bible after he and Mary find the twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple. The third member of the Holy Family is the Son of God. Thus, if we focus on the uniqueness of the members of the Holy Family, it becomes impossible to emulate them. Our families today are radically different from the Holy Family, which lived by the Jewish faith in the first century.

Our task, then, is to concentrate on how the Holy Family is similar to us, if not exactly like us. For instance, St. Luke tells of how Mary, Joseph, and Jesus lived according to their faith and the legal customs of their time. Joseph went to his ancestral hometown of Bethlehem to be registered in the Roman census. (cf. Luke 2:5) Customarily, Jesus was presented at the Temple, named, and circumcised when He was eight days old. (cf. Luke 2:21-38 ) Since he was the first-born boy, the ritual sacrifice of two turtle doves was carried out at this time: “As is written in the Law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’” (Luke 2:23) Afterward, the Holy Family returned home when all that was required of them by the law of the Lord was completed. (Luke 2:39)

The next recorded example of the Holy Family’s compliance with religious custom was its yearly visits to Jerusalem for the Passover. Luke’s Gospel says that one especially important visit to the holy city took place when Jesus was twelve years old. This was the year of His Bar Mitzvah. At this age, Jewish boys are recognized as being capable of reasoning and of acting in accordance with their faith. In the Catholic Church, this tradition has been integrated into the celebration of the Sacrament of Confirmation, normally for children of about the same age.

During this particular Passover visit to Jerusalem, Jesus became lost in Jerusalem, and was found by his worried parents alongside the elders in the Temple. The religious leaders were amazed at Jesus’ knowledge. According to Luke, Jesus was listening and asking questions of the teachers. (cf. Luke 2:46) He was content to listen to the teachings of Jewish authorities, just as He honoured His heavenly Father followed by Mary and Joseph. His parents were nonetheless anxious at His becoming lost in the Temple, but Jesus already knew the details of the completion of His task of salvation. He was literally in His Father’s house- the Temple- at twelve years old, but He had to die on the Cross in order to ascend to Our Father’s house in Heaven and to open up the possibility for us to do the same. (cf. Luke 2:48-49) This Passover foreshadows our Passover from the throes of sin and death into the embrace of eternal life with God.

Of course, our salvation would be impossible had Jesus not taken on a fully human nature. He is fully divine as well, which is important, but we cannot be fully divine. It is then fruitless to focus more than is necessary on this difference; the only way for us to unite ourselves to Christ is by Jesus becoming fully human Himself. Our Lord lived, suffered died, and is risen for us as a human being. He comes to us in the Mass, in the Eucharist, and in each other as fully divine and also fully human. The Redeemer is like us in all things but sin. Coming back to the biological analogy I mentioned earlier, Jesus could be considered to be of the same “genus” as us. He is close enough to us in general to assure salvation for His followers. It is unnecessary to focus on an aspect of His “species”- His full divinity- which is unlike ours. We cannot understand all of this mystery of our faith, so a full comprehension of it is not needed for our salvation, although we should seek as much knowledge as is possible out of love of God “with all (our) mind”. (Mark 12:30)

In order to more fully express proper love and reverence for and obedience of God, we are called to co-operate in the divine will to bring peace. This is why we celebrate the World Day of Peace concurrently with the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, and with New Year’s Day.

We join as one Church with Our Lady, with St. Francis of Assisi, Patron Saint of Peace, as well as with the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI and all clergy and lay servants, in a prayer for peace as we begin 2007. May we better protect the natural world, God’s beautiful creation of which we are all stewards. May we work for better understanding of the particularities and strengths of each individual and of each culture. In a spirit of interdependence, may we always look for better solutions to existing conflicts in the world and for the prevention of new ones. As in Our Lord’s great high priestly prayer (cf. John 17), may we all work toward increasing unity in love for one another. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen.

Happy New Year 2007!!!

WRS