Sunday, February 24, 2013

A Little Something Extra...Second Sunday of Lent

Praying the Gospel – The Transfiguration, Luke 9:28-36 

Jesus took Peter, John, and James
and went up the mountain to pray. 

Jesus, take us with You to a private, quiet place where we can be still in Your presence and pray.

While He was praying His face changed in appearance
and His clothing became dazzling white. 

Jesus, You gave Peter, John, and James a glimpse of Your divinity; may we worship You always. 

And behold, two men were conversing with Him, Moses and Elijah,
who appeared in glory and spoke of His exodus
that He was going to accomplish in Jerusalem. 

Jesus, open our minds to the Scriptures. Help us to see how the Law and the Prophets foreshadow You and how they help us understand the mysteries of Your great love. 

Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep, 
but becoming fully awake, 

Jesus, wake us up spiritually that we may be fully conscious when we worship You, pray to You, receive the sacraments, and read the Holy Scriptures.

they saw His glory and the two men standing with Him. 

Jesus, show us Your glory. 

As they were about to part from Him, Peter said to Jesus,
“Master, it is good that we are here;
let us make three tents,
one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 

Jesus, sometimes we want to stay right where we are in our relationship with You, especially if we feel like things are going well, but teach us, Lord, that we must always keep growing in intimacy with You that we may reach ever-higher levels in our journey toward Heaven.

But he did not know what he was saying. 

Jesus, give us the words we need to express our love for You. 

While he was still speaking,
a cloud came and cast a shadow over them,
and they became frightened when they entered the cloud. 

Jesus, when we enter into Your presence, may be bow down in awe at Your splendor. When we receive You in the Holy Eucharist and You enter into us, may we be reverent, devout, and amazed by Your great love. 

Then from the cloud came a voice that said,
“This is My chosen Son; listen to Him.” 

Jesus, open our ears, our hearts, our minds, and our souls that we may listen to You. 

After the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. 

Jesus, it is wonderful to be alone with You; may we value those times of rest.

They fell silent and did not at that time
tell anyone what they had seen. 

Jesus, Your disciples said nothing about Your transfiguration at the time, but give us the grace today to witness to You in every situation. Amen.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Notes on the Psalms – Psalm 24

Psalm 24 has always been one of my favorites. I like its themes. I like its promises. I even like the rhythm of its language. On the surface, it appears to be a simple psalm that reads easily and flies by with almost a march-like tempo, but as in all the psalms, there are deeper meanings to explore here. 

The first two verses firmly establish God's authority over all of creation: “The earth is the Lord's and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it...” Everything on earth belongs to the God, the land, the sea, the air, the animals, the plants, the minerals, everything. No exceptions. Moreover, the whole world belongs to God, everyone who lives on earth, every single person. No exceptions. Just as a side note, this verse seems a bit repetitious, but in the Hebrew, the word for “earth” refers more to the natural environment while the word for “world” points to the inhabitants of the earth. In any case, everything belongs to God. No exceptions. Why? Because God created the earth and everything and everyone in it. He founded it and established it. The Hebrew word for founded is yâsad, which implies a beginning, a setting up or ordaining of how things are and should be. The Hebrew word for established is kûn, which seems to refer to an arranging or ordering or perfection of things. So God created all things and ordered them according to His will; they belong to Him. Knowing this, we need to ask ourselves how well we take care of God's created world and our fellow human beings. Do we treat them with the respect they deserve as the property of God? 

The psalm continues with two questions: “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in His holy place?” Who shall be able to approach this creator God Who has authority over the whole earth and everyone in it? Who can come near His dwelling place? For the Jews, that holy place or hill, was the Jerusalem temple. For Christians, that holy place may be both the tabernacle in every Catholic Church where God dwells Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the Holy Eucharist and the soul where God dwells within each person who is in a state of grace. What qualities must people have if they wish to approach God? The psalm tells us they must have clean hands and pure hearts. In other words, they must be free from both external and internal sin. One might wonder how this can be since everyone sins. God Himself gives us clean hands and pure hearts, for He forgives our sins. So God makes it possible for us to approach Him, for He loves us and longs for relationship with us. 

Those who wish to come near to God must also, as the psalm says, refrain from lifting up their souls “to what is false” and from swearing deceitfully. In other words, they do not worship idols. They seek truth...the one true God and His true plan for the world. They do not chase after things that are fleeting, vain, and useless (the Hebrew word for false, shâv', can also have these meanings). They do not enter into covenants with “deities” other than God, nor do they swear a covenant oath to God that they don't intend to keep. Instead, the psalm implies, they swear a true oath to the true God and enter into a true covenant, a bond of self-giving love, with Him. This is real worship. 

Those who have clean hands and pure hearts and worship correctly, the psalm continues, will “receive blessing from the Lord, and vindication from the God of their salvation.” The Hebrew here says that such people will receive berâkâh (benediction but also prosperity and peace) from the Lord and tsedâqâh (righteousness and justice) from the God of salvation. Why? Because they seek Him. They seek His face, His presence. And in doing so, they find Him. 

In verse 7, the psalm changes its tone. It becomes a rhythmic sequence of command, question, answer, command, question, answer. The psalmist commands, “Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors! That the King of glory may come in.” Then he asks, “Who is the King of glory?” He provides his own answer, “The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle.” Then the sequence repeats using the same words, except for the answer, which this time the psalmist gives as “The Lord of hosts, He is the King of glory.” 

What's going on here? On a literal level this psalm might commemorate the entrance of the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem when David brings it in from the countryside. As he dances before the ark, on which the presence of God was said to rest, David cries out to the gates and doors of the city to open wide to receive its true King, its divine King, of Whom he is merely a representative. This King is the King of glory, the Lord Who is a powerful force, able to win any battle. He is the true Commander of armies, Who is responsible for the Israelites' victories. 

The Fathers of the Church interpreted this psalm as a foreshadowing of Christ's victorious entry into the heavenly Jerusalem at His Ascension. In that case, the words would be spoken by angels who call to one another in awe that the God-Man is entering Heaven. “Make way for Him!” they cry, but at the same time, they ask, “Who is this? Who is this King Who enters into Heaven with a human nature yet also a divine nature?” “He is the One Who has won the victory!” others respond. “He is the strong One, the mighty One, coming back to us in glory!” They wonder at the miracle that has taken place. God has died and risen and ascended into Heaven as a Man! 

Finally, we might also interpret the second half of this psalm in a personal way. We are all called to throw open the doors of our hearts and our souls and our minds that the King of glory may enter into us. We are called to welcome Him as the Lord of our lives, Who wins our battles for us by His grace and desires to make His home with us and in us. 

Indeed, Psalm 24 seems simple on the surface, but when we dig into it, we discover depths of meaning that could change our lives if we would make this psalm our own.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Little Something Extra...First Sunday of Lent

The Three Pillars of Lent 

On this First Sunday of Lent, many of us are still trying to nail down the “Lenten routine” or perhaps even decide on “what to do” for Lent (i.e., what to give up for Lent). Let's take some time today, then, to review the “three pillars” of Lent, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and reflect on how they can help us grow closer to God. 

We'll start with fasting. Most Catholics automatically think about three things when they hear this word: no snacks between meals on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, no meat on Fridays, and giving up a favorite food, usually sweets. Fasting, however, can incorporate much more than just limitations on food. Do you have any bad habits you'd like to get rid of? Lent can be a good time to work on breaking them. Do you exhibit any character traits that drive your family crazy? Are you negative or complaining or sarcastic? Fast from those traits during Lent. Is there anything in your daily routine that you spend too much time on, say television viewing or Facebook? Try giving up or limiting those things. Do you spend too much money? Cut back on your shopping. Remember, though, that Lent isn't about self-help gimmicks. We give up something that is hindering us or even something we enjoy because we want to improve our relationship with God. We want to make a statement that He is the most important thing in our lives; everything else is secondary. 

What shall we do with all the money and time we save/gain when we fast? That's where almsgiving comes in. Part of almsgiving, of course, is giving money to the poor, usually through organizations devoted to caring for those less fortunate. Catholic Relief Services is always a good choice as are sponsorship organizations like Christian Foundation for Children and the Aging. Local charities and food shelves always need help, too. 

Almsgiving, however, is about more than giving money. We are called to give of our time and talent along with our treasure. Giving of our time can mean volunteering at Church or in the community or perhaps visiting seniors, fellow parishioners, or even friends going through difficult times. It can mean taking time to send a letter, a card, or an email or making a phone call to someone who could use a friendly hello. It might even be something as simple as just giving a family member your undivided attention for a few minutes. 

Has God given you a talent that you might share with others? Do you sing or play an instrument? You might consider contributing to your Church's music ministry. Do you excel at working with children? Volunteer to teach Faith Formation classes or tutor children who need special help. There are endless opportunities. 

Finally, we come back to the idea of treasure, but this doesn't have to refer to money. How long has it been since you cleaned out your closets? Are there things you haven't looked at in months or even years that someone else might use? Many local thrift stores accept donations and contribute part or all of their profits to charity. Do you have any collections packed away instead of on display? Ask yourself if you could part with any of your valuables. Catholic Charities holds annual fundraising auctions and appreciates quality contributions. 

The third of our three pillars is prayer. Lent is a time to intensify our prayer lives. This doesn't necessarily mean adding more prayers although I would suggest praying the Stations of the Cross frequently during Lent. What we really need to do during these forty days is to increase our attention and devotion during prayer. Does your mind wander? Make an effort to pull it back. Do you dash through your prayers so you can move on to the next item on the agenda? Slow down, relax, and remember you are talking to God. Prayer is all about strengthening your relationship with God. It isn't so much about getting something as getting Someone. Try to make that the focus of your prayer during Lent. 

Fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. Denying ourselves, helping others, and strengthening your personal relationship with God. That's what Lent is really all about.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Notes on the Psalms – Psalm 21

The first part of Psalm 21 is a beautiful thanksgiving prayer. In verse 1, David, speaking in the third person, rejoices in God's strength and greatly exults in His help. The tone and language elevate throughout this verse. The word for “rejoices” comes from śâmach, which means to be glad and make merry. David does this because of God's strength, His mighty power. But then David says that he greatly exults in God's help. The words for “greatly exults” come from me'ôd, which implies vehemence and wholeness, and from gı̂yl, which literally means to spin around under the influence of great emotion. What is it that makes David so worked up? God's help, according to the text, but the word for “help” is yeshû‛âh, salvation, Yeshuah, God-saves, Jesus. Here, once again, we catch a glimpse of Christ. 

David's thanksgiving continues in verse 2: “You have given him his heart's desire, and have not withheld the request of his lips.” God has answered the king's prayers and not just any prayers but the longing that is at the very core of his being. Further, David has not remained silent about his desires; he places them before God in vocal prayer. 

What are David's desires? We find out in the next few verses as the king enumerates the “rich blessings” with which God has met him. This is an interesting line in the original Hebrew. The literal translation might be something like “For You have preceded him with blessings of goodness.” The word for “met” or “preceded” is qâdam. It suggests anticipation. God knew what David needed even before David asked, and He was waiting for him with His hands full of blessings. These are blessings of goodness or rich blessings. The word for “goodness” or “rich” is ṭôb, which means “good” in the widest sense of the word. This goodness or richness encompasses many aspects; God's blessings are varied, beautiful, sweet, joyful, bountiful, and precious. 

What are these blessings, then? First, God has set a “crown of fine gold” upon David's head. He has give him kingship, authority, and power to act as His representative. With this blessing comes great responsibility and often trials, but God will assist David if the king obeys Him and acts righteously. God has given David life, “length of days forever and ever.” Does David believe in eternal life for those who love God? The Israelites' beliefs in the afterlife were not yet fully formed during David's day, but perhaps the king saw further than most of his contemporaries and anticipated the day when Heaven would be open and life would abound. He may not fully understand, but perhaps he sees a flash of future beatitude. God gives David glory, splendor, and majesty, for God has also given him His “help.” Once again, the word “help” here is really yeshû‛âh, salvation, and as we Christians know, Yeshuah, Jesus. Again, we catch a glimpse of Christ, and we understand that any glory, splendor, or majesty that we have comes not from ourselves but from God and the salvation that He brings us. 

David finishes counting his blessings in verses 6 and 7. God has made him glad with the joy of His presence. The Hebrew text actually says “exceedingly glad.” David's happiness is being in the presence of God, and God's blessings will last forever. David is confident in God's steadfast love and knows that, with God's support, he will not fall or waver. These are the greatest blessings of all: God's presence, God's love, and God's support. 

In verse 8, the tone changes. Although still speaking directly to God, David warns God's enemies what will happen to them if they continue to oppose divinity. First off, God will find His enemies, those who hate Him. They can't hide from Him. His “right hand” will discover them. God's right hand symbolizes His power, authority, and strength. David continues that when God appears, His enemies will be consumed by fire. Even their offspring will perish. God's enemies will not succeed in their wicked plans; they will flee before God's might. 

These verses may make us uncomfortable. We're used to focusing on God's mercy, so it's difficult to read about God as an angry deity. Remember, though, that the Israelites were surrounded by persecuting enemies on all sides. It is natural that they would see God as their avenger. Further, David didn't know as much about God as we do today. God has revealed Himself over time, more and more, according to His people's needs and capacity to understand. He is still doing that with us today. No one will ever grasp the full mystery of God or understand all His different facets. What seems strange and unpleasant to us was probably just what the Israelites needed to hear. 

Recall, too, that we Christians are still beset by enemies on every side, only these are spiritual enemies, the devil and his angels who attack us with cruel vehemence. We can easily pray to God to destroy these foes the way this psalm describes. Which of us wouldn't want to see the devil consumed by God's fire and fleeing before His mighty power? 

Finally, the psalm ends with a prayer for praise: “Be exalted, O Lord, in Your strength! We will sing and praise Your power.” Here David prays, and we pray along with him, that God may be raised up. He is already seated on His throne on high, of course, but He also needs to be seated in the high place, the first place, the seat of honor in each of our lives. May God's strength and power by our support, David prays. May we always sing to Him in thanksgiving and praise Him for His mighty deeds, and even more, for Who His is, the all-powerful, all-loving God.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

A Little Something Extra...Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Here I Am 

“Here I am,” cries the prophet Isaiah. “Send me!” 

But not at first. 

Seeing a vision of God in the Temple, Isaiah is terrified. Hearing the praises of the seraphim, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts! All the earth is filled with His glory!”, he trembles in fear. Feeling the building shake around him, he cowers. 

“Woe is me,” Isaiah laments, “I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” He believes that he will surely die. 

Then a seraphim approaches him, holding a burning ember taken from the altar. He touches Isaiah's mouth and says, “See, now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged.” 

Now Isaiah is ready to accept his mission. He hears the Lord asking, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” 

“Here I am,” Isaiah cries in response. “Send me!” 

Do you need to be purified from any sin before you can fulfill your mission for God? Are you ready to say “Here I am. Send me!”? 

“Here I am,” cries the apostle Paul. “Send me!” 

But not at first. 

Paul, when he was still Saul, had persecuted the early Church. He had hunted down Christians with a murderous vengeance. But then Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus, changing his mind, his heart, and his whole life. 

Purified by blindness and filled with God's sanctifying grace by Baptism, Paul is a new person. He is ready to spread the Gospel. He is ready for his mission to Jew and Gentile alike. 

“Here I am,” cries the apostle Paul. “Send me!” 

What role do trials play in your life? How is God's grace working in you? 

“Here I am,” cries the apostle Peter. “Send me!” 

But not at first. 

Peter is just a lowly fisherman, exhausted from an unprofitable night of fishing. Then Jesus gets into his boat and asks him to put out a short distance from shore. Peter does. He listens as Jesus teaches the crowds. When Jesus finishes, Peter probably hopes to head back to shore and take a nice, long nap. Instead, Jesus tells him, “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.” 

Does Peter sigh when he hears this? “Master,” he says, “we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at Your command I will lower the nets.” He does, and a miracle happens. 

Peter's boat is nearly swamped with fish. His nets begin to tear, and he has to call his partners to help him. Astonished and fearful, he drops to his knees before Jesus, bows his head, and says, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” 

Jesus replies, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” 

Peter swallows his fear. He's ready to follow Jesus. 

“Here I am,” cries the apostle Peter. “Send me!” 

Have you ever been afraid of how Jesus is working in your life? Are you ready to follow Jesus in His mission of catching people?

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Notes on the Psalms – Psalm 20

Although Psalm 20 is titled “Prayer for Victory,” it is actually composed of three parts: an extended blessing (verses 1-5); a statement of confidence in God (verses 6-8); and a short prayer for victory (verse 9). The psalm was probably written for the people, that they might bless their human king, express their trust in their divine King, and offer a prayer for God's support.

The first part of the psalm is a beautiful blessing that, while initially designed for the Israelites, could and should be prayed by all Christians over their loved ones. In the first verse, the author exclaims, “The Lord answer you in the day of trouble! The name of the God of Jacob protect you!” We all want God to hear and respond to our prayers and the prayers of our friends and family in times of distress, fear, pain, anxiety, heartache, and trials. We also seek God's protection and support during these afflictions. The Hebrew of the second petition offers us some insight into what it actually means to be protected by the name of the God of Jacob. We might wonder why the psalmist chose to say “the name of the God of Jacob” instead of just “God.” The word for “name” is shêm. It means more than just an arbitrary name assigned to a person by someone else; it actually refers to one's character or authority. This kind of name reveals not only what others call someone, but who that person is deep down inside. When referring to God, shêm designates Who God is, His character, His omnipotence, His omniscience, His true nature. So to say “The name of the God of Jacob protect you!” is to ask that God protect you with all of Who He is as the divine Being. That's pretty powerful request. 

Next, we must ask why the psalmist uses the title “the God of Jacob” here. Again, why not just “God”? By referring to “the God of Jacob,” the author is employing shorthand for Israelite history. He's reminding the people of their ancestors; of God's steadfast care for His people in the past; of the miracles that have accompanied the Israelites from the patriarchs' home land to Egypt and into the promised land; and of the sins and punishments they've experienced. The title may even be a gentle warning to hold fast to the faith of their father Jacob. 

Finally, as we consider the second petition, we must look at the word “protect.” The Hebrew word used here is śâgab, which literally means to be set securely on high or exalted. The psalmist is requesting that God may set the person receiving the blessing up and out of the way of danger, safe from all harm. 

The blessing continues in verse 2: “May He send you help from the sanctuary, and give you support from Zion.” The center of early Jewish faith was wherever the ark of the covenant was located, whether it was in the traveling tabernacle in the days of Moses, in a temporary tent in Jerusalem during King David's reign, or finally in the Temple built by King Solomon. This verse requests God to send help from His dwelling place on earth, the sanctuary in Zion (i.e., Jerusalem). In the New Covenant, we understand that we are temples of the Lord. When we are in a state of sanctifying grace, God dwells within our souls. He aids us from within to change our hearts and minds and draw us closer to Him. Of course, God is also present in the Eucharist; Jesus is present Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the tabernacle of every Catholic Church in the world. So when we pray as Christians that God send His help from His sanctuary and His support from Zion, we are asking that He support us from within and through His Church, especially in the sacraments. 

Verse 3 requests, “May He remember all your offerings, and regard with favor your burnt sacrifices.” This verse essentially asks that God accept the blessed person's worship. The Israelites worshiped through a rather complex system of sacrifices that were governed by detailed laws and customs, which had to be followed to ensure that a particular offering was favorably received by God. Therefore, this verse also implies a request that the blessed person worships correctly, in a way that corresponds with God's will. We Christians are not bound to the strict laws of Jewish sacrificial worship, but we are still required to offer up our own sacrifices to God, including our prayers, our good works, our trials, our joys, the events of our lives, and our very selves. We pray that God will accept all that we offer, as meager as it may be, and look upon us with the indulgence and affection of a loving father who has just received a handmade gift from his little child. Catholics also have the great privilege of offering the sacrifice of the Mass, in which the sacrifice of Christ on the cross is not repeated but made present that people of every age may participate in it and partake of its innumerable graces. There are strict, God-given rules governing Eucharistic worship, rules that all Catholics (and non-Catholics if they choose to attend) must follow if we are to please God the Father with a genuine offering of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. 

Moving into verse 4, we read, “May He grant you your heart's desire, and fulfill all your plans.” Isn't this what we all want, that God give us what we want and fulfill all our goals and dreams? We must always remember, though, that God knows far more than we will ever know. He knows what is truly best for us, what will get us to Heaven to be with Him forever, and He answers our prayers accordingly. Our deepest desire and highest plan must be eternal life with God. When we pray for this, we can be confident that God will give us exactly what we need.

The blessing portion of Psalm 20 ends with verse 5: “May we shout for joy over your victory, and in the name of our God set up our banners.” In the literal sense, the victory mentioned here would be that of the king of Israel conquering his human enemies. The banners mentioned would be the standards of an army on the march. The people wish to go to war under the name (i.e., character, authority, honor, and hence, protection) of God and thereby win the day. We Christians, too, long for victory over our enemies, but we realize that our war is a spiritual war, and our enemies are spiritual enemies who attempt to lead us away from God and down the path of sin and destruction. We, too, must set up our banners in the name of our God. All of our defense comes from Him. Without His grace, we have no chance of winning the spiritual war we face every day. What is the victory we seek? The Hebrew word used in this psalm is yeshû‛âh...Yeshuah, Jesus. Jesus is our salvation, our deliverance, our prosperity, our victory. The Israelites did not know this, but we Christians do. 

The blessing ends with “May the Lord fulfill all your petitions.” May God answer all your prayers. We know He does this, even if He doesn't always answer them in the way or at the time we may wish. 

With verse 6, we move into the second part of the psalm, which is a statement of confidence in God. The people have just been praying a blessing over their king; now they express their trust that God will answer their prayer. They proclaim, “Now I know that the Lord will help His anointed; He will answer him from His holy Heaven with mighty victories by His right hand.” Notice first that this verse is in the first person singular. Each Israelite and Christian is invited to make a personal statement of trust in God. “I know...” I am certain. I recognize. This is true. God will help His anointed. Who is His anointed? On one level he is the Israelite King, who is anointed with oil at his crowning. On a higher level, he is the mâshı̂yach, the Messiah, Jesus, Whom God did indeed help (the Hebrew word here means to save, deliver, or give victory to) by raising Him from the dead. On yet another level, the anointed one could be each one of the baptized, who have been anointed with holy oil and who share in the victory of Christ over sin and death. Each of us must pray this verse with confidence, knowing that God will help us, that God will answer us and give us mighty victories if only we trust in Him. 

Verses 7 and 8 remind us of what happens to God's enemies. These enemies rely on their instruments of war. They have better equipment (chariots and horses or perhaps temptations of worldly goods, power, fame, or money), and therefore, they think they must be victorious. But the Israelites (and Christians) trust in something greater, “the name of the Lord, our God.” They remember and call on this name (again honor, character, authority) of God as they go into battle (physical or spiritual). The results are clear. God's enemies are overthrown and collapse. God's people are raised and stand upright. The Hebrew word for “stand upright” is ‛ûd, which also means to testify or bear witness. In their victory, God's people bear witness to the greatness of God, Who deserves every bit of their trust and then some. 

Psalm 20 ends with one more petition: “Give victory to the king, O Lord; answer us when we call.” This is the cry of all our hearts as we long for God's salvation and the answer to our prayers. Hear and respond to our cries to You, O Lord, as we struggle against our enemies, and give us victory that we may live with You forever in Heaven.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

A Little Something Extra...Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Trials of Truth 

Let's face it; it isn't easy to tell the truth. Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes it meets with great resistance. Sometimes it costs you friends. It may even get you killed. That's what Jeremiah and Jesus were facing in today's First Reading and Gospel. 

In the First Reading, Jeremiah receives God's call to be a prophet to the nations. He is to speak the word of God, the word of truth, to whomever God sends Him. It will not be easy. He will face opposition, ridicule, anger, threats, perhaps even death. God, however, reassures this nervous prophet, who protests that he's too young and doesn't know how to speak: 

But do you gird your loins;
stand up and tell them
all that I command you.
Be not crushed on their account,
as though I would leave you crushed before them;
for it is I this day
who have made you a fortified city,
a pillar of iron, a wall of brass,
against the whole land:
against Judah’s kings and princes,
against its priests and people.
They will fight against you but not prevail over you,
for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord. 

God will make Jeremiah strong and solid as he stands before a hostile people, speaking truths they do not want to hear. They will try to destroy the prophet, but God will preserve him. They will fight against him, but God will deliver him from their hands. Because of God's gifts, the prophet will be like a walled city, made out of unyielding materials. He will hold strong before the highest of Israel's rulers and the lowest of Israel's people. He will place the true words of God before them for all to see, whether they like it or not. 

In today's Gospel, we see Jesus doing just that. He speaks difficult truths that the people of His native Nazareth don't want to hear. At first He is very popular with His friends and neighbors. He reads in the synagogue on the Sabbath, choosing a passage from the prophet Isaiah (“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me...”) and remarking that today this passage has been fulfilled in their hearing. The whole assembly is amazed and speaks well of Jesus. 

But that soon changes. 

Apparently, the crowd has been asking Jesus to perform miracles like the ones He did at Capernaum, but Jesus does not do so. The Gospel of Mark tells us that the people of Nazareth lacked the faith necessary to accept Jesus' miraculous works. Instead, Jesus remarks that a prophet is never accepted in his native place. He reminds the citizens of Nazareth that the prophet Elijah was sent to a widow in Zarephath in the land of Sidon rather than to a widow in Israel and that Naaman the Syrian was chosen for healing rather than the lepers of Israel. Hearing this, the people are furious. They rise up against Jesus and drive Him to the brow of a hill, intending to hurl Him off the cliff! What a change from only a few minutes before! 

Why are the people so angry? What caused such a drastic shift in attitude? By the examples He chooses to share, Jesus seems to suggest that the Gentiles are more worthy of miracles than His own neighbors, who resent the fact that their status as His fellow townspeople doesn't get them preferred treatment. Their pride is taking a huge hit. They are angry and disappointed. After all, Jesus said that Isaiah's prophecy was being fulfilled in their hearing. They want to see some action! They don't want to hear the truth. 

Jesus is teaching a difficult lesson. We all want God to answer our prayers when we want and in the way we want. We sometimes think that because we've said a certain prayer or performed a certain ritual or done something particularly good, God has to respond to us as we wish. Then, like the folks in Nazareth, we get angry when He doesn't. 

Truth is often hard to express and often hard to accept. Today's readings remind us of that, but they also assure us that God stands beside us, giving us strength and courage to tell the truth when we need to and patience and perseverance to recognize the truth when we need to...even if we don't like it. 

Lord Jesus, help me cope with the trials of truth.

Saturday, February 2, 2013


Today we celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. On this day, Mary and Joseph took the infant Jesus, Who was only forty days old, to the Temple to present Him to God. The Law of Moses set aside all firstborn sons as God's “special property.” Parents “redeemed” their sons by a Temple sacrifice of a lamb or, if the family was poor, a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons (Navarre Bible Commentary). 

The Law also commanded women who had given birth to undergo a rite of purification. Mary, who conceived Jesus by the Holy Spirit, would have been exempt from this requirement, but in humility and obedience, she submitted to the rite anyway. 

We could focus on many different aspects of this Feast: the ideas of redemption and purification; the action of the Holy Spirit; Simeon's prophecy; Mary's sorrow; or the traditions of “Candlemas.” For the remainder of this post, however, I'd like to reflect on someone who is often overlooked on this feast day: the prophetess Anna. 

Simeon had just finished speaking his prophecy when Anna appeared on the scene. We hear that she was the daughter of Phanuel of the tribe of Asher. Phanuel, whose name means “face of God,” must have been a well-known man in Jerusalem, for he is mentioned here instead of Anna's husband. The tribe of Asher was one of the ten lost tribes of Israel who were carried away from their homeland by the Assyrians about 740 B.C. A few members of these tribes intermingled with the two remaining tribes of Judah and Benjamin, preserving their ancient heritage and worship. 

The text calls Anna (whose name means “grace”) a prophetess, in other words, a woman who understands and explains the mysteries of God. She had a special charism, or gift, from God that allowed her a glimpse of Who God is and what He has planned for humanity. She was eager to share these insights with others. 

We also learn that Anna was a widow. She was married for only seven years before her husband died. Widows were among the most vulnerable people in the ancient world. Women were very seldom able to earn their own livelihoods and had to depend upon their husbands, sons, or other male relatives for their support. Anna apparently took a different path. She would have been young enough to remarry when her husband died, for Jewish girls were considered marriageable at about twelve years old, but there is no indication that she did so. Instead, we are told that she remained a widow either until the age of 84 years or for 84 years, which would have made her at least 103 when she met Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in the Temple. 

Anna remained in the Temple, worshiping day and night by fasting and prayer. She gave herself completely to God, adoring Him at all times by the self-sacrifice of fasting and by the intimacy of prayer. 

Anna was ready to meet God in person when Jesus arrived at the Temple in Mary's arms. Did she know He was God? Maybe or maybe not. But she certainly knew that He was the Redeemer, the Messiah, for the moment she saw Him, she began to praise God and to talk to anyone who would listen about this Child. She spread the message especially to those who, like she, were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. She knew God was acting. She knew something amazing was about to happen. She knew this Child was the One Who would bring it about. And she was not afraid to speak out, even though most people probably ignored her or smiled indulgently at this “silly old woman.” 

Anna probably didn't mind. She had her reward for all those hours spent in prayer, in fasting, in worship, and in waiting. She had seen the One Who would bring salvation to her people and to the whole world.