Sunday, May 26, 2013

A Little Something Extra...The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity

Boasting in Our Afflictions

In today's Second Reading, Romans 5:1-5, Paul says something rather remarkable. After telling his readers that Christians “boast in hope of the glory of God,” he continues:

Not only that, but we even boast of our afflictions, 
knowing that affliction produces endurance, 
and endurance, proven character, 
and proven character, hope, 
and hope does not disappoint, 
because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts 
through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. 

Boasting in our afflictions? We might wonder what Paul is talking about. How many of us brag about our trials and tribulations? About the most difficult times in our lives? We might complain about them, but we seldom, if ever, hold them up as something in which to take pride.

Let's look more closely and see what Paul means. 

We'll start with the Greek word for “boast,” which is kauchaomai. The Greek, while it can suggest a boast, doesn't mean bragging about something but rather glorying or rejoicing in something. 

We are to glory and rejoice in our afflictions then. Glory and rejoice, really? Paul seems to be asking an awful lot. Most of us are more likely to moan and groan about our troubles than rejoice in them. 

But Paul has his reasons, which he makes clear in an interesting logical chain. Affliction produces endurance. Endurance produces proven character. Proven character produces hope. Hope does not disappoint. Why? Because God's love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. 

Link 1 – Affliction produces endurance.

The Greek word for “endurance” is hupomonē, which can also mean patience and/or constancy. Troubles and trials teach us patience when we handle them properly, and patience is, quite literally, a virtue that instills in us a habit of doing good and helps us grow closer to God. 

Link 2 – Endurance produces proven character.

The Greek word for “proven character” is dokimē, which can also mean experienced. When we cope with our troubles and trials with patience, we grow in character. We gain experiences that help us cope better with life as a whole. We have proven that we can deal with whatever comes our way. We are mature.

Link 3 – Proven character produces hope.

The Greek word for “hope” is elpis, which can also mean confidence and/or expectation. When we have reached maturity through our patient endurance of afflictions, we can look ahead with confidence, sure that we can manage whatever comes our way and hoping that the future will be bright. We have overcome difficulties in the past, and we know that we can do so again.

Link 4 – And hope does not disappoint. 

With the positive attitude cultivated by hope, we will not be disappointed with our lives. The Greek word for “disappoint” may actually be a bit stronger than suggested by this translation. It is kataischunō, which literally means to shame, disgrace, confound, or dishonor. When we live in hope, we will not suffer the shame and disgrace of confounded expectations. Hope does not disappoint us. 

Link 5 – Why does hope not disappoint? Because God's love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.

The hope that we have comes from God and is a part of His great love and mercy for us. He gives us our hope. He pours it into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, Who lives within us. The Greek word for “poured out” is ekcheō. It suggests a gushing, an overpowering outflow. How can that lavish abundance of love and hope ever disappoint? 

Now we see why we can boast about and even rejoice in our afflictions. These troubles and difficulties help us grow. They teach us patience. They give us perspective and experience. They lead us to maturity. They guide us toward hope. And most of all they allow us to experience God's love in ever new and deeper ways. 

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Notes on the Psalms – Psalm 54

Psalm 54, like Psalm 52, is a Maskil (a blend of instruction and contemplation) that David writes in response to a betrayal. This time, the Ziphites are the ones who go to Saul and tell him that David is hiding among them. They actually do so twice, first in 1 Samuel 23:19 and again in 1 Samuel 26:1. 

The first time, David and his followers are in the Wilderness of Ziph at Horesh. As always, Saul is seeking David’s life out of jealousy. The Ziphites see that there might well be something beneficial for them in this situation. They go to Saul, tell him where David is, and volunteer to serve as spies. They promise to deliver David to Saul, probably hoping to receive a nice reward. Saul and David play quite a game of cat and mouse before Saul is called away by a threat from the Philistines (see 1 Samuel 23). 

A while later, having dealt with the Philistines for the time being, Saul returns to his pursuit of David. At this point, David spares the king’s life for the first time. During the hunt, Saul enters a cave to relieve himself, unaware that David and his men are hiding in the dark depths of that very same cave. David could kill Saul right there with no great effort. In fact, his men are encouraging him to do so. David refuses, saying “The Lord forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, the Lord’s anointed, to raise my hand against him; for he is the Lord’s anointed.” Saul had been given his position of leadership by God. He had been set apart in a special way by God. David recognizes this and understands that in harming Saul, he would be offending God. He is not willing to do that. So he cuts off a corner of Saul’s cloak. As Saul is leaving the area, David calls out to him. He bows down before him as a subject to his king and shows him the piece of cloak. Saul, knowing how close he has come to death and realizing David’s mercy, weeps. Grateful, he acknowledges, “You are more righteous than I; for you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil...For who has ever found an enemy, and sent the enemy safely away? So may the Lord reward you with good for what you have done to me this day.” He knows now that David will certainly become king and requests that David extend mercy to his family. Then he returns home (see 1 Samuel 24). 

The conflict with Saul could have been over right then. But it isn’t, and David has a strong feeling that it isn’t. He doesn’t return to Saul’s household. He doesn’t go anywhere near him. And indeed, a few chapters later, we read that Saul is once again after David. Again, too, the Ziphites have betrayed David, telling Saul where he is hiding. David also uses spies, so he knows exactly where Saul is camping. At night, when everyone is asleep, David and some companions enter Saul’s camp. Once again, his men encourage David to kill the king. Once again, David refuses. This time, he takes Saul’s spear and water jug and sneaks away. He will not harm the Lord’s anointed. From a safe distance, David calls out to Saul’s camp, waking everyone up and revealing, yet again, how close Saul has come to being dead. Saul, grateful again, promises never to harm David and asks him to return home. David knows better. He tells Saul to send someone over for the spear and water jug and then fades away into the wilderness. Saul returns home...for a while. 

So where does Psalm 54 fit into this story? David has just learned that the Ziphites had betrayed him, either for the first or the second time. He offers up a prayer to God: “Save me, O God, by Your name, and vindicate me by Your might.” David understands that he is vulnerable. He is good at hiding, but he needs help because Saul is right on his heels, closer than even Saul knows. Only God can help him. Only God can save him and defend him from such an enemy. The Hebrew word for vindicate is dûn. Its range of meaning also includes to judge and to defend. David is asking God to recognize his innocence and protect him accordingly. He goes on to prove that innocence and good will by sparing Saul’s life...twice. 

David asks God to hear his prayer. The verb for to hear is shâma‛. It implies an active hearing that leads to a favorable response. 

He goes on to explain why he wants God to heed him: “For the insolent have risen against me, the ruthless seek my life; they do not set God before them.” The word for insolent is actually zûr, which means stranger. The Ziphites are descendants of Judah, just like David, but they are not acting like it. They are behaving like foreigners, not like children of Israel. The word also suggests a certain loathsome nature. These are violent men, ruthless, cunning. They are chasing after wealth and power, something a king like Saul can give them and something a fugitive like David cannot. They don’t care about God. He plays no part in their choices. They are motivated by the things of the world, so they betray David. 

David, however, puts his trust in God. “God is my helper,” he proclaims. God upholds David’s life. He protects him, supports him, and sustains him in the midst of everything that is happening. David trusts, too, that God will serve up justice to his enemies. “He will repay my enemies for their evil,” he tells himself. Then he prays, “In Your faithfulness, put an end to them.” This sounds a little brutal to our Christian ears, but David lived long before Jesus told us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Remember, however, that even though David prays this in anger, he often shows great mercy to his enemies, even to Saul.

David ends with a promise to God. In gratitude, he will offer a free-will sacrifice to God, something that is beyond the prescribed sacrifices, and he will give thanks to God’s great Name. The Name (i.e., God’s character, power, and glory) that will save him from his enemies. God has done so in the past, David remembers: “He has delivered me from every trouble, and my eye has looked in triumph on my enemies.” He will do so again. God will not abandon David. Even when things seem bleak and desperate, even when David is pressed hard by his enemies, even when he is betrayed and threatened, he knows that God will bring him victory in the end if he continues to serve God and call upon Him in faith and trust, which is exactly what he does.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

A Little Something Extra... Pentecost

The Holy Spirit

Take a moment and ask yourself how much you know about the Holy Spirit. He tends to be the most mysterious of the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity. We can picture the Son, for He is God Incarnate and has a human body, now glorified in Heaven and present in the Eucharist. We can even imagine the Father. Although He remains unseen, we can identify with the concept of “Father” and form something of a mental picture of Him, as inadequate as it is. But we have trouble describing the Holy Spirit. We might imagine Him as a dove or as fire, but those images don't really capture the intimate, personal way He is present in our lives and interacts with us. 

Today's readings offer us some important insights into Who the Holy Spirit is and what He does for us. Although we still may not be able to picture Him, after a close reading of these six passages, we will certainly be better acquainted with the third Person of the Blessed Trinity. [Notice that I say six passages here. Both today's Second Reading and Gospel have two options. I will be examining both.] 

1. The Holy Spirit is powerful. We can see that in the First Reading. He comes with the noise of a strong, driving wind. He appears like tongues of fire. Both of these elements can be destructive, but they can also be purifying. Wind helps separate grain from chaff. Fire burns off impurities in metal. The Holy Spirit does that for us by His great power. He cleanses us and purifies us from the inside out. He also sets us on fire and provides the energy we need to proclaim the Gospel through our words and actions. 

2. The Holy Spirit draws people together. Notice how each member of the crowd in the First Reading can hear the apostles speaking in his own language. Scholars often point out that this phenomenon symbolizes the reversal of the Tower of Babel incident in Genesis 11, in which God confuses the people's language after they attempt to climb up the Heaven without Him. The Holy Spirit is the force that reunites God's people. He is the very soul of the Church. 

3. The Holy Spirit is the Creator along with the Father and the Son. The Psalm, addressing the Father, proclaims, “When You send forth Your spirit, they are created...” The Spirit is the breath of God that hovered over the waters at the time of creation. Through Him the Father breathes out life into the whole world. 

4. The Holy Spirit is the One Who sustains. The Psalm explains, “If You take away their breath, they perish and return to their dust.” That breath is certainly physical breath, but it is also the divine breath, the Spirit of God, Who sustains all things by His presence in the world. 

5. The Holy Spirit is the One Who renews. We pray in the Psalm's refrain, “Lord, send out Your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth.” The Spirit makes us new in Christ Jesus. The Spirit Who creates also recreates. 

6. The Holy Spirit allows us to say, “Jesus is Lord.” In fact, as the Second Reading from 1 Corinthians 12 tells us, we can only testify that “Jesus is Lord” if the Holy Spirit is active in us. 

7. The Holy Spirit gives many spiritual gifts. Each individual receives his or her own set of gifts from the Spirit, and these gifts are used both to grow in personal holiness and to build up the Church. The Spirit gives as He wills according to God's plan. 

8. The Holy Spirit makes God's people one body. He comes into each of us at baptism, uniting us as one in Christ. 

9. The Holy Spirit is the Living Water. Jesus promises to give Him to us for our refreshment, and He always keeps His promises. 

10. The Holy Spirit dwells within us. He makes us alive in our spirits. Through Him we belong to Christ. 

11. The Holy Spirit raised Jesus from the dead. So says the Second Reading from St. Paul's Letter to the Romans. 

12. The Holy Spirit leads us and makes us children of the Father. He is the Spirit of adoption, Who makes us cry out “Abba!” He even bears witness for us that we are God's children, heirs of the Father and joint heirs with Christ. Through the Holy Spirit, we are God's family. 

13. The Holy Spirit was breathed on the disciples by Jesus. In the Gospel reading from John 20, Jesus gave the disciples His peace. Then He “breathed on them and said to them,'Receive the Holy Spirit...'” The Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son. In fact, scholars and saints have said that the Spirit is the very love exchanged by the Father and the Son, a love so powerful and so alive that it is truly another Person. 

14. The Holy Spirit is the Advocate. He is our helper, the One Who defends us and Who guides us. He is the One Who pleads our case and Who comforts us. He stands up for us always unless we turn our backs on Him, and even then He is constantly waiting for us to allow Him back into our lives and our souls. 

15. The Holy Spirit is our Teacher. Jesus promises in John 26, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in My name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.” The Spirit gives us insights into God and His plan for us and for the whole world. He gives us words to say when we proclaim God to others and defend our faith. He reminds us of God's law, God's love, and our responsibilities. All we need to do to receive this teaching and reminding is open our hearts to Him. 

A Prayer to the Holy Spirit 

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Your faithful and kindle in them the fire of Your love.
Send forth Your Spirit, and they shall be created.
And You shall renew the face of the earth. 

Let us pray. 

O, God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy His consolations. Through Christ Our Lord. Amen.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Notes on the Psalms – Psalm 52

Let's begin by examining the context of Psalm 52. The inscription tells us that this is a “Maskil of David” that was written in response to an incident described in 1 Samuel 21 and 22. After David's success against Goliath, King Saul becomes jealous that he threatens David's life, and David flees from his presence with a band of followers. Hungry and on the run, David and his men stop at a shrine to the Lord at Nob and ask the priest, Ahimelech, for food. Ahimelech is a bit nervous to see David at first, but David soon calms him down, and Ahimelech offers him bread...not just any bread either. Ahimelech gives David and his men the bread of the presence, or the holy bread, that is set daily before the Lord as an offering. The priest has nothing else prepared, but since David and his men have the proper dispositions and have refrained from relations with women, he makes an exception to the rule and allows them to eat the bread of the Lord. The foreshadowing of the Eucharist is quite evident here, but we'll save that for another time. Doeg the Edomite happens to be at the shrine when David and his men arrive. Doeg is Saul's chief shepherd, a nice foil for David, who also has experience as a shepherd. Doeg apparently recognizes David but doesn't say anything to him. He merely observes as David and his men eat the holy bread, receive the sword of Goliath, and go on their way. Doeg then rushes right back to Saul. 

By this time, Saul is really, really angry. Doeg goes straight to him and reports, “I saw the son of Jesse coming to Nob, to Ahimelech son of Ahitub; he inquired of the Lord for him, gave him provisions, and gave him the sword of Goliath” (1 Samuel 22:9-10). Saul calls Ahimelech to him and accuses the priest of conspiring with David. Ahimelech pleads innocence, telling the king that he was unaware of the rift between David and Saul, which is the truth. Saul doesn't care. He orders Ahimelech and all the priests of Nob to be executed. No one moves. Saul's servants will not raise their weapons against these priests. So Saul turns to Doeg and orders him to attack. Doeg does so immediately, killing Ahimelech and eighty-four other priests. He doesn't stop there. Doeg goes on to kill the entire city of Nob, men, women, children, and animals. The sword reaches everyone. 

When David finds out about the massacre, he is horrified and guilty. He tells Abiathar, the only son of Ahimelech to escape the slaughter, “I knew on that day, when Doeg the Edomite was there, that he would surely tell Saul. I am responsible for the lives of all your father's house.” He invites Abiathar to remain with him, promising him safety. Was David really responsible for the massacre? Was there anything he could have done to prevent it? Would he have killed Doeg to keep him from going back to Saul? Should he have done so? These questions seem to be in the back of David's mind as he composes Psalm 52, a “Maskil,” a contemplative and/or instructive poem that he uses to sort out his reaction to the horrible incident that has just occurred. 

David addresses the psalm directly to Doeg. He begins with a question, “Why do you boast, o mighty one, of the mischief done against the godly?” Clearly sarcastic, David asks Doeg, the “mighty one,” why he is boasting of his evil deeds. He has killed eighty-five priests and who knows how many other innocent people, and he's proud of it. He brags about it. He praises himself for his deeds. The Hebrew word for boast here is hâlal. It is the root word for our “Halleluiah,” so we can see by the word choice that Doeg is definitely lifting himself up. 

David continues, “All day long you are plotting destruction. Your tongue is like a sharp razor, you worker of treachery. You love evil more than good, and lying more than speaking the truth. You love all words that devour, O deceitful tongue.” David is very concerned about Doeg's speech. After all, Doeg does tell Saul about David's meeting with Ahimelech. Saul immediately assumes that David is conspiring against him. Doeg doesn't bother to correct him, and he is very quick to participate in the slaughter that results. David calls him out for that, even accusing him of plotting with Saul against David and his priest-helpers. Words can hurt, words said and words left unsaid. Lies don't have to be directly spoken. They can be a truth untold. Words can destroy. Silence can also destroy. 

There will, however, be consequences for Doeg's actions, and they will not be pleasant. David lays them out graphically: “But God will break you down forever; He will snatch and tear you from your tent; He will uproot you from the land of the living.” Doeg is in danger of losing more than Saul's favor and David's respect. God punishes those who sin. Those who do not repent are in danger of hell. Death comes to the violent, and not just physical death but eternal death. 

Those who will observe Doeg's punishment will laugh at him and mock him, but they will also fear God's great power. God will show His might in dealing with Doeg. He is a loving Father, but He is also a just judge. He is merciful, but He will not tolerate unrepentant evildoers. Those looking on will say to each other, “See the one who would not take refuge in God but trusted in abundant riches, and sought refuge in wealth!” Their comment adds another dimension to Doeg's story. How much does Saul reward Doeg for his “loyalty”? Does the king pay his servant well for his information and his ready violence? Or does he promise the protection and favor that only a wealthy, powerful person can provide? According to the bystanders, Doeg decides to take refuge in wealth instead of in God. He could have turned to God for protection and strength rather than give David and the priests up to Saul. Even after he tells Saul about David, he could have followed the other servants who refused to slaughter the priests. He could have simply faded into the background and went away. He did not have to step forward. He could have returned to God right then and taken refuge in Him. But he does not. He chooses another path. 

In the last two verses, David turns to himself. He has learned from Doeg's sins. He will not follow that path. Instead, David says that he is “like a green olive tree in the house of God.” A green olive tree is a choice plant. It is beautiful and fruitful and strong and flourishing. David, despite his current hardship of exile, feels like he, too, exhibits these qualities because He is in God's presence. No matter where he is physically, he is in God's house. He is at home with God, and God makes him flourish. 

“I trust in the steadfast love of God forever and ever,” David proclaims. He knows where to turn in the midst of the horrors Doeg has committed. God's love remains. David takes refuge in it, and it gives him confidence and strength to keep going. He will never forsake God. 

In fact, even in the midst of tragedy, David thanks God. He remembers the good things that God has done for him, and he is grateful. He will always proclaim God's Name, for it is good. The Hebrew word for proclaim is interesting. It's qâvâh. It actually means to wait on, to hope, to expect, and to look for. There is an element of eagerness to this word. David is waiting for God, even in the darkness, expecting great things from Him for the present and the future even as he recalls the wonderful deeds of the past. God is good, completely good, completely wonderful, completely trustworthy, and David knows it. Neither Saul's jealousy and cruelty nor Doeg's horrible deeds can shatter David's faith in God. 

Sunday, May 12, 2013

A Little Something Extra...The Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord

A Prayer for Ascension 

Jesus remained with His disciples for forty days after His Resurrection, appearing to them and speaking about the Kingdom of God. He proved to them that He was alive. He had conquered death. 

Lord, give us the grace to live in the Kingdom of God right now and for all eternity. Conquer death in us that we may be alive with You. Open our hearts to Your teaching, and give us faith in Your Resurrection. 

Before His ascension into Heaven, Jesus told His disciples to wait in Jerusalem, for they would receive a great gift, the power from on high, the Holy Spirit. 

Lord, pour out Your Holy Spirit upon us. Open our hearts to receive Him. 

The disciples asked Jesus if He was going to restore the Kingdom of Israel now. He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by His own authority.” 

Lord, adjust our vision that we may understand the depths of Your Kingdom. Help us to look beyond our human limits to catch a glimpse of Your plan, and when we can't see, give us the grace to embrace the mystery.

Jesus told the disciples that they would be His witnesses to the ends of the earth. 

Lord, may we always be Your witnesses in our words and actions. 

Jesus blessed His disciples. He was then lifted up, and a cloud took Him from their sight. 

Lord, bless us always, and give us the grace to trust that even when we cannot see You, You are present with us. 

After Jesus was taken up, the disciples stood there, staring at the sky. Then two men in white appeared beside them and said, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen Him going into heaven.” 

Lord, help us know when to be still and when to act. Assure us once again of Your promise that You will return someday. 

The disciples returned to Jerusalem where they were always in the temple, praising God. 

Lord, give us a spirit of praise that we may worship You constantly in spirit and truth and joy. 

Jesus is now seated at the right hand of the Father, but He is not separated from us. In fact, He is closer than ever, for He comes to us, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, in the Eucharist. 

Lord, may we always receive You in the Eucharist with reverence, devotion, humility, and gratitude. As we welcome You into our bodies and into our hearts and souls, fill us with Your love and Your life, You Who are our Risen Lord, ascended into Heaven. Amen.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Notes on the Psalms – Psalm 50

In Psalm 50, God speaks to His people about His expectations. As the psalm begins, God is summoning the whole earth to appear before Him. He is calling out to all the people, from one end of the world to other, crying to them, drawing them to Him, issuing a proclamation, for He has a message for them. 

Who is this God? He is the mighty One, in Hebrew literally, the God of gods. He is the perfection of beauty, and He shines out from Zion. He radiates power. The devouring fire that goes before Him and mighty tempest that whirls around Him are physical symbols of His omnipotence and grandeur. 

God speaks again in verse 5: “Gather to Me My faithful ones, who made a covenant with Me by sacrifice.” This is a command. Perhaps He is ordering the angels, perhaps the religious leaders, perhaps even the people themselves. He is calling His own to Him, those who have made a covenant, a bond of self-giving love, with Him. He is summoning the Israelites, His family, His children, those He loves and has taken to Himself. 

Why is this mighty God coming down and calling His people to Him? He is about to judge them, to identify their faults, to chastise their sins, and to inform them of what they must do to please Him. He will speak specifically to His chosen people, those who live in a covenant relationship with Him, but He wishes to have the rest of the world on hand to watch and listen, for He knows that some day soon, His words will apply to them, too, for they will also enter into a covenant with Him through Jesus Christ. 

In verse 6, the psalmist interjects, “The heavens declare His righteousness, for God Himself is judge.” In doing so, he reminds us that God is a just judge. What He speaks is true and worthy of the greatest attention. God knows what is best for His people. He sees their situation clearly. He understands perfectly. The very heavens know this and loudly proclaim before the whole earth. When God judges, all people must listen and obey. 

What does God say to His people? What is His judgment? He begins by ordering them to hear Him. The Hebrew verb here, shâma‛, implies listening closely, understanding, and obeying. God wants His people’s attention, for He is about to testify against them. The Hebrew verb for testify, ‛ûd, suggests warning, exhortation, and admonition, but it can also connote a desire for restoration. God is testifying against His people in order to restore them, to change their hearts and minds, to make them acceptable to Him, to help them obey Him and thereby accept the great love He holds out to them. 

God continues by telling His people that He does not rebuke them for their sacrifices. They are constantly offering up burnt offerings before Him. In number and ritual correctness, their sacrifices are fine. Yet God will not accept their bulls and goats. Why not? God begins by reminding the people that He simply doesn’t need their sacrifices. All the animals and all the birds belong to Him. If He were ever hungry, which as God He is not, He would certainly have no reason to complain to human beings about it. He is not a God Who can be appeased by a good meal. He isn’t like a human ruler who can be won over by favors and flavors. The sacrifices themselves are useless to Him. He has no need for them. What He really wants is His people’s love. 

God wants His children to offer their sacrifices to Him voluntarily and with love. He does not want routine. He does not want mere obligation. He does not want attempted bribes. He does not want bargains. He does not want hypocrisy. He wants a sacrifice from the heart, an external sign of internal faith, devotion, and trust. He wants meaning behind the offering, depth to the ritual, piety in the rite. He wants His people to see their sacrifices as gifts that carry their love to God. 

Further, God wants His people to pray to Him. “Call on Me in the day of trouble,” He urges. Reach out to Me. Cry to Me. Invite Me into your life. Enter into a relationship with Me. God promises a response, “I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me.” God hears and answers prayers. He does what is best for His people. He saves them, draws them out of their troubles and makes them strong that they may cope with whatever comes along. He may not always give His children whatever they want, but He gives them what they need. In turn, He wants His people to glorify Him, honoring Him with thanksgiving and praise. 

God has yet another message in this psalm. Beginning in verse 16, He addresses the wicked: “What right have you to recite My statutes, or take My covenant on your lips? For you hate discipline, and you cast My words behind you.” These people talk much and do little. They discuss God’s law and claim His covenant, but they don’t live it out. They want His friendship and His gifts, but they don’t obey His commands. 

God continues, “You make friends with a thief when you see one, and you keep company with adulterers.” These people are not careful of the company they keep. They do not avoid negative influences in their lives. They expose themselves to temptation, to people who are not focused on God. They drop their moral standards, risking sin as they pursue their own interests. 

God is not finished yet: “You give your mouth free rein for evil, and your tongue frames deceit. You sit and speak against your kin; you slander your own mother’s child.” These people sin with their speech. They speak evil words. They tell lies. They gossip and slander. They are just plain nasty. They have no control over their words because they choose not to. They like the attention they get through their scandalous talk. They don’t even limit their offensive speech to people they don’t know or even to mere acquaintances (not that such limits would excuse their behavior); they speak lies even about their own kin, those closest to them. 

The wicked have done all of these things, and God has remained silent. They became complacent, thinking that God was just like them, that He wouldn’t or couldn’t respond to their bad behavior. But now things have changed. God says, “I rebuke you, and lay the charge before you.” The time for judgment has come. God is showing His people exactly what they have done wrong, and He will correct them. Like a good Father, God disciplines His children that they might learn right from wrong and becoming obedient to His will, which is always directed toward their good. 

God ends with a warning and a promise. First, He issues the warning: “Mark this, then, you who forget God, or I will tear you apart...” Listen. Consider. Understand. God wants His forgetful, sinful people to hear Him and heed His words. It is very important that they do so, or there will be consequences. God seems rather violent when He threatens to tear them apart, but He is emphasizing the serious nature of the punishment they will receive if they don’t change. God’s wrath is not something to ignore or downplay. 

After warning His wayward children, God issues a promise. He will show His salvation to those who make their thanksgiving their sacrifices and who “go the right way”. Those whose hearts are behind their sacrifices, those who are grateful, those who obey God, those who walk in His ways, these are the ones who will receive God’s salvation. God will rescue them. He will make them safe. He will deliver them from their enemies. Most importantly, He will draw them to His side for all eternity. Now that is some promise! It’s worth every sacrifice in the world.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

A Little Something Extra... Sixth Sunday of Easter

The First Ecumenical Council 

Today’s First Reading from Acts 15 touches on the background and the results of the Church’s very first ecumenical (Church-wide) council, held in Jerusalem about 50 A.D. This gathering of apostles and presbyters solved a vexing problem for the early Church and set a precedent for future councils. 

First, we need to understand the issue behind the council. Certain Jews who had embraced the faith of Christ were hesitant to let go of their previous customs, to the point that they wished to impose them on others. These Judaizers taught that in order to be saved, a man had to be circumcised according to the Jewish practice. This purported doctrine was severely disturbing to other Christians, especially the Gentiles who were beginning to join the Church. They were understandably hesitant about adopting Jewish ways, particularly circumcision, and confused about the relationship between Christianity and Judaism, between the Law and the grace of Christ. 

The Christians in Antioch decided to take action. They sent Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to present the issue to the larger Church and receive some advice about how to handle the situation. When they arrived in Jerusalem, the apostles and presbyters of the Jerusalem Church welcomed them and listened to their testimony about the conversion of the Gentiles. Hearing this, some Christians who were also Pharisees (and therefore tended to be quite strict and rather legalistic) spoke up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and direct them to observe the Mosaic law.” 

Something clearly had to be done to sort out this dilemma, to circumcise or not to circumcise, so the apostles and presbyters met in council to discuss the problem and come to a decision under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. They debated for a long time. What was the role of the Law in this new era of grace? How much of it should be enforced and with whom? Was circumcision necessary for Gentiles? How about Jewish dietary laws? How was Christianity different from Judaism? How would the Church respond to Christian believers who had never been Jews? 

Finally, Peter got up. Now here was an authority figure. After all, Jesus had once told Peter, “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:18-19). Peter was Jesus’ chosen vicar, His representative on earth, the keeper of the keys. 

Peter had already dealt with the issue of the Gentiles. A while back, he had received a vision of unclean animals and heard a voice telling him to kill and eat them, something impossible for a devout Jew. At Peter’s protest, the voice had continued, “What God has made clean, you are not to call profane.” This vision and instruction was repeated three times. By then, Peter had gotten the message. The Gentiles were welcome into God’s Kingdom. They were not unclean. God had made them clean, and they were equal to the Jewish believers. Shortly afterward, Peter was summoned to the home of the centurion Cornelius, who with his family, received the gift of the Holy Spirit, much to the dismay of the circumcised believers who were with Peter. Peter, seeing God at work, baptized the whole household. He stayed with them and ate with them, letting go of Jewish customs that would have kept him from such activities. Further, he did not insist upon circumcision. The gift of the Holy Spirit and baptism were enough for Peter to know that Cornelius and his family had been saved by the grace of Christ. Nothing more was necessary. As Peter said, “...who was I to be able to hinder God?” (See Acts 10-11.) 

Now, at the council, Peter reminded the others of this incident. He said, “And God, Who knows the heart, bore witness by granting them the Holy Spirit just as He did us. He made no distinction between us and them, for by faith He purified their hearts. Why, then, are you now putting God to the test by placing on the shoulders of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they.” 

The debate ended right there. Peter had spoken. That was enough. Paul and Barnabas reinforced his words with more stories about the signs and wonders God was working among the Gentiles, but the decision had been made. 

James stood up to speak. As the Bishop of Jerusalem, he presented the final decision to the council. He began by quoting Scripture, reminding the others that God had promised to draw the Gentiles to Him. Then he gave the council’s ruling: “...we ought to stop troubling the Gentiles who turn to God, but tell them by letter to avoid pollution from idols, unlawful marriage, the meat of strangled animals, and blood.” Essentially, then, the Gentiles were excused from Jewish practices like circumcision and dietary laws. The moral laws would still apply to them, of course, and they would have to take special care to avoid idolatry and immoral sexual practices, to which the Gentiles of the age were especially prone. 

The council decided to promulgate its decision by both word of mouth and by a letter, which we hear in today’s reading. Writing directly to the Gentile Christians, the council emphasized that their decision was not made merely by men. “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us,” they wrote, “not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities...” The letter then went on to list the four provisions James had laid out earlier: abstinence from meat sacrificed to idols, blood, the meat of strangled animals, and unlawful marriage. “If you keep free from these,” the council concluded, “you will be doing what is right.” 

The Christians were “delighted” by the decision. The Holy Spirit was clearly working in the Church, helping the leaders make decisions according to the will of God, and the apostles and presbyters were open and willing to follow that Spirit, Who spoke through Peter, Christ’s vicar. The problem was solved. The Church was internally at peace. 

There have been twenty-one other ecumenical councils over the nearly two thousand years of Church history, the most recent being the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Each council has gathered together bishops and priests from all over the world to discuss the most pressing issues of the day. Guided by the Holy Spirit and led by the Vicar of Christ, the Pope, they have made decisions, clarified doctrine, and presented the depth and richness of the Catholic faith. 

For more information on the ecumenical councils, see New Advent (; Catholic Online (; or ( 

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Notes on the Psalms – Psalm 49

The key word for Psalm 49 is reality. The psalmist is presenting the facts of life and death to his listeners. He calls on all the people of the world to hear him, whether they are high or low, rich or poor. They need to know and understand the wisdom he is sharing with them, the meditation that comes from his heart. He will sing to them a song that explains an old proverb, a riddle, that has troubled humanity for centuries. Where does he get his wisdom? What is supplying his meditation? The psalmist doesn't say, but we know that the psalms are the inspired and inerrant Word of God. God Himself is the Author of Scripture. 

Next, the psalmist asks a question: “Why should I fear in times of trouble...?” When evil surrounds him, when he is persecuted by people who trust in their wealth and boast about their riches, why should he fear? He is confident in something more than riches and wealth. He knows that there is something beyond troubles and persecution. 

There is more to life than wealth, the psalmist insists. “Truly, no ransom avails for one's life, there is no price one can give to God.” Those who rely on their riches find that money fails them in the end. It cannot purchase life. No one can buy himself. No one can escape death. The grave will claim everyone eventually. Riches cannot prevent that. God is in control. 

Everyone dies, the psalmist reminds us again. Both the wise and the foolish, the rich and the poor. That is reality. Their wealth passes on to others, and they go to the grave. The psalmist paints a rather bleak picture of this death. “Their graves are their homes forever...” They are like sheep “appointed for Sheol; Death shall be their shepherd; straight to the grave they descend, and their form shall waste away; Sheol shall be their home.” This is a dark image. Eternal nothingness perhaps? Non-being? Mere bodily decay? Is the psalmist suggesting that this is the fate of all people who die? 

We know that the Jews did not have a fully-developed doctrine of the afterlife. Looking back as Christians, we understand that Heaven was not yet open to those who died. After Adam and Eve's sin, the gates of Heaven were closed to humankind. Souls of the dead waited in a kind of limbo until their Savior would appear to open Heaven and lead them into the presence of God. In the Bible, God reveals various truths bit by bit as human beings are ready to hear and understand them. Understanding of the afterlife grew over the centuries as God revealed more and more to the Jews, helping them grasp their current situation and cultivate hope for the future. 

The psalmist does, however, exhibit some hope for life after death. He says, “But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for He will receive me.” Inspired by the Holy Spirit, the psalmist seems to catch a glimpse of what will happen when Jesus Christ dies and rises again for us. God will indeed ransom our souls from the dark places and will receive us into His arms. Jesus will make that possible. Did the psalmist completely understand the depths of this verse? Probably not. But he had a firm trust in God, in His love, and in His desire and ability to save His people. 

The psalmist continues with some good, practical advice: do not be afraid of the rich, even when their wealth increases. Why not? “For when they die they will carry nothing away; their wealth will not go down after them.” Wealth and power end at death. They are fleeting, temporary. They fail. They turn to dust. Those who have such things on earth think they are happy. They are praised and flattered by others. But it will not last. Even the rich will die, the psalmist says once again. They will follow their ancestors into death, and their wealth and power will mean nothing to them. Their pride will end. They will perish. 

What are we as Christians to learn from this psalm? Reality. Riches and wealth are fleeting. We cannot use them to buy eternal life. They will never save us from death. Only God can do that. Only in God will we live forever. All the things of the earth will pass away. He will remain and we with Him if we place our faith in Him and live that faith in love. Reality.