Sunday Scriptures — Passion Sunday (Palm Sunday) B, Mar. 25, 2018

First Reading — Isaiah 50:4-7

Second Reading — Philippians 2:6-11

Gospel — Mark 14:1-15:47

The liturgy of Palm Sunday can begin with a ceremony of blessing of palms during which the passage telling of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is read. It is taken from the current year’s gospel, except that in Year B there is an option to read the account from John. Thus, if the blessing takes place at a given Mass, we may hear Mark 11:1-10 or John12:12-16. The version from Mark includes Jesus’ sending disciples to borrow the colt for him. John’s version includes an Old Testament quote promising Zion that her king would arrive as Jesus did. Central in significance for both is the people’s acclamation, “Hosanna!” followed by words quoted at every Mass, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” The irony that a few days later a crowd, possibly including some of the same people, would be shouting for his crucifixion is a warning to us all to be v=clear about where we stand. Our human nature can be fickle. Even if we don’t explicitly oppose Jesus, we can ignore his teachings and calls in our life.

 

The first two readings and responsorial psalm of Palm Sunday are the same every year. The gospel is the Passion Narrative of the gospel being read on Sundays throughout the year. So this year we hear the Passion according to St. Mark.

 

The first reading — Isaiah 50:4-7 — is the third of four “Songs of the Suffering Servant” in the book of Isaiah. The servant of the Lord undergoes sufferings like those of Jesus, but he has confidence in God that he will ultimately be vindicated.

 

The responsorial psalm — verses of Psalm 22, with verse 2 as the refrain — is quoted by Jesus on the cross. Like the first reading, it tells of one who is being tormented, but concludes with an expression of confidence in being vindicated by God.

 

In the gospel — Mark 14:1—15:47 — we hear of Jesus fully aware of what is about to happen to him, saying that the woman who anointed him at the home of Simon the leper had done so in preparation for his burial. Although in the garden he wishes that it weren’t necessary, he accepts it as the will of his Father. At the Last Supper, he gives the Twelve his body and “[his] blood of the covenant.” “Blood of the covenant” is significant because it recalls the blood of the covenant in Exodus 24:8. To ratify God’s covenant with Israel, Moses offers a sacrifice and takes the blood of the animals sacrificed and splashes half of it on the altar and sprinkles the people with the other half, Now Jesus’ sacrifice establishes God’s covenant with his people and brings forgiveness of sins.

Jesus unflinchingly proclaims his Messiahship and accepts his crucifixion. Others actively seek his death (the Sanhedrin), yield to pressure (Pilate), betray him (Judas), deny him (and repent)(Peter), run away (disciples, young man who ran away naked — instead of leaving all to follow Jesus, he left all to stop following), mock him (Sanhedrin members, Roman soldiers, passers-by, chief priests, those crucified with him), follow loyally (women observing the crucifixion), or come to faith (centurion). If we sin, we are yielding, denying, or running away from him, and seeking our own comfort or pleasure. But he will forgive, as he forgave Peter and the other disciples after he rose.

I was at a lecture where someone asked where was Jesus’ mercy when he said of Judas, “better for that man if he had never been born.” The answer is that all of God’s threats are conditional: this is what will happen if you don’t repent and change your ways. When Jesus spoke to Judas, it was a warning and a plea: what you are about to do will turn out very badly for you; don’t go through with it. Judas could have repented and been restored to God’s grace. God’s mercy remained available to him, as it is to all of us.

We might note that the Sanhedrin trial was a kangaroo court. At 14:1, days beforehand, they decide to put Jesus to death. At the trial, failing to get testimony capable of justifying the death sentence, the high priest asserts that Jesus’ claim of Messiahship consistent with Daniel 7:13 is blasphemy. But of course, if true, it isn’t blasphemy. There is no proof that Jesus’ claim is false, just an assertion made in order to justify the predetermined outcome.

 

The second reading — Philippians 2:6-11 — also speaks of the sufferings of Jesus, putting them in the context of his divinity. As God he was unable to suffer and die, so he became human in order to die for us. His exaltation shows him as Lord, our Savior, deserving of our reverent and grateful praise.

 

I don’t think I’ll have a chance to write new posts for Holy Thursday and Good Friday, but the readings are the same every year, so you might want to check out those from 2016 in the archive.

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Sunday Scriptures — Lent B 04 & 05, Mar. 11 & 18, 2018

Fourth Sunday – March 11

First Reading — 2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23

Second Reading — Ephesians 2:4-10

Gospel — John 3:14-21

A unifying thread of these readings is God’s merciful care for his people. Chronicles concludes with the release of the Israelites from the Babylonian captivity. In Ephesians Paul speaks not of a political captivity but of the spiritual death of sin. The Israelites did not effect their own liberation. It was the Persian king, raised up by God to liberate them for the consequences of their violations of the covenant. In the same way, it is not our own works that save us from the death of sin; it is God’s freely given grace. Jesus died and rose, and God has “raised us up with him.”

Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus, quoted in part in this day’s gospel, includes the classic text, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. The passage begins with a reference to the story in Numbers 21:4-9: the Israelites were being bitten by venomous serpents, and God told to make a bronze image of a serpent and mount it on a pole. Whoever looked at the bronze serpent was healed. Jesus, mounted — lifted up — on the cross heals those who look on him with faith. The grace of faith brings us to leave the darkness of our sins behind.

 

Fifth Sunday – March 18

First Reading — Jeremiah 31:31-34

Second Reading — Hebrews 5:7-9

Gospel — John 12:20-23

In the gospel some Greek believers in Judaism go to one of  the apostles with a Greek name and ask to see Jesus. He gets the other apostle with a Greek name, and they relay the request of those believing gentiles. Jesus’ response, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified,” seems enigmatic. I think it has to do with the fact that his message is reaching beyond his Jewish followers. His resurrection must take place before the gentile world is evangelized. The text does not say whether Jesus actually met with those Greeks. It is entirely possible that he did. What is important for us is that their request heralds Jesus’ death and resurrection. As in the fourth Sunday’s gospel, Jesus again speaks of being “lifted up” (like the bronze serpent) and drawing everyone, Jews and gentiles to himself.

Jesus is the epitome of self-abnegation for the sake of producing fruit. He willingly accepted crucifixion and death in order to be “the source of salvation for all who obey him,” and invites all to this obedience. But we are also called to share his attitude of “hat[ing] our life in this world.” We will not necessarily have to die directly as a result of following Jesus, but our lives must not be ones of self-seeking.

We believe that Jesus inaugurates the new covenant of which Jeremiah speaks. It is a covenant in which our sins are forgiven and God’s law is written in our hearts — the Holy Spirit guides our consciences.

Sunday Scriptures — Lent B 03, Mar. 04, 2018

First Reading — Exodus 20:1-17

Second Reading — 1 Corinthians 1:22-25

Gospel — John 2:13-25

 

St. Paul tells us that Jesus is “the power of God and the wisdom of God.” His death and resurrection show God’s power at work in him. He is the authorized spokesman who has a right to specify proper reverence for God’s temple. Wisdom (reason, philosophy) seeks to understand the truth of existence: a worthy pursuit. In this, it has the immense advantage of the truth presented by the revelation of God in Jesus and in scripture, that God loves his people and offers us eternal life where all evil is overcome.

The ten commandments set out minimum standards of living in right relationship with God and with one another as members of his people. The two greatest commandments — love God with all your being; love your neighbor as yourself — provide the basis and context for the ten, as well as for all the developments elsewhere in the Torah, the prophets, and the teachings of Jesus.

Do we regard God’s law as a burden or do we see it as the Jews regard Torah, a great gift, as expressed in the responsorial psalm (Ps. 19:8-11)? There we say, “The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart. … They are more precious than gold …; sweeter also than syrup or honey from the comb.”

The scriptures of this day point us toward Easter and invite us to renew our faith in Jesus as the one sent by God to save us and bring us into holiness and eternal life through his teachings and above all through his death and resurrection which are not only salvific in themselves but also the proof of his Messiahship.

Sunday Scriptures — Lent B 01 & 02, Feb. 18 & 25, 2018

First Sunday – February 18

First Reading — Genesis 9:8-15

Second Reading — 1 Peter 3:18-22

Gospel — Mark 1:12-15

Every year, the gospel for the first Sunday of Lent tells of Jesus’ forty days of fasting in the desert and  his temptations. The current year, Year B, features the Gospel of Mark, and Mark’s account gives none of the details of the temptations we hear of in Matthew and Luke. This gives a chance for us to hear a bit of the context going forward, namely, the beginning of his public ministry: proclaiming the gospel of the Kingdom of God. The verses preceding this selection tell of Jesus’ baptism by John, and that provides a connection to the second reading, which in turn connects with the first.

The three “synoptic gospels” — Matthew, Mark, and Luke — record the same sequence of events: Jesus is baptized, anointed by the Holy Spirit, and proclaimed God’s son; Jesus undertakes a 40 day period of fasting and prayer in the desert, during which he undergoes temptation; Jesus begins his public ministry. (John gives us the baptism and inauguration of the ministry, but doesn’t mention the desert.) This has significance for our lives. Most obviously, we have entered on a period of forty days of prayer and fasting (and almsgiving). It is a time of preparation for Easter, which is the time for adults to be baptized and begin their ministry as members of the Body of Christ, proclaiming the Kingdom of God. For those already baptized, Easter is a time for renewing our baptismal commitment to proclaim God’s Kingdom by our lives, in our circumstances; and Lent is when we prepare to reinvigorate our lives of witness to the gospel, overcoming temptation and opening ourselves to the Holy Spirit through our Lenten practices of a more intense living of lives based on faith.

In the second reading, Peter sets baptism in the context of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the saving act which is the culmination of the ministry which began after his baptism. Baptism incorporates the believer into this saving act of Jesus, in effect making him or her a sharer in that act, a recipient of its benefits. The water of the flood destroyed the sinfulness of the world in the time of Noah, just as baptism takes away our sins and puts us in a covenant relationship with God.

 

Second Sunday – February 25

First Reading — Genesis 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18

Second Reading — Romans 8:31b-34

Gospel — Mark 9:2-10

The gospel for the second Sunday of Lent yearly presents an account of the transfiguration of Jesus — this year from Mark. First though, we hear the harrowing account of Abraham and the uncompleted sacrifice of Isaac. (For the people of ancient Israel, this was at least an implicit rejection of the practice of human sacrifice.) Some of the detail* is omitted from the reading, to concentrate on the essentials. We hear of Abraham’s obedience to God, and God’s promises in response to Abraham’s faithfulness. God spares Abraham’s son, but, as Paul points out, he does not spare his own son. That sacrifice acquits us of our sins.

* Isaac carries the wood for the sacrifice, making him a “type,” a prefiguring, of Jesus, who carried the wood of his cross to the hill of sacrifice. In response to Isaac’s question, “Where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” Abraham promises that God will provide, which he dies.

Paul tells us that Jesus not only died but was raised for us and is at the right hand of the Father. The transfiguration gives the apostles a vision of Jesus in the glory of his resurrection. The presence of Moses and Elijah — representing the Law and the Prophets — shows the continuity of the revelation of the Old and New Testaments. Jesus fulfills that revelation.

The voice from the cloud repeats the proclamation that was made at Jesus’ baptism: he is God’s son. This resonates with the baptismal facet of Lent. As a result of our baptism, we have the promise of a like glory when we are resurrected. The Jews of Jesus’ time knew that there would be a resurrection at the end of time, but they didn’t expect anybody to rise before that general resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection promises ours.

Our baptism makes us spiritual descendants of Abraham, so that in us, along with the Jews, “all the nations of the earth shall find blessing.”

Questions about Hart’s New Testament Eipgraph

A few days ago, I bought a copy of the new translation of the New Testament by David Bentley Hart. The dust jacket tells us, “David Bentley Hart undertook this new translation of the New Testament in the spirit of ‘etsi doctrina non daretur,‘ ‘as if doctrine is not given.’ Reproducing the texts’ often fragmentary formulations without augmentation or correction, he has produced a pitilessly literal translation, one that captures the texts’ impenetrability and unfinished quality while awakening readers to an uncanniness that often lies hidden beneath doctrinal layers.”

As I began to look at it I was fascinated by the epigraph, whose source it took me a while to locate. It’s in Greek, and can be translated, “The word says, ‘Take up the stone, and there you will find me; split the wood, and I am there.'” The first thing that’s interesting to me is that it’s not from the New Testament, not even from the Bible, but from the Gospel of Thomas. The second thing is that he alters the introduction. In the original, it reads, “Jesus says,” but Hart alters it to “The word says.” Finally I find it interesting that he chooses this text, even apart from its source and his alteration of it. These things suggest several questions.

1.) Why does he draw the epigraph from the Gospel of Thomas? Maybe he doesn’t want to take something from the New Testament for fear of making it seem that he thinks it’s the most important thing in the whole Newt Testament. But he could have taken something from the Old Testament (e.g., the passage from Isaiah comparing God’s word to the rain which does not return to him void — Isaiah 55:10-11). Is he insinuating that the Gospel of Thomas belongs in the canon of scripture, or does he just find this saying somehow apposite?

2.) Why does he attribute the saying to the word, rather than to Jesus? Is he using “word” in the sense in which it’s used in John, Chapter 1, as an epithet for Jesus, so that it means the same thing as saying Jesus, but maybe with the specific connotation that Jesus is the Word of God? Does he mean, instead, to present this as an invitation and promise from scripture itself?

3.) What does it mean to him? Does he see his work of translating as, metaphorically, a strenuous effort of lifting up stones and splitting wood to reveal Jesus or the true meaning of the scriptures? Are the readers being encouraged to do the heavy lifting in order to find the meaning of the word?

Mass Killing in Parkland, Florida

The killing of 17 people at the high school in Parkland on February 14 has led to renewed calls for various forms of gun control, including measures to prevent those with mental health problems that make them dangerous from having access to firearms. There have also been people who have said, “Let’s not politicize the tragedy.” Speaker Ryan cautioned against a “knee-jerk reaction” before all the facts and data are known.

My response to Speaker Ryan is, “If you won’t do anything about Parkland, there are many previous mass shootings about which all the facts and data are known. Do something about them.

As for politicizing the issue, the question is what is meant by “politicizing.” If it means, “seeking solutions through governmental action,” there is clearly nothing wrong with doing that. That is part of our rights as citizens. If it means “attempting to win advantage for one political party over another,” the real possibility that some people will politicize the matter is not a sufficient reason for others to ignore the problem. Such hyper-partisanship is an increasing problem in our politics*, but rather than yielding to it, we should refuse to let it stop people of good will from seeking to resolve problems.

            *The fiasco on February 15 in the Senate on immigration legislation, leaving the Dreamers unprotected is the most recent example.

The proposals I’m aware of include general restrictions on sales of guns — background checks, banning sales at weapons shows, waiting periods, etc. — banning certain types of weapons and accessories frequently used in mass shootings, such as AR-15 rifles and bump stocks; and restrictions on persons, preventing dangerous individuals from owning or purchasing firearms. I think all approaches have merit, and I see no validity in saying only one facet — sales, weapon types, or mental health — is the problem. All contribute to an intolerable situation, and all should be addressed.

Some people will claim that the Second Amendment prevents some of the proposed actions. But the courts have already recognized that the Second Amendment is not absolute. It would be absurd to suggest that individuals have a right to possess nuclear devices or guided missiles. When there are types of arms unknown to the framers of the Amendment, it is at least questionable whether the original intent of the Amendment was to include them. Therefore, it is proper for legislative bodies to consider whether they should be restricted and for courts to decide whether such restrictions are constitutional.

The response of the students themselves gives me real hope that this time something will be different. In addition to grieving the loss of life and honoring those who responded heroically, this time they are angry, and they are articulating that anger powerfully in a clear demand for long overdue action. I believe that this anger-driven demand for action is likely to a effective movement driving politicians to respond with legislation, not just the empty pieties that have followed past acts of this sort.

Dreamers Aren’t Most Senators’ Priority

Looking at the voting on the roll calls in the Senate last Thursday, I must conclude that for the vast majority of Republican Senators, building the “Wall” is more important that letting the “Dreamers” stay in the U.S., while for the vast majority of Democrats, stopping the “Wall” is a higher priority that protecting the “Dreamers.”

On the first roll call, all 48 Democrats and “Independents,” except Manchin, voted in favor along with four Republicans, Senators Flake, Gardner, Graham, and Murkowski. The remaining Republicans — except John McCain, who was absent due to illness and took no part in any of the voting — all voted against the bill.

On the next roll call, all 40 Republicans present voted in favor and were joined by Democrats Donnelly, Manchin, McCaskill, and Stabenow. The two “Independents” and the remaining 43 Democrats voted against it.

On the third roll call, eight Republicans — Alexander, Collins, Flake, Gardner, Graham, Isakson, Murkowski, and Rounds — joined 44 Democrats and both “Independents” in favor.  Three Democrats joined the remaining 42 Republicans in opposition.

 

The point I’d make is that if the “Dreamers” aren’t taken care of now, they’ll be gone as a group forever, while the “Wall” and questions of family reunification and visa lottery can be revisited another time. Yet there are only four Democrats and four Republicans who considered them the top priority. Republicans Alexander, Collins, Isakson, and Rounds were ambiguous, but it could be argued that by supporting the “Dreamers” when their preferred version failed, they made them the top priority. As for the other 45 Democrats and “Independents,” and the other 42 voting Republicans — the “Dreamers” just weren’t that  important to them. So let’s have no criticism of the President or other party from those 87 insufficiently caring Senators.

 

Among those whose message to the “Dreamers” is, “Drop dead,” are my state’s two Democrats, Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey.

Ash Wednesday — 2018

Joel 2:12:18
2 Corinthians 5:20 – 6:2
Matthew 6:1- 16-18

The readings for Ash Wednesday are the same every year. Joel calls for fasting and penance accompanied by assemblies in which the priests would pray for mercy. He concludes with an assurance that God is moved by these things to have pity on his people. Paul starts with the same premise as Joel: the people have sinned. They need to be reconciled to God, and this is the time to do it. In today’s context, the Church views Lent as Paul’s “acceptable” time. In the gospel, Jesus refers to the elements of prayer and fasting called for by Joel, and adds almsgiving. He takes for granted that his followers will do all three, saying, “When you give alms, … When you pray, … When you fast, ….” His command is that we not do it for our own glory, but, as St. Paul told the Corinthians in last Sunday’s second reading (1 Corinthians 10:31 — 11:1), for the glory of God.

We don’t undertake our Lenten practices so we can congratulate ourselves on how much we’ve done, much less so others will be impressed. We do these things — extra prayer, extra fasting or self-denial, extra almsgiving — because as sinners we need to turn away from evil and do good, to develop habits of doing good, and to join our penance to Jesus’ supreme self-denial on the cross for our redemption and that of the world.

Sunday Scriptures — OT B 06, Feb. 11, 2018

I think that listing the assigned scriptures at the beginning can make it easier to relate them to one another, so I’m giving it a try.

 
First Reading — Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46

Second Reading — 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1

Gospel — Mark 1:29-39

 

Leprosy, diagnosed by a priest, excluded a person from contact with the community of Israel. A cure also had to be diagnosed by a priest, and a sacrifice was offered when the cure was confirmed. Jesus was not concerned with the prohibition of contact with a leper, but cured him by touching him and speaking an effective word of healing. To enable the man to return to the community, Jesus tells him to follow the rules of the Law to have his cure certified. There are three aspects that invite some reflection.

First, Jesus in effect trades places with the leper. The reading tells us that the result of the leper’s proclamation of what Jesus had done, the crowds that mob Jesus when he enters a town make it necessary for him to stay in deserted places, as the leper previously had to, while now the leper is free to go around in the towns and villages. Jesus also trades places with us. He takes away our sins by dying on the cross in our place. We are the ones who deserve to be punished by death, but Jesus accepted death for our sake.

Second, the leper feels compelled to spread the good news of what Jesus had done for him. In last week’s second reading (1 Corinthians 9:16-23, esp. 16-17), St. Paul stated that he also felt obligated to announce the gospel. Do we feel a similar compulsion to share the good news about Jesus? We don’t need to buttonhole strangers in public and tell them all about it, or pass out tracts on the subway. In fact we’d probably do better not to do that. But do we want to take advantage of chances people give us to speak of our faith. Do we show the joy of a redeemed life?

Third, Jesus heals the leper, and he wants to heal us spiritually. Lent — which began as the time of final preparation of catechumens for Baptism, which was conferred at Easter — soon also became the time for notorious sinners to perform public penance in preparation for being reconciled with the Church by the bishop at Easter. Now the Sacrament of Reconciliation is available all year, and for lesser sins as well as notoriuos ones. But Lent is still a good time for us to do penance for our sins, using the three practices mentioned in Matthew 6 (read on Ash Wednesday) — prayer, almsgiving, and fasting — to a higher degree than during the rest of the year. Jesus wants to heal us of any “spiritual leprosy” we have incurred; and the Sacrament of Reconciliation is his chosen means for doing so, especially for serious sins, which separate us from God. After the encounter with Jesus in the sacrament, people have a feeling of joy and relief, as did the leper.

 

St. Paul’s words can also help us think about our approach to Lent. Like everything else, Lent is for the glory of God. This ties in with the gospel reading for Ash Wednesday, which tells us not to do good things in order to win praise. If we make a show of it, there is no merit in it for us. We are to pray, fast, and give alms as quietly as possible. When we do that, our acts are done for the glory of God, not for our own glory. Even our own sanctification, which these things lead to, is for the glory of God. Beyond that, our quiet holiness gives an example of a life well lived which can help lead others to goodness as well.

Judy Shepard & ADL: “The Fight for Justice”

On Tuesday evening, January 30, I attended a program titled “The Fight for Justice with Judy Shepard” sponsored by the New England office of the Anti-Defamation League. After a brief video about Matthew Shepard, who was murdered in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998, Robert Trestan, the Regional Director of ADL interviewed Matt’s mother, Judy Shepard, who has been crusading for equal rights since the death of her son.

She spoke about Matt’s personality. He dressed in a preppy style, which was not typical for 1990’s Wyoming college students. He had strong opinions, and could be argumentative. He liked theater (played the younger brother, Wally, in “Our Town,” for example), thought he could sing, but he couldn’t. He was only 5′ 2″ tall, and very slight.

She sees the current situation in our country with respect to minority rights, including LGBTQ, as a retreat from the progress of the previous approximately two decades. But she doesn’t think the current expressions of prejudice indicate new feelings. She believes that the election of Barack Obama gave a focus and increased intensity to long-standing bigotry. Then with the election of Donald Trump, people felt free to express those feelings in virulent and sometimes violent ways.

Judy Shepard wrote a book titled The Meaning of Matthew: My Son’s Murder in Laramie, and a World Transformed. Robert Trestan said that he had brought three copies with him, from a supply that they have in the ADL office, adding that the book is now out of print. (I’d guess that used copies are available on line.) After the event I mentioned to Mrs. Shepard how moving I had found “The Laramie Project,” and that the element of  denial which was shown creeping in by “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later.” Then I approached Robert Trestan and asked if the copies of The Meaning of Matthew were available for purchase. He replied that they were not, but he would give me one. A few moments later it occurred to me to ask Judy Shepard to autograph my copy of the book, which she graciously did.

When asked what we should do now, she said the most important thing to do is vote.

All in all, it was an inspiring evening, a valuable reminder of what is at stake in the fight against hatred.