Sunday Scriptures — OT A 07 & 08, Feb. 19 & 26, 2017

On the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, the first reading — Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18 — gives us some of the background for Jesus’ teaching in the gospel — Matthew 5:38-48. In the gospel, a further excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus continues his expansion of the Old Testament teachings. First, he says it is not enough to limit oneself to demanding no punishment greater than the injury one has suffered. The first reading told us not to seek revenge or hold on to grudges. Jesus tells us not to seek satisfaction for injuries at all. We are to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile. Then he turns to love of neighbor, which was commanded in the first reading. We are also to love our enemies as well. The first reading said we are to be holy as God is holy. Jesus tells us to be perfect as God is perfect. Of course, we are limited creatures, so our perfection can only be a limited perfection. Furthermore, we can only achieve it with God’s grace, and most of us will finally attain perfection in heaven, after God has removed our lingering imperfections in the cleansing we call Purgatory.

The second reading — 1 Corinthians 3:16-23 — reminds us that God surpasses us and all our attainments, so we have nothing of our own to be proud or self-satisfied about. What is important is that we belong to Christ and to the Father, who gives us all we have.

 

The Eighth Sunday gives us readings which remind us that we can and should rely on God’s unfailing love for us. In the first reading — Isaiah 49:14-15 — the prophet delivers God’s promise that his love for his people is even more reliable than a mother’s love for her child. The responsorial psalm — verses of Psalm 62 — expresses our confidence in God alone. Jesus, in the gospel, another passage from the Sermon on the Mount — Matthew 6:24-34 — tells us that our confidence in God’s loving care for us should remove all anxiety. The passage contains the familiar examples of the birds of the air and the lilies of the field: God cares for them. It’s not that we don’t need food, drink, and clothing. We need them and even have to expend our own efforts to provide them. God doesn’t provide them miraculously. But we shouldn’t put them at the forefront of our concern. That would amount to serving mammon rather than God. We act prudently every day, dealing with what happens secure in our knowledge that God loves us always.

In the second reading — 1 Corinthians 4:1-5 — St. Paul reminds us that God is judge of all. There are two consequences: we are not to presume to judge other people; and we need to strive to use God’s gifts to us responsibly in his service.

 

Note: Wednesday, March 1, is Ash Wednesday, so Ordinary Time gives way to Lent and Eastertide. Ordinary Time will resume on Monday, June 5, but the Sunday Masses of Trinity Sunday and Corpus Christi will replace those of the 10th and 11th Sundays in Ordinary Time. On June 25 we will have the Mass for the 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

Sunday Scriptures — OT A 06, Feb. 12, 2017

If we look for the unifying thread between the first reading and the gospel, we might call it something like “observing the Law.”

 

The first reading — Sirach 15:15-20 — insists that, “If you choose you can keep the commandments.” We have free will. We can’t employ the excuse, “The Devil made me do it.”This year, the weekday Mass first readings are from Genesis. We heard on Monday through Thursday of the creation on the world and of man and woman. On Friday came the story of the fall, and on Saturday, the result, with Adam blaming Eve and Eve blaming the serpent. God does not accept the excuses: all three are guilty and all three suffer the consequences. Similarly, Sirach tells us, we will experience the good or evil consequences of our good or evil choices. God knows what we do.

 

The responsorial psalm — verses of Psalm 119 — praises those who follow the law of the Lord and prays the we will know and obey it fully.

 

In the gospel — Matthew 5:17-37 — Jesus affirms the Law as valid, and tells us that our observance of it must go beyond the literal minimum. We must refrain from anger as well as murder. Of course, there are instances when we react emotionally with anger at evil, but we must not stoke that anger and hold on to it. Instead, we are to forgive and be reconciled with one another. We must refrain from lust as well as adultery. Of course we are attracted by a beautiful person, but we must not let the involuntary attraction turn to lust — which St. John Paul II says occurs when we fail to regard the person as one who has the inviolable dignity of a human person and instead make her/him an object for our own pleasure. Note also that he specifies that adultery includes marrying a divorced person unless the former marriage was invalid. Finally, we must refrain from deceptive speech as well as perjury. We should be fundamentally honest, so that it will not be necessary to put us on oath to be sure we are telling the truth.

Judaism has always regarded the Law as God’s supreme gift to Israel, something not only to be studied and observed, bit something to be joyful about. The giving of the Law proves God’s love for his people. Jesus tells us that we should take it to heart, and when we do, our observance will go beyond a literalist minimum. Our attitude won’t be “How far can I go before I’ve broken a commandment?” but, “How is God asking me to live?”

 

St. Paul tells us in the second reading — 1 Corinthians 2:6-10 — that God’s wisdom is far above human wisdom. God’s wisdom is aimed at providing us with a glorified existence far beyond anything we could imagine. Those who love God, as witnessed by their keeping the commandments, will receive what God has prepared — in line with Sirach’s statement that keeping the commandments will save us and trust in God will bring life. Jesus also says that we must follow the Law as he explains it if we are to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Sunday Scriptures — OT A 05, Feb. 05, 2017

Again, this post is late, but better than never I hope. This time I have a pretty good excuse I think: I was away at St. Anselm Abbey in New Hampshire for several days, beginning on Sunday. I’m planning to post about that also when I have time.

We continue to hear readings from the Sermon on the Mount and passages illustrating it. In the gospel passage — Matthew 5:13-16 — Jesus calls his disciples, including us, the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Before exploring those characterizations, let’s note that he doesn’t say we will be salt and light to the world, but that we already are salt and light. For us, it is our baptism which gives us these qualities, which are actually our vocation. Salt enhances the flavor of things and it also preserves them. As Christians, our lives should make the world more pleasant and should inhibit decay and corruption. Light is what enables people to see what exists. We should enable people to see the reality which surrounds them — the truth about the world — even enabling them to see the reality of God, who underlies our existence and actions. Jesus realizes that we can abandon our call to be salt and light and exhorts us not to.

In the first reading —Isaiah 58:7-10 — we hear how we can be light. It is by performing works of mercy, several of which are also commanded by Jesus in his parable of the Judgment of the Nations (Matthew 25:31-46). When we do so, we continue bringing the “great light” which, according the the first reading of two weeks ago, the people who walked in darkness saw with the coming of Jesus. As Jesus says in the gospel, our good works are done so that those who see them will give glory to God. The responsorial psalm — verses of Ps 112 — reinforces the message that good deeds bring light, in this case, for their practitioner.

Finally, the second reading — 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 — tells us that we don’t have to be eloquent like Bishop Sheen or Bishop Barron, we don’t have to be heroic like Mother Teresa. Just as Paul evangelized in weakness, so can we, because our success as salt and light isn’t ultimately dependent on our skill “but on the power of God.” What is required on our part is simply that we not shirk.

Sunday Scriptures — OT A 03 & 04, Jan. 22 & 29, 2017

A very belated post briefly covering the 3rd and 4th Sundays in Ordinary Time.

On the 3rd Sunday, the focus is on the beginning for Jesus’ public ministry. We begin with a passage from Isaiah — Isaiah 8:23-9:3. The second part of it speaks of those in darkness seeing light. That is also appropriately proclaimed at Midnight Mass on Christmas. But the first part, about the people of Galilee as the ones who are being rescued prepares us for Matthew’s account of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry — Matthew 4:12-23. This passage follows that about Jesus’ fasting and temptations, which followed his baptism, which was told of on the 3rd Sunday. Now we hear that in the region about which Isaiah had prophesied, Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit, begins to preach the kingdom of God, and as he does so he calls Peter, Andrew, James, and John to be his disciples. They will call people into the kingdom. In each case, their acceptance of the call is immediate. The second reading — 1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 17 — emphasizes that there is one gospel and, regardless of who preaches it, Jesus is the redeemer.

The message is that Jesus is the focus of ur faith, regardless of who our ecclesiastical leaders are and whose presentation of the gospel we admire. We are challenged to follow Jesus as wholeheartedly as the apostles did and to do our part in leading others to him.

 
We could call the 4th Sunday “Humility Sunday.” In the second reading — 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 — Paul reminds his hearers, including us, that earthly status isn’t important. What matters is that God has chosen us, no matter how insignificant we may be by earthly standards. In the gospel — Matthew 5:1-12a — Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount. He says that we are blessed (or happy, in some translations) when we are not attached to earthly goods, when we are grieved by the evils which beset people, when we are not self-exalting, when we want what is good before God, when we are compassionate toward others by our actions, when our hearts are not divided between God and earthly goods, when we seek to bring reconciliation of conflicts, when we endure ill-treatment for our faith. We look forward to the everlasting happiness of the life to come. When we live the Beatitudes, as Jesus did, we are the people of whom Zephaniah speaks in the first reading — Zephaniah 2:3, 3:12-13. We are the people who enjoy God’s favor.

Immigration, Refugees, and the Executive Order Fiasco

There was no crisis requiring emergency action. As has been pointed out in various places, no refugees from the seven countries subject to the restrictions have engaged in terrorist acts in the United States. So there was minimal risk risk of a potential terrorist slipping in during the time it would have required to prepare and issue an Executive Order which was not so unclear and which agencies were prepared to enforce. That minimal risk did not justify the hasty action. (I sarcastically suggest that this Executive Order was such a fiasco that we need a 120-day moratorium on executive orders until proper procedures can be devised for their preparation and enforcement, and that all EO’s after the moratorium must be subjected to extreme vetting.)

On the other hand terrorist acts have been committed by immigrants from other countries than those targeted and by people born here. The Executive Order does nothing to protect anybody from the sorts of terrorism which have actually occurred. It does nothing to prevent the radicalization of people, native or immigrant, who are already here. If the purpose of the order is to protect the American people from terrorist attacks, it fails because it is not directed against the actual threat.

Terrorist acts get widespread coverage, but we should remember that the casualties from such acts are minuscule in number compared to the deaths from non-terrorist violence, to say nothing of the much greater still number of preventable deaths by accident. Unfortunately, the terrorists have, to a considerable degree, won because we have let them turn our focus from much greater dangers to the almost negligible risk they present. As a nation we seem to be panicked quite unnecessarily.

Some people point to the terrorist actions in Europe and say that we should not allow people to come here and do the same. But Europe does not have the Atlantic Ocean between them and the Middle East. They are much more vulnerable to infiltration. Furthermore, spectacular as those events have been, they are of minor importance compared to all the violence committed by ethnic Europeans; and we must also, when the focus is on immigration, consider the degree to which terrorism is perpetrated by home-grown terrorists.

For years, some people have called the activities of the Transportation Safety Agency “security theater.” Their point is that what TSA does has very little effect in actually making travelers safer, but it gives a show which makes most travelers feel safer. It seems to me that the Executive Order, issued in haste without being thought through, practically useless because directed against a virtually nonexistent threat, and unconcerned with larger (though still small) threats, but garnering maximum publicity, must surely be considered a perfect example of security theater. It responds, not to reality, but to vastly disproportionate fears which politicians and media have — perhaps unwittingly at times — cooperated to stoke.

Donald Trump’s Inaugural Address

As I watched the inaugural address on TV, there were several points where I thought he was wrong or hyperbolic and some where I thought he was ungracious; but for the most part, I thought he was proposing good objectives. Before I turned of the TV, I listened for a few minutes to the commentators on CNN, and they said that the populism expressed made it the “most radical” inaugural address ever. On reflection, I had the thought that much of it could have been said by Bernie Sanders. Now I have a transcript on another window, and I’ll review it a little more closely, without giving a line-by-line analysis.

I liked the part early on about returning power to the people, away from the establishment and the promise that the forgotten men and women would be forgotten no longer. I hope that the corporate CEO’s and politicians he’s appointing to his cabinet will follow through on this promise. Of course, the people can’t exercise their power over the federal government directly except on election day, so it will be up to our politicians and administration officials to put the promise into effect.

While some may quibble with the seriousness or extent of the “carnage” he spoke of, I think that job loss, ineffective education, and urban violence are all real problems. As one who believes strongly in federalism, I don’t think that the federal government should be considered responsible for solving every community’s crime problems or improving their schools. These are areas which call for the people to exercise their power locally. As for the problems of the “rust belt,” I don’t know how much of them can be cured by better international trade policies, but it’s worth a try.

I agree with him that every country’s primary obligation is to its own people. So it makes sense for our needs to be the focus of decision making. Still, I don’t want to see us prosper by impoverishing other people, which is why I’m particularly hopeful that the infrastructure program will be effective. I also hope the global economy can grow along with ours.

I was very pleased to hear him say, “We will reinforce old alliances,” since his attitude toward NATO has been worrisome.

Given the support he had from the alt-right, I thought it was very important that he said clearly, “[T]hrough our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice,” and, returning to the theme later, “A new national pride will stir ourselves, lift our sights, and heal our divisions. It’s time to remember that old wisdom our soldiers will never forget, that whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots. We all enjoy the same glorious freedoms. And we all salute the same great American flag.”

Certainly, there is more he could have said — about curbing the size of the federal government and protecting freedom of conscience, for example — but I’ll take what we got and hope for the best.

Sunday Scriptures — OT A 02, Jan. 15, 2017

With this Sunday, we have plunged back into Ordinary Time. Actually, the plunge took place last Tuesday, since the liturgical celebration of Christmastide ends with the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. This year, that feast was celebrated on Monday, January 9, and the remainder of the week constituted the First week in Ordinary Time. Nevertheless, there are resonances with the Christmas season, just as Ordinary Time merged into Advent, as we focused at first on the return of Jesus in glory at the end of time. Now, as we begin to look at the ministry of Jesus, we start with the testimony of John the Baptist to Jesus, which was also part of what we heard in Advent and on the Feast of the Baptism. In addition, we hear again from Isaiah prophecies about the calling of the Messiah.

 

The first reading — Isaiah 49: 3: 5-6 — is one of the four passages which are called the Servant Songs. They are read during Holy Week. Although the passage seemingly begins as an address to Israel as the Lord’s servant, in the preceding and following verses, it refers to an individual. The servant’s mission is one which God intended for him from before his birth. He is to bring the nation of Israel back to the Lord. Beyond that, he is to be a light to the nations, to bring salvation to all the world.

The responsorial psalm — verses of Psalm 40, with a refrain based on verses 8 and 9 — we make our own the Messiah’s response the the Father’s call. He, and we, will do God’s will.

The second reading — 1 Corinthians: 1:1-3 — is in the customary form of of the beginning of letters at the time of Paul. The writer identifies himself: Paul. He adds identifying information and associates Sosthenes with himself. Next the addressee is named: the church in Corinth. Again, Paul expands the format by referring to their salvation in Christ, and noting that their call is one which goes to believers everywhere — just as the servant in the first reading is to bring salvation to the whole world. Finally there is a greeting: he wishes them grace and peace from God. Over the next six weeks, until Lent begins, we will hear further passages from the first four chapters of this letter.

The gospel — John 1:29-34 — is remarkable in the first place because Year A is the year in which Matthew’s gospel is read on most Sundays. John the Baptist uses the phrase “Lamb of God” to identify Jesus. This reminds his hearers of the events of Passover, when the Israelites sacrificed a lamb, whose blood protected them from the tenth plague of Egypt, the killing of every firstborn. Jesus, Mary’s firstborn and the Father’s only-begotten Son, will save us from destruction through his Passover sacrifice of himself. We don’t use the phrase often, but in Mass we address Jesus as Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world in the Gloria on festive occasions and before Communion at every Mass. Then, holding up the host, the priest says, “Behold the Lamb of God. Behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those who are called to the supper of the Lamb.” This recalls the Israelites’ eating of the paschal lamb, whose blood protected them. The image of the Lamb is also frequently used in the Book of Revelation to refer to Jesus as the redeemer, slain on earth and triumphant in heaven.

Next, John refers to his earlier promise of one greater than himself who was to follow him. Jesus is the one he expected, and he knows this through revelation: at Jesus’ baptism, the sign God had promised happened. It is a sign which means that Jesus has been empowered by the Holy Spirit and will in turn confer that Spirit on others. making them sharers in his mission to bring salvation to the world — a call to which we responded in the responsorial psalm.

Could Trump Become a Fascist Dictator?

From time to time the suggestion is made that the answer to my title for this post is, “Yes.” I’ll admit that at times during the presidential election campaign I was alarmed at some of Donald Trump’s rhetoric and the things said and done at his events. Clearly his rhetoric attracted neo-Nazis and white supremacists. There was a certain cult of personality in which he seemed to see himself as the one who could solve all the country’s problems, that he needed to be unfettered in doing things his way; and his supporters seemed to agree. There seemed to be tactics of intimidation employed by his supporters without any disapproval on his part. In short, it seemed that he was leading a movement with clear similarities to those of Mussolini and Hitler.

But as time has passed, especially since the election, the resemblances have faded, and my fears have abated. There have been signs that Trump has come to realize that he doesn’t have all the answers and can’t, and shouldn’t try to, rule by decree. He seems to be getting some degree of understanding and acceptance of what it means to be President rather than ruler. His Cabinet choices have not simply been people who have been “movement” loyalists from the outset, and in the first couple of days of confirmation hearings they have demonstrated disagreement with some of his campaign rhetoric.

At this point, therefore, I would answer my question with a definite, “No.” No doubt he will take actions and adopt policies with which I disagree, perhaps very strongly, and I’m sure there will be other people who oppose even more of what he does. But I see no likelihood at all that a subservient Congress will pass an enabling act that would grant him absolute power. He may very well chafe at the necessity for obtaining legislation to pursue many of his proposals, but he will learn that that’s how it is. Like Reagan, he may well be able to appeal to the people and develop enough support to get some of his proposals enacted, but that isn’t dictatorship. Dictatorship is a government which does as it pleases regardless of public support or opposition.

But as I was mulling over the question of whether Trump could be our Hitler, I came to another question: if there really is any danger of a neo-Fascist regime in the U.S., whose fault is it? When I was in school I was taught that our system of government contained a threefold bulwark against tyranny expressed in the principles of 1.) limited government, 2.) federalism, and 3.) separation of powers, all three of which were enshrined in our Constitution. Because the President was the head of only one branch of a federal government with limited powers, it was impossible for him to become a tyrant.

Why, then, do people now seriously fear a dictatorship? It is because all three principles underlying our Constitution have been lost sight of. Americans in general look primarily to government to solve whatever problems we face, and they see no problem which is outside the purview of the federal government to solve. In other words, the federal government is regarded as omnicompetent. If there is no area in which the federal government cannot take action, then there is nothing to prevent tyranny except the separation of powers. Unfortunately, we live in an era of hyperpartisanship, and there is a widespread acceptance of the idea that the President runs things, and resistance to what he wants is obstructionism. It is this state of affairs which makes it even slightly plausible for people to imagine an American dictator.

I come again to the question: “Whose fault is it that we’ve reached this point?” Since at least my college days, going back more than 55 years, I’ve been a conservative. I’ve said that matters such as public education, relief of poverty, prosecution of crimes such as murder and robbery, construction of housing, medical practice, drug policy, consumer protection, and marriage laws are not the responsibility of the federal government. When conservatives complain about any federal action as being outside the constitutionally limited powers of the federal government, the usual liberal response is that the matter in question is just too important to leave to the States or that we need uniformity. But most people seem to accept without question that the federal government can do whatever it decides to do (apart from taking away their guns).

How did we get from 1787 to here? The Civil War discredited the idea of States’ Rights, which, properly understood, is merely a corollary of federalism. The sense of being a citizen, and not merely a resident, of Massachusetts, or Pennsylvania, or Ohio as a significant part of one’s identity faded away. It may be a matter of cultural pride and awareness, but not of real political significance. (This is why people can glibly call for the abolition of the electoral college.) Then came the Great Depression which brought acceptance of the idea that if a problem was big enough, the federal government was responsible for solving it. And recently, it seems that most people accept unthinkingly that there is almost no zone of personal freedom which the government cannot intrude on “for our own good.” We may not smoke in public buildings, even in public housing units which we occupy, nor — in various jurisdictions — in outdoor public spaces. We may not purchase various foodstuffs. We may not use various recreational drugs. We must fasten our seatbelts. We must wear helmets when riding motorcycles and bicycles.

There is more that could be said to flesh out my theses and to nuance my broad assertions, but I think it’s fair to say, as a generalization, that if there is any real danger of dictatorship in the United States, it’s the fault of the liberals who are normally untroubled by thoughts of federalism and limited government, and to whom separation of powers matters only when a Republican is President.

Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord, January 8, 2017

I posted last year about this feast day, and since the Mass is the same every year, I’ll let that post suffice.

 

As I noted then, there are three events to the Epiphany: the adoration of the Magi, which is emphasized in today’s Mass; the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, which gets its own feast day, this year on January 9; and Jesus’ changing of water into wine at the wedding feast of Cana, which was the gospel passage read on January 7.

 

Since this is my first post of 2017, I also want to wish a Happy New Year to all!

Sunday Scriptures — Advent A 4, Dec. 18, 2016

As we come to the last Sunday before Christmas, the main focus of the readings turns from the return of Christ at the end of time (fully establishing the Messianic Age, the peaceable kingdom) to the birth of the Messiah in time.
The first reading — Isaiah 7:10-14 — is the familiar passage which foretells the birth of the one whose birth means God is with us. In context, Isaiah was reassuring King Ahaz that the attack on Jerusalem by the Arameans and the breakaway kingdom of Israel would not succeed. the predicted birth would probably have been that of Hezekiah — since the birth of Jesus something over 700 years later would not have served as a sign to Ahaz. Still, this prophecy is part of a section of the book which promises the Messiah (in ch. 9). And while the Hebrew speaks of a “young woman” as the mother of Emmanuel in v. 14, in the Septuagint (the Jewish Greek translation) the word for “virgin” is used. Thus for Jews of Jesus’ time (and some centuries before) this text was seen as having a meaning beyond the immediate one for Ahaz. We see the virgin birth of Jesus as the fulfillment of the prophecy.
The responsorial psalm — Ps. 24:1-6, with refrain from verses 7 and 10 — has us reflect on God as creator and the holiness required of one who would enter the temple. We think of Jesus as the king of glory who enters.
In the second reading — Romans 1:1-7 — Paul elaborates the customary salutation of a letter with a reference to Jesus as a descendant of David (hence capable of fulfilling the prophecies of the Messiah), followed by a statement of his saving work and of Paul’s apostolic mission.
The gospel — Matthew 1:18-24 — tells of the annunciation to Joseph that Mary’s unborn child was conceived by the Holy Spirit and that he would be the Savior. Matthew explicitly quotes the Emmanuel prophecy of the first reading and says the birth of Jesus fulfills the prophecy.
As we look forward to Christmas, these readings invite us to see the importance of the birth of Jesus, both for the world and for ourselves as individuals. God is with us now and always.