Sunday Scriptures: Reflections by Father Kevin Laughery

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July 12, 2020
(End of Civil Week 28)
Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Is 55: 10-11/ Ps 65: 10. 11. 12-13. 14 (Lk 8: 8)/ Rom 8: 18-23/ Mt 13: 1-23 or 13: 1-9

Today and next week, Saint Paul gives serious attention to the phenomenon of groaning. I have been cheered by such attention paid by Paul, because groaning is a major element of our lives.

I know that I groan about many things. One groan — which may perhaps be more like a sigh — comes at the end of several hours of work which requires mental concentration, such as doing two Masses in immediate succession. I also groan over tedium, as in Gregory the Great’s complaint that he must listen patiently to chatter. I tell myself that someone is nattering away about things which are obvious and do not need to be spoken; on the other hand, I recognize that the opportunity for someone to tell his or her story is a fundamental requirement for sanity, and so I see the value of maintaining concentration on the person. I still groan when it’s over.

Other groans come when I am doing tribunal work and contemplating the “universal story” presented in the pages of testimony in marriage-nullity cases. The narcissist and the codependent is a major theme. Innumerable couples fall into this pattern, which is a major cause for incomprehension and grief. Using and being used is a far cry from the “communion of the whole of life” which we profess marriage to be. There are those who are suspicious of tribunals’ frequent recourse to psychological grounds of nullity. I have to reply that such grounds are indeed fitting in innumerable cases. With regard to the practically universal character of psychological blocks against living lives which make sense, it was encouraging to read, in 2017, of Prince Harry’s disclosures that, nearly twenty years after the death of his mother, Princess Diana, he had turned to psychological counseling, having learned that a shutdown of his feelings leads to a disastrously inadequate sense of self and the impossibility of establishing sound relationships. His comments of a few years ago indicated that he was still at an elementary level regarding his emotional life. With marriage, the passage of years, and new decisions, perhaps he has capitalized upon insights into his feelings. The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable. Get ready to groan, anticipating the insight which leads to peace.

Paul, despite mentioning labor pains in this passage, never experienced labor pains, and neither have I. I am told that kidney stones, which I have experienced, come close to the experience of parturition. There are other types of pain which fittingly give rise to groans. I am reminded of a quote from sportswriter Red Smith about writing. Wikipedia: “In April 1949, columnist Walter Winchell wrote, ‘Red Smith was asked if turning out a daily column wasn’t quite a chore. ... “Why, no,” dead-panned Red. “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.” ‘ “

When Paul writes about groaning, I find that I can accept him as a true Christian companion who appreciates the act of enduring tedium for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

Readers know that I am partial to the use of the “long form” of a reading in almost all cases. Today, however, the “long form” essentially provides an “explanation” of the parable of the sower — and the act of explaining parables is essentially a domestication or “de-fanging” of them. In other words, “explaining” a parable is akin to explaining it away, making it pat and irrelevant. Parables need to be left as they are, so that they can keep gnawing at the human conscience.

If we accept an allegorization of a parable — making each element of the parable “stand for” something — we are emotionally distancing ourselves from the necessary ambiguities of the story. If we leave the parable as it is, however, without trying to explain it, the parable lodges in one’s mind and heart with its inherent questions intact and active.

So I encourage presenting a parable without an explanation. In preaching, we may, of course, discuss various elements of the parable. The tales of the rich man and Lazarus or the Prodigal Son, for example, afford us glimpses of personality which are always going to be helpful as we ask our questions.

Paul’s point is that you and I must accept the dynamism — painful as it may be — of attaining insight and the consequent personal growth which this insight allows. When we apply Paul’s perspective to this Gospel, we are not satisfied with “explanations”; instead we allow the unsettling character of the parable to settle within us. We do some more groaning.

The Gospel passage is accompanied by a brief portion of Isaiah chapter 55, on the effectiveness of the word of God. Commentators attribute to these verses the origin of the theology of “the Word” which is at the heart of Johannine theology. The Word is living and effective. Just as the watering of the earth leads to a fruitful crop, so the Word of God provides salvation to humanity.

While we remember that the second reading is on its own “track” and does not necessarily harmonize thematically with the first reading and Gospel, it turns out that today’s second reading does jibe with its accompanying readings. This dynamism is all the more obvious when we keep in mind that the Word of God, in its essence, is something which demands a response from the hearer.

July 5, 2020
(End of Civil Week 27)
Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Zec 9: 9-10/ Ps 145: 1-2. 8-9. 10-11. 13-14/ Rom 8: 9. 11-13/ Mt 11: 25-30

Among the personal qualities which people value today, mildness does not rank near the top. Our society seems to have bolstered the idea that brashness and rudeness, and the perception of life as a game with winners and losers, are what make life worthwhile.

And yet, our reflection on important moments of our life reveals that the mildness shown to us when we are hurting is what we value most. Kindness is more real than any sort of bravado. Kindness endures, even as all our strutting and fretting dissipates.

I am reminded of the computer’s conclusion in WarGames (1983): that thermonuclear warfare is “a strange game” in which “the only winning move is not to play.” We might ask ourselves: What sort of game are we playing? And would we be happier to drop out of the game?

Zechariah’s image of the promised messiah-king — “meek,” that is, coming forward without pomp or display — and “riding on an ass,” thus projecting his peaceful intentions, as by contrast a warlike leader would be riding on a horse — is paired today with Jesus’ profession of his own mildness.

Our treatment of the Romans passage must take pains to stress that Paul is not devaluing the human body. When he refers to “the flesh,” we are not to suppose that he is condemning it as intrinsically evil. We have only to remember the prologue of John’s Gospel: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” God created us good. He intended that you and I should rejoice in our embodied selves. He promises us that we will enjoy “the resurrection of the body.”

“The flesh,” as Paul envisions it, is not the God-created corporal principle of our being but, rather, the tendency to narrow one’s vision so that the life of the body is the only thing one values. Such a narrow focus inevitably leads to our being dead in the sight of God.

We might try to imagine two modes of being. For these two modes, we have many models.

Living in “the flesh” is a state in which conquest is the goal. A human being perceives herself as finding meaning by proving her superiority over others: by affirming, for instance, that the acquisition of great wealth is the result of a contest in which the “winner” outshines people who are not as wealthy and must be looked upon as “losers.” The notion of a “zero-sum” game is supposed: if I win, you must lose. Sexual prowess is also associated with “winners.” It is obvious that the person “in the flesh” does not acknowledge the sacredness of a committed marital relationship, but instead makes sexual “achievements” a matter of comparison, for which one must rove far beyond sacred commitments. People become objects whose purpose is to prove one’s superiority. Competition is perceived in all dimensions of life. One is not satisfied with one’s allegiance to a nation; one has to insist that her own country is the “best” country in the world. People of differing nations, races and religions are automatically assumed to be inferior.

It is a strange situation which the person “in the flesh” creates for herself. She exalts herself by creating for herself a worldview in which she requires constant assurance that her superiority cannot be questioned. Nagging insecurity must be warded off through distraction.

And what, by contrast, is life in the spirit? Those who seek to live in the spirit are set free from the expectations by which one “in the flesh” circumscribes herself. When we are in the spirit, we do not suppose that my fulfillment consists in my taking something from you. We learn to be at ease with our limited, creaturely selves. We appreciate that life is indeed a gift, and we conduct ourselves with all modesty, never presuming upon the divine Giver. We give thanks that we can look around and discover true friends, as opposed to potential rivals. We experience life as a process of discovery rather than as a series of displeasing revelations which we are compelled to rebut.

Jesus addresses the contrast between “the wise and the learned” and the “little ones.” Every one of us must experience some legitimate pride in our wisdom and learning. We resist being ranked among the “little ones.” Jesus’ rejoicing, however, attracts us. What does he see that we do not?

Matthew gives us a meditation on the relationship between Father and Son which reminds us of John’s many discourses on this same topic. When Jesus says that “all things have been handed over to me by my Father,” I think we can imagine “all things” as “the fullness of the mystery of authentic human living in the presence of God.”

Those who have tried living “in the flesh” and have, inevitably, found it wanting, may well discover that they are among those “who labor and are burdened.” Therefore such people can take heart! A great deal of everyone’s religious conversion has to do with the self-imposed burdens we have placed upon ourselves. Are not these the very burdens to which Jesus is referring? What if we recognized that they are unnecessary? What liberation would we feel? What joy might we experience? Might we, in particular, find that the people in our life are here to help us rather than threaten us? What a change this would be! How we would be empowered!

June 28, 2020
(End of Civil Week 26)
Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
2 Kgs 4: 8-11. 14-16a/ Ps 89: 2-3. 16-17. 18-19 (2a)/ Rom 6: 3-4. 8-11/ Mt 10: 37-42

The core teaching on baptism, given today in the Romans passage, provides a fitting background for the challenges Jesus offers in the Gospel.

The Old Testament passage, one of the stories of Elisha which bear a resemblance to the Fioretti or “Little Flowers” of St. Francis of Assisi, presents us with the life of a roving prophet, thus shining a light on the itinerant life to which Jesus alludes. Jesus makes it clear that what his disciples do is not merely a one-way transmission of information to a passive public. It is to be expected that there will be hospitality extended by the recipients of God’s good news. So in the case of this Shunemite woman, we see that she takes initiative in offering to Elisha both meals and a place to stay. It is implied that, because of her generosity, God will favor her with the child she had been longing for for years. Great things happen when relationships are built up. We think, of course, of the relationship of marriage and the progeny expected to come from this bond. In this case, a relationship of faith supplies what the marriage relationship did not immediately supply.

Discipleship demands renunciation. Jesus has made this fact clear much earlier in this Gospel, at 4: 18-22 (the call of Peter and Andrew, James and John) and 9: 9-13 (the call of Matthew). In each case, each person leaves his customary occupation to follow Jesus.

Family life is, of course, a natural good toward which most people tend to be attracted. We must not suppose that there is an inherent dichotomy between the Gospel and family life. We understand, however, that some family situations may impede the living-out of the Gospel. In case of conflict, the Kingdom of God is to be preferred over the establishment of a family.

All Christians are to understand that baptism constitutes a definitive break with life as one had lived it.

We remember that this core explanation of baptism is heard in Sunday Masses only today and at the Easter Vigil. Today is a most fitting time for an explanation of the essence of the first sacrament of initiation. The typical Catholic experience of baptism is that of infants. The popular Catholic mind thus tends to sentimentalize baptism as God’s “blessing” upon a baby. When I baptize infants or young children outside Mass, I always have Romans 6 read. In my preaching, I explain the fact that one of the meanings of the baptismal water is “cleansing” from the sin of the world or original sin. I then go on to explain that the “cleansing,” while important, is not the primary meaning of the water of baptism. I bring forward the apparent contradiction of water in human life: that it is absolutely necessary for life, but also that water can be dangerous as the agent of drowning. I stress that going under water requires that we hold our breath; absence of breathing was, according to the ancients, the sign of absence of life. By these explanations I seek to clarify that Jesus, in his death and resurrection, confronted the contradictions of sin and death, making death the passageway to a life which cannot be conquered. I then stress an awareness that eternal life begins with baptism. We must not suppose that our earthly existence is some sort of elaborate “waiting room” in which we passively languish while waiting for our “real” life to begin after physical death. In baptism we have already participated in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Our eternal life has already begun.

Enjoying this sort of assurance, we appreciate Jesus’ promises to his disciples, even as we absorb inevitable dangers.

“Taking up one’s cross”: For the first time in Matthew’s Gospel, the cross is mentioned, and we may not appreciate the shudder which this mention generates in the people of Jesus’ time. We tend to use the expression “a cross to bear” quite glibly. For Jesus’ contemporaries, crucifixion was a commonly employed method of imperial terrorism. Jesus in fact was crucified. Jesus uses the image of crucifixion to explain that, even if a given disciple does not experience literal crucifixion, discipleship demands a personal harrowing, a thorough examination of oneself, which will be hard to accept but will open oneself to a deeper reliance upon God’s love.

To take the life I am living — the priesthood — as an example: I often muse upon the vocational choices which people make or avoid. I remember well that the priesthood was certainly not my first choice. When I find myself conversing with someone contemplating the priesthood, the first thing I say is that one must be willing to accept the self-knowledge which comes with the process of formation. A candidate for the priesthood can count on being confronted with self-knowledge which is difficult to accept. We trust that any committed Christian, in whatever state of life, will likewise find opportunities to grow in self-knowledge. To be confronted with oneself is a sufficient equivalent to crucifixion. It is terribly painful. It also sets us free.

We return to the loving interchange which characterizes discipleship. Just as Elisha enjoyed the hospitality of the Shunemite woman, so Jesus pledges that the one who follows him will be the recipient of acts of hospitality. The warmth of love which comes from people who esteem a disciple for the Gospel with which he or she has been entrusted is precious beyond measure.

June 21, 2020
(End of Civil Week 25)
Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jer 20: 10-13/ Ps 69: 8-10. 14. 17. 33-35 (14c)/ Rom 5: 12-15/ Mt 10: 26-33

We return to the Sundays of Ordinary Time and their survey this year of the Gospel of Matthew. We keep in mind that we left off, on February 23, in Matthew 5, with Jesus’ easily misunderstood directive to be “perfect.” Today we are already in chapter 10. Due to the occurrence of Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, and the Body and Blood of Christ, we have, unavoidably, skipped over the following Gospel passages: Jesus’ warning against worry (6: 24-34); the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, and its warnings against facilely crying out “Lord, Lord” and against building one’s house on sand (7: 21-27); the call of Matthew (9: 9-13); and Jesus’ observation about crowds of people who were “like sheep without a shepherd,” with his designation of disciples as “twelve apostles” (9: 36 — 10: 8).

Today’s Gospel passage is toward the end of Jesus’ “marching orders” to the Twelve. I remember the tenth chapter of Matthew staying with me in my junior year of high school, as I found myself seriously thinking about priesthood and embarking on a reading of the entire Bible. I did this reading, as I recall, while waiting during our Thespians’ rehearsal of Bye Bye Birdie. I was struck by the self-abnegation which would be required of those to be apostles.

This portion of Matthew 10 is an echo of a part of the Sermon on the Mount, which we heard just before the beginning of Lent, on February 26. Jesus addresses the anxieties of the men whose very poverty would be the guarantee of the genuineness of their message — certainly a far cry from the sickening “gospel of prosperity,” of which we hear too much these days. The birds and the wildflowers are evoked again as Jesus speaks of the concept popularized in the hymn “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.”

The idea that our God is intimately aware of and concerned for every last happening in our world is a challenge today. Many people look at the universe and suppose that the rotations of galaxies and the spin of subatomic particles are a mindless, random exercise into which we are dissolved and which allows no escape from oblivion. This outlook, of course, spills over into concern about the problem of theodicy: the question of how a good God can permit evil. To the extent that we are convinced of the reality of love, as we experience it in our most significant relationships, we can, with varying degrees of ease, attribute to our God the fullness of the love which has been hinted at in familiar human bonds.

Jesus’ call to lay down our fear is made in the context of the idea that nothing is concealed from God, who exercises perfect justice thanks to his complete knowledge. This notion has offered strength to numerous people, as they suffer oppression and simply remember that God metes out his justice to the unjust.

Coupled with this Gospel is a meditation of the prophet Jeremiah, who expresses his confidence in the Lord, in spite of his sensitivity to supposed “whisperings” of people who might threaten him. We are reminded of the adage, “Just because you’re paranoid, that doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.” I do not know whether Jeremiah suffered from paranoia. He had, as we know, a prophetic career of perhaps 40 years, and he must have experienced all kinds of reactions to his prophesying. Jeremiah’s confidence in the Lord parallels the in-the-trenches assurance of the voice of Psalm 69, today’s responsorial psalm.

The presentation of Romans on Sundays of Year A begins with the Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, and therefore we have also missed three Pauline passages: “All have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God/ They are justified freely by Jesus’ grace” (3: 21-25, 28); “Abraham believed” (4: 18-25); and, most important, “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (5: 6-11). Today’s passage further develops the theme of the free gift of salvation.

Paul’s argument about sin entering the world through Adam has contributed greatly to the Church’s understanding of what has come to be called “original sin.” This is not Paul’s term. We must look ahead a few centuries to the development of the concept by Saints Irenaeus, Augustine, and others. Indeed, Paul does not explicitly say that Adam’s sin has been inherited; he does imply, however, that there is a connection between the sin of Adam and all subsequent sin. Paul’s argument is subtle and not easy to follow. “From Adam to Moses” echoes a certain artificial rabbinic division of history; the singling-out of this epoch seems to be done to affirm a certain chaos until Moses’ reception of the Law. When he discusses the gift of salvation in Jesus, he takes pains to stress that any comparison between Adam and Jesus is for the sake of emphasizing how the gift of Jesus to humanity is in fact without comparison.

June 14, 2020
(End of Civil Week 24)
The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ
(also known as Corpus Christi)
Dt 8: 2-3. 14b-16a/ Ps 147: 12-13. 14-15. 19-20 (12)/ 1 Cor 10: 16-17/ Optional Sequence Lauda, Sion/ Jn 6: 51-58

The institution of Corpus Christi as a feast in the Christian calendar resulted from approximately forty years of work on the part of St. Juliana of Liège, a 13th-century Norbertine canoness, also known as Juliana de Cornillon, born in 1191 or 1192 in Liège, Belgium, a city where there were groups of women dedicated to Eucharistic worship. Juliana longed for a feast day outside of Lent in its honor (Holy Thursday, of course, being linked with the immediately following somber celebration of the Lord’s Passion). Her vita reports that this desire was enhanced by a vision of the Church under the appearance of the full moon having one dark spot, which signified the absence of such a solemnity. In 1208, she reported her first vision of Christ in which she was instructed to plead for the institution of the feast of Corpus Christi. Jacques Pantaléon of Troyes was won over to the cause of the Feast of Corpus Christi during his ministry as Archdeacon in Liège. It was he who, having become Pope as Urban IV in 1264, instituted the Solemnity of Corpus Christi on the Thursday after Pentecost as a feast for the entire Latin Rite, by the papal bull Transiturus de hoc mundo. Though this was the first papally imposed universal feast for the Latin Rite, it was not in fact widely celebrated for half a century, although it was adopted by a number of dioceses in Germany and by the Cistercians, and in 1295 was celebrated in Venice. It became a truly universal feast only after the bull of Urban IV was included in the collection of laws known as the Clementines, compiled under Pope Clement V, but promulgated only by his successor Pope John XXII in 1317.

While the institution of the Eucharist is celebrated on Holy Thursday, the liturgy on that day also commemorates Christ’s washing of the disciples’ feet, the institution of the priesthood, and the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. So many other functions took place on this day that the principal event was almost lost sight of. This is mentioned as the chief reason for the introduction of the new feast, in the Bull Transiturus. For this reason, the Feast of Corpus Christi was established to create a feast focused solely on the Holy Eucharist.

When St. Pius V revised the General Roman Calendar, Corpus Christi was one of only two “feasts of devotion” that he kept, the other being Trinity Sunday. In that calendar, Corpus Christi was celebrated on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday. The feast had an octave until 1955, when Pope Pius XII suppressed all octaves, even in local calendars, except those of Christmas, Easter and Pentecost.

From 1849 until 1969 a separate Feast of the Most Precious Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ was assigned originally to the first Sunday in July, later to the first day of the month. This feast was removed from the General Roman Calendar in 1969, “because the Most Precious Blood of Christ the Redeemer is already venerated in the solemnities of the Passion, of Corpus Christi and of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and in the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. But the Mass of the Most Precious Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ is placed among the votive Masses.”

The General Roman Calendar of 1969 retains Corpus Christi as the Thursday after Trinity Sunday. In countries (such as the United States) where it is not a holy day of obligation, it is observed on the following Sunday.

Last week, on Trinity Sunday, we began with a passage from Exodus: Moses’ return to the mountaintop to replace the tablets of the Law which he had broken. Today we have a selection from Deuteronomy, most of whose Lectionary selections constitute a sort of “farewell address” of Moses, who reviews the 40 years of wandering in the desert. In today’s passage he recalls the pilgrims’ hunger and thirst, and the gifts of manna and water from the rock. “Not by bread alone,” of course, is echoed in accounts of the temptation of Jesus. The people’s trust in God must be founded upon something distinct from the stockpiling of food and water. The desert experience was of this manna appearing and being gathered day by day. This was an instance in which people were experiencing the giving of “daily bread.”

The second reading, a very brief selection from First Corinthians, stresses the union of the Christian with Jesus and Christian brothers and sisters, as the body of believers shares in Holy Communion. “The cup of blessing” is an expression borrowed from the Passover meal: this particular cup was the third of the four cups of wine imbibed. In our reflection on “the breaking of the bread,” we are called to consider that, whereas with ordinary food the nutrients are assimilated into our body, in this sacramental experience the food and drink which we ingest actually assimilates us into the Body of Christ.

The Gospel is Jesus’ confrontation with listeners who were disturbed by Jesus’ proclamation that his flesh and blood are to be eaten and drunk. Jesus affirms the assimilation of the faithful into his body, in accord with Paul’s pronouncement in First Corinthians 10.

The Roman Missal contains directives for conducting a procession with the Blessed Sacrament on this day.

June 7, 2020
(End of Civil Week 23)
The Most Holy Trinity
Ex 34: 4b-6. 8-9/ Dn 3: 52. 53. 54. 55. 56 (52b)/ 2 Cor 13: 11-13/ Jn 3: 16-18

The word “Trinity” is not to be found in the Scriptures. We find, however, in the New Testament, an emphasis on God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The earliest “symbols” or Christian professions of faith are structured according to the declaration “I believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” It is a chilling irony that the first atomic bomb was detonated at a site called Trinity. To be more precise, the code name for the bomb project was “Trinity,” and the site in New Mexico then came to be called by this name. This death-dealing weapon is the very antithesis of Life Itself. Such a bomb could symbolize divine power, but only in a perverse way.

We may consider God as Trinity to be too exalted for us to appreciate. But surely each person of the Trinity is approachable. The Father-Creator is for all of us the source of wonder, since the endless variety and beauty of creation constantly awes us. The Son, of course, in his Incarnation helps every one of us to become comfortable in our own skin. The Holy Spirit, the love shared by the Father and the Son, is likewise found in the “betweenness” of human relations, accounting for the difference between people who can and cannot be a community.

Many, these days, may find an obstacle in the “maleness” implied in the names of Father and Son. The names are a non-negotiable, so firmly planted as they are in our creed and in the command of Jesus to baptize in these names. The Son of God did enter into a male human identity on behalf of all human beings. We recognize that “Father” and “Son” are accommodated to a time when the exclusive notion of a father begetting a son was looked upon as the height of human achievement. Needless to say, in human generation, a male cannot do it on his own!

The Scriptures this year help us to remain grounded as the persons of the Trinity respond to human beings as we are.

The Exodus passage emphasizes the oneness of God. We have here a description of a theophany on the occasion of the engraving of new tablets of the Ten Commandments, the originals having been broken by Moses at the base of Mount Sinai when he discovered the idolatry into which the people had sunk. Moses has returned to the presence of God at the top of the mountain. The Lord, coming down in a cloud, stands with Moses. The Lord proclaims: “The Lord, the Lord, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity.” A Jewish commentary notes that this proclamation is a prominent feature of the liturgies of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. It may startle us to imagine God standing with Moses. Of course, we Christians may read into this an intimation of the eventual incarnation of the Son of God.

Second Corinthians gives us a very early formulation of the persons of the Trinity, as offered in a valedictory blessing. We may, of course, speculate on the order: Son, Father, Spirit. Paul was accustomed to offering “the blessing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In First Corinthians 12: 4-6, the order is the Holy Spirit, the Son, and the Father. We are a long way from elaborated theories of the “generation” of the persons of the Trinity. But it is impressive that, so early in the history of Christianity, the threeness of God is being articulated.

The Gospel, of course, stresses the relationship between the Father and the Son. We have here the famous “God so loved the world” pronouncement. Of interest to us is the question of who is speaking. Many place these words on the lips of Jesus. A commentary, however, states that this portion of the text “very clearly show[s] that the Evangelist himself is speaking.” In keeping with the Exodus 34 theophany of the merciful God, we are drawn to understand that the fullness of divine mercy is found in God the Father’s will to give his incarnate Son as the salvation of the human race. Holding in our memory the image of God “standing with” Moses, we are struck by the fact and expectation that our God makes his love utterly plain to human beings by becoming one of us.

Unity is not uniformity. In fact, we perceive unity only when we see that there is a principle tying different things or persons together. As we reflect on common, “ordinary” aspects of life — how people associate or become estranged, for instance — we find ourselves asking: what is oneness? What is distinction? How do many come together? These concerns may get us thinking about the American motto E pluribus unum. Wikipedia refers to Cicero’s citation, in De Officiis, of Pythagoras, on “basic family and social bonds as the origin of societies and states: ‘When each person loves the other as much as himself, it makes one out of many (unus fiat ex pluribus), as Pythagoras wishes things to be in friendship.” We turn to these pre-Christian philosophers in order to ponder the power of the divine love between Father and Son — a power and love utterly beyond even the fiercest of parent-child relationships within our experience.

Saturday, May 30, 2020
(Civil Week 22)
Vigil of Pentecost
Vigil: Gn 11: 1-9 or Ex 19: 3-8a. 16-20b or Ez 37: 1-4 or Jl 3: 1-5/ Ps 104: 1-2. 24. 35. 27-28. 29bc-30/ Rom 8: 22-27/ Jn 7: 37-39. Extended Vigil: Some or all of the above Old Testament readings, with Ps 33: 10-15 following Genesis, Dn 3: 52-56 following Exodus, Ps 107: 2-9 following Ezekiel, and Ps 104: 1-2. 24. 35. 27-28. 29bc-30 following Joel; and the epistle and Gospel as given above.

There is a popular understanding of the Easter Vigil as “that thing that goes on for hours.” Such an attitude is not very receptive to the idea of a vigil as a time for listening to and savoring selected portions of the Word of God in preparation for a great celebration. And we can well imagine that the Saturday-afternoon Mass-going clientele would be taken aback by a longer-than-usual Mass on the eve of Pentecost. But we must try.

The Vigil of Pentecost can, in fact, be far more than what we find in the Lectionary. In recent years, I have presented here an excerpt from the USCCB Committee on Divine Worship Newsletter, Vol. XLV, June 2009. These directions have now been incorporated into the Supplement to the Lectionary.

“On January 16, 1988, the Congregation for Divine Worship issued Paschale Solemnitatis, the Circular Letter Concerning the Preparation and Celebration of the Easter Feasts. For the Vigil of Pentecost, number 107 of that Letter encourages ‘the prolonged celebration of Mass in the form of a Vigil, whose character is not baptismal as in the Easter Vigil, but is one of urgent prayer, after the example of the apostles and disciples, who persevered together in prayer with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, as they awaited the Holy Spirit.’ “

“The four Old Testament readings (Genesis 11: 1-9, Exodus 19: 3-8, 16-20b, Ezekiel 37: 1-14, and Joel 3: 1-5) found in the Lectionary for Mass for the Pentecost Vigil, with their responsorial psalms (Psalm 33: 10-15, Daniel 3: 52-56, Psalm 107: 2-9, and Psalm 104: 1-2a, 24 and 35c, 27-28, 29bc-30) follow. (In lieu of each responsorial psalm, a period of sacred silence may be observed.) After each psalm or period of silence, all rise and the priest sings or says a prayer. … (Instrumentalists and cantors may find the first three responsorial psalms at the following places in the Lectionary: Psalm 33: 10-15 – volume II, no. 339; Daniel 3: 52-55 – volume I, no. 164A, and Psalm 107: 2-9 – volume III, no. 423. The fourth psalm [Ps 104] is found immediately after the fourth reading [Joel 3: 1-5] in volume I, no. 62.)

“After the fourth reading, psalm, and prayer, the priest (or cantor) begins the Gloria. After the Gloria, the priest says the Opening Prayer for the Pentecost Vigil. The Epistle (Romans 8: 22-27) is then read, followed by the Alleluia and Gospel (John 7: 37-39), and the Mass continues as usual. …”

“For the Concluding Rites, the Solemn Blessing for Pentecost may be used, following the normal rubrics. Finally, the double alleluia is used at the Dismissal.”

The Genesis passage, on the Tower of Babel, presents something which may be understood as having been undone in the Pentecost event. I long wondered what the “sin” of these people was, which merited the confusion of their languages. I came to understand that they trusted too highly in the act of “making a name for themselves.” Instead of making a name for ourselves, God’s people are to call on the name of God, so as to have the protection of the goodness expressed in the divine name. “Confusion of languages” is, for all of us, a common experience. Even if we believe we are speaking the same idiom with our co-workers, we can easily find ourselves in states of misunderstanding. If our aim is, not to collaborate but instead to use a work situation to dominate the rest, we have, instead of collaboration, a process in which people try to glorify themselves and denigrate others. The Pentecost event found people speaking their own language yet being understood by people of all languages. This is a breakthrough which we earnestly seek when we are confused or oppressed. The Exodus passage includes the popular image of God’s bearing up the people “on eagle wings.” For the most part, this reading concentrates upon the theophany at Mount Sinai, with its forbidding images and sounds. Very shortly in this narrative, Moses will bring down from the mountain the Ten Commandments. We find here a mixture of clarity (the written law) and confusion (the sights and sounds — a foreshadowing of the Pentecost-event — seeming to have no meaning beyond making the “beloved” people feel very small). The Ezekiel passage is the eerie vision of the field of dry bones, and God’s act of bringing life into them. The emphasis is upon the bones’ need for “spirit” which will give them vitality. The passage from the prophet Joel brings forward the images of “blood, fire, and columns of smoke” as people of various ages find in themselves an ability to prophesy. Joel also gives an assurance about “survivors” and a “remnant” in Jerusalem. Romans 8 is a most beautiful expression of the fact that, quite often, prayer must take the form of groaning, and that we can trust in the Holy Spirit, who groans with us. The brief Gospel comes from a relatively obscure liturgical time. The “feast” referred to is the relatively new (for Jesus’ time) solemnizing of the anniversary of the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple (Hanukkah). This proclamation of Jesus, “Come to me and drink,” refers to Jesus as the source of life. John also links these words with the eventual outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

May 31, 2020
(End of Civil Week 22)
Pentecost Sunday
Acts 2: 1-11/ Ps 104: 1. 24. 29-30. 31. 34/ 1 Cor 12: 3b-7. 12-13/ Sequence Veni Sancte Spiritus/ Jn 20: 19-23

The Day of Pentecost always begins with the account from Acts 2 of the foundational experience of Peter and those gathered with him: how a noise like that of a great wind was felt inside the room in which they were shut up, how the “tongues as of fire” descended upon them, and how the followers of Jesus were understood by the foreigners gathered in Jerusalem. The psalm is 104. This year, A, we have First Corinthians 12 on the various gifts of the one Spirit, and John 20, Jesus’ breathing upon perhaps ten of the Twelve. The sequence is mandatory and is preferably sung; liturgical publishers offer numerous musical settings of this sequence.

Saint Paul’s “analogy of the body” is stunning in its simplicity and ease of understanding. The passage offered today is rather stingy in its exposition of the analogy. We hear the analogy in its fullness in Year C, Third Sunday in Ordinary Time. We could certainly expand on the few verses given today. Indeed, reflection on human bodies and their various parts and functions can go a long way toward anchoring the concept of the Holy Spirit in material realities with which we are unavoidably familiar, since we carry our bodies with us everywhere and have a hard time escaping them.

Over many years in parishes, I have had the experience of knowing many people who have a hard time believing in themselves as effective Christians. So many people seem to compare themselves unfavorably against the example of their priest. There may be an issue with the priest’s seeming ease with talking about the fundamentals of a relationship with Jesus. When it is a consideration of being aware of the stages of one’s own religious conversion, people who seek the needed words for expressing their own religious experience may be at a disadvantage over against the priest’s vocabulary of the movements of the soul. The priest’s experience of conversion, however, is every bit as singular as anyone else’s experience. It should be obvious that all Christians gain from the sharing of our experiences of conversion. Those who are theologically trained have a responsibility to those in our care to help them find the words needed for expressing their own experience of conversion and to find personal confidence in the genuineness of their own religious journey.

The Acts passage, of course, is fundamental to the self-understanding of Christians. The nucleus of the Christian faith was this gathering of people who shared with one another their strange experience of the execution and the resurrection of Jesus. They were instructed by their Master to wait for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Over centuries of reflection, of course, we came to understand that the Spirit knits together the People of God as the Body of Christ. The Pentecost event, however, does not elicit analogies such as “knitting.” It is more like an explosion. A driving wind and tongues of flame allude to immediate transformation. When Peter speaks, his words drill into his hearers in a reversal of the confusion of Babel.

The opening formula of the Acts passage alludes to “the fullness of time,” an expression used elsewhere in the New Testament as an aspect of a pivotal salvific event (see especially Galatians 4: 4). The significance of the Jewish feast of Pentecost, originally an agrarian feast observed fifty days after Passover, seems to be that it had become associated with the commemoration of Moses’ reception of the Commandments on Mount Sinai. The reception of the law was a foundational event for the people of Israel, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was likewise foundational for the Christian people. Fire and wind may be understood as alluding to the theophany of Mount Sinai. Jesus’ ascension may even be associated with the mountain “ascension” of Moses. The description of tongues “as if of fire” stresses that the writer is seeking to use exterior images for the sake of affirming the reality of the profound interior experiences of those gathered in the upper room. It may be that Luke, reporting on an early “gift of tongues,” is seeking to address objections that such a gift is a habit of speaking words which no one understands. The details of people of every language hearing Peter in their own idiom provide an emphasis on the truly universal mission of the Church — which is not demonstrated when people engage in idiosyncratic speech. The Jews of various nations give witness to something truly foundational and universal taking place.

The Gospel is the opening of the passage used every year on the Second Sunday of Easter, when ten of the Twelve (minus Judas and Thomas) are gathered in the upper room following Jesus’ burial. (There could have been other disciples present as well.) This is the very day of resurrection. Jesus shows his crucifixion wounds to those gathered. He then confers his mission upon them and breathes on them, imparting the Holy Spirit. This narrative, of course, bolsters the idea that the Easter and Pentecost experiences were one and the same; this, indeed, is John’s emphasis. Jesus’ words about forgiveness of sins have traditionally been interpreted as signifying the institution of the sacrament of forgiveness.