Saturday, September 3, 2011

Breaking the Sabbath

Jesus regularly broke the Sabbath, and we wonder why.  He was an observant Jew. He wanted to fulfill the law, not destroy it or supplant it.  Why then would he allow his disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath?  The answer seems almost too simple.  The Pharisees were not interested in the observance of the law, but in catching Jesus in opposition to it.  If they could demonstrate that Jesus had no respect for the law, they would win the battle for power and honor. Like so many of us, they wanted to win, they wanted to be right.

Jewish law about the Sabbath, although strict, was not rigid then or now. Mati Goldstein, commander of the Jewish rescue-mission to 2010 Haiti earthquake, said, “We did everything to save lives, despite Shabbat . People asked, ‘Why are you here? There are no Jews here,’ but we are here because the Torah orders us to save lives…We are desecrating Shabbat with pride…” 

Clearly, Jews today and the Pharisees of Jesus’ time, knew that the law commanded them to help save lives. Jesus also knew this and challenged the Pharisees with an interpretation of the law that they would have known. His disciples were hungry. They did not want to break the law; they wanted to allay their hunger.

Helping those in need, even our enemies, is a constant theme in the New Testament. How many times have we heard the 25th chapter of Matthew’s gospel:  “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me…. whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”  There is nothing in this passage that suggests a believer should avoid feeding the hungry or clothing the naked on the Sabbath.  Justice and charity trump the law. Jesus knew this as an observant Jew, and we know our obligations as Christians.  The hungry cannot wait for Sabbath to be over to find food for themselves or their children. We must help them now.

Friday, September 2, 2011

New Wineskins

“The old is good.” Lk 5:39
A couple of weeks ago about sixty of us gathered for our 50th high school reunion. Almost as soon as we arrived, we found ourselves talking about the “old days." Looking at old photographs, we remembered names we hadn't spoken in decades and reveled in what used to be.  It was fun, warming and satisfying, but I know it is not the way to live each day.  Sometimes when we older friars gather we forget that there are young men with us who have heard our stories a thousand times, and who, very frankly, are bored with us. Perhaps it is because we not just remembering the past, we seem to be stuck in it.

Jesus warns us about this in today’s gospel.  For some of his Jewish clansmen and family there is a resistance to the “new” word that Jesus is announcing.  Satisfied, or at least comfortable with what they know of God and God’s revelation to Israel, they do not want to hear anything that might suggest something was lacking in their own faith.  But Jesus insists that one can’t pour old wine into new wineskins, otherwise the wineskins will burst and all the wine will be lost.

Nevertheless, we need to be careful reading this text.  A subtle anti-Semitism can creep into our thinking with toxic results. Jesus is not rejecting the Old Law and his Jewish heritage. After all, he insists that “not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place.” (Mt 5:18) Rather, Jesus is announcing that he is the hesed of God, the fullness of God’s conditional love for all; God’s loving kindness and mercy. And more to the point of this reflection, Jesus does not want us to be trapped in our understanding of him either. 

The old is good, we say, sometimes about our understanding of the Lord, our church, our catholic teaching.  While all of this might be true, we have also to ready ourselves for new insights, new interpretations and a new richness that comes like a gift to those who open themselves to the unconditional love of God. Every interpretation, every insight has one purpose, to put God at the center of our consciousness. As Jesus continually reminds us, his purpose on earth is to reveal his Father’s love for all. If that means he must die, so be it.  Death is a small price to pay for the salvation of the world.  While we don’t want to glorify suffering for suffering’s sake, sometimes suffering is the direct result of telling the truth. 

And the truth is this. Unless the world knows that Jesus is the Son of God who goes before us to prepare a place for us with his Father, his mission is a failure.  So too is ours.  Unless our lives, always ready to embrace whatever helps the world to know God more fully, reveal the fullness of God’s love, we fail in the mission Jesus handed on to us. Christ is given to us, not simply for our own salvation, but for the salvation of the world.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

From Darkness to Light

He delivered us from the power of darkness. Col 1:13

Often it helps to know something about the background and setting for the scriptures.  Paul’s letter to the Colossians, like most of his letters and instructions, is responding to a particular difficulty that arose in the  nascent church of Colossae. Apparently, some new converts, anxious to help the people of Colossae understand the gospel and its relationship to older religious practices, began to emphasize the universe and angels, as well as  dietary laws and ascetical practices. Paul’s disciple Epaphras, who came from Colossae, unsure of how to respond to these newer converts and their teaching, asks Paul for his wisdom. And Paul is clear. While the universe, angels, and ascetical practices all will have their place in an authentic gospel life, Christ must be at the center of the mystery of faith.

There is a wonderful lesson here for us.  At times, anxious to become attractive to a new generation of young people or to compete with other denominations or religions, we can hear ourselves strategizing about how to “get them into church.”  We change the music, use videos, add liturgical dance, and ask the young to serve as ministers of the word and Eucharist.  While all of these adaptations might be good and helpful, if they only get the young to come to church, they are not enough.  A gospel life, while concerned with discipline and Sunday worship, must be rooted in the mystery of Christ and his call to total transformation of life.  Paul wanted the people of Colossae to understand this and it remains a good lesson for us. The practices and disciplines of the church like fasting and Sunday Eucharist have only one purpose: they are to help us remember in whom we are rooted, the Christ of God who has promised to be with us and guide us all days, even to the end of time.

Come to think of it, Paul’s wisdom can get us praying about many issues that impact our everyday lives. When have we found ourselves insisting rigidly about an opinion we hold or an interpretation of Catholic teaching and forget the person standing in front of us?  Have we been so concerned with being right, that we let our pride get in the way of our relationships in Christ?  Christ wants to deliver us "from the power of darkness”, but we have to make ourselves available to him.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011


August 31, 2011

And she (Peter’s mother in law) got up immediately and began to wait on them. Lk 4:39

Today marks the completion of 50 years of Capuchin life for me.  It hardly seems possible. 50 years ago, after a silent 8 day retreat (no easy task for me), I was clothed in the Capuchin habit with more than two dozen other frightened young men.  It was an amazing day and its memory brings me to a point of deep gratitude. When I entered the Capuchins I could never have imagined the wonderful friars I would meet and live with, the education I would receive, and the opportunity to meet, teach and serve people from so many different cultures and countries. Though not without its struggles, Capuchin life has been a great gift!

It is these rich memories that make me stop and pray in gratitude with Peter’s mother in law whose story is told in today’s gospel.  When Jesus heals Peter’s mother in law she gets up immediately and waits on all those assembled.  The immediacy of her response is what most impresses me. She doesn’t hesitate at all or ask to rest, something that would seem perfectly natural after a severe fever. Anyone who has suffered with a high fever knows how tired one can be when the fever passes. But, then again, perhaps that was part of the miracle. Not only was she freed of fever, she got her strength back.  In the light of God’s goodness to me, and conscious of how often God has forgiven me, I hope that I will always want to serve others immediately like Peter’s mother in law.

Service is a hallmark of the Christian life and completes it. Service of others, especially of those most in need, is a sign to the world that we have heard the good news and want to live it. Service is an act of gratitude.  Aware of how good God is, how God has changed our lives by accompanying us in all things, we acknowledge that words, even the Word of God, without action is empty.  God’s love transforms us and compels us to go out in God’s name as servants.  Jesus was clear about this just before he died. When he commanded his disciples to, “Do this in memory of me,” he was not only referring to the breaking of the Eucharist bread, but the washing of one another's feet. Today I want to offer a prayer for all those who taught me the gospel by washing my feet and all those who have allowed me to wash their feet in memory of Jesus. I invite you to do the same.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


“Surrender to God and he will do everything for you.”

Today’s text is an antiphon from the office of readings which caught my spirit very early this morning.  Because of the power outage in Connecticut, we are operating with one generator that allows our refrigerator to work, and one light in the middle of the dining room table.  The light is connected to a power strip which also allows the friars to recharge their cell phones. 

Honestly, we don’t need much more than what we have. We are fine.  No lights or internet access in our rooms or offices. No phones. No big coffee pot going. But we do have a gas stove that allows us to cook.  Again. We have enough, but like everyone else in most of the world, we have become dependent on electricity for so much of what we do, that we walk around a bit frazzled and anxious, scanning the local paper in the morning to see if our neighborhood will soon be back on line.

“Surrender to God and he will do everything for you.”  Really.  Everything?  What can “surrender” mean in this case?  It is a difficult enough word in ordinary times, not something we are inclined to do on a daily basis in a society so committed to individual rights. We have become, I fear, an entitled society.  We pay our taxes and bills and expect perfect service from the government and our utility companies. Sometimes we wonder out loud: Why can’t the power company tell us exactly when our electricity will be turned on again?

Furthermore, I cannot imagine what it must be like for the people answering the phones at the utility companies in the aftermath of a hurricane. No doubt they put up with large amounts of verbal abuse simply because they are the bearers of bad news. Can you hear the stock and slightly disingenuous answer they've learned? “You will have your power as soon as possible. Hospitals and fire departments are receiving priority….”, a sentence or two that says does not answer your question, but which they hope will satisfy a few people.

Sometimes I feel this way when people ask me why their mother is suffering, why their marriage is failing, why they can’t find a job. The answer of course, though obvious, is difficult to offer, more difficult to hear.  “I don’t know, but I can promise you this.  God is with us. God will help us, but we have to surrender and it is never easy.” Surrendering as a spiritual discipline is a powerful challenge that demands we accept life on God’s terms.  Believing that God is always with us, even when we don't feel God's presence, and that God will protect and direct us offers us incalculable results. Peace of mind and heart, freedom from useless anxiety and hope in eternal life.
Try today to surrender to God in all things.  If this is a very new exercise for you, ask for the grace to do it today and see what happens.  Tomorrow will take of itself.