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Friday, November 29, 2019

Se quedó - 1st Sunday of Advent

Note: For the season of Advent and Christmas, these reflections will focus on the Virgin Mary rather than the weekly Gospel. 

In Ohio, one of my closest friends had six children. I was once charged with getting Frances, the 2-year-old, to sleep. I sung the “Itsy Bitsy Spider” while she rested on my shoulder. As I finished, a smile spread across her face. “Again!” she screamed delightedly. I obeyed, but got the same response: “again!” And so on I went several more times, singing more and more softly. Each time, the same response. “Again! Again!” It didn’t put her to sleep — it’s never that easy — but, with each one, she got a little less giggly and her eyes got a bit more heavy. She’d begun to settle into the comfort of the song. Indeed, its warmth and constancy — “again!” — was part of what made it comforting. 

It’s an odd way to start a reflection on Mary — by recalling a child lulling off toward sleep. But Frances did teach me something about Mary and why Catholics cling to her. The theologian Roberto Goizueta tells a story about an old Mexican abuelita who was once challenged to defend her devotion to Mary. [1] “Why do you love her so?” After a moment, she replied: “Se quedó. Se quedó ― She stayed. She stayed.” Maybe that’s an odd response, but I think Frances taught me what that abuelita meant by it. Above all, in the song, Frances wanted someone to be with her, to be near her ― she wanted someone to stay. “Again! Again! Don’t leave!”  

In the spiritual life, Catholics — the abuelita included — have always sensed that Mary stays, that she is near to us. Catholic life, of course, is decked out with Mary. We name churches after her, put up statues, sing songs about her. She’s with us in her picture hanging on our walls, in tangled up rosaries the children have strewn about our rooms, in the tattooes painted across our arms. 

But it’s not just because we’ve decided to honor her that Mary’s name has stuck around. Mary, too, has decided to stay. Again and again, she’s appeared to the faithful across the world ― Fatima, Lourdes, Guadalupe, Kibeho, Akita ― often dressed and looking like the people to whom she’s appeared. That is part of what makes Mary, Mary. She has a motherly instinct, an ability to be there 

And it’s not just that Mary is always there. Even when the going gets tough, Mary stays. Catholics know that, in times of anguish, Mary’s presence is often most keenly felt. It’s worth noticing, for instance, that when Mary has appeared, it’s often been to those who are poor or alienated, or to children. And the fact of the matter is that we are all poor, anxious, and hurting. But Catholics have always sensed that, no matter what, Mary is with us. She is with us when we beg for God’s help, with us when we weep or angrily tell God how we really feel, with us when we just can’t go on. In those times, “se quedó, se quedó ― she stayed, she stayed.” She is an ever-present reality, a motherly reminder that God is still at work in the world and in our lives. 

It is this constancy that marks Catholic devotedness to Mary, the constancy of this reminder that God himself draws near to us in our pain. This is the constancy that we all crave. It is the constancy that Frances craved as I sang to her ― the assurance that someone would be near her, that someone would stay. Indeed, Frances understands why Catholics embrace the constancy and repetition of Mary’s rosary, why, as soon as we finish ― “now and at the hour of our death” ― we start (“again!”) at once: “Hail, Mary!” [2] It is a reminder that Mary is always among us ― that she is always there to hail and to greet ― that she stayed and that she will always stay.


[1] Roberto S. Goizueta, Christ Our Companion (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2009): 11.
[2] See Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Threefold Garland (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1985), 23 for a similar way of thinking about the rosary's use of the Hail Mary, but from a different theological angle.

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Friday, November 22, 2019

On the Feast of Christ the King

Luke 23:35-43
The rulers sneered at Jesus and said,
"He saved others, let him save himself
if he is the chosen one, the Christ of God."
Even the soldiers jeered at him.
As they approached to offer him wine they called out,
"If you are King of the Jews, save yourself."
Above him there was an inscription that read,
"This is the King of the Jews."

Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying,
"Are you not the Christ?
Save yourself and us."
The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply,
"Have you no fear of God,
for you are subject to the same condemnation?
And indeed, we have been condemned justly,
for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes,
but this man has done nothing criminal."
Then he said,
"Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."
He replied to him,
"Amen, I say to you,
today you will be with me in Paradise."


On the Feast of Christ of King

At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus was taken by Satan to a mountain and shown “all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them.” “All these I will give you,” Satan said. But it didn’t work. “Begone, Satan!” (Mt 4:8-10) 

The word Jesus said to Satan ― “begone!” ― in Greek is “hypage.” Jesus said that exact same phrase, “hypage, Satan!” just one more time in his life. It was when he explained to the disciples that he must go to Jerusalem to be killed. Peter rebuked him: “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” The text says Jesus then “turned on” Peter: “hypage, Satan!” It’s often translated as “get behind me, Satan!” (Mt 16:21-23)

This is startling. Jesus has linked Peter’s words of concern with the devil’s temptation. How is that fair? How could they possibly be related? One way of thinking about it is in light of this week’s feast day; it has to do with the way in which Jesus desires to be king. How so?

Recall that Satan offered Jesus “all the kingdoms of this world.” He refused. Think about that! Wouldn’t it be desirable to have Jesus as the head of every world government? Wouldn’t we want his justice to be the law of every land? But Jesus outrightly rejected this kind of earthly political kingdom: “my kingdom is not of this world,” he told Pontius Pilate (Jn 18:36). He is not interested in obtaining “the things that are Caesar’s” (Mt 22:21).

Peter’s rebuke of Jesus ― “God forbid [you should go to Jerusalem and be killed!]” ― was not a call for some glorious political kingdom. But it’s similar to Satan’s temptation insofar as Peter wanted to limit Jesus’ mission to something occuring merely within this world. Peter very sincerely wanted Jesus not to suffer and die but to live a long and healthy life. He wanted his teachings and the community around Jesus to flourish. It’s hard not to sympathize. But Jesus’ forceful response highlights that his mission was not to establish a merely earthly community. His mission was to die and, somehow, by dying, bring that earthly community to heaven.

The temptation of Satan and Peter reappears in this week’s Gospel in the words of those standing by as Jesus is crucified. “If you are King of the Jews,” the soldiers taunt him, “save yourself!” They are looking for a king ― even one with supernatural power ― who can dissolve the tyranny around him and prove his worth by coming down from a cross. What kind of king suffers at the hands of his enemies? One of the criminals even “reviled” him: “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and save us!”

This is the last and hardest temptation, the temptation to create a kingdom without suffering. It is a temptation we face too. We also wonder what Jesus is doing about our suffering. Shouldn’t the king of the universe prevent and take away the world’s agonies? Shouldn’t the Christ relieve our pains? “Aren’t you supposed to be Christ the King?! Save yourself and save us!” 

But Jesus’ kingdom is not free from earthly suffering, neither for us nor for him. Instead, Jesus reveals his kingship precisely by suffering. He is among his people in their agony. Our king is anxious like we are. He is heartbroken, wounded, and ailing like we are. He weeps for his dead friends like we do. Above all, he dies and is buried as we will be. The king of the universe has not decided to redeem us from a distance. He is in the fray. That is how Christ is king. He is a king who is with us, among us, and alongside us through his own suffering, agonizing, and dying. 

But if Jesus is king in his agonizing alongside us, he is king, too, when he assures us that our suffering and dying is not the last word. He has gone to the very bottom of our existence and, by rising from it — by rising from death — given us new reason to hope. For we know now, as Saint Paul said, that “if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom 6:5). 

Christ is king. His throne is a cross. In God’s kingdom, earthly suffering has not been banished, but is precisely that which makes us most like Jesus, that which makes us most like God. Christ is king because he transforms our suffering into glory. “Jesus,” the Good Thief implored amidst his own agony, “remember me when you come into your kingdom.” It would be three days until Jesus did that. Yet he assures the thief that his pain is already a participation in that kingdom: today you will be with me in Paradise.”

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Friday, November 15, 2019

“A wisdom in speaking” - 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Luke 21:5-19
While some people were speaking about
how the temple was adorned with costly stones and votive offerings,
Jesus said, "All that you see here--
the days will come when there will not be left
a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down."
Then they asked him,
"Teacher, when will this happen?
And what sign will there be when all these things are about to happen?"
He answered,
"See that you not be deceived,
for many will come in my name, saying,
'I am he,' and 'The time has come.'
Do not follow them!
When you hear of wars and insurrections,
do not be terrified; for such things must happen first,
but it will not immediately be the end."
Then he said to them,
"Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.
There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues
from place to place;
and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky.
"Before all this happens, however,
they will seize and persecute you,
they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons,
and they will have you led before kings and governors
because of my name.
It will lead to your giving testimony.
Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand,
for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking
that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute.
You will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends,
and they will put some of you to death.
You will be hated by all because of my name,
but not a hair on your head will be destroyed.
By your perseverance you will secure your lives."


The liturgical year is ending. In two Sundays we’ll begin Advent, the start of a new Church year. Next week, for the final Sunday of “Ordinary Time,” we’ll mark the feast of Christ the King. Obviously, next week’s Gospel reading will draw our attention to the way Jesus is king of the universe. But this week’s Gospel also tells us something about Christ’s kingship. Jesus’ somewhat cryptic words this week about the end of the world and the way Christians should respond to persecution tell us not so much about the king himself, though, but about his kingdom. How so?

One thing we should notice about Jesus’ description of the world’s dysfunction is how often it utilizes “kingdoms” and “nations” and the clashes between them: “Nation will rise against nation,” Jesus says, “and kingdom against kingdom.” Or again: “they will have you led before kings and governors.” Or again: “when you hear of wars and insurrections….” Jesus depicts the kingdoms of the world as fundamentally chaotic. 

Let’s now juxtapose these kingdoms with the kingdom Jesus has been introducing to his disciples. Indeed, we should not forget what Jesus has been doing with his ministry up until now: he’s been describing to his disciples a certain way of life, and he always describes it as a kingdom. “The kingdom of God has come near to you,” Jesus says, summarizing for the disciples the message they should spread (Lk 10:9). Notice, too, how Jesus begins many of his parables: “the kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed,” or it’s like “leaven,” or it’s like “a mustard seed” (Mt 13:24, 33, 31). The parables are an attempt to illustrate what life in this mysterious kingdom is like. 

So what, then, is life in this kingdom like? “Blessed are you poor,” Jesus says “for yours is the kingdom of God (Lk 6:20). The kingdom Jesus describes belongs not to the smartest, healthiest, or most well-off but to those who have been beaten by this world. It belongs to those “who hunger,” those “who weep,” and those “who are hated, excluded, and reviled” (Lk 6:21-23). He says that banquets in his kingdom are not held for “your wealthy neighbors,” but for “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (Lk 14:12-13). On five different occasions Jesus insisted that, in his kingdom, “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” Those who our world deems least significant, Jesus privileges with an elite status. 

It is a strange kingdom with strange laws. Indeed, it is illegal in Jesus’ kingdom not to be merciful. How different from the logic we’re accustomed to: You have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say … if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Mt 5:38-39).

Other kingdoms do not think this way. This is why they rise against each other, and even against Jesus’ kingdom. Jesus insists this week that the kingdom of God should not engage the kingdoms of this world by giving in to their logic. When you are confronted, he says, “do not prepare a defense!” There’s no need. Being a citizen of his kingdom will make you fluent in a certain language. It will give you “a wisdom in speaking that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist.” This is the language of his kingdom, and its citizens know it well. It is the language of the beatitudes, the language of “meekness” and of “peacemaking.” It is the language of “purity in heart” and of “thirsting after righteousness” (Mt 5:3-11).

It is a strange kingdom that God has given us, with strange laws, and strange ways, and a strange language. It is certainly strange when compared to the kingdoms around us. But it is with this strange language that the kingdom of God gives testimony to the dysfunctional kingdoms of the world. It is the testimony that God’s kingdom is for the “poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind,” that mercy is the law of the land, and that righteousness is worth thirsting for. We are, indeed, a strange people. But this is the testimony the Spirit gives us when we are confronted by the world’s kingdoms. And this is the testimony that assures us, even should we be killed, that “not a hair on [our] heads will be destroyed.”

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Friday, November 8, 2019

"Not the God of the dead" - 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Luke 20:27-38
Some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection,
came forward and put this question to Jesus, saying,
"Teacher, Moses wrote for us,
If someone's brother dies leaving a wife but no child,
his brother must take the wife
and raise up descendants for his brother.

Now there were seven brothers;
the first married a woman but died childless.
Then the second and the third married her,
and likewise all the seven died childless.
Finally the woman also died.
Now at the resurrection whose wife will that woman be?
For all seven had been married to her."
Jesus said to them,
"The children of this age marry and remarry;
but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age
and to the resurrection of the dead
neither marry nor are given in marriage.
They can no longer die,
for they are like angels;
and they are the children of God
because they are the ones who will rise.
That the dead will rise
even Moses made known in the passage about the bush,
when he called out 'Lord,'
the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob;
and he is not God of the dead, but of the living,
for to him all are alive."


Since chapter 9 of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has been travelling toward Jerusalem in order to die. Over the last several weeks, our readings have recounted his stops along the way and the parables he offers to those journeying with him. In chapter 19 ― just before this week’s reading ― Jesus arrives at the “Mount of Olives” which offers a spectacular view of Jerusalem below. Jesus’ emotion at the view is astonishing: “When he drew near and saw the city he wept over it.” Imagine the Son of God kneeling in the dirt weeping. Jesus suddenly addresses Jerusalem directly: “Would that … you knew the things that make for peace!” (Lk 19:41).

Jesus’ raises a difficult question here. What are “the things that make for peace”? Oddly enough, when Jesus enters Jerusalem moments later, his initial preoccupation is to teach people about true peace. His central point is that true peace cannot be given by this world. Indeed, he exposes the political motivations of the chief priests (Lk 20:1-8). He disputes with the scribes about what belongs to Caesar and to God (Lk 20:19-26). And then, though it might not seem like it, Jesus’ interaction this week with the Sadducees brings this lesson about true peace to a head. How so?

We must see, first, that Sadducees are similar to Pharisees. They represent a school of thought within Judaism. One thing that makes them unique is that they “deny that there is a resurrection.” Though they believe in God, they don’t believe in an afterlife. Jesus actually responds directly to this position. He asks the Sadducees to recall an important passage from the Old Testament when God identified himself to Moses as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Ex 3:6). His point is this: when God said this, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were all dead. How could God still, at that moment, have been the God of these three dead men if human beings ceased to exist upon dying? “He is not the God of the dead,” Jesus insists, “but of the living.” These men must somehow have been living even after their deaths. There must be an afterlife.

This is more than theological squabbling. This is actually the heart of what Jesus was weeping about above Jerusalem: “would that you knew the things that make for peace!” If the Sadducees are right ― if there is no afterlife ― then people will limit their search for peace to the things of this world. How quickly we’ll place our hopes in political gain like the chief priests or give ourselves up to financial concerns like the scribes. If you don’t believe in the next world, it’s much easier to live by the logic of this broken world. But these things cannot bring lasting peace. Indeed, even the good in this world cannot give us the truest peace. This world is filled with sunsets, and smiling children, and the joy of loving and of being loved. But is there anything more devastating than the idea of never getting to meet God? 

The Gospels record just two moments when Jesus shed tears. The first is when he learned his friend Lazarus had died (Jn 11:35). And then there is this time, the time he looked over Jerusalem while journeying there to die himself. On both occasions, he wept over the same thing: humanity’s distance from God. “If you had been here,” Lazarus’ sister tells Jesus, “my brother would not have died” (Jn 11:32). Jesus wept because his friend was dead, because there was now a distance between him and Lazarus. It is the same as he looks down upon Jerusalem from the mountain. The people he sees are living as if their peace comes from the accomplishments of this world, as if they will never meet God, as if the distance is permanent. This is why Jesus weeps. This is why Jesus disputes with the Sadducees ― to insist that death does not mean distance from God, but being placed in his arms forever. Above all, this is why Jesus journeys to Jerusalem and to his own death ― so that, by redeeming us, there may never be a distance between us and him again.

Friday, November 1, 2019

"I must stay at your house" - 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Luke 19:1-10
At that time, Jesus came to Jericho and intended to pass through the town.
Now a man there named Zacchaeus,
who was a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man,
was seeking to see who Jesus was;
but he could not see him because of the crowd,
for he was short in stature.
So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus,
who was about to pass that way.
When he reached the place, Jesus looked up and said,
"Zacchaeus, come down quickly,
for today I must stay at your house."
And he came down quickly and received him with joy.
When they all saw this, they began to grumble, saying,
"He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner."
But Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord,
"Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor,
and if I have extorted anything from anyone
I shall repay it four times over."
And Jesus said to him,
"Today salvation has come to this house
because this man too is a descendant of Abraham.
For the Son of Man has come to seek
and to save what was lost."


Though our Sunday lectionary readings skip the passage, just before this scene with Zacchaeus, Jesus famously told a rich man that if he wished to be saved, he must sell all he had and follow him (Lk 18:18-30). The crowds marveled at Jesus’ words: “who then can be saved?” Jesus immediately proceeded to answer their question, not with words, but by showing them the kind of people who can be saved. Indeed, in the next scene Jesus asks that a blind beggar be brought to him. “Your faith has made you well,” Jesus tells him. And, unlike the rich man, the text says that “immediately … he followed him.” Here, then, is a man “who can be saved” (Lk 18:35-43). 

It is the same with Zacchaeus in our Gospel reading for this week. Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus occurs right after his encounter with the blind beggar and is meant as another answer to the disciples’ question. But how is this so? The text says Zacchaeus is a “chief tax collector” and, as we know, tax collectors are notorious sinners ― they typically cheated people out of extra money for their own gain. So what is it about Zacchaeus that makes him the type of man who will be saved?  We might think it’s simply because Zacchaeus repents upon encountering Jesus: “half my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.” This is definitely part of the story, but there is something even more fundamental at work.

Notice that the text describes Zacchaeus as “a wealthy man, [who] was seeking to see who Jesus was. Notice, too, what Jesus says to Zacchaeus after their interaction: “Today salvation has come to this house ... for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost. At the beginning, we were led to believe this was a story about Zacchaeus’ seeking after Jesus. But it is really a story about Jesus seeking after Zacchaeus. Indeed, it is in this reversal that Jesus most reveals his answer to the disciples’ original question.

It might be the case that you are searching for the Lord, that you are seeking to know him better each day. But much more frantically does the Lord seek after you. It might be the case that ― like Zacchaeus ― you’ll climb a tree just to get a look at him. But he will insist you “come down quickly.” And look at the language he uses: “I must stay at your house.” He simply must. It’s as if Jesus has so fiercely sought you out that missing the chance to stay with you ― to just be with you ― would mean he missed everything.

Indeed, this is the grand answer to the disciples’ original question ―  “who then can be saved?” By our own initiative, no one can be saved. If it were up to men and women to seek out and finally arrive at God, they would all fall short. We would end up corrupt like Zacchaeus the tax collector. But Jesus will not let that be the last word. With Jesus, what is most important is not our weakness, but his desire to save you and to be with you. “I simply must stay at your house,” he says. “I simply must draw near and be with you.” Jesus knows that we are weak, that we are corrupt, and that our houses are unkempt, so to speak. But he simply must stay there. That is how Zacchaeus can be transformed. That is how anyone can be transformed. 

We are saved because God so desperately wants to be with us and near us that he will not stop seeking us out. Indeed, the story of your life is not the story of your seeking after God; it is the story of God seeking after you. This is what drives Zacchaeus’ repentance and transformation. And today, “salvation has come to [your] house” ― because he must stay with you, he must be near you ― “for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”

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