Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Walking on Water

Seeing the power of the command of Christ
Matthew 14:22-36 Jesus made the disciples get into a boat and precede him to the other side of the sea, while he dismissed the crowds. After doing so, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When it was evening he was there alone. Meanwhile the boat, already a few miles offshore, was being tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it. During the fourth watch of the night, he came toward them, walking on the sea. When the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified. “It is a ghost,” they said, and they cried out in fear. At once Jesus spoke to them, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter said to him in reply, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught him, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” After they got into the boat, the wind died down. Those who were in the boat did him homage, saying, “Truly, you are the Son of God.”
Today’s gospel from Matthew 14 and Peter’s walking on the water reminds me of an embarrassing episode when I was a teenager. I was on a retreat out in the country and there was a small lake nearby the retreat house. We had just heard an inspiring sermon on this passage about Peter walking on the water, even though he had “little faith.” I thought to myself, surely I have a “little faith” like Peter so perhaps I can walk on water, too. So, I decided to put my faith to the test (by the way, do not try this at home).
But I didn’t want to do it while anyone was around. Why? Well, I didn’t want to look as foolish as Peter when he sank in case my experiment didn’t work and I sank too. So, I stood on the shore of that little lake and made the most sincere and heartfelt act of faith my teenage soul could muster. I bravely stuck out my right foot and stepped on the water. Do you know what happened? My foot sank deep into the mud of that lake shore, and my shoe got stuck. I thought, oh well, at least it’ll make a good story someday when I need some sermon material, so it wasn’t a total loss.
Now, why was Peter able to walk on water and I wasn’t? And by the way, nor did the other 11 apostles, so I’m in good company. Well, I think it has to do with the command of Christ. Peter asked: “Lord if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus replied: “Come.” And notice when I was a teen, I did not ask Jesus to command me to walk on the water of that little lake. In other words, walking on water depends as much on deep faith as it does on the command of Christ. Only if Jesus wants you to walk on the water will you be able to walk on the water. Everything depends on the will of Christ, which is nothing other than the will of God. Apparently, Jesus did not want me to walk on the water, just like he did not want the other eleven apostles to walk on the water either.
But then why did Jesus want Peter in particular to walk on the water? I believe it’s because Jesus would give Peter a share in his ministry of shepherding the whole Church. Indeed, Peter, and his successors the popes, would be called the “vicar of Christ,” standing in the place of Christ himself. We find other examples of this shared shepherding in symbolic language throughout the New Testament. In Mt. 16, Jesus says Peter is the “rock,” and in Ephesians 2, St. Paul will insist that Jesus is the “cornerstone.” Notice the shared ministry. Again, in Mt. 16 Jesus says Peter is entrusted with the “keys,” while in Rev. 1:18, St. John beholds that Jesus continues to carry the “keys” of the netherworld. Again, shared roles and responsibilities.
So, today, Jesus walks on the waters of the deep and so does Peter. In Hebrew the word “tehom” described the primordial waters of Gen. 1:2 out of which God created the original heavens and the earth. So, now Christ inaugurates a new heavens and a new earth by walking on the waters of the deep, the tehom. And even more surprisingly he invites Peter to walk with him. But it cannot be emphasized enough that everything Peter does and everything Peter is depends on the command of Christ, that is, the will of God. Christ commands, Peter obeys.
But I am convinced that Peter’s walking on the water not only contains consequences for him but also for us, indeed, consequences for the whole world. Those consequences can be summarized in one question: where is the Church that Jesus established, that is, where is the initial installment of the new heavens and the new earth that augur the new creation? The answer is found in an ancient maxim in Latin, “ubi Petrus, ibi ecclesia” that is, “where there is Peter, there is the Church.” In other words, as long you stay close to Peter and his bark (his ship), you will be close to Christ and his Church. Our love, our respect, our obedience, and our prayers for Pope Francis, the 265th successor of St. Peter, is what distinguishes Catholicism from Protestantism and even Orthodox Christianity.
And why do we care so much about Peter and the popes? Because he was the one who got to walk on the waters of the deep, the tehom, and share in the shepherding ministry of Christ himself, not the other eleven apostles, and not me. And again, this was not because Peter was so personally perfect or great, or even because of his “little faith,” but because Christ commanded it as a manifestation of the will of God. You know, I knew that embarrassing episode from trying to walk on the water as a teenager would come in handy in a homily someday. A similarly embarrassing episode from Peter’s history came in handy for him, too.
Praised be Jesus Christ!

Born in 1900

Surviving hard times with fortitude and faith
Matthew 14:13-21 When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. The crowds heard of this and followed him on foot from their towns. When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples approached him and said, “This is a deserted place and it is already late; dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “There is no need for them to go away; give them some food yourselves.” But they said to him, “Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.” Then he said, “Bring them here to me,” and he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds. They all ate and were satisfied, and they picked up the fragments left over— twelve wicker baskets full. Those who ate were about five thousand men, not counting women and children.
I recently saw a powerful post on social media that provides a much needed perspective on this pandemic. It is called “Born in 1900.” Have you seen it? The anonymous author writes: “Imagine you were born in 1900. When you are 14, World War I starts, and ends on your 18th birthday with 22 million people killed. Later in the year, a Spanish Flu epidemic hits the planet and runs until you are 20. Fifty million people die from it in those two years. Yes, 50 million.” By the way, so far our current coronavirus pandemic has killed 681,000 people world-wide, compare that with 50 million. The author continues: “When you are 29 the Great Depression begins. Unemployment hits 25%, and global GDP drops 27%. That runs until you are 33. When you turn 39, World War II starts. You aren’t even over the hill yet. When you’re 41, the United States is fully pulled into WWII. Between your 39th and 45th birthday, 75 million people perish in the war, and the Jewish Holocaust kills 6 million.”
The author’s not done yet; he goes on: “At 50, the Korean War starts, and 5 million perish. At 55 the Vietnam War begins, and it doesn’t end for 20 years. Four million people die in that conflict. Approaching your 62nd birthday, you have the Cuban Missile Crisis, a tipping point in the Cold War. Life on our planet, as we know it, could well have ended. As you turn 75, the Vietnam War finally ends.” The author ends his essay explaining: “A kid in 1985 didn’t think their 85-year-old grandparents understood how hard school was.” And by the way, they call these elderly people the “vulnerable population.” They may be vulnerable in body but certainly not in spirit.
The scripture readings today talk about how to make it through hard times with fortitude and faith, kind of like the person “born in 1900,” that is, when we are feeling vulnerable. Isaiah 55 is the end of the second section of Isaiah commonly called “Deutero Isaiah” or “Second Isaiah,” chapters 40-55. It was composed during the Babylonian Exile when the people were beginning to lose hope of ever returning home, like many soldiers during the World Wars who died in foreign lands. Listen to Isaiah comfort the people: “All you who are thirsty, come to the water! You have no money, come, receive grain and eat; Come, without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk.” Notice the reference to “wine” and “grain,” which was a far off and faint foreshadowing of the wine and bread of the Eucharist. Isaiah didn’t promise the people a New Deal like FDR did in the Depression, but rather a new covenant, which would calm and console the people when they felt vulnerable.
In his remarkable letter to the Romans, St. Paul writes: “What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us.” Paul was encouraging the Christian community struggling to stay faithful in pagan Rome, where they were persecuted and put to death. Paul himself would be martyred there by beheading. But Paul knew that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians” and so eventually this “evil city” would become the “eternal city,” and the holy headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church. Like the blood of millions of soldiers brought peace and freedom after World Wars, so the blood of martyrs brought true peace and true freedom to Christians world-wide. Thus, Paul comforted the vulnerable.
Finally, in the gospel Jesus takes pity on the crowds who are sick and hungry. How does our Lord minister to them? We read: “Taking five loaves and two fish, and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds.” If you do a close analysis of the words Matthew employs at the multiplication of the loaves and fish, you discover he uses the exact same words at the Last Supper in Mt. 26: “take,” “bless,” “break,” and “give.” Do you know another instance when a priest takes Bread, blesses Bread, breaks Bread and gives Bread to people to eat? Of course you do: at every Mass. Last week the ladies counting the low collection asked me if I could multiply the money. I replied that my superpowers only work on Communion not on the collection. The Eucharist is how Jesus feeds and comforts the crowds yesterday, today, and forever.
My friends, how are you feeling during this pandemic? Some are feeling anxiety about going back to school. Others feel lonely and depressed stuck at home or in hospitals. Others feel frustration because people are not taking this seriously, and not wearing masks. Still others feel the financial strain from reduced hours or lost jobs. If we think we have it hard, perhaps we should ask our parents and grandparents, who have definitely seen darker days than these. Drink deeply from the fountain of their fortitude and faith. They may be vulnerable in body, while we are vulnerable in spirit.
And the best place to find peace in this pandemic is in the scriptures and the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, as today’s readings remind us. Come to the altar where the Lord takes, blesses, breaks and gives us the Bread of Eternal Life. Here we find the grain and wine that Isaiah prophesied to quench our deepest thirst. Here we feel like St. Paul that “we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us.” And while you’re here at Mass, you can also thank God you were not born in 1900.
Praised be Jesus Christ!

Back To School

Seeing how leaving home is necessary to finding home
Matthew 13:54-58 Jesus came to his native place and taught the people in their synagogue. They were astonished and said, “Where did this man get such wisdom and mighty deeds? Is he not the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother named Mary and his brothers James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas? Are not his sisters all with us? Where did this man get all this?” And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and in his own house.” And he did not work many mighty deeds there because of their lack of faith.
You have no doubt heard the old saying “familiarity breeds contempt.” That means sometimes we are so close to someone all we see are their defects and defeats, their problems and peculiarities. We lose sight of all their abilities, accomplishments and attributes. And notice, too, inside the word “familiarity” is hidden the word “family.” And therefore, the people we are most prone to feel contempt for are those living under the same roof. They are too close for comfort.
Could this be one reason why young people go away to college, and the farther away they can get the better? It’s not just that they are “going away” to some great college, but it’s just as much they are “getting away” from the irritations at home, where familiarity has bred contempt. Isn’t this a main motivation for kids and parents alike to want school to start again. We have all been stuck with each other since mid-March, and we’re driving each other crazy.
In the gospel of Matthew today, Jesus’ great “Parabolic Discourse” ends with his rejection at Nazareth, his hometown. Why? Well, because “familiarity breeds contempt,” especially when you are dealing with your own family. Notice why the people take offense at Jesus. The townspeople say: “Where did this man get such wisdom and mighty deeds?...Is he not the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother named Mary and his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Are not his sisters all with us?”
In other words, Jesus’ message and miracles were too close for comfort. Like in so many families, no matter what stage of history they live in, all Jesus’ relatives could catch was his ordinariness and plainness, familiarity has blinded them to his greatness. Like countless college kids, Jesus, too, had to leave home so people would appreciate his greatness and glory. Now that’s not because Jesus needed that distance, but rather because the people did.
July 30 is the feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the great founder of the Society of Jesus, and the author of the spiritual classic called “Spiritual Exercises,” or more commonly “Ignatian Spirituality.” In 1539 Ignatius, together with Peter Faber and Francis Xavier, formed the religious order called the Society of Jesus, or “Jesuits” for short. Their goal was twofold: (1) establish colleges and universities for higher learning, and (2) be missionaries to the farthest corners of the globe. And, in a sense, St. Ignatius is the patron saint of college kids who feel a burning desire to get out of their home and go as far away as possible to college. It’s as if the Jesuits are saying: if you have to get out of the house, where familiarity breeds contempt, at least come to a Catholic college, where people will appreciate your greatness and glory.
The mother church of the Jesuits is located in Rome, and I visited it many times while I was in Rome. It’s baroque architecture is breath-taking. It is called the “Church of the Gesu” and “Gesu” is Italian for “Jesus.” St. Ignatius is buried at a side altar of the church, and opposite him on the other side of the church is St. Francis Xavier. But that side altar does not house the whole body of St. Francis, only his right arm. The rest of his body is buried in Goa, India, where he was a missionary.
Francis’ right arm is highly symbolic, though, because he used it to write innumerable letters back to Ignatius about his adventures and achievements in foreign lands. How God had done great things through him. How many college students use their right hands to call home or write emails or send texts back to their parents back home to tell their about their exploits and experiences in college! Sometimes you have to leave your old home before you can find your true home. And St. Ignatius of Loyola understood that better than most.
Folks, we stand on the threshold of new academic year, and everyone is anxious to go back to school: children and parents alike. Why? Well, we all feel acutely how “familiarity breeds contempt”; we are all getting under each other’s skin. But it’s a very uncertain year that looms ahead and many students may be stuck at home taking virtual classes online. Let us ask for the intercession of St. Ignatius of Loyola that this school year be a blessing for all; that it be safe and successful; that students discover their true greatness and glory. And as the Jesuits are fond of saying, this year be “Ad majorem Dei gloriam,” for the greater glory of God. Ignatius understood deeply that sometimes you have to leave your old home before you can find your true home.
Praised be Jesus Christ!

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Angelic Doctors

Seeking the healing ministry of the angels
Matthew 13:36-43 Jesus dismissed the crowds and went into the house. His disciples approached him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.” He said in reply, “He who sows good seed is the Son of Man, the field is the world, the good seed the children of the Kingdom. The weeds are the children of the Evil One, and the enemy who sows them is the Devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels. Just as weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his Kingdom all who cause others to sin and all evildoers. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the Kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears ought to hear.”
Do you believe in angels? Sadly, so many of us have dropped our belief in angels into the dustbin of our childhood dreams, along with the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and the Santa Claus. Angels are like Trix Cereal. We are rebuked like the poor rabbit in the commercial: “Silly rabbit! Trix are for kids!” But are angels really just for kids?
Well, one of the most sober and serene of the Scholastic saints didn’t think so, and we shouldn’t either. I am talking about St. Thomas Aquinas, also known as the “Angelic Doctor.” Now, he’s not called the Angelic Doctor because angels would come to him when they felt sick and they needed a doctor. Quite the contrary, Aquinas would teach us how to go to them when we are sick, especially when our sickness is the spiritual cancer called “sin,” a problem far worse than the coronavirus pandemic.
In his comprehensive “Summa Theologica” (a summary of theology), Aquinas asserts: “These lower things are administered by angels, according to Heb. 1:14, ‘They are all ministering angels’ (Summa Theologica, I, Q. 57, Art. 2). These “lower things,” according to Aquinas, included humanity and our salvation from sin. In other words, mankind is precisely the patient in the medicinal ministry of the angels. So teaches the Angelic Doctor about “angelic doctors.”
Aquinas, of course, was only amplifying what Jesus teaches in the gospel today in a parable that is also about the angels. Sometimes we skip over the critical role of the angels in the parable of the weeds and the wheat. But listen to it again. Our Lord explains: “The weeds are the children of the Evil One, and the enemy who sows them is the Devil.” By the way, a little later in the Summa, in Question 63 of the First Part, Aquinas adds that the Devil was originally a good angel who fell from grace through “pride and envy.” Did you know that the Devil was once a good angel called Lucifer, one of the highest angels? Hence the medieval maxim, “corruptio optimi, pessima” meaning “the corruption of the best becomes the worst.” An angel of light becomes a devil of darkness. Or as we would put it today: “the bigger they are, the harder they fall.”
But Jesus also explains the work of the good angels, these “ministering angels” according to Heb. 1:14. Listen now: “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his Kingdom all who cause others to sin and all evildoers…Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the Kingdom of their Father.” Notice the imagery of light and sunshine as the effect of the ministry of the angels. Why is that? Well, when we are sick we want to stay in bed and in our dark rooms with the windows shut. But when we are healed and well, we want to come out into the sunshine and play. That’s how the angels “doctor” us, bringing us into the Light of Christ.
My friends, may I suggest two ways we can capitalize on this medicinal ministry of the angels? First, ask for the prayers of angels when you cannot overcome some stubborn sin. And we all struggle with stubborn sins. Sins like lust, pride, jealousy, resentment, anger, laziness, greed, ambition, racism, sexism, and so forth. The spiritual masters taught that each of us is plagued with a predominant fault; one sin in the face of which we inevitably fall. Ask the angels to heal you of that sin through their ministry. “They are all ministering angels.”
Second, ask the angels to help those you love in their spiritual struggles. Do you have children or grandchildren who have left the Church or don’t even believe in God anymore? Do you have loved ones who are enslaved to addictions to alcohol or drugs? Do you have family or friends you have had a falling out with and haven’t spoken to in ages? Well, send the angels as your ambassadors of good will, and let their intercession bring down God’s healing power. Hebrews said: “They are all ministering angels.”
Folks, go back to the dustbin of your childhood dreams and bring back your belief in the angels. Angels are our spiritual doctors and their ministry makes us happy and holy. Trix is only for kids, but the angels are for all of us.
Praised be Jesus Christ!

Monday, July 27, 2020

A Tale of Two Books

Learning from the parables of the little Prince
Matthew 13:31-35 Jesus proposed a parable to the crowds. “The Kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in a field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants. It becomes a large bush, and the ‘birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches.’” He spoke to them another parable. “The Kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch was leavened.” All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables. He spoke to them only in parables, to fulfill what had been said through the prophet: I will open my mouth in parables, I will announce what has lain hidden from the foundation of the world.
I happened to be reading two books recently that I think should always be read together, holding one book in each hand. It gives new meaning to “double-fisting.” One book is called The Little Prince by the French novelist Antoine de Saint Exupery, and the other is The God Delusion by the famous atheist and Oxford professor Richard Dawkins. Maybe you have read one or both of them. If you haven’t, I suggest you read them together, side by side. Let me share a quotation from each of them and maybe you will see why these two books were sort of “made for each other.”
Antoine de Saint Exupery writes: “ Grown-ups like numbers. When you tell them about a new friend, they never ask questions about what really matters. They never ask ‘What does his voice sound like?’ ‘What games does he like best?’ ‘Does he collect butterflies?’ They ask: ‘How old is he?’ ‘How much does he weigh?’ ‘How much money does his father make?’ Only then do they think they know him.” Exupery goes on: “If you tell grown-ups, ‘I saw a beautiful red house with geraniums at the windows and doves on the roof…’ they won’t be able to image such a house. You have to tell them ‘I saw a house worth a hundred thousand francs.’ Then they exclaim, ‘What a pretty house!’” (The Little Prince, 10). In other words, The Little Prince teaches us to see the world more as “magical” rather than as merely “mathematical.”
Here’s quite a contrary quotation from Dawkins’ book The God Delusion, who champions Darwin’s theory of evolution. Dawkins writes: “Religion is so wasteful, so extravagant, and Darwin’s selection habitually targets and eliminates waste. Nature is a miserly accountant, grudging the pennies, watching the clock, punishing the smallest extravagance.” He concludes with a French phrase that Antoine de Saint Exupery would appreciate, saying, “Nature cannot afford frivolous jeux d’esprit” (The God Delusion, 190, 191) The phrase “jeux d’esprit” means “a light-hearted display of wit and cleverness, especially in a work of literature.” Can you catch how these two books were sort of written for each other: to dispute what the other is saying? They are both offering answers on who understands the most important things in life. One says only the simplest get it (like children); the other says only scientists get it.
In the gospel today, Jesus is right in the middle of his magnificent “Parables Discourse” in Matthew 13. This is Jesus’ third great speech or discourse, which consists of a collection of parables. Today, Jesus tells his disciples the parables of the mustard seed that becomes a huge bush and the little bit of yeast that raises the whole batch of dough. If you had to compare Jesus’ teaching style to that of Saint Exupery and Dawkins, who would our Lord be most like? It’s pretty easy to see how Jesus is more like The Little Prince, indeed, he is given the title of “Prince of Peace” in Isaiah 9:5.
In other words, Jesus is also trying to answer the question: who understands the most important things in life, the simple or the scientist? Like the Little Prince, Jesus employs examples of sheep and flowers and stars to help us understand the Kingdom of Heaven, which is the most important thing in life. If you look closely at the parables, you will even detect a hint of that “frivolous jeux d’esprit” that Dawkins so despises.
Of course, my point this morning is not to deny all the benefits and blessings of serious science and knowing numbers like adults. There’s a lot of good in that. Rather, the Little Prince and his parables insist that knowing numbers alone makes us miss the most important things in life. Things like what? Things like love, like laughter, like long summer swims, like staring into a lover’s eyes, like watching your baby sleeping, like seeing children playing together, like gathering for Sunday services, like telling tale tales over a delicious dinner, like remembering family and friends who have died, like admiring “a beautiful red house with geraniums at the windows and doves on the roof.” In a word (a French word), “jeux d’esprit.” These two books invite us to live in two different worlds, and we are free to choose either one. I like the one with the pretty red houses.
Praised be Jesus Christ!

Blood Brothers

Drinking from the chalice of suffering for Jesus
Matthew 20:20-28 The mother of the sons of Zebedee approached Jesus with her sons and did him homage, wishing to ask him for something. He said to her, “What do you wish?” She answered him, “Command that these two sons of mine sit, one at your right and the other at your left, in your Kingdom.” Jesus said in reply, “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the chalice that I am going to drink?” They said to him, “We can.” He replied, “My chalice you will indeed drink, but to sit at my right and at my left, this is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” When the ten heard this, they became indignant at the two brothers. But Jesus summoned them and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave. Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
It’s common to hear the question: What are you living for? We all have a rough and ready answer for that. We are living for the weekend! We are living for our next vacation! We are living for a vaccine for the pandemic! But have you ever asked yourself the question: Is there anything worth dying for? For those of you who have children or grandchildren, you might have felt a surge of love for them so strong that you exclaimed: “I would die for my children (or grandchildren)!” Indeed, all the small and large sacrifices parents perpetually make for their children can feel like death in installments. But parent don’t complain, and consider these sacrifices signs of their love.
But did you ever feel like you could die for your faith in Jesus? That is not a small question and we shouldn’t treat it lightly or answer too quickly. One of the first major heresies of the Church was called Donatism. Have you ever heard of that? Good, then you’re probably not a Donatist. During the persecution of Christians under Emperor Diocletian, the Christians who would not die for their faith were called “traitors.” Some of the traitors were even priests and bishops. The Donatists believed that sacraments that these traitor priests and bishops later celebrated were invalid. Only priests and bishops who would die for their faith were worthy to be such. But the Church, led by St. Augustine, condemned donatism, and welcomed home even those who could not die for their faith. If I had been a priest during the donatist controversy, I am not so sure I would have sacrificed my life for our Lord. Heck, I find it hard to sacrifice cheesecake and a good martini for Jesus!
In the gospel today, this is precisely the question Jesus puts to James and John. These two blood brothers are worried about what they are living for, whereas Jesus wants them to consider is there anything worth dying for. It’s actually their mother who asks Jesus for a favor: “Command that these two sons of mine sit, one at your right and the other at your left, in your Kingdom.” Jesus, without saying “no,” however, puts the matter in an entirely different light, asking them instead: “Can you drink the chalice that I am going to drink?”
By the way, what was that chalice? It was the “cup of suffering” that Jesus himself reluctantly accepted in the Garden of Gethsemane. In Mt. 26: 39 we read: “Jesus advanced a little and fell prostrate in prayer saying: ‘Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not as I will, but as you will’.” I wonder if the Donatist would have been satisfied with Jesus’ hesitation before his own sacrifice on Calvary. One of the two sons of Zebedee, St. James, would drink from that cup of suffering in Acts 12, where he is beheaded by King Herod Agrippa in Jerusalem, the first apostle to give his life for our Lord. The other son of Zebedee, St. John, would not die as a martyr, but of old age, buried in Ephesus where he served as bishop.
On this glorious feast of St. James, let me ask you (and me) the same question that Jesus put to the blood brothers, James and John: “Can you drink from the chalice that I am going to drink?” Some of us who are given the extraordinary grace of martyrdom may answer like St. James, “Yes, Lord we can.” In fact, this weekend we will celebrate the feast of Blessed Stanley Rother, a priest of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, who was martyred for his faith in Guatemala in 1981. Blessed Stanley Rother drank from the Lord’s “cup of suffering.”
Others of us who are not called to the supreme sacrifice of laying down our life for our Lord, can answer like St. John, “Yes, Lord, we can.” But we will drink from the chalice of the Blood of Christ at Mass. May the Blood of Christ give us the grace to die for Jesus in a thousand small ways every day, loving our Lord and each other. And let us all repeat with St. Paul in Rom. 14:7-8, “None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself…whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” In this way, we imitate those sons of Zebedee, James and John, who were blood brothers in life and in death.
Praised be Jesus Christ!

Two Shining Cities

Walking as pilgrims toward the Heavenly Jerusalem
Jeremiah 3:14-17 Return, rebellious children, says the LORD, for I am your Master; I will take you, one from a city, two from a clan, and bring you to Zion. I will appoint over you shepherds after my own heart, who will shepherd you wisely and prudently. When you multiply and become fruitful in the land, says the LORD, They will in those days no longer say, “The ark of the covenant of the LORD!” They will no longer think of it, or remember it, or miss it, or make another. At that time they will call Jerusalem the LORD’s throne; there all nations will be gathered together to honor the name of the LORD at Jerusalem, and they will walk no longer in their hardhearted wickedness.
This morning I would like to quickly compare and contrast two stirring speeches and even more quickly draw a Christian conclusion. One of Ronald Reagan’s most memorable speeches was his farewell address, where he mentioned the “shining city on a hill.” Do you remember that speech in 1989 from the Oval Office? Ending his second term, the Gipper said: ‘I’ve spoken about the shining city all my life…it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace.”
Reagan went on: “And if there had to be walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here." And then the 40th president of the United States concluded: “And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.” What I love about that speech is how balanced it was: recognizing the value of walls but also warmly welcoming everyone. That was Reagan’s America: a shining city on a hill.
Now, contrast that with Jeremiah’s speech – or better his prophetic oracle – in the first reading today. The Old Testament prophet says: “I will take you one from a city, two from a clan, and bring you to Zion.” He continues: “At that time they will call Jerusalem the Lord’s throne; there all nations will be gathered to honor the name of the Lord at Jerusalem, and they will walk no longer in their hardhearted wickedness.” Did you catch some of the similarities in the two speeches? Jeremiah is talking about Jerusalem and Mt. Zion, which was built on a hill, about 2,500 feet above sea level. Jerusalem was Jeremiah’s shining city on a hill, where all the nations would be welcome.
But what was happening to the earthly Jerusalem during Jeremiah’s day? It was being besieged and ultimately destroyed by the Babylonians. In other words, Jeremiah’s Jerusalem was not enjoying a period of prosperity like America reveling in the Reagan Revolution. Rather the earthly Jerusalem was a heap of ruins. Jeremiah’s shining city on a hill, therefore, would be a new Jerusalem in the future, with arms open to welcome the world. Indeed, this shining city on a hill would not be found anywhere on earth, but only in heaven.
So we read in the last book of the bible, Rev. 21:1, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth…I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.” So, where is Jeremiah’s shining city on a hill? Is it in Jerusalem, the capital of Israel? Is it in Washington D.C. the capital of the United States? Is it Fort Smith, the capital of the River Valley? No, it’s in heaven. That’s why in Phil. 3:20, St. Paul insists: “But our citizenship is in heaven.” That’s the contrast: Reagan’s shining city is on earth; Jeremiah’s shining city is in heaven.
Now let me draw a Christian conclusion from this comparison and contrast. Ask yourself today: to which city on a hill do you have a stronger allegiance: the earthly city or the heavenly one? If someone asks you if you are a Republican or a Democrat, perhaps the best answer is, “I am a Christian.” That reminds me of Humphrey Bogart’s clever answer in Casablanca, when Captain Strasser asked him, “What is your nationality?” He replied, “I am a drunkard.” I like that answer because Catholics are often accused of being drunkards, and priests in particular.
Do you get more upset about what’s going on in earthly cities (like Portland) and forget about our citizenship in the heavenly Jerusalem, and its earthly manifestation, the Catholic Church? Do we read the Bill of Rights more religiously than we read the Bible? Are we more aware of the history and presidents of our country than the holiness and the popes of the church? St. Augustine commented: “Two loves built two cities,” and by that he taught that whichever city we love more is the city that we are building up more.
My friends, we are pilgrims walking toward one of two shining cities on a hill. Our feet are either carrying us to the earthly city, like Jerusalem or D.C. or Fort Smith, or our steps bring us closer to that heavenly Jerusalem, which we already enjoy every time we gather for the Eucharist. And as you compare and contrast these two cities on a hill, here’s one more thought. Reagan’s farewell speech was actually written by Peggy Noonan; Jeremiah’s speech-writer was the Holy Spirit.
Praised be Jesus Christ!