Saint Ephrem (306-373)

St. Ephrem, born in Syria in 306, was a deacon and an important Christian teacher in the Syrian church. He wrote hymns and homilies promoting the liturgy of that church, and for that reason he’s considered a liturgical theologian. Daily prayer was the source of his spirituality. Ephrem and saints of the eastern churches like him are recognized today by the Catholic Church for their great contributions to Christianity. In 1920 Ephrem was named a Doctor of the Church by the Roman Catholic Church .

One of Ephrem’s writings deals with a common challenge we face when we pray: we can expect too much from it. This is especially true of daily prayer. Daily prayer, after all, is a “work” we can get tired of work, no matter how great it is.  Monotony can so easily occur. Be humble and patient in daily prayer and liturgy, Ephrem writes:

“Lord, who can comprehend even one of your words? Like those drinking from a running stream we only take in so much. Everyone finds something in God’’s word.  The Lord’s word is many colored. If you gaze on it, you’ll see what you’re meant to see. It hides many different treasures. Seek and you’ll find what will make you rich. 

The word of God is a tree of life bearing blessed fruit on each of its branches.  It’s like that rock struck in the wilderness from which all drank. As the apostles says, ‘They all ate spiritual food and they all drank.’ 

So when you find a part of that treasure don’t think you have exhausted God’s word. Rather, this is yours so far. Also, don’t think the word of God is not much because this is all you have found. Thank God for what you have.

A thirsty person is happy to drink but he can’t drink the whole spring. Thirst will bring you back to the flowing waters .

What you receive is enough for now;  more is promised, but you can’t have all, there will be more if you persevere. Don’t give up. The time will come.”

(On the Diatessaron)

For Ephrem the imagery of drinking from a spring of water describes the way we draw upon God for wisdom and strength. We want more than we need or can take in. We want to know it all and do it all, but we only can drink one mouthful at a time. That’s the way we’re built.

The spring is never exhausted, though. The tree of life remains there all the time, but we don’t like waiting, eating and drinking day by day.

“O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, meddling, lust of power, and idle talk. But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to your servant. Yes, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own sins and not to judge others, for you are blessed from age to age. Amen.O God, be gracious to me, a sinner.” (Prayer of St. Ephrem)

Daily morning and evening here.

Planting a Fig Tree

Our neighbor Manuel came over yesterday with the gift of a fig tree, which he planted near the entrance to our Mary Garden. A fig tree belongs there. It’s the first tree named in the garden of Eden (Genesis 3: 7  ), and the last tree mentioned in the Book of Revelations (6: 13). No tree is mentioned more in the Bible.

The fig tree was treasured by Jewish families who prized its dependable supply of fruit, a sign of God’s dependable providence. The prophets often used it to describe God’s blessings and his people’s unfaithfulness. The Prophet Habakkuk’s in our morning prayer describes his own faithfulness to God, using it as an image:

“For though the fig tree blossom not, nor fruit appear on the vine.                           Though the yield of the olive fails and the terraces produce no nourishment.           Though the flocks disappear from the foldand there is no herd in the stalls,                 Yet I will rejoice in the LORD and exult in my saving God.                                                GOD, my Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet swift as those of a deer,                   and enables me to go upon the heights. (Habakkuk 3: 17-19)

Michelangelo’s tree of good and evil in the Sistine Chapel is a fig tree.  

We’re reading this week about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem from Mark’s Gospel. Unfaithfulness is why Jesus curses the fig tree as he enters the city, and its roots wither. He finds no fruit on it. (Though it was not time for fruit)                                            

It’s the only miracle of Jesus in Jerusalem recorded by Mark, and it surprises his disciples. (Mark  11:12-14; 20-25 ) Jesus, hungering for a response of faith, finds none from Jerusalem’s leaders he meets.

Manuel explained to me the fig tree’s roots spread quickly so the soil doesn’t have to be especially good, but it needs plenty of sun for growing. I have a feeling it will grow in that holy place. It’s meant to be there. 

Desperate Prayers

Poor Tobit, sunk in the misfortune of his blindness and with no one on his side, asks God to “go from the face of the earth into dust”, in our lectionary reading today:

“So now, deal with me as you please, and command my life breath to be taken from me, that I may go from the face of the earth into dust. It is better for me to die than to live, because I have heard insulting calumnies, and I am overwhelmed with grief.

“Lord, command me to be delivered from such anguish; let me go to the everlasting abode; Lord, refuse me not. For it is better for me to die than to endure so much misery in life, and to hear these insults!” (Tobit 3:1-11)

He doesn’t blame God, but he’s had enough. His prays, groaning and weeping aloud. 

Sarah, soon to be his daughter-in-law, prays a desperate prayer too. She’s had 7 husbands who have all died mysteriously immediately after their marriage. She’s turned into a desperate woman who seems to be lashing out at everyone. A real witch, some were calling her.

She’s ready to hang herself, but decides not to for her parents’ sake. She prays:

“Blessed are you, O Lord, merciful God, and blessed is your holy and honorable name. Blessed are you in all your works for ever!”

Simultaneously, two desperate people are heard:

“At that very time,  the prayer of these two suppliants was heard in the glorious presence of Almighty God. So Raphael was sent to heal them both: to remove the cataracts from Tobit’s eyes, so that he might again see God’s sunlight; and to marry Raguel’s daughter Sarah to Tobit’s son Tobiah, and then drive the wicked demon Asmodeus from her.” (Tobit 3: 16-17)

God hears desperate people, even if they can’t find words for a prayer.

I have been reading a book on how our lectionary was composed after the Second Vatican Council.”Words Without Alloy” by Paul Turner.  Some wanted the Book of Tobit left out of the readings. I’m glad they didn’t. God hears desperate people.

Mark’s Gospel: Chapter 12

Peter Preaching, Fra Angelico

We are reading from chapter 12 in Mark’s Gospel this week. From Galilee where Jesus was welcomed by the people and where so much of his ministry and miracles occurred, Mark presents Jesus traveling to Jericho and then to Jerusalem where he faces harsh questioning from the Jerusalem authorities. Eventually they put him to death; then he will rise. (Mk 11:116:8

Our readings this week bring us to Jerusalem, where Mark sees Jesus as the “beloved Son” sent into the vineyard, whom they seize and kill and throw out of the vineyard. ( Mark 12:1-11) In Mark’s Gospel Jesus works only one miracle in Jerusalem, the cursing of the fig tree. (Mark 11: 12-14,20-21) So different from John’s Gospel where important miracles, like the raising of Lazarus and the cure of the man born blind, are signs that witness to Jesus.

Mark’s portrayal of Jesus shows us his humanity. He’s provoked by the hypocrisy of the scribes and their questions. He’s annoyed at their efforts to entrap him. “In human likeness” he will suffer and die.

Fra Angelico’s painting of Peter preaching and Mark sitting among his listeners taking notes comes from a long held belief that Mark’s Gospel was influenced by Peter. Mark’s mother lived in Jerusalem, so he must have been known the city well. It did not receive Jesus well.

Even disciples, like Peter, did not fully understand Jesus as he made his way into Jerusalem. One will betray him, Judas; one deny him; all eleven men will leave him. Yet, he will eat his Last Supper with them, and after this resurrection calls them to Galilee where he will reveal himself to them, risen from the dead.

Listening to Tobit

Blind Tobit. Rembrandt

Last week’s lectionary readings from the Old Testament were from the Book of Sirach; this week’s readings are from the Book of Tobit. Sirach offered words of wisdom to his son and grandson in his book. Tobit offers the story of a life that falls apart and God puts back together again. Two respected Jewish holy people.

Tobit describes himself in the first chapter of his book as a Jew from northern Israel enslaved in Nineveh by the Assyrians. He’s a very successful businessman, appreciated by the Assyrians who want to create a world class empire.  Tobit became one of Assyria’s financial agents traveling their vast empire. In one place he visits, Tobit entrusted some of his money to a relative, just in case. 

Tobit was a religious Jews, generous to the poor, faithful to his religious duties and intent on the restoration of Jerusalem. In Nineveh he buried the dead, a dangerous act if the Assyrians wanted the dead body to rot away unburied in a public place.

That didn’t stop Tobit, our story says. During the Jewish feast of Pentecost he leaves his supper table, goes to the market, takes an exposed body and buries it that evening, then he washes and goes to sleep in an alleyway outside his house because of the heat. Something absurd happens: bird droppings fall into his eyes and blind him.

For 4 years he goes to doctors, who make his blindness worse. Not only does his blindness get worse, but he gets worse. Everything gets on his nerves. His wife has to go to work to support them. When she brings home a goat given to her as a gift, Tobit accuses her of stealing the goat. She has enough of him. 

 “I flushed with anger at her over this.” Tobit says,  “So she retorted: ‘Where are your charitable deeds now? Where are your righteous acts? Look! All that has happened to you.”

Tobit becomes so despondent that he wants to die. Rembrandt captures poor Tobit groping for the door in his blindness, while a little dog tries to push him in the right direction. But everything changes, though he doesn’t see it till it does. His son Tobiah returns with a beautiful bride, he gets the money he gave to his relative and an angel cures his blindness. 

Tobit offers two beautiful prayers at the end of his book, which are not in our lectionary but we pray them in the Liturgy of the Hours. 

‘Blessed be God who lives forever

because his kingdom lasts for all ages.

for he scourges and then has mercy.

he casts down to the depths of the nether world

and he brings up from the great abyss… 

Praise him, you Israelites, before the Gentiles,

for though he has scattered you among them, he has shown you his greatness even there….  

In the land of my exile I praise him

And show his power and majesty to a sinful people.”  (Tuesday morning, Week 1)

“Let all speak of his majesty, and sing his praises in Jerusalem.

O Jerusalem, holy city,

he scourged you for the works of your hands,

but will again pity the children of the righteous.”

(Friday morning Week 4)

In the land of our exile,  we may fall apart physically, emotionally, spirituality, but God is still at work.

God will restore Jerusalem, the holy city, for he pities the children of the righteous.

9th Week of the Year: Readings and Feasts

JUNE 5 Mon St Boniface Tb 1:3-2:1b-8/Mk 12:1-12 

6 Tue Weekday [St Norbert] Tb 2:9-14/Mk 12:13-17 

7 Wed Weekday Tb 3:1-11a, 16-17a/Mk 12:18-27 

8 Thu Weekday Tb 6:10-11; 7:1bcde, 9-17; 8:4-9a/Mk 12:28-34

9 Fri Weekday [St Ephrem] Tb 11:5-17/Mk 12:35-37 

10 Sat Weekday [BVM] Tb 12:1, 5-15, 20/Mk 12:38-44 

11 SUN USA: CORPUS CHRISTI Dt 8:2-3, 14b-16a/1 Cor 10:16-17/Jn 6:51-58 

This week’s readings from the Book of Tobit offers an opportunity to relish the wisdom of the Old Testament. We may think only of the New Testament when we think of the scriptures, but God’s wisdom unfolds in the Old Testament as well. I think Jesus must have enjoyed hearing about Tobit in the synagogue at Nazareth. He was a holy man, a Jewish saint, tried by life.

Two important Christian saints are remembered this week. Boniface, the apostle to the Germanic peoples, and Ephrem, one of the great Christian teachers of Syria. Both are witnesses to the spread of the gospel to other parts of the world.

Mark’s gospel in chapter 12 follows Jesus into Jerusalem where he faces fierce questioning from his enemies before his death. Jesus will work only one miracle in Jerusalem.

Sirach: Learning by Doing

Convoy for the Young

Our selections in our liturgy from the Book of Sirach end Friday and Saturday with an old man’s reflections on growing in faith from his childhood. Far from rote learning, Sirach saw his faith grow through prayer and celebrating the Jewish feasts. This kind of prayer brings wisdom and joy. Saturday’s reading says:

“When I was young and innocent, I sought wisdom openly in my prayer. I prayed for her before the temple and I will seek her until the end…My heart delighted in her, my feet kept to the level path because I was familiar with her.”

The journey of faith begins from childhood. Fortunate for those, like Sirach, who get to know faith from the beginning of their lives and never cease to be instructed in her “secrets”. They will keep to the right path. I wonder if young parents today realize that?

In Friday’s reading Sirach sees the example of holy people forming us in faith. I will paraphrase some of his words:

Now will I praise those godly men and women,
our ancestors, each in their own time.
But of others there is no memory,
for when they ceased, they ceased.
And they are as though they had not lived,
they and their children after them.
Yet these also were godly women and men
whose virtues have not been forgotten;
Their wealth remains in their families,
their heritage with their descendants;
Through God’s covenant with them their family endures,
their posterity, for their sake.

Thank God for the example of holy people in your life. Learn from them. They are often, “the saints next door”, a phrase Pope Francis used to described the familiar saints, like mothers and fathers, neighbors and all.

Sirach, “Ecclesiasticus”, was a staple source in the catechesis of the early Christian church. You can see why. The learning Sirach describes is not knowing short questions and answers and then you got it. Catechesis, as you see in Sirach, introduces us to the mystery of God from childhood and carries on until the end.  It’s not a lesson in human behavior. It’s a prayerful search into what was, what is and what ever shall be. It goes far beyond the human world, but embraces the human world.

It’s learning by doing in the everyday classroom of life. Blessed are those who embrace this kind of “great instruction”. 

“Saint” Sirach pray for us.

Feast of Charles Lwanga and Companions

Charles Lwanga and Companions. Bro. Michael Moran,CP

The martyrdom of St. Charles Lwanga and twenty-one companions in Uganda, Africa in 1885-86 was the start of a remarkable growth of Christianity on that continent. The White Fathers, Catholic missionaries who reached Uganda in 1879, succeeded in converting a number of native Africans who were servants of King Mwanga, a local Ugandan ruler. But in 1885 the king began persecuting Christians.

Charles Lwanga was in charge of the pages in the kingʼs court. The king wanted some of the pages as sexual partners. His Christian pages refused and he threatened them with torture and death. Led by Charles, they rejected the kingʼs advances and so the king, summoning them before him, asked if they were going to continue to deny him as Christians. “Till death!” they answered. “Then put them to death!” the king shouted.

Three pages died on the road to their execution at Namugonga. Many bystanders were amazed at the courage and calm of Charles and his companions. On Ascension Day, 1886, they were wrapped up in reed mats and set afire for their faith. The following year an extraordinary number of Ugandans became Christian.

The grace of God was working in them, the prayer for their feast on June 3 says: “Father, you have made the blood of martyrs the seed of Christians.””

Africa has a history of martyrs, Pope Paul VI recalled at their canonization; the early Christian martyrs St. Cyprian, Saints Felicity and Perpetua, the 4th century Martyrs of Sicilli, whose relics are venerated in the Passionist church of Saints John and Paul in Rome.

Charles Lwanga and his companions opened a new page in the history of holiness in Africa. Paying tribute to them, Pope Paul recommended not forgetting “ those members of the Anglican Church who also died for the name of Christ.” Pope Francis recently spoke of “an ecumenism of blood”, as Christians from different denominations suffer persecution today.
“These African martyrs herald the dawn of a new age.”

Christian activity in Africa began in the 1st century in Alexandria in Egypt and other parts of Roman Africa, but the 7th century Islamic conquest caused a deep decline in Christianity there. In modern times Christianity reached south as the European powers colonized the continent. By 2005 Catholics numbered 135 million Africans out of a population of 809 million. By 2025, African Catholics are expected to be one-sixth of the world’s Catholic population. A new Christian Era has begun.

“Go out to all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.”