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.”

St. Justin, Philosopher and Martyr (c.100-165 AD)

Justin Martyr

We need Christians today like St. Justin, the 2nd century philosopher we remember June 1. “We need to make our teaching known,” he said. Still true today.

In Justin’s time, philosophers were the mentors and teachers of Roman society and were welcomed in the forum and private homes of the Roman world. St. Paul addressed them in Athens with limited success.

Born in Nablus in Palestine of Greek parents, Justin studied all the philosophers of his time in Alexandria, Athens and Ephesus. It may have been in Ephesus around the year 130 that he encountered Christianity when, walking along the seashore, he met an old man who told him the human heart could never be satisfied by Plato for “the prophets alone announced the truth.”

“After telling me these and other things…he went away and I never saw him again, but a flame kindled in my soul, filling me with love for the prophets and the friends of Christ. I thought about his words and became a philosopher..” (Dialogue 8)

Justin was influenced, not only by Christian teaching, but also by the example of Christians he met:

“I liked Plato’s teaching at first and enjoyed hearing evil spoken about Christians, but then I saw they had no fear of death or other things that horrify, and I realized they were not vicious or pleasure-loving at all.” (Apology 2,12)

Forum q
Ruins of the Roman Forum

Justin championed the cause of Christians who were increasingly being attacked by society. Donning a philosopher’s cloak he taught and wrote in Rome about the year 150 AD. He was a new kind of Christian, a Christian philosopher engaging Roman society on its own terms. He gave Christianity a Roman face and voice.

Justin defended Christians against the charge they were atheists and enemies of the Roman state. Christians were good citizens, he wrote, who pray for Rome, though they don’t worship in temples, who had no statues of gods or who did not participate in the religious rites of the state.  Justin’s writings give us a unique picture of 2nd century Christianity and early Christian worship.

In his “Dialogue with Trypho, the Jew” Justin offered the traditional Christian defense of Christianity to a Jewish antagonist. The Jewish prophets predicted the coming, the death and resurrection of Jesus, Justin argues.

In the documents of Vatican ii, Justin is recognized as an early example of Christian ecumenism. (Evangelium Nuntiandi 53) Through the Word of God all things came to be, he said.  The Word became flesh in Jesus Christ, but Justin linked the biblical Word to the Logos of the philosophers. “Seeds of the Word” were scattered throughout the world, Justin claimed. Every human being possesses in his mind a seed of the Word, and so besides the prophets of the Old Testament, pagan philosophers like Heraclitus, Socrates and Musonius lead us to Jesus Christ, Justin said. (Apology 1,46)

A prolific writer and teacher, Justin was an early Christian intellectual using his talents to promote his faith, Unfortunately only three of his writings come down to us. Other Christian intellectuals followed him, using the tools of philosophy to dialogue with the Greco-Roman world.

Finally, rivals in Rome pressed charges against Justin as an enemy of the state and he was  brought before a Roman judge along with six companions. Sentenced to death, they were beheaded probably in the year 165 AD. The official court record of their trial  still survives.

Procession to the Mary Garden

“All generations shall call me blessed,” Mary says as she visits Elizabeth and praises God for his gift and the mission God gives her. There are signs of her blessed  presence in all generations. Sometimes she comes to bless people through someone she appears to, as she did when she appeared to Juan Diego in Mexico City in the 16th century, to Bernadette Soubrious in France the 19th century and to the children at Fatima in the 20th century.  The apparitions at Mexico City, Lourdes and Fatima are especially significant.

For more than 2000 years Mary has been a steady presence in the church and in the world.

What’s Mary’s mission? Why do generations call her blessed? Mary brings joy to the world by announcing the presence of her Son, the child of womb, Jesus Christ, who came to take away our fears and offers his promise. She brings wisdom for each generation to live wisely in its time.

Yesterday, we celebrated the Feast of the Visitation with Mass and then a procession to our Mary Garden. In our generation, I think Mary’s mission is to make us aware that our world is a garden we should love and care for. We seem so uncaring and unloving to creation today, especially to the poor.

In the 14th century, the Black Death took countless lives in Europe, and many saw the earth itself the cause of the pandemic. In response, Mary Gardens were planted next to religious houses and churches.  They were reminders of the Garden of Eden, where God first blessed the human family with the blessings of creation. God saw creation as good, a place of blessing. 

Mary has a special place in creation. She has a special place renewing faith in the God of life. Our procession to our Mary Garden yesterday was a simple way of asking her help today, when creation in endangered.

She stands in our Mary Garden with her mighty Child in her arms, looking out on creation. Don’t lose hope in this planet of ours, she says. Care for it, cherish it, and pray that God, the Creator of heaven and earth, will move the hearts of the children of Adam and Eve, so that all the creatures of the earth, the birds of the sky, the fish of the sea will flourish.

“Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.”

For more on our Mary Garden see here.

Here’s a video on our Mary Garden.