Monthly Archives: January 2009

An Unclean Spirit, Part 2

Rejection of Jesus was not unusual in his day, as the gospel of Mark reminds us,  and it’s not unusual today. Today, however, it’s influenced by some different factors.

For example, our western world resists the idea of Jesus as a unique Savior and Teacher. We live in a pluralistic society, and so when we say Jesus is a unique Savior and Teacher, we seem to deny the truth in other religions and religious teachers.

What about the Dalai Lama? What about Buddhism, Hinduism, the religion of native Americans? Don’t they teach the truth? When you claim that Jesus is unique, you seem to deny there’s truth in other religions and religious teachers.

In answer to that, we can say that we believe there is a human search for God that has been going on from the beginning of the human race. The human spirit is always searching for God and its search has been blessed by wisdom and spiritual insight. Other religions have been blessed with truth.

But the uniqueness of Jesus comes from the fact that God approaches us.  He sends us his Son. Jesus is his Word to us. His revelation is something we couldn’t arrive at on our own. We didn’t earn it. “This is my beloved Son, hear him,” God says from the heavens as Jesus is baptized. God takes the initiative and calls us into friendship with him, eternal friendship. It’s a promise beyond what we could dream of.

And Jesus not only promises new life, but he takes away what hinders us from enjoying a life with God. He takes away sin.

There are other factors today for people rejecting Jesus, particularly in our western world.  Many  fear that following him will cause them to lose their own personalities and dreams. He’ll take over our lives and impose on us a mold of his own.  We don’t like losing our individuality–not at all.

There’s a fear too that a code of morality will be imposed on us that will deaden our lives and make us scared to love and to live. For many Christianity appears to be a religion of cold moralism,  but it isn’t.

In the synagogue of Capernaum, Jesus drove out the unclean spirit from the man.”Quiet! Come out of him!”
The unclean spirit convulsed him and with a loud cry came out of him.

He has to drive out our demons too.

Jews and Christians

“We must consider how to rouse one another to love and good works. We should not stay away from our assembly, as is the custom of some, but encourage one another, and this all the more as you see the day drawing near.” Hebrews 10,24-25

That was in our first reading at Mass yesterday. I think about it today because in bad times like ours, people not only come together but split apart. The letter to the Hebrews seems to be addressing people splitting apart.

Reading Martin Goodman’s “Rome and Jerusalem” makes me more aware of possible reasons for the split between Christians and Jews in the latter part of the 1st century.

Before the Jewish wars that began in 65 AD and ended with the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD, the Jews enjoyed a rather good relationship with  Rome. Jews did not have to pay a yearly tax for the upkeep of Rome’s religious institutions; they supported the Jerusalem temple instead. The Romans were tolerant of Judaism, though bemused by their strongly held rituals, especially circumcision. Jews had some powerful friends at the Roman court. For the most part, the Romans left them alone.

The Jewish revolt changed the relationship. Jews were forced to pay the Roman tax supporting religion, they were suspected as possible revolutionaries and they lost much of their influence with the Roman government.

Did this cause Christians to distance themselves from their Jewish roots, to become more Roman?

Did it cause some Jewish Christians to back away from Christianity because of their loyalty to their Jewish tradition?

The latter part of the 1st century for both Christians and Jews was a time of alienation, rather than open persecution. They weren’t sure where they stood. That’s probably how we feel today, alienated, unsure, fearful of what is happening, and not understanding much as our world shifts.

So the reading quoted above may be appropriate for today as well as for then. I think so.

The Last Templar

For a while now, I hoped that someone would critique TV programs that touch on religious history, but that may not happen. They’re usually too boring to stay with.

I watched The Last Templar on NBC the last two nights.  Just about got through the first night and fell asleep halfway through the second.

The DaVinci Code revisited. Conspiracy theories sell, with a little sex, violence and archeology thrown in, I guess.

Too bad, because religious stories have material you would love to see some good screenwriter explore. They’re human to the core.

Take Peter the Apostle, for example.  He left home–wife, mother-in-law, kids, a fishing business–to follow Jesus.  Did he just pack his bags and walk away?

He was not well-educated, probably spoke Greek or Latin badly, if at all. How did he get to Rome and communicate with people so different from himself ?

How did he get along with the Jews there? Paul had a hard time in some synagogues he visited. Did he get along with Paul?

Where did he live?  One tradition says he lived with a Roman senator in his spacious house on the Esquiline Hill.  Some change from Capernaum.

What was it like to get caught up in Nero’s dragnet for suspects after the fire that burned down most of the city in 64 AD?

But maybe we shouldn’t blame screenwriters for shallow religious dramas, maybe we should take a look at ourselves. Do we depend too much on learned scriptural commentaries and careful scholarly theologians and not enough on our own imaginations?  Not that we should neglect them, but don’t we have access to our religious history too? Why not let our minds roam over our religious stories.

Maybe we need a revival of ordinary meditation?

God’s Greatest Gift

God’s gifts cannot be numbered, St. Basil says in the reading for today. The blessings God gives us cannot be named or understood. They are more numerous than everything  in this world of ours.

Yet, one blessing stands out  to be kept in mind: God’s mercy.
Mercy is God’s surprising gift, a gift that lifts us up from failure. God never abandons us, even when we fail him and persist in our failure. His mercy is beyond our expectations.
The cross is a sign of God’s mercy, for it brings us to life. “Nor was God content  merely to summon us back from death to life;, he also bestows on us the dignity of his own divine nature and prepares for us a place of joy that surpasses all human imagination.”
Yet, the saint confesses, he easily forgets this unforgettable gift. He’s overcome by trivialities.
How can we prevent being overcome by trivialities?

Who are Priests?

“When we speak of Christ’s priesthood, what else do we mean than his incarnation?”

Fugentius of Ruspe, a learned bishop from 5th century Africa, touches on a truth we easily forget. Christ is a priest because he became flesh and part of creation, which he then represents before the Creator.

He does not represent creation from a distance, untouched by it, or partially, hesitantly, protected,  but he became fully one with it, emptying himself and taking the form of a slave. “He humbled himself even accepting death.”

Being a priest, therefore, is not to become a person apart, but someone incarnate. That’s true for all those baptized into Christ and share in his priesthood, as well as those ordained for a ministry in the church.

“The living, the living give you thanks, as I do today.”

Coming Together

The inauguration of our new president the other day brought people together in an unusual communion. Something good happened, I think.

I noticed in a letter of St. Ignatius of Antioch to the Ephesians his insistence on that same thing: People have to keep together.”Try to gather together more frequently to give thanks to God and to praise him.” Satan’s powers are undermined and peace is promoted when you do this, the saint says.

The division Ignatius was trying to counter came, at least in part, because the church in his day–early in the 2nd century– faced a vacuum caused by the death of the apostles. The great figures who unified the church were gone, and new figures were emerging, some of them divisive.

New leaders were needed, true. New institutions had to be created. But just as important, people had to come together.

In crucial times, that’s what we all have to do.

“I have a dream”

Some commentators on television yesterday were asking where President-elect Obama got his oratorical gifts. Spike Lee said he got it  from listening to black preachers, like Doctor Martin Luther King.

Probably true. He’s  listened to some good preachers in his lifetime, as so many other great political orators have. It’s a connection you don’t hear much about, but the preached word can finds its way into many places, into political speeches and political discourse, even into ordinary human conversations and people’s private thoughts.

An article in the New York Times today indicates that Barack Obama reads widely from classics like the Bible, Shakespeare, St. Augustine and from modern poets and novelists as well. He obviously appreciates the power of words.

Today we honor Doctor Martin Luther King, who also knew the power of words. A new book “King’s Dream”  reviewed in The Times yesterday analyzes his famous “I have a dream” speech which he gave at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington in 1963.

The “I have a dream” part of the speech was extemporized. It repeated a theme that ran through many of his sermons before, but was not in his written text that day.

Yet today it’s what most people remember  and the words are etched into our national consciousness. King’s  wife Coretta thought it ” flowed from higher places.”

Sermons, homelies, words. They’re so important. At their best, they make the Word known and call for his kingdom to come.

Barack Obama’s  inaugural address tomorrow will be the nearest thing we have in politics to a sermon.

St. Anthony of Egypt

Today’s the feast of St. Anthony of Egypt, the 3th century hermit who, through his biography written by St. Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria, became one of the most important sources of spirituality in the Christian churches of the east and west.

He played a role in the conversion of St. Augustine, who was deeply moved by reading his life. He’s called the father of monasticism because of his influence on the monastic movement in the church after his death.

If you look at his life, you see a simple, ordinary man who took the gospel seriously. Artists love to dramatize Anthony fighting temptations, which he did. But his temptations, when you look at them, are remarkably like our own–if we look at them.

They were constant and varied, sometimes to pride, to crippling anxiety, to lust, to pleasure. They were complex, shifting and troublesome.

For him temptation meant, not only confronting some sudden evil choice, but struggling through life with recurring doubts and deeply held illusions that weigh down the human heart. Temptation for Anthony was a part of human experience, and he showed it was also part of the experience of a saint.

He found, too, that temptation, far from being a time when God abandons someone, is a time when God is near. Beyond increasing self-knowledge, which it does, the experience of temptation reveals to the human heart the power of God’s grace. As he got older, he got increasingly optimistic. His constant message to others was:”Don’t be afraid.”

That’s one of the reasons people were attracted to this ordinary man: he was real, and he shared that experience with others. Speaking to him, they saw themselves as they were and as they could be.

St. Athanasius writes: “Seeing him, the villagers and those who knew him called him a friend of God, and they loved him as a son and as a brother.”

Healing Grace

In Mark’s gospel, after his baptism and gathering disciples, Jesus immediately begins a ministry of healing.  After curing the man in the synagogue convulsed by an unclean spirit,  Jesus goes on to cure Simon’s mother-in-law,  and then the whole town comes to the door of Peter’s house with their sick.

The healing he brings is not just for bodily life on earth; his healing is a sign of the kingdom that is to come, ‘where Christ will raise our mortal bodies and make them like his own in glory.”

Above, all, we look for that healing, that ultimate healing that takes away our fears before death and helps us make our way to the life promised us.

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic priest and political activist, died a few days ago. David Brooks in his column in the New York Times yesterday wrote about the priest’s bravery in face of death.“ Some years ago, Neuhaus had a near death experience that gave him a certain grace before that reality we all must face…
When he wrote about his experience later, his great theme was the way death has a backward influence back onto life: ‘We are born to die. Not that death is the purpose of our being born, but we are born toward death, and in each of our lives the work of dying is already under way.’

“It also made him almost indifferent about when his life would end,” Brooks writes. “People would tell him to fight for life and he would enjoy their attention, but the matter wasn’t really in his hands, and everything was ready anyway.

In his final column for First Things, a magazine he edited, he wrote.
“Be assured that I neither fear to die nor refuse to live. If it is to die, all that has been is but a slight intimation of what is to be. If it is to live, there is much I hope to do in the interim.”

We are having an Anointing of the Sick today here in our chapel.  May the Lord bring his healing to our house.

Clean Water for Honduras

A young man from St. Mary’s Parish in Colts Neck, NJ is traveling to Honduras tomorrow as part a his college’s chapter of “Engineers Without Borders.” They’re going to work on supplying clean water and better sanitation for a poor area of the country. You can read about the project at

I emailed Alec this morning:


I wish God’s blessings for you and your companions as you take off for Honduras tomorrow to be part of your college’s chapter of  “Engineers Without Borders.”  Lafayette College should be commended for encouraging this outreach to supply clean water and sanitation to the Yoro district, one of the poorest areas in that country.

From your work there last year you know the blessings you get when you go to a place like that and offer your skills and talent to the people. Those blessing will be there for you this time too, I’m sure.

I was thinking of something Pope Paul VI said years ago, “Development is a new name for peace.” You are bringing peace by what you are doing, peace because what you do brings those people the promise of a better life, peace because they realize the world beyond them has reached out to help them.

I told you I thought it was nice that you are going off after we celebrated the Baptism of Jesus yesterday at church. He made water one of the ways he brought life to people.

May he be with you there too. I’ll be looking forward to hearing from you and seeing the pictures when you get back.

God bless,