Monthly Archives: October 2011

Does God Provide?

I was at a fund-raiser for Providence Clinic last Sunday  evening and for some reason I’ve been thinking about the meaning of God’s providence ever since.

God’s providence is mysterious, for sure. But is it cold or fickle?  Or is God mostly uninvolved like the Enlightened Deists say. It’s all up to us, or politics, or economics. So God hasn’t much to say about little Providence Clinic.

Yet, according to Catherine of Siena’s Dialogue on Divine Providence, God is more than just an absentee land lord.

“The eternal Father, indescribably kind and tender, turned his eye to this soul and spoke to her:

‘O dearest daughter, I have determined to show my mercy and loving kindness to the world, and I choose to provide human beings with all that is good. But they, ignorant, turns into a death-giving thing what I gave in order to give them life…Still I go on providing. So I want you to know: whatever I give to human beings, I do it out of my great providence.

‘So it was that when, by my providence, I created human beings, I looked into myself and fell in love with the beauty of the creatures I had made – for it had pleased me, in my providence, to create human beings in my own image and likeness.

‘Moreover, I gave them memory, to remember the good things I had done for them and  to share in my own power, the power of the eternal Father.

‘Moreover, I gave them intellect, so that, seeing the wisdom of my Son,  they could recognize and understand my own will; for I am the giver of all graces and I give them with a burning fatherly love.

‘Moreover, I gave them the desire to love, sharing in the tenderness of the Holy Spirit, so that they might love the things that they knew and saw.

‘But my kind providence did all this solely that they might be able to understand me and enjoy me, rejoicing in my vision for all eternity. And as I have told you elsewhere, the disobedience of your first parent Adam closed heaven to you – and from that disobedience came all evil through the whole world.

‘To relieve human beings of the death that his own disobedience had brought, I tenderly and providently gave you my only-begotten Son to heal you and bring satisfaction for your needs. I gave him the task of being supremely obedient, to free the human race of the poison that your first parent’s disobedience had spread throughout the world. Falling in love, as it were, with his task, and truly obedient, he hurried to a shameful death on the most holy Cross. By his most holy death he gave you life: not human life this time, but with the strength of his divinity.’”

Fighting in Church

Today’s Office of Readings has the letter to the Corinthians by Pope St. Clement 1, written about 95 AD,  just after the last of the New Testament writings were written.

Fighting erupted among the members of the church in Corinth, once cared for by Paul the Apostle, who scolded them for the same thing. There’s slander and backbiting and complaining going on; people like to hear themselves talk, Clement remarks, quoting scripture: If you talk a lot you only hear yourself. A big talker thinks he’s always right.

The Corinthians were a scrappy bunch, it seems.

Clement tells them that their fighting makes the church look bad among their unbelieving neighbors. Who wants to belong to a community like that? Paul wrote to the Romans; I guess Clement thought he should write to the Corinthians.

Stop fighting among yourselves and do some good, the pope says. Obey your leaders, but above all, obey God. Bow down in respect before God and be silent before his holy will, as the Prophet Isaiah bowed silently  before the overwhelming presence of God in the temple.

“Our boasting and our confidence must rest on him. Let us be subject to his will. Look carefully at the whole host of his angels; they stand ready and serve his will. Scripture says: Ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him, and a thousand thousand served him, and cried out: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole creation is full of his glory.”

“Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts…” We say at Mass. We bow down before God; our thoughts, our judgments, our plans are nothing before God’s thoughts, judgments and plans. We know so little. Be humble before your God, Clement says, then you’ll get along with your neighbor.

Good advice for all of us.

Clement’s letter also gives the earliest testimony to the deaths of Peter and Paul at Rome.

Providence Clinic

The other night I was at a dinner and a stranger asked me what community I belonged to. When I told him I was a Passionist, he said “Barnabas Ahern was a member of your community. A great voice at the Vatican Council. Those were the days, but they’re gone now.”

Yes, those heady days are gone. Now we live in hard days.

But even in hard days, as the mystery of the Passion seems to overshadow all else, there are signs of Resurrection. The dinner we were attending Sunday evening was a fund-raiser for Providence Clinic, where poor people without insurance or funds in Monmouth County, NJ,  get treated by dedicated doctors and nurses. About 4,000 patients are taken care of yearly in this little clinic that started 14 years ago in a trailer in a church parking lot.

As the Director of the Clinic, Doctor Anna Sweany, remarked: “People came along and gave their help and their support.”

The clinic is a testimony to God’s providence. It would never have gotten started or continued through the years without God’s hidden, silent care. People “come along” and things are done.

Now they’re worried at Providence Clinic that some vital government funds will be withdrawn and they wont be able to meet their modest budget for this wonderful work.

Even in hard days, God offers signs of resurrection.  I’m hoping and praying Providence Clinic will continue to live up to its name.

Questions About God

 

At a wedding banquet some years ago, a little girl named Chelsea, a flower girl at the wedding, came up and asked if I wanted to see her walk on her heels. And she proceeded to show me how well she could do it.

Then she leaned over and said. “ Could I ask you something?’” I said “Sure.” She said “ What was God doing about a million years ago?”

Well, I had to think for a while about that. Then I said something like  “A million years ago, God was taking care of the sun in the sky, so that it could shine bright every day. And God was counting all the stars. God was making sure there were enough animals around, like giraffes.  About a million years ago, God was taking care of the world and everybody in it, and loved doing it.”

Children ask the best questions, questions that make us think about things we take for granted or maybe we’ve stopped wondering about. Or worse, we may think we know all the answers.

Some of the questions Jesus was asked are like that. “What does God want us to do?” Jesus is asked in today’s gospel. He answered; “God wants you to love him with all your heart, and all your  mind, and all your soul. And he wants you to love your neighbor as yourself.”

A curious child wouldn’t let it go at that. “What does loving God with all your heart, and all your mind and all your soul mean?” “How do you do that?” “”What’s does loving your neighbor like yourself mean?” “Who is my neighbor anyway?”

We should never stop asking those questions either. Questions about God and about love are big questions that open the windows of our minds to a bigger world and the way we live in it. They can make us grow.

I suppose that’s why Jesus told us that only by becoming a child will we enter the kingdom of heaven. Don’t lose the sense of wonder a child has. Don’t lose the curiosity of a child. Don’t lose the imagination of a child.

I think this is true especially in religious matters. “ I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.” What does that mean? “I believe in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.” What does that mean?

We need a childlike curiosity and imagination when we approach stories from scripture. My last blog was about an artist who tells the story of Martha and Mary and Jesus in Bethany. He had a wonderful childlike imagination. Take a look at the way at the way he tells that great story.

God meets us through the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. It’s a wonderful story. Let’s not make it too small or forget it.

The Coin of Tribute

Taxes. If you want to see people react strongly, just bring that subject up. Taxes are a big issue in politics and economics. Some  want to get rid of as many taxes as possible. Others say we need to rebalance our tax system to make it more equitable. We need to tax the rich more.

Sunday’s gospel (Matthew 22, 15-21) reminds us that controversy isn’t new. In Jesus’ day his enemies try to get him in trouble with a question about paying taxes to the emperor.

“Tell us, then, what is your opinion:

Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”

The census tax to Caesar was a tax levied on the Jews that required everyone to pay one denarius (the equivalent of one day’s pay) to the emperor in Rome every year. It was a very unpopular tax, one more burden to all the other taxes people had to pay.

Some Jewish nationalists at the time argued against the census tax and at one point started a revolt against paying it. The Romans judged them to be traitors and quickly put them to death. Rembrandt’s illustration above shows the Pharisees and the Herodians questioning Jesus about the coin of tribute, but notice the fellow on the staircase ready to run and inform on Jesus if he says the wrong thing.

If Jesus said “Don’t pay the tax,” his enemies could have reported him to the Roman authorities and they would have taken care of him. But his answer is more complex.

Show me the coin that pays the census tax.”

Then they handed him the Roman coin.

He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?”

They replied, “Caesar’s.””Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar

and to God what belongs to God.”

On that coin, Tiberias Caesar, the Roman Emperor then, was pictured as godlike, wearing a crown of victory. His word and will were supreme. In a very clever way, Jesus says to give him his due,  but he’s not God, though he may think he is. Caesar, his state, his government, his empire are under a higher authority. All life is under God.

That’s a basic lesson for us today too as we look at all levels of government,  from our national to our local governments. Governments are also under God.

What does that mean? It doesn’t mean that a government follow a particular religion. In pluralistic societies like ours, it’s not prudent for a particular church to dominate.  We believe in separating church and state.

But that does not mean that governments should respond only to the will of the majority or the will of the powerful or the will of the rich.  Governments have to respond to the needs of all,  to respect human rights, “ life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness.”

When governments become the tool of private interests or powerful majorities, they no longer are under God who cares for all, especially the poor and the sick and the slow.

Later on, after he’s arrested, Jesus appears before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, who condemns him to death.  It’s a dramatic meeting. Pilate is a symbol of what can go wrong in governments. He’s  more interested in keeping his job than seeing that justice is done.

The One who stands before him has no power, no influence, nothing to give the Roman governor. He’s innocent, but the injustice done to him doesn’t matter to Pilate. He’s helpless, but that matters less. Pilate sentences him to death. Jesus stands for our vulnerable humanity. Pilate is an example of pragmatic power, looking after its own interests.

The great tragedy of governments is that they fall in love with their own power and position. But the greater tragedy is that we let them.

Steve Jobs. A Secular Saint?

Some years ago that term was used to designate someone without any obvious connection with religion, yet who had the heroic virtue we usually associate with the saints.

As I listened to his address to graduates at Stanford University a few years ago, I thought the term could apply to Steve Jobs who died a few days ago. It was a remarkable address that any Christian preacher would admire and be happy to preach. I was especially moved by his respect for death as an advisor and mentor for life.

A solid spirituality. You hope the next generation would follow his example.

The other night on iTunes, one of Jobs’ wonderful contributions to the new digital world, I listened to a lecture (free) by Charles Taylor, author of The Secular Age, from Columbia University. Taylor objected to new atheists like Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens who want to banish religion from the world as a worthless and destructive force.

But he also objected to Christians denying the worth of secularists who work for the good of the world and its peoples.

There are secular saints as well as saints honored by the church.

Following Jesus Christ: Oct 4, 2011

Tonight we look at the resurrection story from the Gospel of Matthew, a mystery at the center of our faith. As St.Paul said, “If Christ is not risen, your faith is in vain.”

The gospels not only proclaim the resurrection of Jesus from the dead but see this central mystery of our faith shaping the way we live and think. Each gospel also presents this mystery to the church of its time. If we look carefully, we can see its relevance for the church of our time too. That’s true particularly of the Gospel of Matthew.

What was the Jewish-Christian church in Palestine or Syria like about 80 AD  when Matthew wrote? The followers of Jesus, mostly Jewish-Christians,  were facing hard times. They were being confronted by a resurgent Judaism led by the Pharisees. At the same time, gentiles were accepting the message of Jesus and seeking baptism.  As it faced a large influx of  strangers and attacks from its own people, this predominantly Jewish- Christian church was to be radically changed.

Recall that the temple and the city of Jerusalem had been completely destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, which caused many Jews led by the Pharisees to flee into Galilee and Syria and there begin to build up Judaism again. They saw the followers of Jesus, numerous in those regions, as a fringe group standing in the way of Jewish restoration, so a confrontation began. Jewish-Christians were being driven out of the synagogues in Galilee and a campaign was begun to discredit the Christian movement. Signs of that confrontation are evident in the chapters of Matthew’s Gospel.

This gospel responds to the situation by reminding Christians then that God’s plan is present even when things are uncertain. The Passion of Jesus is their guidebook. Did not Jesus live faithfully through the awful confusion of his arrest, his brutal treatment and his unfair death?  So, like him, should they face uncertainty and hardship. God brought him to new life; God would bring them to new life too.

The story of the Jewish guards at the tomb, unique to Matthew’s gospel, is an example of the Christian response to a story circulating at that time denying that Jesus rose from the dead, but claiming instead that his body was stolen by his followers.

You can see Matthew’s gospel, and all the gospels for that matter, insisting  that Jesus really died;  he experienced death in all its harsh reality. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he cries out after a long silence on Calvary. He was buried, then he rose again. Pilate and his soldiers become important, credible witnesses to his death and burial.

Jesus also really rose from the dead, Matthew’s gospel insists. Even as he died, the earth quakes, rocks are split and tombs we are opened.  An angel clothed like light sits triumphantly on the stone rolled away from an empty tomb. Death has been conquered.

What’s particularly interesting about Matthew’s resurrection account, however, is that  Jesus appears to his disciples, not in Jerusalem or at the tomb outside the city, but on a mountain in Galilee.  From there, he sends his disciples into the whole world to preach the gospel, baptizing in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

It’s true that, as the women run from the tomb to tell the disciples,  Jesus briefly appears and they “took hold of his feet and worshipped him.” (Matthew 28,9) But they’re off quickly to tell his disciples to go to Galilee “and there they will see me.”

A neutral observer on the scene in Galilee and Syria in those days might reasonably judge the followers of Jesus of Nazareth to be in bad straits. They were losing in their confrontation with their Jewish opponents and were being pushed out of their synagogues and their homeland.   In the following centuries, Christianity hardly survives in Galilee, where Jesus began his ministry. After the fall of Jerusalem it becomes a Jewish stronghold.

But that’s not the story Matthew tells. The Risen Jesus appears on a mountain in Galilee urging his followers to a new global mission.  A new step is to be taken to bring about the kingdom of God.

The eleven* disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them.

When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted.

Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.

Go, therefore,* and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit,

teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Matthew 28,16-20)

Matthew doesn’t forget that the Risen Christ emerged from the tomb in Jerusalem, but he sees him bringing new life and direction to his struggling church and his struggling followers in Galilee. The Risen Lord is where his followers are, leading them on. He leads them into the future, uncertain as it is. He commands them to leave Galilee which now, instead of a place where his church seems to be dying, is a place of hope and new beginnings. From a mountain he points to a beautiful unknown.

Jesus is not a simply a figure of the past; the Risen Jesus constantly calls his followers onward and accompanies them to a wider mission. His call is by no means obvious, though. Matthew alludes to the chronic uncertainty of Jesus’ disciples: “When they saw him they worshipped, but they doubted.”

Matthew’s Gospel could have been written for our church today. The Risen Jesus makes our church– to most observers a church in crisis and severe decline–  a place of hope and new beginnings. He gives us “resurrection thinking” – the ability to look into the ruins and see beyond them.

Just as his disciples learned to see not death but resurrection in what happened during Jesus’ last hours , so we need to immerse ourselves in these mysteries to gain eyes that really see.

Following Jesus Christ: Monday Night– Oct 3

Following Jesus Christ in St. Matthew’s Gospel into the days of his death and  resurrection, we hope to learn from him. In a previous post,  we considered lessons Jesus taught as he began his last days.

He recognized that God was with him, even as he faced death.  “Thy will be done,” Jesus taught his disciples to pray in Galilee. “Thy will be done,” Jesus cried trembling as he faced death before his arrest that dark night in Jerusalem. God’s with you, he says to us, even in life’s darkest moments.

It’s a lesson we hope to learn. We welcome God’s will when life’s good, but find it hard to accept when times are bad. “My thoughts are above your thoughts, and my ways above your ways,” God says. God’s plans are often hidden, like seed in the ground or treasure in a field. We find God’s plan especially hard to understand in suffering and death.

And so, many today deny a plan of God exists in our world. If God exists–and some would say he really doesn’t– God is uninvolved in our world in any way. Some say there are no plans at work in our world at all; life is random, without rhyme or reason; everything just happens.

Or some say life is what I want it to be. I can make it happen, and there’s no point in looking for God’s will. I decide.

We believe God has a plan and his plan is for our good. God’s wills our good, even though it may sometimes be hard to see.

“Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Jesus before Caiaphas

After his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus is taken to “Caiaphas the high priest, where the scribes and elders were assembled,”  Matthew’s Gospel continues. What shall we learn here?

Caiaphas’ residence would be somewhere in Jerusalem’s Upper City where influential Jews lived. It was an area close by the Temple and Herod’s Palace, where Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor also resided when he was in the city. Jesus would be taken to that well-to-do area of the city.

Recently, archeologists have excavated some of the homes of Jewish officials in the Upper City and they’ve found  Roman style villas with courtyards and elegant furnishings. They would be among the red-roofed buildings seen in the model below of Jerusalem at the Israel Museum.

Jesus would be judged and sentenced to death, scourged and crowned with thorns in the Upper City. His followers would be few there,  unlike Bethany where we said previously  he had strong support. 

Matthew presents Jesus’ appearance before the Jesus leaders in dramatic form. Caiaphas probes his identity thoroughly in what is more of a cross examination than a court trial.  At the same time Jesus is being questioned, Peter the Apostles is also  questioned.  Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, Peter strongly professed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God, now just as strongly he denies he ever knew him.

The gospel invites us into this story to ask what we say.  For Caiaphas Jesus is a trouble-maker or maybe a religious fanatic. He and his friends are worried that Jesus might start a revolution endangering all  they held dear.

Who do we say Jesus is? If he’s only a healer, a teacher, a social revolutionary with delusions of grandeur, then he’s only  another innocent person victimized by powerful enemies. Is he only another human being?

But if he’s God’s Son, the face of God to us, then he’s tremendously important to us and to our world.  “Who is he?” “Who is this who suffers and experiences such humbling?” “Why?”  are new questions before us.  God is here, and attention must be paid. Jesus, God in human form, not distant or untouched by human circumstances, suffers and dies and lives and loves as we do.

“Tell us under oath whether you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”   Caiaphas asks Jesus.

“You have said it,”  Jesus answers.

Jesus who prayed in fear in the garden, who feels abandoned and alone, whose sweat falls to ground as the dark engulfs him is the face of God before us. Jesus who gave himself to his disciples in bread and wine, who knelt before them in the Supper Room and washed their feet is the face of God. He comes humbly before us that we might meet him unafraid.

With Peter, we say “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” With Thomas, we say, “My Lord and my God.”

Notice how Matthew’s gospel strongly asserts the reality of Jesus’ human experience  He really suffers, he really fears, he really knows our sorrows and pains, for he has borne them himself.   He does not “seem” to be human, he is human.

“Why did be come among us?” we ask. Because God who lives in light inaccessible, wishes to draw us into his light. Jesus who shares our human experience leads us into that light.

We remember the Passion of Jesus to grow in love of him. His Passion is a book to be read over and over,  always wise, always new, always true. It leads us to peace. From its pages we know a loving God wants to be near us.

St. Paul of the Cross, the founder of my community, called the Passion of Jesus the door into the presence of God. It invites us to approach God bravely, to enter God’s presence with confidence and then rest in the presence of the God who loves you.

Judas

As the Jewish leaders send Jesus off to Pontius Pilate, Matthew recalls the tragic end of Judas, who betrayed Jesus. “I have sinned in betraying  innocent blood,” the disciple says as he flings the 30 pieces of silver into the temple. What lesson can be draw from this event?

“His second tragedy,” Pope Benedict says of Judas,”is that he can no longer  believe in forgiveness. His remorse turns into despair. Now he see only himself and his darkness; he no longer sees the light of Jesus, which can illumine and overcome the darkness. He shows the wrong type of remorse; the type unable to hope, that see only its own darkness.” (Jesus of Nazareth, p 68)

Judas would not believe the story of the Prodigal Son. Such sadness hangs over the fate of Judas. We learn from the tragedy of Judas to believe in God’s forgiveness, even for the greatest sinner.

When you read Matthew’s  account of the Passion  notice the gradual silence of Jesus. As the hours go by, his words become fewer and fewer. He works no obvious wonders, no obvious cures. His own power seems to slip away leaving him more and more helpless, and his powerful enemies more in control.

In the garden, he prays a short troubled prayer, over and over: “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me, yet not my will, but your will be done.”

He looks for the comfort of friends but finds none. They fall asleep and seem to not notice.  “Pray that you don’t enter temptation. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak,” Jesus tells them.

His words are few before Caiaphas. Quick to answer false charges before, he says nothing to the false witnesses bringing charges against him.  Only when Caiaphas directly asks if he is the Messiah, the Son of God,  does Jesus answer: “ You have said so. I tell you from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the power and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

Similarly, Jesus is mostly silent before Pilate. “Are you the king of the Jews?” Pilate asks him. “You say so,” Jesus answers. Then, he says no more.

He’s silent when the crowd calls for Barrabas; he has no words but cries of pain when the soldiers scourge him. He makes no response to their mockery as they lead him away to be crucified.

The only words he says towards the end in Matthew’s gospel–Mark’s Gospel also reports these words–  are the final words from psalm 22, which the evangelists quote in Aramaic, as well as Greek:  “My God, my God why have you forsaken me.?”

“It is not ordinary cry of abandonment. Jesus is praying the great psalm of suffering Israel, and so he is taking upon himself all the tribulation, not just of Israel, but of all those in this world who suffer from God’s concealment. He brings the world’s anguished cry at God’s absence before the heart of God himself. He identifies himself with suffering Israel, with all who suffer under “God’s darkness”; he takes their cry, their anguish, all their helplessness on himself–and in so doing he transforms it.” (Jesus of Nazareth, )

In the Passion of Jesus we find God as a companion, as “one like us in all things but sin.”

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Following Jesus Christ: Sunday Evening October 2, 2011

Reading from the Gospel of Matthew this evening, we follow Jesus Christ from Bethany, the town where he stayed when visiting Jerusalem, to the Upper Room in the city where he celebrates the Last Supper, to the Garden of Gethsemane where he prays in deep distress and is identified by Judas with a kiss and arrested. We come to learn from him.

Our gospel reading begins.

When Jesus finished all these words,* he said to his disciples, “You know that in two days’ time it will be Passover, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.” Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and they consulted together to arrest Jesus by treachery and put him to death. But they said, “Not during the festival,* that there may not be a riot among the people.”

Jesus is finished speaking, now his actions are his message. He calmly announces that he will be handed over “to be crucified.” The Jewish leaders also announce their plans, but the divine plan is far greater than theirs.  Their plan to eliminate Jesus because of the resurrection of Lazarus and Jesus’ symbolic action of cleansing the temple is based on political expediency–common enough in the world of politics– but it will serve  God’s greater plan.

God’s plan is there. It’s always there underneath, sometimes not seeming to be there at all, but it’s there. God’s plan is good, even though it’s goodness may be hidden. God’s plan is wise, even though it may not always seem wise. As he enters his Passion Jesus asks that “God’s will be done.”

This is an important  lesson Jesus would have us learn:  to trust in God’s plan and pray that “God’s will be done.” That’s what he did.

Notice that Jesus speaks “to his disciples,” in this passage. When Matthew’s gospel mentions disciples, it often means all those who will follow Jesus, not just those whom he called in his lifetime. So, he’s speaking to us as well as to them; we’re there in the stories we hear. We must recognize ourselves in the disciples who followed Jesus then.

A Gospel for Changing Times

Matthew’s gospel was written about the 80 AD, possibly in Galilee or Syria, where the followers of Jesus, mostly Jewish-Christians, were facing hard times. The temple and Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD and many Jews fled into Galilee and Syria to build up Judaism again. They saw the followers of Jesus as a fringe group opposed to Jewish restoration and they started to drive Christians out of the Jewish synagogues.

At the same time, gentiles were accepting the message of Jesus; Jewish Christians wondered what to do in changing times. Matthew gospel reminds them that God’s plan is at work underneath. Jesus recognized it in that uncertain time of his quick arrest,  his unfair sentence and brutal death.

Bethany

BETHANY 19th Century

Bethany’s on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives, about “two miles from Jerusalem” ( Jn, 11,18). It was Jesus’ home away from home. The town’s on the outskirts of Jerusalem,  up the road from Jericho and the Jordan Valley. I spent two week at the Passionist house in Bethany last November, and from the roof you can see down to the Dead Sea and the Judean desert. It’s the road Jesus would have walked to Jerusalem.

Bethany was the first place Galilean pilgrims came to as they approached the city to celebrate their feasts. They camped among the olive groves. They say the Mount of Olives was sometimes called the Mount of Galilee because of the many Galilean encampments there.

Martha, Mary and Lazarus welcomed Jesus to their home in Bethany. Along with his Galilean followers, they made Bethany a Galilee of believers.

Followers like them shouted “Son of David”  as Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. They accompanied him in temple. They provided Jesus with a protective shield so that, even though the Jewish leaders wanted to put him to death, they were “afraid of the people.” That’s why the leaders welcomed Judas, an insider, who could lead them to Jesus ‘when there was no crowd present.” (Luke 22, 6)

The Anointing at Bethany.

Now when Jesus was in Bethany in the house of Simon the leper,

a woman came up to him with an alabaster jar of costly perfumed oil, and poured it on his head while he was reclining at table.

When the disciples saw this, they were indignant and said, “Why this waste? It could have been sold for much, and the money given to the poor.”

Since Jesus knew this, he said to them, “Why do you make trouble for the woman? She has done a good thing for me. The poor you will always have with you; but you will not always have me.

In pouring this perfumed oil upon my body, she did it to prepare me for burial.

Amen, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be spoken of, in memory of her.”

Bethany  Mk 14,3-9; Mt 26, 6-13, Jn 12,1-8

The meal Jesus had in Bethany in the house of Simon the Leper “six days before Passover” was a meal with friends who believed in him and supported him. Did Jesus make Simon clean? Martha, Mary and Lazarus were there. Martha served and Lazarus sat at table with him. Mary took costly ointment and anointed his head, according the Matthew. John’s gospel says he anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair,” and the room was filled with the fragrance.

Like her sister Martha, Mary believed in resurrection. She knows the danger Jesus faces. The ointment is a human attempt to ward off the ravages of death, but it’s also a sign of hope and love. “She’s preparing my body for burial; she will never be forgotten for this.” Jesus says.

The Bethany meal prepares for the resurrection of Jesus. After raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus goes forth to defeat death itself. His resurrection will be different from that of Lazarus, sitting beside him at table. Lazarus came from the tomb the same man who was  buried four days earlier, and he’ll die again. But the Risen Jesus will know a more complete resurrection and will not die again.

The meal at Bethany points to resurrection.  But a dark side is here too.  “Then one of the twelve, Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, ‘What will you give me if I betray him to you?’ And they gave him thirty pieces of silver.”

Judas isn’t alone at the meal in Bethany. He’s not an isolated villain. There are rumblings of doubt and disagreement from  “all” the disciples, as the woman anoints Jesus.  “They were angry and said ‘ Why this waste? This ointment could be sold for much and given to the poor.’”

The woman’s faith is much stronger than theirs. As the gospels note, the women who were considered weak were the strongest believers in him. Later, after Jesus is risen, his male disciples will not believe the women who announce “He is alive!” The women were disciples who believed, the gospels say.

The Last Supper

The Meal at Bethany describes the love of a woman.  The Last Supper is about the love of Jesus for his weak disciples.

“His appointed time” had come;  Jesus  chooses to eat this supper at the time and place God gives him. The Passover Feast is near. We don’t know exactly where they ate the Last Supper, but a reliable early tradition says it was on Mount Zion, near the present location of the Cenacle. That puts the supper room close to the Jewish temple, and the time of the meal approximately before the time when the lambs for the Passover were to be slaughtered nearby.

At table Jesus becomes the new temple, the new presence of God in this world, the Lamb of God, replacing the temple sacrifices with the sacrifice of himself. He would would offer himself to his Father through the signs of  bread and the wine, which we take and eat and drink. How closer could God come to us than this?

Later, at his trial before the Jewish leaders, witnesses say he threatened to destroy the temple and rebuild it. His mission was not to destroy the temple, however, but to replace it as the Presence of God among us. Matthew’s gospel gives a condensed account of the Last Supper, reducing it to its essentials.

Matthew 26, 26-30

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and giving it to his disciples said, “Take and eat; this is my body.”* kThen he took a cup, gave thanks,* and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, from now on I shall not drink this fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it with you new in the kingdom of my Father.”

Just as at the meal in Bethany, the disciples hardly understand this mystery of love.

From the Supper Room Matthew’s gospel takes us to Gethsemane and as disciples we enter the story.   “Then, Jesus came with them to the place called Gethsemane and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I go over there and pray.’” Then, three disciples accompany Jesus deeper into the garden; we are to look on from our distance.

“My soul is sorrowful even to death.* Remain here and keep watch with me. ”He advanced a little and fell prostrate in prayer, saying, “My Father,* if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.”

The Mount of Olives was a place of prayer in Jewish tradition. King David went thee to pray after his betrayal in the city by his son Absalom. Jesus, the Son of David, now goes  to pray on this mountain. Across the valley, he could see the temple of God and the walls of Jerusalem. He wept over these places before from this mountain.

Here Jesus faces death as all of us do, and he experiences it in all its force. The disciples fall sleep, and so he loses all  human support. His death comes, not from old age, or a chance accident, but from human injustice and malice. His death will be death of the worst kind.  Prostrate on the ground, emptied of everything, alone, he prays to his Father that this cup pass from him and  yet “not what I will, but what you will.”

By entering the mystery of death, Jesus changed death forever.

We wonder where death comes from. We want to live. But in death we seem to lose life and everything we know and love. Even God seems to abandon us at death. “My God, my God, why have your abandoned me?” Jesus says from the cross.

St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Chapters 4-5)  connects death with sin. Death is where we experience our distance from God and from the life that God gives. That’s also what sin does.

And so, when Jesus comes as our Savior and Redeemer, he comes to save us from sin and death. He enters that the same dark moment that we experience; he fears it as we do; and he changes to a moment of salvation.  “Dying, you destroyed our death; Rising, you restored our life.”

We believe that Jesus Christ, our Savior and Redeemer, is with us when we die. He experienced that same mystery we experience. He is there at that moment as our merciful Lord, who welcomes poor sinners like ourselves.

Let’s not forget the disciples in this account. They remind us of ourselves. They are not  onlookers. Jesus calls them to pray with him, for they’re facing trials too. As disciples, we must pray too. Jesus prayed for heavenly strength, more so must we pray, or else or we can fail  when trials come.

The drowsiness, the sleep of the disciples, a sign of their forgetfulness of this mystery is a sign of our forgetfulness too. “Stay awake!” Jesus says in the gospel.

“Nowhere else in sacred Scripture do we gain so deep an insight into the inner mystery of Jesus as in the prayer on the Mount of Olives.” (Benedict XVI}

Sunday Night at Mission

Tonight, we are going to visit three important events in the life of Jesus, which I notice  are pictured in the windows of the church here in St. Clement’s, Matawan.

 

They are all found in St. Matthew’s Gospel:

 

  1. The Supper at Bethany
  2. The Last Supper
  3. The Agony of Jesus in the Garden.

 

Here are pictures of two of the windows.