Monthly Archives: March 2015

Mission in Marlboro

I’m preaching a mission at St. Gabriel Parish, Marlboro, New Jersey, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, March 30, April 1-2, “Finding Jesus in the Gospel of Mark.” On Monday at 7 PM I’m speaking about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry described in the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel. On Tuesday at 7PM  the Passion of Jesus. Wednesday evening at 7 is the parish penance service. Each morning I’m celebrating the 9AM Mass.

St. Gabriel’s has a fine audio-visual setup which offers an opportunity for some material on the Holy Land I’ve gathered through the years.

Mark’s gospel, influenced by the apostle Peter, says that Jesus goes immediately to Galilee after John’s arrest, to the Sea of Galilee, to Capernaum where Peter the fisherman and other followers lived with their families.

Luke’s gospel, on the other hand, has Jesus beginning his ministry in the synagogue of his hometown of Nazareth. John’s gospel has Jesus begin his ministry at a marriage feast in the neighboring town of Cana

Clearly, Mark has chosen Peter’s story. “He came first to Capernaum, my town, to my synagogue; he lived in my house.” Peter would say. Interestingly, Mark does not dwell on the baptism of Jesus by John as the other gospels do. His account of Jesus’ baptism is the shortest.

A recent segment of the CNN special on “Finding Jesus” claimed that Jesus was a disciple of John, a follower who did what John his mentor did and taught as his mentor taught. Mark’s gospel tells a different story. Jesus proclaimed the kingdom, not in the desert as John did, but in the towns and synagogues of Galilee and in the city of Jerusalem. John avoided all these places.

In fact, Jesus choses first the towns and synagogues of Galilee. He lives in Peter’s home in Capernaum; he goes into gentile territory and announces God’s kingdom there. He makes his way to Jerusalem.

John waits in the desert for the Day of the Lord which he expects soon. But Jesus enters the world of his day, to its towns and cities, its synagogues and homes. He travels to the wider gentile world across the Sea of Galilee to announce the Kingdom of God and a time of mercy.

You wish the creators of specials like CNN’s would take a better look at the gospels. There’s great artistry and spiritual teaching in the simple details of Mark’s gospel. Great drama. Great truth.

Palm Sunday B: My God, My God, why?


The Gospel of Mark, the first of the gospels to appear in written form, presents Jesus going to death in utter desolation, draining the cup of suffering given him by his Father. His enemies viciously reject him; his disciples mostly betray or desert him. Only a few remain as he goes on his way. His cry from the cross is a cry of faith mingled with deep fear and sorrow: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

This gospel, taut and fast-paced, brings us into the dark mystery of suffering that Jesus faced. We face it too. This mystery leads to life, a risen life.

The desolation Jesus faced took many forms, some quite hidden from our eyes and understanding. Yes, the cross means physical pain, but suffering can also come from spiritual and psychological experiences. Paul of the Cross spoke of this to a priest of his community who was experiencing the cross of spiritual desolation. God’s grace would lift him up to bring life to someone else, the saint assured him. The mystery of the cross never ends in death.

“From what you tell me of your soul, I, with the little or no light that God gives me, tell you that the abandonment and desolation, and the rest you mention, are precisely preparing you for greater graces that will help you in the ministry for which his Divine Majesty has destined you either now or at some other time. Of that I have no doubt.” (letter 1217)


let me hear joy and gladness,

let the bones you have crushed rejoice…

Restore to me the joy of your salvation. Ps. 51

Words from the Cross

Christ crowned

Jesus spoke the language of his time and place, and so in his Passion he used the Jewish scriptures, especially the psalms, to speak of his suffering. In Mark’s gospel his only words on the cross are from Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” It’s a cry of lament, one of the longest psalms in the psalter. The psalm is a window into Jesus’ thoughts and feelings as he suffered and died.

In the psalm we hear the voice of someone suffering so much that they feel abandoned by God. Life and hope seem gone, the blessings of God taken away, but still they hold on. The psalm ends with a cry of faith: “God did not turn away from me, but heard me when I cried out.”

The psalm is a vivid description of real, acute pain Jesus endured:

“Like water my life drains away;
all my bones are disjointed.
My heart has become like wax,
it melts away within me.
As dry as a potsherd is my throat;
my tongue cleaves to my palate;
you lay me in the dust of death.”

There’s no relief in his suffering, no comfort from the abuse of his enemies:

“ I am a worm, not a man, scorned by men,
despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
they curl their lips and jeer;
they shake their heads at me:
“He relied on the LORD—let him deliver him;
if he loves him, let him rescue him.”

The love he knew all his life, from childhood and his mother’s womb, the respect he had from his years of his ministry, the warmth of God’s presence seem gone. Where is God, the psalm complains “ who drew me forth from my mother’s womb and made me safe from my mother’s breast?”

“They have pierced my hands and my feet
I can count all my bones.
They stare at me and gloat;
they divide my garments among them;
for my clothing they cast lots.”

It’s evident that the gospel writers later used this psalm to frame the story of the Passion of Jesus.

Paul the Apostle says in his Letter to the Philippians, that Jesus ” who was in the form of God, emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, and coming in human likeness and found human in appearance, he humbled himself becoming obedient to death, even to death on a cross.”

Jesus became human, Paul says, even taking on the humanity of a slave dying on a cross. Far from being immune to suffering or the human experience of death, Jesus took on the darkest form of human experience: he became a slave on a cross.

Psalm 22 gives no answer for the suffering it describes. It says only that God does not abandon his creatures when suffering occurs, even suffering of the worst kind.

God does not abandon Jesus on the Cross, Paul tells the Philippians. He “ greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
that is above every name,

that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.”

In other words, God raised Jesus from the dead and glorified him. Again, there is no answer for suffering, but we have a promise in Jesus of resurrection. It’s the resurrection even of a slave on the cross. In Jesus’ death we’re assured that God is present to those who seem most abandoned. God’s love enters the most desperate circumstances and most unpromising situations.

“God so loved the world that he sent his only Son,” John’s gospel says.
Nothing in creation or humanity is abandoned by God, the creator. We know this because God sent his Son into the world, not to condemn it, but to save it and give it life.

We look at Jesus on the Cross, not just to take stock of his sufferings or mourn them; but to draw hope for ourselves and our world from them. This is a blessed mystery. We bend our knee before it and confess with our tongue, that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior.

5th Sunday of Lent: Strengthening Signs


To listen to today’s homily select the audio below:

Our gospel today (John 12,20-33) is part of the Palm Sunday event, when crowds acclaimed Jesus by casting palm branches before him as he entered Jerusalem, crying “Hosanna to the Son of David.” We will celebrate that aspect of his entrance into Jerusalem next Sunday.

But this Sunday we enter into the mind of Jesus as he enters the city. He’s troubled as he enters the city, as well may he be. “My soul is troubled now, yet what shall I say, “Father, save me from this hour. But it was for this hour I have come.”

He understands what’s going to happen to him. It’s a critical moment. Jerusalem’s religious establishment, resenting his words and actions, want to dispose of him. He has just raised Lazarus from the dead; his popularity is growing; he could easily topple the uneasy balance at a volatile time and place for the Jewish nation.

So he enters Jerusalem a marked man. But as he enters the city, he’s given a sign to strengthen him, a very simple sign. Some Greeks, pilgrims for the feast no doubt, approach Philip and Andrew and say, “We would like to see Jesus.” In their request and eagerness to meet him, Jesus sees the lasting fruitfulness of his mission on earth. “Like a grain of wheat I will fall to the ground and die,..”

The gospel of John is known for signs like this, signs that point to glory. They are signs that say it is not the end, but the beginning. The Greeks who come as Jesus approaches his death are like the Magi at his birth. They are people from afar, we don’t see what will happen by the coming, but they are the first of many. There will be consequences of their coming, People will come from the east and the west; they will come from centuries beyond his own.

Like a grain of wheat, he falls to the ground and dies, but his life and his death bring much fruit .

We ask the Lord to help us see signs like he saw, signs so small, like a grain of wheat, they may be missed.
Yes, signs are there in our lives, especially as we struggle. Sometimes it’s an outsider whom we never expected help from at all. Sometimes it’s something unexpected we never thought about before. Sometimes it’s as small as Bread, the Bread of the Eucharist, which tells us we shall be fed.
God works great wonders, but we know them most through simple signs: words, things, moments that seem like nothing but they tell us all will be well.

The Greeks who came to Jesus were like that. They told him all will be well.

The Passionists: Who are They?


I’ll be preaching this Wednesday evening, March 18, at 7:30 at Mary, Mother of Jesus Church in Brooklyn. Their mission series this year is inspired by the Year of the Consecrated Life, in which the Catholic Church remembers the role of its religious communities. On Wednesday I’ll be speaking about St. Paul of the Cross and the Passionists.

I’ll talk about the life of St. Paul of the Cross and his impact on the world of his time and then lead the group in a meditation on the Passion of Jesus. Paul was one of the great spiritual figures of the 18th century; I’ve written about him on my blog. He’s worth knowing today.

Paul thought the world was falling into a forgetfulness of the Passion of Jesus, the great sign of God’s love, the mystery that reveals the wisdom and power of God. He carried a large cross with him from place to place where he preached and pointed to it as a book that opened up to us the mysteries of God.

The community he founded, the Passionists, are among those groups who embrace the consecrated life in the church today. We strive to follow Paul of the Cross in holding up the Passion of Jesus to a forgetful world as a sign of hope and God’s love.

4th Sunday of Lent B: Unbelief and Skepticism

Audio version below:

Today there’s a great deal of unbelief and skepticism about God and Jesus Christ in our society. I’m watching the CNN series on Jesus on Sunday nights during Lent called “Finding Jesus.” If the remaining segments are like the two I’ve seen so far, I think you will have to find Jesus elsewhere than on CNN. You may end up wondering whether you can find him at all or– just as unfortunate– wondering whether finding him is worthwhile.

Last Sunday’s segment was about John the Baptist. To tell you the truth, as they dramatized John’s life, I found him peculiar and unstable. I don’t think I would follow him and I certainly wouldn’t want him to dunk me into a river of water. The segment suggested that John was the teacher of Jesus, his mentor. I’m wondering what the next episodes are going to be like. Is Jesus going to be portrayed like John? If he is, I wouldn’t want to follow him either.

The mainstream media by nature is skeptical, so it keeps asking questions like: Did Jesus really exist? What did he look like? What are the facts about his birth, his life and his death? Are other gospels out there that contradict the four we know? Have the archeologists found out anything more about him? Was he married? Is there anything new about him?

Nothing wrong with most of those questions except that questions alone wont get you the truth. You can  get buried under facts. You can try to know too many facts. Knowing the facts isn’t necessary to start a friendship, get married, to begin a business, to make a medical decision, or to believe.

But we shouldn’t be surprised– there’s always been unbelief and skepticism. Our first reading this Sunday from the Old Testament tells us that:. “In those days, all the princes of Judah, the priests, and the people added infidelity to infidelity…Early and often did the LORD, the God of their fathers, send his messengers to them”… “But they mocked the messengers of God, despised his warnings, and scoffed at his prophets.” Their unbelief led to destruction and exile. (2 Chronicles, 36,14-16) Skepticism and unbelief are nothing new.

In the New Testament passage from John, Nicodemus meets Jesus, but he only comes at night. He’s someone who’s reluctant to believe. He is a Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling body of Jews at the time of Jesus. He’s interested in what Jesus has to say but he’s hesitant, perhaps because he’s in the minority, so it’s not the popular thing to do. Or perhaps he can’t understand the dimensions of what Jesus reveals. Jesus speaks of a greater life, a new birth, and Nicodemus can only grasp life as he sees it and lives it.

Some today are reluctant to believe for the same reasons, so they keep asking questions, or give up seeking altogether. You might be in the minority if you believe, for example. You wont be popular with everybody if you believe. You may be confused or uncertain or wondering about the faith you are asked to hold onto.

The interesting thing is the God doesn’t give up on the unbeliever or those like Nicodemus who are uncertain or confused or questioning. God meets you in the night. So come to God with the faith you have. Why doesn’t God give up on us? Listen again to our reading from John’s gospel.

Jesus said to Nicodemus:
“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert,
so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him might not perish
but might have eternal life.
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,
but that the world might be saved through him.

God so loved the world. And the great sign of God’s love is the death of Jesus on the Cross. What greater sign of love could God give?

CNN and John the Baptist

Last night I watched the second of the CNN series entitled Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery, on Sunday evenings during lent. This segment concentrated on John the Baptist. It was partially a dramatization of John’s life, his baptism of Jesus and his own death at the hands of Herod, Salome and her daughter. Periodically scriptural scholars were introduced to comment on John and Jesus. Also interspersed through the segment were reports on the search for the relics of John.

I’m afraid I didn’t like John too much as he was portrayed, fiercely striding through the desert shouting out warnings of a coming judgment. A scary, unstable figure, he seemed to me. Why would anyone want to follow him and let him dunk you in water? The scholarly experts on the program in their comments seemed to be talking about someone else, not the figure portrayed in the series. Were they ever introduced to the dramatic side of the production they were part of, I wonder?

John was the mentor of Jesus according to the dramatization, which makes me wonder how Jesus will be portrayed in the series’ later segments. Will Jesus be another John? I hope not.

John taught Jesus the Lord’s Prayer, the series’ narrator claimed, and Jesus taught it to his disciples in turn. One of the scholarly experts, a young woman who teaches at Notre Dame University, when asked later on her Facebook page what she thought about that, said she didn’t agree with the interpretation. Too bad she didn’t say that on the program itself. What are scholars for if not to keep things in perspective?

Speaking of scholarly perspective, here’s a quote about John the Baptist from Rudolf Schnackenberg, a good New Testament scholar. Obviously he doesn’t see John as the mentor of Jesus.

“When John speaks of the One who is to come, he is thinking of an executor of divine judgment, not so much of him through whom God’s mercy and love are made visible. He expects the kingdom of God to arrive in a storm of violence, in the immediate future, with the Messiah’s first appearance. This vision gives to his summons to conversion its urgent, compelling tone, increased further by the appearance of renunciation and flight from the world which he presents in his own person. From what we know of his preaching, he seems transfixed by the vision of the judgment and finds nothing to say about the salvation the Messiah will bring.” ( Rudolf Schnackenberg Christian Existence in the New Testament, Volume 1, University of Notre Dame 1968, p 39)

3rd Sunday of Lent: Jesus comes to CNN


To listen to today’s homily, select the audio file below:

CNN is running a series on Jesus at 9 on Sundays this Lent exploring the usual questions the networks and cable TV like to explore. Did Jesus really exist? Is that his image on the Shroud of Turin? Are other gospels out there that contradict the four we know? Have the archeologists found out anything about him? Was he married?

According to The Hollywood Reporter the CNN series entitled Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact and Forgery was viewed by over 1 million people last week and beat out all other networks. I watched the first episode on the Shroud of Turin last week.

I was glad to see the advice Father James Martin, SJ, offered on the CNN site about a series like this one:

“With Lent beginning, and a new CNN series on Christ coming up, you’re going to hear a lot about Jesus these days. You may hear revelations from new books that purport to tell the “real story” about Jesus, opinions from friends who have discovered a “secret” on the Web about the Son of God, and airtight arguments from co-workers who can prove he never existed.

Beware of most of these revelations; many are based on pure speculation and wishful thinking. Much of what we know about Jesus has been known for the last 2,000 years.”

Father Martin’s right. A lot of the supposed new revelations and new disclosures about Jesus are unproven and based on speculation and wishful thinking. They don’t negate what we have long known about Jesus. So, I’m not waiting for the final word on the Shroud of Turin to decide whether Jesus existed or not.

The media often rely on stuff like this–sometimes true, sometimes not– to get an audience. Ratings are important to them, but it’s not a good idea to rely on CNN or any of the mainstream media as your main source of information about Jesus. You can end up wondering if we can know him at all.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t ask questions or take into account new perspectives and information about Jesus. Not at all. We probably know more about his times and culture than has been known for centuries. We have a better understanding of the bible and the New Testament today, thanks to the efforts of modern scholars. Our challenge today is to incorporate what we know now into the faith we have.

For instance, I can listen to John’s gospel describing Jesus entering the temple in Jerusalem. (the gospel we’re reading the 3rd Sunday of Lent) I can visualize that temple. There’s a wonderful model of it created by archeologists and historians in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. In fact, they have created a model of the whole city of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus.

Dominating the city, the temple was one of the great buildings of the world. It was the religious and political center of the Jewish world of the time. God was present there. It was the center of worship and politics.

When Jesus went into the temple and overturned the tables of the money-changers and those who sold the animals he was challenging the religious and political establishment of his time. It was a dramatic symbolic gesture by which he claimed that the kingdom of God was greater than all the beauty, all the power, all the splendor of our earthly kingdoms. He wasn’t just asking for reform; he was announcing a new world. It was present in him. He was the true temple. In his dying and rising he brought resurrection and new life to our world.

Do I think this happened? Yes, I do. Is this what our gospel today is saying? Yes, it is. Jesus made a tremendous claim during his lifetime. He claimed to be divine, to be God’s Son, to be God himself.
“God from God, light from light” we say in our creed. “Born of the Virgin Mary, he suffered under Pontius Pilate, he was crucified, died and was buried, and on the third day he rose again.”
He will come again to judge the living and the dead. He’s told us there is a forgiveness of sins, a resurrection of the body and life everlasting. He’s with us all days. He’s with us now.

CNN and the Holy Shroud


I watched CNN’s segment on The Holy Shroud of Turin on my computer last night. According to the Hollywood Reporter it topped the ratings last Sunday evening. Over 1 million people watched the first part of Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery.

The narrator began the program: “Jesus Christ, he changed the course of world history yet the most famous man that ever lived left no physical trace, or did he?” For most of the program it looked like the answer was going to be “Yes, the shroud is an authentic witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus.” But in the final moments it was declared a medieval forgery.

But wait. Maybe not. All the evidence may not be in. Come back next year to see what CNN has uncovered. There was a hint as the program ended of more to come.

Like so many religious programs from the mainstream media, Finding Jesus. Faith.Fact.Forgery presumes we don’t know much about Jesus at all. Finding him means sifting through a jumble of faith, facts and forgeries. So far, there’s not much, but eventually we’ll learn more. We’ll get it right. Until then, suspend judgment till we have more facts.

If we follow CNN, finding Jesus is a long way off.

If the shroud is a medieval forgery I wondered why CNN spent so much time reconstructing the story of the Passion of Jesus from it as they did. Their reconstruction was along the lines that Mel Gibson used in his blockbuster The Passion of the Christ. Blood and violence are popular tools of the media these days.

The four gospels don’t use that approach in describing the Passion of Jesus, nor do they care to describe what Jesus looked like, another concern of the CNN special.

The claim of programs like Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery that we have no physical traces of Jesus can be disputed, of course. In his day, eyewitnesses, real people, saw Jesus, ate with him, accompanied him. Their recollections are found in the gospels and letters they left or inspired. True, they’re not like the historical documents we have today, but substantial evidence is there just the same.

For most believers these are facts enough. More might come to light, but will they change the basic story about him? I don’t think so.

So we don’t have to stay on page 1 with CNN, waiting for more facts. Certainly we need to ask questions about Jesus, but questions of a deeper kind. What does it mean to follow him? What can we learn from him? We need to hold on to the signs he left us and ask: what does it mean to have his kingdom come to our world? Those questions are all in our Creed.

I don’t think we need the Shroud of Turin or CNN for that.

One more thing. What Jesus looked like is another concern of the CNN special. In the recent issue of The Hollywood Reporter, there’s a piece entitled “Jesus in Film and TV: 13 Devilishly Handsome Actors Who’ve Played the Son of God.”
There were the pictures of all the devilishly handsome actors who played Jesus in the movies or on television. None looks like Jesus to me. I go with Paul who says in his Letter to the Philippians that Jesus took on the form of a slave. If we met him on the street, we wouldn’t recognize him at all. But Hollywood can’t believe that.