Tag Archives: Liturgy

The Passion of John the Baptist: Mark 6:14-29

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Mark’s gospel today tells the gruesome story of the death of John the Baptist, which prefigures the death of Jesus. King Herod ordered his death, prompted by Herodias. Human sinfulness is on display in this court banquet, which the artist (above) describes very well. The women smugly presenting John’s head. The man pointing his finger at Herod and Herod denying it all. John’ eyes are still open, his mouth still speaks.

Venerable Bede says that John’s death is like Jesus’ death because they both embraced the same values.  If John stayed silent about Herod’s conduct, he may have gained a few peaceful years of life, but he was more concerned with what God thought than what powerful people on earth thought.

“His persecutor had demanded not that he should deny Christ, but only that he should keep silent about the truth. Nevertheless, he died for Christ. Does Christ not say: I am the truth?

He preached the freedom of heavenly peace, yet was thrown into irons by ungodly men; he was locked away in the darkness of prison, though he came bearing witness to the Light of life.

“But heaven notices– not the span of our lives, but how we live them, speaking the truth.” (Bede, Homily)

Wonderful line: It doesn’t matter how many years we live, but how we live them, “speaking the truth.”

For John that meant dying for the truth. What does it mean for us? It may not mean getting our heads chopped off, but we should expect some scars from the daily battle for God’s truth. ” May we fight hard for the confession of what you teach.” (Opening prayer)

The Wisdom of Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Acquinas

The feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, January 28th, in my student days was a day for presentations honoring the saint. The presentations were not about the saint’s life but his wisdom. Thomas Aquinas was a great theologian dedicated to the search for truth.

He was a man of faith, searching for understanding. That’s the definition of theology–faith seeking understanding, an understanding that draws us closer to God and helps us know God, the source of all truth.

He was a man of questions, who approached great mysteries through questions. That’s the way St. Thomas begins a sermon he once preached, found today in the Office of Readings for his feast:

 “Why did the Son of God have to suffer for us?” he asks as he looks at the Cross of Jesus. The passion of Jesus was necessary, the saint says, for two reasons. First, as a remedy for sin, and secondly, as an example of how to act.

Interestingly, the saint doesn’t spend much time asking why it’s a remedy for sin. He’s more interested in the passion of Jesus as an example for us. To live as we should, we need to look at Jesus on the cross, an example of every virtue:

“Do you want an example of love? ‘Greater love than this no one has, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ That’s what Jesus did on the cross. If he gave his life for us, then it should not be difficult to bear whatever hardships arise for his sake.

“If you want patience, you will find no better example than the cross. Great patience occurs in two ways: either when one patiently suffers much, or when one suffers things which one is able to avoid and yet does not avoid.

“Christ endured much on the cross, and did so patiently, because when he suffered he did not threaten; he was led like a sheep to the slaughter and he did not open his mouth. Therefore Christ’s patience on the cross was great. In patience let us run for the prize set before us, looking upon Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith who, for the joy set before him, bore his cross and despised the shame.

“If you want an example of humility, look upon the crucified one, for God wished to be judged by Pontius Pilate and to die.

“If you want an example of obedience, follow him who became obedient to the Father even unto death. For just as by the disobedience of one man, namely, Adam, many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one man, many were made righteous.

“If you want an example of despising earthly things, follow him who is the King of kings and the Lord of lords, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Upon the cross he was stripped, mocked, spat upon, struck, crowned with thorns, and given only vinegar and gall to drink.

“Do not be attached, therefore, to clothing and riches, because they divided my garments among themselves. Nor to honours, for he experienced harsh words and scourgings. Nor to greatness of rank, for weaving a crown of thorns they placed it on my head. Nor to anything delightful, for in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.”

St. Thomas’ great theological work, the Summa Theologica can be found here.

Remembering the Baptism of Jesus

On the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem  a high tower (above) was built in the last century by the Russian government to allow Christian pilgrims an observation point to see the key places associated with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Looking westward is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where he was crucified and rose from the dead. Just down below is the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed and was arrested. In the distance to the southeast is Bethlehem where he was born. On the eastern side of the Mount of Olives where this picture was taken is the village of Bethany where Jesus stayed when he came to Jerusalem and where he raised Lazarus from the dead. Further east, about 20 miles down the Jordan Valley is where he was baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist.

The tower was built, I understand, for pilgrims who couldn’t always get to all of these places because of age, or the pressure of time or perhaps because it was unsafe to travel to one of these destinations. That was especially true for the 20 mile trip to the Jordan River.

The tower attests the importance of  the journey to the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized. The Baptism of Jesus is a mystery that includes all the mysteries of Jesus we celebrate as Christians. That’s why we celebrate it as we conclude the mysteries of the Christmas season. In our baptism we are brought to share in his baptism and in his life.

In the Jordan River,  God the Father, “a voice from heaven,” proclaimed him “my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1,11) We believe that when we are baptized we become children of God with him, with us he is pleased.

As we touch Holy Water with our hands and bless ourselves, we remember the great gift we have in Jesus Christ. “In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

December 23: Birth of John the Baptist

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Luke’s gospel today recalls in detail the birth of John the Baptist before the birth Jesus and his later mission. “The hand of the Lord was with him. The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel.” (Luke 1:80)

Just as Luke recognizes the role of Mary and Joseph in the birth and raising of Jesus, he recognizes the role of Elizabeth and Zechariah in the birth and raising of John. Each help John grow and become strong in spirit. However lonely and independent he appears later in the gospels, John was influenced by them and the extended family that surrounded him from his birth.

Luke’s gospel often see one person’s fidelity influencing another. “The hand of the Lord was with him,” Luke writes, but human hands were on him as well.

John had faith like his mother Elizabeth who recognized the Spirit’s presence in her pregnant relation Mary visiting from Nazareth. John later would point out the Lamb of God among all those who came to the Jordan River for baptism.

He had faith like his father Zechariah who devoutly celebrated the mysteries of God in the temple of Jerusalem as a priest. At his birth, Zechariah signs away the gift of his name– and probably his hope that his son would follow in his steps. John would have a different calling. At the Jordan River, John called pilgrims to prepare the way of the Lord in their own hearts as they made their way to the temple and the Holy City, Jerusalem.

Undoubtedly, John was a unique figure, a messenger from God, a voice in the desert preparing the Lord’s way. But there were faithful people behind him, as they are behind us.

Don’t forget either his relative, Mary of Nazareth. At the end of his account of her visit with Elizabeth, Luke mentions “Mary stayed with her for three months, then returned to her home.” (Luke 1:56) That would mean she stayed on till the birth of John, wouldn’t it?

I don’t see Mary in the icon of John’s birth (above), but she must have been there. Were there other times too these families met? Artists portray the children playing together later. They could be right. We influence one another more than we think.

Thursday: 1st Week of Advent

Readings:

Isaiah 26:1-6:  On the day of the Lord those who depend on God will enter God’s city.

Matthew 7: 21-24-27:  Build your house on rock.

Ancient peoples often built their cities on rocky heights  because they were the safest places to live.  With water and food and strong defenses, they were less likely to be invaded. That’s why the Jews chose Jerusalem, built high on rock. It was a safe place.

But Isaiah warns against depending on natural resources or human skills and plans alone. Don’t rely on them; they can’t always  save you. The strongest city becomes “a city of chaos” that falls apart without God.

God builds the strong city, the prophet says; he is our Rock, our strong city, and he admits into its gates “ a nation that is just; one that keeps faith.”

Build your  lives on rock, Jesus says in the gospel. Don’t rely on a token faith (Lord, Lord) to save you or be like fools who build on sand .

“Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them

will be like a wise person who built a house on rock.”

Questions:

A secular society like ours often sees religion as a destructive force or a brake on progress. It turns to  “human reason” alone? How can we depend on God in society today?

How do you build your personal life on rock?

“It is better to take refuge in the LORd, than to trust in man.                                                                                                    It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in princes.” 
(Psalm 118)

Our Lady of Sorrows: September 15

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The Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows is celebrated the day after the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (September 14). It’s also eight days after Mary’s birth (September 7). So this feast, we should remember, recalls Mary’s sorrows, her lifelong sorrows. 

When Jesus was born, the old man Simeon  told Mary a sword would pierce her heart. Today’s readings and prayers recall her final experience of that sword, when she stood beneath the Cross of her Son. But Mary experienced sorrow all her life. She is Our Lady of Sorrows. An earlier feast, the Seven Sorrows of Mary, made her lifelong sorrows more explicit.   

What were Mary’s lifelong sorrows? She was a human being and a believer. She experienced what all human beings experience- we’re contingent beings. An infant cries as it enters this world. “Our life is over like a sigh. Our span is seventy years, or eighty for those who are strong. And most of these are emptiness and pain.” (Psalm 90) You hear that complaint often in the psalms. It’s a human complaint.

Faith doesn’t inoculate us against sorrow. We don’t see clearly the promises of God. Mary, like every believer, experienced the sorrow that comes from not knowing. Her life, like ours, was not immune to sorrow.

The sword of sorrow struck Mary most deeply at the death of her Son. Mark’s gospel describes some onlookers at Jesus’ crucifixion: There were also women looking on from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of the younger James and of Joses, and Salome.” They were looking on from a distance, not emotionally distanced. They were deeply engaged in the sorrow before them.  (Mark 15, 40-41) 

John’s gospel brings some of the women closer.  Mary, the Mother of Jesus stands at the cross itself. “Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.”

Mary stands by the Cross of Jesus, close by, not at a distance. She’s not absorbed in her own suffering, not afraid to see. Her standing by the Cross is significant. She enters the mystery of her Son’s suffering through compassion. 

She stood by him. Compassion doesn’t experience another’s suffering exactly, and it may not lead to taking another’s suffering away. Compassion enters suffering to break the isolation suffering causes. It helps someone bear their burden.  The sword, the spear, the sorrow, pierces both hearts, in different ways.

Our prayer for today’s feast says that when her Son “was lifted high on the Cross” his mother stood by and shared his suffering. “Grant that your Church, participating with the Virgin Mary in the Passion of Christ, may merit a share in his Resurrection.

Where is the Passion of Lord? It’s in the human lives of each one of us. It’s in the poor. It’s in the earth we’re destroying. Sometimes we can do something to relieve that suffering. Like Mary, we’re always called to stand close by as she did, and see. 

For a commentary on John’s Gospel see here.

For a study on Mary on Calvary see here.

For readings for the feast and the Stabat Mater see here.

The Calendar on the Kitchen Door


About this time every year when I was a boy, my mother would put up on the kitchen door the calendar we got from church. She marked down the anniversaries of family deaths and birthdays and other celebrations coming along, and she added other dates as the days passed. The pictures on the calendar interested me most then. When we put up the calendar, we were ready for the days ahead.

The calendar’s still a good way to get ready for the days ahead. “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart,” one of the psalms says.

Our calendars today may be on our computers instead of the kitchen door. They’ve also changed in a number of ways since the Second Vatican Council. For one thing, our church calendars today list the scripture readings read at Mass for the weekdays and Sundays throughout the year. They open the treasures of our faith for us.

Our calendars alert us to the main feasts and seasons, Christmas and Easter, advent and lent, celebrated by the whole church throughout the year. The general calendar also lists the days for celebrating saints honored the world over, such as Mary, the Mother of Jesus, the apostles, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Theresa of Avila and others.

The council left countries and regions to decide on some celebrations of their own. In our particular calendar here in the United States, for example, we celebrate Thanksgiving Day and American saints like St. Elizabeth Seton, St. Elizabeth Cabrini and St. John Neumann.

The calendar’s still a good way to keep our lives in order, not only doctors’ and social appointments, birthdays and anniversaries, but our spiritual lives as well. They go together. We’re meant to live from day to day, from feast to feast, and be formed by the mysteries of Christ, his saints and the scriptures.

Every Sunday evening I try to publish the week’s calendar on my blog: http://www.vhoagland.com

It’s my kitchen door. Through the week I reflect on the feasts and seasons and saints on that blog. The calendar’s a teacher helping us to “number our days aright.” It’s our daily catechism.

Friday Thoughts: Being qua Being


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Learn from the way the wild flowers grow.

—Matthew 6:28


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Does a flower make pronouncements? Does it define itself? Does it box itself in with titles, names, and distinctions?

And yet, “not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of these.” (Matthew 6:29)

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A flower simply exists.

And its existence glorifies God.

There is no need for it to do more.

By its very existence it magnifies what cannot be further magnified: God’s Presence, God’s Glory, God’s Beauty…

———

“I’m a flower.”

“I’m a rose.”

“Look at me!”

Statements such as these we shall never hear.

Flowers are divinely indifferent to the world’s definitions and distinctions, to its approval and applause.

After all, it’s a person who receives the medal at an orchid show, and not the flower herself. No, her finely-placed petals would only be weighed down by such metallic-based ribbons.

What a gift it is to simply exist.

———

Flowers don’t cling to seasonal life.

When it’s time to go, they gracefully drop their heads and lose their pedals.

Never has there existed a man as poor as a flower.

Never has mankind so possessed the richness of fleeting, transitory, and momentary life.

It’s their genius to instinctively believe that death leads to new abundant life.

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Flowers graciously receive:

Ladybugs, drops of dew. Beams of light, the relief of shade.

Flowers give and receive as if not a single thing has ever been made by man.

They welcome sun as well as rain.

They never cry over fallen fruit or a stolen piece of pollen.

They quietly applaud instead, rejoicing that their little ones have the opportunity to travel abroad—perhaps even the chance to help nurture a neighbor.

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A flower, perhaps most of all, knows it place.

It never wishes to be bigger or thinner…greener or higher…it never dreams of being more like a tree.

A flower’s blessing is simplicity beyond you and me.

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Christ is a flower.

He is the one true perfect eternal flower, through whom all other flowers partake, toward whom all other flowers reach.

Christ is a flower. His ways are not our own. He simply exists. Bowing His head. Dropping pedals. Feeding hungry bees. Giving and receiving. His identity is crucified—leaving nothing behind but being “qua” being.


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If God so clothes the grass of the field, which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith?

—Matthew 6:30


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—Howard Hain
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(Dedicated to Brother Jim, a man who knew how to simply exist.)

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Praying in Jesus Christ

Farewell Discourse of Jesus. Duccio

“I pray for them,” Jesus says in Tuesday’s gospel as he looks to his disciples in the supper room and also to us who are his own today.

We who are so conscious of how poorly we pray need to remember Jesus praying for us and in us.  Is it possible to speak to God, we ask ourselves? We’re so easily distracted, so weak in faith, so bound to life as it is. How can we to go to God in prayer?

“Let the Son who lives in our hearts, be also on our lips,” St. Cyprian says in his commentary on the Our Father. Jesus joins our weak and stumbling prayers to his own. He prays in and for us and gives us the assurance we will be welcomed and heard.

“I pray for them,” Jesus said in the supper room. Then, he prayed for his disciples when they left the supper room and entered the Garden of Gethsemani. They fell asleep, forgetful of everything. A stone’s throw away, Jesus prayed and his prayer was not only for himself but to strengthen them as well.

“I pray for them,’ Jesus says in our liturgical prayers. We speak to God the Father “through Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God, forever and ever. Amen.”

Whenever we pray, whether with others in public prayer or praying alone, he enters our prayer. “Let us pray with confidence to the Father in the words our Savior gave us,” we say as we begin the Our Father at Mass.

Our confidence in prayer comes, not from our own wisdom, or holiness or faith, but from Jesus who says “I pray for them.”


Putting in the Seed

J.Tissot, The Sower, Brooklyn Museum

In one of his poems, “Putting in the Seed,” Robert Frost describes a farmer’s love affair with the earth. It’s getting dark and someone from the house tries fetching him to come in. Supper’s on the table, yet he’s a

“Slave to a springtime passion for the earth.
How Love burns through the Putting in the Seed
On through the watching for that early birth
When, just as the soil tarnishes with weed,
The sturdy seedling with arched body comes
Shouldering its way and shedding the earth crumbs.”

Can’t you see that farmer zestfully casting seed on the waiting earth, eagerly watching it to grow? Jesus sees the Sower as an image of God, casting saving grace onto the world in season and out, because he loves it so much.

 If you have ever been to Galilee and seen the lake and the surrounding lands abundant with crops, you know this is a blessed place. It was in Jesus’ time too. Here, the sower scatters his seed with abandon, hardly caring where it goes: on rocky ground, or amid thorns, or on the soil that gives a good return.

God the Sower sows blessed seed, no matter how badly our human world appears, or how badly it receives. In his parables Jesus acknowledges rejection as well as acceptance, but the sower still sows. Grace is never withheld, and that makes us hope.

And is it just the  human world God loves? Doesn’t his love extend to all the earth God calls “good” in the Book of Genesis? We worry about our planet earth, and with reason.  How fragile it has become, what damage we careless humans do! We are concerned rightly for its future.

The nature parables we are reading in Mark’s gospel tell us to hope for our earth too. Though it is not immune from the threat of destruction and degradation, God loves it still. He’s a Sower at work. Blessed be the Lord God of all creation, may you sow your blessings on all.