Twenty-Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Is 50:5-9a; James 2:14-18; Mk 8:27-35]

I had an idea for what might be a good way to celebrate Mother's Day each year; a little exercise you can do with your mom, and which might be an occasion for a special grace from God for you both. Here's how it works. Each year, on Mother's Day, you take your mother aside; you go off to a quiet place where the two of you can talk; you seat yourself across from her; she takes your hands in her hands, and then your mother looks you straight in the eye, and asks you very simply: “Who do you say that I am?” And you tell her. That's my idea. Now, hopefully, what you say in response will be words of appreciation and encouragement for the efforts she made to be a good mother to you. But, the idea here is to be completely honest in your response, and so it is just possible your answer might not come out sounding exactly like a Mother's Day card. For many of us, this could be a difficult moment, and we might chicken out at the last moment. But even if we don't give a completely honest answer to our mother; even if we just tell the truth to ourselves, this could be a real moment of enlightenment.

This is why: because who you say your mother is, is profoundly revealing of who you are, and who you will become in the future. Are you a man, and do you say of your mother: “She is my enemy”? Then you are a man who is likely to be the enemy of many women. What do you say about your mother? Who do you say she is? Do you say: “Well, my mother is basically a well-meaning, and genuinely lovable, total nut-case.”? Well okay, but if you love your mother, and you accept her as the very particular nut-case she is, you will be a gift and a consolation to many nut-cases you meet in the world. Is your mother your friend? Here is how one man described the death of his mother who was his friend: “I went over to my mother and I held her. I kissed her on the head and when I pulled back, I noticed a long gray hair of hers on my shirt. To this day her last strand of hair sits in that same shirt pocket, folded up in a bag in my old bedroom in the home where I grew up next to a little plastic statue she gave me of Michaelangelo's Pieta.” Blessed is the woman who marries this man. His mother's embrace so reverently remembered will be returned to his wife and communicate to her a whole life time of affection and gratitude.

Jesus Christ is the mother of us all, and all that is. He was with the Father in the beginning and through him, all that is made came to be. So, at that critical moment in history, when Jesus looks Peter straight in the face and says: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter's answer is going to reveal the deepest truth of who he is. This is confirmed when Peter answers: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” and Jesus, in response, does not say: “That's correct!” or “Why, thank you Peter!” but says very simply: “Peter, you are rock.” It is very clear that, who Peter says Jesus is, defines who Peter is.

A Carmelite sister I knew years ago and who I respected very much, said to me once: “If I discovered one day that Jesus was not who he said he was I wouldn't know who I am.”

Now, Peter evidently gave the right answer, at least it appears Jesus was pleased with the answer he gave. Did Peter know who Jesus was? He declared: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Did Peter understand what he was saying at that moment? Was it possible for him, by himself, to grasp fully what is meant by the word
“Christ”? Does Peter know what that means?

Peter is not the church. Peter is rock, but the church is not rock. Jesus did not say: “My church is rock.” He said: “Peter, you are rock, and upon this rock, I will raise up my church!” How is a church raised up upon Peter? Through the ministry and preaching of the apostles that passed on the true faith from one generation to the next, and to our parents, the preaching that brought us here to worship this morning.

Brothers and sisters, we are the church built upon the rock who is Peter. Where Peter once stood before Jesus, we now stand. In us, Peter lives and walks and talks with Jesus today, still marveling; still struggling to understand the mystery of who our Lord is. We are the church raised up on Peter's declaration of faith. Peter's search into the mystery of Christ, is our search. The meaning of Peter's words, which he only half understood, is for us to explore and incarnate in our lives. Peter's answer to Jesus was still incomplete, because this is not something Peter can do alone. Jesus' question: “Who do you say that I am?” is not one that you or I can answer alone. This is an answer you and I and all of us have to work out together: in our words of witness to love and truth, In our proclamation of the sanctity of life, the dignity of the human person, the inviolability of religious liberty, and in many other ways, we provide a collective answer to Jesus, standing where Peter stood. As our lives become the incarnate answer to that question, the church of Jesus Christ is born, is raised up and lives, and in us Jesus lives and ministers to the world.

Twenty-Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Sir. 27: 30-28: 7; Rom. 14: 7-9; Mt. 18: 21-35 ]

For a variety of reasons judgment is not a popular topic in religious thought and discussions these days. Nevertheless judgment reveals an important truth about our call to follow Christ and enter into the joy of his kingdom. I think we do ourselves a disservice by neglecting it. Part of our dignity as human beings is that God has created us with freedom and as Christians he has given us a share in Christ’s work of salvation. As Christ’s stewards we are accountable to God for the gifts and opportunities we have received. In St. Paul’s words, we no longer live for ourselves; we are the Lord’s.

Yet, we are painfully aware that at times we have neglected the responsibilities God has entrusted to us. At times we have turned our backs on our responsibilities and lived for our own selfish interests. In his compassion God has forgiven our past failures and continues to forgive us when we fall. The truth is our happiness is completely dependent on God’s mercy. I think the awareness of our complete dependence on God’s mercy is one of the reasons for our aversion to the thought of judgment. We are guilty and there is nothing we can do to make ourselves innocent. Fortunately it is not necessary to make ourselves innocent. In Christ God has made us innocent. In Christ we are free to offer God our worship and prayers, and to imitate Christ by doing good for others.

There is nothing we can do to repay God for his forgiveness and God does not ask for repayment. He asks that we show our gratitude for his forgiveness by forgiving those who have let us down in one way or another. God’s forgiveness gives us new life and God asks that we share his new life with others by forgiving them. If we do not forgive others, it is not God who punishes us; we punish ourselves. We reject the life and freedom that God’s forgiveness brings and stay turned in on ourselves.

We work out our new life in Christ or our self-punishment of staying turned in on ourselves in our day to day activities here and now. We choose how we are going to live each day. Are we going to live in freedom from resentment and anger and forgive others, or will we continue locked in by resentment and anger? This is not a choice we make once and for all time. We grow in our freedom to forgive. Because we have been forgiven, we are empowered to forgive others; and because we forgive others we increase our capacity for the life and freedom that come from God’s forgiveness. We continue our growth by coming to God in humility and honesty and asking to be forgiven for our failures. Receiving God’s mercy we are free to go out and imitate God by forgiving each other.

Twenty-Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Is 50:5-9a; James 2:14-18; Mk 8:27-35 ]

Our Trappist monastery in Snowmass, CO, is surrounded with a stunning view of the Rocky Mountains towering high above their beautiful abbey. During the Spring and Summer months melting snow on the mountain slopes provides irrigation for the pastures of the monastery’s ranch. And every winter the cold dry snow in the Aspen-Snowmass area forms some of the best ski slopes for winter vacations to be found anywhere in our country.

In Israel there are only a few places where families can go for a vacation: first, the sandy beaches for swimming in the Mediterranean Sea at Tel Aviv and Haifa; second, the Lake of Galilee for boating and fishing; and third, the southwestern slopes of Mount Hermon in the far North of Israel for skiing and sledding in the winter, and for hiking and camping among beautiful streams and forests the rest of the year. This is where the ancient city of Caesarea Philippi, mentioned in today’s Gospel, was rebuilt and dedicated to Emperor Caesar Augustus by the tetrarch Philip. The whole area provided a vacation paradise for members of his court, and other nobility. But it was not only the rich who needed vacations. From time to time Jesus and his disciples also needed a break from all the crowds, a time to get away and rest

After King Herod beheaded John the Baptist, Jesus said to his disciples, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” But this little vacation didn’t succeed. People followed them, and hurried to bring their sick for healing wherever Jesus went. So he led his disciples farther away, out of Galilee, to the beaches along the Mediterranean Sea in the region of Tyre and Sidon. There they had some respite from the multitudes. Only a single Syrophoenician woman intruded on Jesus during this vacation, persistently begging him to heal her daughter. And he did.

When they returned from this time away by themselves greatcrowds again surrounded Jesus and his disciples. He had compassion on them, feeding four thousand with seven loaves of bread and a few fish. After more miracles and hostile encounters with the Pharisees, Jesus needed another break to rest. He led his disciples to the spectacularly beautiful area around Caesarea Philippi, with its lush groves of trees, grassy fields, and springs of water that gush up from the melting snows on Mount Hermon. They were surrounded by walnut, lemon and fig trees, waterfalls and rushing streams, pomegranates and willows. Picture the disciples cooling off in one of the running streams, relaxing on the grassy banks, sucking on pomegranates and figs. Kings had their palaces but what could be better than this natural paradise?

As Jesus and his disciples were enjoying this time alone he asked them his most pressing question: “Who do people say I am?“They replied, “John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets.” Then he put them on the spot, “Who do you say I am?” He forced them to come clean, to tell him what they really thought. Peter, God bless him, didn’t hesitate for a moment and blurted right out: “You are the Christ.” This had to be a truly happy moment for Jesus. Since the Fall of Adam and Eve, the whole of creation was waiting for the coming of the Christ, the Anointed One, the Messiah, who would bring the Kingdom, and save his people. Now he was here, and his disciples believed with all their hearts!

How appropriate that Jesus chose this place to ask, “Who do you say I am?” For centuries a rush of water spilled out of the great open cave at the foot of Mount Hermon where they were standing, becoming the Jordan River that fills the Lake of Galilee and then winds its way down to the Dead Sea. The area around this spring of fertile water became a shrine for Baal, the Canaanite god of good fortune. Later one of the twelve tribes of Israel erected a sanctuary nearby to the rival god of Dan. After the conquests of Alexander the Great, Hellenistic culture turned this garden into a shrine for Pan, the Greek god of nature, half man and half goat, who struck fear into women by his lustful behavior. The Romans in their turn chose this place for a temple to the Roman god, Zeus. Here, in the very heart of the cult of so many pagan gods, Peter proclaims that Jesus is “the Christ.” He, the anointed Son of the Living God, will tear down the strongholds of all these false gods, and build his Church. Today this entire complex of pagan shrines lies in ruins while the Church stands strong.

All that we have left from Pan, the pagan god of lust and fear, is our English word for panic, to be struck with terror. In one of the Peanuts comic strips, Sally Brown walks into a TV room just as the announcer at a golf tournament says, “There’s no tomorrow.” Misunderstanding his words, she goes into a panic. Running outside she yells, “There’s no tomorrow!! Hide! Flee! Run for the hills! Run to the roof tops!” In the last scene Sally, Linus and Snoopy are huddled on top of his doghouse waiting for the end to come. Curious, Snoopy says, “I thought Elijah was supposed to come first.”

Elijah has come in the spirit of John the Baptist; and in Jesus the end has come for all false gods. But then he confuses his apostles by warning them not to tell anyone. Worse yet! Jesus says he must suffer greatly, be rejected and killed, and rise after three days. Peter was the first to panic and rebuked him. Jesus looked intently at his disciples, knowing they were afraid and rejecting the threat of suffering. Solemnly, he said: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” They wanted the kingdom without tribulation, leisure without travail, victory without a battle, power without opposition. They were still more pagan than Christian, more one with the lust and fear of the pagan god, Pan, than one with the suffering and rising of Jesus Christ, Son of the living God.

St. Teresa Benedicta, Edith Stein, writes: “Becoming one with Christ is our happiness on earth, the love of the cross in no way contradicts being a joyful child of God. Carrying the cross with Christ fills one with a strong and pure joy, and those who do so are builders of God’s kingdom, the most authentic children of God. … To suffer and be happy in suffering, to have one’s feet on the ground—walking on the dirty and rough paths of this earth—and yet to be enthroned with Christ at the Father’s right hand, to laugh and cry in this world while singing the praises of God with the choirs of angels—this is the life of the Christian until the morning of eternity breaks forth.1 She embraced the cross and died at Auschwitz.

Jesus and his disciples never had another time of rest together. Beginning here, Jesus teaches that the path of the Messiah leads far away from these pagan shrines at the foot of Mount Hermon in the North, to the distant hill of Calvary outside Jerusalem in the South. If they follow, they will all die, beginning with Jesus. But after three days he will rise and later they will rise with him. They followed! Now, who are we? Are we Christians, are we fully anointed, divinized, disciples of Jesus? Or, are we still more or less pagans? What do our works say about us?

Twenty-Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Ex. 32: 7-11, 13-14; 1Tim. 1: 12-17; Lk. 15: 1-32 ]

I suppose we all have our typical ways of responding when we find ourselves in a new environment. Mine is to spend my free time exploring my new surroundings. I like to get my bearings and gradually move out from what is familiar into what is unfamiliar. Exploring a new environment is distinct from being lost in a strange land. While the former has a sense of adventure about it, the latter is often characterized by confusion, anxiety and a strong desire to find security.

In this morning’s first reading the Israelites felt abandoned by Moses’ prolonged absence on Mount Sinai with God and their faith gave way to fear. In their anxiety they turned away from God’s promise to be with them during their desert sojourn and they sought their security in a lifeless idol. In the parable of the compassionate father the younger son deliberately set out on an adventure to a distant land. He rejected his home and familiar surroundings for what he thought would be a more satisfying life, but when his wealth gave out he realized that he was lost. He too had placed his security in an illusion. Fortunately he found himself even though he was in a strange land and the memory of his father was his guide in returning to his true home. His elder brother was in a distant land too, even though he didn’t go anywhere. He wasn’t aware of his father’s love for him and like his younger brother he too was far from his father.

What does this say to you and to me? Just because we are in familiar surroundings doesn’t mean that we are not lost. Sometimes it is the very familiarity of our surroundings that numbs us to an appreciation of what is always around us. There are times when we all need to find ourselves no matter where we are; and the first step in finding ourselves is the remembrance that it is in God that we live and more and have our being. Whether we have forgotten God and wandered after the false gods that surround us, or we have become lost in our own misunderstandings of who God is; God remains the compassionate God who calls us to return to him. He is always waiting to welcome us home. He asks that we join in his joy in welcoming home all our brothers and sisters who have wandered away from him.

Twenty-Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Is. 50: 5-9a; Jas. 2: 14-18; Mk. 8:]

Even though we may not always be aware of it, it seems to me that every time we learn something about another person we also learn something about ourselves. Obviously, the nature of our relationships will make a difference in how we affect one another; nevertheless, so long as we are relating to one another as persons, our relationships are mutual and dynamic, not static. If this is true of our relationships with one another, much more will it be true of our relationship with God. Every time we experience a revelation of who God is there is also a revelation of who we are, and further, who we are called to become.

Implicit in Jesus’ question to the disciples in this morning’s gospel about who they said he was, was the question of who they were. Peter on behalf of the disciples was granted the recognition of Jesus as the promised Messiah. But neither Peter nor the others recognized clearly the implications of what that meant for their own identity. No doubt realizing that they were disciples of the Messiah was a welcome revelation, but all the gospels indicate that they, like us, wanted to follow Jesus according to their own standards of success. The revelation that being Jesus’ disciples meant sharing in his cross was not so welcome. Only through the experience of Jesus’ resurrection were they able to accept the full implication of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. And after the resurrection the revelation of who they were becoming continued.

The New Testament is not simply a record of what happened at the beginnings of the Church. It is a revelation for Jesus’ disciples down through the centuries to today. Jesus’ question: Who do you say that I am?, is addressed to each one of us each time we read or hear it. Our answers will also reveal who we are. Are we any more ready than the disciples to hear that if we want to follow Jesus, we must be willing to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him? It would make a lot more sense to follow Jesus according to our standards of success, and that would attract a lot more followers. We like Peter have to learn that our way of thinking is not God’s way of doing things.

Peter and the other disciples learned God’s ways only through experience: the experience of their own weaknesses and failings; their experience of God’s forgiveness and fidelity; their experience of acceptance by some and rejection by others; their experience of sharing in Christ’s sufferings; their experience of the new self that comes into existence only when the old self is surrendered. This is the path we are also called to walk. It is a path that we can walk only in faith; a faith that is strong and not simply in our minds. Like so many things that are done and not simply thought about, our faith becomes strong by acting in faith.

Again this morning Jesus asks us: Who do you say that I am? Encouraged by God’s word and strengthened by the Eucharist, let us answer as best we can, trusting that the Holy Spirit will support and guide us along the path of Jesus’ disciples into the true selves we are called to become.

Twenty-Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Sir 27:33-28:9; Rom 14:7-9; Mt 18:21-35]

Memorial of 9/11A memorial ceremony is possibly taking place in New York City by this time, (10 AM Eastern time), at the Ground Zero. Government and church dignitaries, together with the family members of the victims and survivors of 9-11, (September 11). four years ago, are remembering that grim day when two passenger planes manned by terrorists crashed at the landmark Twin Towers of the Big Apple. More than 3,000 innocent victims died in less than an hour.

I do not want to recall the terrifying details of the tragedy. Some of us might have known certain victims or survivors and their stories. Their loss was our loss. We cannot but also imagine, though dimly, the faces of the perpetrators, the suicide bombers and their leader Osama bin Laden and other collaborators. Their faces are clearly marked, but they remain heartless—all in the name of an ideology. They are our enemies. But the Gospel of Jesus tells us that we have to love them and pray for them, (Mt 5:44).

Katrina Two weeks have passed since the super-strong hurricane Katrina hit the New Orleans area and the Mississippi basin, (on August 28, 2005). Thousands have died as the search for bodies continues. Hundreds of thousands have been evacuated. Hundreds of millions of dollars are the estimated damages. Restoration costs could amount to billions of dollars. Anger flares up at the slow turnout of government support. Looters, snipers and rapists take advantage of the confusion and sow anarchy. Politicians bicker and blame each other for inefficient services. Wait a minute, one may say! Nature hit us hard. The government has to attend to other projects too. And now we have the unknown neighbors, all who are our brothers, hitting us. Al-Qaida to strike at us may be understandable. But to hear and see able-bodied thugs brandishing their weapons and stealing from their fellow brothers, instead of helping the weak—that is unthinkable. Grandstanding officials pose before the media but may hardly lift a finger for any concrete help. It is unfortunate. Yet it happens all the time!

Jesus forgives seventy times seven, times seven, times seven....Lord, when my brother wrongs me, how often must I forgive him?” Peter speaks out our sentiments in times of abuse. Do I have to forgive at all? Or will twice, thrice or seven times of forgiveness be enough? When abused and hurt, we want to be vindicated, especially for being the innocent victims. If only we can cry and scream to the heavens our helplessness! Lord, how much abuse do I have to withstand? In essence, this is what Peter was telling the Lord in our name.

No,” Jesus replied, “not just seven times, but seventy times seven times,(Mt 18:22). What a big let down for us to hear that after having been offended seven times still it is not enough to forgive the other that much! The Lord exhorts inexhaustible times in forgiving an offending brother. This is not a merciless response to victims, but the Christian solution to a common affliction. After mentioning the need for limitless acts of forgiving, Jesus brings our attention to a broader horizon beyond ourselves, namely, to that of the kingdom of heaven. Through the parable of the merciless official, (Mt 18:23-34), Jesus tells us that before crying further of unfairness or injustice, we must compare ourselves in relation to God. It might be that the Lord has been crying unfair far countless times for our offenses against Him. However, he is generous and merciful enough to forgive us again and again, despite our big sins and the innumerable times we repeat them. That should make us blush in shame. We need to forgive the other from the heart—to expect that God would keep forgiving us too!

In our desire to live the life in Christ, we strive to follow Jesus’ precept. We want to forgive but we cannot forget, so we experience and say. The late president John F. Kennedy once advised: “Forgive your enemies, but do not forget their names.” It was a diplomatic statement. His advice may be feasible for us, if only for the purpose of praying to the Lord for those who wrong us, and not for any future vengeance. To forgive and not to forget the injury, someone said, is like burying the hatchet while leaving the handle uncovered for immediate use. It is indeed difficult to forget, especially those that pained us. Unfortunately, it is an imbalanced remembering. We remember with bitterness others’ trespasses, but we easily forget our own.

Father, forgive them Let us be assured that God also does not forget our sins. However, what He chooses and cherishes most to do with us is to forgive us. This is the thought that should fill our minds constantly. In advising the need to forgive always, Jesus did not linger on the hurts of peoples afflicted on him. He dwelt on the merciful love of God for all. His love is so immense that all our debts are paid off. Such is the great Good News for us. This is what should keep our mind busy about. When bitter memories of pain and hurts crowd our mind, let us drive them out with the healing thoughts of God’s love for us. Amidst the hurts Jesus had on the way to his crucifixion, he found time to forgive his enemies between the blows of the hammer. “They did not know what they were doing,” he said as he called on the Father for their forgiveness, (Lk 23:34). Then when he rose from the dead into new life, he hardly remembered the insults, the betrayals and abandonment of those around him, even by his disciples. He imparted the peace of God through the forgiveness of sins, (Jn 20:19). He simply asked for a renewal of love for Him, (Jn 21:15-18).

One time in a bible study, a lady asked me how she could ever last by forgiving countless times when in fact a single offense by a neighbor already exhausted her. She said that she was mad at her neighbor and at herself too for having been a victim. She admitted that the memory of that single offense kept bothering her many times during the day. Then I said, “it is here then that you could exercise the forgiveness endlessly.” Each time the memory and the pain surface, then we can crowd them out with the forgiveness in God. Learn to forgive yourself and the other as many times and as often that the thought and the hurt appear. Healing may come slow at times, but it had to start somewhere. It can happen only in Christ who imparts peace and forgiveness to us.

Aftermath of KatrinaThe waters in the flooded areas are beginning to subside, but the anger and wrath could continue to rise among the victims of Katrina’s fury. The 9-11 ceremony is meant to heal people’s lives after the tragedy, but in some it may still be a bitter recalling of the sad event. Taking some distance from these emotional events, let us remember that 9-11 can also be seen as 9-1-1. This is the number to call in times of emergency. News reports say that confronted with the overwhelming sense of helplessness at the sight of the floods in New Orleans, some cops, fire fighters and medics have committed suicide. This is not the 9-1-1 we are talking about when all emergency services fail or come slow. The 9-1-1 services are reached not by dialing the numbers with one’s fingers. Rather, it is invoked upon on our knees and by calls for immediate assistance. Soon one may find himself on the 9th heaven and talking one-on-one with God. His mercy and assistance are fast and countless too.