Homilies for June 2021

For June 6 (Corpus Christi), June 13, June 20, and June 27, as well as the Solemnities of the Sacred Heart (June 11), of the Birth of John the Baptist (June 24), and of Sts. Peter and Paul (June 29)

Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ – June 6, 2021

Readings: Ex 24:3–8 • Ps 116:12–13, 15–16, 17–18 • Heb 9:11–15 • Mk 14:12–16, 22–26    bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/060621.cfm

One of my close relatives is a convert to the Catholic Church. When she is asked why she became a Catholic, and remains a Catholic despite scandals and the attacks of the culture, she always answers the same way: John 6. Raised in a Protestant denomination, and very familiar with both Old and New Testaments, she was always a little shaken when her congregation “took communion,” once a month. The pastor would say something like, “of course this is not the body and blood of Jesus, but only a symbol.” Every time she picked up the Gospel of John, she would see Christ’s words: “he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.  He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.” (Jn 6:54–58) And, in her mind and mine, Jesus either meant what He said or was overtly lying, so the true Church had to be the one that consistently said from the beginning that “their” Eucharist was and is truly the Body and Blood of Christ, physically present and available for our nourishment.

Today’s Gospel, from Passover week in the last year of Jesus’s earthly ministry, gives St. Peter’s recollection of the institution of the Blessed Eucharist as handed down by St. Mark several years later. Our Gospel begins just after Judas has made a deal for an unspecified amount of money to turn Jesus over to the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem. Presumably, an “inside man” was needed to identify the Galilean wonder-worker whose face was not known to the High Priest’s functionaries. Judas Iscariot volunteered himself as the one the “chief priests” needed, and began to look for opportunities to betray Our Lord. As with this passage, so the discussion at the Last Supper between Jesus and His disciples about the betrayal is omitted from our reading. The most important truth we are focusing on today is the trajectory closely tying together the bloody sacrifice of the Old Covenant to the offering of the Precious Blood of Christ on the cross to the unbloody re-presentation of that sacrifice we celebrate daily at the Holy Masses all over the world. And in every one of these three parts of the divine-human mystery of this week, which begins here with what used to be called “Corpus Christi” and ends with the intertwined Sacred Heart of Christ and Immaculate Heart of Mary, we see the reality, we see the presence of Christ.

Moses appears today at the mountain of God’s awe-inspiring, even terrifying presence, and does so with God’s people and God’s word, which he writes down to prepare the covenant document. Some translations translate the Hebrew b’riyt as “agreement,” but this is entirely too lame a word. When two parties executed a b’riyt, the verb used is “to cut.” The covenant was sealed in the blood of a sacrifice, most readily seen in Gen 15:1–20. In a vision, God appears to Abraham, his chosen “prophet,” and tells him “Do not be afraid . . . I am your shield, your very great reward.” He promises Abraham that he and Sarah, to that time childless, would have large posterity and the land of Canaan. Abraham asks how he can know this, so God instructs him to bring a heifer, goat, ram, dove and pigeon, to cut them in half and arrange them apart from each other in two rows. Nearby Griffon vultures and bustards swooped down to feast, but Abraham drove them off. In a dreadful, dark dream, Abraham saw his posterity in slavery in a foreign land and God promised deliverance for them and a return to Canaan once the “sin of the Amorites” would be in “full measure.” God seals the covenant promise by passing between the halved sacrificial offerings, effectively guaranteeing on the divine life that the promises of land and posterity would be fulfilled. The remainder of the covenant was sealed (“cut”) in blood by the circumcision of Abraham and, ultimately, Isaac.

So Moses continues this tradition in this Covenant of the Old Law by reading the commands of God (probably the Ten Commandments) and writing them down. Because the mountain and the people and the covenant was to be holy, he erected an altar at the mountain’s base, along with twelve pillars, one for each of the Israelite tribes. Oxen are sacrificed and their blood gathered. Half was used to bathe the altar (God’s half) and half was literally “scattered upon the family” of Israel with the words “this is the blood of the covenant.” After this, the elders of Israel went up the mountain and, like Abraham before them, beheld the God of Israel, ate together, but did not die. Thus was the Old Covenant ratified in blood and with a sacrificial meal.

Today’s psalm, 116, is prayed in the Divine Office at least once every two weeks on Friday. It is a Passover hymn, probably sung by Our Lord and the Apostles as they went to the Garden of Gethsemane after the Last Supper. The words are most appropriate to Holy Thursday and to this Solemnity, because Jesus paid His vow, “I come to do Thy will, O Lord” over the next hours by shedding His own blood.

We rightly claim in our catechesis that Jesus is for the New Covenant both the priest and the victim. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews spends many verses defending Christ’s priesthood “according to the Order of Melchizedek,” because Jesus was of the tribe of Judah, not Levi. Having done that to the satisfaction of all, he hearkens back to the ceremonies of the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:29 and 23:27) when the Jewish high priest entered God’s presence behind the veil of the Holy of Holies to make atonement for the sins of the people with the blood of animals. In the Christian dispensation, the true and lasting High Priest, Jesus the Messiah, entered the presence of God through the tabernacle on high with His own Precious Blood. He through the Holy Spirit offered His own Body and Blood to God so that our moral conscience (syneidēis) would be purified of dead works (sin). Here the sacrifice in Christ’s Blood is tied to the New Covenant, with Jesus, not Moses, as the eternal priest and mediator. The promise of this covenant is not territory on earth, but an “eternal inheritance” of life. This, of course, ties perfectly into Jesus’s words promising eternal life to those who would worthily eat His Body and drink His Blood.

With all this in mind, we walk with Jesus’s disciples to follow His directions for preparing the Passover meal. We meet the proprietor of the guest room where the family Jesus has called will celebrate the beginning of the true and lasting Passover. During the meal, which featured the blessing and drinking of four cups of wine, and probably at the time of the third cup, Jesus took and blessed and broke bread, giving it to them and saying, “Take this. This is my Body.” He gave thanks with the cup, and, giving it to them, declared the wine to truly be “my blood of the covenant, poured out for many.” If the scholars are correct, He did not drink of the fourth cup, “the fruit of the vine” until, on the altar of the cross, He as the true Paschal Lamb, took sour wine as the fourth cup, declared “it is finished” and thus sealed the New Covenant with His death.

To say the Eucharist is “just a symbol,” then, is to call Jesus a liar and a fraud. Really?

Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus – June 11, 2021

Readings: Hos 11:1, 3–4, 8c–9 • Is 12:2–3, 4, 5–6 • Eph 3:8–12, 14–19 • Jn 19:31–37       bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/061121.cfm

Recent statistics have revealed the disturbing reality: more than six Catholics leave the Church for every one that joins her, and half of young people raised as Catholics no longer identify as such. Before that, we learned that a substantial majority of those who still identify themselves as Catholics do not believe that the bread and wine consecrated at Mass are substantially changed into the whole Christ. When those who remain fully committed Catholics turn to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus to make reparations for sin, there are many more than there used to be who are targets of prayer for conversion and return.

The Pew Research Center documents that about 4% of Americans identify as atheists, while an additional 5% classify themselves as agnostics, which Stud Terkel famously declared to be “cowardly atheists.” Most are male, most are young, and most believe that it is a good thing that religious affiliation is declining in America, because religion is a harmful phenomenon. How, then, can the Church combat these disturbing trends, and how can we attract folks from all these populations of diminished faith back to the Church that a millennium ago, as always, professes the opposite, and celebrates it daily?

On this solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, and the twin feast tomorrow of Our Lady’s Immaculate Heart, the most direct answer to that question is devotion to the Sacred Heart and Immaculate Heart. Ultimately, the decision in favor of religio requires a commitment, and therefore an alignment of both mind and heart. So we need to cultivate in ourselves and in our youth habits of thinking that are in line with the mind of God, and then encourage human hearts to get in line with the two human hearts that are most in sync with the will of God.

One big impediment to thinking rightly about the divine, and thus getting one’s whole being aligned to God’s mind and will, is the modern obsession with the findings of empirical science. Over and over we are bombarded with claims that “science has proved that God does not exist,” or that “Jesus Christ is a neo-pagan, unproven myth” from multiple sources in the media and public education. With that kind of decades-long assault on young minds, and with the parallel attack on their moral conscience from every direction, it is not surprising that so many of them reach adulthood with stunted or empty religious understanding, and no affinity for religious practice.

Fortunately, however, there are many cracks in this misreading of modern scientific methods and theories, and one of those clear and unambiguous realities has everything to do with the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Blessed Eucharist. I pick up the narrative from the Magis Center:

“On Christmas Day 2013, at the Church of Saint Hyacinth in Legnica, Poland, a consecrated host fell on the floor. The host was put into a container with water so that it would dissolve. Instead, it formed red stains. In Feb. 2014, the host was examined by various research institutes including the Department of Forensic Medicine in Szczecin who stated:

“‘In the histopathological image, the fragments were found containing the fragmented parts of the cross-striated muscle. It is most similar to the heart muscle.’

“Additionally, and similar to the findings of the Eucharistic miracle of Lanciano, Italy, research found that the tissue had alterations that would appear during great distress.

“Before the bleeding host in Legnica, there was another Eucharistic miracle in Poland that occurred in the city of Sokolka. The miracle took place in 2008 at the church of St. Anthony. That morning during Mass, a priest accidentally dropped a host while distributing Communion. The Host was then put in a small container of water. The pastor, Fr. Stanislaw Gniedziejko, asked the sacristan, Sister Julia Dubowska of the Congregation of the Eucharistic Sisters, to place the container in a safe in the sacristy. After a week, Sister Julia checked on the host. When she opened the safe, she smelled something like unleavened bread and the host had a red blood stain on it.

“Immediately, Sister Julia and Fr. Gniedziejko told the archbishop of Bialystok, Bishop Edward Ozorowski, about the host. The Bishop had the stained host taken out of the container and placed on a corporal, where it stayed in the tabernacle for three years. During this time, the stained fragment of the host dried out (appearing more like a blood stain or clot) and several studies were commissioned on the host. The studies found that the altered fragment of the host is identical to the myocardial [heart] tissue of a person who is nearing death. Additionally, the structure of the muscle fibers and that of the bread are interwoven in a way impossible to produce by human means.”

There are at least two other documented Eucharistic miracles of this century from Argentina and Mexico.

Empirical science interacts with religious faith and demonstrates that the claims of our Catholic Church — that the bread is transubstantiated into the very substance of the Risen Christ — are quite reasonable. Not only that, but in every carefully examined case by medical professionals, the very rare appearance of human flesh is self-preserving tissue from the heart muscle of a recently beaten human being. And the fact that the muscle does not deteriorate over time indicates that it is living human flesh. Thus the Church teaches that what we take and eat under the appearance of bread and wine is the risen Christ, and science cannot disprove that belief.

These Eucharistic miracles give a whole new meaning to the Solemnity we celebrate on this first Friday of June. The risen Christ expressed as our nourishment presents Himself to us as the very center of His being — His Sacred Heart — and thus assimilates our own hearts to His own. Christ, as the Letter to the Ephesians says, dwells in our hearts. We have been reconciled to Him and tasked with doing our part to bring everyone in the world into that reconciliation. His Sacred Heart is an inexhaustible spring of the waters of salvation. His eternal purpose is to bring all humans together in Himself.

I said that today and tomorrow we are celebrating twin festivals. Tomorrow’s Gospel will tell us of the “finding of the boy Jesus in the Temple.” It is crucial for us to realize what it meant for Jesus to be in the Temple at Passover at the time of his passage from boyhood and His assumption of the full obligations of a Jewish man. If we don’t “get it” then the fact that He was in the Temple with the rabbis, asking and answering questions, for three days while Mary and Joseph frantically searched for Him suggests we look again at today’s Gospel relating His passion, death and Resurrection fulfilling the Law. We can envision that most important Passover when, as the lambs were being slaughtered in the Temple, the true Lamb of God was at His sacred death expressing the Blood of Eucharist and the Water of Baptism from His Sacred Heart by the thrust of a soldier’s weapon. And it takes little added imagination to feel His Blessed Mother’s Immaculate Heart just inches away from His own being pierced, as she offered up her only begotten Son to the Father.

Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time – June 13, 2021

Readings: Ez 17:22–24 • Ps 92:2–3, 13–14, 15–16 • 2 Cor 5:6–10 • Mk 4:26–34                  bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/061321.cfm

Palestine, and indeed all of the areas of Asia, Africa, and Europe that are biblical regions, lie in the northern hemisphere. So the sixth month of the year, when this Sunday of the liturgical year falls, is a time of natural growth. So we have today a number of agricultural parables that Ezekiel and Jesus use to describe individual and corporate spiritual development. We all need to be open to the Word of God and how that blessed word can like a two-edged sword prune the dead wood and cause the Holy Spirit to flourish in the church.

The context of the verses from the prophet Ezekiel is clear: in 597 BC the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar deposed Judah’s King Jehoiachin and took him back to Babylon. He set up the old king’s uncle, Zedekiah, on the throne of Israel and swore him to fealty. Nine years into his reign, Zedekiah allied himself with Egypt and rebelled against Babylonian rule. Nebuchadnezzar laid Jerusalem under siege. The city held out for nearly two years until the Israelite army tried to break out and escape, but the Babylonians defeated them, captured the king, executed all his sons and blinded Zedekiah. He took away the ex-king and all the key leaders back to join earlier exiles in Babylon.

The Holy Spirit then spoke through Ezekiel to these exiles, and delivered a message of comfort and hope to the depressed captives by agricultural analogies. Earlier in his prophecy this chapter, Ezekiel had compared Nebuchadnezzar to a “great eagle with great wings” who tore off a branch from a Lebanon cedar and planted it, and some seed of the land and did the same. It became a vigorous vine. That was certainly Zedekiah, under whose rule Israel was beginning to recover from an earlier invasion. But “another great eagle” attracted the vine’s attention, and drew water from the second eagle (Egypt). But God judged the new situation and pronounced the judgement that the rebellion would fail: “can [Zedekiah] break a covenant and then go free?” God then swore an oath to “bring down upon his head” because of the broken covenant (really the covenant with God.)

The verses before set up the reader for our reading today. From the cedar, the family of David, God would take off “a tender shoot” and plant it on a high mountain, where it would flourish, becoming “a magnificent cedar” sheltering birds (the Israelite community) of every kind (perhaps the Gentiles?) And this action will bring about an understanding among “all the trees of the field” (all the peoples of earth) that the Lord humbles the proud and raises up the lowly. This is the kind of cosmic reversal we also see in the Canticle of Hannah (1 Samuel 2), Our Lady’s Magnificat (Luke 2:46) and several psalms, most notably Psalm 113. This reading, then, should certainly be read as a kind of Messianic text, particularly because of its connection to Christ’s parable of the banquet where he encourages his disciples to take the lowest seat (Luke 14:10).

Today’s psalm takes up the theme of righteous behavior bringing prosperity. If human beings imitate the Lord in His steadfast love (hesed) and faithfulness, they will also flourish, even into old age. We know that this is not a blanket promise of riches, as the “prosperity gospel” preaches, but rather a reward of full spiritual maturity, no matter what one’s physical or material situation. In fact, we can read into this the idea that our righteousness is reward enough for the humble person.

Today’s Gospel follows the agricultural tone of the first reading and psalm. We need to understand, as Joachim Jeremias demonstrated decades ago, Jesus’s words, “the kingdom of God is like” introduce a story which should help us understand life together in Christ. There is not a need to map point by point each element of the parable to a corresponding element in the kingdom. It’s as if Jesus said, “the kingdom of God among you reminds me of a story. . .”

So here, from my experience, I see homilies or blogs or videos I’ve produced over the year, that I thought just flopped at first. Then, perhaps years later, I find by chance that whatever it was later on was a help for some person or community to get closer to Christ and the Church. I hear stories like that from other Christians. So the three stories here may be interpreted in many ways, as the Church Fathers did. As long as our interpretation coheres with the teachings of the Church, we should share them with one or more people, and not worry about the results. As an aside, I would suggest along with these readings the fine old hymn, “Come You Thankful People Come” is a fit choice for all to sing. And it ends with a direct appeal to the second coming in glory of Christ:

“For the Lord our God shall come,

And shall take the harvest home;

From His field shall in that day

All offences purge away,

Giving angels charge at last

In the fire the tares to cast;

But the fruitful ears to store

In the garner evermore.”

Lastly, we need to look at St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians. Paul has mixed feelings about his own demise, whether himself alone or with all other members of the Church Militant at Christ’s return. On the one hand, he looks forward (“with courage”) to being away from his weak human body and intimate (“at home”) with Christ. On the other, he is in the body and eager to serve Christ and the Church. This ambivalence is an attitude we should foster in each other, so that at all times we are prepared to go before “the judgment seat of Christ” and yet work hard to make more certain that those we meet are also so prepared.

Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time – June 20, 2021

Readings: Jb 38:1, 8–11 • Ps 107:23–24, 25–26, 28–29, 30–31 • 2 Cor 5:14–17 • Mk 4:35–41    bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/062021.cfm

One of the most memorable scenes in movie history comes from 1969’s film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Frustrated and sick of the frequent robberies of their mail cars, a railroad company hired a detective agency to staff boxcars on one of their payroll runs. The story was probably apocryphal, but when the mounted detectives spurred their horses out of the boxcar, a chase began that Butch and Sundance thought would run out of steam shortly like all their other chases had.

But they were wrong. Over and over again, the outlaws executed pre-planned and foolproof evasion tactics, watching from a distance as they always had, to see the failure of the pursuit. But this time, the detectives always seemed to work out the real direction to direct the quest. And each time — a total of three in the film — one or the other of the bandits asked, “Who are those guys?” There was something novel and amazing about their pursuers, and they had no idea what it might be.

Imagining that scene will help you understand the last words of today’s Gospel: “they were filled with awe, and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?’” A little before that, their Master, this remarkable Galilean rabbi, Jesus, after a whole day of teaching with parables about the kingdom of God, had asked the disciples to take Him to the other side of Lake Tiberias. So they immediately went down to the lakeshore and jumped into their fishing boat so Jesus could join them. The sun was going down, so there was a need for haste. It appears that at least part of the crowd listening to Jesus also got into boats to go with them.

Now the big lake lies in a huge bowl, a depression that is part of the long Asian-African Rift Valley. At the western end there are hills that can funnel west winds from the Mediterranean Sea down into the lake. So storms can erupt without any warning. That evening one came on the apostles while Jesus, worn out by the day, rested in the back of the ship. The tempest blew lake water into the boat, and there was danger of it filling up. Jesus dozed on, so the apostles woke Him up with one of the most inappropriate cries for help in Scripture: “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?” St. Mark records that Jesus “rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.” That is how His disciples came to ask the big question: “Who is this?”

Can there be a sillier question to ask Jesus than “don’t you care that we are perishing”? St. Paul makes it clear today that “One” — Jesus — died for everyone. Is there a more caring action anyone can take than to die so that others may live? Especially so that all may not die. And if we have been freed from sin and death by the saving action of Jesus, we now are responsible to live for Jesus, to act as being newly created. Like Paul, we should view other people as Christ sees them, humans of infinite dignity, beloved of God, and destined for redemption and resurrection if they only turn to Christ. As one commentator shared: “The same God who created out of nothing is certainly capable of recreating and of making us, however poor, unpromising, and undeserving, sharers of his work.” That gives us a critical clue to the answer to the question, “Who is this?”

And it leads us to look back hundreds of years to the story of Job, related briefly in our first lesson. Recall the plot line of this wisdom book. Job has been a good man with a fine family and huge wealth, so good that God bragged about him to the Adversary, whose name in Hebrew is “Satan.” Satan asks God to let him afflict Job, and predicts that he will curse God as a result. So Satan violently takes away his children and houses and flocks and servants, but Job doesn’t turn his back on God. Then Satan takes Job’s health, so that he has to sit on a refuse heap, practically naked, scratching his skin lesions and wondering why God has let him be so punished. Everyone around him blames him for sinning and bringing on a divine curse, but Job protests his innocence vigorously. Then, finally, God reveals Himself to Job and tells him, “You gripe that you don’t understand? Exactly. You don’t understand my ways, because you are not divine. If you don’t get even how the storms come up and the oceans stay in their basin, how can you begin to understand the plan of God?”

All of us, if we’ve run this race for any length of time, realize that suffering, pain, and confusion are part of our existence. All of us have at one time or more looked to the heavens and asked God something like “why me?” How does God structure the world and His plan for the world so that He always is good, always has all of humanity enfolded in His loving arms, and still lets us experience so much pain? Face it. We hurt ourselves and others hurt us. We hurt others, often unintentionally. And nature hurts all of us. So we hear Jesus in the boat after the storm say, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” The best reply we can usually muster is that of the father with the possessed son: “I do believe; help my unbelief!”

St. Paul gives us a kind of hierarchy of God’s plan that may help us to understand why there is suffering. God’s master plan is designed around three big objectives: First, He wants us to be saved. Salvation is the highest good for humans, because making that happen is the reason He gave His only begotten Son to death. Second, He created us with freedom of mind and freedom of will, so He does not act so as to cripple those faculties. Third, He wants us not to have to suffer. Preserving us from pain is in third place because our comfort is infinitely less critical to our happiness than is our freedom or our ultimate end of union with Him. If with Job we have to sit on the dunghill, or with the apostles must row a leaky boat on a stormy lake, the answer to our plea is the same: “Fear not; have faith.”

Our responsorial psalm today is a fitting ribbon to tie together the readings and any lingering doubts we may have. The rabbis had an eschatological vision for the Messianic kingdom, and some of them taught that in the end, the only sacrifice would be the todah sacrifice, which was likely one of the oldest styles of worship carried on by the Hebrews. Whenever a Jew had a particularly striking experience of divine help, he was supposed to go to the Temple with his family and offer this sacrifice. Psalm 107 is one most appropriate to sing at such a ritual. It begins book 5 of the Psalms. It begins as many thanksgiving psalms do: “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures for ever!” God has gathered the grateful people from the four directions of earth. Specifically, some of the congregation had been rescued from desert wastes. Some had been freed from prison for some infraction of Torah. Others had been cured of disease, and a final group — the one celebrated in today’s readings — were mariners who had been threatened by a mighty storm. In each case, they cried out to God for deliverance, and in each case God answered. Aren’t there times in our lives where that has been our situation?

The todah sacrifice then was offered by each group. There was no animal, no grain in the ear. The todah sacrifice had only two elements, bread and wine. The rabbis were correct. In the New Covenant, the Messianic Age of Jesus, our Eucharist is our thanksgiving sacrifice, of the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation, the very Body and Blood of Jesus.

Solemnity of the Birth of John the Baptist – June 24, 2021

Readings: Is 49:1–6 Ps 139:1b–3, 13–14ab, 14c–15 Acts 13:22–26 Lk 1:57–66, 80     bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/062421-Day.cfm

The Holy Spirit brings to us the Word of God, the Word of the Father, through human instruments. The Incarnate Word of God, Jesus Christ, was given to us as a child in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The written Word of God, the Sacred Scriptures, came to us through the writing ability of many sacred authors, Luke being one of the most gifted in letters. And sometimes the Holy Spirit and Luke conspire to give us not only an inspiring story, but one with subtle humor. So is the birth of John bar Zechariah written.

Remember the back story: Zechariah is a second-line priest who was taking his turn offering incense in the Temple. He and his wife, Elizabeth, were faithful Jews, but childless. An angel appears to Zechariah and tells him, in essence, that they will have a child named John who will be a Nazarite consecrated to God, a great prophet like Elijah who would prepare the Jews to receive the Lord. Now this angel wasn’t a little cherub like you see in cute religious paintings. Gabriel was huge and imposing and scary, because his first words had to be, “Fear not.” But Zechariah responded, “How do I know this, because my wife and I are old?” This was from a priest who knew all the stories of angels appearing to early and senescent Jews like Abraham and Sarah, Hannah, and others with the identical message. Gabriel was not pleased and answered, “Because I, who stand in the presence of God right now, said so.” He struck Zechariah speechless. Humbled, he went home and had to use tablets and sign language for nine months while his wife became a mother.

Now the priest was unable to speak, but you know he was able to hear quite well. And what he heard was his wife and her friends talking about him for nine whole months, basically asking, “He saw an angel and heard this good news and said WHAT?” We know they thought he was also unable to hear because when Elizabeth told them at his circumcision that he would be called “John,” the mohel used sign language to confirm that with Zechariah. God’s awesome sense of humor runs through the story from start to finish. But the result is also awesome, because the boy became exactly the prophet predicted by Gabriel, and the Church prays Zechariah’s canticle of praise each morning, and will do so every day until Jesus returns in glory.

St. Luke also tells the story of Gabriel’s appearance to the virgin Mary and the contrast with this story is striking. Mary’s only question to the angel is pretty obvious — as a perpetual virgin, how could she be mother of the Messiah? Gabriel’s answer, that the Holy Spirit will overshadow her and bring Jesus, God and man in one divine person, into existence by divine power, leads to Mary’s immediate agreement, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me as you have spoken.”

Isaiah had foreseen these twin miracles, it seems, hundreds of years earlier. Both John and Jesus could say, “The LORD called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name.” Both had mouths like sharp, two-edged swords, that spoke words that pierced the hearts of their listeners, that separated truth from falsehood and good from evil. Both fulfilled the requirements to be called “servant of the Lord.” Both were dishonored by the leaders of Israel, and both were martyred. But through the ministry of John, taken up and perfected by Our Lord, Jesus, not only was the covenant with Jacob fulfilled, but all of us, whether we have Jewish ancestry or not, can avail ourselves of the boundless mercy of God in Christ.

St. Paul testifies in today’s reading from Luke’s volume 2, the Acts of the Apostles, exactly who John was in our salvation history. John told us what he was and what he wasn’t. He was a voice in the wilderness, fulfilling the command given him before conception to prepare the Jews for the Messiah. But he wasn’t the Messiah. As great and faithful as he was, he didn’t consider himself even worthy enough to unstrap Jesus’s sandals.

That should be a prayer we all use: “Lord Jesus, Savior, have mercy on me. Empower me to witness to Your Truth, even though I’m not worthy of myself to loosen Your sandals.”

Let’s also meditate on and respond to today’s psalm, which speaks of the first nine months of every human life. Who forms us in our mother’s uterus? Not the mother. Not the father. For the first month of life they probably aren’t even aware that a baby is growing there. The architect of the human life is the creator of the universe. We are made in secret. Wonderful are His works. Every human child, then, is an unique and infinitely worthy creation of God. That’s why protecting human life from conception to natural death must be a top priority for every follower of Christ, for everyone of us. Like John’s life, our lives should be focused on Jesus Christ, son of Mary and son of God, and building His kingdom of love and peace. Anything destructive of human life dishonors humanity and is an affront to the loving God.

Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – June 27, 2021

Readings: Wis 1:13–15; 2:23–24 Ps 30:2, 4, 5–6, 11, 12, 13 2 Cor 8:7, 9, 13–15 Mk 5:21–43 or 5:21–24, 35b–43  bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/062721.cfm

Almost everybody above the age of twenty has had a family experience of death. Most of the time, that experience is of the death of an old relative. Three of my own grandparents died before I was born, or at least aware of their existence. I lost my only living grandparent before I was twelve years old. But early on all of us realize that death is not a good experience. Nobody around us has good feelings about a friend or relative dying. So when the author of the Book of Wisdom writes about death, he affirms that God is not responsible for human death entering the world. Satan tempted our first parents. They rebelled against God’s clear commandment, and death came along with the loss of sanctifying grace. God created us able to be incorruptible, but we lost it.

Jesus, however, by His life, death and resurrection, and through His sacramental life, enables us to be raised up to new life in His Body, the Church. We see two vivid examples of His power to defeat corruption in our Gospel. The first is a drama of a grieving dad, Jairus, the leader of the Jewish synagogue, probably in Capernaum, who was despairing over the likely death of his little girl. The second drama is inserted in the first. But it, too, features a kind of resurrection.

The woman in this story has heard about Jesus’s healing powers, and His compassion on the suffering, poor and weak. She had all of those problems. First, she suffered from hemorrhage, probably from her reproductive organs. That likely made her unable to have the joy of children, and certainly disqualified her from ever praying in the synagogue Jairus led. Her illness made her ritually unclean. Second, she was impoverished from paying physicians whose ministrations made her feel worse. And finally, from her poverty which limited her diet, and her constant loss of blood, she was certainly anemic, and considerably weakened. So Jesus appeared to be her only hope.

So the woman managed somehow to get close to Jesus in the throng that was walking along with Him, and touched just a part of His garment. She was instantaneously healed of her affliction, and probably felt a surge of energy. Jesus felt the touch and asked “who touched me?” His disciples, who were probably still learning the ways of their Master, essentially insulted Him by saying, “C’mon man, you are surrounded by people pressing on you all the time and ask who touched you? That’s crazy.”

But the woman who had been healed was under no delusion. She knew that divine power had healed her disease. Her attitude was of respect, even awe in the presence of One we all now recognize as God in the flesh. She fell down before Him, again treating Him as at least a divine representative, and gave her witness. Jesus then confirmed her healing, telling her to go in peace. So the cure was made complete when Jesus, who had already healed her body, also healed her mind and heart. Her life when she rose from sleep that morning looked to be over. She was as good as dead. That day was one she remembered for the rest of her life. It was a kind of resurrection from the dead.

The story of Jairus and his daughter picks up from that point. People who had been attending the girl came and brought news as discouraging as any he had ever heard: “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?” Jesus didn’t give Jairus a chance to reply. He turned to the distraught dad and said: “Do not fear; only believe.” That, by the way, is a lesson for all of us who might be helping someone who has lost a loved one. People who are grieving don’t need to hear words like “your daughter is dead.” What they need is our assuring presence, and our encouragement. Jesus, the very Son of God, is the one spoken about in the Book of Wisdom, the loving Being who is the foe of sin and death. “Do not fear; only believe,” are words we need to hear in times of trouble, and to share with those in need.

So Jesus leads the sobbing father and takes just a handful of disciples — the three leaders — to the ruler’s house. Now there was a commotion both outside and inside the house. In some cultures, there are even professional mourners who are employed to grieve at someone’s death. So they were making lament over the little girl’s condition. And when Jesus said that the child wasn’t dead, just asleep, they laughed. So they deserved to be ejected from the house, and were.

The rest of the story is awesome in its affect. Here’s the little girl, lying on her bed and not breathing, and mom and dad weeping, and Jesus. He simply lifts her hand and says — and we hear the original Aramaic now — “Talitha koumi.” “Little girl, I say to you, rise up.” The healing is instantaneous, the restoration complete, the parents and disciples overcome with awe. But Jesus, whose compassion even extends to the little girl’s empty tummy, makes it unnecessary for her to speak her need. “Don’t tell anyone about this, and give the child some food.”

As St. Paul teaches today, here is an example of how Jesus poured out His riches to poor humans, becoming poor, even dying the death of a slave, so that we might enjoy forever His riches of eternal life.

Mark’s Gospel begins with his objective, to show his listeners and readers that Jesus Christ was and is the eternal Son of God. The climax of his story will be at the death of Jesus, when the centurion sees how this King of the Jews dies, and exclaims, “Surely this is the Son of God.” All the rest of Mark’s story, as we see in these two resurrections of women young and old, is supporting evidence. Jesus Christ is the only-begotten Son of God.

Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul – June 29, 2021

Readings: Acts 12:1–11 • Ps 34:2–3, 4–5, 6–7, 8–9 • 2 Tm 4:6–8, 17–18 • Mt 16:13–19        bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/062921-Day.cfm

One of the privileges of the Christian who aligns his thinking with that of the Church is to know that God’s first priority is to get us to heaven. God wants all human beings to be saved from sin and death, because He wants only good for us, and salvation and sanctification are the highest human good. If we humans, then, want the highest joy available on this earth, we will spend our time working and praying to get ourselves and all the members of our parish into divine favor. Any pursuit of pleasures, wealth, honor or power must for the Christian take a lower position in our personal and family wish-list. That’s how we are to follow Christ.

With that in mind, let’s consider the specific cases of Peter and Paul, two men with very different personalities, different positions in the Church. But they were men with the same goal and the same end, both in life and in death. Both were determined to get the most people into union with Christ, into ultimate happiness in heaven. Both died a martyr’s death in Rome.

Our first story is of Peter’s almost-martyrdom. King Herod was not really a king, because he had to please the Romans and pay tribute to them, and he had to keep the people in his Jewish territory calm and relatively happy so they would not revolt. It was a tightrope walk. The followers of Jesus were popular, especially with the poor who benefitted from their largesse and miracles. But not with the leaders. James the apostle was a leader in the Jerusalem church. Herod arrested and murdered him, probably for sedition. That made the Jewish leaders happy, so he also arrested Peter, chief of the apostles, at Passover, intending to kill him, too.

We know the result. It wasn’t God’s time for Peter to bear the ultimate witness. The disciples at Jerusalem were gathered and they were praying for a miracle. I’m sure they also were praying that God’s will be done. Both God’s will and their desire converged. Peter saw a divine light and an angel, who struck off his two chains without waking the two guards sleeping next to him. There were guards everywhere, but out Peter went, doors opening again and again, and finally Peter understood. He would live longer and bring many more people to salvation. It was many years later, during the terrible persecution of Emperor Nero, that he went to his own cross, upside down because he was unworthy to die exactly as his Lord and Savior.

Paul seems to be writing to Timothy here in his last letter, giving to Timothy and the rest of us his self-testimony. He was always preaching to his congregations to fight spiritual battles with Satan and his followers. He’s finished with that. He was always writing to his churches that they should run to win the prize of eternal life in heaven. He’s on the verge of claiming that crown himself. He takes joy in the number of Christians who will claim the crown with him. Like Peter, he has been rescued from every threat to his ministry, even though he had to suffer daily for that ministry. Paul has a history. He can look back over the years and see the number of times that God has rescued him from physical and spiritual evils, and he has hope, that great virtue always looking to our final end, that every moment of the rest of his life will be the same.

Much has been written about the scene in Matthew’s Gospel at Caesarea Philippi. Jesus and His disciples were at the northernmost extent of their Galilean ministry, right at the source of the Jordan River at the foot of Mount Hermon, a “big rock.” Herod Agrippa had a palace there during this time, and it was a big pagan shrine. So when Jesus did his informal survey of his disciples, asking “Who do people say I am?” they simply reported what they had heard. Some thought he was John the Baptist risen from death, and others in the same vein, Elijah, Jeremiah or some other prophet. But the real reason for the conversation then came up: “who do YOU say I am?” Peter spoke up, impetuous as always. He probably said, “You are Mashiah (Christ), the Son of the living God, blessed be He.” (Good Jews always did that to follow the second commandment. You can’t take the Lord’s Name in vain if you are blessing that Name!) Jesus responded in kind, telling Peter that Simon, son of John, is also blessed because he didn’t get the identity of Christ from a survey, but from a direct divine revelation.

There’s more. There at the base of the big rock, Mt. Hermon, Jesus changes Simon’s name to Petros (Greek) which was probably Kephas (Aramaic) in the original. Peter and his faith in Jesus will be the stony foundation on which Jesus will found His qahal, His assembly, His iglessia, His church. And that Church would assault the citadel of the demons, and their gates would fall.

It was quite a promise to a fellow who ten minutes later would try to dissuade Jesus from His mission to go to the cross for the redemption of the world, and be called “Satan” (adversary) himself by the Lord. Moreover, many of Peter’s successors have shown themselves to be in their basic nature impetuous, thoughtless, even venal and corrupt. But the Holy Spirit has used weak and sin-prone men and women for almost two thousand years to spread the Catholic Church over the entire world. She is still one, holy, catholic and apostolic, and when she makes the effort, nothing can stop her mission, not even persecution.

About Deacon W. Patrick Cunningham

Deacon Pat Cunningham is a retired deacon of the Archdiocese of San Antonio, Texas, but continues to serve at St. Pius X Church in that city. He holds a Master’s degree in Theology from St. Mary’s University of Texas and has written for HPR and other Catholic publications since 1975.

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