Sunday, February 22, 2015

Jesus Changes The Common Ground of Life

February 22, 2015
First Sunday of Lent

Jesus Changes The Common Ground of Life
“This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand.
 Repent, and believe in the Good News.”

With Jesus came “the time of fulfillment.

We should know, when we present the Good News to anyone—which means, when we offer anyone greater knowledge, understanding or appreciation of Jesus—that we are affecting that person’s whole being by offering something that enhances understanding and appreciation of four fundamental things: who we arewhat we knowhow we should live, and how we should relate to other persons and to the world. That is pretty all-inclusive.

Actually, it is totally all-inclusive, because those four things are the four “transcendentals of being”; that is the four realities common to and found in every being; both in the infinite Being of God and in created beings. Every being is true, good and one.

The four “transcendentals” are not just philosophical abstractions; they are something we encounter and deal with every day, all day, in every human act. We experience them and deal with them in every interaction with anything that exists. And for those who know him, Jesus changes them all. He raises each of the “transcendentals” to a higher level. When we offer greater knowledge of Jesus and of his Good News to anybody, we are offering “life to the full”; that is, the fullness of being, truth, goodness and unity.

If you are not into philosophy—or, more precisely, into the metaphysical tradition of the Greek “pagan” Aristotle, as explained by the Jew Moses Maimonides, the Christian Thomas Aquinas, and the Muslim Abu Ibn Rochd, known in Latin as Averroës—a more groundlevel, Scripture-based explanation will be offered later. But why not see if your own “love of wisdom” (philo-sophia) will be enhanced by the clarifications that follow.

The Four Transcendentals 


The first thing all beings have in common, obviously, is being. But to understand ourselves as “beings” we have to know that we are and what we are.

That we are—our “existence”—is an ongoing act of creation. We need to realize that nothing in us explains the fact that we are. To know ourselves as existing is to know that God is continuing to say “Beeeee…” If he stops, we return to nothingness.

But by “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ” we exist now, not only by God’s creative act, but also by the gift of sharing in God’s own act of Being, God’s divine Life. Jesus changes—and enhances—the understanding and experience we have of our existence. Our existence is not just a human, but a divine act of being. It is “eternal life”—life without beginning or end, which only God has, but we share in it.

What we are—our “essence” or “nature”—is determined by how God designed and equipped us to function. What we are able to do, the operations we are structured to perform, constitute the “end” that defines each particular kind of being; in our case, a “human being.” Humans are beings that can do the kind of things humans are designed to do: not just walk and talk, but know and choose and love. In terms of moral activity, the Ten Commandments are the “operator’s manual” for good human behavior.

But Jesus, by giving us the gift of sharing in his own divine life and Nature, has enabled us to do things only God can do. By the gift of faith we share in God’s own act of knowing, and can know what only God can know, as only God can know it (see Matthew 11:27; John 1:18; Romans 8:14-16; Galatians 4:4-7; 1Corinthians 12:3). By the gift of love we share in God’s own act of loving (see John 13:34; Ephesians 3:16-21, 4:16, 5:25). And because by “grace” we share in the life and nature of God (2 Peter 1:4) Jesus has given us his “New Law” that calls us to live on the level of God. The Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5-7) is the “operator’s manual” for the life of grace. It tells us what is expected of us as human beings now that we are also divine.

The first thing Jesus changes—and enhances—is our understanding of the first “transcendental”—who and what we are: he transforms the appreciation we have of our being.


The second thing all beings have in common is intelligibility, which we call their “truth.” One of the greatest things we experience about ourselves is our ability to know. Humans have intellects that allow us to perceive the design and intentionality that make things what they are. When we say, “This is a cow,” we are echoing the creative act of God, who designed this creature (perhaps through millions of years of evolution) to be able to function as it does (its essence or nature), and is presently giving it existence to do that. Our perceptive, free judgment: “it is, and it is a cow,” echoes God’s intentional act of creation: “let it be, and let it be as a cow.” In making this judgment we experience ourselves as understanding God’s own thinking and willing. We recognize ourselves as being enough like God to enter into conscious relationship with him through admiration and praise.

But Jesus, as we said above, has changed our understanding and experience of knowing God and God’s creation. He has let us share in God’s own divine act of knowing. And he has revealed far more than we could ever have guessed about God’s plan and purpose in creating the world and the humans who live in it. When he says “the kingdom of God is at hand,” we know what that means (see Ephesians 1:9; Colossians 1:12). In doing this, Jesus has enhanced our appreciation of ourselves as “knowers,” and our appreciation of everything we know. We are the “light of the world,” and we see everything by God’s divine light (Matthew 5:14; John 1:9, 8:12).

The second thing Jesus changes—and enhances—is our understanding of the second “transcendental”: he transforms our experience of truth and of ourselves as knowers of truth.


Everything to which God is giving existence is good. If it were not, God would have no reason to give it existence. What we call “evil” is a lack of existence, something missing, in a good being that exists. Usually this is some defect in the way the being is functioning or “operating” (from opus, “work”), some action that is not according to its nature, not ordered to the end for which it exists.

When we say humans are “evil,” we are not talking about their being, but about their activity. In the same way, when we say people are “good,” we usually mean, not that their being as such is good (which it is, because God is holding them in existence), but that their behavior is “good” because it is the kind of behavior God wants from human beings—or, if we are talking about those who have been “reborn,” from divine human beings.

That is the third difference Jesus makes. By sharing his divine life with those he has made members of his own body by Baptism, Jesus changes the expectations we have of ourselves and others. Everything we do now should be, not just “good” but good as God is good; that is, divine (see Matthew 5:20; 19:17; John 13:34; all of Romans; 2Corinthians 5:21). He calls—and empowers—us to radically upgrade our lifestyle; to make everything we say and do reveal the presence of God’s divine life and of God’s Holy Spirit within us. The goodness of our daily life and lifestyle should be a visible embodiment of God’s own goodness and love.

The third thing Jesus changes—and enhances—is the way we understand, experience and live out the third “transcendental” of our being: our goodness.


When we call something a “being,” we mean that it is existing by one single act of existence. Ultimately, this means we are judging that God is giving it existence as a single whole; not as a collection or colony of beings. If a cow really is a cow, then everything it is made of is cow, not bone, or skin, or carbon atoms. What exists is the cow; everything else is receiving existence, not as a distinct being, but as a part or aspect of a whole.

There is a lot of metaphysics behind this. We are dealing with the age-old, fundamental problem of “the one and the many.” This is not the place to give it a full, or even an adequate, treatment. But the key to recognizing a being as a being is the judgment we make about the intention of the one giving it existence; that is, God. This judgment isn’t arbitrary; it is based on our own judgment about what we are looking at. Is the cow really a cow, or just a collection of atoms? Our act of judgment, when we say “It is,” is the echo of God’s act of saying “Let it be.” If, in fact, the thing really is what we say it is, then we have understood what God is giving existence to. And whether we are right or wrong, whatever the “being” is, it is “one” because it is receiving one single act of existence, and receiving it as a single whole.

What, we ask now, has this got to do with our understanding of ourselves and our life in this world?

At this point we will go beyond philosophy, which relies on reason alone, and into “theology” (from theos, “God,” and logos, the “intelligibility of”). We rely here on the divine revelation that God is Three in One: the Holy Trinity of three Persons in one Being—Father, Son and Spirit, who are one and the same in Essence (or Nature) and Existence. The Three Persons are “one in Being’ (or, in the unfortunate obfuscation of the new 2011 “Roman-English” translation of the Mass, “consubstantial”), which means that each Person has everything the others have, and that when they act “outside of themselves”—that is, in creating or dealing with creatures—they all act together as one. They differ only as “Persons”; that is, in their relationships, which are identified by their interaction with each other.

This is not the place to attempt a clarification of the mystery of the Trinity! The previous paragraph is given only as background to explain the role of relationships in every creature’s existence, and above all in the life of humans created explicitly in the image and likeness of God.

More specifically, we want to explain how humans, who are many, are nevertheless called to be one with each other and with the whole of creation. Each individual human is “one in being” by receiving one unique act of existence from God. But this “transcendental” of individual unity that makes each of us “whole and entire” as human beings, nevertheless leaves us “incomplete” and unfulfilled as persons. As a human race, we are meant to be parts of a whole, of a community, a “common unity” formed through interactions with others that give us our “identity” as persons. We who are identified as beings by being “one” with ourselves, are only identified as persons through our relationships, formed by interaction with other beings; especially with those on the same level of being as ourselves—other human persons—and with God.

Since God is what he is, Three Persons in one God, God’s Oneness is not intelligible apart from the relationships that diversify the Three Persons. Since we are what we are, multiple persons created in the image of God, our individuality is not intelligible apart from the relationships that make us one in the “common unity” of the human race. The same reality—relationship—that diversifies God’s unity unifies our diversity.

So relationships are essential to authentic human living. The “oneness” that is a transcendental of our limited, finite being cannot be understood, and does not make sense, unless we see it as including a need for relationships. To be authentically true and good in the oneness of our finite being, we need to be in relationship with other persons—as God, who is absolutely One, True and Good in his infinite Being, exists as a Relationship between three divine Persons.

Unlike God, however, we are not “one in being” with any of the persons with whom we are in relationship. In spite of all our interactions, each of us remains isolated in the oneness of our individual being. The closest we come to unity is the “common unity” found in a community of persons.

But Jesus has changed that. The community, the koinonia or “fellowship,” into which he has called us, is not just a “common unity” of interaction. It is a common unity of being, a common unity that comes from sharing in God’s own divine Being and Life. Those who are one with each other “in Christ” are one with each other as the Father, Son and Spirit are one. Jesus prayed at the Last Supper “that they may be one, as we are one… that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us” (John 17:11, 21).

Our unity with each other is the mystery of God’s own divine unity: “truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” It is “the communion (koinonia) of the Holy Spirit.” (1John 1:13; 2Corinthians 13:14;

This fellowship (koinonia) is “the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things,” the mystery “that has now been revealed by the Spirit.” This mystery is that, not only the Gentiles, but all who are “in Christ” have become “one body” and “one in being” in Christ. Jesus took flesh and died to “create in himself one new humanity” (see John 1:1-13; Ephesians, chapters 2 to 4).

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all (Ephesians 4:4).

On ground level, this changes our relationship with very other person (whom we must presume to be sharing in the divine life of grace). It calls us to interact  with them divinely: to love others as our own body, as the body of Christ, and to love everyone else with the same divine love Jesus gives to us.

We must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love (Ephesians 4:15; see 5:29; John 5:12).

The fourth thing Jesus changes—and enhances—is the way we understand, experience and live out the fourth “transcendental” of our being: our oneness. It cannot be authentically understood or lived without the inclusion of relationships. And Jesus has transformed our relationship with each other into a mystery of sharing in the unity and diversity of the Trinity. To be one is to be one with one another as the Three Persons of God are one.

Relationship with the world

The change Jesus brought to the understanding we have of our oneness is a double change: it affects our relationship with other persons and our relationship with everything else in the universe.

As human beings, we already have a responsibility for this world that God gave to Adam and Eve. We are “stewards of creation” (Genesis 2:15-19). But because Jesus has made us by Baptism sharers in his messianic mission as Prophet, Priest and King, we are also “stewards of his kingship.” We are responsible for bringing every area and activity of human existence under the lifegiving reign of God. This changes our relationship with everyone and everything around us. Our oneness is a oneness with the cosmos. We cannot enclose ourselves in our own private well-being, or even in our limited nationalistic patriotism, as if the whole of life on this planet were not our concern. God’s “plan for the fullness of time” is “to gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth… God has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

For in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. (Ephesians 1:10; Colossians 1:16; and see 15:25).

The change Jesus brought about in the way we understand and live out the fourth “transcendental” of our being, our oneness, changes the way we look at and interact with everything else in the world. We cannot refuse the relationship of responsibility that we have for everyone and everything else on the planet.

That enhances our existence.

Do I choose to let Jesus change the “ground of my being”—the way I understand and live out the truth, goodness, and oneness that characterize my being?

Pray: “Lord, I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).

Practice: Think deep. Reflect on the four “transcendentals of being.”

Discuss: How has Jesus changed your understanding of yourself?

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Jesus Changes Priorities

February 21, 2015
Saturday after Ash Wednesday

Jesus Changes Priorities
If you hold back your foot on the Sabbath
from following your own pursuits on my holy day;
If you call the Sabbath a delight…

In three sentences the Gospel summarizes the whole process of conversion to Jesus.  

Jesus saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at the customs post.” Jesus notices, looks at, and calls everyone. Levi was an outcast who betrayed his people by collecting taxes for a colonial government. Jesus saw what he could be and accepted him.

Pope Francis says this experience is offered to everyone:

No one should think that this invitation [to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ] is not meant for him or her, since “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord.” The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk; whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms. Now is the time to say to Jesus: “Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in a thousand ways I have shunned your love, yet here I am once more, to renew my covenant with you. I need you. Save me once again, Lord, take me once more into your redeeming embrace.” How good it feels to come back to him whenever we are lost!
Let me say this once more: God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy. Christ, who told us to forgive one another “seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22) has given us his example: he has forgiven us seventy times seven. Time and time again he bears us on his shoulders. No one can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by this boundless and unfailing love. With a tenderness which never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, he makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and to start anew. Let us not flee from the resurrection of Jesus, let us never give up, come what will. May nothing inspire more than his life, which impels us onwards! (Joy of the Gospel 1).

“He said to him, ‘Follow me.’” Jesus did not urge Levi to repent of his sins (although when preaching to a crowd he introduced the Good News by calling for a total “change of mind,” metanoia: Matthew 4:17). He did not call him to embrace a “religion.” If Matthew had been a Catholic, Jesus would not have pressed him to start going to Mass. What he invited him to was a personal relationship: “Follow me.”

This was Pope Francis’s first message to the Church:

1. The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew…
I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day…

“And leaving everything behind, he got up…” We don’t find relationship with Jesus by including his teachings in our value system, or making him one of our circle of friends. The core of Judaism was and is that it is impossible to worship God by accepting him as one of many gods. “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4). In the same way, it is impossible to follow Jesus if we follow—or pursue—anything else. We either give up all other goals, values, priorities, attachments and desires, or we don’t recognize Jesus for who he really is. Jesus doesn’t thunder it from the mountain, but he says it just as forcefully: “I am the LORD your God… you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Deuteronomy 5:6).

Jesus said the same thing in different words, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate [remove from all competition with me] father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple… So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions (Luke 14:26, 33).

Anything in our life that competes with total devotion to Jesus is an idol.

Pope Francis tells us what the current idol is:

2. The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ.

The Jewish law of Sabbath observance struck at the heart of this attitude:

If you hold back your foot on the Sabbath from following your own pursuits on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight, and the Lord’s holy day honorable; if you honor it by not following your ways, seeking your own interests, or speaking with malice—then you shall delight in the Lord.

By requiring his People to abstain one day a week from doing anything that involved them in this world’s business or pursuits, God taught them in the most effective way possible that they had a raison-d-être, a meaning and purpose in life, that was not of this world, but above and beyond it. And, paradoxically, this is a first step toward the renewal of a society verging on ruin:

Then light shall rise for you in the darkness, and the gloom shall become for you like midday. Then the Lord will guide you always, and give you plenty even on the parched land.

People trained to put everything aside on the Sabbath can understand and accept “leaving everything behind,” to “get up” and follow Jesus.

“…and followed him.” Luke ends his sentence as all conversion to Jesus must end: with Levi entering into enduring relationship with Jesus. Being a Christian is not living by the teachings of Jesus or following his example; it is “following” Jesus himself by remaining constantly in his presence, in constant interaction (the reality of relationship) with him. To “accept Jesus,” believe in him, or give ourselves to him means very simply that we make him the focus of our lives. We make personal interaction, and personal relationship with him, our first priority and the priority that determines the place of every other.

How do we know we have truly encountered Jesus Christ? By the change it has made in our priorities.

Do I choose to let Jesus change my priorities?

Pray: (from “St. Patrick’s Breastplate”):

Christ with me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

Practice: Ask before everything you do, “Will Jesus do this with me?”

Discuss: In practice, what does it mean to make interaction with Jesus the first priority in your life?

Friday, February 20, 2015

Jesus Changes Root and Fruit

February 20, 2015
Friday after Ash Wednesday

Jesus Changes Root and Fruit
A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.

Fasting was something a “good Jew” did. And those who did it thought they were good Jews—both those who were open enough to listen to John the Baptizer (his “disciples”) and those who weren’t (the Pharisees). They were both shocked because the disciples of Jesus weren’t into fasting.

Jesus answered them by asking what fasting expressed. Was it just something a good Jew did, or was it a physical hunger one embraced in order to be aware of spiritual hunger for God?

If it expressed hunger for God, the disciples who were listening to Jesus every day were already getting what they hungered for: “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?”

The Second Vatican Council (“On the Sacred Liturgy,” no. 48) said the same is true of those who are present at Mass, not “as strangers or silent spectators,” but as disciples of Jesus who “take part in the sacred action conscious of what they are doing, with devotion and full collaboration.” Their hunger is being satisfied.

Authentic “disciples” are those members of the congregation who seek to be “instructed by God's word and be nourished at the table of the Lord's body.” They are there consciously to learn. They have a hunger to know God. And to satisfy this hunger, the Council bishops decreed that the readings at Mass should systematically cover the whole Bible over a three-year cycle (Sunday readings for Years A, B, and C, with daily readings for Years I and II in Ordinary Time):

51. The treasures of the bible are to be opened up more lavishly, so that richer fare may be provided for the faithful at the table of God's word. In this way a more representative portion of the holy scriptures will be read to the people in the course of a prescribed number of years.

This means that if we listen, we will be fed. And the homilies should help by focusing on the mystery within the doctrines we are taught, and on practical principles for living them out in action:

52. By means of the homily the mysteries of the faith and the guiding principles of the Christian life are expounded from the sacred text, during the course of the liturgical year.

We should note the difference between principles and rules. A principle is defined by Aristotle as “that from which something begins.” A rule is commonly assumed to be the pronouncement in which a reflection process ends. Law-abiding Catholics keep rules unreflectively, as if there were nothing more to think about. They just do what the rule says. But the Council bishops wrote that in the homily it is “the guiding principles of the Christian life” that should be explained. In other words, the homily should teach us to think.

That is how authentic disciples of Jesus Christ listen to the readings and to the homily: they are making a conscious effort to learn his mind and heart.  They are the only ones who can truly understand the purpose and correct interpretation of Church rules. Non-disciples just follow them blindly—and often destructively.

The Council bishops insist that listening to the readings and homily with a fervent intention to learn is just as important as entering reverently into the Eucharistic Prayer:

56. The two parts which make up the Mass; namely, the liturgy of the word and the eucharistic liturgy, are so closely connected with each other that they form but one single act of worship. Accordingly this sacred Synod strongly urges pastors of souls that, when instructing the faithful, they insistently teach them to take their part in the entire Mass…

We legitimately ask, “Why, then, do so many people find Mass so boring they ‘get nothing out of it’?”

The simple answer is, “Because they are not really listening to the words or paying attention to what is happening.” They are “just there.” They are not doing what the Council bishops taught:

48. They should give thanks to God [how many consciously do this at Mass?]. By offering the Immaculate Victim, not only through the hands of the priest, but also with him, they should learn also to offer themselves; through Christ the Mediator, they should be drawn day by day into ever more perfect union with God and with each other, so that finally God may be all in all.

This is not the place to explain full participation in the Eucharistic celebration (see my books Experiencing the Mass and A Fresh Look at the Mass). But if you need an explanation, that explains (in part) why the Mass may not be for you the nourishing experience it should be.

There are two other explanations. Jesus is referring to the first when he says, “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” This too would be long to go into. In a nutshell, it means that sometimes the human experience of Christ’s presence, of the truth of his words, the reliability of his promises, the reality of his love for us, and of ours for him, just goes away. The spiritual writers call this “desolation,” or if it is extreme and extended, the “dark night of the soul” (read St. John of the Cross). Saint Ignatius echoes Jesus when he tells us that the right response when this happens is to “fast”—for example, by “ insisting more on prayer, meditation, earnest self-examination, and some suitable way of doing penance” (Spiritual Exercises, no. 319).

The reading from Isaiah gives the second explanation. Nothing we do will nourish our souls or satisfy our hunger for God unless we live out love for others: “This, rather, is the fasting that I wish… Setting free the oppressed… sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless… and not turning your back on your own.”

Any time, or any place, in which the Church seems to be ineffective—whether on the level of parish, diocese, or in the home—the first thing we should examine is the way we are living out love for others. Pope Francis says this is a key to parish renewal:

The parish is the presence of the Church in a given territory, an environment for hearing God’s word, for growth in the Christian life, for dialogue, proclamation, charitable outreach, worship and celebration. In all its activities the parish encourages and trains its members to be evangelizers. It is a community of communities, a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey, and a center of constant missionary outreach (Joy of the Gospel, 28).

When we change at the very root of our being—in our attitudes and values—and begin to live out the words God speaks in our hearts, the divine life of God within us will begin to bear fruit in our lives and for the world:

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall quickly be healed… Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am!

Do I choose to do this? Do I choose to let the words of Jesus transform the “root and fruit” of my Christian living?

Pray: “Lord, let me know the breadth and length and height and depth of your love, so that I may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:18).

Practice: Lay the ax to the root of the tree (Matthew 3:10).

Discuss: How do your Christian attitudes “take flesh”: in action?

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Jesus Makes Joy A Choice

February 19, 2015
Thursday after Ash Wednesday

Jesus Makes Joy A Choice
Choose life, then.

No one has to be unhappy. That’s easy to say if you’re healthy, survivingly wealthy, and not living in a war zone.

Nevertheless, God says a-priori: “Today I have set before you life and prosperity, death and doom… Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the Lord, your God, heeding his voice, and holding fast to him.”

So is “heeding God’s voice” going to put food on the table in a famine-struck country?

One answer, which is true in spite of being ultimate, is what Jesus told Satan when he rejected the temptation to be a “peace and prosperity” Messiah: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” And he went a step farther: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (Matthew 4:4; John 6:51).

Okay: Jesus calls us to redefine life and happiness. True, he didn’t say, “I came that all might have perfect health,” or “have enough to eat.” But he did say, “I came that they might have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).

For most of us, however, the question is not about finding happiness in spite of hunger, oppression and violence; not even, for most of our lives at least, in spite of sickness. The choice is much simpler than that. And for that reason, we can make our choice without being conscious of what we have chosen.

We can choose implicitly, without “sufficient refection” and “full consent of the will,” between “life to the full” and life that is just moderately satisfying. Or between limited contentment and full joy.

Jesus offers “life to the full,” which carries a corresponding measure of joy. Do we really believe that?

There are ways to test ourselves on that. The Responsorial Psalm (1:1-6) gives one: anyone who truly believes also hopes: “Blessed are they who hope in the Lord.” And a sign of this hope is that one does not just keep God’s commandments, but “delights in the law of the Lord and meditates on his law day and night.” If we really believe Jesus offers “life to the full” we will want to absorb everything he teaches, follow his example consistently, and grow into perfect union with his mind and heart.

In other words, be committed disciples.

Is this so hard to do?

No; a “disciple” is by definition a learner; one who is not yet completely formed. To be a disciple, all we have to do is begin. But we have to begin with commitment. We don’t have to “meditate on his law day and night,” but we have to set aside a specific time to read and reflect on God’s word (directly or through books that explain it), and stick to it. A sporadic reader is not a student. A student is one committed to study, and for humans a commitment, to be real, must be specific about time and space. Humans only act in time and space, so until we have decided when and where we will “meditate on the law of the Lord,” we have decided nothing. That means, if we are honest, that we really do not believe Jesus offers “life to the full,” or we don’t “hope in the Lord” enough to think it is really available to us, or we just don’t love life or God enough to “choose life” to the full, so that “we and our descendants” may live and give the joy Jesus offers to those who live by faith, hope and love.

But we were all given the gifts of faith, hope and love at Baptism, so we can choose life
—and joy—“to the full” if we want to. We just have to begin by committing ourselves to begin.

Begin what? Begin reading a little bit of the Bible every day. Doing that won’t make you a saint (right away), but it will make you a disciple. And that leads to everything else.

Do I choose to let Jesus give me the fullness of life and joy?

Pray all day: “Lord, inspire me to begin, and help me to continue.”

Practice: Put a Bible on your pillow. Read at least one line a night.

Discuss: Assuming you know how to read, can you be a good Christian without reading the Bible?

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Jesus is a Constant Change of Mind

February 18, 2015
Ash Wednesday

Jesus Points Us To The Father
Your Father… will repay you.

Jesus uses the words “your Father” six times in the Ash Wednesday Gospel. Obviously, his focus is on teaching us the mind and heart of God. And our first focus as his disciples (his “students”) should be on learning how God thinks and feels and loves. This is the first “change of mind”—the first metanoia—to which Lent invites us (see Matthew 4:17: “Repent— metanoeite—for the kingdom of heaven has come near”).

Metanoia” means a “change of mind.” If our focus has been on sins—either the ones we have committed or the ones we are trying not to commit—Lent is a time to change it. Jesus calls us to focus on our Father—on his mind and heart. If we want to think about our sins, we should think about how our Father thinks about them. And he hardly does. Our Father thinks about us; perhaps about how our sins are harming us, or harming other people, but not about our sins as such.

The truth is, our Father is not that interested in sin. Nor is he very interested in what we do, except insofar as what we do determines what we are, or helps other people be and become all they can be.

That is the classic definition of love: to want persons to be and to become all they can be (esse et bene esse). It also defines authentic love of self.

God is love. To know God’s heart is to know that he wants us to be and become; then to have some understanding of what God sees we can be. To “change our minds” where necessary, and want this with him, is metanoia. That is the goal and focus of Lent.

When Paul preached repentance, he did it as a spokesman for God’s heart: “We are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” That means to be one heart and mind with him. To do this, we need to take note of our sins, then concentrate on what we know of God’s heart.

We find a model of this in the most famous prayer of repentance in Scripture: Psalm 51, today’s Responsorial Psalm:

David is aware of his sin: 

         “I acknowledge my offense, my sin is before me always.” 

But he begins with a focus on God’s heart: 

         “Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness; in the greatness of your                                  compassion…” 

And he looks immediately to the future, to the transformation of heart that God desires for him:

        “A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me.” 

What he wants is relationship with the Father (and, although the Trinity was not yet revealed, with the Son and Spirit): 

       “Cast me not out from your presence, and your Holy Spirit take not from me.” 

His focus is not on sin, but on union of heart with God. He knows God does not want him to keep on beating his breast in sadness; that can be deadening. He prays for renewed motivation to go out and do the work of God, without discouragement:: “Give me back the joy of your salvation, and a willing spirit sustain in me.”

What “repentance” is all about is a joyful understanding of the mind and heart of God that will put our focus on praising him forever:

       “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.”

God annihilated our sins when “for our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin”—Jesus on the cross—“so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” It is all about becoming as perfect as God “in Christ.”

Sound impossible? Jesus said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Jesus doesn’t give impossible commands. That was the first change of mind he called for: “Nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 13:7, 10:27; Matthew 19:26).

Do I choose to begin Lent letting Jesus focus me on the Father?

Pray: “Lord, show me your heart, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.”

Practice: Every time you think of your sins, remember all you can of what Jesus has taught us about the Father’s mind and heart.

Discuss: What does it mean to say, “God looks at our heart more than at our behavior”?

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Jesus Saves

February 17, 2015
Tuesday of Week 6 in Ordinary Time

Jesus Saves
When the Lord saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth,
and how no desire that his heart conceived was ever anything but evil,
he regretted that he had made man on the earth.

When we read: “God regretted that he had made man on the earth,” our first thought might be, “Can you blame him?” When we look at the history of the human race, are there more pluses or minuses?

Does our answer depend on whether we are looking at the daily news or at our grandchildren?

Either way, the truth is, the pluses have it. But the ultimate deciding factor is Jesus Christ.

Take Jesus out of the picture, and even if we don’t believe in life after death—or perhaps especially if we don’t believe in life after death—life goes to hell in a handbasket. What is there to live for? What is there to die for? William Empson captured the mood in his poem, “Just a Smack at Auden”:

Waiting for the end, boys, waiting for the end.

What is there to be or do?

What’s become of me or you?

Are we kind or are we true?

Sitting two and two, boys, waiting for the end.

Shall I build a tower, boys, knowing it will rend
Crack upon the hour, boys, waiting for the end?

Shall I pluck a flower, boys, shall I save or spend?

All turns sour, boys, waiting for the end…

Shall I make it clear, boys, for all to apprehend,

Those that will not hear, boys, waiting for the end,

Knowing it is near, boys, trying to pretend,

Sitting in cold fear, boys, waiting for the end?...

Jesus makes the difference. The name “Jesus” means “God saves.” God chose to save rather than destroy when he told Noah to build an ark and put in it “a male and its mate” of “every moving creature” he had made, in order to preserve a “remnant” of every form of created life.

Search the 77 occurrences of “remnant” in the Bible (NRSV translation): God will never allow his people to be utterly destroyed or to become one hundred percent unfaithful:

Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from your birth, carried from the womb; even to your old age I am he, even when you turn gray I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save (Isaiah 46:3).

No matter how unfaithful Israel was, Ezekiel could pray: “Ah Lord GOD! will you make a full end of the remnant of Israel?” and God answered:

I will gather you from the peoples, and assemble you out of the countries where you have been scattered… I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them… Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God.

Jesus is God’s fidelity made flesh. Once God became a human in Jesus, there was no way God could ever abandon the human race. “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth (hesed and emet, “kindness and fidelity” or just “enduring love”) came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).

Neither sin nor death can ever prevail over the body of Christ on earth. Jesus told his followers: “In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (John 16:33).

Jesus is the one sent “to guide our feet into the way of peace” and “to teach the way of God in accordance with truth” (Luke 1:9; Matthew 22:16).

Jesus is the truth that prevails over error: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5).

Jesus is the life that triumphs over death: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

He summed up his saving role during the Last Supper: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6).

This means that when we don’t know where to go in life or what values to follow, we turn to Jesus the Way. When we are misled, confused or in darkness, we go to Jesus the Truth. When we feel our lives are aimless, unsuccessful or futile, we find fulfillment in Jesus the Life. He is the one who saves our lives on this earth from veering off to destructiveness, distortion, mediocrity and meaninglessness. In Jesus “God saves” by acting with us, in us and through us so that we, and others because of us, might “have life and have it to the full” (John 10:10).

The first and last question we need to ask—the Alpha and Omega of our life story, and all the letters in between—is: “Do I choose to let Jesus be ‘God saves’ for me?”

Pray all day: “Jesus, do this with me, do this in me, do this through me.”

Practice: No matter what you are doing, ask yourself how your relationship with Jesus saves it from destructiveness, distortion, mediocrity and meaninglessness.

Discuss: What does my relationship with Jesus Christ do for me?

Monday, February 16, 2015

Jesus Shows A Higher Way

February 16, 2015

Monday of week 6 in Ordinary Time

Jesus Shows A Higher Way
I am the way and the truth and the life, says the Lord.
Mark doesn’t spell things out. In Mark Jesus just says, “No sign will be given.” In Matthew (16:4) he says, “No sign will be given except the sign of Jonah.” Later he will say in Mark, “Watch out—beware of the yeast of the Pharisees.” Matthew will explain (16:12), “Then they understood that he had told them to beware of the teaching of the Pharisees.”

So what is the “sign of Jonah”?

It is the Church. Originally, it was Jesus risen from the dead after three days in the grave as Jonah was three days in the fish. But a sign has to be visible, and the risen Jesus is no longer visible.

Wrong. The risen Jesus is visible today in all who are living the life of grace—the divine life of Jesus—so authentically that it is obvious Jesus has to be living in them, acting with them, in them and through them in ways that simply are not possible by human power alone.

When it is obvious that the risen Jesus is living and acting in the Church, the Church is the “sign of Jonah.”

Do we recognize him?

If all we are attuned to is the morality of the Ten Commandments, we may not. The Ten Commandments are the manufacturer’s instructions, the “operator’s manual,” for the human nature we were born with. Not to live by the Ten Commandments is to be sub-human.

Jesus’ New Law, on the other hand, summarized in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew, chapters 5-7), gives guidelines for living on the level of God. The New Law begins where the Ten Commandments leave off. To live only by the Ten Commandments is to live a sub-Christian life.

The  “teaching of the Pharisees” was—among other things—that we should live by the Ten Commandments.

If all we are attuned to is the morality of the Ten Commandments, we may not notice it when people speak and act on the level of God. We may just ignore, write off as exaggeration, or subconsciously “dumb down” any expression of the mystery of Christian teaching. We may think people in church are just “going to Mass,” when, in fact, what they are doing and celebrating is impossible for anyone who does not have the divine light of faith. When the presider invites the congregation into the “fellowship of the Holy Spirit,” we may see that as no different than the fellowship of the Rotary Club, and think that when people treat each other as “brothers and sisters in Christ,” they are inspired by nothing more than a laudable recognition of the “brotherhood of man.” The mystical depth of the sacrament of matrimony (Jesus himself pledging lifelong fidelity in each of the spouses) may elude us.

The truth is, members of the Church often fail to be the “sign of Jonah,” because we were taught the inferior morality of the Ten Commandments instead of the New Law of Jesus. We think we are Christian if we do not steal, although Jesus said, “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well… Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”

We think we are moral if we do not murder. But Jesus said, “Do not resist an evildoer.” Nevertheless, we go to war and kill in self-defense. And we think the laws of human society can permit us to kill someone found guilty of killing another, even if we recognize the killer as a repentant child of God.

We say, “We can’t take the Sermon on the Mount literally.” And we think that dispenses us from taking it seriously at all. We never get around to deciding how we should take it. What we do in practice is ignore what Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount and live the sub-Christian morality of the Ten Commandments instead.

The risen Jesus is not visible—unambiguously, at least—in those who keep the Ten Commandments. As he himself said, “Do not even the tax collectors do the same? ...Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees [who kept the Ten Commandments to the letter], you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20, 46).

But if we take seriously the teaching of the Church that by Baptism we “become Christ” (Catechism of the Catholic Church no. 794), and that in everything we do he wants to act with us, in us and through us as in his own body, then, little by little the risen Jesus will become visible in what we say and do. We will be the “sign of Jonah” for the present generation.

Do I choose to let the light of Jesus shine in me, and the life of Jesus appear in everything I do?

Pray the WIT prayer all day, every day: “Jesus, do this with me, do this in me, do this through me.”

Practice: Read Matthew, chapters 5 to 7, and decide on a feasible way to live by at least one thing he says there.

Discuss: How does Christian morality differ from the Ten Commandments?