31st Sunday B (Mark 12:28-34)
What a price we have to pay as loyal patriotic voters. Weary as we are with all the political posturing and wrangling, statements and misstatements of the last few months. What must we do to be rid of all this political hype? In an election year political candidates attempt to reduce their message to sound bites and bumper stickers. Complex ideas and extended discussions seldom make it into prime time coverage. The truth is, we tend to remember catchy phrases more than complex ideas anyway.
It takes great skill to make such a reduction in a way that doesn’t sacrifice the truth. It was this very request for simplification that confronted Jesus when a teacher of the Law asked him the question contained in today’s Gospel. “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment?” The scribe wanted what we all want. He knew that the Hebrew Scriptures contained over 700 commands, and numerous chapters of commentary or explanation of those commands. He wanted to get to the bottom line. He was asking Jesus for a bumper sticker slogan.
To his amazement and to ours, Jesus does just that. “Love God with all that you are, and love your neighbor as yourself.” The first part is from Deuteronomy and the second from Leviticus. Together they form the cross of love’s command- love deep all the way up to God; and love wide, all the way to your neighbor. Deep and wide. We can’t choose just one dimension of love. We can’t choose to love God but be unconcerned for our fellow men and women. We can’t choose to be involved with social issues and separate that concern for a devotion to God.
Our society has made such a mush of love through romantic novels and love songs and TV soaps that the truth is obscured, that love is something you feel, and only what you feel. We talk about falling in love, as if we are somehow out of control and at the mercy of our feelings. How many marriages are destroyed over a spouse who says “I can’t help it, I just don’t love you anymore.” On Engaged Encounter weekends, we speak of love as being a decision.
Jesus doesn’t ask us to love only those for whom we currently feel love. He doesn’t ask us only for love for God and neighbor when the feeling hits us. He commands love. Love is more than hormones or emotions. It’s a commitment of the will, strength, heart, and mind. Love survives in the face of lovelessness because it is God’s love flowing through us, not just our own love, which is at work.
Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We will love our neighbor in the way we love ourselves. In other words, if we loathe ourselves, we will find it difficult to love our neighbor. If we think we have no value, we will find it difficult to ascribe value to others. If we give to our brother and sister the same respect we naturally give to ourselves, we will be transformed and we will transform others. And how we value ourselves and our neighbor flows from what God tells us in the Book of Genesis, that we are created in God’s image, male and female, and so we are valued and value others as images of God. So love God, love your brothers and sisters, and love yourself. Sounds like a really good bumper sticker, and not political at all.
Al Grosskopf, S.J.
29th Sunday B (Mark 10:35-45)
James and John would have done well in today’s competitive society. They wasted no time in trying to further their own ambitions for success. They had no shame in trying to outsmart their companions in their efforts to secure their own preferment. Clearly any sense of loyalty was low down on their personal agenda. Nothing could be allowed to stand in the way of their desire for personal greatness. They had a single focus in their approach to life- a quality highly valued in the job market of our world today. Family and community loyalties are so often seen as an obstacle to a successful career.
Another aspect that gives the Gospel a contemporary feel is the fact that James and John were looking for instant success. They believed that Jesus could just give them the power, the fame, and the greatness that they were seeking. Cronyism clearly is not a new phenomenon but was as divisive in Jesus’ time as it is today. Without denouncing their desire for success, Jesus challenged them to take on a totally new way of thinking into their squabble over rank. Jesus projects the ideal of service. The key to success he taught them, was to develop the art of self-giving and not self-assertion. “Anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be slave to all.”
Mark places Jesus’ teaching on success and greatness within a Eucharistic context. His community was familiar with sharing the cup of the blood of Jesus, and to share in the cup, to share Holy Communion was to renew one’s personal commitment to the new covenant, sealed by the shedding of the blood of Jesus on the cross. Perhaps we, like James and John, may be slow in our understanding the full practical implications of accepting the Gospel. Even though that may be true, we continue to follow Jesus, learning from him, understanding more, and reflecting more and more the example of Jesus who continually gives of himself to us.
The call to live continually in the shadow of the cross is not an invitation to a life of doom and gloom. On the contrary, the cross, properly understood, spells freedom and hope. The ideal of service which Jesus sets before us requires that we surrender ourselves to God’s loving care, relaxing that tight control over our affairs and our lives which most of us are anxious to maintain because it gives us a sense of security. We become more liberated and free human beings when we root our need for security in God alone. Success is to be judged in terms not of what we gain, but of what we learn to give. Let us give thanks for the Eucharist of Jesus who will never let us go.
Al Grosskopf, S.J.
27th Sunday B (Mark 10:2-16)
Preparing engaged couples for the Sacrament of Matrimony is very challenging and one of the most important ministries in these times when families face so many problems, and the divorce rate is so high. Preparing couples for marriage includes an Engaged Encounter weekend and the FOCCUS inventory where each one answers about 160 questions, revealing to each other issues and problems they may not have thought to discuss, or may have been afraid to discuss. These are valuable parts of the marriage preparation program.
Jesus views marriage in a very special way. Men and women leave father and mother and become as one. "No longer two but one flesh. Therefore let no one separate what God has joined." The Church speaks of marriage as a covenant, a symbol just as unbreakable as God’s covenant with his people. The Church tells us that the Sacrament of Matrimony is the only one of the seven that a priest, bishop, or deacon is not the minister. The couple themselves are the ministers of the Sacrament, the priest is simply a witness for the Church.
And still, divorce happens. Many marriages end in divorce, and Catholics are no exception. Some of our families have been touched by divorce. I have ministered especially with divorced Catholics for many years. I have facilitated support groups for divorced people. Much healing of the pain of divorce takes place in these groups.
Not uncommonly, Catholics who are divorced sometimes feel alienated and rejected, by family, and even by the Church. As today's gospel tells us, Jesus is strongly against divorce. Jesus is hard on divorce, but not on divorced people. To them he is compassionate, as he was toward the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well, the woman who had had five husbands, and to whom he offered the living water of life, as we read in John's Gospel.
Marriage is a covenant; it is also a commitment, a commitment to each other, to society, to children, and to God. I often find that commitment is frightening for many young people. Commitments are part of how we live our lives, how we can be counted on, how trustworthy we are, how responsible we are in our friendships and our relationships. Friendship can only be nourished in an atmosphere where people can be counted on, in sickness and in health, rich or poor. We learn to make commitments in small ways, in relationship with each other as true friends. One who doesn't keep little commitments isn't likely to keep big ones. As we grow in the willingness and ability to keep commitments we no longer remain in isolation from each other, but are "consecrated in our commitment to God, and therefore God is not ashamed to call us brother and sister," as our second reading from Hebrews tells us.
Our Gospel concludes with an image of Jesus valuing little children in his embrace. So often in our contemporary society, children are devalued, and even abused, and many unborn children are discarded. So often, those who have experienced abortion are unaware that healing is available to them. So often the fear of rejection and abandonment traps us. One of the primal cries of the human heart is "Please don't leave me." The response, "You can count on me" touches us in the depths of our heart. Jesus, the ultimately trustworthy one, embraces us, touches us, and will never abandon us. And so, let us give thanks.
Al Grosskopf, S.J.
26th Sunday B (Numbers 11:25-29) (Mark 9:38-48)
91 years ago, a Jesuit priest, ordained but eleven months, was shot by a military firing squad in Mexico. This young priest had been arrested shortly before his execution, falsely accused of plotting the assassination of a prominent general. As he stood there before his executioners without blindfold, clutching a crucifix in one hand and a rosary in the other, he extended his arms in the form of a cross, and as the rifle shots were fired, he cried out "Viva Cristo Rey!" Blessed Miguel Augustin Pro had given his life as a prophet and a martyr, as Archbishop Romero of San Salvador would give his life later, assassinated as he was saying Mass, and as the six Jesuits and two women would be assassinated later for the cause of social justice for the poor at the University of Central America in El Salvador.
Sometimes being called as a prophet means sticking your neck out in the cause of justice, love and peace, perhaps even with the loss of one's life, as with Blessed Miguel Augustin Pro. "Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets! Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all!" said Moses in our first reading from the Book of Numbers.
Prophets in those days were the conscience of Israel, whose lives often spoke God's disturbing word. Prophets today are the conscience of God's people, calling us as Church to a deeper awareness of God's concerns for all people, to be drawn out of our isolation to our acceptance of our interdependence as community, concerned about what happens to our brothers and sisters as children of God. Among contemporary prophets of our day we can number the heroic Mother Theresa who called us to an awareness of the dignity and sacredness of each human life, unborn and in the terminal hours, as she reflected the compassion of Jesus.
Perhaps being a prophet today here in our own country is to be concerned about why so many people are still living in poverty? Why are so many unemployed? Why are hundreds of thousands homeless? Why are families disintegrating? Why the high suicide rate among young people? Why do so many single parent families live in poverty? Why do so many people live under the illusion that capital punishment diminishes the crime rate? Why is the gap between rich and poor the largest in living memory? Why don’t we all have adequate health care? Why are so many children disvalued and abused by our government, in families and by clergy?
"Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets!" God doesn't call all of us to be cosmic or big league prophets. God calls us to be prophets right where we are, in our homes, in our families, in offices and workshops and schools and our Church. God calls us to be compassionate toward each other, to listen to each other, to respect and love each other as God does us. God calls us to make our marriages richer, as fuller expressions of God's sacramental love. God urges us to treat our children as gifts from God. And if there are any family inherited problems, to seek the help we need. God calls us to reach out beyond our families to those in need.
In our parish community, there are many opportunities, volunteering with a variety of outreach programs, St. Vincent de Paul Society, prison ministry, ministry to the sick and homebound, ministry to nursing homes, just to name a few opportunities. And so, as God's prophetic people, moved by God's Spirit which calls us to life in abundance, as Jesus promised to those who would follow him, let each one of us be prophets in our own time, listening and responding generously to the call of God's Spirit.
Al Grosskopf, S.J.
25th Sunday B (Mark 9:30-37)
Our Gospel today tells us of an attempt by Jesus to tell his disciples about how his life would end and that he would then rise from the dead. And they were afraid to question him. Jesus sought to turn their thoughts from trivialities to matters of substance. But fear prevented them from asking the pertinent questions, and so they avoided the important topic and began arguing among themselves, who was the greatest, the most important. Twelve grown men, followers of Christ, apostles, pillars of the Church, and here they were bickering about their relative importance in comparison to one another. When Jesus asked them what they had been discussing, they were too embarrassed to admit it. But Jesus already knew, so he said to them “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and servant of all.”
Then he did an interesting thing, something no one else would have done. He took a little child, stood the child in the midst of his disciples, put his arms around the child, and said, “Whoever welcomes a child such as this one, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the One that sent me.” Whoever but Jesus would have ever thought of that? While lesser men were nursing their fragile egos and guarding their reputations, he was seated on the floor with his arms around a little child, telling his followers to make room in their lives for little ones such as this one. This is currently a powerful example of Jesus’s care for children, an example so outrageously ignored as abused children should be loved and valued by those who should be representing the loving Lord Jesus. And we live with appropriate anger at those who betray Jesus and harm little ones made in God’s image and likeness.
How do we make room in our lives for little children? How do we learn from them? Children are insatiably curious. They want to know how something works or why it doesn’t work. They have a natural curiosity about themselves and about the world around them. They have not lost the sense of wonder. Religion begins in wonder. We see wonder at work in Jesus’ meditation on the lilies of the field, and in St. Paul‘s gratitude for the loyalty of his friends.
Childlike faith requires much courage. Not only grownups are brave. Think of the courage it would require for you to begin to explore the world and learn about the world. This kind of courage may take some to foreign lands with the Gospel, or to care for the dying, as did Mother Theresa. This kind of courage as adults may enlist us in the struggle for justice, to side with the poor, the weak, and the powerless.
The most endearing thing about children is their complete trust in the people who love and care for them. They haven’t learned how to play psychological games in their relationships. Their trust is unwavering and is not to be betrayed, as has been done by some perpetrators, betrayers, who should be leaders in ministry.
Some cynics have scorned religion for its childishness. They have said that we should grow up and take responsibility for ourselves. Jesus doesn’t call us to be childish in our faith. Rather he challenges us to be childlike- to be curious, courageous, and committedly trusting in the way children are, for Jesus is the one who is eminently trustworthy, the one who will never abandon us, the one who is the way, the truth and the life.
Al Grosskopf, S.J.
22nd Sunday B (Mark 7:1-23)
Sometimes people have trouble understanding the Bible. I sometimes have two primary problems with the Bible. One is that sometimes I don't understand it. It says some things that I simply don't get. I often ask myself, "What does that mean?" It was written in languages that are foreign to me- Hebrew and Greek. One of my Biblical problems is the passages I don't understand and can't figure out. My other problem is the parts I do understand. I know what they mean. I just don't want to do them. The demands they make are too hard. The commitments they require are too great. Mark Twain once said: "It's not the parts of the Bible I fail to understand that trouble me most. It's the parts I do understand." I can agree with that, especially with regard to the little book of James, our second reading for today. There's nothing complicated about it. James says just what he means, and does so in rather simple language. It might be called a handbook on practical Christianity.
Today's Gospel focuses on religion, of which there are obviously various kinds. Some are true, some are false, some are good, some are bad. How do we sort them out? How do we tell one from another? James speaks of what he calls "religion that is pure and undefiled before God." In other words, this is the religion that is most acceptable to God. What are the qualities of the best kind of religion?
First, the best kind of religion is receptive. It stands ready to hear the word of God. James says, "Humbly welcome the word that has taken root in you." The best way to welcome a word is to stop speaking, and opening my ears. If I want to become what God wants me to be, the place to start is by listening to what God says, to be receptive.
James goes on to say that the best kind of religion is also active. "Act on this word. If all you do is listen, you are deceiving yourselves." James then becomes more specific. He says the best kind of religion cares for those who are least able to care for themselves. In the first century, orphans and widows were powerless to change their plight. There was no social security and no welfare. Orphans frequently took to the streets, and ended up surviving any way they could, as they still do in some parts of the world. Widows had little decent chance of feeding their families. They often found themselves walking the streets and selling their bodies to strangers for a loaf of bread. As we read our daily newspapers, tune in to the TV news broadcasts, or walk downtown and are confronted by the homeless and hopeless, and we become increasingly aware of the many single parents who struggle to raise their children, we ask whether things have changed that much in 2000 years.
In order to follow Christ, we must get beyond the four walls of the church building. Out there in the world are wrongs that need righting and hurts that need healing. Those who rise up to meet this challenge will never rest easy. There will always be something more that needs to be done. The best kind of religion, in plain and simple language, is the kind that Jesus had. Our call as his followers is to be Jesus for others, to be his hands and feet in our time. That is our privilege and that is our call.
Al Grosskopf, S.J.
19th Sunday B (John 6:41-51)
Sometimes Jesus caused conflict and turmoil. He seemed to have this effect just by his speaking the truth, and sometimes his truth was unacceptable. Sometimes I think he continues to do so. Sometimes the Church which claims to speak in the name of Jesus is unacceptable. Arthur Schlessinger, noted Harvard historian, had said that the last remaining religious bias in the United States is anti-Catholicism. “The Church should get more up to date, more with it, more in tune with our times. After all, we’re people of the 21st century.” “The Church isn’t politically correct.” It values all human life and is against unjust wars and capitol punishment and abortion and euthanasia. Our Gospel today tells us the people murmured about Jesus, and basically asked the question, “Who does he think he is?” “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” and they responded, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph? Don’t we know his father and mother? How can he say he came down from heaven?” “Who does he think he is?”
On one of her visits to the United States, Mother Theresa observed: “Never have I seen a people anywhere so hungry and starved as the people of the United States.” She was asked if she meant those who lived in ghettoes and slums and were homeless. “No, it’s the others who seem to have so much and are quite hungry and starved. They are the people who need bread.” And that’s not just us who supersize our hamburgers. And Jesus continues to proclaim, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
The challenge for people two thousand years ago and the challenge for people today may be very similar, yet different. They had the problem with Jesus coming down from heaven as one who is equal to the Father, the eternal Son of God, the very revelation of God. They had known Jesus all his life, were so conscious of his humanity that they were blinded to his divinity. You and I can learn something from their limited vision. We shouldn’t make the same mistake in reverse. It’s good that we’re conscious of the divinity of Jesus, but we should never lose sight that he was human just like us. Jesus is not only a revelation of God, but also a revelation of humanity at its highest and best.
Our reading today from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians calls us to be “imitators of God as his dear children, to “follow the way of love even as Christ loved.” Christ is the revelation of God; we see in him what God is like. And now Paul challenges us to be imitators of God, to follow the way of love even as Christ loved. This is the real glory of the greatness and goodness of Jesus. It is repeatable. It can be reproduced in the lives of ordinary men and women just like you and me. He has blazed a trail we can follow. He has laid a foundation that we can build upon. He has set an example that we can daily dedicate our hearts and minds to imitate. And we don’t do this all by ourselves, for we have the promise of the one who will never walk away from us no matter what happens or how we fall short. He is the one who offers us life in abundance, the bread of life, and we who eat this bread will be strengthened for the journey, for we have the promise of living forever. “The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” And so we give thanks. Al Grosskopf, S.J.
18th Sunday B (John 6:24-35)
Many of us live our lives with great expectations, or at least, little expectations, expectations of our families, friends, companions at work, or just expectations of the greater world around us. Our Gospel today speaks to us of expectations, expectations that some people who were fed by Jesus and were looking for more food, false expectations, perhaps. What they wanted and what he was prepared to give were not the same thing at all. They had been fed with the multiplication of the five barley loaves and the two fish. Here was a man who could meet their material needs. Their hearts leaped up in eager expectations. John tells us that they wanted to make him their king.
But Jesus had something else in mind. His purpose was something deeper and more far reaching than food for the body. He began to talk about their spiritual needs. He spoke to them of food that remains unto eternal life. He offered himself as the bread of life. He sought to lift their sights and expand their horizons, to elevate their aspirations, but they didn’t care a bit about that kind of talk. What they expected and what they were offered were two different things. Jesus was offering food for the soul, and the party was over and they went home.
This still happens today. We don’t get our expectations met. We are disappointed. What can we realistically expect from our expectations? What can we expect from Jesus who loves us? We can expect the cross. How could we ever think of him as the cosmic nursemaid whose chief concern was to make our lives a little easier? We need to interpret our relationship with him as not so much in terms of comfort as in terms of courage and strength. We can expect his presence with us for he will never abandon us. We can expect his gentleness that is unsurpassed. He cares about all our needs. He hears our sufferings. He enters into our sorrows and losses. He gives us the courage when our limited expectations are not met and are inadequate. He gives us a courageous heart and the grace that carries us through to be people of hope. He feeds us with his very body and blood, the bread of life, that is our sustenance beyond all our expectations.
And so at the Eucharist we give thanks that this is our God and our human brother who will never abandon us and who promises us life far beyond our limited expectations.
Al Grosskopf, S.J.
16th Sunday B (Mark 6:30-34)
Summertime, and the livin’ is easy, fish are jumpin’, and the cotton is high… as the Gershwin tune reminds us. Students are off for the summer, and some of us manage to get away to remote and sometimes exotic places, and even warmer places than our cool towns. Today’s Gospel tells of a time when Jesus planned a holiday for himself and his apostles. They all needed it. Their lives had been absolutely consumed with work, but there was no catching up. Mark says, “People were coming and going in great numbers, and they had no opportunity even to eat.“ No one can endure that kind of pressure for very long, so Jesus decided that all of them needed to get away for a day or two.
We have few details, but some planning and eager anticipation were involved. The boat was loaded and the silence was broken only by the sound of oars in the water and the occasional cry of waterfowl. On the opposite shore would be nothing but wide open spaces, good fresh fish, good wine, good friends, and plenty of time to relax, to think, to pray, and to talk.
That was how it was planned, but not how it turned out. As they drew near to land, they began to see a crowd of people. Their cherished plans were not to be. Their expected solitude was buried in a wave of needy people reaching out for help.
Sometimes our experience of well-laid plans is disrupted. Sometimes it may be something simple. At other times it may be serious and even soul shattering. Plans for a secure financial future may be disrupted by losing a job or financial failure. Plans for a happy marriage may leave one in disarray as a spouse walks out of the marriage. Sickness may intrude into a relatively painless life. Children may make choices in their lives that lead to disaster. The critical question becomes: How do we react or respond when our plans don’t work out?
In our Gospel, Jesus took the lead and set the tone. He probably wanted that holiday as much as any of his disciples. He could have resented this intrusion on his privacy. Resentment might be the expected response when we are confronted with disappointment or when something is forced upon us. “Why me, Lord?” may be our response.
Jesus shows us a better way. He turned adversity to advantage and put it to work. The seashore became a classroom, as “he taught them many things,” planting a few seeds of eternal truth in their minds and hearts, “for he was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd.” The question for us is how do we respond when our plans don’t work out? We can become bitter and resentful, or stoically accept and endure. Or we can take our disappointments and use them to accomplish something good for ourselves and our world. We have choices. We can’t always decide what life does to us, but we can decide how we respond to life. Jesus is always there for us with his grace, giving us courageous hearts, for he is our shepherd who will not abandon us. And for this we remember him as he asked us to do, at the Eucharist.
Al Grosskopf, S.J.
15th Sunday B (Mark 6:7-13)
A fairly common sight in San Francisco and in many other places is seeing two young men, dressed conservatively, with white shirt and tie, walking together and intently seeming like they are on a mission. And indeed they may be, as Mormon missionaries. I recall such a pair walking into St. Ignatius Church one evening, as they curiously inspected our church. I inquired about them and they told me they had never been in a Catholic Church before. I gave them a tour, and told them of St. Francis Xavier, our first Jesuit missionary, and they exclaimed in surprise, “You have missionaries too?” And indeed we have, and have had for two thousand years.
In our Gospel today, the twelve are sent out, two by two, to preach repentance, heal the sick, and drive out demons. I’m sure that when the disciples left their fishing boats and customs post, this mission was far beyond their expectations. We may not be just like the twelve who were sent out, but we too have a mission, a mission of repentance, the message that God is merciful and forgiving. And we don’t have to use a lot of words, but our lives and our faithfulness proclaim God’s care. The story is told of St. Francis and Brother Juniper, who he invited to accompany him preaching in the town. The two walked through the town, returning home without saying a word. Brother Juniper asked Brother Francis,” When are we going to preach?” “We have,” Francis responded. The axiom is,” Preach always, use words when necessary.” We preach, friend to friend and neighbor to neighbor.
The twelve were sent out to heal the sick, and so are we. Our sicknesses may be more than physical, but discouragement, hopelessness, and a need that someone may listen to them. Marriages may need healing, and couples may have a healing ministry in Marriage Encounter, or for troubled marriages, Retrouvaille, a French word that means rediscovery. The healing of people who have suffered losses, such as divorce may be a supportive mission for some.
The twelve were given authority to drive out demons, and so are we. We say that someone has a patient, gentle, kind spirit. By the same token, we can have a spirit of anger or a critical spirit. A person can be in bondage to drugs or alcohol. They can be in the grip of anger or jealousy. We can look at evil in the world, injustice, poverty, greed, hatred, and illiteracy. We can’t tackle all of it any more than Jesus could, but we can do something. Pick a cause that grips your heart, that energizes you, Habitat for Humanity, prison ministry to bring hope to prisoners, or to Nursing Homes, Respect Life, Social Justice Groups, help for women with crisis pregnancies, for example.
God, who called us to be holy before the foundation of the world, calls each one of us today. Strengthened by his Spirit, he sends us forth to preach, to heal, and to conquer evil. And for this we give thanks as we remember him at the Eucharist.
Al Grosskopf, S.J.
14th Sunday B (Mark 6:1-6)
San Francisco is a very special place, especially to someone who was born there. It’s a city they write songs about. When we leave home, even for a brief vacation, we usually yearn for the cool fog and soothing wail of the foghorns. I think going home is one of life’s most eagerly anticipated experiences, especially when we have been away for an extended period of time. We find ourselves thinking of and longing for familiar sights, and sounds, and faces.
If you and I feel that way about the place of our roots, it seems reasonable to assume that Jesus had a similar feeling for the small town of Nazareth and the region around it. For about thirty years of his life, he called that place “home.” There he went to school, learned to be a carpenter, and grew into manhood. Then his ministry called him away. And in the brief three years following, he couldn’t get back very often.
Today’s Gospel tells of one of those rare returns to Nazareth, probably with eager anticipation, but ending in one of the most disappointing experiences of Jesus’ life. He taught in the synagogue and people were initially impressed, but they couldn’t get over the fact that Jesus was just a hometown boy, the carpenter, the son of Mary. They didn’t take him seriously and some were offended by him. Jesus left there saying, “No prophet is without honor except in his native place, among his own kindred, and in his own house.”
Our view of Jesus, two thousand years later, is radically different from his experience in Nazareth. We have the vantage point of history, seeing Jesus as he really is, the Son of God, the Master Teacher, the Great Physician and Healer, the Savior of the World. If he came to your hometown we would have a parade to celebrate the occasion. We would have parties and give him the key to the city. Perhaps. But Jesus wasn’t into flattery and accolades.
Jesus would care nothing for parades and testimonials, and compliments. He is more interested in our personal lives and the quality of our relationships. He would want to know how a father treats his children and how a husband treats his wife. He might ask us about how we support married life and how we prepare couples for the Sacrament of Matrimony. He would be vitally interested in the poor of our community and what we are doing to help them and the homeless. He might be interested in universal health care. He might ask us about the aged and what we are doing to make their lives more livable. He would want to know about our attitude toward people of different races, and sexual orientations, and the divorced. He might ask us about our care for the unborn and our care for unmarried pregnant mothers. He might even visit San Quentin Prison and ask us about what plans we have for helping these people to get their lives back on track. His concern would be about how compassionate we are and how we reflect the love of his heavenly Father.
Jesus believed in some things so deeply that he was willing to die for them. A man with that kind of conviction can’t be flattered. Words of praise mean nothing to him. His concern is that we come to know him on a deeper level, and to follow him more closely, and to serve him more consistently in his brothers and sisters. And indeed, he asks us to remember him and his powerful love for us in the Eucharist. And we give thanks.
Al Grosskopf, S.J.
13th Sunday B (Mark 5:21-43)
In case you haven’t noticed, we live in a world where very often women are not taken seriously, perhaps even disvalued and disrespected. This may happen in our own country, but not uncommonly in other parts of the world as well, perhaps even to a greater degree. Female children may more commonly be victims of abortion than male children. Women may be denied an education in male dominated societies. Spousal abuse may affect women more than men.
Our Gospel story from Saint Mark has an Independence Day ring about it. Here are the stories of two women who needed freedom. Both are bound by a debilitating slavery. The first is a woman enslaved by an embarrassing, even humiliating disease; the other is a child who has descended to the gates of death itself. In both of these lives, Jesus becomes the great liberator, the tender emancipator, the strong champion of freedom.
Our Gospel story tells us of Jairus, the leader of the synagogue, who falls at the feet of Jesus begging him to go with him, because his precious little girl is near death. Without hesitating, Jesus goes with him, making his way through the sea of bystanders. But he is interrupted in the curious crowd by a nameless woman who has suffered from a bloody hemorrhage for many years. She reaches out and touches Jesus’ outer garment, and she is healed. “Who has touched my clothes?” Jesus asks. The woman, sheepish and scared, identifies herself, confessing her deed. With total acceptance, Jesus speaks, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your disease.” And in that touch, she experienced a new and profound healing and freedom.
And then Jesus arrives at the house of Jairus, where mourners have arrived to comfort the family because the little girl has seemingly died. But Jesus tells the crowd that she is not dead but only sleeping, and they laughed at him as if he were mad. But Jesus enters her room, takes her by the hand, and summons her to life. “Little girl, wake up.” Jesus offered her the touch of freedom and healing. And he tells them to feed her.
The common element in these two stories is the touch of the freedom to choose healing over shame. Jesus comes to free us as he freed the two women from what pulls us down into hopelessness, discouragement, despair, and death. Jesus is the Lord of life and death. As he passes by, he invites us to touch the hem of his garment, to take his hand, and to stare down death as the great imposter. The touch of Jesus is the touch of freedom from shame and the fear of death. And for the great gift of Jesus in our lives, we remember him with gratitude as he feeds us with his body and blood at the Eucharist.
Al Grosskopf, S.J.
Nativity of John the Baptist (Luke 1:57-80)
“I solemnly assure you, history has not known a man born of woman greater than John the Baptizer.” Thus says Jesus about his cousin, John, last of the prophets and the advance man for Jesus, the Anointed One. John’s destiny, his mission, his call, had been settled before his birth. In today’s Gospel, we hear how Elizabeth delivered John, and as was the custom, the neighbors and relatives arrived eight days later to circumcise him and name him.
Elizabeth, his mother, said his name would be John, which means “Yahweh is gracious.” This perplexed all the company present because it was customary to name the child after someone in the family, such as Zachary, Junior. There was no John in the family. You may remember that Zachary, his father, could not talk because he had been speechless after a vision in the temple in which the birth of John had been predicted. It was then that the angel appeared and said that the child’s name was to be John. Because Zachary had doubted all of this because of his and Elizabeth’s advanced ages, he became mute. I suspect he became speechless because the news was so surprising and overwhelming at this unplanned pregnancy. He regained his speech when John’s name was announced.
John, the last of the prophets, the forerunner, the announcer of Jesus the Messiah, knew his role in relationship to Jesus. “Behold, one is coming after me; I am unworthy to unfasten the sandals of his feet.” John knew who he was and his gifts and limitations. He was to point to Jesus and then fade into the background. He baptized Jesus at which time God proclaimed who Jesus was, his beloved Son. “Behold the lamb of God.”
Humility seems to be the great gift of John, knowing the truth of who he was- nothing more, nothing less. Perhaps John’s example is a lesson for each one us, as we grow in our knowledge and experience of who we are, each of us unique and with a purpose God has planned for us, as special.
Blessed John Henry Newman composed a profound yet deeply personal prayer that touches each of us in our own uniqueness and individuality: “God created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me, which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. Therefore I will trust Him. Whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; if I am perplexed, my perplexity may serve Him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve him; if I am in joy, my joy may serve Him; He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. Amen.”
Al Grosskopf, S.J.
10th Sunday B (Mark 2:20-35)
The story of the creation includes the story of the fall. It purports to tell how the human race got in its present state. The trouble started when Adam and Eve ate fruit from the wrong tree. God had given them access to everything in the garden, with one exception. Right in the middle of the garden was one tree which was declared off limits. They were not to eat its fruit. They were not even to touch it. And the penalty of violating this prohibition was death. You know the story. Adam and Eve did the very thing they had been told not to do. They ate the forbidden fruit, each placing the blame on someone else, not taking responsibility for their own actions, much perhaps like what goes on in our world today, maybe even in our own lives. The devil made me do it. She made me do it. He made me do it.
This story is about you and me. It is a reminder that we have been endowed with the gift of choice. And what we do with that gift will largely determine the quality of our living. We can misuse it. And the misery that can bring to ourselves and others is beyond calculation. Or we can use it. And those right choices can enrich our lives for time and eternity.
The gift of choice is not in itself a choice. We have to choose some things whether we want to or not. Time constrains us to make choices. There are more options in life than any one person can exercise. We can't have everything. We can't read every book. We can't visit every place in the world. We can't pursue every career. No one can have 1000 best friends. Choice is a fact of life, and to be human is to choose.
The gift of choice is the essence of our human dignity. It is what makes us most like God. As far as we know, none of the other animals has the gift of choice. They have appetites; they have instincts, but not the gift of reflective choice. With us humans, it's different. We consider a variety of options. We weigh one against the other. We choose one over the other, for whatever reason. It looks better, or it is more accessible, or it is less expensive, it's less bothersome or inconvenient. Then after the choice has been made, we look back on it, sometimes with regret, sometimes with satisfaction. For all the agony that choice brings into our lives, it is the source of our dignity. God has entrusted us with the gift of choice. God has lovingly made us superior to dogs, and cats, and cows, and gorillas. God has made us in his image and likeness, male and female, and in this lies our human dignity. And in this lies our challenge, to make life giving choices for ourselves and for other human beings, from conception through old age to death.
When Jesus responded to the crowd's question, he said "Whoever does the will of God is brother and sister and mother to me." In the challenge of our choices, our struggle is always to discern where the life giving will of God lies for us, and to respond generously with Jesus our brother, the one who is always with us and strengthening us in being true to him and to ourselves. And we continue to ask his help and to give thanks for his life giving presence among us and within us.
Al Grosskopf, S.J.
Trinity Sunday B (Matt 28: 16-20)
A special Catholic ministry is preparing couples for marriage. In that ministry with couples, we do a lot of listening, more listening than talking. Not surprisingly our listening has to do with relationship problems. "She is always disagreeing with me." "Why won't he pay more attention to me?" "We were in previous relationships and I don’t know if I can really trust him or her.“ “Earlier relationships have broken up.” “My parents were divorced, and I don’t know if marriage will really work, because I haven’t seen the evidence of a successful marriage." I suspect that relationship problems dominate most of our personal issues no matter how old we are and whether we are married or preparing for marriage or whether we have suffered the pain of divorce.
Today is Trinity Sunday. How can we talk about the Trinity? The relationship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, has always been difficult to describe. St. Patrick tried to describe the Trinity as a kind of shamrock, three petals on one stem. St. Ignatius used the imagery of three harmonizing organ notes on one organ. I think relationship is probably the most satisfying description for me. We all hunger for satisfying relationships where we are accepted just as we are, where mutual trust exists, and we are valued, respected, and even loved. We live in a society where characteristically people are alienated from each other, and where a sense of belonging is often absent and longed for.
Our reading from Romans gives us the ultimate answer to this need. It tells us that we belong to the family of God. God is our Father, and Jesus is our brother. Paul goes a bit further with that analogy, calling us "heirs of God and heirs with Christ." In other words God has written us into the family will, and whatever Christ stands to inherit, we are in line for the same. Exactly what that means, we are destined to discover. But it’s good to know that we belong to God's family.
Paul points out two different ways of belonging. One way is belonging as a slave. "You did not receive a spirit of slavery, leading you back into fear." What was frightening the Christians of Rome? What was threatening to enslave them? The apostle didn't say. But we know some of the things that have this effect on us. Drugs do, and for some people alcohol does. Lust for power and control and possessions may enslave us. And there are a variety of other addictive habits.
There is another kind of belonging that leads to freedom. When you belong to the family of God, you’re free to go. You’re free to stay. And if you so choose, you’re free to become the best that you can possibly be. Paul did that. He started out as a bigoted little nationalist. No one was important to him but the members of his own race. But when Paul met Jesus, he joined the human race. He came to see himself as a member of God's family, along with many others from every nation on earth. And in one lifetime, Paul probably broke down more barriers and built more bridges than any other person who ever lived.
Let’s allow Paul to remind us that we belong to the family of God. This is a kind of belonging that brings freedom. God is our Father, Jesus is our brother, and in the power of their Holy Spirit we may grow ever more deeply in our mutual relationship with our brothers and sisters as the family of God.
Al Grosskopf, S.J.
Pentecost Sunday (John 20:19-23)
When we think of those first followers of Jesus we usually see them in terms of strength and stability. We remember them as men who went out to meet life and lived it with great enthusiasm. They faced persecution with poise, met danger with courage, and handled problems with unwavering confidence. In short, they were the kind of persons we would all like to be. But they weren’t that way all of their lives. They were a lot like us in our weaker moments. Our Gospel today tells us they were huddled in fear behind locked doors. “Look what happened to Jesus; he got killed. That may happen to us if we appear in public and are recognized as his followers.” They were paralyzed by fear for fear almost always paralyzes. They were not at peace, for fear always robs us of peace. They had lost heart and were wallowing in hopelessness and their spirits were crushed.
So Jesus bursts in through locked doors, standing before them and proclaiming, "Peace be with you," his most frequent proclamation in the Gospels after his resurrection. Somehow, he knew that the greeting of peace was something they most desperately needed to hear. Knowing that they must be even more frightened by this sudden appearance and doubtful that it was really Jesus, he showed them the wounds of his hands and his side. The marks of the nails and the imprint of the spear were, and continue to be, the badges and signs of his recognition, and of his deep, passionate love for each one of us. Jesus without his wounds is not the real Jesus.
Perhaps the woundedness of Jesus is the main point of our contact with him. Our wounds may be different from his pierced hands and side, but woundedness nonetheless. We may sometimes be imprisoned by fear, intimidated by life. Our lives may be layered in fear resulting from child abuse, sexual abuse, the pain of divorce, perhaps the evil of drug abuse or alcohol abuse. It may seem that we live in a culture of death in which children and adults are killing each other with guns and our streets are no longer safe. Abortion is so commonly accepted, assisted suicide becomes more commonplace, and capital punishment, as politically correct, continues to dehumanize us. Perhaps illness or the infirmities of old age may be our wounds in which we may feel lonely and useless. The insecurity of unemployment may feed our fear, and the struggles and challenges of single parenthood may discourage us. The oppressiveness of guilt may pervade our lives and we may stay stuck in hopeless unforgiveness and resentment when forgiveness is so readily available. Fear cripples us more than any disease ever could and tempts us to sell our souls in exchange for the grossly lesser prize of false security. Our late Holy Father, John Paul, told us over and over, “Be not afraid.” Sister Joan Chittister states in her book, Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope, “Fear is not the opposite of courage. Fear is the catalyst of courage.”
Into our discouraged and locked hearts, bursts the wounded Jesus who proclaims to each one of us, "Peace be with you." The joy of his presence touches us, as the first followers were touched. And he breathes on us as he breathed on them, "Receive the Holy Spirit," the Spirit of the wounded and risen Jesus who energizes us, strengthens us in our struggles, gives us courageous hearts that are no longer locked in fear, for perfect love casts out all fear. "Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful; and kindle in us, kindle in your Church and renew it with the fire of your love.”
Al Grosskopf, S.J.
Ascension B (Mark 16:15-20)
Ernest Hemingway once said, “When two people truly love each other, there can be no happy ending.” And I suppose there’s a sense in which that’s true. Sooner or later, all relationships come to an end. Some of them are terminated by choice. One or the other, or both, decide to call it quits. And they go their separate ways. That may be the saddest ending of all. Others are terminated by death. This is a normal part of life, except when it comes prematurely. But even at a ripe old age, the death of a loved one is sad. So Hemingway’s pessimistic statement would seem to be true. When people love each other there can be no happy ending.
Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles tells of a different kind of parting. It was when Jesus left his friends for the last time, in what we call the Ascension. He had already left them once, through the door of death. And that had been utterly devastating. But then he rose from the dead, and began to surprise them with his presence. For a period of 40 days he appeared to them at various times, in various places. But they still didn’t seem to understand the mission of Jesus, and they asked him if he was yet going to restore the earthly kingdom to Israel. Jesus was very patient with them and promised to send the Holy Spirit who would make the mission of Jesus very clear.
But these episodic experiences of Jesus lasted only a few weeks. Then one day, Jesus led them to a point near Bethany, blessed them, and was taken up into heaven. That was his final departure. They never saw him again. But that separation wasn’t sad. In fact, our Gospel says that after he was gone, “They went forth and preached everywhere,” and the Lord worked through them and with them. This is the one instance when people truly loved each other, and there was a happy ending. What made it that way?
It wasn’t really an ending; it was a transition. They simply moved from one kind of relationship into another. They would never know Jesus as a flesh and blood person who came and went, who ate and drank. From now on they would know him as a spiritual presence, who would never leave. Death had already done its worst. It had separated them once but could never do it again. He would always be with them and they would always be with him. And because that’s true of Jesus, it’s also true of others whom we have loved and lost. They aren’t gone, but have simply moved into another dimension of life. Someday, through faith in the risen Jesus, we will be together again. And then there will be no more sorrowful good-byes.
And so the disciples went into the whole world and proclaimed the Good News of the risen Jesus who would never abandon us because he was and is passionately in love with us. And we continue to proclaim this Good News to every creature as we grow in our personal relationship with the One who will never leave us. We are more inspired to become life givers, healers, justice seekers for others. doing the work of Jesus. The needs are great, and our ministry is one of meeting the needs of people whom we encounter each day, a ministry of life giving service to our brothers and sisters in need. With grateful hearts we give thanks that we have been entrusted with the saving ministry of Jesus Christ. And we remember him in the Eucharist, the one who will never leave us.
6th Sunday Easter B (John 15:9-17)
I think it can be stated with some conviction that one of the chief qualities of human beings is that we are in the search for happiness. Our Declaration of Independence acknowledges this fact of life, that this is a self-evident truth, as an inalienable right from our Creator, the pursuit of happiness. Sometimes in the process of preparing couples for the Sacrament of Marriage, the question may be asked about the happiness they find with each other. One may say: “I think I can make him or her happy.” Sometimes the response may be by telling them that they may not have that power if the other doesn’t choose to be happy. And then there are the license plate frames: “Happiness is being a grandfather.” “Happiness is being Irish, or Norwegian or Swiss.” If we were to take a poll here today, we would probably come up with about as many definitions of happiness as there are people present. But there’s at least one point on which we could all agree. Virtually everyone wants to be happy. No healthy minded person wants to spend his or her days in gloom, boredom, desolation, and sadness.
Jesus was aware of this universal longing of the human heart and spent a good deal of his time trying to teach people the way of happiness. One of those lessons is found in our Gospel reading for today. On the night before he died, Jesus said to his disciples: “All this I tell you that my joy may be yours and that your joy might be complete.” Here was a young man who was just about to die and he knew it. Tomorrow he would be crucified. His earthly life was almost at an end, and yet he was talking with his friends about the joy of living. This may seem incredible, for our sense of well being is contingent upon circumstances, the things that happen to us. If we could get a better job, if we could live in a better house, if we could get married, if we could get unmarried, we could be happy, and we place our joy at the mercy of circumstance. Circumstance isn’t unimportant. People can’t be happy when they are hungry, hurt, abused or caught in the trap of real misfortune. Yet our happiness, or sense of well being, our joyfulness is not entirely at the mercy of unpredictable and uncontrollable events.
I think all of us would agree that a common characteristic of joyful happiness is being loved. Jesus spoke of remaining in the Father’s love by being faithful to God’s commandments. This kind of faithfully living our lives with integrity and truthfulness results in a depth of love that engenders a deep peace and experience of total acceptance by God. Another characteristic of joyful happiness follows from loving people. I’ve never met a happy person who wasn’t in love with people. Selfish, narcissistic people, even though wealthy and saturated with possessions, and often possessed by them, may wallow in a sad hell of individual isolation. Another ingredient of joyful happiness is feeling useful, doing something that’s worthwhile, making yourself useful to another person or persons.
An interesting thing about happiness is that mature people never seek it, seldom think about it, seem strangely indifferent to it. They’re busy with something else. They’ve attached themselves to the world’s sorrow and struggle and are doing their best to help make the world a better place. “This I command you: love one another.” ”All this I tell you that my joy may be yours and that your joy might be complete.”
Al Grosskopf, S.J.
5th Sunday Easter B (John 15:1-8)
Some of our Protestant brothers and sisters often speak about being born again, having a personal experience of Our Lord Jesus. Often at revival meetings, an altar call is given. “Come forward as a witness that you are claiming Christ as your redeemer.“ Then the long lines coursing though the aisles move forward to the stage to make public their dependency on the Lord. Sometimes we may be asked, “Have you accepted Jesus as your personal savior?” For some Catholics, this may be a question that is too personal, too intense, too emotional, and perhaps too uncomfortable a question. This uneasiness is somewhat paradoxical.
Catholics make it a weekly, and sometimes daily practice of leaving their pews, proceeding to the altar, and receiving the body and blood of Jesus Christ, the, most radical, direct, and intense expression that Jesus Christ is indeed our personal savior. Sometimes we may overlook how extreme our belief in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist may look to our brothers and sisters who are separated. It is our way of saying that our personal savior is truly found in the Eucharist, “body, blood, soul, and divinity under the appearance of bread and wine.” In the Eucharist, we recall and remember the saving mystery of the passion and death of Jesus, and this mystery becomes our food, our sustenance for our life journey of faith. Jesus becomes part of us and we become part of him.
The reception of Holy Communion makes little sense if we don’t intend to affirm that Jesus Christ is our personal savior. “You are my food and drink/you are my flesh and blood.” And we come forward, a procession of witnesses, testifying that there is nothing deeper or more personal than acknowledging Jesus as our way, our truth, our life. He is the one who is our savior, our redeemer, our healer, our brother, our friend, and our very sustenance.
In our Gospel, Jesus speaks of our close union with him, he the vine and we the branches, as we draw life from him. He seeks full union with us, so in love with us is he. He promises that we will live in him and he will live in us, just as he lives in loving unity with his Father. “I am the vine, you are the branches. You who live in me and I in you, will produce abundant fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” “Live on in me as I do in you.” If we believe that, we believe that Jesus Christ is indeed our personal savior, and we are born again, and again and again and again.
Al Grosskopf, S.J.
4th Sunday Easter B (John 10:11-18)
In today's Gospel, Jesus speaks of the qualities of a good shepherd, and he lays claim to being the good shepherd. The good shepherd is always ready to give up his life for his sheep. The shepherd is the protector and the one who knows each one of his sheep and the sheep know him. I guess it’s reassuring if you’re a sheep to have such a shepherd. And here we are, his disciples, being compared to sheep. This is a familiar biblical analogy. Prophets and poets often used it. Isaiah tells us: "We have all gone astray like sheep." All through the Bible, people are compared to sheep, not a very flattering comparison. Sheep are not noted for their intelligence, or their strength, or their speed, or any other qualities we admire. Maybe they do need a protector like a good shepherd.
Some creatures have the ability to find their way home. Dogs do, cats do, pigeons do. But not sheep. Take them away from the fold and they will wander aimlessly. If they get home it will be by accident. Sheep need a shepherd to take care of them or they won’t survive. I don't like this biblical analogy. I'd rather be compared to a lion. "Look at him; he's as strong as a lion." He’s strong and courageous. "Look at him; he’s just like a sheep." It would mean easily led, not having a mind of his own, just going along with the crowd. Being a wimp! A lamb would be a little better. That would mean gentle.
Sheep is, however, what Jesus called his disciples. "My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish." What does this mean? From his side, it means that he loves his disciples and is committed to their care for time and eternity. From our side, it means that we’re vulnerable, we can be easily hurt. This may not be flattering, but it's true. We can be easily hurt, and perhaps have been. With skinned knees in childhood, or pets that ran away. In adult years, it’s broken relationships and broken hearts, and ruined reputations, and faded hopes, and unfaithful friends, and unfruitful efforts. We sometimes come out of the machinery of life battered and broken. Jesus knew of what he spoke when he called us sheep. We’re vulnerable. So what do we do with it?
First, accept it. We’re like sheep, but we often act as if we weren't. We swagger through life as if everything is under control. We’re big, and strong and tough. Come what may, we can handle it. No challenge is too great. The illusion of control. We are unhurtable. If we ever got to the place where no one could hurt us, or we couldn’t fail, we wouldn’t be real men or women.
Secondly, another thing we can do with the reality of our sheep likeness is to share it. Sheep are gregarious. They live in flocks and don't go it alone. For some reason we, like sheep need each other. When we’re surrounded by family and friends who are also vulnerable, we don't have to hide it any more and we can become more trusting of others. Perhaps this is a reason for coming together in the community we call church. When Jesus said "My sheep," he was talking about you and me. Jesus as shepherd has also experienced the role of sheep. He was vulnerable, even unto ridicule and death. He understands our pain because he’s been there. He’s felt the same pain. In our prayer we can ask him to remember, and we don't have to do a lot of explaining. So let’s cast our cares upon the Lord Jesus, the good shepherd. We can trust him to hold us gently and firmly in the hollow of his hand.
Al Grosskopf, S.J.
3rd Sunday Easter B (Luke 24:35-48)
We occasionally hear about the work of some con artist. Perhaps we may have been bilked ourselves at one time. A con artist is a person who steals without the use of a gun. His method is to win peoples' confidence and then cheat them out of their money or something else they want. We often get spammed on our email, sometimes even by a con artist. Phone solicitors may call, especially at dinnertime. Not all phone solicitors are con artists, but the best defense against this kind of overture is to develop a healthy skepticism. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true.
The Gospels, however, call for the opposite approach. Here we’re challenged to believe in what seems to be too good to be true, the resurrection of Jesus. The Gospel slogan might be, "In God's world, nothing is too good to be true." But believing isn’t easy. Just watch the disciples struggling to believe that Jesus is alive and risen from the dead. Luke's Gospel tells us that the disciples were together somewhere in Jerusalem. Jesus suddenly joined the group. And the disciples were frightened out of their minds. They thought they were seeing a ghost. This seems to be a strange reaction, since Jesus had already appeared to Peter, and Peter told the disciples about his experience. Jesus appeared also to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and they were sharing that experience, when Jesus appeared again. Why did they think that Jesus was a ghost? Perhaps it was because the real Easter event, the resurrection of Jesus, was just too good to be true. Nothing that good ever happened to them in their entire lives. They were stuck with low expectations. It was hard for them to believe in such an extraordinary expression of God's love for them, a new life and hope promised by Jesus, their friend. And low expectations may be true of us as well.
One reason for this difficulty in believing may be a sense of our own unworthiness. It's hard to believe in the best when we know the worst about ourselves. All of the disciples had failed, Peter most of all. He had boasted shamelessly of his courage and commitment and his loyalty to Jesus. But when the chips were down, Peter failed just as Jesus had predicted. And he was so ashamed of his betrayal that he went out and wept bitterly. How could he expect the best when his own heart was filled with self-blame and remorse?
On a lesser scale, something like that has happened to all of us. We have failed and we know it. What then gives us the right to expect the best from life? Just to get by would be enough, and we’d settle for that. The good news in all of this is that God doesn't deal with us on a basis of merit. God never has. When things go wrong in our lives, usually the first question we ask ourselves is "What did I do to deserve this?" When things go right, we may ask the same question. God doesn't dole out good gifts to those who deserve them. We don't merit God's grace and love; we don't have that power. For our God is passionately in love with us, as Jesus came proclaiming, and living, and suffering, and dying and rising from the dead for each one of us.
Our Gospel tells us that Jesus showed the disciples his badges of identity, his wounded hands and feet, his badges of authentic, astounding love for each one of us. And then, the disciples were incredulous for sheer joy and wonder. And Jesus shows his wounds of love to us and that joy and wonder are Jesus' gift to each one of us, as we gather to recognize him in the breaking of the bread.
Al Grosskopf, S.J.
2nd Sunday Easter B (John 20:19-31)
I'm often overwhelmed by promises as I thumb through the ads in our national magazines, watch TV commercials, and listen to politicians defending party platforms that may be glib, or meaningless, or deceptive. Promises of health care reform, clean energy, support of a limping educational system, ending the unemployment rate in our country, prompt the bombardment of promises. Promises are enticing. Significant tax cuts will solve our financial woes. Increased national security will protect us infallibly from terrorist attacks. Struggling airlines can get us to exotic places at the lowest cost in years. Promises, promises, promises!
What really promises us happiness and fulfillment and real peace? What truly fulfills our dreams of a better life, without worry and anxiety? In today's Gospel, Thomas has the answer, faith in Our Lord Jesus Christ. This faith comes not through seeing and touching, but rather through hearing the saving, life-giving message of Jesus Christ, growing in a deeper personal knowledge of him, and committing ourselves to him and his saving mission in the community of believers. In this we experience that great gift of peace which Jesus so freely gives. We are touched by God’s mercy which comes to us through the loving heart of Jesus.
Thomas is very much like ourselves. He fails to understand what he hears and he needs to be shown concrete evidence. Seeing is believing for Thomas. Fittingly, the name Thomas, Didymus, means "twin," and we are indeed his twin, you and I, for his skepticism is our skepticism, and his doubting is our doubting. The other disciples kept telling him, "We have seen the Lord." And Thomas' typical skeptical response was "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” However, when Jesus appeared the second time to the disciples with Thomas present, Jesus said to Thomas: "Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.” In the power of Jesus' presence, Thomas proclaimed: "My Lord and my God."
We too who are Thomas' twins know his confusion and his struggle to believe, in our wrestling and searching about the meaning of life, and our quest for authentic peace. There are times when we may struggle in our confusion about broken relationships and perhaps divorce, about personal insecurity and self doubt, about illness, and unemployment, and poverty, and ultimately, death. Yet in the power of the risen Lord Jesus and his Spirit, we too can cry out with Thomas, "My Lord and my God." Faith comes not through seeing and touching but through hearing, hearing the life-giving Word of God proclaimed in the midst of the Church, and in the way we live our lives in relation to each other, in our sharing and our loving.
As Church, we are a people listening in faith to the teaching handed down to us by the apostles, hearing of the astounding, healing love of our Lord and brother, Jesus. We are one in fellowship, caring compassionately for each other's needs, and reaching out beyond our Church to the world as healers and life givers for others. Dissatisfied with empty promises, we gather regularly at the Eucharist to share in the body and blood of the Lord who sustains the life of our community and nourishes the spirit that God has placed within each one of us. In this is our peace; in this is our happiness. Peace be with you. Al Grosskopf, S.J.
Easter Sunday (John 20:1-9)
More people go to Mass on Easter Sunday than on any other day of the year. Some who go haven’t gone since last Easter, and many who go only irregularly make a special effort to be present on this day. The result is that sometimes there’s standing room only. I wonder why this large attendance happens. I think that this day has a grip on our hearts. How can we explain this grip, this strange hold that Easter has on our hearts?
I suspect that it’s rooted in the temporary nature of our lives. Nothing human lasts very long. We see ourselves here today and gone tomorrow. People have populated this planet in the billions. All of us have lost friends and relatives over the years. The question arises, “Does death have the final word on everything?” Our minds revolt against that. Our dictionaries have words like “permanent,” “enduring,” “eternal.” (lifetime warranty, or at least, extended warranty on cars or appliances). Our minds rebel against the thought that all will come to an end, that nothing is permanent, that death is the end of life. We long for something that endures. And that longing is part of the reason Easter has a hold on our hearts.
Our love for people is another part of the Easter hold on our hearts. Mary Magdalene was at the tomb “while it was still dark.” She came to anoint the body of Jesus with additional spices. Why did Peter and John race to the tomb in the first gray hours of dawn? These friends of Jesus weren’t thinking in terms of common sense. A dead body is just a dead body. They were motivated by love. Even though Jesus was dead and gone, they couldn’t stop loving him.
These same thoughts and feelings lie at the heart of our Easter faith. We don’t stop loving people just because they die. Our concern, of course, goes beyond the physical bodies that have been buried or cremated, or returned to the dust from which they came. They had personalities; they were unique creatures made in God’s image. It has been said that “There is a sniff of immortality about our love for one another.” Our Easter faith is deeply rooted in that.
Those who came to the tomb had broken hearts at the death of their friend, Jesus. It not only broke their hearts, all their hopes were destroyed. Then on the third day, they discovered that he was alive again. And this time he was alive forever. The resurrection was an answer, not to selfish fears, but to unselfish love. Death had no dominion over him, and life made sense again, and hope returned.
St. John Chrysostom in the 5th century spoke to this in his powerful Easter sermon: “Christ is risen, and you, O death, are annihilated! Christ is risen, and the evil ones are cast down! Christ is risen and the angels rejoice! Christ is risen and life is liberated! Christ is risen and the tomb is emptied of its dead; for Christ having risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To him be glory and power forever. Amen!”
This is why this Easter day has such a firm hold on your heart and mine. He is risen indeed! Let us rejoice and be glad. Alleluia!
Al Grosskopf, S.J.