3rd Sunday Lent C (Luke 13:1-9)
Most of us are familiar with the term “freeloader.” It refers to a person who takes and takes, but makes little effort to put anything back. If you go to lunch with a freeloader, more often than not, he or she will forget to bring any money, and of course, he doesn’t have a credit card. We don’t enjoy the company of a freeloader, and most of all, we don’t want to be one. In today’s Gospel, Jesus told the story about this pattern of life. But the freeloader in this instance isn’t a person. It’s a fig tree. The tree draws strength and sustenance from the soil, but it never gives anything back. It never produces any figs. We know that Jesus wasn’t concerned about fruitless fig trees, but he was concerned about people who take without giving.
Few things are more wrong than seeing a person in need and making no attempt to meet it when we can do so. In the eyes of Jesus it’s wrong not to care. It’s wrong not to give. It’s wrong not to help. That’s why the landowner ordered the fig tree cut down. It was non-productive. It did nothing. The owner said, “Three years I have come seeking fruit on this tree and I have found none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?” A death sentence was imposed on the tree for the crime of uselessness. It is exceedingly wasteful to do nothing when we have the capacity to do something. We either use what we have or we lose it. This is almost a universal law.
This law very much applies domestically. Over the years I’ve seen marriages go to ruin and fall apart. A few have fallen into abusive behavior. The husband or wife takes up the habit of verbal abuse, sometimes saying things that are terribly hurtful. In some cases there’s physical abuse as well. More often marriages are destroyed by a spouse saying or doing nothing, like that barren fig tree. They no longer observe the common courtesies, expressing gratitude, “please,” “thank you.” They no longer celebrate anniversaries or birthdays. They take each other for granted. Little by little, by doing nothing, they destroy their marriages.
A 10-year study was concluded at the University of Washington. How newlyweds talk to each other, more than what they actually say, can predict which couples will divorce with 87% accuracy. The researchers followed 95 couples for seven to nine years. They found that if the couples expressed fondness and admiration for their partner, if they talked about themselves as a unit, if they finished each other’s sentences, referenced each other when they told a story, and whether what came to mind was pleasant. These were positive patterns that helped in a successful marriage.
We need also to positively affirm children, that they may grow into loved and loving adults who can share their love in a life giving way with others. Unlike the barren fig tree, we are moved and called to be fruitful bearers of love for each other, basking in the life giving love of our brother and Lord, Jesus, our life giver. Let us give thanks for his powerful and energizing love for us.
Al Grosskopf, S.J.
2nd Sunday Lent C (Luke 9:28-36)
Our Gospel today tells the familiar story of the transfiguration of Jesus. It was literally a mountaintop experience. Biblically mountains are sacred places, places of a peak experience. Abraham on Mount Moriah, Moses on Mount Sinai to name two. Only three of the disciples were privileged to witness what happened on the Mount of Transfiguration. Significantly, it all started while Jesus was praying. First, his face changed in appearance. Then his clothing became brilliantly white. Next, Moses and Elijah appeared and talked with him. And finally, God spoke from a cloud saying, “This is my son, my chosen one. Listen to him.”
That’s what took place on the Mountain of Transfiguration, but I want to skip ahead to the next day for a moment. It was then that Jesus and the disciples came down from the mountain and were met by a desperate man with a sick son. The other disciples had tried to help the boy but they were unsuccessful. So Jesus filled the gap and did what they had been unable to do.
Each of these back-to-back days represents a vital dimension in the life of the Church. One is the mountain of worship and prayer; the other is the valley of work and activity and ministering to others in need. Finding the balance between prayer and activity is sometimes difficult, especially in our competitive and materialistic society.
The inclination of Peter up there on the mountain was to stay on the mountaintop in the rapture of contemplation. He had never seen or heard or felt anything like that before. Jesus was there in all his radiant beauty. Moses and Elijah were their heroes from the past, so real and vivid. For one brief shining moment, everything made sense. The law, the prophets, and the message of Jesus had all come together in one place. Small wonder that Peter said, “Master, how good it is for us to be here. Let us set up three tents, one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah.” What Peter wanted was to freeze the moment and hold onto it forever. Perhaps some us may have had these mountaintop experiences that we wished would never end. Life was working; God was real. Trouble seemed so far away. That's where Peter was, and he wanted to stay there.
But how about the other disciples who remained in the valley and didn’t have that powerful experience of Peter and the other two? Perhaps they were so aware of the work to be done, of the needs to be met, that there was no time for mountaintop retreats. Maybe they were the first century equivalent of today’s activists who think problem solving is the only function of Christian faith. Thus we have the two extremes, those who would love to stay on the mountain of worship and not be bothered with the problems of the valley, and those who are so involved with the problems of the valley that they have no time for the mountain. Jesus didn’t endorse or reject either position. He went to the mountain but wouldn’t stay there. He returned the next day refreshed, renewed, ready to meet the needs and challenges of the valley. Christian faith is more than work and more than worship. It’s both. If we walk with Jesus we are called to realize that nothing is given to us to keep to ourselves. Our experience of Jesus moves us to share what we have with our brothers and sisters. Jesus in the Eucharist is the same Jesus who shared his experience on the mountaintop. For this sharing we give thanks, for he is our way, our truth, and our very life. Al Grosskopf, S.J.
1st Sunday Lent C (Luke 4:1-13)
Sometimes we may think that our needs and problems are unique to us, that no one else in the entire world has ever felt this way or faced this kind of situation.
Perhaps it was this kind of feeling on the part of his disciples that prompted Jesus to tell of the experience recorded in our Gospel for today. Since the experience of Jesus in the desert was a private experience, unless he had told of it, it couldn’t have been known by his disciples. He was far from the crowds when the tempter came during his time in the desert.
Some people may have difficulty really believing that Jesus was truly tempted. Some may think of him as being beyond temptation, above the struggles of ordinary people. Perhaps his disciples felt that way. At one point, one of them may have opened up his heart and told Jesus of a personal battle he had been fighting; then another may have done the same thing. So finally, Jesus, human and divine, put them all at ease by telling the story of his own temptations. Sometimes in our darkest moments, we may feel isolated and alone, not sharing our pain because no one would understand. I minister with a wonderful group of people who have lost a dream, the dream of a good marriage, in my special ministry with divorced people, who often feel so isolated and alone. They may share with each other in a support group where healing takes place. Jesus sets the example of his willingness to share what he endured, knowing that others may have experienced his desert experience of temptation and struggle.
The subtlety of the tempter is seen in his not coming to Jesus until forty days had passed. Jesus is tired, hungry, and lonely. The desert elements have sapped his strength. The evil one then pounces when Jesus is most vulnerable. The temptations of Jesus were to use his power, to meet his physical needs, to build an earthly kingdom. What could be wrong with satisfying hunger, turning a few rocks into bread? What’s wrong with using political power to overthrow oppressors, or using miracles to prove God’s existence and convince the skeptics?
Evil sneaks into the world and into our lives when we succumb to an enticing voice asking us to use something good for a twisted purpose. Money isn’t evil; the love of money leads to evil. Alcohol isn’t evil; the abuse of alcohol is. We could say the same of beauty, of power, of credit cards, of technology, and of food. St. Ignatius in his SPIRITUAL EXERCISES speaks of the proper use of creatures, all that is not God. All creatures were made for us to use, and in their use, we have choices to use them or not as they help us to come closer to God. Jesus tells us by his own example in response to temptation by the evil one, the father of lies, that we are called to follow him in making life-giving choices.
With grateful hearts we gather at the Eucharist to remember Jesus who was tempted like us, the one who knows us better than we know ourselves, and who promises never to leave us forever.
Al Grosskopf, S.J.
8th Sunday C (Luke 6:39-45)
I know some people who could make the world a better place by simply changing their own lives. They wouldn’t have to change the world, just change themselves. The woman at the office, if she would just quit gossiping, there would be far less friction in the workplace. My supervisor, if he would just learn to say “please” and “thank you,” my job would be so much easier. My wife, if she would just stop her constant complaining, home life would be so much better. My husband, if he could be just a little more thoughtful, our home would be a happier place. All of us know some people like these. With a few corrections, they could improve the quality of life for everyone around them. Jesus knew some people like these. And he also knew a few like us. One who would be a helper and reformer offers to reform another person, to remove the speck from his or her eye, but that helpful person fails to notice or chooses to ignore the big wooden plank in his own eye. Jesus tells us to start with ourselves, “First get the plank out of your own eye and then you will see clearly to help your neighbor get the speck out of his eye.”
In preparing engaged couples for marriage, an instrument called FOCCUS is used where each one answers about 160 questions. Among the questions is this one: “I am hoping that after marriage my future spouse will change some of his/her behaviors.” That raises a red flag. You don’t have the power to change another person; you get what you see.
This Gospel probes even deeper, deeper than our need to reform or change another. This Gospel probes even deep into the depth of our own hearts. Whether we affirm or criticize another ultimately depends upon how we perceive ourselves. It is a question of how much we care about ourselves. The Gospel encourages all of us, assuring us of our giftedness, stating in no uncertain terms that we must love ourselves as much as we love others. This is a reformation that is more difficult than the attempted reformation of another. Self-reformation then, diminishes the danger of our being hypocrites, of having a huge plank in our own eye while trying to remove another's splinter. Allowing God to love us just as we are, made in God’s image and likeness, male and female, is the key to our freedom, peace and happiness. Our God is passionately in love with us, so much so that he became one of us, and is with us always in the Bread of Life, in the Eucharist we celebrate as God’s much loved people.
7th Sunday C (Luke 6:27-38)
Today's Gospel opens with three of the most familiar words Jesus ever spoke: "Love your enemies." Few take it seriously. We admire and applaud --- and then forget it. Can anyone love all of humanity? Most of us have given up trying. "It won't work." The teaching of Jesus about non-retaliation is as unpopular now as it has ever been. This Gospel is not politically correct. To be against capital punishment means we’re "soft on crime," despite the fact that it costs us more money to put people to death, and sometimes it’s done even to the not guilty, and is administered unfairly to the poor and powerless and rarely to the rich and famous. It doesn’t diminish the homicide rate, and places our country in the minority category of nations which still retain capital punishment, such as China, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Russia.
The crude and rude guy at the office; smooth talking salesman who manipulates; a former friend who took advantage of our trust. We resent them, don't trust them, don't like them. This commandment doesn't make sense.
It's not possible to command a feeling. We hear an intruder in our home, hands shake, we sweat, we’re afraid. We can't order ourselves to not be afraid. We can cope and we can respond, but can't command it to go away. Our child is angry - throwing a temper tantrum. You can help her to control anger, teach her appropriate ways to show anger, but you can't point a finger and tell her to stop being angry. You can't order it to go away.
In Engaged Encounter and Marriage Encounter, they teach that "Love is a decision" and not equated with a feeling, although feelings indeed enter in. Jesus knew that. "Love your enemies" had nothing to do with feelings. He was not telling us to manufacture some kind of affection for the one who has robbed us at gunpoint. I have had this experience; I have been robbed at gunpoint. Feelings are neither good nor bad. Feelings are just feelings. It's no virtue that we happen to be fond of some people. Saints and sinners are both fond of someone. The vice or virtue lies in what we choose to do with those feelings. "Love is proved by deeds," says St.Ignatius in his Spiritual Exercises.
Everything Jesus said can be translated into action. "Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you." We can be kind to people and respect them, pray for them even if we don't like them. This is the essence of the Christian ethic. G. K. Chesterton claimed that "Christianity has never been tried and found wanting; it has never been tried because it was too hard."
Being a disciple of Jesus and taking it seriously is the most challenging way of life in the world. It means facing hard questions, making hard choices, and doing hard things. It calls for empathy, putting ourselves in the shoes of another. It calls us to be tenderhearted and tough-minded. It calls us to be compassionate as our heavenly Father is compassionate. Compassionate toward ourselves, which is perhaps harder, and toward others. Our compassion is based on the respect we owe to ourselves and the other because, as Genesis tells us, we were made in God's image. We give thanks with grateful hearts. Al Grosskopf, S.J.
6th Sunday C (Luke 6:17-26)
You hear it everyday. Someone is unhappy. Their stories fill our headlines and our casual conversations. A disgruntled employee is carrying a grudge for having been passed over for a recent promotion. A woman has decided to leave her marriage. I am just so unhappy. In marriage preparation ministry, I always tell a couple that no one can make a happy person unhappy, or an unhappy person happy. No one has that power.
The framers of the Declaration of Independence desired to form a country where “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” could be the building blocks of a new society. But many of us have found that the pursuit of happiness, and happiness itself, are two different things. We have the freedom to pursue happiness, but finding it is another thing entirely. Where do you find your happiness? Listen to the words of Jesus. Our Gospel today offers the path to discovery.
The Gospel according to Luke presents some options. Do you find your happiness in a fat bank account? Do you find your happiness in in an excellent cuisine? Do you find your happiness in the good opinion of others? Where do you find your happiness? And the scriptures are clear. If you find your happiness and value in any of these things- in money, in plenty, in good times, in good reputation- woe to you. Our first reading from the Prophet Jeremiah proclaims that the happy person, the blessed person, finds his or her value solely in God. Our second reading from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians specifies this proclamation even more. The happy person, the blessed person finds his or her value in the raising from the dead of Jesus. Our value and happiness then, rests in God, and specifically in the resurrection of Jesus.
The perspective on where our value rests- in Jesus and his resurrection- has vast implications for us, for if God is to be the source of our value and our happiness, then that implies that God accepts us totally and completely just as we are, without fail and without condition. If we find our value in God, then we must ask ourselves: Do we believe, really believe, deep down in our heart of hearts that we are absolutely and unconditionally accepted by God just as we are. All that piling up of money, and food, and good times, and good reputation- all that we do to feel better about ourselves or to avoid confronting ourselves- forget it! It brings only woe! God alone is the source of our value exactly because God accepts us just as we are! And God can meet us only where we are.
But it takes courage to believe that God accepts us no matter what happens- especially when we’re poor, and hungry, and weeping, and hated, and maybe even hating ourselves. It takes courage to have faith in God when we’re down and out. It takes courage to let God love us. Poor, we grasp after riches; hungry we scavenge for food; weeping we beg for consolation; hated we demand love. We are afraid to lose control, or the illusion of control, for control is just an illusion, to let go, to trust. It takes courage to fall into the hands of God, to trust that God will catch us no matter what, that God is truly benevolent. It takes courage to believe that God loves me personally and with a passion. The challenge is to look at myself through God’s eyes, through the eyes of Jesus on the cross, as he gazes on me with love, just as I am. Often, we may find it hard to accept ourselves, It takes courage to believe that God can love me passionately just as I am. We celebrate the Eucharist of Jesus as he profoundly tells us how loved and valued we are. Al Grosskopf, S.J.
5th Sunday C (Luke 5:1-11)
This Sunday could well be called the Sunday of the three inadequates, or the Sunday of the three unworthies. Isaiah was "doomed, for he was a man of unclean lips," therefore incompetent to be the prophet he was called to be. Paul, in our second reading, was "the least of the apostles," because he persecuted the Church of God, and so does "not deserve the name" of apostle. Simon Peter, in our Gospel today, falls at the knees of Jesus and tells Jesus to leave him. He protests his unworthiness claiming to be "a sinful man." And so he was, the one who later was to deny Jesus three times.
But That’s not how their stories end. For each of the three unworthies. Isaiah, helpless in the face of his inadequacies, is touched with God's healing, and the burning ember held by an angelic seraphim, is told: "Now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged." And Isaiah has been liberated from what has trapped him in his negative self-perception to respond to God's call.
Paul, the former persecutor of Christians, the least of the apostles, not deserving the name of apostle, by "God's favor," has been healed of his sinfulness and unworthiness to become the apostle to the gentiles.
Simon Peter, our third unworthy, who fell at the knees of Jesus, hears the healing words of Jesus: "Do not be afraid. From now on you shall be catching people," rather than fish.
These three unworthies have in common a sense of sinfulness, incompetence, and unworthiness. They move from unworthiness to confusion, and from confusion to a growing recognition of their sinfulness, to repentance, to conversion of life, to an acceptance of God's loving forgiveness which empowers them to become who God has called them to be. They were empowered and graced with the capacity to be called outside themselves and outside their own pettiness and fear. They were empowered and freed from the paralysis that comes from fear, for fear always paralyzes.
How much like us are Isaiah, Paul and Simon Peter. We too are called to their process, the process of the unworthies and the inadequates like ourselves. What stops the process for us is to get stuck in our unworthiness, to numb ourselves in addictions and a denial of our own sinfulness. We may have lost the sense of sin, and perhaps have gotten stuck in guilt. Sin is all around us: the absurdity of war, senseless murders in our neighborhoods, loss of home or property by theft or dishonesty, loss of a career or precious relationship through alcohol, drugs, promiscuity or infidelity, or corporate greed that infects our society. Evil and tragedy are a real life experience for many of us.
History is the record of God's endless attempt to save free men and women from the abuse they inevitably make of their freedom. The Lord Jesus has provided us with remedies for our abuse of freedom, which we call sin. Jesus comes to us telling us that our loving God is always ready to forgive us in a way that liberates us to become the people we are called to become. Jesus has provided for us the healing sacrament of reconciliation, where we can be honest and truthful with ourselves, our loving God, and our Church, and so, liberated from the fear that keeps us trapped. Thus we gather to give thanks for the freedom that comes to us in Jesus, our brother and Lord.
Al Grosskopf, S.J.
4th Sunday C (Luke 4:21-30)
There's an old adage that says: "If you don't like the message, kill the messenger." That seems a strange thing to do, but it has happened time and again throughout history. Many of us can remember the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. He was the unofficial spokesman for racial equality in the United States. He kept telling the nation that there could never be peace until all its citizens were allotted equal rights. Many people didn't like that message. And so one of them killed the messenger.
That same thing almost happened in today's Gospel reading. On this occasion the messenger was Jesus. He was teaching in the synagogue of his hometown. At first the people were deeply touched and favorably impressed by his message. As Luke said, the people marveled at Jesus' appealing discourse. But that happy atmosphere didn't last long. It fell apart when Jesus told them something they didn't want to hear.
Jesus of course told them that God had great care and love for the nation of Israel and people liked to be reminded of that. However, he went on to remind them that God's loving care was not, nor ever had been, their exclusive right. Jesus pointed this out by two examples from the Hebrew scriptures. When Jesus told these two stories from Scripture, his audience flew into a rage. They rose up and drove him out of town, intending to throw him over the edge of a cliff. When they didn't like the message, their intention was to kill the messenger.
Perhaps we can't identify with the rage of these people. We would never carry on like that. We wouldn't try to kill a speaker just because we didn't like what he said. But perhaps we may be like them in a certain way. When the truth hurts, our first tendency is to get defensive. That's what these people were doing. Their nation had been kicked around for centuries. They had been slaves in Egypt. They had been captives of the Babylonians. And at that very moment they were subjects of the Roman Empire. They hated that. But they kept their hopes alive by telling themselves that at least, God was on their side. And somebody would take up their cause against the Romans.
Then Jesus came along and told them that God cared about the Romans just as he cared about them. And that was more than they could handle. When the truth hurts, it usually means that we're afraid it's true. It also means we need it. Jesus told his hometown crowd exactly what they needed to hear. They were living in too small a world. They were worshipping too small a god. They had taken the great God of the universe and reduced him to a tribal deity. Some of us without realizing it may be inclined to do the same thing. We may take the God who was revealed to us in Christ Jesus and try to make him an American, or a Christian, or a capitalist, or a Republican, or a Democrat, or whatever it is that we ourselves may happen to be. And if he is not exactly like us, at least he is on our side. Our God may be too small. What chance have we got to grow if we worship a God who is as small as we are?
When the truth hurts, let us be wise enough to listen. Let us be courageous enough to seize upon the truth as a chance to grow. Let us listen to Jesus who is the truth, who is the way, the truth and the life.
Al Grosskopf, S.J.
3rd Sunday C (Luke 1:1-21)
St. Paul never ceases to amaze us. This bald, bearded, bowlegged little man with nine lives, this anti-Christian terrorist turned lover of Jesus, this explosive missionary to the nations in darkness, this earliest theologian of Christian freedom- Paul is constantly confronting us with fresh insights that challenge our smallness and dare us to be bigger than we are. If we want to know what it means to be a Christian, to be baptized, to grasp what all of us have in common, take to heart our second reading of Paul’s first letter to the community of Corinth.
When Paul wrote this letter to the community he had founded, they were torn apart by four factions, four cliques, each with its special hero, its idol. Some followed Apollos, eloquent expert of the Hebrew Bible. Others were pledged to Peter, the chief of the apostles. The poor and the slaves clung pretty much to Paul. A proud elite fixed on Christ, but claimed having an inside track not open to any others. There were schisms, incest, lawsuits and food from pagan sacrifices, disorderly conduct in church and abuses in the Eucharist. Some even denied the resurrection of the body.
In this context of division, moral misconduct, and personality problems, Paul presents a theology basic to Christian believing and essential to Christian living. It is a theology of church- what the community of Christ is basically about. This body of ours, Paul argues, this incredible bodily invention of God, casts light on a body still more unbelievable: the body of Christ. Not his bone and blood; we, we Christians are the body of Christ.
As with this structured body I inhabit, so with the Christian community. It is a single reality shaped by many members. “We were all baptized into one body- Jews or Greeks, slaves or free.” We are not all head or hands, all liver or lungs, all heart. The Christian community is a work of art precisely because it is a mosaic, a thing of beauty when all the varicolored fragments fit together in harmony, playing their interlocking roles. Christ’s body is at its best when it is at once one and many. All of us have been graced in divinely different ways. Whatever we may think of ourselves we are splendidly gifted. In this body as God handcrafted it, we need Pope Francis. But a miracle of Christ’s body is that the head can’t say to us feet, “I have no need of you.” Your shared gifts are essential to the life of the body of Christ, your faith, your love, your strengths and your very weaknesses.
Jesus calls us to an ever-increasing appreciation of each other, and to a greater unity. As with the Corinthian church, factions among ourselves have no place. Paul tells us as he told the Corinthians, “Because there is one bread, we, many as we are, are one body, for we share the one bread.” We gather once again to share this Bread of Life which draws us together into a deeper unity with each other and with Christ, our Head.
Al Grosskopf, S.J.
EPIPHANY (Matt 2:1-12)
Today is the feast of the Epiphany, and we all recall that nostalgic song, “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” As a child, I looked forward to the coming of the Magi in their rich multi-colored clothing, their obvious racial diversity which fascinated me, and with their majestic camels. The Nativity scene wouldn't be complete without them. These wise men are sometimes portrayed as wealthy kings from the East, the place where wisdom traditionally resides, and they set out to find the infant king of the Jews. Pious legend has named them Balthazar, Melchior, and Casper. They were thought to be astrologers, which in those days was the closest thing they knew to the science of astronomy. They had plotted their journey guided by a star that would show them the way.
The important thing here is that they were on a journey of discovery, a journey of faith, a pilgrimage if you will. They were in search of the one who would give meaning to their lives. They delighted in following their star that led them on to the fulfilling, life-changing experience of meeting the Lord Jesus. And after their unforgettable meeting with the infant king, they returned to their country by a different road than by which they came, for their contact with Jesus had changed their lives and their way of looking at reality. They had experienced a change of heart, and even though they would perhaps resume doing the same old things wise men did in their country, they would be on a different road, a road of hope on their journey of faith. As Henry David Thoreau stated, "Things do not change, we change." and so it was with the wise men; and so it is with all of us who allow ourselves to personally encounter the Lord Jesus. Things do not change; we change.
Our taking a new road following our encounter with the Lord Jesus is a change of heart, a turning away from and a turning to. It means a turning from idols we have set up in our lives, to God; it means a turning from slavery, from what keeps us trapped in hopelessness, to freedom of heart; from injustice to justice; from the grimy prison of guilt and resentment to forgiveness; from lies, denial, and self deception to truth which sets us free; from darkness to light; from a pre-occupation with self to the service of others in need; from death to life. Our personal conversion of heart may mean abandoning the road of fear and striking out on the road of hope. We may abandon the road of a self-constricting illusion of control to a relinquishing in faith, a surrender of control to the eminently trustworthy loving Jesus.
Our new road may lead us from despair to a joy and delight the wise men found in the source of all joy. That source of all joy may touch our hearts with a deeper compassion and love for our brothers and sisters.
Beware an encounter with the Lord Jesus. He may look like a helpless infant encountered by the wise men, but his power can be life changing as the wise men discovered. The Lord Jesus doesn't force himself on us, however. He pulls by a gentle attraction, and all we need do is be open to his leading, for he is the way that leads us gently on our journey, our pilgrimage of faith, over roads yet unexplored. Let us give thanks for his loving, guiding hand, our way, truth, and life. Let us remember him in this Eucharist together, as he asked us to do. Al Grosskopf, S.J.
Christmas (Luke 2:1-14)
In our first reading, Isaiah the prophet tells us as people who walk in darkness and gloom that we have seen a great light, and he proclaims a hopeful message; we are promised glad tidings, the announcement of peace and salvation. And our Gospel tells us that we celebrate today the coming of the gift bearer, of the one who overcomes darkness and gloom. These are words of hope, so desperately needed in our world today, for darkness and gloom take many forms in our world today. We are torn apart by constant and often senseless warfare. We see a world of political corruption, and deceit. The corporate world is infected with crime and greed. We encounter violence on the streets of our cities. Hypocrisy, and lust for power seem to rule leaders around the world. Some families are afflicted with spousal abuse and child abuse. Children who should be unconditionally loved are often not valued and nurtured in our society, even by those who should be trustworthy. We encounter substance abuse, drugs and alcohol among our families and friends, and a variety of other addictions as well. We walk down the street and are confronted by the homeless and the hungry. We hear of tribal warfare in Palestine, the land of Jesus, and in countless other parts of the world.
For us who dwell in the land of darkness and gloom, a light has shone. Jesus, the light, was born into a gloomy world of an ancestry that included a few heroes. Many of his ancestors, however, were noted liars, thieves, adulterers, murderers, and cheats, a lot of rotten apples not worthy of redemption. Jesus was born in the lineage of David, the reformed adulterer and murderer.
And today, we see Mary and Joseph gathered around the manger, the feeding trough, welcoming the little one who is to redeem us. Jesus' heavenly Father, passionately in love with us, we who are made in his image, male and female, sends us a gift, the gift of himself in human form. The shepherds, outcasts of society because they were non-observers of the law, look on in wonderment, men marginalized and on the fringe of society, perhaps prophetic of the type of people Jesus would spend a lot of time with as an adult, the sinners, and tax collectors, and the common people, perhaps much like us.
"Today a savior is born to you." He comes to lift burdens, to cast out fear, to heal our woundedness, to touch us in the places where we need to be touched, for he knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows the places in us that need healing and hope. He brings tidings of great joy, for in him we have seen a great light. The gloom and darkness have been cast out. He lies in the manger, the feeding trough. And in the feeding trough he continues to be found, for he continues to feed us with himself, the Bread of Life, at the Eucharistic banquet where we now gather. Let us give thanks. Let us rejoice. “Today a savior is born to you.”
Al Grosskopf, S.J.
4th Sunday Advent C (Luke 1:39-45)
"Well, it's been a quiet week here in Lake Wobegon." If we tune in to Prairie Home Companion as I do now and again, we hear these familiar words of Garrison Keillor beginning one of his familiar homespun stories, stories of warmth and humor, about the fictional small town of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota. If we don't know the people who gossip a bit at the Chatterbox Cafe, we certainly know others like them and places like that. We know Father Wilmar and Pastor Inkvist, and we laugh and cry with the men, women, and children of that place that is no-place, or perhaps every place. We begin to smile when we hear the name because it is kind of a joke-town- the kind of place you laugh about. Some of us may come from real towns like that- towns with funny names, or an unlikely history, or places that never seemed to be very significant except to the people who happen to live there.
Jesus came from a place like that. You may remember that incident in John's Gospel where Nathaniel ridiculed Nazareth, the place where Jesus lived. Philip had urged him to come and meet Jesus, but Nathaniel scoffingly remarked, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Perhaps Nazareth was a Lake Wobegon place. And Bethlehem too was not such a metropolis, a crossroads of the world, a large sophisticated American city if you will.
Luke's Gospel for today tells us the charming story of some small town people from insignificant places and regions in an obscure part of the world. We are told of a young pregnant teen-age girl and a mature barren older woman who is unexpectedly pregnant. The story is told over and over again how God uses the lowly, the humble, to reveal himself. What we perceive as holy is so often cloaked in the garments of simplicity for us to behold. Why else would the Savior of humankind have come among us as a helpless child of humble parents? God is still full of surprises.
And so we observe Mary as her townsfolk observed her, simple, humble, unremarkable, yet chosen by God to become the vessel through whom the most intimate encounter between God and humanity will take place. What is this God like? God likes small places, humble people, people together in community as well as people who are alone. God chooses to stay close to his people, to us his beloved. And he is closer to us than we are to ourselves. God comes to us in the small dwelling place of our hearts. The price of this closeness is surrender, a letting go of what keeps us from intimacy with God. With Mary, we can say "Let it be done to me according to your word." For us to be filled with God, with joy, with life in abundance, the cost is emptiness. Only then can God fill us with his love to overflowing. Let us ask that our emptiness may be filled to capacity by the coming of our Lord Jesus who loves us beyond measure. And for this gift of Jesus, we give thanks.
Al Grosskopf, S.J.
3rd Sunday Advent C (Luke 3:10-18)
Today is called Gaudete Sunday. Sometimes you can tell because the priest isn't wearing purple vestments, but rather a sort of rose color, which tempers the severity of the purple. Why is this Sunday called Gaudete? Gaudete means rejoice. What is there to rejoice about? When we pick up the daily newspaper or flick on the TV news, we could become cynical or maybe just sad. Are we a nation of political cynics? How can the Republicans and Democrats work together to solve some of our most pressing problems? What about peace between Palestinians and Israelis in the land where Jesus, the Prince of Peace, gave his gift of peace, a gift so often rejected? What about wars and terrorism around the world? What about Syria and Afghanistan and genocide in some countries? What about corporate greed, or “crime in the suites,” as it has been called? What about the honesty and integrity of our political leaders? What about the homeless and hungry in our world? What about the refugees from suffering on our border? Why are housing and the cost of living so exorbitantly high? Why are vulnerable precious hildren abused?
What is there to rejoice about? Our second reading from Paul's letter to the Philippians gives us a clue. "Rejoice in the Lord always! I say it again. Rejoice!" When Paul writes this, he is being held in captivity by the Romans. What has he to rejoice about? Why is Paul telling us to rejoice? Paul tells us that the Lord is near and that we should dismiss all anxiety from our minds, that we should pray with hearts full of gratitude, and that God's own peace will stand guard over our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. The Lord is near; therefore Christians should dismiss all anxiety. Easier said than done.
What keeps us trapped in our own kind of captivity and hopelessness? The challenge for us is to walk ever more deeply in faith and hope, to pray with grateful hearts, counting our blessings, and as our anxiety diminishes, allow God's peace to establish itself and touch our very souls. When the Lord is near, how simple and yet profound, the deep qualities of faith are unlocked and we are released from our captivity, from whatever may keep us bound and trapped in hopelessness.
With the crowds in Luke's Gospel, we can ask as they did of John the Baptist: "What should we do?" " Let the one with two coats give to him who has none. The one with food should do the same." Treat others with justice and compassion. Be people of integrity and truth. Today's Liturgy has little to do with mood and much to do with waking up to the good news of the Incarnation. The way of life revealed in Jesus is both consoling and demanding. While most of us don’t face imprisonment as with Paul, we do face the challenges of living justly and sharing with the needy. "Rejoice!” Saint Paul tells us. “Everyone should see how unselfish you are. The Lord himself is near." And we gather to give thanks for his life giving closeness, his very healing presence in the Eucharist.
Al Grosskopf, S.J.
2nd Sunday Advent C (Luke 3:1-6)
The old saying is true, I think, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” The story of God’s dealings with human beings as recorded in the Hebrew Scripture is a pungent story full of human intrigue and foolishness. But the one quality that keeps breaking through is hope, the exquisite poetry of the psalms, or the echoing promises of the prophets as in today’s reading from Baruch, hope is what ties it together. Time and time again, when the future seems blackest, God’s people are strengthened by their confidence in the Holy and Blessed One who never gives up loving them. The people standing on the banks of the Red Sea and Moses urging them forward into the swirling water, alien armies pillaging the land and Isaiah in his chamber writing of God’s loving kindness for all people, the psalmist exiled in Babylon, singing his songs to the Lord.
“There’s nothing new under the sun.” Just pick up the morning newspaper or turn on the TV newscasts. Is there anything we need more than hope? Syria, Afghanistan, the Sudan, these are just the more recent chapters in the unfolding story of horror. The loss of confidence in politicians and the political process are just symptoms of the profound moral uncertainty of our culture. The naive conviction that science and technology can solve our problems is shown each day for nonsense. And then there are the private agonies of diseases that we have not found remedies for, broken homes, the disruption of families, the commercial exploitation of the young, and human alienation from a variety of causes.
In our first reading from the Prophet Baruch, the author calls Jerusalem to wrap herself in the cloak of justice from God, and to peer from the heights. There Baruch proclaims, Jerusalem will see scattered Israel coming back home, age-old depths and gorges filled to level ground, God in the lead and the peace of justice in God's company. In Luke's Gospel, John the Baptist, quoting Isaiah, calls us to prepare the way, to make straight the path, so that all humankind shall see the salvation of God. And in Philippians, Paul tells his people that his wish is that they "may be filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” We are people of hope. The terrors that confront us are not much different from the terrors that have always confronted humankind.
The good news is that God has entered into human history. God stood on the earth just as we do. God died a death just as we shall. And yet our life has been transformed totally into something precious because God shared it with us in Jesus Christ, because of his passionate love for us. We call him Emmanuel, “God with us,” and God is the only basis for our hope. And so we share the Eucharist as the profound promise that we are not alone, and that there is much more on the horizon, the promise of new life in Jesus Christ.
Al Grosskopf, S.J.
1st Sunday Advent C (Luke 21:25-36)
The calendar tells us it’s December. It’s the end of the year. But the calendar of the Church tells us it’s just the beginning of the year. Today marks the beginning of Advent. Today we begin to prepare for Christmas, the first coming of our Lord Jesus into our crazy messed up world. The malls and billboards and TV commercials have announced the beginning of the Christmas buying season. We are lured to spend more than ever before, to buy that perfect gift before it’s sold out. We live in a culture of immediate gratification. “Buy now while the supply lasts.”
But the season of Advent is all about waiting. Advent keeps us from rushing into Christmas without preparation of the heart and soul. Advent allows us to savor the moments of mystery in this season. When the culture says “Now,” Advent says “Not yet.” God doesn’t call us to wait just to frustrate us, but to build our character. Parents tell their kids to wait for dinner rather than fill up on snacks all afternoon. We wait for the right person to marry rather than just take whoever is hanging around at the end of high school. We shop around for a new car rather than buying the first one we’re attracted to. We all find waiting hard. We resent the imposition on our time as we wait in line at the airport, taking off our shoes for inspection, or worse yet, waiting in our seats as the plane prepares to take off and it sets on the tarmac for an hour or more. We get impatient with bridge traffic as we wait impatiently during commute hours. But we need to remember that in matters of the soul, waiting itself is part of the journey. Like the building of excitement as we look forward to a big vacation, or the growing hunger as we savor the smell of dinner on the stove. Waiting for God allows our spirit to become more sensitive, our souls stronger.
Advent waiting allows us to slow down the hectic Christmas rush. And slowing down just may allow us to listen to the music, to smell the flowers, to cherish children longer, to cherish the smells and memories of this holy season. This is the season for great expectations! As St. Paul tells us in our reading from the Letter to the Thessalonians, “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all… as we wait for the coming of the Lord Jesus with all his holy ones.” And we prepare our hearts and our spirits and our souls in patient waiting for the one who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the one who gives the deepest meaning to our lives. He is well worth waiting for!
Al Grosskopf, S.J.
Christ the King B (John 18:33-37)
At this time of the year, choirs all over the world are beginning to rehearse Handel’s “Messiah.” One high point is the “Halleluiah Chorus,” which loudly proclaims “King of Kings, Lord of Lords.” The words are taken from the Book of Revelation, a reference to God and Christ as king and lord over all.
Today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King. On the surface it may seem odd to proclaim an obscure Jewish wisdom teacher and prophet who lived 2000 years ago in an unimportant part of the world and died an especially shameful death to be a king of any sort, let alone, “King of Kings, Lord of Lords.”
Judged by human standards, he was one of the most dismal failures of history. He never made much money. At the time of his death, his total estate appears to have been the clothes on his back. No one ever points to him as an example of financial success. In this regard, he was a miserable failure. Not only that, he had very little of what we call "power." He didn't even have enough influence to keep himself from being crucified. When it came to knowing the right people, the people of influence, Jesus was an utter failure. His response to Pilate in today’s Gospel, “My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over.” “You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” We who belong to the truth do listen to his voice. He tells us the truth about how deeply loved we are by him. He tells us the truth about his concept of success, which may be different from our concept of success. His concept of success boils down to doing little things for little people. It involves feeding the hungry; giving water to the thirsty; welcoming the stranger; providing clothing for the naked; consoling the sick; visiting the prisoner. No special talent is required to do any of those things. And very little money is needed. It just takes a little bit of time and effort.
Some of us dream of doing great things if we had the power or the resources. We could change the world if we only won the lottery, or became president. We would end poverty in the world, everybody would have full employment, no one would be hungry and would have a decent place to live. War would be an unpleasant memory and violence would be ended. All little kids would have warm clothes and loving parents. Every refugee camp would be closed. We don't have the power to do all of this, but just a little. We can help out in ministry to the homeless or prison ministry or many others. Jesus said, "As long as you did it to one of my least brothers or sisters, you did it to me." That's the kind of King he is. He has many disguises, probably the person most in need that you would least suspect, perhaps even the person who gets on your nerves at work, or the lonely person who pesters you.
In Robert Bellah's book. Habits of the Heart, he addresses the American habit of isolation and individualism, people feeling responsible only for themselves, not having the ability to form communities of trust. "I do my thing and don't get involved." The call of Christ the King to each of us is to be involved, to touch the lives of each other with compassion and care, to be counter cultural if you will, to see Jesus in each other. Let us give thanks for the powerful example and presence of Jesus who touches us in new, surprising, and peaceful ways. Let us remember him as he asked us to do at the Eucharist.
Al Grosskopf, S.J.
Thanksgiving Luke 17:11-19
Why are some people so reluctant to say the things they really feel or mean? Why are some so frugal with their words of praise or gratitude?
Jesus must have wondered the same thing. He had healed ten men who were afflicted with leprosy. It came about in a rather unusual way. The lepers had shouted from a distance: “Jesus, have pity on us.” Only one of them turned around and went back to say thank you. Then Jesus wondered, “where are the others?”
Were they a bunch of ingrates? One minute they were trapped in a living hell; the next hour they were free, clean, and starting over. We can only presume that they were grateful, because they didn’t actually say so.
Blessed are the parents who teach their children to say “Thank you.” They learn a great lesson, a great beginning, to become people with grateful hearts. Invariably, people with grateful, appreciative hearts are among the most well-balanced, sane, happy people I have ever encountered. The unappreciative, ungrateful, resentful, complaining, are among the most poorly adjusted unhappy people I have met.
Jesus had a wonderful understanding of the importance of gratitude. Recall that he asked to be remembered by his followers at the Last Supper. We recall his words each time we celebrate Mass. Recall also that the Mass is often called the Eucharist, which comes from the Greek, meaning “Thanksgiving.” Each time we celebrate the Eucharist, we remember with grateful hearts, the saving work of Jesus and his astounding care for each one of us. And like the one leper who returned to give thanks, we come to Jesus to be fed and healed. With grateful hearts we say thank you from the bottom of our hearts.
Al Grosskopf, S.J.
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.