Sunday, February 26, 2017

First Sunday of Lent - March 5, 2017

First Reading Commentary
The breath of life blown into the nostrils is the soul of the formed man.  Eden may have been the name of a country but Saint Jerome interprets it to signify pleasure.  “The Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east.”  This verse in the Latin is translated as: “The Lord God had planted a paradise of pleasure from the beginning.”  Saint Jerome’s interpretation of Eden to signify “pleasure” comes into play here; but notice the difference at the end of that verse: “in the east” from the American liturgy’s translation and “from the beginning” which is the Latin Vulgate’s translation.  The ancient Hebrew word creating these two very different interpretations is “mikedem”.  Some interpreters understood it to mean “towards the east”.  The Septuagint is in agreement with that interpretation.  Saint Jerome, however, along with many ancient interpreters understood it to mean “old” or “everlasting” or “from ancient times” which led to the “from the beginning” interpretation. 

The exact location of Eden is unknown: East of Palestine, Armenia and Babylon are only a few of the scholarly conjectures.  Some have even theorized that Eden still exists and is the place where Enoch and Elijah were taken until Christ’s glorious Ascension into heaven.  According to Sacred Scripture, Enoch walked with God and was seen no more because God took him (cf. Genesis 5:24).  And Elijah was taken to heaven in a fiery chariot (cf. 2 Kings 2:11). 

The “tree of life” is understood literally as a tree in which its fruits would keep man in a constant state of good health and thus man would never die.  Prophetically, it is the Cross of Christ.  The “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” in which the serpent lured our first parents into thinking it supplied superior knowledge, has been defined as a fig tree or an apple tree.  Of course, it’s impossible to know for certain but whatever it was, it most likely was the only one of its kind in the Garden of Eden.  What the tree of knowledge did supply was knowledge of evil, which before eating of its forbidden fruits our first parents were uninformed. 

It would be difficult to say that the woman succumbed to temptation in the same sense that we define temptation.  We know that what waits on the other side of temptation is not good for us, spiritually unhealthy and in some cases downright evil.  But the woman could not have known this at this point because she had no knowledge of evil and could not have suspected that the serpent was up to no good. 

One thing we learn from the very first book of the bible is that Satan is more acquainted with the ways and word of God than we are and thus is able to pervert it and twist it to fit his own diabolical plan. 

Saint Bernard, using this story from Genesis, asks us to reflect on this question: “Placed between God and the devil, whom shall we yield our assent?”  The plan of the serpent is not to say that God lied about the tree of knowledge because to the woman that would be unthinkable.  It would also be evil to have such thoughts and she has no knowledge of evil.  Instead, the ploy of the serpent is to suggest to the woman that she misunderstood what God was saying to her.  We hear Satan’s twisting of the word of God today by suggesting to us that we’re misinterpreting Scripture by our understanding of the Real Presence, for example. 

As soon as the man and the woman ate the fruit their eyes were opened and they realized that they were naked.  Being naked is not evil but what is interpreted from this is that suddenly the two became filled with the intense craving known as lust. 

English poet and scholar John Milton (1608-1674), in his epic poem titled, “Paradise Lost” describes humanity’s fall from grace with these words: “She gave him of that fair enticing fruit, with liberal hand he scrupled not to eat: Against his better knowledge; not deceived, but fondly overcome with female charm.  Earth trembled from her entrails, as again in pangs, and nature gave a second groan; sky lured and muttering thunder, some sad drops wept at completing of the mortal sin.”

Second Reading Commentary
Our physical connection with Adam brings us sin and death; our spiritual bond with Christ brings us salvation and eternal life.  Adam’s fall is the cause of our sin and death; Christ’s redemption is the cause of our salvation and eternal life.  While our destiny of sin and death because of one man’s fall might seem unfair, it would then be equally unfair to say that we deserve salvation and eternal life because of one Man’s Sacrifice.  Perhaps it’s best understood to say that Adam’s fall was like a contagious disease which spread to all humanity; and Christ’s Sacrifice was the antidote.  This whole scenario does make the body of Christ theology more easily understood as we can see from the very beginning that we’re all connected. 

To make the case for original sin, Saint Paul uses history from the time of Adam to Moses whereby everyone born into the world died; but until the Law of Moses individual sin was never accounted for.  Therefore, all eventually die because all were conceived and born in sin.  Adam is the beginning; Christ is a new beginning.  Adam brought an end to paradise; Christ restored it. 

Saint John Chrysostom reminds us that we have been exalted to the dignity of being the brothers and sisters of Christ, the Son of God, and are made joint heirs with Him; and so by the grace of Christ we have a greater dignity in this world, and we shall be exalted to a greater and more eminent degree of glory in the Kingdom of His glory for all eternity.

Gospel Commentary
The Spirit Who made an appearance at Christ’s Baptism now leads Him into the desert to be tempted by the devil.  The desert is the devil’s playground and Christ is led there to confront him on his own turf. 

Desert hermits know very well from experience that there are many temptations to overcome in the silence and solitude of the desert; but they also know that with God’s help they can overcome those temptations and become closer and more intimate with the Almighty.  Our desert is anywhere we choose to sit in solitude to be with God.  There are many temptations there to overcome as well.  Silence and solitude invites distractions but they can be overcome once it is understood that solitude does not mean being alone - but instead, being alone with God, the Victor over all unnecessary distractions. 

Our Lord’s first temptation deals with His forty day fast which our Lenten fast is modeled after.  Here our Lord is fulfilling an Old Testament prefigurement when Moses went up Mount Sinai for forty days and forty nights and neither ate bread nor drank water (cf. Exodus 34:28).  It is Elijah’s experience that may actually prompt the devil’s temptation because Elijah ate and drank while walking in the strength of that food for forty days and forty nights to Mount Horeb (cf. 1 Kings 19:8).  We might be able to conclude that the devil heard the Voice at Christ’s Baptism proclaiming Jesus as God’s Son (cf. Matthew 3:17) because the devil immediately addresses Christ by saying: ‘If you are the Son of God…’  God’s Incarnation at this point might very well be as much of a mystery to the devil as it is to us; and thus he seeks to tempt our Lord into displaying His Divine Power. 

Later on in His ministry Jesus will multiply loaves of bread for the multitudes (cf. Matthew 14:19-21) but here refuses to perform such a miracle for His own need.  The devil tries to persuade Jesus to turn stones into bread.  This is another indication that the evil one was hanging around during Christ’s Baptism because just before His plunge into the Jordan, John the Baptist was proclaiming to the Pharisees and Sadducees that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from the stones (cf. Matthew 3:9). 

Jesus passes the test of His first temptation by quoting from Deuteronomy 8 [verse 3].  The First Reading’s Commentary mentions that Satan is well-acquainted with Scripture.  And since Jesus used the sacred texts to escape the first temptation, the devil’s next strategic move, then, is to throw another temptation at Jesus by quoting Scripture.  The evil one tries to get Jesus to throw Himself down from the parapet of the temple because Psalm (90) 91 [verses 11-12] states that God’s angels will support Him.  Jesus fights back with more Scripture from Deuteronomy 6 [verse 16]: “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.” 

The devil’s final temptation is an attempt to entice Jesus into worshipping him by offering all the kingdoms of the world.  Satan’s deceitfulness really comes to the forefront here since the world’s kingdoms are not his to give.  He is sometimes referred to as the “prince of this world” but that refers only to the evil that exists in the world.  Jesus finally says: “Get away, Satan!  It is written: ‘The Lord, your God, shall you worship and Him alone shall you serve”’ (Deuteronomy 6:13). 

Theologically, because Jesus is God He is incapable of sin and is without original sin.  And so, He cannot be tempted from within by concupiscence, a consequence of original sin.  Even though He could not be tempted on the same level as our lower nature, He could be tempted by exterior suggestion, meaning that Satan’s temptations can be introduced to Christ’s senses, imagination and His ability to reason or discern.   His reasoning and judgment, however, cannot be in error because He is God.  The reason our Lord even allows Satan to approach Him is to teach us that even the most pious of souls are prone to temptation and consequently instructs us how to firmly deal with temptation.  He also brings Himself as close to our human experience as His sinless Nature would allow and thus is able to sympathize with us.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time - February 26, 2017

First Reading Commentary
The eighteenth-century French Oratorian biblical scholar, Charles-François Houbigant, defined “Zion” as the Jewish people; and this Reading is their cry to God for feeling abandoned by Him, but it is a cry that prophetically speaking points to their eventual conversion to Christ in great numbers.  Our Lord proclaims: “I will never forget you.”  God Himself, in the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity demonstrated His solidarity with the Jewish people as He hung on the Cross and cried out: “My God, My God, why have You foresaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46).

Second Reading Commentary
William Hessels van Est was a sixteenth-century commentator on the Pauline epistles.  His name most often appears under his Latin name: Estius.  He has written that what Saint Paul meant by the “mysteries of God” are the dogmas of faith revealed by the Almighty. 

Saint Jerome teaches us that Paul’s lack of concern for human judgment is meant to convey that Saint Paul will not be swayed by any judgment rendered by anyone in this life because he is not conscious of anything contrary to trustworthy stewardship of the mysteries of God.  He is not conscious of anything that has taken his soul out of a state of grace.  While this may sound a bit boastful, actually Saint Paul is instructing us by example - and that example is: the true judgment will come in the last day and that Judge will be Almighty God Himself; and we are to live each day as if it were the last day, that is, always in a state of grace, not conscious of any mortal sins wounding our soul and separating us from God.  This is not arrogance or boasting; otherwise, Saint Paul would have written that the last judgment for him is unnecessary. 

Again, commenting on this Reading, Estius wrote: “If this privileged apostle was afraid to form any judgment of his own heart and thoughts, whether they were pure or not, but left the trial thereof to the day of judgment, the day of his death, how presumptuous are they, who dare to pronounce on their election and predestination!”

Gospel Commentary
If obsession for riches leads to hating God, can there be any more motive to serve God?  What is the end result of chasing after what Saint Paul calls a corruptibilem coronam – corruptible crown (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:25)?  Anxiety over life in the here and now has a way of pulling one’s heart and soul away from God.  The treasures of this world are enticing and could deceive one into thinking that they are the answer to all of life’s problems – that is, what will ultimately lead to happiness.  Any joy or comfort received from this life is all too fleeting because nothing in this life can last forever. 

In our liturgy’s translation we read: “Do not worry about your life” – the Latin text translates as: “Be not solicitous for your life” and is understood to mean “too solicitous” – in other words, “don’t worry about your life too much.”  The very essence of life on planet earth renders cause for concern. 

An Italian Jesuit Scripture scholar named Giovanni Stefano Menochio wrote these words in the seventeenth-century: “Christ does not prohibit all care about temporal concerns, but only what hinders us from seeking the Kingdom of heaven in the first instance; or what makes us esteem more the things of this world, than those of the next.”  Thus, living a worry-free life is virtually unattainable except perhaps for the supernaturally gifted soul immersed in constant prayer.  Such a soul lived in our modern time – Saint Pio of Pietrelcina or as he is perhaps more affectionately referred to simply as Padre Pio.  In fact, among the phrases that is said to have flowed from his lips is: “Pray, hope, and don’t worry.” 

Another of the Church’s bible scholars, Father George Leo Haydock, wrote in the nineteenth-century: “Why should the children of God fear want, when we behold the very birds of the air do not go without provision?  Moreover, what possible good can this anxiety, this diffidence procure them?  Almighty God gives life and growth, which you cannot do with all your solicitude, however intensely you think.  Of how much greater consequence then is it to love and serve Him, and to live for Him alone!” 

Saint John Chrysostom adds: “It is not without reason that men are in such great fear and distress, when they are so blind as to imagine that their happiness in this life is ruled by fate.  But such as know that they are entirely governed by the will of God, know also that a store is laid up for them in His Hands.” 

And from Saint Thomas Aquinas are these words: “He that delivers himself entirely into the Hands of God, may rest securely in both prosperity and adversity knowing that he is governed by a tender Father.” 

Our Savior tells us that today has enough burdens of its own and worrying about tomorrow will only add to the load of today.  Referring again to William Hessels van Est or Estius, the Pauline epistles’ commentator, he teaches us something about the great gift of faith – he wrote: “It is the curse of the envious and wicked to be self-tormented, while they who live by faith, can always rejoice in hope, the true balm of every Christian's breast, the best friend of all in distress.” 

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time - February 19, 2017

First Reading Commentary
Our heavenly Father is calling us to be like Him – holy.  We may have an idea as to what constitutes holiness, but to be holy like God is holy is beyond our full understanding, and without Him, completely impossible.  In fact, if not for the Incarnation, it still would not be possible; but Jesus came and destroyed all the walls that prevented us from becoming like Him.  The only obstacle He left alone, because of His love for us, is our free will. 

The word of God encourages us to reprove our brothers and sisters in the Lord to avoid harboring hatred for them in our heart.  Saint Augustine reminds us, however, in accordance with God’s law, that love should regulate any complaints against another brother or sister.  Philo of Alexandria, an ancient Jewish biblical scholar, understands our Lord’s law in this way: “O Lord, we do not rejoice at the misfortunes of our enemy, having learned from Your holy laws to be compassionate towards the distress of others.  We thank You for delivering us from our afflictions.”

Second Reading Commentary
Like the First Reading, holiness is a key ingredient to this Reading as well.  But again, it’s a brand of holiness that is beyond the grasp of full human comprehension.  We all know that we bumble many things, do things we shouldn’t do and get caught up in things we have no business entertaining.  And yet, Saint Paul is trying to sell the idea that we are a temple of God – and holy.  The holy apostle surely understood this apparent contradiction by writing: “Let no one deceive himself.” 

Everyone likes to be “in” with the “in crowd” but Saint Paul is teaching us that to be “in” with heaven’s crowd is to preserve ourselves in innocence of morality and purity of faith – quite a radically different environment from today’s moral structure.  It is only by the grace of God, dwelling within us, that we are able to guard ourselves from the things which deceptively seek our ruin.  To be fools in this age is a call to return to simplicity – making good use of the gifts of this world – for as Saint Paul assures us: “Everything belongs to you.” 

Jesus came to make known the glory of God and all His perfections, to which He calls us to share in.  Each of us, as baptized members of the body of Christ, are disciples, like Paul and Cephas.  We are sent to promote salvation, which is completely in harmony with the Church’s mission of evangelization.

Gospel Commentary
What is offered here by our Savior are admonitions for the banner of authentic Christianity: to forgive one another and to bear our sufferings with patience.   These are not easy words to hear from our Lord, and perhaps it’s worth mentioning that these words were also difficult, if not more difficult to hear, by the witnesses of Jesus’ teaching, because of how they understood the old Law. 

One of the great weaknesses of being human is our stubborn inability to accept a different take on something that has already been engraved into our minds.  In action/adventure movies, for example, we like to see the bad guy get what he deserves in the end.  To see the victim forgive his/her assailant makes for a disappointing conclusion to the movie. 

In this Gospel passage and others, this is the Jesus in which we are tempted to keep a safe distance from.  It’s a blast to follow Him from town to town and read about the miracles He performed; but suddenly we get a Jesus Who is delivering difficult words – not only difficult to hear – but He wants us to embrace them.  After all, a watered down Christianity is much easier to live – isn’t it?  But really what Jesus is saying to us is that the way of the world is not the way of God, and we, therefore, have to be radically different.  True discipleship demands that each day, little by little, we are being transformed into the Image of Jesus.  What makes the difficult sayings of Jesus so difficult is that we’re not divine beings; but, what makes not being divine bearable is that there is a sacrament of healing.  Otherwise, love for Jesus could end up in an abyss of disappointment and self-pity due to our failings.  Christianity is a courageous act. 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “Christ Jesus always did what was pleasing to the Father, and always lived in perfect communion with Him.  Likewise Christ’s disciples are invited to live in the sight of the Father Who sees in secret, in order to become perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (CCC 1693). 

Our Redeemer’s words are about love – not pacifism.  Every human being has dignity and is loved by God.  Thus, to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect requires love.  We’re well-trained at voicing four letters words at those who perpetrate something contrary to decency.  Our heavenly Father, however, looks at such a person with love and sees him/her as someone who in human weakness succumbed to evil.  That is love and that is perfection.  Isn’t that really the point of Christ being tempted in the desert: to draw out into the daylight the one who hides in darkness, who crawls under rocks and gets others to do his dirty work – in other words, the real enemy?

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time - February 12, 2017

First Reading Commentary
The Latin Vulgate’s version of this Reading tells us that “God made man from the beginning and left him in the hand of his own counsel.”  There’s an eerie tone in that translation which intimates how responsible we must be as individuals when exercising God’s gift of free will.  The Latin Vulgate also reveals that the keeping of God’s Commandments is to “perform acceptable fidelity forever.” 

We have been made executors of a great treasure – our own salvation.  No other creature or any other form of creation on earth has been given such a gargantuan responsibility.  We do, however, possess something that is perhaps an underestimated aid – the grace of God.  Saint Augustine explains: “If we examine the context, it shows that man, in his present state, is declared inexcusable if he yields to sin, as he still has free will, which may avoid it, with the grace of God, which is always ready to support us.” 

It has often been said that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI proposed – not imposed.  We see in this Reading a proposal – not an imposition.  The Holy Father, however, as Christ’s Vicar on earth, proposed to us what is best for our relationship with God.  Through Sirach, God Himself in this Reading proposes what is most advantageous for our soul, regardless of how mysterious or incomprehensible it is.  The Law of God has been written on stone tablets and on the tablets of human hearts: man has the free choice of whether or not to comply with it.

Second Reading Commentary
Saint John Chrysostom explains what Saint Paul means by ‘wisdom’: “By wisdom, here seems to be understood a more sublime doctrine concerning the most abstruse mysteries of faith, which the ignorant could not understand.”  It was the Incarnation of the Son of God which revealed this mysterious wisdom, but a wisdom, nevertheless, that continues to remain hidden in many, even among those who are considered wise by human standards.  This is why we year after year observe the Lord of glory continuing to be questioned and verbally crucified in various publications and documentaries, especially around the Lent and Easter season. 

The Spirit of God is a Spirit of grace, knowledge and prophecy – a Spirit which God gives to His faithful, and most particularly to His apostles.  This Spirit of God raises one to a higher knowledge of divine mysteries.  Among the faithful of God, even if unable to recognize this mysterious knowledge of God within themselves, certainly have witnessed it in our modern day heroes like Saint Teresa of Calcutta, Saint Pio of Pietrelcina, Venerable Solanus Casey, and Saint John Paul II.

Gospel Commentary
Many of the external practices or rituals of the old Law no longer come into play in Christianity, but Jesus is not talking about that.  Our Lord is referring to the moral precepts, the spirit of the old Law which not only needs to be adhered to, but practiced with greater perfection: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). 

Jesus is the Reality of all the figures of the Old Testament.  He is the Perfection of all the imperfections of old, and calls us to this Perfection, which is Himself.  The old Law was extremely protected by its doctors and our Lord’s raising of it to an elevated morality was, to say the least, radical and scandalous.  But as Jesus tells us, this is not an abolishment, but a fulfillment.  One might say that Jesus accomplishes the will of the Law.  Saint John Chrysostom writes: “He [Jesus] fulfilled the Law by reducing all the precepts of the old Law to a more strict and powerful morality.”  Our Savior often spoke the words: “Amen, I say to you. . .”  That “Amen” is an assurance, a guarantee that what He is about to say is absolute truth. 

Saint Augustine taught something that is somewhat taboo today basically because no one wants to consider such a possibility: he taught that what Jesus meant by “least in the Kingdom of heaven” is to not be in heaven at all.  And thus, this is why Jesus said very clearly, “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven.”  In other words, if it is only the letter of the Law that is adhered to and not the spirit of the Law, then the only thing being satisfied or fulfilled is one’s own vanity. 

Saint Thomas Aquinas teaches us: “See how necessary it is, not only to believe, but to keep all the Commandments, even the very least.  Our Savior makes this solemn declaration at the opening of His mission, to show to what a height of perfection He calls us.” 

The word “Raqa” is a word of contempt.  It was used in ancient Israel.  Its root meaning is “to spit”.  Jesus uses the setting of a legal court and that setting is something that would have been very familiar to the hearers of His words in first-century Palestine.  There were three kinds of tribunals: the first had three judges to try smaller cases, like theft, for example.  The second kind of tribunal consisted of twenty-three judges who listened to criminal cases.  These twenty-three judges had the power to condemn to death.  This was known as the “Little Sanhedrin”.  The final type of tribunal was known as the “Great Sanhedrin” which consisted of seventy-two judges who decided on cases involving religion, the king, the high priest, and affairs of the state. 

While the words, “you fool” are insulting in our modern culture, at the time of Jesus they were considered very contemptuous, spiteful, malicious, and provoking words. 

Gehenna was in the valley of Hinnom near Jerusalem.  Worshippers of an idol named Moloch would go to Gehenna to sacrifice their own children by burning them.  It is now symbolic of hell.  Jesus does teach us in His examples that there are distinctions of sin – mortal and venial.  According to Saints Cyprian and Ambrose as well as Origen, an early Church writer, on a spiritual realm, what Jesus means by “prison” is purgatory.  And then, of course, Gehenna is hell, the place of eternal separation from God. 

Jesus is not suggesting that all oaths are forbidden.  Certainly asking God to witness matters in our legal system, for example, are necessary.  Most likely what our Lord is referring to is the swearing to God in casual conversations.  God’s Name is sacred and should only be spoken with great reverence and respect.  

We have been called to a perfection that seems impossible by human standards – and without God, it is.  But if we are to understand and adhere to the spirit of the Law, then we have to recognize that a key and essential ingredient in the spirit of the Law is mercy.  Not only are we called to be merciful, but to trust in God’s love and mercy for us.  This ingredient is so important, that our Redeemer made it a sacrament – and the sacraments can raise us to the heights of perfection.