Engaging the Gospel – John 6:24-35

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B): Gospel – John 6:24-35

Jesus reveals that He is the Bread of Life – not to give out the earthly bread that the crowd seeks, but to bring us everlasting life. This “Bread of Life” discourse, the heart of John 6, will furnish our Gospel readings for the next few weeks.

“The fundamental context in which the entire chapter belongs is centered upon the contrast between Moses and Jesus,” Benedict XVI writes in Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. 1. “Jesus is the definitive, greater Moses” (p. 264).

Moses was identified with the gift of manna that sustained the Israelites in the desert: “Even the manna was not heavenly bread, but only earthly bread…or rather a food substitute” (p. 267).

But the Lord gives us much more – He gives us Himself in the Eucharist.

As the manna physically nourished the Israelites on the way to the Promised Land, so does the Eucharist sustain us spiritually on our journey to heaven.

The Eucharist is literally the “food of eternal life” (Catechism paragraph 1212):

What material food produces in our bodily life, Holy Communion wonderfully achieves in our spiritual life. Communion with the flesh of the risen Christ…preserves, increases, and renews the life of grace received at Baptism. This growth in Christian life needs the nourishment of Eucharistic Communion…

— paragraph 1392.

The North African Christians in the early fourth century gave eloquent testimony to the necessity of the Eucharist. When Christian worship was banned during a vicious persecution of the Church, they chose martyrdom rather than give up the Eucharist, proclaiming that they could not exist without the Sacrament (see Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis, no. 95).

Question for reflection: How do I prepare to receive the Lord in the Eucharist?

Engaging the Gospel – Fourth Sunday of Lent

Fourth Sunday of Lent (Year B): Gospel – John 3:14-21

Today’s Gospel features one of the best-known verses in all of Scripture, but precisely because of its familiarity, we can become de-sensitized to its radical power:

For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life.

In His very Person, Jesus embodies God’s love for His people. He confirms the testimony of the prophets who described the covenant relationship with God in the most intimate terms:

In the course of its history, Israel was able to discover that God had only one reason to reveal Himself to them: His sheer gratuitous love…

His love for His people is stronger than a mother’s for her children. God loves His people more than a bridegroom His beloved; His love will be victorious over even the worst infidelities and will extend to His most precious gift: ‘God so loved the world that He gave His only Son.’

— Catechism paragraphs 218-219.

Precisely because He loves us, God wants to rescue us from our sinful plight, heal our brokenness, and restore us to His friendship: “The Word became flesh for us in order to save us by reconciling us with God” (457).

St. Gregory of Nyssa (d. late 4th century) described just how desperately humanity needs a Redeemer:

Sick, our nature demanded to be healed; fallen, to be raised up; dead, to rise again. We had lost the possession of the good; it was necessary for it to be given back to us. Closed in the darkness, it was necessary to bring us the light; captives, we awaited a Savior; prisoners, help; slaves, a liberator.

— quoted in 457.

Through our baptism, we are regenerated in Christ (1213), and so, “in a certain way, we have already risen with Christ” (1002). We thus begin to experience God’s gift of eternal life, communion with Him, while still here on earth (260, 2796).

Although our salvation originates from this sheer grace of God, we have the free will to accept the divine gift, or to turn away from it. We respond by giving our assent of faith, by striving to live a moral life in accordance with God’s will, by repenting when we fall short, by frequenting the sacraments to strengthen us (1989-2003).

Let us be mindful of the extraordinary gifts God offers us in Christ, and never take his graces lightly (679).

Question for reflection: How have I experienced the love of God?

Engaging the Gospel – Third Sunday of Lent

Third Sunday of Lent (Year B): Gospel John 2:13-25

At first glance, Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple appears to be a straightforward demonstration against the commercialization of the sacred precincts:

Jesus went up to the Temple as the privileged place of encounter with God. For Him, the Temple was the dwelling of His Father, a house of prayer, and He was angered that its outer court had become a place of commerce. He drove merchants out of it because of jealous love for His Father.

–Catechism paragraph 584.

Perhaps while transacting their business in the Temple precincts, the merchants failed to have a “sense of the sacred,” or “respect owed to the mystery of God Himself and to the whole sacred reality [His name] evokes” (2144).

Perhaps some had even fallen into the temptation of making money their god. If so, that is a sin of idolatry, which does not merely involve the false worshiping of pagan gods.

“Man commits idolatry whenever he honors and reveres a creature in place of God,” such as “power, pleasure, race, ancestors, the state, money, etc.,” and as a result, idolatry “remains a constant temptation to faith” (2113).

Yet the Lord’s action also has a much deeper significance: Jesus “identified Himself with the Temple by presenting Himself as God’s definitive dwelling-place among men” (586).

Soon, worship would no longer be centered around the Temple building, but rather upon the very Body of the Lord, the new Temple.

Benedict XVI develops this insight into the cleansing of the Temple in Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. 2. God is withdrawing from the Temple of stone, with its worldly trading, and inaugurating a new way of worship, through the Cross and Resurrection of Christ:

The rejection and crucifixion of Jesus means at the same time the end of this Temple. The era of the Temple is over. A new worship is being introduced, in a Temple not built by human hands. This Temple is His Body, the Risen One, who gathers the peoples and unites them in the sacrament of His Body and Blood.

–Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. 2, pp. 21-22

Thus Jesus has zeal for the Cross, what Benedict calls the “zeal of self-giving love,” that we are called to share.

Question for reflection: When have I been tempted to make a “god” out of something?


Engaging the Gospel – Second Sunday of Lent

Second Sunday of Lent (Year B): Gospel – Mark 9:2-10

The Transfiguration is rich in meaning on several levels, beginning with its timing. Christ’s divine glory was made manifest during the Jewish Feast of Sukkoth. Commemorating Israel’s time of wandering in the desert after the Exodus, living in tents (“sukkoth”), this feast had messianic overtones: the Jewish people believed that it foreshadowed the coming age of the Messiah.

Jesus fulfills this hope, as Benedict XVI observes:

Indeed, the Lord has pitched the tent of His body among us and has thus inaugurated the messianic age…Jesus is the holy tent above whom the cloud of God’s presence now stands.

— Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. 1, pp. 315-16.

The presence of Moses and Elijah at the Transfiguration demonstrates Jesus’ fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures. They represent the Law and the Prophets, which proclaimed the Messiah’s coming. Although Moses and Elijah had encounters with God in the Old Testament, “only on the mountain of the Transfiguration” did they “behold the unveiled face of Him Whom they sought” – in Christ (Catechism paragraph 2583).

Moreover, the Transfiguration gives us a glimpse of the Holy Trinity.

As St. Thomas Aquinas noted, “The whole Trinity appeared: the Father in the voice; the Son in the man; the Spirit in the shining cloud” (quoted in paragraph 555).

Question for reflection: In what ways do I listen to the Lord?

Prayer Warriors of the Old Testament

Summary drawn from Catechism paragraphs 2568-97.

During this feast of the Presentation of the Lord, we glimpse Jesus as the fulfillment of the promises of the Old Covenant. As ever, our liturgy furnishes us with food for thought, which becomes food for prayer.

Today’s Gospel recounts the admirable faith of Simeon and Anna, thereby teaching us that we are heirs to their profound tradition of prayer, first revealed in the Old Testament and perfected in Christ. As the Word of God, the Old Testament continues to speak powerfully to us today, and we can learn a great deal from the school of prayer enshrined in its pages.

Abraham illustrates “attentiveness of the heart,” a willingness to listen to the Lord’s call and abide by His will, trusting even in the midst of his darkest test of faith.

When Jacob wrestles with an angel all night, he shows us the value of sticking with prayer, no matter how we struggle, so that we too might reap the rewards of perseverance.

We can easily relate to Moses’ uneasiness about the great mission God has for him: “he balks, makes excuses, above all questions.” But through this intense dialogue with God, “Moses also learns how to pray,” and he would go on to become a great intercessor, pleading with God to have mercy on his rebellious people.

Through Elijah and the other prophets, we realize our need to go beyond “excessively external worship,” to encounter the Lord Himself, and undergo true “conversion of heart.”

David is our model for soul-stirring repentance, as well as for offering prayers of praise. Traditionally attributed to David, the Psalms (literally “Praises”) are “the masterwork of prayer in the Old Testament.” Both personal and communal, embracing all dimensions of salvation history to the end of time, the Psalms are an integral part of the Church’s prayer: “The Psalter is the book in which the Word of God becomes [our] prayer,” for “the same Spirit inspires both….”

Engaging the Gospel – Mark 1:14-20

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B): Gospel – Mark 1:14-20

Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God, and His calling of the apostles, are profoundly interrelated:

The seed and beginning of the Kingdom are the ‘little flock’ of those whom Jesus came to gather around Him, the flock whose shepherd He is. They form Jesus’ true family.

–Catechism paragraph 764.

Every human being is called into this gathering (542).

First, “there is the choice of the Twelve, with Peter as their head.” Because the number of apostles represents the twelve tribes of Israel, Jesus is signifying that His gathering, the Church, is the new Israel (765).

Indeed, around the time of Jesus, the Jewish people were praying for just such a renewed gathering by God.

Benedict XVI explains that they longed for a qahal, the Old Testament word for a divinely-called assembly of the people: “a qahal coming from God himself, a new gathering and foundation of the people, increasingly became the center of Jewish hope.”

Qahal was rendered into Greek as ekklesia – the New Testament word for “Church.” By using this technical term to describe herself, the Church declares that she is the hoped-for qahal.

“This petition is granted in us…the chosen final gathering of God’s people” through Christ (Called to Communion, p. 31).

Question for reflection: How has listening to God’s call changed me?

Engaging the Gospel – Luke 2:22-40

The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary & Joseph (Year B): Gospel – Luke 2:22-40

The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple

“The presentation of Jesus in the Temple shows him to be the firstborn Son who belongs to the Lord,” as the Catechism teaches (paragraph 529).

Benedict XVI observes a crucial detail about St. Luke’s language. Unlike the custom to “redeem” the firstborn by a payment, this Presentation only confirms Jesus’ total dedication to God:

Evidently Luke intends to say that instead of being “redeemed” and restored to His parents, this Child was personally handed over to God in the Temple, given over completely to God. The verb paristanai, here translated as “to present,” also means “to offer,” in the way that sacrifices in the Temple were “offered.”

…Luke has nothing to say regarding the act of “redemption” prescribed by the law. In its place we find the exact opposite: the Child is handed over to God, and from now on belongs to Him completely. None of the aforementioned acts prescribed by the law required an appearance in the Temple.

…Here, in the place of encounter between God and His people, instead of the reclamation of the first-born, what happens is that Jesus is publicly handed over to God, His Father.

Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. 3, pp. 82-83.

The Presentation itself becomes an encounter between the baby Jesus and the devout pair of Simeon and Anna, who embody the piety of Israel.

“With Simeon and Anna, all Israel awaits its encounter with the Savior – the name given to this event in the Byzantine tradition” (Catechism paragraph 529).

Simeon and Anna belong to the “small Remnant, the people of the poor, who await in hope the consolation of Israel and the redemption of Jerusalem” (711), and their hope is fulfilled when they meet the infant Jesus in the Temple.

Both Simeon and Anna are themselves wholly attuned to the Lord, as Benedict points out. Living intentionally for God, they are docile to the Holy Spirit and receptive to His inspiration.

Question for reflection: How might I be more generous in giving myself to the Lord?