Engaging the Gospel – Luke 20:27-38

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C): Gospel – Luke 20:27-38

For centuries in the life of the Church, the month of November has been a time when we pray more intensely on behalf of the dead.

Following so closely from All Saints’ Day on November 1, and All Souls (the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed) on November 2, it is fitting that the Church offers us this Gospel passage today, in which Jesus affirms the resurrection of the dead.

The idea of the resurrection was not explicit in the early Jewish faith, which is why the Sadducees refused to believe in it: “God revealed the resurrection of the dead to His people progressively” (Catechism paragraph 992).

Christ was “raised with His own Body…but He did not return to an earthly life.” So will we “rise again with [our] own bodies which [we] now bear, but Christ will change our lowly body to be like His glorious Body” (999).

This has important implications for how we view the body – not as a disposable object, but as fundamental to the human person, in profound unity with the soul (362-65).

Death, brought into the world by sin, separates body and soul, but God will restore the unity of body and soul in the resurrection (997):

In expectation of that day, the believer’s body and soul already participate in the dignity of belonging to Christ. This dignity entails the demand that he should treat with respect his own body, but also the body of every other person, especially the suffering (1004).

Question for reflection: How does my belief in the coming resurrection affect the way I live now?

Engaging the Gospel – Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B): Gospel – Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48

Jesus warns us to avoid sin

“Before being against a law or a moral norm, sin is against God, against your brothers and sisters and against yourselves,” wrote St John Paul II, who described sin as our refusal

to let ourselves be loved by the true Love: the human being has in fact the terrible power to be an obstacle to God Who wills to give all that is good…

Today, unfortunately, the more people lose the sense of sin, the less they have recourse to the pardon of God. This is the cause of many of the problems and difficulties of our time.

Message for the 14th World Youth Day.

“Sin is an abuse of the freedom that God gives” us (Catechism 387), a “failure in genuine love for God and neighbor” that “wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity” (1849). Moreover, “sin creates a proclivity to sin” (1865).

As St Augustine wrote, we must not ignore the cumulative effects of even small sins: “A number of light objects makes a great mass; a number of drops fills a river; a number of grains makes a heap. What then is our hope? Above all, confession”(1863).

The Lord is always eager to welcome us in Reconciliation. JPII urged us to “approach trustfully the sacrament of Confession” and “receive with a grateful heart the absolution given by the priest…The Source of love regenerates and makes us capable of overcoming egoism and of loving again, with greater intensity” (op. cit.).

Question for reflection: What efforts do I make to overcome my habitual faults?

The True Meaning of Freedom

Too often in our society, freedom is taken to mean the ability to do whatever we want. But if we follow that illusion, we end up being unhappy.

In reality, freedom isn’t about being free from all constraints; rather, freedom is about being free for something, the ability to choose the good.

God gave us the gift of free will to choose Him and to live in accordance with His will for us. Because He created us, He knows what is best for us, what behavior contributes to our human flourishing and happiness.

This moral law is encoded within our very being as human persons. Whenever we flout the moral law in the name of “freedom,” we go against the truth of God’s design for us and actually deliver ourselves up to slavery to sin.

But Jesus liberates us from bondage to sin, gives us true freedom, and empowers us to live in His friendship. As disciples, we are called to follow Jesus in freely giving ourselves for the good of others.

St John Paul II explains this beautifully in Veritatis Splendor: “Human freedom…is given as a gift, one to be received like a seed and to be cultivated responsibly” (86).

Our “freedom of conscience is never freedom ‘from’ the truth but always and only freedom ‘in’ the truth” (64).

Jesus is “the living, personal summation of perfect freedom in total obedience to the will of God.” Through contemplation of Jesus on the Cross, we grasp “the full meaning of freedom: the gift of self in service to God and one’s brethren” (87).

Lead Us Not Into Temptation

God never tempts us, nor does He mount a “sting operation” to catch us, just waiting to condemn our every lapse.

Although the English translation of this petition could be misunderstood, the underlying Greek text actually means “do not allow us to enter into temptation” and “do not let us yield to temptation” (Catechism paragraph 2846).

Far from trying to trip us up, God so ardently wants to free us from sin that He became man to save us from its thrall. Christ, Who Himself conquered temptation in His earthly life, teaches us that we can only resist through vigilant prayer in union with Him.

By asking God for help in our struggles to live a moral life, we recognize our weakness and frailty, our tendency to give in to sin. Such humility, grounded in the truth about ourselves, draws down God’s grace upon us – the very grace that He is eager to give us, if we just open our hearts to receive it.

With the light of the Holy Spirit, we can see temptation for what it truly is: evil masquerading as something good. But however attractive a temptation may be on the surface, we know that it’s an illusion, for sin ultimately hurts us.

For more, see Catechism paragraphs 2846-49.

Engaging the Gospel – Matthew 22:1-14

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Gospel – Matthew 22:1-14

The wedding feast in this parable symbolizes the kingdom of heaven, and at the same time, is evocative of the Church as the Bride of Christ.

“The theme of Christ as Bridegroom of the Church was prepared for by the prophets,” who expressed “God’s covenant with Israel in the image of exclusive and faithful married love” (Catechism paragraphs 796, 1611).

This “nuptial covenant between God and His people Israel had prepared the way for the new and everlasting covenant” in Christ (1612).

As St. John Paul II observes, “It is not difficult to see in this wedding feast a reference to the Eucharist: the sacrament of the new and eternal covenant, the sacrament of the marriage of Christ and humanity in the Church” (September 18, 1991).

We are all called personally; no one is excluded from God’s universal invitation. But Jesus reveals that we in turn must respond appropriately. We too must enter with a “wedding garment,” as we learn from the unprepared guest in the parable.

JP II explains:

…in Israel’s world, on the occasion of great banquets, the clothes to be worn were made available to the guests in the banquet hall. This fact makes the meaning of that detail in Jesus’ parable even clearer: the responsibility not only of the person who rejects the invitation, but also of those who claim to attend without fulfilling the necessary conditions for being worthy of the banquet.

This is the case of those who maintain and profess that they are followers of Christ and members of the Church, without obtaining the ‘wedding garment’ of grace…

We must embrace this “garment” offered to us by God:

The parable emphasizes the responsibility that every guest has, whatever his or her origin, regarding the ‘yes’ which must be given to the Lord Who calls, and regarding the acceptance of His law, the total response to the demands of the Christian vocation…

December 11, 1991.

Question for reflection: How have I experienced God’s invitation to draw near to Him?

Engaging the Gospel – Matthew 21:33-43

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Gospel – Matthew 21:33-43

The first reading from Isaiah, and Jesus’ parable in the Gospel, both employ the imagery of a vineyard to illustrate a common theme: our failure to respond generously to God’s nurturing attention.

Just as the landowner makes every effort on behalf of his vineyard, symbolic of Israel, so does God continually lavish His gifts and graces upon us.

“God loved His people first,” establishing His covenant, and revealing His Commandments to seal our relationship with Him.

As a result, our “moral existence is a response to the Lord’s loving initiative” (Catechism paragraphs 2060-62), an honoring of our “fundamental duties” toward God and neighbor (2072).

But the wayward tenants in the Gospel refuse to meet their just obligations, despite the repeated calls of the landowner’s servants – the prophets – and even His own Son, Jesus. Their violent reaction is a foreshadowing of the Lord’s Passion and Death, which Jesus addresses directly to His listeners.

As Benedict XVI notes:

The audience knows he is saying to them: Just as the Prophets were abused and killed, so now you want to kill me: I’m talking about you and about me.

…But the Lord always speaks in the present and with an eye to the future. He is also speaking with us and about us.

If we open our eyes, isn’t what is said in the parable actually a description of our present world? Isn’t this precisely the logic of the modern age, of our age?

Let us declare that God is dead, then we ourselves will be God…At last we can do what we please. We get rid of God…

The “vineyard” belongs to us. What happens to man and the world next? We are already beginning to see it…

–Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. 1, p. 257.

Question for reflection: How do I respond when challenged by a truth I may not want to hear?

Engaging the Gospel – Matthew 11:25-30

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Gospel – Matthew 11:25-30

Take Jesus’ yoke upon you and find rest

Jesus presents us with paradoxes in Sunday’s Gospel. Revelation comes to the “little ones,” not to those who deem themselves wise, and by taking the Lord’s yoke upon us, we actually find true rest in Him.

These statements are integrally related: to accept the Kingdom of God, we must have a “humble and trusting heart” (Catechism paragraphs 544, 2785).

This truth contradicts our contemporary culture, which promotes pride of mind and heart. The culture often denies objective standards of morality and claims that we can fashion individual ideas of right and wrong to suit ourselves.

As St. John Paul II has observed, such moral relativism is essentially “a lack of trust in the wisdom of God, Who guides man with the moral law” (The Splendor of Truth 84).

“God, Who alone is good, knows perfectly what is good for man, and by virtue of His very love,” He teaches us what is good by giving us the commandments (35).

We are authentically free, not when we try to deny the truth of God’s word, but when we embrace God’s will and choose the good (35, 84).

Jesus Himself shows us the way: “The Word became flesh to be our model of holiness” (Catechism paragraph 459). “His exclamation, ‘Yes, Father!’ expresses the depth of His heart…this loving adherence of His human heart to the mystery of the will of the Father” (2603).

Question for reflection: When have I found peace in surrendering to the Lord?

Cultivate Purity of Heart

Summary of Catechism paragraphs 2514-57:

  • With our nature wounded by original sin, we are given to “concupiscence,” an immoderate desire that goes beyond the bounds of reason, and thereby predisposes us to commit sin.
  • If our hearts are dominated by concupiscence, whether toward physical pleasure or material goods, then we cannot open ourselves up to God; this is why we must put a proper check on our worldly desires, so that we are free to allow God to fill us with His desires – the far superior desires of the Spirit.
  • For this reason, God counsels us to keep a strict guard over our desires; the Ninth Commandment, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife,” and the Tenth Commandment, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods,” together identify the roots of sin and prepare us for spiritual growth.
  • Jesus calls us to purity of heart, including chastity, charity toward others, and a love for the truths of the faith; although God gives us grace to help us, we must also cooperate with Him by waging a spiritual battle against our unruly flesh.
  • We must strive for purity of heart by praying consistently for the gift of chastity, disciplining ourselves not to indulge in impure thoughts, and avoiding situations (real or virtual) that tempt us or cause us to fall.
  • Modesty is a prerequisite for purity, for it recognizes and safeguards the dignity of the human person; while this relates primarily to how we dress, modesty also pertains to feelings and emotions; we should avoid all forms of “entertainment” in which people’s lives are exploited or belittled for our amusement.
  • Just as sexual sins originate in the thoughts of the heart, so do sins against the right use of goods; excessive desire for material things gives rise to the sins of greed and avarice, which can lead us to steal, defraud, or otherwise deprive others of their rightful goods.
  • Envy is a sin because it causes us to grieve or regret the good fortune of others; if we want grave harm to befall someone more fortunate, then envy becomes a mortal sin.
  • As an antidote to the allurements of wealth, Jesus calls us to prefer Him to all things, and exercise a radical trust in divine Providence; through this poverty of heart, we learn to rely on God, not on material possessions.
  • When we cultivate purity and poverty of heart, we become more attuned to God and take our joy in Him; thus the Commandments come full circle, for now we are truly loving God above all.

Live Your Faith

Training for sports has much in common with training for the spiritual life. To achieve your goals as an athlete, you have to put in the time, the discipline, the dedication, to master the fundamentals. If you skip practice, slack off, and let things slide, your performance deteriorates.

Similarly, the spiritual life demands that we pay attention to the fundamentals: daily prayer, the sacraments, and striving to live a moral life.

An essential part of our training regimen is a regular examination of conscience. Only by recognizing our weaknesses, and getting to their roots in our flawed desires, can we work with God to improve our performance on the spiritual playing field.

Engaging the Gospel – Sixth Sunday of Easter

Sixth Sunday of Easter: Gospel – John 14:15-21

Jesus teaches us what intimate union with Him truly means: if we love Him, we keep His commandments.

This is not meant in the sense of clinical adherence to rules, but rather, as a profound interior transformation. Adopted by the Father, we are conformed to Christ, and desire to be like Him (Catechism paragraphs 2782-84).

This transformation takes place over time, as Pope Benedict XVI described in his encyclical God Is Love:

This process is always open-ended; love is never ‘finished’ and complete; throughout life, it changes and matures…

To want the same thing, and to reject the same thing – [this] was recognized by antiquity as the authentic content of love: the one becomes similar to the other…

The love story between God and man consists in the very fact that this communion of will increases in a communion of thought and sentiment, and thus our will and God’s will increasingly coincide: God’s will is no longer for me an alien will, something imposed on me from without by the commandments, but it is now my own will, based on the realization that God is in fact more deeply present to me than I am to myself. Then self-abandonment to God increases and God becomes our joy.

Deus Caritas Est, 17.

 

As St. Basil the Great (d. 379) observed,

If we turn away from evil out of fear of punishment, we are in the position of slaves…If we obey for the sake of the good itself, and out of love for Him who commands, we are in the position of children.

 — Catechism paragraph 1828.

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

Engaging the Gospel – Fourth Sunday of Easter

Fourth Sunday of Easter: Gospel – John 10:1-10

Good Shepherd Sunday

While the image of Christ as the Good Shepherd is comforting, the Lord cautions us that the shepherd is not the only one who calls to the sheep – strangers, thieves, and robbers likewise call out to us, seeking to lure us away to our own harm.

How well do we recognize these voices, and distinguish them from the authentic voice of the Lord?

St. John Paul II has exhorted us to form our consciences according to the Lord’s truth, not according to the false ways of our contemporary culture:

Why do so many acquiesce in attitudes and behavior which offend human dignity and disfigure the image of God in us? …Is it because conscience itself is losing the ability to distinguish good from evil?

In a culture which holds that no universally valid truths are possible, nothing is absolute…Good comes to mean what is pleasing or useful at a particular moment. Evil means what contradicts our subjective wishes…

Do not give in to this widespread false morality…

Only by listening to the voice of God in your most intimate being, and by acting in accordance with its directions, will you reach the freedom you yearn for…

A re-birth of conscience must come from two sources: first, the effort to know objective truth with certainty, including the truth about God; and secondly, the light of faith in Jesus Christ, who alone has the words of Life…

Against all the forces of death, in spite of all the false teachers, Jesus Christ continues to offer humanity the only true and realistic hope. He is the world’s true Shepherd.

Address during Prayer Vigil, August 14, 1993.

Question for reflection: What “other voices” try to pull me away from the Lord’s fold?

Engaging the Gospel – Matthew 5:17-37

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time — Gospel: Matthew 5:17-37

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus fulfills the Law by intensifying its moral standards.

He “insists on conversion of heart” (Catechism paragraph 2608), showing us that we are accountable not only for our actions, but for our thoughts and words as well. In this way Jesus raises the bar, so to speak, on the sin of anger (2262), on purity of thought (2336), sanctity of marriage (2382), reverence for God’s name (2153), and being truthful (2466).

“The Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, far from abolishing or devaluing the moral prescriptions of the Old Law, releases their hidden potential and has new demands arise from them: it reveals their entire divine and human truth. It does not add new external precepts, but proceeds to reform the heart, the root of human acts, where man chooses between the pure and the impure” (1968).

Hence the New Law, the Law of the Gospel, “becomes the interior law of charity” (1965), teaching us what we ought to do (1966).

As St. Augustine wrote, the Sermon on the Mount is “the perfect way of the Christian life,” containing “all the precepts needed to shape one’s life” (quoted in 1966).

For this reason, the Sermon on the Mount is one guide to an examination of conscience, especially to prepare for the sacrament of Reconciliation (1454).

Question for reflection: How carefully do I guard my thoughts and my words?

Moral Law

Summary of Catechism paragraphs 1949-1986:

  • The moral law arises from God’s Wisdom; reflecting the harmonious beauty of His design for us, it points out the right path for us to take for our own good, and our ultimate happiness in eternal life.
  • Its elemental expression is “natural law,” referring to the moral compass inscribed within human nature and discernible by our reason.
  • Implanted in our hearts by God, natural law serves as the building block of civil law and social norms of morality.
  • But since our human nature has been wounded by sin, our ability to discern this natural law readily, and with clarity, has been weakened as well.
  • God, ever desirous of drawing us to Himself, has devised another expression of His Law, through divine revelation; as St Augustine phrased it, “God wrote on the tables of the Law what men did not read in their hearts.”
  • The first stage of this revealed Law was given to the people of Israel: the Law of Moses, enshrined in the Ten Commandments, builds on natural law and teaches us about right and wrong.
  • Although the Law of Moses defines sinful behavior, it does not strengthen us to overcome it; hence the Old Law serves as a preparation for the fullness of revelation in Christ.
  • Christ gives us the New Law, the perfection of divine Law on earth; He fulfills the Law of Moses by deepening the meaning of the Ten Commandments and by purifying our hearts.
  • The Law of the Gospel is a Law of love; of grace, for we are empowered by the Holy Spirit and the sacraments to live accordingly; and of freedom as God’s children, not as slaves.
  • Expressed most vividly in the Sermon on the Mount, the New Law is summed up in the Golden Rule, “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you,” and even more profoundly in Jesus’ new commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

Live Your Faith

The moral law is not a mere checklist of rules, imposed upon us from without.

Rather, it is deeply bound up in our design as human beings: we were created to live in intimacy with God, Whose perfect holiness is reflected in the moral law.

When we sin, we violate this very order within us, in ways that are self-defeating and self-destructive. But we have a sure way out through the grace of God, Who heals us and strengthens us.

As we grow in union with Christ, we become more like Him, and experience greater freedom to live the moral life that is best for us.

Freedom and Conscience

Summary of Catechism paragraphs 1691 through 1802:

  • Professing the truths of the faith, and receiving the sacraments, are only part of the Christian life; we must also put our beliefs into practice, and act upon sacramental grace, through our moral conduct; by striving to emulate Christ in our daily lives, we grow in friendship with Him.
  • Moral living enables us to flourish as human beings, and leads us to the true happiness – “beatitude” – that all desire; this universal thirst for happiness comes from God, Who alone can ultimately fulfill it, if we choose to follow His path.
  • God does not force Himself upon us, but instead wants us to choose Him out of our own free will; He gave us the dignity of being able to decide whether to pursue His way of life, for our own good, or to reject it, to our detriment.
  • Our freedom is just one way in which we are made in God’s image; through our gifts of intellect and will, we dictate our actions, and thereby incur responsibility for them; as morally free persons, we merit praise or blame for our choices.
  • Bad choices actually end up undermining our freedom; when we deliberately choose to do wrong, we abuse God’s gift of freedom and become attached to sin, to the point that it becomes a type of slavery; but when we use our freedom rightly in service of the good, we become more and more truly free.
  • We judge the morality of our acts by the object (what we do) and the intention (why we do it); a good intention never excuses an intrinsically wrong action, because the end doesn’t justify the means; at the same time, a bad intention can corrode an otherwise good action (e.g., performing a work just to brag about it).
  • The circumstances surrounding our acts can increase or diminish the degree of good, mitigate or aggravate the evil, and affect our level of responsibility; but circumstances cannot make an inherently wrong act right.
  • Our emotions are neither good nor evil in themselves, but our will can let them influence us to right or wrong acts.
  • Conscience is our innermost core where we judge the morality of our acts, while listening to God’s voice; we are called to heed the moral law inscribed in our hearts, and recognize how to apply it in concrete situations; after an honest and thorough examination, we have a sacrosanct right to abide by our conscience.
  • But following our conscience does not mean that we can willfully set aside God’s law and make up our own commandments; rather, our conscience must be well formed by the Word of God and the teaching of the Church.
  • Conscience can make erroneous judgments, possibly through ignorance of the right course, or more seriously, because of culpable negligence in seeking the truth, attitudes hardened by sin, lack of charity, or refusal to undergo conversion.

Live Your Faith

Freedom and conscience are watchwords in our culture, but do we actually understand the full depth of their meaning?

Freedom is not license, but the ability to choose the good. Conscience is not a loophole, but a gift to guide our moral decision-making. God’s law is not designed to oppress us, but to empower us to live the most fulfilled life.

Consider the importance of rules in a game or sport: the rules make it possible to enjoy the game, or else there would be anarchy, and no game at all. Even so, God’s law sets the guidelines to ensure the best experience on the playing field of life.