Are You My Brother?

Tuesday, Third Week in Ordinary Time

Readings

I’m going to resist the temptation to become entangled in the meaning of the word “brother” (αδελφοι in Greek) in today’s gospel. While it is a significant question, I want to focus on what is happening in this passage more than who, exactly, it is happening to. Mostly, I want to focus on how it applies to us today.

Let us instead start with: “arrived at the house.” What house? The same house in which Jesus rebuked the scribes for saying that he healed by the power of Satan as we read yesterday.

Jesus is in the middle of teaching when Mary and his family arrive and ask for him. His response seems to brush them off. What is really going on here?

It can be dangerous to assign motive and intent where none is given. But without it, this passage is just an awkward exchange through an intermediary between Mary and Jesus.

Saint John Chrysostom views this episode as Mary pushing her “Mom privilege” a little too far and being gently rebuked for it. That may be, but why did the Gospels feel the need to relay this scene if that is all that is happening? Saint Chrysostom keys us in, surmising that Jesus needed to convince Mary he was not only her son, but her Lord.*

Being the Mother of our Lord was a great privilege, but it also carried serious dangers. Not only the need to flee to Egypt when Christ was young, but spiritual dangers as well. The temptation to pride had to be enormous. Think of how we gush over our own children (or grandchildren). But Mary’s boy really was perfect, actually did walk on water.

This is where we come into the story. Jesus replied, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother.”

Being a brother of Christ, that is, a son of God, is not about bloodlines and family trees. It is about our actions. John the Baptist taught this, saying, “Do not presume to say we have Abraham as our father.” (Matthew 3:9) Jesus also challenged the idea of relational holiness: “They answered him and said to him, ‘Our Father is Abraham.’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works of Abraham.'” (John 8:39)

It did them no good to be related to Abraham unless they shared Abraham’s character. It does us no good to be affiliated with Christ unless we follow him with much diligence. The Scriptures and history are full of those offspring who did not walk in the way of their parents, but instead departed from their sound example and teaching.

But thanks be to God, we have the opportunity to be sons and daughters of God if we will obey his will. Just as Mary was chosen to bear Christ in the flesh, so we are predestined to bear him in our hearts and lives. May we be worthy of the promises of Christ.


*Homily 44 on Matthew

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A Fly in My Soup

Monday, Third Week of Ordinary Time

Readings

fly-in-soup

“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.”

What is the solution to this problem? Fresh ground pepper or some grated parmesan won’t fix the problem. Using locally-sourced organic mushrooms and onions won’t fix the problem. Serving the soup with homemade breadsticks won’t fix the problem.

What’s the solution? Remove the fly. Preferably, bring me a whole new bowl of soup without a fly.

Why doesn’t using better ingredients work? It doesn’t address the problem. We might think it does in the abstract. How do you make better soup? Better ingredients! But if the issue is contaminated soup, adding better ingredients will only waste those ingredients because there is still a fly in the soup.

We know presentation is important. That’s part of the appeal of a fancy dinner. Often the food isn’t much different. But serving the soup in a nice bowl with a table cloth, candlelight, and soft music won’t fix our soup problem either.

There are problems with soup that have to do with what is in the soup and what is not in the soup. If something that should not be in the soup is in there, we have a whole different problem than forgetting to add salt. We can add salt pretty easily, but it is impossible to take salt out if there is too much. In the case of the fly, the only really acceptable solution is to throw the soup out, wash the pot, and start over.

No one can enter a strong man’s house to plunder his property unless he first ties up the strong man.

There are fundamental needs that must be addressed in the life of the spirit before we can make any real progress. Otherwise, to change the metaphor, all we are really doing is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Jesus is telling his detractors, “You have a fundamental problem. You are going to be incapable of understanding what I am doing and how I am doing it until this problem is fixed.”

What was their problem? They were attributing the working of Christ to Satan. They claimed he was cleansing with filth, purifying with impurity. He was getting the fly out of the soup with a cockroach.

But that is not the case. Jesus says this doesn’t even make any sense. Why would Satan allow another demon to work against him? He wouldn’t. You have to be able to see that “every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father .” (James 1:17)

Why am I not making any progress in my spiritual life? There can be many reasons, but one common cause is that you have a strong man running amok in your house. It might be an addiction or some sin that you just cannot seem to shake.

The solution is not adding something to your life. You need to root out the fly in the soup.

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Weapons of War

Wednesday Second Week of Ordinary Time

Readings

David slew Goliath; Jesus healed a man with a withered hand. Could there be a more jarring juxtaposition of passages?

These are both great texts from Scripture. They are stories most of us know. But what do they have in common? On the surface, not much. But that’s because we focus on the withered hand and not the Pharisees.

Warfare. That is the unifying theme. It’s blatant in the passage from First Samuel. Spears and swords, shields and slings. Taunts, attacks, and death. But it is there in the Gospel as well.

Jesus walked into an ambush in this particular synagogue. The Pharisees are lying in wait to see if Jesus will heal on the Sabbath, if he will act contrary to their interpretation of the Law, so that they might accuse him.

Just as David walked out onto the frontlines before Goliath, Jesus calls the man with the withered hand up to the front of the synagogue. Just as David answered Goliath’s taunts with his steadfast faith in God, so Jesus stands firm and questions the Pharisees.

“Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?”

David is offended at Goliath’s blasphemy and taunting. Jesus is grieved at the hardness of hearts.

Silence. Movement. The clash is imminent.

A stone flies. Jesus speaks, “Stretch out your hand.”

The giant falls. The man is restored.

The Philistines break in fear and run. The Pharisees break in anger and plot to put Jesus to death. This is only the third chapter of Mark, yet they have already decided Jesus must die. It takes until chapter 14 for their plot to come to fruition.

Because we know Jesus triumphed, it is easy to forget the struggle. But we need to understand his struggle so we can understand our own.

We have an enemy. He seeks our destruction just as surely as Goliath wanted to slaughter David. But the Lord, our rock, trains our hands for battle, our fingers for war.

It seems odd that the Psalmist chose to focus solely on our hands. Certainly in war arms and legs are important as well? Perhaps he was being unintentionally prophetic. We clasp our hands in prayer. We work the beads with our fingers. These are the weapons of our warfare. Prayer, confession, contemplation.

We do not casually arrive at the conviction to stand before a giant with a stick and a sling. Jesus had spent years in silent preparation. We know of his 40 days in the wilds, but of what went before, the Gospels are mostly silent.

David did not come against his enemy in his own strength. He declared, “I come against you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel.” Without him we can do nothing. (John 15:5). Our only strength is in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. May we abandon ourselves to God for his glory.

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Follow Him

4 January

Readings

I can imagine John a bit frustrated as he stands with two of his disciples when Jesus walks buy. His entire ministry had been pointing to Christ’s coming. Now, Jesus had come and had been baptized, proclaimed, and heralded from heaven. Yet John still has disciples following him.

“Behold the Lamb of God.” Nudge, nudge. There he is, guys. He’s the one, not me. Go follow him.

Now they follow after Jesus.

“Rabbi, where are you staying?”

“Come and you will see.”

Andrew soon afterward goes to his brother Peter. “We have found the Messiah.”

How did Andrew know this? On the testimony of John. As John’s disciple, Andrew believed what his teacher said. He believed him enough to leave John in order to follow the teacher he pointed to.

That is a significant act for both student and teacher. For the teacher, it means having the self-awareness and humility to know, “I have taken you as far as I can; now you must be entrusted to another.”

For the student, it means leaving the familiar and beginning again with a new teacher. While it may be a progression of subject matter, there will be different styles of instruction, different idiosyncrasies, different expectations to adapt to.

But sometimes it is worth it. Your teacher recommends someone who you have heard of, who the really good students all study with. It is a compliment to be thought worthy of studying with such a teacher.

This seems to be the case with Andrew. He goes to his brother Simon. “We have found the Messiah.” He’s taking disciples. This is a great chance!

Simon and Andrew return. Jesus looks at this newcomer.

“You are Simon the son of John; you will be called Peter.” Jesus not only knows who this new follower is, he proclaims that he will be transformed by his time with the master. His given name meant listening; some sources say it can also mean little hyena. His new name was to be rock.

Andrew and Peter became early disciples of the Lamb of God, the Messiah, the Son of God revealed to destroy the works of the Devil. These two men had made a serious choice. Exactly how the Messiah’s coming would play out, they couldn’t know for sure, but at the least they expected there to be clashes with the Romans.

Nothing has changed with following Christ. It is still a serious commitment. It may cost us our family, our country, our very lives. To stand with Jesus is to stand against the powers and principalities of this age. To follow Jesus is to thumb our noses at the devil and walk out on him, with all the danger that leaving an abusive, manipulative relationship entails. We will be pursued.

But we, unlike Andrew and Simon at this early encounter, know the rest of the story. Upon this rock, I will build my Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Satan can’t hold us if we are following Christ.

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The Lamb of God

3 January

Readings

The Lamb of God

“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

For as well-known as this metaphor is, it is surprising that today’s passage in John is the only mention of it in the Gospels.

Despite this relative obscurity in the Gospels, it is a powerful image because it draws on so much of Israel’s history. The lamb sacrificed during the Passover carried much symbolism with it, especially of protection and deliverance, as the lamb’s blood was smeared on the door frames of the Israelites’ dwellings as a signal to the angel sent to kill every firstborn in Egypt that these houses were to be spared.

The sacrifice of lambs was a central act in the Jewish temple, used for many different offerings. From purification after childbirth to purification after being healed from leprosy, lambs were the prescribed sacrificial animal.

Jesus also appears in Revelation as a Lamb who was slain. He is the only one found worthy to open the sealed scroll. He is worthy because he shed his own blood in love and obedience.

This is surely a significant portion of what it means to be the Lamb of God. It was not that Jesus came as a God-sized lamb to be a big enough sacrifice to purify all of humanity from their sins. Jesus was not lamb-zilla.

We must change our point of view and consider it through the lamb’s eyes. Lambs are fairly docile creatures by nature. They are easily led by shepherds and sheep dogs. They don’t have to be tamed like horses. They are trusting creatures, allowing themselves to be led to slaughter without fear or anxiety.

In the same way, we see Jesus as the Lamb of God. He was a lamb because he was gentle and meek. Indeed, he lived at least part of his life a bit like a lamb, without a home, wandering around the Judean country side.

Jesus is the Lamb of God because he allowed himself to be offered as a sacrifice for us out of love for the Father and love for us. He became a target for death, and by allowing himself to be swallowed by death, he destroyed its power.

This relates to today’s Epistle reading as well. John is discussing how we are children of God, how we know that those who act righteously are begotten by God. As we draw closer to the Lamb, we can’t help but come closer to each other. Two people walking toward the same spot, no matter where they begin, cannot help but become closer as they close on their objective.

So too with us, as we draw closer to the Lamb of God, we are drawn together by him and in him and for him. We become one with him and with each other in unity and holiness. May we continue to work for that day when we will all be one with the Lamb before the throne.

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Quiet Anna

30 December

Readings

Anna is easy to just pass over. Simeon immediately precedes her and gives us the Nunc Dimittis which we recite every evening during Compline. But Anna, as far as we are concerned, is mute.

In today’s Gospel, we learn a bit about her lineage. She is of the tribe of Asher and her father was Phanuel, which means “face of God.”  She was widowed when still a young woman, being married only 7 years before her husband died. She spent the rest of her life in the temple, about 60 years by the time we meet her.

Joseph and Mary come to the temple to present their offering and while they are there, Anna comes forward at that very time and gives thanks to God.

That may be Anna’s lesson for us. If we zoom out and consider the temple, we see a busy place with people coming to offer sacrifices and pray. It was a gathering place, so those seeking disciples for their cause would be present to teach or debate. We know that merchants took the opportunity to sell their wares in the courts as well: animals for offerings and money exchange so the temple tax could be paid in the proper currency.

In the midst of this hustle and bustle of another day in the temple, a family comes with their firstborn for the offering. But this one is different. The very presence of God has just been carried into the temple by this Galilean couple. The actual body and blood of the Lord, the one who was to be the Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world, is in the midst of the temple. And no one notices except Simeon and Anna.

How does Anna know?

Sixty years of prayer and fasting didn’t hurt anything.

We don’t know a word that Anna said, but we know that she acknowledged Christ. Her reward, at least in part, is a cameo in sacred scripture.

Simeon is pretty straightforward; he says words and we can try to understand them. Anna is a bit of a mystery; she just is. We have to observe and that takes time. We do not have any sound bites to quickly decide if we like her or not.

For me at least, the lesson of Anna today is to remind me to be humble and come to Scripture to learn. We cannot always learn in a hurry. Sometimes we must be willing to sit, listen, and ponder.

The hustle and bustle of the holidays is assumed, and most of us live with a certain amount of frenzy every day. We do well to run into a quiet Anna who doesn’t play our fast paced games. The way to learn from her is imitation. Fast and pray. Sit and ponder. Maybe for sixty years. When reading scripture, ask God, “What are you trying to tell me?” instead of asking myself, “What can I say about this?”

Anna, be patient with us, that we may learn your patience.

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Filed under Contemplation, Humility

According to the Law

29 December

Readings

We see Mary and Joseph expressing their love of God, according to our first reading, by keeping his commandments. In Leviticus 12, we find instructions for women after childbirth. Since most people don’t read Leviticus often enough, I’ll quote the entire passage here:

The LORD said to Moses, “Say to the people of Israel, If a woman conceives, and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. Then she shall continue for thirty-three days in the blood of her purifying; she shall not touch any hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying are completed. But if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her menstruation; and she shall continue in the blood of her purifying for sixty-six days.

“And when the days of her purifying are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the door of the tent of meeting a lamb a year old for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering, and he shall offer it before the LORD, and make atonement for her; then she shall be clean from the flow of her blood. This is the law for her who bears a child, either male or female. And if she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for her, and she shall be clean.”

Leviticus 12:1-8

What does this tell us? It reveals that Jesus had already been circumcised on the eighth day and that the events in today’s Gospel reading happened 40 days after Jesus was born. There was no explicit requirement for this purification to take place at the temple. However, since Bethlehem is only a few miles from Jerusalem, why not?

We can also surmise that the Magi had not yet visited. How do we arrive at that? By the offering they make; no lamb is sacrificed. Joseph and Mary make the offering for those who cannot afford a lamb. Presumably, if they had already received gold, frankincense, and myrrh, they would have sprung for the lamb.

We also see obedience and humility, two virtues that cannot exist in isolation from each other. Joseph and Mary are obedient to the Law. And they are humble in their obedience. They don’t claim any privilege or do anything showy because they happen to have the Messiah in their arms. Simeon calls attention to them and their son, but they do not.

Our lesson from all this? Loving God is most often demonstrated in the mundane, routine acts of our days and years, even for Joseph and Mary. They attended when they were to attend and they gave what they were to give. Humility and obedience.

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