Jesus: King of the Universe, Lord of our Lives

CHRIST THE KING (C); November 24, 2019

2 Sm 5:1-3   Ps 122   Col 1:12-20   Lk 23: 35-43

Deacon Jim McFadden

 

Today we come to the end of the liturgical year, the Solemnity of our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. The Gospel from Luke presents the kingship of Jesus as the culmination of his saving work, but does so in a very surprising way: “The Christ of God, the Chosen One, the King” (Lk 23:35,37). He does not appear with overwhelming dominative power in which he lords it over his subjects as most worldly leaders do. Their way of ruling is often times based on fear, intimidation, and the manipulation of people’s fears, anxieties, and expectations. But, Jesus is a king in a strange new way. His kingdom is not sustained by arrogance, self-absorption, rivalries, and oppression. Rather, the reign of Christ, as we say in the Preface at Mass, is a “kingdom of justice, love, and peace.” Jesus will bring all of this about by revealing himself as king.

But, the Lucan Gospel has Jesus on the Cross, where he seems more like a conquered, tortured, deflated figure rather than a conqueror. We need to pay attention because Jesus’ kingship is paradoxical. His throne is the Cross! His crown is made of thorns; he has no scepter, but a reed put into his hand; he does not have purple luxurious clothing, but is stripped naked; he wears no shiny rings, but his wrists are pierced with nails; he has no treasure, but is sold for thirty pieces of silver, the going price of a slave.

Jesus on the Cross: that is where we gather and pay him homage. When we stand before the crucified Christ, we cannot see anything but astonishing, gratuitous love If you want to know just how much God loves you, gaze upon the crucified Christ. We will see a love that remains steadfast and complete, even in the face of rejection and ridicule. We will see how Jesus mercifully pours God’s unconditional love into our hearts. Jesus’ whole life was expended in the total surrender of himself to the Father so that we may be saved and share in his divine life now and forever.

Many people then and now just don’t get it. Yes, we believe that Jesus is the King of the Universe, as we hear in the soaring words from Paul’s letter to the Colossians. But, that would mean very little if we did not make Jesus Lord of our lives: all of this is empty if we do not personally accept Jesus and make him the Center of our lives; in so doing, we also accept his way of being king. The people in today’s Gospel help us to attain clarity. In addition to Jesus, there are types of figures who appear: the people who are looking on, those near the Cross, and the criminal crucified next to Jesus.

First, the people: Luke says that “the people stood by watching” (v. 35). No one says a word, no one draws any closer. They keep their distance, just observing. These people may have been the ones who were pressing Jesus to do something for them—to heal them or feed them. With Jesus impaled on the Cross, they just keep their distance. How about us? Given the circumstances of our life when our expectations are frustrated or unfulfilled, we too can keep our distance from Jesus’ kingship. If we relate to Jesus to have our needs met, then we will miss the scandal of his humble love, which unsettles and disturbs us. So, we prefer to keep Jesus at a distance, rather than draw near and to be with him. But, a people who are called to be holy (as we were anointed at our baptism) will follow Jesus’ way of self-giving, humble love. Keeping their gaze on Jesus, rather than themselves, they ask each day: “What does love ask of me, where is it urging me to go? What answer am I giving Jesus with the way I live my life?”

The second group of people includes the leaders of the people, the soldiers, and a criminal. They all mock Jesus. As he is dying, they provoke him by saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself” (v. 37). These people are worse than the first because they are tempting Jesus, just as the Devil did at the beginning of his ministry in the desert. They want Jesus to give up reigning as his Father wants, but instead rule according to the world’s ways: to come down from the Cross and destroy his enemies! If you are God, Jesus, show your power and superiority by doing something dramatic. This temptation is a direct attack on Love: “save yourself” (vv. 37,39), not others. Assert your kingship with dominant power, assert your glory with a spectacular display of superiority, claim your victory by crushing your enemies. That’s what we’d do and we and we want Jesus to do the same.

This is a terrible temptation, which is the first and last of the Gospel. Jesus could do all of that, but then he wouldn’t be the Son of God. When confronted with this attack on his very way of being, Jesus does not speak, he does not react. He does not defend himself, he does not try to convince, he does not mount a last dying gasp of defense. Instead, Jesus continues to love; he forgives, he lives this moment of trial according to his Father’s will, which is what his whole life was about. Why? Knowing who God is, Jesus was certain that love will bear fruit.

In order to embrace the kingship of Jesus, we are called to resist this temptation as well. We are called to keep our gaze on the Crucified Jesus, to become ever more faithful to him. How many times do we try to have it both ways. We say that Jesus is Lord, but we cover our bets by seeking the comforts and assurances offered by the world. As members of the Body of Christ, the Church, how often are we tempted to come down from our Cross giving into the lure of power, success, and hedonistic pleasure? Are we content just to profess being Catholic while forgetting how the Kingdom of God works? Namely, to operate as God does by sharing our lives with others through the works of mercy, especially to the anawim—the poor, marginalized, and broken.

In the Gospel there is another person, who is closer to Jesus and that’s the thief , who understood the full magnitude of Jesus’s kingship; he begs him: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”(v. 42). This person, simply by looking at the crucified and dying Jesus, saw something in him. In the agony of Jesus’ dying, he saw meekness and mercy. The kingship of Jesus does not oppress us like worldly kingdoms do. Instead, his Kingdom frees us from our weaknesses and miseries, encouraging us to walk according to his reign—which is the path of forgiveness, mercy, and reconciliation.

So, let us look at the Cross of Jesus just as the “good thief” did. Together with him let us say, “Jesus, remember me when you come into kingdom” (v. 42). Let us live confidently surrounded by God’s incredible love. Let us take the graces we have received during this liturgical year and let us be the face of compassionate , merciful love.

Just as Jesus replied to the Good Thief “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (v. 43), we too can live now and forever in Jesus kingdom. Amen.

 

 

 

My Own Special Possession

33rd Sunday in O.T. (C); November 17, 2019

Mal 3:19-20a   Ps 98   2 Thes 3:7-12   Lk 21:5-19

Deacon Jim McFadden; SJB

 

         “And they shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, my own special possession…And I will have compassion on them” (Mal 3:17): these words come to us from the last page of last Old Testament prophet, Malachi. They are directed to those who trust in the Lord, who don’t put their trust in world princes, but put their hope in Him alone. They are the ones who see in God life’s the greatest and ultimate good: God is their Center; hence, they refuse to live only for themselves, for their tribal, parochial, and nationalistic interests. For they are the ones who are living the First Beatitude—“Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours” (Lk 6:20). While they are poor, they are, nonetheless, rich in God. For them, the sun of justice will rise.

The prophet Malachi contrasts them with the proud and arrogant, who seek a secure life in their independent self-sufficiency and earthly possessions. The last page of the Old Testament cuts to the quick by raising the challenging questions about the ultimate meaning of life: where or whom do I find my ultimate security? Do I find it in the Lord Jesus or in the goods of the world of wealth, prestige, hedonistic pleasure, and dominative power?   Where is my life headed? What does my heart long for? Do I hunger for the Lord of Life or the ephemeral things that cannot possibly satisfy?

Similar questions appear in today’s Gospel reading from Luke. Jesus is in Jerusalem for the last and most important page in his earthly life: his death and resurrection, which will culminate his Mission.   He is in the precincts of the Temple “adorned with noble stones and offerings” (Lk 21:5). People are speaking of the beauty of the Temple, the epicenter of Jewish worship, much the same way that people talk about St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Jesus takes the occasion to say that “The days will come when there shall not be left here one stone upon another” (v. 6).   He adds to this sobering forecast that there will be no lack of conflicts, famine, convulsions on earth and in the heavens.

How do we respond to such uncertainty, destruction, and chaos? Jesus does not want to frightened us. Indeed, he is always telling us to not be afraid. I believe what our Lord is telling us is that everything we now see will inevitably pass away. Even the strongest kingdoms, the most formidable nations, the most sacred buildings and the surest realities of this world they do not last forever; sooner or later they fall, they give out, to be replaced by something else. That is the challenge of living the Gospel, because once you become a Kingdom person, you can never absolutize any system, least of all your own fabrication.

In response, people immediately put two questions to Jesus: “When will this be, and what will be the sign?” (v. 7). When and what: we are constantly driven by curiosity because we want to remain in control. But Jesus does not care for such curiosity because he is always calling us to live in the present. Suppose we knew for certain the date the world was going to end and what the signs would be. What difference would it make? We already know the end of story: through the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, sin and death have been conquered and everything will be reconciled in Jesus. So, what we have is the present, and it is now that we live the Gospel.

            In today’s readings Jesus is questioning us about the meaning of our lives. Using an image from our Gold Rush history, the readings serve as a sluice or strainer through which our life can be poured: they remind us that nearly everything in our life is passing away. But, what remains is a few gold nuggets. There are some realities that remain and will not pass away, like precious nuggets in the sluice.   O.K., what is it that endures, what has ultimate value in life, what riches don’t disappear. Two things: the Lord and our neighbor. These two, the basis of the Great Commandment, never disappear! They are the greatest goods; these are to be loved. Everything else—the Earth, the heavens, St. Peter’s Basilica—will pass away; but we must never exclude God or others from our lives.

Today, though, so much of our existence is about exclusion, keeping other people away as we cling to our factional precinct. We view others through the prism of my expectations, needs, and fears; we exploit others as objects of my gratification whether it be economic, political, or social. What we lose sight of is that human beings are precious. The human person is set by God at the pinnacle of his Creation. But, in our throwaway culture, human beings are aborted, exploited, discarded in favor of ephemeral things. Brothers and sisters, this is unacceptable because in God’s eyes mankind is the most precious good. It is ominous that we are getting used to seeing human beings objectified and rejected.   We should we worried when our consciences are so anaesthetized that we no longer see other human beings as our brothers and sisters suffering at our side or notice the grave problems of our world as we distract ourselves with mindless entertainment.

People of God at SJB, let us never forget that we are God’s “own special possession” and so is the person sitting to your left and right. Let us stay and abide with the Lord Jesus here and now and enthusiastically live the Great Commandment. Let us be lovers, delighters, and positive builders of the Kingdom of God right here and now! Amen.

Naaman, the Syrian

28th Sunday in O.T. (C); October 13, 2019

2 Kgs 5:14-17   Ps 98   2 Tim 2:8-13   Lk 17:11-19

Deacon Jim McFadden

 

From a worldly perspective, the worst thing a powerful person can do is admit his/her weakness to others. As we scan our political landscape, humility is in short supply. That’s one reason so many people, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, find Pope Francis so disarming. But, powerful people usually don’t do this because they fear that they’ll lose their power. Naaman the Syrian is a man of power, but he, unlike today’s politicos, is an example of humility. He does not let embarrassment stand in the way of admitting to his weakness. By doing so, he’s healed and offers praise to God. Like Naaman, admitting one’s weakness is the first step to proper worship.

The 2 Kings story has to do with Naaman, an army commander of the King of Syria. Naaman is a person of power and success, two of the major goods of the world that so many of us crave. But underneath this veneer of prowess, he has a thorn in his flesh in that he suffers from leprosy. From a slave girl he hears about prophets of Israel who are able to effect cures and he sends for information. This is a dangerous move because the general was sending scouts to a rival country to initiate a dialogue. Think of the Cold War: what would have happened if the head of the Joint Chief of Staffs made an unauthorized overture to the Soviet Union? It would have created suspicion on both sides. But, Naaman is desperate for a cure, so he’s checking it out. He has nothing to lose.

So, Naaman sends a message to the King of Israel to see whether he could come into the country to be cured. But, the King is suspicious because he just couldn’t believe that a Syrian army commander would admit his weakness and seek a cure from a rival.

Meanwhile, Elisha, the successor of Elijah, the prophet, gets wind of the request and he invites Naaman to come. The powerful man responds favorably, wherein Elisha gives him very precise instructions: “Go and wash seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will heal, and you will be clean (2 Kgs 5:10b).

Now, at point, the pride of Naaman kicks in: before he had humbled himself, but now he becomes indignant: “I thought that he would move his hand over the spot, and thus cure the leprosy. Are not the rivers of Damascus…better than all the rivers in Israel?” (v. 11c).

But, Naaman is desperate; he overcomes his pride and does what Elisha asks and is cleansed. When he realizes what has happened to him, he comes to Elisha and professes faith in Elisha’s God.

Finally, he asks for something extraordinary: “Let me have two mule loads of earth, for I will no longer offer holocausts to any other god except to the Lord” (v. 17b). The point is that God could only be worshiped on the land of the people who honor that God, hence the request for the loads of earth.

O.K., one could say that this is an interesting story from an ancient time, but why should we pay attention to it 2019. Let’s take a look at this story from a symbolic, spiritual level. As we know leprosy was especially dreaded in ancient times, because there was no known cure. At a metaphorical level, it could stand for any disfigurement, not just of the body, but of the mind or spirit. It’s a good symbol for anything that in you, on you, that’s in your heart, in your mind that is dysfunctional or disfiguring. I would suggest that we’re all like Naaman in some respect: we have a disfigurement that needs healing.

Did you catch the seemingly small detail how Naaman first heard about the Israelite prophets who have healing powers? He heard it from an Israelite slave. That means that his armies had ventured into Israel and they’ve taken certain people away, including this girl. There was no one lower on the social scale than a slave. On top of that, women in antiquity were seen as second class citizens. Therefore, to be a slave girl was about as low as one could get. The point is that Naaman, the great Syrian general has the humility to listen to her. She becomes for him the bearer of the divine message.

Brothers and sisters, we never know in advance who is going to be the bearer of God’s words to us. If we’re too arrogant, sophisticated to listen, then we might miss the message. Naaman, like our Holy Father Francis, has the great virtue of humility, which sets him in the direction of healing.

We heard that the King of Israel was suspicious of him and tries to block him. The road to healing is always blocked. It is never a straight path: just ask anyone who has embraced the 12 Steps to recovery. When you start down the path of walking towards healing from your “leprosy”, know that you will encounter barriers and constraints, both externally and internally. There are always forces that are arranged against divine grace. Expect opposition and don’t be put off by it. We not only have to have the humility to be healed, but also the perseverance to hang in there because it’s a process not a one-and-done event.

Finally, when he gets his instructions from Elisha, it doesn’t make much sense at first: “What do you mean to jump n and out of a river in Israel. Aren’t there better rivers in my own country? And, how will all this jumping in a river help my leprosy?” When you are spiritually lost and when you come across a spiritual master, what the person tells you will often seem bizaare. Why? We’re debilitated—that’s what the leprosy symbolizes. When the master speaks from his rich spiritual experience, out of his wise spiritual consciousness, what he or she tells you will seem very strange. The point is: trust the process; trust the word that’s coming from the spiritual master.

So, Naaman, though his pride has been stirred, does have the humility to cooperate with grace and he does what Elisha asks. If you’re lost and you’re wrestling with leprosy that’s in you, listen to the Church with her two thousands years of accumulated wisdom. Listen even if what she says seems strange or bizaare

Finally, Naaman is cured and then he’s lead to worship—that’s why he asked for the loads of earth to take back to his own country that he might worship the true God. Worship is the whole point of life—it’s the reason fro the spiritual journey. Once we’ve been healed of our disfigurement, sin, depression, dysfunction—whatever it is—then we are free to orient our lives utterly to God where we give Him right praise. That’s why the Holy Mass is so central to Catholics because it is the “source and summit” of our Christian life. Once you’ve been cured, you’re ready for the heart of the matter, which is to give God praise and glory.

People of God, when you read the story of Naaman from 2 Kings, note his progress and see his story as a microcosm of the spiritual journey. Amen.