Married to God

The Wedding Feast of Cana

2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time (C); 1-20-19

Is 62:1-5   Ps 96   1 Cor 12:4-11   Jn 2:1-11

Deacon Jim McFadden; (New) Folsom Prison & SJB


            St. Paul has compared the relationship between Christ and his Church as that of a bridegroom and his bride (cf. Ephesians 5:22-33). What that means is that God loves us so much that he wants to be married to each and everyone of us. “The two shall become one” (Genesis 2:24; John 17:21). Amazing!

We hear suggestions of this unique relationship in the first reading taken from the prophet Isaiah who is addressing the desperate Israelite exiles in Babylon. After suffering decades of degradation in which they lost everything—their freedom, land, kingdom, king, and Temple—which was brought about by their infidelity, the people were finally coming home. Isaiah says, “Nations shall behold your vindication and all kings your glory; you shall be called by a new name….no more shall you be called ‘Forsaken’ nor your land ‘desolate’” (Isaiah 62:2,4).

How shameful it must have been for the Israelites: they were God’s “treasured people from all the nations” (Deuteronomy 14:2); now, they are conquered, exiled, and enslaved. In the midst of this utter loss, we hear these extraordinary words from Isaiah: “For the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be espoused. For as a young man marries a virgin; your Builder shall marry you” (Is 62:4c-5a).

People of God, these striking words may contain the heart of biblical spirituality: the Creator of the entire Cosmos, with its billions of galaxies, wants to marry his people. He want to marry you. He will share his life, the richness of his very being. In so doing, “the two shall become one”. This is the crux of Scripture because is not a deist abstract substance detached from humanity. Nor, is he a blind force a la Star Wars or an amorphous cosmic energy shown in Avatar. No, the God of revelation acts and moves within history and declares his intention to marry Israel. I can’t imagine Luke Skywalker saying that.

As we move into the Gospel, let us keep in mind that Jesus is Immanuel, God among us. He is Yahweh in the Flesh. So, harking back to Isaiah, we shouldn’t be surprised that motifs of weddings and marriage frequently come up in his ministry. We see it today in the unforgettable story of the Wedding Feast of Cana in John’s gospel.

At first blush, it seems like a very modest way for Jesus to begin his public ministry as he’s asked to solve a very practical problem of a wine shortage that is causing the host awkward embarrassment. But, when you look at the bigger spiritual picture, it seems altogether appropriate that his first miracle should take place at a wedding and would involve the increase of wine. Look, Jesus is the Word made Flesh; he is the joining, the marriage of humanity and divinity in his very Person. He is the coming together, the wedding of Heaven and Earth.

Jesus’ mother is the first one to speak in today’s gospel. She says simply and directly, “They have no wine” (John 2:3). Since wedding parties lasted for days, running out of wine would have been profoundly embarrassing, especially as the partiers would drift away. So, Jesus is being asked to do something practical and make things better. But, read from a symbolic, spiritual level there is much more at work here.

Wine in the Bible is a symbol of exuberance, of intoxication of the divine life. Just as we experience at Communion the Real Presence of Christ within us, we are lifted up, rendered joyful, transfigured—our minds and hearts are renewed. Think of the effect that good wine has on you: you experience a buoyant, uplifting feeling. That’s the power of the divine spirit operating within us when we are filled with his grace.

So, when Mary says, “They have no wine,” she’s not talking about a practical, social problem. Mary is alluding to a great lack of Israel, indeed, of the entire human race. We’ve run out of joyfulness, the exuberance that comes from being in union with God. Like the Israelites in the Babylonian Captivity, we’ve run out of the divine life because of our infidelity as we pursue false idols. We’re no longer uplifted, exuberant, or transformed by God. Instead, we are alienated from God and each other and creation. The Great Divorce has resulted in “no more wine.”

            When we hear this story from a spiritual and symbolic standpoint, we can understand why Jesus refers to his other as ‘woman’: “Jesus said to her, ‘woman, how does your concern affect me?’” (v. 4). At the literal level, we can be easily mislead that he is being curt of disrespectful. Don’t take it that way. He’s addressing her the title that was first given to Eve, the mother of all the living, who is the archetypal woman of the Old Testament. Mary is now the archetypal woman of the New Testament. She will be the spiritual mother of a renewed humanity as Eve was the mother of fallen humanity.

Mary represents all of suffering humanity, all of suffering Israel and they are asking for new wine, for grace.

Her next line is the last words that she will utter in the New Testament, and what an instructive line it is: “Do whatever he tells you” (v. 5). Sure, at the descriptive level, she’s instructing the stewards to follow Jesus’ instructions. But, at the symbolic level, Mary is the voice that echoes throughout Salvation History. She is the voice of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, the Judges, and King David. She is the voice of the prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Amos, and Micah—who called Israel to fidelity and obedience: do whatever God calls you to do and you will find life even if the commandment is harsh and painful.

That’s the hinge, isn’t it? Fidelity and obedience. God sent the prophets one after the other to tell Israel what to do. Was God being bossy? No; he wants them to have life. The trouble is that the people did not do what God told them. That’s why they were in Exile.

So, here’s Mary summing up all those great figures, saying simply, “Do whatever he tells you.” What happens when we do? We’ll find wine that we’ve been missing.

Jesus then instructs the servants to fill the six stone water jars that were used for ceremonial washing and fill them to the brim. Again, this may seem like a small detail to keep the story going, but the jars are evocative of the entire Jewish religion—all the ways that the Israelites tried to make themselves pleasing to God. Mind you, Jesus is not disconnecting what preceded him. Jesus is a practicing Jew. More to it, God himself is the author of the Law, the Torah, and Jesus himself is divine. So, Jesus does not dismiss the Law, but he fulfills it: he elevates and transfigures it. Jesus wants human beings to bring all that they are and that they have, all their powers and rituals to the table. Then he changes it; he elevates it into wine of the divine life.

And, look at how much wine there is. Over 360 gallons—an overflowing abundance! Brothers and sisters, when we are grafted onto the divine life, when we are married to God, life never runs out! There’s the message.

That’s why this story is described as the first of Jesus’ Signs. Join yourself to the divine and good wine will never run out. Amen.

Baptism: the Door to the Spiritual Life

The Baptism of the Lord (C); January 13, 2019
Is 40:1-11 Ps 29 Ti 2:11-14; 3:4-7 Lk 3:15-22
Deacon Jim McFadden

In celebration of the Baptism of the Lord, it is a good occasion to reflect upon this most basic Sacrament of the Church. Since most of us have been baptized, it defines our relationship with Jesus and links us to one another.
One of the earliest descriptions of Baptism was promulgated at the Council of Florence (1314), which described it as “the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to the life in the Spirit” (vitae spiritualis ianua). Baptism is the way in; it’s the foundation; it’s the precondition for an authentically spiritual life. To appreciate this is to understand what is fundamentally distinct about Christianity. Our religion is not primarily about becoming a good person or doing the right thing or, in the words of Flannery O’Connor “having a heart of gold.” Such virtues are not peculiar to Christians as a Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or even a pagan could aspire to the same things. Don’t get me wrong: if one is striving to be authentically Christian, then they will become a good person, who has a heart of gold. But, that’s not distinctive to Christianity.
Then what its? To be a Christian is to be grafted onto Christ and, in so doing, to enter into the very dynamics of the inner life of God. Doing good things, having a heart of gold—great, but they will flow from joined to our Lord.
As Christians, we don’t talk about following Jesus or imitating him as important as those are. Rather, we speak of being initiated into Christ’s very being—of being a member of his mystical Body and therefore, we share in the same relationship that he has with his Father. That’s what decisive about Christianity. Jesus is the Son of God by nature. We become via baptism the sons and daughters of God by adaption. That’s why it’s important to say that we’re baptized “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Indeed, without that Trinitarian formula, the action is not valid.
So, Baptism is tied to the Trinity. Why? Baptism draws us into the relationship between the Father and the Son. We become sons and daughters of the Father through our relationship with Jesus and we do so in the Holy Spirit, who is the “Lord and giver of life.”
Baptism, in a word, is all about grace. It’s about the breakthrough of the divine life. It’s about our incorporation through the power of God’s love into God’s own very life. Do you see why this is much more intriguing than just being a nice person? To be sure, I want you to be a good person, I don’t want you to cut people off in traffic. But, becoming a member of the Body of Christ is so much more intriguing, exciting, challenging, and puzzling than the other aspiration. Through Baptism we’ve been grafted onto Christ and, therefore, we share in the very life of God.
Think for a second that whenever you pray as a Catholic, you bless yourself “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” By doing so, you’re signifying your Baptismal identity in a certain way. You see, you’re not praying to God; you’re not outside of God, but you are inside of God. You’re praying in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—which means you are an active participant in the Body of Christ; as such, you are sharing in the dynamism of the Holy Spirit—that’s Christian prayer!
Listen to what Gregory of Nazianzus (329-389 a.d.), one of the Cappadocian Fathers who made tremendous contributions to the doctrine of the Trinity, who said in the 4th century, “Baptism is God’s most beautiful and magnificent gift. It’s called gift because it’s conferred on those who bring nothing of their own. It’s called grace because it’s given even to the guilty.”
Isn’t that beautiful?! Baptism is pure gift and we bring nothing in exchange to merit it! You see, when we fall prey to a transactional view of religion, that if I do this and that, then God will love me. By the same token, if I do bad things, God will stop loving me. If we embrace a ‘reward/punishment’ view of Catholicism, we get into a bad spiritual space because religion becomes about us. Baptism is pure gift to those who bring nothing of their own. It’s grace and grace given even to the guilty. It’s not that I can say, “I’m innocent or I’m a good person or I have earned my spiritual merit badges and therefore, I am worthy of God’s love.” No!—grace is given to the guilty and fellow sinners, we are all guilty. As Jesus said his heavenly Father “makes his sun rise on the bad and good alike, and causes rain to fall on the just and unjust”
(Mt 5:45). That is why Baptism is primordial grace.
Brothers and sisters, it’s not we who are taking the initiative. What did Jesus himself say, “It’s not you who have chosen me, but I who have chosen you.” It’s important that we get this right. That’s why Baptism is called the primacy of grace. Baptism is the sacramental ratification of that pure gift; it’s the sign of that choice: of Christ’s choice of you and not your choice of him.
When we receive Baptism, we become a new creature because something radically new has happened to us. We have become grafted onto Jesus; we have been initiated into his Body, and in so doing, we enter into the very life of Trinitarian Love. Once we get that, we can see the relationship of Baptism to the other Sacraments. Remember, Baptism is the birth into the spiritual order; that’s why we become a “new creature.” It’s the beginning of a properly spiritual life.
The other Sacraments represent modifications of that life. So, a living being needs to eat; it needs nourishment, which is the role of the Eucharist. That’s why only baptized people can receive it. If you’re not alive spiritually, then what’s the point of feeding you? Baptism, so to speak, gives you the right to receive the Eucharist.
What does the Sacrament of Reconciliation do but restores us to the spiritual life that’s been lost to serious sin. We can do things that alienate ourselves from God and each other. We know what that’s about because we’re all sinners which we acknowledge at the beginning of Mass. Things that are “mortally sinful” kill off the spiritual life within us. What’s penance but the grace that restores the loss of grace.
What is Confirmation? It confirms and strengthens us to the life given to us at Baptism. We are empowered through the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
What is the Sacrament of Marriage and Holy Orders but they are the Sacraments of vocation and mission. People of God, life is so much more than the acquisition of the goods of the world, but involves one that is purposeful, that is intentionally directed towards the realization of a relationship that is intended to endure for eternity. It’s not enough to have the divine life of Baptism, but that life wants to have a direction and a purpose. Hence, marriage and Holy Orders focused on a baptismal life.
Let’s conclude, by looking at Jesus’ baptism in which we hear, “This is my beloved Son of whom I am well pleased” (Lk 3:22). Baptized, you have been grafted onto that Son. You are a son or daughter of the Father in that beloved Son. Therefore, every baptized person should hear the same words, the same voice: “You are my beloved son, you are my beloved daughter whom I am well pleased.” That’s the deepest truth of Baptism. Amen.

Searching for the Light

The Epiphany of the Lord (C); January 6, 2019

Is 60:1-6   Ps 72   Eph 3:2-3   Mt 2:1-12

Deacon Jim McFadden; (New) Folsom Prison


         Today we celebrate the Epiphany, the arrival of the Magi, traditionally described as a threesome, at the humble cave of Bethlehem. The Church tells the story of the three Kings of how they responded to the coming of the Messiah. We may ask: how did these learned men from the East—some say as far away as Persia—ended up in an obscure town of Bethlehem?   They were following a light; better, they were searching for the Light because something was stirring deep within their minds and hearts that would address their deepest yearning: they were seeking the Light of Christ.

We are hard-wired to be in Communion with God because we are made in the image of God, who is a family of three Persons sharing one divine nature. As such, we have a light within us, call it our ‘soul’, that naturally gravitates towards the source of our very being. As we follow this light we will inevitably encounter the Lord, who is Immanuel—God among us.

The destiny of each one of us is symbolized in the journey of the Magi of the East. Our life is a journey with all of its twists and turns, which is illuminated by lights that brighten our way, which enable us to find the fullness of Truth and Goodness, Whom we recognize to be a Person: Jesus, the Light of the world.

Like the Magi, we have two great books, which provide us signs along our pilgrimage. The first is the map of your life. As Paula D’Arcy once said, “God comes to us disguised as our life.” But, how could that be since the way I lived my former life ended me in prison. Even though we make bad choices, embrace false idols with all their empty promises, God has never bailed out, has never given up on you. Indeed, He is there in the midst of the chaos, uncertainty, and even sin beckoning you to come Home where you can find rest and peace that will endure for eternity. God is right here, right now and we just have to look at our life with discernment to see that God is present—that there is no time or place that is God-forsaken.

The next book is Sacred Scripture.   The Bible is the Word of God, Who is the Second Person of the Trinity. God externalizes His Mind through the written Word. So, it is important that we are attentive to Scripture on a daily basis, to be alert as to what God is communicating to me today, to listen to him who speaks to us. As the Psalm says, referring to the Law of the Lord: “Your word is a lamp to me life and a light to my path” (Ps 119:105).

Listening to Scripture, especially the Gospels, reading it, meditating on it, making it your spiritual food, the Word of God will come into the interior of your heart and soul and you will encounter the living and Risen Jesus: you will be able to experience Him and thereby love Him.

The first reading from the prophet Isaiah boldly proclaims the call of God to Jerusalem: “Arise up in splendor! Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you. See, darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the people; but upon you the Lord shines, and over you appears his glory. Nations shall walk by your light and kings by your shining radiance” (Is 60:1-4).

Jerusalem, the City of David, the epicenter of Jewish worship, is called to be the city of light which reflects God’s light to the world and helps humanity to walk in the ways of God. And, who is the New Jerusalem today? The Church, the mystical Body of the Risen Christ.   This is the Mission and vocation of the People of God, who have been initiated into Christ at our baptism.   But, just like ancient Jerusalem we can fail to respond to this call; we can refuse to live out our baptismal anointing of being priest, prophet, and king by following False Idols which lead us to nowhere.

The three Wise Men saw the Star, they followed the Light, but the inhabitants of Jerusalem did not; they did not see it. Its light was particularly absent in the palace of King Herod: his dwelling was dark, gloomy, filled with intrigue and suspicion, fear, and envy. Herod, in fact, was so perturbed by these foreign diplomats, philosophers, and astrologers who named the child of Bethlehem, the “King of the Jews,” that he was beside himself: “King of the Jews”—that his title! So, he plotted to kill the Light of the world. Why would he do that? Herod saw the Christ child as a rival. In reality Jesus came not to overthrow the temporal rule of Herod, but to overthrow the Prince of Darkness of whom Herod was aligned. Herod and his counselors knew that this Child who fulfilled the ancient prophesies would challenge the foundations of their power. If Jesus is King, if Jesus is the Center and ground of our Being, then our Ego, our False Kingdom is not and it will crumble.   Herod and his cronies knew that the rules of their empty life were being turned upside down.   Their whole world was based on the accumulation of wealth, the acquisition of prestige, the exercise of dominant power, and the rapacious pursuit of pleasure.   Their whole life was thrown into a crisis by a Child! Herod went so far as to kill the children of Bethlehem who were under the age of two.   An ancient writer nailed it when he said of King Herod: “You destroy those who are tiny in body because fear is destroying your heart” (St. Quodvutdeus, Sermon 2). Herod became afraid and on account of giving into his fear, he became insane as he tried to destroy the source of Life. How crazy is that?!

The Magi were able to overcome that dangerous encounter of evil before Herod, because they believed Scripture, they believed that God could come into their life no matter what the circumstances are, they believed the words of the prophets, who indicated that the Messiah would come from the House of David and would be born in Bethlehem. And, so the fled the dreariness and darkness of Herod’s palace, and resumed their journey towards Bethlehem, and there they saw the star above the cave. And, what was their response? The gospel tells us tht they experienced “a great joy” (Mt 2:10), which is the perfect sign of God’s presence.

Brothers in faith at Folsom Prison, this is the Good News: Jesus is “the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:5).   We ask ourselves: Are we enlightened by the light of the Star in the same way the Magi were? Have we found our way to reach the Child? Do we gratefully accept his unconditioned love which he showers upon us every moment of our existence? Are we striving to share his love with others? Are we living, each in our own way, the experience of the Magi?

People of God, as baptized members of the Church, we have searched for the Light and we have found it in Christ Jesus. We are meant to bring this Light to the world. It’s up to us to make sure that this Light covers everyone. The Magi knew that the ancient prophesy had been fulfilled in Jesus. Do we believe and live that reality with every fiber of our being. If so, Let the Light Shine! Amen.