Follow that Star

A reflection on the feast of Epiphany by Fr. George Berendt, PIME.

Sunday’s readings: Isaiah 60: 1-6; Ephesians 3: 2-3a, 5-6; Matthew 2: 1-12Image

The New Testament has four Gospels. The Gospel of Matthew contains 28 chapters. Chapter One of his Gospel is a long narrative of the ancestry of Jesus and the events surrounding his birth. The first word spoken by a human being appears in Chapter Two of his Gospel. The speaker is one of the Magi who will ask King Herod a question. The first human word that is uttered is “where.” The full sentence goes like this: “Where is the newborn king of the Jews?” Ironically, this will be the same word King Herod will use when he calls the chief priests, the scribes, and his supporters in Jerusalem asking them if they know where this birth took place.

Isn’t it interesting that Matthew places the same word on the lips of men whose hearts are totally different and give opposite meaning to the question they ask?

On the lips of the Magi the word “where” spurts out of hearts that are seeking, looking, and longing for a king to whom they can present their gifts and homage. On the lips of Herod the word “where” comes from a panic-stricken heart, a heart filled with darkness and hatred, a heart that fears the loss of its power and control over God’s people.

On the lips of the Magi the word flows from the hearts of men who have seen a sign in the sky and have searched long and far for the source of this sign, a sign they believe that will lead them to where truth resides. Now after a long and arduous passage they need help in the final steps of their journey to calm and satisfy the desires that have burned so long in their seeking hearts.

On the lips of Herod the question rumbles out of a heart filled with fear and hatred. Matthew doesn’t tell us the details of Herod’s negative emotions but it is safe to infer the reason why Herod’s heart is so filled with fear and hate. The simple fact is that if this unknown child, if allowed to thrive, will become a threat to his position and power. Herod, as king, should have protected God’s people and their faith but didn’t. With the newborn king born this can only mean two things to Herod: rebuke and replacement.

In the breast of Herod it isn’t a heart filled with interest and wonder that beats. Rather it is a darkened heart filled with homicidal intent, bent on lethal action. Herod shows a convincing smokescreen to his visitors from the East but his heart is really filled with nefarious intentions that don’t come to light until he carries out his real plan in the days that will follow. Jesus will escape but others will pay the price as Herod’s henchmen carry out his horrifying plan: the massacre of the innocents.

Herod’s actions are that of a hypocrite, one whose words do not square with his thoughts. As the Newborn King in today’s Gospel who will one day say as an adult: “You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful  on the outside, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every kind of filth…on the outside you appear righteous, but inside you are filled with hypocrisy and evildoing” (Mt. 23: 27-28).

As Herod’s heart throbs with hate, in the breasts of the Wise Men, seekers of truth, pulse hearts that are “overjoyed…on entering the house” where the child lies and to whom they give homage and gifts. How ironic! The simple word of “where” is symbolic of two hearts weighed downed with two completely different emotions: murderous rejection and joyous acceptance.

Too often we focus on the mystery of the star. Was it a supernova, a comet, or the alignment of Saturn and the moon in the constellation Aries, the constellation associated with Israel? Whatever it was, this heavenly orb and the light of the Hebrew Scriptures transported the Magi to a Child of earth.

Or maybe we rack our brains attempting to determine who the Magi were or from where they came – Persia, Arabia or even as far as India itself. In the end from whence they came is not important at all. They stand in for us, the non-Jews, who seek the Real King of us all.

Then there are those three gifts of gold, a gift fitting to give a king;  myrrh, a resin used to embalm the dead; and frankincense, burnt when one offered sacrifice or set alight in the Holy of Holies in the Temple of Jerusalem. All prized things then and today that are loaded with religious symbolism.

The Biblical story of the Magi is also our story. We too ask the same question “where” and begin the footsore journey to find the source of our truth and joy. We too look to the stars to guide us as we set out to find what we are really looking for as Bono sings in his popular song. In our lifetimes abundant stars glitter and attract us like summer fireflies but lead us down dead ends and false trails that trap us and lead us nowhere. In the end we find ourselves in dismal circumstances, trapped and locked in box canyons. The sparkling lure of drugs, violence, wealth, consumerism, promiscuity, internet porn, and countless other attractions seem to shine bright in our eyes and minds but eventually these death stars only lead us to a spiritual demise.

Polaris, the North Star, is the one light in the sky that points sailors and trekkers in a sure and right direction. Our spiritual Polaris is Jesus, our Lord.

In the end, all of us are on a spiritual journey and the tale of the Magi is a revelation of our own personal eagerness or reluctance to seek God. In the end if we follow the correct star and listen to the correct word we will arrive safe and sound to the source of our true joy and there at his feet present also our gifts whatever they might be, great or small. He’ll accept them all from our hearts and hands.

Let the Peace of Christ Control your Hearts

family-heart-imageReflections for the Feast of the Holy Family

By Fr. George Berendt, PIME

 Readings for Sunday, December 29:

Sirach 3: 2-6, 12-14

Col 3: 12-21

Mt 2: 13-15, 19-23

All it takes is six letters to form the word “family” but it’s a word that is packed with all kinds of images, emotions, and feelings; sometimes pleasant, sometimes unpleasant. All of us come from a family and yet all of our families are different, unique, and distinctive. No two families are exactly alike.

Personally, I think I was born just at the right time. I’m a baby boomer born in 1947 soon after World War II and the family I was born into is perhaps a rarer form of family than what we have today.

Born in southwest Detroit where the two great streets of Livernois and Michigan wed, my life began on the side streets called Hammond and Nowak. My early years were spent around Saint Francis of Assisi parish on Campbell.

Dad’s side of the family left Europe in the 1870’s and mom’s left in the 1910’s. For some unknown reasons both sides of the family settled here.

Mom and dad married in 1946. They rented a house on Nowak Street and next year in September found me under a cabbage leaf somewhere in the garden. As soon as I could walk, I would cross the railroad tracks and go to my grandparents’ house on the other side of the tracks. Grandma and Dad’s youngest brothers and sisters would take care of me and this became my second home.

When I was courageous enough, I’d mosey further down Hammond Street a few houses, like a wobbly sailor on shore leave, and go to my great-grandma’s house. I’d crawl up the stairs, push open the screen door and sit in great-grandma’s lap as she rocked away, babbling something in Polish I never really understood.

Ma worked downtown. On her way to the streetcar on Michigan Avenue she’d drop me off at her Ma’s house for the day and Grandma would babysit me. I’d climb the huge apple tree on her lot and help Grandma pick apples that she turned into wonderful apple pies. When Grandpa returned from the Rouge Plant he’d take me to the corner bar, sit me in a stool next to him, and buy me a Coke while he nursed his boilermaker and talked with his union and Rouge Plant rowdies.

Most of my aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws by marriage and family friends were always a few minutes’ walk away “in da hood.”  Family was more than just under my roof. It was spread around in the local area and I could always find a place to go to, grab a bite to eat or a playmate to get in trouble with. Family was nuclear and at the same time extended over the nearby city blocks.

Family began to change for me after the Korean and Vietnam Wars and as the modern highway system was put in. After the wars, most of my cousins moved to the suburbs or out of State where the jobs were. Uncles and aunts bought in to the great migration to the new suburbs around Metro Detroit and in the growing southern and western cities. Gradually, family as I knew it in my childhood began to scatter and become diluted. My family and,  I think it is safe to say, the American family, was changing and becoming gradually like it is today.

Many things have made me what I am today: school, classmates, the local parish, my early education and so on. Nevertheless, it is family I believe that really formed me.

Most of you might not have heard of Jim Wallis. He’s the CEO of Sojourners and the editor of their magazine of the same name. In his latest book, On God’s Side, he wrote this in chapter 13.

For all the importance and attention we have given to national, institutional, cultural, economic, and political forces, no force, no place, is more formational to human flourishing than the household we live in. That’s because our households are the places where we have our most primary relationships and because, most important, they are the environments where our young are primarily raised….They are the places that most of us leave in the morning and come back to at night. Households are the home base of our existence and the foundation of a society. Households hold our families together, and they are the first place where we learn the lessons of human relationships and community…It is in our households that we must learn to choose values over appetites (p. 253).

This Sunday we begin to tie up the last celebrations of our Church’s Advent-Christmas season and as we do so we take one last look at the central figures of those around whom these holidays and holydays revolve – the Holy Family; and no, I’m not talking about Jesus, Mary and Joseph. I’m talking about my family and your family.

The Bible’s Holy Family is a touchstone, a model, a criterion, and icon of what is and makes the world and societies that we live in. They are us and we are them. The Holy Family of Bethlehem is a family like all families that must tend and deal with the vicissitudes, fluctuations, and vagaries of human life. No family is ever immune to them; not even the Holy Family. How do I know this? Well the Bible tells me so. Listen to what is written in the Letter to the Hebrews. The author says that “…he [Jesus] was tested through what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested” (Hebrews 2:18). If Jesus shared what it means to be a human being thorough his Incarnation, the essential meaning of Christmas, than he and his family know what it is to be like us – as family; with all the joys and tribulations that are part and parcel of this life.

Soon the Catholic Church is going to begin the Synod on the Family. Like us Jesus and his family experienced and suffered the same things our families do: the daily grind of work to put food on the table, thirst and hunger, sickness, death of a spouse, rejection, death of a child, lethargy, and the weariness of life. At the same time they knew the joys of life: a meal together, family creating a household in harmony; participating in a wedding party; a visit to the Capital City with its beautiful Temple; a sunset and sunrise that stirs the heart and soul; the fresh green grass of spring and countless other joys of life. The world of the Holy Family is also our world.

Today however, the modern family – our Holy Families – are under great stress and that is why our Church is turning its attention and calling a synod that reflects on the family today. Today marriage, family life, teen life, the life of young persons is reeling and staggering under tremendous pressures and problems. Fifty percent of all marriages end in divorce; families are blended; one parent families are common; family poverty is increasing. Spousal abuse; latch key kids; cohabitation without the intention of marrying; drug abuse; violence and gang membership; ignorance of the essentials of the Faith; the lack of a moral map to follow; consumerism; and so many other negative things batter our families daily.

The Holy Family isn’t a sterilized picture that we print on a Christmas greeting card to mail to family and friends. It’s a modern day creation of someone we know who lived here too some 2000 years ago. It’s a modern day creation of people like us who walked the same earth then as we do today, dealt with the same issues, and did as well as they could considering the circumstances of their lives. It is, however, an icon of what could be: our holy family.

Like them we too live in a world that stresses us and tears us apart. Like them, we too can decide to swim against the tide and enter the struggle to live together in harmony and in familial solidarity. Let us pray that those who participate in the upcoming synod and reflect on the modern day family can help us live more like the Holy Family of Bethlehem, enjoying the virtues St. Paul wrote about today: “…heartfelt compassion, kindness, gentleness,…patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another” (Col 3: 12).

How inexplicable! How unfathomable! How amazing!

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By Fr. George Berendt, PIME

When I recall my childhood here in Detroit I remember how my brothers and sisters and I looked forward to Thanksgiving Day. Not only was it a day when mom and dad prepared a wonderful dinner but also it was the day Santa Claus came to town. Come on! We saw his arrival on black and white TV among all the floats and marching bands prancing down Woodward Avenue. All that pomp and circumstance ushered in his arrival around 3 p.m. in the afternoon. There he was sitting in his huge sled waving to the crowds and to all of us in TV land.

To top it off we also knew where Santa was staying before Christmas Day. The considerate and kind CEO of the old Hudson Department store – that  children- loving, thoughtful head honcho who managed the old mercantile behemoth that supplied all our shopping needs – set  up a superlative yuletide throne inside his store where Santa and all his elves awaited us. Could you imagine anything more convenient? Shop, buy, and sit on Santa’s lap and whisper in his ears our secret desires and longings for a blissful Christmas. And then the final kicker; all us kids walked away with a candy cane after our audience with the North Pole maven!

One morning mom, grandma and us kids boarded the old streetcar on Michigan Avenue and went downtown and formed part of that long line of excited, giggling kids awaiting their turn to sit on Santa’s lap, whisper in his ear and walk away with a candy cane and the satisfaction that our innermost wants were at least heard and perhaps would be found that special evening under the Old Tannenbaum.

All we had to do now was wait until Rudolph and crew flew around that busy evening like a pre-UPS service dropping off our Christmas present dreams. Ah, childhood memories! Aren’t they sweet?

Christmas in America has always been associated with gift giving and I have no doubt that this tradition comes from the event we celebrate today. The event when the heavens opened and gave us the greatest gift of all: Jesus, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, our Messiah, our Emmanuel, our God who is with us.

This Child-God is God’s gift to us all, a gift to the world, a gift sent to redeem us, a gift sent to mend the broken relationships that exists between us, God, and each other, a gift that keeps on giving as some old commercial says, a gift that has not only sent human history on a new trajectory but has also placed our personal lives on a new arc.

This Christmas Eve as we look under the pine trees that festoon our homes, I’m sure many of us will find again gifts that cost a pretty penny and perhaps even set the household budget behind. The gift that God sent us, represented in St. Francis of Assisi’s crèche, is a child of a poor family, swaddled in tattered cloth, sleeping in hay, lying in a manger, an animal’s eating trough. Well, will not this child who “sleeps away in the manger” later becomes a man who says: “…take and eat, this is my body” (Mt. 26: 26)?

How inexplicable! God who created a cosmos with a big bang that now stretches billions of light years across came to us in human form on a “silent night” in a nowhere town taking as his first residence a humble barn. What a stench that cold night!

How unfathomable! God who placed every star in its place and spun the planets around their suns in orbits fixed, who filled the low points of earth with briny seas and populated them and the forests on land with brutes and beasts of every kind; why did he not come to us as some powerful, regal potentate or a general wearing a military, medal-loaded uniform standing at the head of a great, victorious, and triumphant army?

How amazing! God’s gift to the world was a weak and feeble child who formed the human hands that would caress and care for him and designed the breasts that would nurse and sustain him after his birth. This was a child of wonder indeed and an astonishing family no doubt.

Emmanuel’s first witnesses were critters who occupied the same barn as he and whose warm breath perhaps brought some relief that cold, winter, Bethlehem night.

When Emmanuel open his eyes for the first time, he who made and sculptured the human face; how did he respond to the gaze of the simple maiden girl, Mary his mother, and the rough, hewed face of carpenter Joseph who earned this family its daily bread? Whose eyes were more filled with wonder:  those of Emmanuel or those of Mary and Joseph?

After the heavenly choir announced Emmanuel’s birth in the sky the first to visit were shepherd boys who always kept a constant watch in the night. After they entered the barn and looked into the eyes of God and God gazed into theirs, I wonder what they felt and what they thought as they wandered back to the hills and the flocks. Was it an easier, more joyful journey to make and their burden of work lighter to bear?

Humble, simple folk are the subjects of the infancy narrative of Matthew and Luke. The gift of this special child was to change our world and our lives.

Today many folks will un-wrap gifts placed under a tree enclosed in beautiful paper and ribbon. Will any of these gifts we open change our lives in any deep, dramatic way? Do we even remember what was under the tree last year? How many of the gifts received and given last year still exist or are still used today?

Over 2000 years ago God entered our lives and world in a simple and humble way and made our world a different place. God’s gift was opened and is still here with us:  the gift of God’s presence and love.

Merry Christmas!

Divine Scandal

 

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Reflections for the Fourth Sunday of Advent 

by Fr. George Berendt, PIME

Readings for December 22, 2014: Isaiah 7: 10-14, Romans 1: 1-7, Matthew 1: 18-24

 

Years ago when I applied for my first passport I needed a copy of my birth certificate to send to the Department of State proving to them I was an American citizen. I needed to show when and where I was born.

 I went to Detroit’s Department of Records and paid $5 and received a copy of my birth certificate. I mailed it to the Department of State along with my passport fee and application. That little piece of paper was proof of where and when I was born and the gold standard proof that I was an American citizen. Hence I could get an American passport.

Only two Gospels, Matthew and Luke, recorded the birth of Jesus. The other two, Mark and John don’t. In Matthew and Luke we call the first chapters of their Gospels the “Infancy Narratives.”

My “infancy narrative” was recorded in the hospital soon after my birth and eventually it was registered with the local government. Jesus’ infancy narrative was written long after his birth, life, death, and resurrection. It would be safe to say that Matthew and Luke are writing about Jesus’ birth something like 30 years after Jesus lived, died and rose. In other words, they are not giving us a factual account of Jesus’ birth recorded in some office in “‘Bethlehem’s Department of Records” and kept on file for Matthew and Luke to examine before they wrote their Gospels.

Matthew, today’s Gospel, is not attempting to give us an historical account of Jesus’ birth. Rather, he is giving us a theological reflection on the meaning of Jesus’ birth in our world. In other words, what does the birth of this child mean for me, for you, for us, and for the entire world?

Like an overture of some great symphony, Matthew’s birth narrative of Jesus puts before our eyes themes that run all through his Gospels and will be part of the life of Jesus. These themes already began before Jesus was born. In the great symphony of Jesus’ life, these themes follow him wherever he goes and are already present in embryonic form even before he was born.

What’s going on in Matthew’s infancy narrative? If you’re attentive to what you read or heard you can’t miss the tension that exists in the first chapter of Matthew. Here’s the cultural and Jewish religious background to the world of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph; a world that existed 2000 years ago.

Mary is betrothed to Joseph. This means that they are a pair and both families agree that they will wed. The die is cast. They are considered husband and wife but still live apart. In the Galilean culture of that time it means that up to this point the betrothed pair did not have sexual relations because the marriage celebration hadn’t taken place yet. Only after the wedding feast is celebrated would they be considered legitimately husband and wife and could finally live together and produce children. The marriage celebration seals the deal.

The problem is Mary is pregnant before the marriage celebration occurred and this is scandalous. This means only two things could have happened:

  • Mary was raped or,
  • Mary had sex with someone else.

Matthew doesn’t dwell on the lurid details but he gives us enough information to let us know trouble is brewing in Joseph and Mary’s relationship. Now the Jewish law was clear when thing like this happened. Every Jew worth his kosher salt knows what had to be done. It was written in black and white in Deuteronomy 22:20 in regard to sexual scandal. The law goes like this: ‘…they shall bring the girl to the entrance of her father’s house and there her townsmen shall stone her to death.’

Normally, the father of the girl had to throw the first stone then the other men followed. This is the dilemma Joseph now faces. He can demand a public inquiry and degrade Mary more and have her stoned to death as the law dictates or come up with another solution to avoid scandal. Keep this word ‘scandal’ in your head somewhere.

Now Matthew tells us that Joseph is a righteous man. What will such a man do? He will divorce her quietly and send her on her way. As a righteous man he obeys the law and protects Mary’s personhood. However, God does not allow Joseph to carry out his plans. An angel appears to him in a dream and tells Joseph to take Mary as his wife.

God gives Joseph a divine plane. God erases Joseph’s righteous plan as all too human and tells him to carry out the Divine plan, a different plan. God is saying: “Don’t fret Joseph about the scandal! I’m piloting the ship and so you, Joseph, must do as I say.” Remember what the prophet Isaiah said about Yahweh: “My ways are not your ways, your thoughts not my thoughts.”

Here we encounter the great theme in the symphony of Jesus’ life: scandal, divine scandal. God is going to “rock our world.”

Jesus will be a scandal to our world. Jesus will be a scandal to the religious world of Israel and to our world today. Jesus is going to turn our world upside down.

Matthew set the theme for all of Jesus’ life in the first chapter of his Gospel. Even before Jesus is born, even while Jesus is still in Mary’s womb, even before Jesus sees the light of day in the stable, Jesus is causing scandal in embryonic form and this will follow him every day of his life.

All of his life Jesus will shake our world by what he does and says. Jesus will scandalize. Jesus will challenge our understanding of the conventional religious wisdom of his day and our day. He will scandalize his contemporaries and us by his understanding of the law. He will allow women to touch and accompany him in his mission, he will eat with sinners and tax collectors, he will cure the outcast lepers, he will forgive sins of adultery, and he will show a tender heart of mercy and compassion that goes way beyond the demands of the law. Jesus will incarnate God and God will scandalize.

Joseph’s quandary foreshadows the tensions all disciples and adherents to Jesus feel when they follow their Master. Already beginning in the womb Jesus is Spirit filled and this Spirit driven Jesus drives Jesus to do the unthinkable and the unthinkable scandalizes. The conventional wisdom of the day is tossed out the window. His entire life will be such. There is a deep divine plan afoot in our world and Joseph is now caught up in this divine web as we are also. He has an important role to play in this divine plan as do each of us.

In his dream Joseph is told that Mary’s child, Mary’s scandalous child, is the offspring of the Holy Spirit. This Spirit manifests itself in Jesus’ life and the scandalous child will be called EMMANUEL; GOD IS WITH US and when God is with us forgiveness and mercy flow like water over the Niagara Falls. Not only will Emmanuel be with us at his birth but also, as Matthew writes in the very last line of his Gospel: ‘I am with you always, until the end of the age’ (Mt 28: 20). Not only will Emmanuel God be with us during our most joyous moments, he will also be with us when clouds block the sunlight in our lives.

In the end Joseph wakes up not because he heard the family rooster crow as we wake up to an alarm clock. Matthews is really telling his readers that Joseph wakes up to a new reality, a Spirit and scandal-filled reality. Jesus is setting his and our world on a new trajectory. It will be a rough ride but in the end it will bring us to life, life everlasting, forgiveness of sin and salvation.

In the end Joseph takes Mary into his home. This means he accepts the new truth that is developing in Mary’s womb. He will protect it, nurture it and love it and like a carpenter he will build on it. Let us pray that we too will wake up from our stupor and embrace Jesus’ Spirit-scandal filled world.

Stay Awake!

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A homily for the first Sunday of  Advent,.December 1, 2013 from Fr. George Berendt, PIME.

Readings:Is 2:1-5; Rom 13:11-14; Mt 13: 11-14.

BUT OF THAT DAY AND HOUR NO ONE KNOWS

  • St. Martin of Tours said the world would end before 400 A.D.
  • Hippolytus of Rome said Jesus would return in 500 A.D.
  • St. Gregory of Tours said the world would end between 799 and 806 A.D.
  • Pope Sylvester II said the world would end on January 1, 1000 A.D. People  rioted in Rome and other European cities.
  • Martin Luther said 1600 A.D. was our planet’s last act.
  • Cotton Mather fixed the earth’s last hurrah on 1697.
  • In 1967 Pat Robertson told his followers the end was coming in 1982.
  • Charles Berlitz, the linguist, said the end was coming on 1999 but continued selling his language lessons. Who’s going to be around speaking any language after that date anyway? Go figure!
  • Jerry Falwell was getting ready for the end on January 1, 2000. Do you remember Harold Camping? He said that he studied his Bible and it told him that the world’s end was coming on May 21, 2011. Then when it didn’t happen he said he miscalculated what he read in the Bible. It was coming on October 21, 2011. Sorry! His excuse? He said his math was faulty. Pity the fools who sold their homes and gave away all their money in the belief he was correct. They were destitute and homeless on October 22nd of that same year.

Well folks, the sun rose again this morning and I assume will set again this evening. Life goes on.

Fr. Ron Rolheiser, in his book The Shattered Lantern (p. 133) puts it crisply: “Nothing will last. All is time-bound between birth and death.” In other words, everything has a beginning and everything has an ending.

Four billion years ago the lights went on in our Milky Way galaxy. In another  billion years our sun will begin to die. It will become a red giant, expanding to consume Mercury and Venus and perhaps our earth, but even if it doesn’t, it will bake us to a crisp. Then it will quickly shrink and turn into a white dwarf. Unanchored by this new phase, the sun’s gravity will no longer keep us close to it and so we will float out into the absolute cold and dark of deep space. If there’s other intelligent life out there and they encounter this space cinder they will never know if life ever existed on this mysterious space rock. It will all be burnt away. As Fr. Rolheiser says: “…all is time bound…”

Today we begin our Advent season preparing us for the year 2014. It begins in a strange way. It seems that the disciples of Jesus are wondering if the world is going to end. What was going on in their world to cause them to wonder if they were living in the “end times?”

So many of our own generation seem troubled and disturbed by the events that are happening all around them and seem to lack hope. They surrender themselves to a type of pessimism and see the end nigh. It seems to me that the early disciples had troubled hearts like many people in our day and age who have become overwhelmed by the violence, mayhem and upheavals they see all around them. Our generation’s “doomsday preppers” dig deep holes in the earth and stockpile essential grub and ammo while the disciples turn to Jesus and ask him if their days are the last days of the earth. Can he calm their troubled hearts and minds?

Now, Jesus was no scientist or astrophysicists. Also he had no inkling of what modern astronomers – with all their satellites, science, and telescopes – have discovered and now know about the cosmos, its beginnings, its evolution, and its expiration. All Jesus could say with certainty is that when the event called “the coming of the Son of Man” happens, it will happen like a “thief in the night.” It will happen suddenly and unexpectedly. We do not know when it will happen and so there is no human way to prepare for this great cosmic event just as we cannot prepare for something that will happen a billion years from now. The when of this happening is unknowable to us. The only thing we know with some confidence is the how it will come. It will come upon us like the great flood in the days of Noah. What does this mean?

In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus saw humanity caught up in the everyday affairs of life. As in the days of Noah, the people in Jesus’ era went about doing what life demanded of them. They sowed the fields, caught and dried fish, pressed the grapes to make wine, ground the wheat to make flour and then baked the bread so they could eat and drink. They fell in love, looked for a life mate and took and gave themselves in wedlock and gave birth to the next generation. In other words, like all peoples in all times, the demands of life filled their days and their hearts.

Now there is nothing wrong or evil with these things. Life, human existence, family life – all make demands and we must respond to them. Life must go on! The only snag is that life can be all consuming. Life is distracting!

Even in our modern age with all these machines and conveniences to help us, we’ve all heard a soccer mom lament her lack of time, an office worker complaining that he needs 25 hours in the day to get all of his work done, or a young person complaining that he or she is just too busy to help clean the garage or straighten up his or her room since so much still has to be done at school and with friends.

The business of our lives, just like the business in the lives of people in Noah’s and Jesus’ times, prevents us from knowing something deeper and more profound and so we too get “swept away” just like them. Just like them we are caught unawares. This is where the “men in the field” and the “women grinding wheat” enter. Preparing for the day of the Lord doesn’t mean dropping what we are doing and high-tailing it to a church to pray more or even to increase religious undertakings. So what is the difference between the man and woman taken and the man and the woman left? Externally the men and women are the same, doing the same activity. Outwardly all four are doing the same good work that life demands from them: working the field and grinding the grain. Thus the only difference then must be internal, interior.

This is where Jesus delivers the punch line of this Sunday’s parable to his audience then and to us today. It’s a simply piece of advice: “stay awake!” All we know with any certainty is that when the end comes, when that great apocalyptic consummation engulfs us, when the King of kings descends with the angels, it will come down upon us like a great flood, just like the flood caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 that assaulted our East coast or the typhoon that hit the Philippines this year. In order not to be swept away by the flood or left behind in the field or at the grain mill, we must prepare for this great event every day of our lives. Not to be ready for this great day is to suffer great consequences.

The only great event I can prepare for and have some control over is my own death and I’m pretty sure that will happen long before created reality ends. With the years I am given it is important that I “stay awake.” It is this great event that I must prepare for and so as I plow the field, sow the seed and reap the harvest of my life, as I grind the grains of my daily activities I prepare myself internally for that inevitable day that is sure to come. I want to be ready for the “great flood” caused by my death that will carry me away to the bosom of my Lord. And so, I don’t allow the preoccupation of daily life to overwhelm me.

Advent is a wonderful time to set time aside and do the needed internal preparations to meet the Lord when he finally comes to carry us away at the end of our earthly lives. This is the daily preparation all of us must do in order not to be swept away, unprepared. I can’t prepare for something that will happen a billion years from now, but I sure can prepare for something that might happen tomorrow.

I want to conclude with a quote from Paul Tillich on his concept of waiting.

He wrote: Although waiting is not having, it is also a kind of having. The fact that we wait for something shows that in some way we already possess it.

So as all of us wait on the coming of the Son of Man to carry us away by our own demise and earthly end, we wait by preparing ourselves for it. If we do so we already possess a part of that which we wait for and is sure to come, which is life eternal in Christ.

Sleepy heads, stay awake for you do not know the day and the hour!

Endings and Beginnings

ImageYesterday we celebrated the Feast of Christ the King, which means that the liturgical year has ended. A new one begins with Advent, the season in which we prepare for the coming of the Lord at Christmas, and in His Second Coming. 

It’s all about endings and beginnings; comings and goings; transitions from the ordinary to the extraordinary; from life to death to eternal life. 

In the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, the spiritual dimension of Advent can be forgotten. What used to be viewed as a “mini Lent” now seems to be just the time of year in which we shop for gifts and have parties. Could it be something more?

A bit of quiet time reflecting on the “reason for the season” might help keep things in perspective. Take a moment to prepare for the first Sunday of Advent. Ponder this: the end is near!  We don’t know when Jesus will return, but the fact is He will “return” for each of us individually at the moment of our deaths. Are we ready? Are we even thinking about getting ready? 

Most of us don’t like thinking about our own demise, and we’d rather put off thoughts of repentance until we are “old.” However, as Christians we know that “getting right with God” is something that we should attempt to do each day of our lives, not something we can afford to delay.

God is always ready to receive us back and help us to make things right. The Sacrament of Confession is available to us year round. This year, why not begin the Advent season by taking advantage of the graces that can be found there? 

Perhaps you can take some time this week to do some spiritual reading, pray the rosary, or spend some time in Eucharistic adoration.  Maybe a visit to homebound neighbor will put things in perspective. Maybe there’s a child who needs to hear an extra story. Take the time to take a time out this week, before Advent begins, to put yourself in the right frame of mind for a peaceful season.

Fr. George Berendt, PIME will be sharing his homilies for Advent here in the upcoming weeks. Stop back to read them and reflect on the Sunday readings with us. Life is busy for all of us, and there are so many things vying for our attention. A few moments away from the cares of the world – taking the time to focus on what really matters – will go a long way.

Please keep the PIME Missionaries in your prayers this season and always. You remain in ours!

“there was a sinful woman in the city…”

At Her Master's Feet by Del Parson.

At Her Master’s Feet by Del Parson.

 

Reflections on the readings for Sunday,  June 16 from Fr. George Berendt, PIME

PIME’s Headquarters is located pretty much in the middle of the city of Detroit. I wonder, if Jesus was actually living here at our house today, what would His reaction be to the ‘flora and fauna’ of our neighborhood? What do I mean by this question?

This is what I mean. If Jesus were taking a walk from our community house towards Woodward Avenue, the first interesting place Jesus would come across is a gay nightclub and bar on the corner of McNichols and Ponchatrain Boulevard. Every weekend and every holiday it’s a hopping and active watering and meeting place. Now if that didn’t scare Jesus off, He would soon walk past a methadone clinic where every morning a long line of recovering drug addicts line up outside to receive their daily dose of legal drugs given out by the government. The people in the line outside the clinic don’t look like the shakers and movers of an industrial giant that is Detroit. Actually, the people in line look pretty shady and beaten down, if you know what I mean. They are not the brand one sits next to in a five star restaurant. If Jesus still had the courage to walk on, He would walk pass a porno theater and its store that is always busy. Of course, let us not forget all those working girls sprinkled here and there on the corners with their lascivious glances, tight shorts, and even tighter blouses waving to passersby and looking to hook an eager customer to whom they can vend their carnal delights.

When I drive down McNichols in the morning to go to the hospital where I work this is a daily sight from my car’s window. Now I have to admit that many times I react like Simon the Pharisee in today’s Gospel and judge these people pretty severely.

How often as I drive pass and look outside the car I say inside my head, “My God, what a bunch of losers they are. Boy, have they ever screwed up their lives. What a bunch of lowlifes. Don’t they see what a mess they have made of their lives?” or something similar. But then, I catch myself and ask myself, “WWJD?” What would be Jesus’ reaction to these hurt, wounded, and less than perfect people that occupy the same street as me? WWJD? Would he blow them off as I have done when I’m in a coarse mood on the way to the hospital?

Now, Simon was a Pharisee. That means he was a very pious and religious lay person who attempted to live his live in a radical, religious way. As a Pharisee, Simon made every effort to obey the Torah in its entire minutia. He obeyed all the 613 laws found in the Torah, he prayed, went to the synagogue, made the pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem, tithed, and lived as if his eternal salvation depended on it. In a word, he was a ‘good guy.’ But all this goodness did something else to him. It made him self-righteous. Simon became like the Pharisee who went to the Temple to pray and addressed God by reminding God: “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity… (Lk 18:11.) Oh yeah! Simon’s struggles in his spiritual life made him prideful, intolerant and caused him to look down his nose on those whose lives might have been unsavory.

I don’t know why it is but I have a fascination with the Big Blue Book published by Alcoholics Anonymous. I myself am not an alcoholic but I love the spirituality that this book teaches. In Chapter 5 I found this axiom that I just love: “We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.”

I think I have embraced this axiom because it reminds us that none of us are perfect. Only God is perfect. Simon the Pharisee was a darn nice guy but still imperfect. Simon the Pharisee lived his life better than most perhaps but he still had his flaws. Simon the Pharisee still had to have his debt of 50 forgiven even those it was less than the debt of 500 of “…a sinful woman in the city.”

Jesus in this Gospel didn’t deny that the woman was a sinner and that her debt was greater than that of Simon. But unlike Simon, she was able to recognize who her creditor is: Jesus! Because she could do this Jesus could say to her, “‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

When Jesus accepted his cross and spread his arms he said something that always gives me tremendous consolation. In his agony Jesus turned to His and our Father and interceded for us saying, “‘Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” (Lk 23:34).

In the end I have to expel the Simon the Pharisee from my heart and soul and admit that I too am a sinner. I need Jesus’ forgiveness like all the rest of humanity. Having done this I then can react differently when I see a woman, a man, a druggie, an swindler, a cheat, or a “lowlife.” I can admit I too am just one of the crowd and then turn to Jesus and say, “Thank you for what you did for me!”

I’m so accustomed to seeing this life in the part of Detroit where I live I don’t even give it a second thought. For me it’s just the ‘flora and fauna’ of a once great city that has surely fallen on hard times. I just drive by, go to the hospital and minister to the sick that I meet that day and celebrate Mass with some of the medical staff and others who come to participate in our liturgy.

WWJD? My siblings will not come to the city to visit me. I have to drive out to the suburbs to visit them. They are afraid of the violence they hear about in the news and the ‘flora and fauna’ of the local area bothers them. They, as so many others, see the people I see and share the same space with every day as “less worthy.” These are people who they do not care about. To put it in kind terms – they are the duds, the losers, the worthless, those we don’t need to worry about. They made their bed so let them sleep in it. It’s not my problem. But, WWJD?

I have no doubt that most of us would find it difficult to pony up to a bar and share a beer with a gay guy from our local club. Sharing a coffee and donut with the methadone user is unthinkable and don’t those street girls know how to dress better? None of these people measure up to ‘social or spiritual standards of behavior’ that we have accepted. Perhaps we even put them in hell.

These reflections are based on the readings for Sunday, June 16, 2013.

2 Sm 12: 7-1`3

Gal 2:16-21

Lk 7: 36- 8:3

A Mustard Seed Church

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Reflections for Sunday, June 9 from Fr. George Berendt, PIME

Several years ago I cut out and saved a wonderful potato recipe I found in a magazine. One of the ingredients is yellow or brown mustard seeds. Before this I never cooked with mustard seeds and this dish convinced me that I had been missing a wonderful taste sensation for far too long. The mustard seeds contributed a delightful, aromatic flavor to the potato dish and made my taste buds sing alleluia. Why didn’t I hear about this ingredient before?

In all three of the synoptic Gospels Jesus uses the image of a mustard seed to instruct His listeners about the kingdom of God. I advise you to read the three short references to the praises of the ‘divine mustard seed’ in Luke 13: 18-19, Matthew 13: 31-33, and Mark 4: 30-32. Each one is a little different.

Matthew and Mark tell us that the mustard seed in the smallest of seeds but Luke doesn’t. Now, I’m not a botanist, but I know that there are smaller seeds in our world. A poppy seed is smaller and the seed of an English aster (that I attempted to grow once and failed) is even smaller than a poppy seed. The mustard seeds I have in my pantry are pretty hefty compared to other seeds in God’s earthly garden.

I don’t know how many seeds and plants Jesus was familiar with in His world but for sure in Jesus’ world the mustard seed would be seen as small. As we all know, Jesus used examples of nature and life to speak to His people about the mysteries of the divine. The smallness of the mustard seed worked well when He told a parable attempting to enlighten His audience about the coming of the kingdom of God; a kingdom Jesus was inaugurating.

Using this seed as an example Jesus told those who gathered around Him what happens when something so small takes root. The clue to understanding the parable of the mustard seed is that the parable is a contrast story between “smallness and greatness.”  Before we continue, let me share with you something I read about the mustard seed in a book written by Fr. Robert J. Karris, O.F.M. on the Eucharist (Eating Your Way Through Luke’s Gospel).

If I understood the facts of the mustard seed in his book it takes about 2200 to 2500 mustard seeds to weigh one ounce. When planted, a mustard seed produces a plant that is taller than Shaquille O’Neal (7 ft 1 in) while a mustard plant can grow to 12 or 13 feet. It attracts birds that gather in its branches and they eat and scatter the seeds.

The ancient author Pliny the Elder wrote in his book Natural History that the plant is like a weed. It’s very invasive and it takes over the land and is difficult to eradicate. However, the leaves of the mustard plant are used in recipes to perk up dishes. Now what was Jesus’ point in this parable?

Like all of Jesus’ parables the reader or the listener can interpret them in various ways. I have several points from Jesus’  “mustard seed” parable that go like this.

First, Jesus is the original sower of the mustard seed. The seed is His word scattered in Israel. At first, His initial preaching seems so insignificant. Israel already has a temple, priesthood, a collection of sacred writings, a developed worship life and many religious institutions. On this field that already exists Jesus scattered the seeds of His word; seeds of a new Gospel, if you will, that gradually put down roots in an already old, religious soil. At first it seems so small and insignificant. That it could even sprout at all seems a miracle. Nevertheless, the seed of His word is scattered, puts down roots, begins to sprout in this old soil, and finds a fertile ground in the hearts of some of His listeners. Eventually, the mustard seed of Jesus’ preaching begin to bloom.

The parable of the mustard seed isn’t always a tale of success. Often the seed dies where it was scatted. Not all of His first listeners proved fertile fields. Like us who plant seeds in our gardens, not all the seed we plant take root and flourish. Some wither and die.

Two thousand years ago some of Jesus’ audience found the “mustard seed” that Jesus cast their way a bit much (as we can read in John 6:67) Many of His disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied Him. Jesus then said to the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?” Simon Peter answered him, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the word of eternal life.” Even some of Jesus’ earliest followers found Jesus to be too much for them and walked away.

The early Church as we know began as a small group of frightened and terrified men and women:  everyday people who had to stand out from the people around them once they let the seed of God’s Word take root in their hearts. The seed of God’s Word took deep root in them and grew, and grew and grew.

It’s a miracle that the Church could even survive in the hostile and unsympathetic environment it first took root in 2000 years ago. The Acts of the Apostles is an amazing story of how this small seed survived, endured, and grew in soil that at first seemed very unresponsive and ill-disposed to give it growth. Persecution, mockery, and harassment were the sterile soil and bitter waters that the first believers had to thrive in. Nevertheless the “divine mustard seed” took deep root in their hearts and gradually began to grow and spread.

Second, two millennium ago a handful of people was the soil that the words of Jesus first took root in. At the same time as they began to bloom, persecution, rejection by their families, martyrdom, harassment by the religious establishment, and expulsion from their villages couldn’t eradicate the “mustard seed church” that was slowly but surely penetrating the soil of Israel and the Roman Empire. Pliny the Elder likened the mustard to an invasive weed and that was what the first believers were becoming. This “divine weed” was becoming a permanent growth in the world that just wouldn’t go away. Not even the best Round Up Weed Killer could get rid of it. It’s like what Gamaliel said to the Sanhedrin: “So now I tell you, have nothing to do with these men, and let them go. For if this endeavor or this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself. But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them; you may even find yourselves fighting against God.” (Acts 6:38-40).

Gamaliel hit the mark in his warning to his fellow co-religionists in Jerusalem. God’s seed will take root whether we like it or not and there is nothing anyone can do to prevent its progress. And so as it began to grow 2000 years ago, it also attracted other birds that came to roost in its branches and eat the seeds they found there. Seeds they found tasty and nourishing.

This is why the Catholic Church is a missionary church. We, who have had our fill from the mustard plant that is Jesus, take other seeds and scatter them far and wide in our world. The Word of God has to be invasive and plant itself in the soils of Africa, the Americas, Europe, and Asia. The mustard plant is a desert plant and its roots drill deep down into the soil. The Word of God wants to drill deep down into the soil of the hearts of all men and women giving us a firm foundation in our spiritual lives. And, like the birds of this air, we need to find a safe sanctuary to find rest and security and the spiritual nourishment we need to live in a world that is often perilous to our spiritual life.

Two millennia ago the first believers saw how appealing this mustard tree was and they came to find rest and nourishment. They filled up on the wisdom of the mustard seed and then flew off to the four corners of the earth fulfilling Jesus’ final wish for those who followed Him: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations. “ (Mt. 28:19).

Now it’s our turn. We are the modern day members of this “mustard seed church.” We, who have found rest and nourishment in it and had our fill, must now fly off drop the mustard seeds of God’s Word and make disciples of all nations. We have deep roots in some places and in those that we don’t, we fly off to plant, water, and tend until it grows tall and majestic,  giving to this new soil a flavor, a zest, a relish that has been missing. All missionaries are “mustard seed” sowers.

Food for the Journey

ImageA reflection on the readings for the Feast of Corpus Christi from Fr. George Berendt, PIME.

One of my favorite places in the world on any day of the week is early morning inside a Panera bakery. Every day the baker comes in the kitchen hours before we stir and begins the day when most of us are still snug in our beds dreaming of whole wheat loaves, Jewish seeded ryes, and jelly-filled treasures. Soon all those fresh breads and pastries are done and lined up on the shelves waiting to greet us. As we enter the bakery a divine aroma assaults our sense of smell. The inner sanctum of the bakery is filled with the incense of fresh baked delights. The bakery’s atmosphere is filled with wonderful aromas that entice us deeper into this modern day ‘holy of holies.’ God is enthroned in heaven and my plate has a delectable Danish or bagel on it and a strong ‘java brewski’ warms my hands. I can’t wait to take the first nibble and first sip. I think this has to be the closet place to heaven on earth.

Amazing, isn’t it? Bread, pastries, and coffee are such simple foods: flour, water, a little salt and some other basic ingredients. Some ground beans and hot water. Yet the combination of them produces something almost divine. It’s something we crave; it’s something that calms us. It’s something that helps us to begin the day and gets us off on the right foot.

I remember when my mother used to bake bread at home. She always did so as I was returning home from school. I think she did this purposely. It was always a treat and the house was filled with such a wonderful aroma. When I opened the back door of the house and came into the kitchen all my day long scholarly problems and misadventures evaporated. Ma always made me sit down at the table with a glass of Twin Pines milk and put a slab of butter on the still warm bread. On, Ma, where are you now?

Bread is simple nourishment in human life and yet it can do so much to bring happiness and serenity to our lives. The fresh bread’s aroma, its flavor, and its warmth produce such joy and contentment. A slice of tasty, warm bread can produce a feeling that is priceless.

Today we celebrate the old feast of Corpus Christi or, as we call it now, the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ. It’s the feast of our Eucharist. I always thought it strange how God opted to be present with us over the long haul. When Israel wandered in the desert, fleeing slavery in Egypt, God led and protected them in the form of a pillar of fire at night and a cloud during the day until they arrived safe and sound in the Promised Land. As a settled community God stayed with them in a Temple’s inner chamber with nothing inside – a large, empty, bare space. And now, it’s our time. How is God present among us? There are many ways that God is with us but the one we celebrate today is the ‘bread and wine,’ the Eucharist. How odd, don’t you think? Why didn’t Jesus opt for a more powerful, more dramatic, a more Cecil B. DeMille Ten Commandments type of way of remaining with us?

In English we use the expression “breaking bread.” It means we sit down to eat, to share something together around a common table. This breaking of bread not only satisfies our hunger and gives us the strength to carry on and face the struggles that are sure to come the next day, but it also binds us together as one. Gathered around a common table we become one at least for a short moment in time. Perhaps this ‘table fellowship’ is a premonition of what heaven might be like!

Have you ever wondered what the difference is when we eat around the “Lord’s Table” or eat around a table in a restaurant? In both we gather together in a common space and eat and drink. Correct?

However, the tables in the restaurant have no way to encourage us to have a meaningful contact with those who gather with us.

I find it interesting what Alan de Botton – an atheist – wrote in his recent book Religion for Atheists.

Sitting down at a table with a group of strangers has the incomparable and odd benefit of making it a little more difficult to hate them with impunity. Prejudice and ethnic strife feed off abstraction. However, the proximity required by a meal – something about handing dishes around, unfurling napkins at the same moment, even asking a stranger to pass the salt – disrupts our ability to cling to the belief that the outsiders who wear unusual clothes and speak in distinctive accents deserve to be sent home or assaulted.”

Here, in our sacred spaces, our churches, around our special tables, our Eucharistic tables tell us that race and gender matter not. It shows us that social rank is irrelevant. It also reminds us that educational achievements become immaterial and that citizenship is immaterial and meaningless. We become as one sitting at the Divine Banquet where the Lord is the host of us all and all are God’s guests. Around this special table God’s love is distributed equally to all without prejudice or bias. Here, for a fleeting moment, all of us who gather have a foretaste and aroma of God’s love for us – one and all, without exception.

Around our Eucharistic Tables we gather before God as equals. All are precious in God’s eyes and God loves us all with an equal affection. So much so that God is willing to share with us a heavenly meal, a simple Jewish meal of bread and wine that has become, through the miracle of our Mass, His Body and Blood: His sacramental, living presence among us again.

Jesus is present here. He is the host and we the guest and all are embraced by His loving and all-encompassing arms. Not only does Jesus shower down upon us His love and affection but also He nourishes us for the journey ahead. Jesus knows full well that we will encounter many struggles and difficulties in the days that follow. Ours is a dangerous and violent world that will assault us and lead us down paths that are only blind alleys. We need a special, spiritual, strength and nourishment to aid us during our lifetime’s journey. The assaults and attacks that will harass and badger us during our earthly sojourn will undoubtedly tire and weaken us. We need a special food to strengthen us. The feast of Corpus Christi reminds us that we still have a road ahead of us in this dangerous and absurd world and we need food for this journey ahead. Today’s feast reminds us to crave this divine nourishment always. God is present here! God is our nourishment! Eat and drink for the road ahead is rough indeed!

The readings for the feast of Corpus Christi are:

Genesis 14: 18-20

1 Cor. 11: 23-26

Luke 9: 11b-17