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Sunday, 21 August 2011

Twenty First Sunday of Year (A)

(Isaiah 22:19-23; Romans 11:33-36; Matthew 16:13-20)

In the first reading we were told of one Eliakim who, in Old Testament times, was given a position not unlike that of Peter in the New Testament and that of our modern Pope: what he opened no one could shut and what he closed none would open because this authority had been given him by the Lord, he had not chosen or acquired it for himself:
I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut, when he shuts, no one shall open.
God was to establish him like a tent peg in a firm place, so that the tent would be secure even though the wind might blow hard.
I will fix him like a peg in a sure spot, to be a place of honour for his family.
Such an elevation of Eliakim would indeed bring glory to his father’s house; and it was there, we are told, that the trouble began:
On him shall hang all the glory of his family: descendants and offspring, all the little dishes, from bowls to jugs.
That is a striking picture of the family taking over the man: relatives -- close and remote -- all came to him with their requests and needs and, in that way, the family take over and gradually smother the public servant authorized by God:
On that day, says the LORD of hosts, the peg fixed in a sure spot shall give way, break off and fall, and the weight that hung on it shall be done away with; for the LORD has spoken.
Shebna had used his acquired authority to feather his own nest, to proclaim his own glory; Eliakim had been placed in authority by the Lord that he might be:
            a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem.
However, the personal weakness of Eliakim became manifest as he ended up serving not so much the inhabitants of Jerusalem as his own kith and kin… thus repeating the original sin of Adam, who chose to please his wife rather than obey God.
The first reading, as you see, shows how power can both corrupt and corrode.  And yet, the Gospel reading goes on to proclaim the establishment of Peter in a position of immeasurably greater authority and power.  Now, why are we given readings today which are seemingly so opposed?  Surely our modern democratic principles and popular contemporary opinion cause us to ask: can it ever be wise to give any one individual so much power?
The Old Testament examples of Shebna and Eliakim provide a contrast to our Gospel passage that provokes and enables us to espy something of the wisdom of God of which St. Paul spoke in the second reading, a wisdom that never ceased to astound him the more he considered the wonders of God's saving Providence:
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways!
For, in the Gospel we find a new ingredient, so to speak, which transforms the peg of the Old Testament into the Rock of the New Testament:
Jesus said, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.  And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.
The new, transforming, ingredient is to be found in the fact that Peter was given authority ‘in the name of Jesus’.  Because Peter -- inspired by the Father -- had proclaimed his faith in Jesus as Messiah and Son of the Living God, therefore, Jesus henceforth would build His Church on the Rock of Peter’s faith.  Only Peter  was chosen by Jesus as the foundation stone, the Rock, on which to build His Church, because of His Father’s revelation to Peter; and also because of Peter’s unhesitating and wholehearted response to that inspiration.  Both Jesus and the Father Himself are thus to be seen behind Peter.
Even Peter’s subsequent personal faults and failings – first, being so strongly rebuked by Jesus’ words, 'Get behind me Satan', and secondly, denying Jesus three times -- far from invalidating the pre-eminence of Peter, even led to a strengthening of his position with regard to his fellow apostles.  On the first occasion, Jesus renewed His choice of Peter for the function, the public function, of Rock for the Church saying:
Simon, Simon! Indeed, Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat.  But I have prayed for you that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren."  (Luke 22:31-32)
And likewise, after Peter’s three-fold denial of Jesus, St. John tells us that the Risen Lord later appeared by the Sea of Galilee and said in front of six other apostles:
Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me more than these? ….Do you love Me? Do you love Me?
Jesus evidently found Peter’s answer clearly acceptable, for, when he cried:
            Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You!
Jesus immediately responded with words of re-commissioning and trust:
            Feed my sheep.  Follow me.
Now, the book of Revelation tells us that the Risen Jesus, in His heavenly glory at the right hand of the Father in heaven, is constantly making intercession for us, and surely, therefore, constantly interceding for Peter both as Rock and Centre of Unity for the Church.  For we can never forget that Peter's function as Rock for the Church which the gates of Hades will never be able to overpower, is balanced by that other supremely important function as Centre of Unity for the Church, confirming his brothers, in accordance with Jesus' final prayer (John. 17:20-21):
Father, I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.        
Therefore, People of God, our readings today help us see clearly just who is the supreme head and ultimate leader of the Church: it is the heavenly Jesus.  True, Peter is the head of the Church on earth, he is the visible head because Jesus wants His Church to be truly, visibly, one on earth; but Peter is only able to be that visible head, because Jesus is the heavenly, ultimate, Head who prays unceasingly for Peter that he may continue to fulfil his function towards his brethren in the Church on earth.
We Catholics do not blindly follow any human being in our lives as disciples of Jesus: in all things we look to, we love, we worship and obey, Jesus, in the Spirit, for the Father.  Ultimately, it is Jesus Who, through Peter, was foreshadowed in Isaiah's prophecy concerning Eliakim, because Jesus is the eschatological figure Who brings glory to His Father's house, as the prophet said:
He will become a throne of glory to his father’s house (23b).
It is through faith and baptism as disciples of Jesus that those who are called to receive new and eternal life are thereby enabled to give eternal glory to the Father, in Jesus, by the Spirit.  This supreme glorification of the Father is to be accomplished by Jesus’ disciples abiding in the unity originally given by the Spirit, in Jesus, at baptism; to be subsequently nourished at the Eucharist, then guided and protected under the maternal solicitude of Mary in the Church.  As Pope Benedict says:
The content of, the ultimate event taking place in, the Eucharist is the unifying of Christians, out of their individual and mutual separation into the Unity of the One Bread and the One Body.  Out of many nations one People is being made through their sharing of the one table.
Jesus knows well that His Church can only fully overcome the powers of Hades by abiding ever more deeply as one in love of the Truth, and for that end He associates Peter, and his successors, with Himself: they are to serve, here on earth, as constant witnesses to, protectors and promoters of, the supreme earthly good of that unity in Truth and Love for which Jesus so ardently prayed:
I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.  And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.  (Jn. 17:20-23)
Therefore, although we lovingly recognize and gratefully appreciate Peter as head of the Church here on earth, nevertheless, we look beyond him: we confess the Spirit of Jesus guiding, protecting, and sustaining him; we acknowledge the Person of Jesus Who, having gone before him, unceasingly calls him to follow on the way He has gone; and we yearn for the Father the originating source and ultimate fulfilment of our salvation.  Such an appreciation, such a vision, fills us with a gratitude which leads us to cry out in those words of Isaiah:
On this mountain (the new Jerusalem, the Church of Jesus) the LORD of Hosts will make for all people a feast of choice pieces, a feast of wines on the lees, and the rebuke of His people He will take away from all the earth.  We have waited for Him and He will save us: this is the LORD, we will be glad and rejoice in His salvation."  (25:6-9)

Sunday, 14 August 2011

         The Assumption of Our Lady           
 (Revelation 11:19; 12:1-6, 10; 1 Corinthians 15:20-27; Luke 1: 39-56)  

Let us hear first of all the official, dogmatic teaching of the Church about Our Lady’s Assumption which we joyfully celebrate today.  The dogma proclaimed by Pope Pius XII in 1950 is quoted in our modern Catholic Catechism and reads as follows:
The Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all stain of original sin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, so that she might be the more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords and conqueror of sin and death.
The Catechism goes on to explain:
The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is a singular participation in her Son’s Resurrection and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians.
That means that Mary’s Assumption was not achieved of her own power neither was it due to her own merits: it is a gift, a unique share in the power of Jesus’ resurrection, given her thanks to the merits of Jesus Who -- though human in body and soul -- was divine in His Person, the very Son of God made flesh, Who alone could win the victory over sin and death for the whole of mankind.  Having won that victory in the flesh and blood He received from Mary, the Assumption is the expression of Mary’s unique participation in her Son’s triumph and her unique sharing in the redemption He won for all mankind. 
The Assumption is supremely significant because Mary, though the Mother of God, totally unique in her relationship with Jesus and in her share in His work of redemption, nevertheless, remained one with us, one of us, totally human in her body, soul, and personality: Mary of Nazareth our glory indeed, but also our sister.  And consequently, being thus our full sister, her Assumption is a sign of hope for all of us, a sign that we too might aspire, in the Spirit, to share with her in Jesus’ redemptive Resurrection.
Jesus wanted very much to underline the oneness between us and Mary, His Mother, as we can learn from His somewhat startling response to her on a very public occasion:
His brothers and His mother came, and standing outside they sent to Him, calling Him.  And a multitude was sitting around Him; and they said to Him, "Look, Your mother and Your brothers are outside seeking You."  But He answered them, saying, "Who is My mother, or My brothers?"  And He looked around in a circle at those who sat about Him, and said, "Here are My mother and My brothers!  For whoever does the will of God is My brother and My sister and mother." (Mark 3:31-35)
Evidently, He willed to make it clear for subsequent generations that Mary was no goddess, nor was she ever to be thought of as being other than one of us.  And yet, as St. John tells us, Jesus -- with what were almost His very last words as He hung, dying, on the Cross -- chose to give supreme emphasis to the reverence and love that all who would be His disciples should have for her:
Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.  When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, "Woman, behold your son!"  Then He said to the disciple, "Behold your mother!" (John 19:25-27)
Therefore, when Mary, the Mother of Jesus, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory, it was not simply for Mary herself, for she is our sister whom we might hope to follow; and also, since Mary is our mother too, we can be sure that she will be a constant advocate and most powerful help to us who have been handed over, so to speak, into her maternal care.  In that way we are led to have sure confidence and firm hope that if we are faithful disciples of Jesus to the end, we can and will eventually follow Our Lord heavenward and share in His glory, as she, our sister and our mother, has already done.
The dogma of the Assumption was, as I said, promulgated in 1950 by Pope Pius XII.  It was nothing new; it had been loved, meditated and celebrated in the Church from the earliest times.  It was at the beginning of the 5thC. that what had been traditionally celebrated as her Dormition or sleeping in earthly death, became rather the celebration of her “birthday”, her birth into heavenly life, that is, her Assumption.  There are apocryphal stories written early in the history of the Church telling of the death of Mary, how her body was buried under the tree of life, and how she was translated into heaven.  Some scholars think these stories arose after the feast started to be celebrated; others, however, think the first of the apocryphal tales go back to the earliest times, and that there was probably an immemorial veneration of the tomb of Mary in Jerusalem by early Jewish converts to Christianity.
Such stories however, although picturesque, sometimes moving, or even instructive, are not the basis of our present faith which rests securely on the ancient devotion and worship of the Church, in accordance with the teaching of the Scriptures and under the perennial guidance of the Spirit.
Whenever the body of a disciple of Jesus and child of the Church is brought into church the night before burial we read the Gospel passage which goes:
Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me.  In My Father's house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. (John 14:1-2)
There, at the Last Supper, Jesus was speaking to His sorrowing disciples in order to comfort them in their distress at the thought of His imminent Passion and Death.  Think how Jesus must have willed above all to comfort His Mother in her distress; surely, first and foremost, He would want and will to prepare a place for her!
And where would that place be?  The disciples were distressed that Jesus was going to be taken from them, and so Jesus promised:
If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also. (John 14:3)
Who more than Mary longed to be where Jesus was?  Who had persevered so faithfully as Mary at the foot of the Cross and throughout His whole life and ministry?
Again, Jesus prayed most solemnly at the Last Supper:
Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world. (John 17:24)
Now, who could conceivably long to see the glory of her Son more than His Mother?  Who, more than Mary, could conceivably deserve to see the glory of her Son?
However, all such considerations are included in, and embraced by, these other words of Jesus:
If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also. If anyone serves Me, him My Father will honour. (John 12:26)
Mary’s whole life with her Son was, indeed, a life of total and whole-hearted love and service, given directly and personally to Jesus from the moment of His conception.  And even that, however, is not the sum total of Mary’s commitment to and sharing with Jesus throughout her life on earth, for, just as St. Peter, writing to the early Christians threatened with persecution by the Roman State, said:
If you are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you (1 Pet 4:14);
so too we are told of Mary that she was blessed with the Spirit of glory and of God resting on her from the beginning of her motherhood, that is, she was blessed with the ability, and called to embrace the opportunity, to share with her Son in His sufferings.  This was made clear to her in the Temple at Jerusalem, when, together with St. Joseph -- and with her heart surely filled with ecstatic joy and gratitude to God – she was presenting her Son to the Lord, a Temple priest, Simeon by name, approached them, and, we are told :
Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary His mother, "Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed." (Luke 2:34-35)
Yes, Mary would follow her Son unswervingly to the end, until, standing at the foot of His Cross she watched Him die.  Even thus, her sufferings for Him were not over, since she participated most intimately in the early sufferings of His Church.
The fact is that Jesus, in all that He did, carried with Him and worked in and through, the flesh and blood that Mary had uniquely given Him.  She was so intimately one with Him in all that He did, in and through His sacred humanity; and that is why she alone has been so uniquely honoured by the Father that she is now where Jesus is, in heaven!.  Jesus, bearing Mary’s flesh, died, was buried, and rose again; therefore, Mary too, in her flesh died, was buried, and then -- thanks to her Son’s Personal holiness and Divine majesty -- knowing no corruption just as she had known no sin, she was raised to share with Him in His heavenly glory.
People of God, let us, therefore, rejoice on the occasion of this solemn feast, and repeat with heartfelt joy the words of Mary herself:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour; for He has looked with favour on His lowly servant.  From this day all generations will call me blessed: the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name. (Luke 1:46-49)
Having thus praised God in the first outpouring of her soul’s gratitude, Mary then spoke words for the comfort of her children, words which should give us both confidence and courage as we strive to serve and follow Jesus our Lord and Saviour:
He has mercy on those who fear Him in every generation.
The Assumption of Mary is still for us, in this the third millennium, a source of inspiration and of hope; for the arm of the Lord is not shortened, His mercy and love are eternal.  What was given to Mary was given her uniquely indeed, but not exclusively, for it was intended also for us, ‘those who fear Him from generation to generation’.  Let us, therefore, as her children, treasure and take to heart the words Elizabeth used to characterize our mother:
Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfilment of those things which were told her from the Lord