Belief in Jesus is a way of life

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Aug. 19 (Proverbs 9:1-6; Psalm 34; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58)

The Bible has a master metaphor for describing the blessings of God, especially those blessings that focus on sustenance, transformation and inspiration: good food and fine wine. So much for asceticism! We can only wonder if the metaphor works in an age of fast-food or food of questionable nutritional value.

These symbols represented not only the fundamentals of life but also something that would immediately pique the interest of the listener. The seven pillars of Lady Wisdom are portrayed in terms of a lavish banquet but it has a very specific guest list: only those who are simple and willing to lay aside immaturity are invited.

Simplicity is openness and a lack of arrogance and cunning. The know-it-all, the cynic, the zealot or fanatic, the ideologue and those fearful of change or newness need not apply.

Wisdom urges the prospective guest to lay aside immaturity but it is amazing how many people have failed to do that. Brilliance or competence is not necessarily linked to maturity. Living and walking in the way of insight — wisdom — is the ability to be patient, just, balanced and compassionate in a variety of situations and to be able to apply spiritual principles to everyday life. In a sense, becoming aware of how much one does not know is the first step to attaining wisdom. As Socrates said, “I know one thing — that I know nothing!” Christianity needs to become less of a religion about getting to heaven and more a path of holy wisdom in this life. Lady Wisdom’s invitation still stands — she is the personification of a divinely inspired and guided life.

The author of Ephesians was well aware of this. His advice was simple: don’t waste your lives! Time goes by so quickly and time is infinitely precious. Once spent, or wasted, it cannot be replenished. He advised his readers to make the most of their time and not squander it on foolishness. Today we might add to that list compulsive overwork and addictive behaviour.

A life of wisdom includes spending ample time cultivating healthy human relationships and virtues as well as one’s relationship with God.

Jesus continued the tradition of Wisdom — indeed, the image of Wisdom virtually merges with the portrayal of Jesus in the New Testament. Jesus offered food and drink, beginning innocuously enough with the image of bread. The image abruptly changed into something jarring and shocking — flesh and blood. We are so used to them that the shock value has worn off, but the words sounded outrageous to His listeners. They were intended to be so — it was John’s habit to use language to separate those who were spiritually astute from those who were clueless. John’s images are meant to be interpreted on a deeper spiritual level rather than a literal and superficial one.

Contrasting that which is temporary and limited with the gift of God that is eternal, Jesus offered His own divine being to all who were willing to receive it. When we eat food we assimilate it and it becomes part of who and what we are. In a similar way, Jesus must be taken in as food and assimilated, He must become part of our very physical, psychological and spiritual makeup. This can come to us through many paths: the Eucharist, prayer, meditation, spiritual study, good works and in what we say, think and do. John is quite clear throughout the Gospel: faith in Jesus is not a mere religion but a total way of life — Jesus must be taken into us with the same urgency and regularity as food, drink and breath.

Just as filling ourselves with questionable food and drink damages our health and can lead to death, so it is with many of the things we use to give us a sense of strength, security and meaning. Nothing less than the sustaining power of Jesus Christ will provide what we seek and need.

Faith brings life-giving spirit

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Aug. 12 (1 Kings 19:4-8; Psalm 34; Ephesians 4:30-5:2; John 6:41-51)

Everyone has their limit or breaking point, and Elijah had clearly reached his. Elijah had been fleeing from the assassins sent by Ahab and Jezebel and he was convinced that his days were numbered. He was worn out, disheartened and defeated. He just wanted to end it all so he prayed for death.

Many people can probably empathize with Elijah — perhaps they have been there, maybe even more than once. Like most people, Elijah was not fully aware of just how much careful and provident care God was continually exercising on his behalf. He was never alone or without resources and neither are we. The angels provided him with food and drink sufficient for “40 days and 40 nights” — a symbolic rather than a literal number — and the remainder of his journey to the mountain of God. In this case the food and drink was literal but in many cases it consists of the strength, courage and grace to go on. As long as we rely solely on our own powers and efforts we will eventually begin to wear out. The psalm encourages us to “taste and see that the Lord is good,” something we are often reluctant to do. This is more than offering a few perfunctory prayers. It means admitting our own limits and surrendering to the higher power that is God. The tremendous grace that is offered by God can be blocked by our own stubborn efforts to remain in control and make everything happen by our own plans and efforts. God is our sustainer in more than the metaphorical or symbolic sense. God is the power that makes all things possible.

People give the Holy Spirit ample reasons to be grieved. We have been given so much and are offered even more. God’s spirit is poured into our hearts and God shares the divine life with us. And yet the gift is spurned and treated with contempt by everyday human behaviour.

Sharing in God’s life and being a temple of the Spirit requires that we imitate God. The New Testament is very clear on what divine qualities are called for: kindness, forgiveness, gentleness and compassion.

When we display malice, wrath, slander, cruelty and bitterness God is not the one whom we are imitating. The Spirit is shut out of our hearts and we become a temple only for our negative attitudes and emotions. When we fall prey to this tendency we are not walking in the ways of God regardless of how religious or pious we might consider ourselves to be. Holiness does not consist of lip service but in the continual way we respond to the needs and the challenges represented by the world and the people around us.

Imitating God is tricky business but exhilarating and transforming at the same time.

The people listening to Jesus were shocked and scandalized. How can Jesus have come down from heaven? The crowd understood the words and the symbols that Jesus used in the most literal and superficial way. This very common human weakness is evident in many of the stories in John’s Gospel. Most people did not comprehend the deeper message hidden in the words. Jesus was speaking of His divine origin and the fact that He had become flesh for the sake of humanity. Jesus went on to insist that anyone who had really been listening to God with an open mind and heart would come to faith rather than finding fault and raising objections.

Faith is a mysterious process and is not something we figure out or put together for ourselves. God is the one who draws us but it remains for us to respond and follow. Jesus pointed out that the manna in the desert was temporary.

The life that it gave was physical and short; the people who ate it eventually met ordinary human death. In His self-revelation as the living bread from heaven, Jesus identified Himself as the divine sustainer. This time the sustenance is on a much higher level, for the life that it will provide is eternal. It was through the sacrifice of His own flesh on the cross that Jesus was able to become the life-giving force for all.  This life-giving spirit is offered to us through faith.

God can be and should be trusted

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Aug. 5 (Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15, 31; Psalm 78; Ephesians 4:17, 20-24; John 6:24-35)

Moses had a revolt on his hands. The excitement and wonder of the exodus from Egypt had already worn off. Now boredom, hunger and fear had taken hold of the people. The anguish, tears and suffering of bondage in Egypt were quickly forgotten. The only thing that they remembered was that the food had been plentiful (and the memory may have been very selective) — so why not go back into Egypt? It wasn’t that bad!

People usually disparage their present circumstances and romanticize the past or an imagined future. This was a massive failure in trust on the part of the people. God had brought them out of bondage with great signs and wonders but that was past. What about now? God came through again — this time with quail for meat and manna “from heaven.” The manna was most likely the secretion of two kinds of insects that feed on the sap of the tamarisk plant and it is rich in both sugar and pectin. That does not diminish the presence of divine care — often miracles are natural occurrences that are given precisely in the right moment and place.

The instructions that accompany the miracle (omitted) are interesting — the people were expressly forbidden to gather an abundance of manna or to hoard. This was to be an exercise in trust rather than greed or fear. God would provide just enough — not too much or too little — and the people were to be content and at peace with that. If we would learn to live by this principle the needs of all people would be met. Some of the crowd refused to heed the instructions and the hoarded manna turned putrid before their eyes, a metaphor for what happens when greed and selfishness take hold of us. The consistent lesson of the desert experience was that God could be trusted and should be. The people were not to walk in fear or succumb to negativity and anger.

The author of Ephesians had the same message in a different vein. Being a follower of Jesus does not mean business as usual and is not merely adopting a religion. It involves a “total makeover,” a shedding of all that is so typically human and yet not genuinely human: selfishness, lust, greed and negative thought patterns. Many secular ideologies have striven to create a “new man” but this is usually in pursuit of some political or economic goal. The renewal that we obtain through the spirit of Christ is a cleansing and restoration of the original spiritual image of God in which we were created. Often the only way that we begin to shed the old person is when we face challenges and struggles like the Israelites in the desert.

The crowd that witnessed the miraculous feeding was in need of a bit of renewal. Their pursuit of Jesus was not a faith quest but a desire for more signs and wonders, and maybe a bit more of the free food. They asked the age-old question: what must we do to perform the works of God? What does God want and expect from us? The reply of Jesus was disarmingly simple: just this: believe in Him whom He has sent, referring of course to Himself. Is that all? Faith in Jesus, however, is not a free pass or an occasional venture. It is nothing less than a complete surrender of all of oneself to Jesus and willingness to embark on a whole new way of life. The people demanded a sign from Jesus before making any faith commitments, and they had one in mind. Their ancestors were fed with manna in the desert — can Jesus top this? Jesus corrected their understanding: God, not Moses, was the one who fed them. Manna and other forms of earthly sustenance are fleeting and limited. It is only heavenly food that sustains without end or limit and God is prepared to grant this.

Showing the literal understanding typical of ordinary people in John’s Gospel, they were eager to have this food. Jesus then delivered the shocker: He Himself is this heavenly bread, as well as the source of living water. Only He can grant us nourishment without end, eternal life in God’s presence.

Crowds flock to New Jersey tree with a scar some claim resembles Mary

WASHINGTON - A scar on a tree on a West New York, N.J., street that some claim looks like Our Lady of Guadalupe is "a natural occurrence," said Jim Goodness, a spokesman for the Newark Archdiocese.

But he told Catholic News Service he hopes the devotion it has prompted might lead people to think more deeply about their faith. Crowds began to form at the site July 14.

News reports indicated that hundreds of people have come to the site, now dubbed the "Virgin Mary tree." Located on the corner of 60th Street and Bergenline Avenue, the tree has been taped off and is under watch by city police and volunteers.

All is possible with faith

17th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year B) July 29 (2 Kings 4:42-44; Psalm 145; Ephesians 4:1-6; John 6:1-15)

Many people are struck by the uncanny resonances between passages in the Old and New Testaments. Indeed, some stories from the Old Testament almost seem to be cut and pasted into the New, albeit with some significant alterations. This is not coincidence but the result of two very important ancient practices.

The first was midrash — Jewish biblical exegesis — that often took the form of retelling a story in new ways in order to respond to contemporary needs and issues. Each retelling brought out deeper and more subtle aspects of biblical truth and did not eliminate or render obsolete earlier versions. There are large bodies of midrashic literature devoted to the prophets and holy people of the Old Testament.

Kateri feast day draws Native American Catholics eager for own saint

FONDA, N.Y. - With the beat of a drum sounding and the scent of burning sage and sweet grass permeating the hot, humid air, Native American Catholics honored a woman they already consider a saint July 14, her feast day.

This year's celebration was special, because in October the Algonquin-Mohawk woman who died more than 400 years ago will at long last become a saint.

Church must preach truth, justice, Pope says at Mass in Frascati

FRASCATI, Italy - Christians don't preach what the powerful want to hear or what will please a crowd; "their criteria is truth and justice," even if it garners no applause, Pope Benedict XVI said during an outdoor Mass.

The Pope celebrated Mass July 15 outside the Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle in Frascati, about five miles from his summer villa at Castel Gandolfo.

Bishop Raffaello Martinelli of Frascati had worked with the Pope at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, specializing in catechesis. Pope Benedict told the estimated 8,000 people gathered in the square outside the cathedral that the bishop's "voice is very much present" in the text of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

'Blessed are the peacemakers' is theme of 2013 World Peace Day

VATICAN CITY - Threats to religious liberty and other basic rights, the global financial crisis and crises in politics and education signal a "worrying crisis of democracy," said a note from the Vatican announcing Pope Benedict XVI's choice of a theme for World Peace Day 2013.

In a message reflecting on the theme, "Blessed are the peacemakers," the Pope will offer "an ethical reflection" on measures that the global community is considering or should adopt in response to the various crises afflicting many countries around the world, said a Vatican communique published July 16.

No peace without dialogue, sacrifice, patience, Pope says

CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy - Just as individual musicians in an orchestra turn dissonance into harmony through hard work, sacrifice and listening to one another, so, too, can the world's people turn conflict into peace, said Pope Benedict XVI.

The pope made his remarks following a July 11 concert performed in his honor by young musicians from Israel, the Palestinian territories and other Arab countries.

The Lord is the shepherd who will not disappoint

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) July 22 (Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23; Ephesians 2:13-18; Mark 6:30-34)

“The Lord is my shepherd” — how often we have heard the opening line of Psalm 23 but perhaps we are not aware of its full import. It is a declaration of independence from the disappointments and betrayals of human beings.

Jeremiah, like his fellow-prophet Ezekiel, did not have good words for the shepherds of Israel. They did not do their job. They were corrupt, greedy and self-serving. They were mostly to blame for the disaster that Jeremiah saw looming on the horizon — the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians in the early sixth century BC. Speaking in the first person on behalf of God, Jeremiah expressed God’s disgust and disappointment at the poor performance of Israel. God resolved to take personal control of the situation — to gather the scattered children of God together and provide them protection. New shepherds would be found who would fulfill their responsibilities. Looking to the distant future, a leader from David’s lineage would be selected, partly because of this lineage but mostly because of his God-centred righteousness.

Solitude is being content in our own skin

Eight-hundred years ago, the poet Rumi wrote: “What I want is to leap out of this personality and then sit apart from that leaping. I’ve lived too long where I can be reached.”

Isn’t that true for all of us, especially today? Our lives are often like over-packed suitcases. It seems like we are always busy, always over-pressured, always one phone call, one text message, one e-mail, one visit and one task behind. We are forever anxious about what we have still left undone, about whom we have disappointed, about unmet expectations.