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.

Mission work requires Gospel joy, living God's love, Pope says

VATICAN CITY - Bringing God's word to mission lands is successful only when missionaries live the Gospel with joy and share the love and goodness they receive from God, Pope Benedict XVI said.

"What is good has the inherent need to be conveyed, to give itself; it cannot stay closed up in itself (because) something good and goodness itself are essentially 'communicatio,'" that is, sharing with others, he said during a brief visit to a center belonging to the missionaries of the Society of the Divine Word.

The Lord’s plan for mankind is all about blessing, reconciliation

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) July 15 (Amos 7:12-15; Psalm 85; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:7-13)

The prophet Amos was not welcome at court or near any of the centres of power in his nation. The priest at Bethel was emphatic: he was to hit the road and get out of town. The sanctuary was a centre of royal power and the warnings that Amos had been delivering were unsettling and irritating.

The priest seemed to assume that Amos was in it for the money and if that were the case, there were richer fields to harvest in the land of Judah to the south. Amos hastened to set him straight by denying that he was a professional prophet — it didn’t even run in the family. He was a simple man — a herdsman and a tree-trimmer and he had been quite content with that. He had not sought or cultivated his calling. It was from God so Amos had very little to say about it. He had no ego investment in the outcome of his mission and no personal attachments whatsoever. He was free to speak the truth that God put in his mind and heart.

Power, privilege, exemptions and wealth are the poisons that often corrupt the purity and integrity of religions. To be stripped of everything except the grace and power of God can be both liberating and purifying.

God’s plan for humanity and the world has been unfolding since the very beginning of time. God has one plan; humans have another. They are seldom in harmony. God’s plan is all about blessing and reconciliation rather than judgment and punishment. We were chosen before the foundation of the world to be in God’s presence and to share in the riches that God intends for us. In fact, God intends to reconcile all creation and all of humanity in Christ — an end to all division and fragmentation. Those called to follow Jesus share in this mission of healing and reconciling the world. As in the case of Amos, it is not something that we dreamed up ourselves and it is not for selfish gain. Alone we are unable to accomplish the task but with God all things are possible.

Jesus ordered the Twelve to be “lean and mean” in the performance of their mission. They were to take no money, food, luggage or even a change of clothes. How many of us would be willing and able to go on a trip under such conditions? Urgency was the issue — Jesus did not want them to be hindered by anything, for the time was short. Generals and leaders who will not act until they have complete control of every last detail are often judged failures by history. They are overtaken by events and by those bolder and swifter than they are.

The Twelve in one sense took nothing with them but in another sense they had everything. They were given authority over the negative forces at work in the world and the Spirit of God worked through them. Jesus wanted them to alert people to the coming of God’s reign so that they could prepare their minds and hearts to receive it. The repentance they preached meant a change of mind and heart — a new way of looking at things. The healings and exorcisms were not merely acts of compassion but signs of God’s imminence.

The erosion of direct Christian influence in the world today might not be a bad thing. We can be too fearful and protective of the institution and its prerogatives. Christianity can and often is embedded too deeply in society, culture and economic systems. This renders it unable to raise a credible prophetic voice. Being stripped of these hindrances can be a gift from God. Perhaps we will rediscover our soul and learn to rely on the power and spirit of God rather than the many dubious forms of security and support that humanity and the world offer us.