These reflections are a result of more than 40 years of ministry as a Roman Catholic priest. Most of these years I spent in the Diocese of Charlotte which covers Western North Carolina. Now I am retired, and live in Medellín, Colombia where I continue to serve as a priest in the Archdiocese of Medellín.
Peter the Apostle, and Paul the teacher of the Gentiles, these have taught us your law, O Lord. (Entrance Antiphon)
Today is the feast of the two great apostles that the Church of Rome claims as its founders. Through the ancient city of Rome the churches always show the two apostles together. Although they died in different years, in the celebration of their martyrdoms, the two are celebrated together. Would that we could all say together with Saint Paul:
I am already being poured out like a libation, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me, but to all who have longed for his appearance. (2 Tim 4:6-8)
Brothers and sisters: Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life. (Rom 6:3-4)
In Baptism, we die with Christ so that we may live with Christ. As Saint Paul would say of his baptism: I have been crucified with Christ, and the life I live now is not my own, it is Christ living in me. Oh, I still live my human life, but it is a life of faith in the Son of God who loved and gave himself for me (Gal 2:20).
Your prophets had for you visions of whitewashed illusion. They did not lay bare your guilt, to avert your fate; They beheld for you in vision false and misleading portents. (Lam 2:14)
With the coronavirus infection and mortality rates climbing ever higher, the pandemic seems to be far from over—and even though many are suffering from pandemic fatigue and others are simply being deliberately stupid and endangering themselves, their loved ones and the general public by refusing to follow the guidelines of the CDC, the question comes, what about the false prophets who claimed all this was a hoax and a conspiracy? Faith and common sense go together, hand in hand. We can’t tempt God by saying: “God will protect me,” and then act irresponsibly. God gave us a brain, hoping that just maybe we might use it. Unfortunately, too many have turned their brains off. Thinking is hard work afterall. Building a just society and world is what we’re called to do. I have a good pagan friend who was writing to her pagan community about the times we are in. She said:
"We wanted an apocalypse: Apocalypses are attractive because they’re clean. The world ends, we all die, and so we don’t have to deal with the challenges of life anymore. Or some divine agent descends, kills off all the bad people and makes everything OK, and so we don’t have to deal with the challenges of life anymore. Apocalyptic prophecies are attractive and addictive. They also have a 3,500 year track record of being WRONG EVERY SINGLE TIME. Covid-19 isn’t an apocalypse. There will be no apocalypse – we don’t get off that easily. The job of building the kind of world we want to see still falls to us."
Well, words of wisdom from a pagan . . . but she is absolutely correct. Avoiding the challenges of life, as she puts it, can lead us into all sorts of wacky behavior. Apocalyptic prophecies, of which the Bible has quite a few, have always been proven wrong. Even Saint Paul, who thought the Lord was coming any minute now, had to caution believers about false prophets. When I was a kid, I remember hearing a sermon in a Baptist church in which the preacher described the European Common Market (as it was called way back when) as the ten-headed beast of the Book of Revelation. Beast it may be but hardly apocalyptic. It’s perfectly fine to pray and to trust that the Lord will heal us . . . but to turn off our brains, and act irresponsibly by endangering the lives of others by not wearing a face mask or social distancing, has nothing to do with the faith that Jesus taught: Love God and love neighbor. In a society that has lost the meaning of the Common Good as well as the uniting concept of the human community, and any sense that we are all in this together, wearing a face mask in public and social distancing can appear to be threatening my basic constitutional rights. But there is a far greater threat that we must face, and we can’t avoid the challenges of life anymore: Where is our sense of community? Where is our sense of the human family? Where is the sense of the Common Good, that we’re all in this together? Because we are in serious danger of drowning in a sea of narcissism, thinking only of ourselves. In these times, loving God and loving neighbor as Jesus taught us just might mean wearing a face mask in public and practicing social distancing.
When Jesus came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him. And then a leper approached, did him homage, and said, “Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean.” He stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, “I will do it. Be made clean.” His leprosy was cleansed immediately. Then Jesus said to him, “See that you tell no one, but go show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.” (Mt 8:1-4)
The power of touch . . . of course, touching a leper made one unclean according to the Law of God. And so by touching the leper, Jesus is crossing the line. And yet the touch is everything.
The photo is of Saint Damien of Molokai . . . on the left, as the young priest, on the right the Leper Priest of Molokai.
At that time the officials of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, attacked Jerusalem, and the city came under siege. Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, himself arrived at the city while his servants were besieging it. Then Jehoiachin, king of Judah, together with his mother, his ministers, officers, and functionaries, surrendered to the king of Babylon, who, in the eighth year of his reign, took him captive. And he carried off all the treasures of the temple of the LORD and those of the palace, and broke up all the gold utensils that Solomon, king of Israel, had provided in the temple of the LORD, as the LORD had foretold. He deported all Jerusalem: all the officers and men of the army, ten thousand in number, and all the craftsmen and smiths. None were left among the people of the land except the poor. (2 Kgs 24:10-14)
I remember my first pilgrimage to Rome. I went to the Roman Forum and was captivated by the Arch of Titus which was erected after another sacking of Jerusalem, this time by the Roman army. The Arch has depictions of the triumphal parade award to Titus with soldiers carrying the vessels of the Jerusalem Temple to be deposited in the treasury of the Templo of Jupiter in Rome. A Jewish man was also viewing the Arch and turned and said to me in English: “This place is sacred to my people.” And I answered him, “It is also sacred to my people.”
The LORD called me from birth, from my mother’s womb he gave me my name. (Is 49:1)
Sometimes we forget that the Lucan gospel begins with TWO annunciation stories and TWO nativities. Today, six months before Christmas, we celebrate the birth of John the Baptist, who prepared the way of the Lord. As Zechariah proclaims:
And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins. (Lk 1:76-77)
Jesus said to his disciples: “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you. This is the Law and the Prophets.” (Mt 7:12)
I remember a Children’s Mass that was trying to explain the challenge that gospel writers faced. One of kids, playing the part of the gospel writer, asked, “Jesus said something about doing to others . . . but what was that last part?” One kid answered: “Jesus said: Do unto others BEFORE they do unto you.” Well, another kid answered, “No, he didn’t say that, he said, “Do unto others THEN they’ll do unto you.” Finally, one kid gets it right, “No, Jesus said, ‘Do to others whatever you would have them do to you.” Being a gospel writer had it’s challenges!