Archive | September, 2018

The First Temptation: Turning Stones into Bread

September 28, 2018

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By Christopher Menzhuber

Most people imagine that Jesus’ first temptation in the desert was to turn stones into bread. This makes perfect sense because the text literally states the Tempter told him “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Mt 4:3. But without undermining this traditional interpretation or minimizing the importance of fasting, what if for a moment we considered that scene may not have played out exactly as many have imagined? What if, instead of loaves, the devil was really tempting Jesus with human hearts?

Human hearts? What could possibly suggest Jesus was being tempted with anything other than bread, much less hearts of all things? To begin answering this question, listen closely to what just happened in the same Gospel a few verses earlier. When the presumptuous Pharisees and Sadducees came to John in the wilderness he warned them “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” Mt 3:9.

Were these stones John was referring to similar or perhaps even the very same stones scattered around the scene of the temptation? Was the devil’s temptation influenced by listening to John the Baptist’s reproach of the power brokers of that time? Who knows? But what is significant about John’s statement is that God –who made the whole universe out of nothing – can surely raise up faithful people from stones.

Next, recall how the prophet Ezekiel described the new covenant that God would forge with his people. “I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” Ezekiel 36:26. Of course this was not meant to signify a literal organ transplant. Rather, it describes in symbolic language what God was promising to accomplish through his Messiah, a promise which Jesus would of course have been aware of and very much desired.

And so if we allow these Biblical texts to provide a background for this temptation, then it is not really a contortion to imagine that during the deadly mystical showdown between the savior and the father of lies, while they were indicating the physical stones in front of them, there was an awareness these stones signified something far greater: They represented the hearts of men.

But how would Jesus be tempted to turn hearts of stone into faithful ones? The text states that Jesus was hungry. Of course, there is no need to downplay the significance of real physical hunger after fasting. But we also know from the Gospel of John what Jesus hungers for even more than food. After speaking with the Samaritan woman his Apostles offered him something to eat and he explained, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and accomplish his work.” Jn 4:34. The exchange with the woman at the well fed him. His food –his bread- was the changed heart of the Samaritan woman.

When we put these ideas together and re-read the story, as the devil points to the stones, he is at the same time indicating all those faithless, obstinate, “stone”- hearted people who fall so very short of what really satisfies Jesus. The temptation to “make stones into bread,” takes on a new level of meaning: “Since you have the power of God, why don’t you just snap your fingers and change those hard-hearted people into good people? It’s what you’re most hungry for, after all.”

Considering the temptation in this way contrasts two very different ways of using power. To someone who is concerned exclusively with themselves, it is incomprehensible that you wouldn’t use power to satisfy yourself, commanding, intimidating, and coercing others to get your way, especially if what you want is something good. Those who mocked Jesus on the cross revealed their misunderstanding of divine wisdom when they taunted, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross!” Mt 27:40.

This temptation to use power to change others into something for my own consumption has reiterated down the centuries to our present day. In politics, entertainment, industry, media, education, and even tragically within the Church itself –we can observe instances of capitulation to this diabolic temptation: I command you to be my bread; I’m going to use my power to turn you into what I desire.

But what was Jesus’ way? How did Jesus -the great I AM- wield his omnipotence? What did Jesus ultimately do that not only repelled the temptation, but completely subverted the devil’s notion of how to use power?

Jesus did not turn us stone-hearted people into his bread. Jesus turned himself into bread for us.

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St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist

September 21, 2018

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St. MatthewSt. Matthew was an apostle and an evangelist

Matthew was also known as Levi, the son of Alphaeus (Mk 2:14; Lk 5:27). He was born in Capernaum, a fishing village on the northwest side of the Sea of Galilee, and he worked at a nearby border crossing as a customs agent where it was his job to collect a toll or duty on all of the people, animals, and goods. These “toll collectors” or “tax collectors” were very unpopular with average Jewish citizens because they were viewed as greedy and corrupt as they regularly overcharged and pocketed the difference for themselves, and as traitors because they consorted with the Romans who were despised as pagans and an unwelcome foreign presence in their homeland.

On one occasion when Jesus was walking along the north shore of the lake, he came to the toll booth where Matthew was stationed. Jesus paused, looked at him, and said, “Follow me” (Mt 9:9). It was shocking that Jesus would call someone so scorned by so many to be one of his apostles, and equally shocking that Matthew would accept the invitation, leave his family and friends, job, income, and security, all to follow Jesus without a moment’s delay. Then Jesus shared a dinner with him in his home (Mt 9:10). Matthew is mentioned only four other times in the New Testament, always on a list of the apostles (Mt 10:3; Mk 3:18; Lk 6:15; Acts 1:13).

After the Ascension, Matthew receives no further attention in the New Testament. According to tradition, after Pentecost Matthew began his missionary work in Judea, but accounts of his other destinations vary. Some say “the East,” including Syria and Persia; others Europe, maybe Macedonia, possibly as far as Ireland. His final destination most likely was Ethiopia where tradition says he was martyred, first crucified on a T-shape cross and then beheaded with an axe.

Matthew also was an evangelist or the author of a gospel. His gospel was composed around 85 AD and intended for a Jewish Christian audience. One of his major literary purposes was to present Jesus as the fulfilled of the Hebrew Scriptures. His book has twenty-eight chapters which makes it the longest of the four gospels, and for centuries it has been considered the best textbook or catechism for teaching about Jesus and the Christian faith. Prior to the liturgical renewal there was a one-year Lectionary cycle and Matthew’s texts were most used at Mass. As part of the renewal a three-year Lectionary cycle was developed, and today the gospel selections are more equally distributed between all four evangelists.

Matthew is represented by a number of symbols in Christian art. As a money collector, he is represented by a coin purse, a treasure chest, one or three money bags, or a scale which was used to weigh gold; as a gospel writer, he is represented by a quill pen, a scroll, or a book; as an author guided by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, there may be a dove or rays of light; and as a martyr, he is sometimes represented by a spear or a sword, but more often by a battle axe, the weapon used to behead him Ethiopia. The symbol for Matthew’s gospel is a human being with wings, “the divine man,” because his gospel includes Jesus’ genealogy (Mt 1:117) and gives special attention to Jesus’ human nature. The image is also drawn from Ezekiel’s vision of the four living creatures (Ez 1:9-10).

Matthew is the patron saint of tax collectors, customs officers, security guards, accountants, bookkeepers, bankers, financial officers, money managers, stock brokers, and money changers.

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St. Cornelius, Pope, and St. Cyprian, Bishop, Martyrs

September 14, 2018

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Saints Cornelius (d. 253) and Cyprian (200-258) are two great Third Century saints, one a Pope, the other a bishop, one in Rome, the other in North Africa, both martyrs, both mentioned in Eucharistic Prayer I, the Roman Canon.

Cyprian and CorneliusThey are celebrated together because Bishop Cyprian was an ally of Pope Cornelius. Cornelius was chosen as Pope in 251 AD over the objection of Novatian, who claimed the papacy for himself and was the first antipope. Cornelius and Novatian took opposite positions in the lapsi controversy. The lapsi were those who had “lapsed” from the faith during the persecution of the Roman emperor Decius (249-251 AD). The lapsi renounced their Christianity to save themselves from martyrdom. When the persecution subsided, the lapsi sought to be readmitted. Novatian, a rigorist, declared that the sin of apostasy was so grave that those who had disowned Christ and the Church could not be forgiven, reconciled with the Church, or readmitted. Cornelius, on the other hand, took a more compassionate stance and held that the Church had the power to reconcile and readmit the lapsi after a period of penance. Cyprian traveled to Rome to be part of a synod of bishops that upheld Cornelius’ authority as Pope and excommunicated Novatian and his followers. The first reflection in the Office of Readings is a letter of support and encouragement that Cyprian sent to Cornelius shortly before his death.

Little is known about the beginning of Cornelius’ life. It seems that he was born into an aristocratic family in Rome, and he was ordained a priest. His predecessor, Pope Fabian (papacy, 236-250 AD), died as a result of brutal treatment in prison on January 20, 250. The persecution of Decius was so intense that it was impossible to conduct an election over the next fourteen months. In March, 251, Decius left Rome on a military expedition and died during the campaign, and in his absence an election was held and Cornelius was chosen. The new Roman emperor Gallus resumed the persecution against the Church; Cornelius was arrested in June, 252, and confined to prison in Civitavecchia, where he died in June, 253, as a result of his physical hardships. His remains were interred in the cemetery of St. Callistus.

CyprianSt. Cyprian was born of pagan parents in Carthage, North Africa, in 200 AD. He had a brilliant mind, and was a lawyer and gifted orator. He converted to Christianity in 245 at the age of 45. He was ordained a priest in 248, one year later was selected as the bishop of Carthage, and quickly became the leader of the bishops of North Africa. He battled multiple heresies which he believed were more dangerous to the Church than the persecutions. He declared that baptisms administered by heretics were invalid. He wrote De unitate ecclesiae, The Unity of the Church, to promote Church unity, to oppose Novatian and his position that the lapsi could not be readmitted to the Church, and to correct erroneous teachings espoused by various bishops. He coined the famous phrase, “One cannot have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother.” He was arrested under the persecution of the emperor Valerian, condemned to death by the Roman governor Galerius Maximus, and beheaded on September 14, 258. He was the first African bishop to suffer martyrdom and is the patron saint of North Africa and Algeria.

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The mind: A talent to be invested

September 14, 2018

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Time to Crack the Books. September is here. The summer is behind us. It is back-to-school time. Whether it is preschool or elementary, middle school or high school, college or trade school, or adult education, fall is the time for so many to immerse themselves in their studies.

SolomanLearning, A Noble Christian Activity. A mind is an awesome gift from God and a talent to be invested (see Mt 25:14-23). God wants us to develop our talents and then to put them to the best possible use in order to produce a rich yield for the Master. It is the vocation, privilege, and obligation of students to apply themselves to their studies.

A Model Learner. The best example of a learner in the Hebrew Scriptures is Solomon. When Solomon inherited the kingship from his father David at the age of twenty, he was young, unlearned, inexperienced, and not knowing how to act. At this opportune moment, God appeared to Solomon and said, “Ask something of me and I will give it to you” (1 Kgs 3:5b). Solomon replied, “Give your servant an understanding heart” (1 Kgs 3:9). God does not pour understanding or wisdom into a person’s head. It is the outcome of long and diligent study combined with the insights provided by the Holy Spirit. Solomon could have asked for a long life, wealth, or victory over his enemies, but he asked for understanding that he would know what it right (1 Kgs 3:11). It is presumed that tutors came to the palace to provide the young king with private instruction. Solomon had a brilliant mind, but his God-given talent had to be developed. He thoroughly immersed himself in his studies, and the outcome was wisdom unparalleled by any other person in Old Testament times (see 1 Kgs 3:12).

A Greater Learner. Solomon prefigures Jesus, a connection made by a detail regarding their births, the only two biblical figures wrapped in swaddling clothes (Wis 7:4; Lk 2:7,12). Solomon may have been wise, but Jesus is the personification of wisdom itself. Solomon may have been the greatest of the Old Testament, but Jesus said, referring to himself, “There is something greater than Solomon here” (Mt 12:42; Lk 11:31).

The Model Learner. Before Jesus became the greatest of all teachers, he was the greatest of all learners, as St. Luke clearly states, “Jesus advanced in wisdom” (Lk 2:52). Jesus was home-schooled by his parents, Mary and Joseph, both who were wise, well-read, and well-taught, and Jesus devoured every word of their instruction. Mary and Joseph took their son to the synagogue in Nazareth (see Lk 4:16b) where Jesus was taught by the local rabbis. Jesus gave them his full attention and absorbed their reflections, applications, and insights into Scripture. His hunger for learning was so great that it took him to Jerusalem, the pinnacle of learning for the Jewish people. At his own initiative at the age of twelve, he took it upon himself to go to the Temple, sit in the midst of the teachers, a group of scribes, biblical scholars, listen to them, and ask them questions (Lk 2:46). Jesus was in the habit of unrolling Scripture scrolls (Lk 4:17), and he often read Scripture, sometimes in the synagogue, other times by himself alone in the desert (inferred, Mt 4:4,6,10 and Lk 4:4,8,10,11). Jesus had a brilliant mind, learned from his parents, sought out the wisest teachers he could find, listened attentively, was a critical thinker, asked penetrating questions, was an active reader, and studied on his own. Jesus immersed himself in the learning process and developed the gift of his mind to the fullest possible extent. Students of all ages would be wise to look to Jesus for inspiration and for guidance in the educational process.

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Words Matter: A Catholic Civility

September 6, 2018

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Anne Weyandt

Anne Weyandt

By Anne Weyandt

Here’s an idea to consider as the school year begins.

Let’s encourage more students to pay close attention to civility as an essential component of our Catholic identity.

As a nation, we need to prepare our learners at all levels to problem-solve and shape practical solutions; to find common ground; and to achieve meaningful discourse and inclusivity, with compassion, gracefulness and dignity.

To do these things, we need people for whom words matter. We need people who put the needs of ‘the dear neighbor’ before their own. We need people who think clearly and act with conviction and civility.

Our world is in desperate need of reflective individuals whose words and actions will profoundly influence the nature and content—the civility—of our public life. As Pope Francis wisely reminds us, ‘securing the common good and human dignity [is] the ultimate aim of politics, and political life’.

Thanks to our parents and our teachers, many of us are readers and writers for whom respect and reverence for the word runs deep and true, and is inextricably bound to the Word–our Catholic identity.

Civility is profound manifestation of the Word. Our individual choice of respectful words and meaningful deeds tangibly manifests Christ’s presence in our world. These choices—at whatever age level, in every stage of learning and life—can and should express the preferential option for the poor and the solidarity that is the essence of our One-ness with the Other.

This commitment to civility means that we stand against bullies, and bullying. It means that as teachers, we encourage our learners to engage deeply and respectfully with classmates that express cultural and faith traditions that differ from theirs. And it means that young adults must accept the fundamental expectation of civility in our democratic republic, the obligation to vote thoughtfully, with a focus on building up our society and our world, as contrasted with tearing it apart with words and deeds of hate and disrespect.

It is our job as educators, committed to a deep Catholic identity in our classrooms and communities, to ensure that the practice of civility is learned. By observing Saint Teresa of Calcutta, who lived the words of the beloved Latin hymn, ubi caritas et amor Deo ibi est [where charity and love exist, God is there], learners of all ages and faith traditions learn how to see and to believe. And act, with compassion and awareness of the inherent dignity of all.

The practice of civility is aspirational. Young Malala Yousafzai, courageously doing all of which woman is capable under threat of terror and personal harm, exemplifies fully present and engaged servant leadership, in the here and in the now.

And ultimately, practicing civility is enduring; it is our life’s work. Civility is demonstrated in attitudes and behaviors that reflect honesty and justice when we are confronted by hatred or intolerance. As former First Lady Michelle Obama reminds us, “When they go low, we go high.” That’s civility–a thoughtful and informed choice of words and deeds expressing our shared dedication to an honest, just and joyous common life.

Fidelity to civility—seeing and believing and choosing to speak out and work for the common good, right here and right now, must be our hope for our common future as a nation. It is a hope we must inspire our students of all ages to embrace as a fundamental expression of our Catholic identity.

Weyandt is the vice chair of the St. Pascal Baylon Catholic School board and associate provost of the College for Adults at St. Catherine University in St. Paul.

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Back to School: Jesus, a guide for students’ advancement in wisdom, age and favor

September 6, 2018

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Jesus The Student

Late August and early September signal the beginning of a new school year. Whether a student attends a Catholic school, private school, or public school, education is a spiritual process. Jesus was a student, and his example serves as a guide for all students. As a twelve-year old, “Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man” (Lk 2:52), which is to say that he matured intellectually, physically, and spiritually, and students are to take their cues from him.

Wisdom presumes the mastery of academic subjects like reading, writing, and arithmetic; or history, art, and music; or science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. A good student has a strong desire to learn, willingly attends school, pays attention in class, stays on task, asks and responds to questions, completes assignments and projects, and does one’s own work. Jesus is a shining example. He was so eager to learn that he remained behind in Jerusalem, went to the Temple, the center of learning, and sat in the midst of the teachers, listened to them, and asked them questions (see Lk 2:46).

Wisdom is more than the mastery of facts and figures or the ability to conduct an experiment and analyze the results. Wisdom is a gift of the Holy Spirit (Is 11:2). Wisdom combines academic learning, experience, insight, and common sense. It distinguishes between right and wrong, seeks and upholds the truth, applies information constructively, and balances personal good with the common good. Wisdom is the ability to exercise sound judgment.

Jesus also advanced in age. Jesus grew in size physically. He matured from infancy to childhood to adolescence to adulthood. He put on weight, grew taller, and got stronger. Jesus was a good steward of his body, and students are to do likewise. Young people have a spiritual duty to eat a well-balanced diet, get enough rest at night, and exercise regularly. It encompasses healthy practices like brushing your teeth, taking a bath or a shower, and wearing appropriate clothing. At school, physical development includes playground activities, physical education classes, and health classes, as well as extracurricular opportunities like volleyball, dance, soccer, or swimming. Physical safety is also a major concern: the avoidance of dangerous or risky behaviors, caution when crossing the street, and saying no to drugs.

Most importantly, Jesus advanced in favor. He became pleasing to God, and one of the best ways for a young person to please God is to obey one’s parents. When it came to Mary and Joseph, Jesus was “obedient to them” (Lk 2:51). He had a respectful attitude, a cooperative spirit, and a bright disposition; and he listened to his parents, followed their directions, and complied with their house rules. When a child goes to school, the respect accorded to one’s parents is extended to one’s teachers.

To advance in favor is to grow closer to God and to increase in personal holiness. This improvement is fostered by daily prayer, Mass every Sunday, the regular reception of the sacraments, religious education classes, church youth group, and good works. It also includes virtuous behaviors such as telling the truth, getting along with brothers and sisters, performing assigned household tasks, respecting classmates, good behavior on the bus, the use of appropriate language, and playing in a sportsmanlike manner.

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