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St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: a unique four-week span

September 16, 2020

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St. Paul sets foot in Greece.

“St. Paul sets foot in Greece.” St. Nicholas Church, Kavala, Greece.

A Four-Part Sampler. Four scripture passages from Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians are featured for the second reading from the Twenty-Fifth to Twenty-Eighth Sundays of Ordinary Time in Year A. It is the only time in the three-year Lectionary cycle that there is a sequential progression of readings taken from this letter following the principle of Lectio continua, a continuous series of passages from the same book over a number of Sundays in a row.

The City of Philippi. Philippi is a city in the district of Macedonia in northern Greece several miles inland from the Aegean Sea. It is the first place in Europe that St. Paul visited on his Second Missionary Journey. St. Paul stayed in Philippi a number of months in late 48 and early 49 AD. He made the trip to Philippi by ship. He set sail from Troas in northwest Turkey, went by way of Samothrace, an island in the Aegean Sea, and arrived at Neapolis, the port city on the northern coastline (Acts 16:11). During his brief stay St. Paul preached the gospel; made his first convert, Lydia, who was baptized at the river; drove an evil spirit out of a slave girl who was possessed by a demon; was attacked by a crowd and beaten with rods, then imprisoned and miraculously released; converted the jailer; and founded a Christian community (Acts 16:12-40).

The Letter to the Philippians. This letter is one of the authentic Pauline letters, one written by Paul himself, not one of his followers using his name. After Paul had been away from one of his new communities, he would write to them to encourage, instruct, or correct them, depending upon their unique situation and the reports that he was receiving. Paul states within this letter that he was writing from prison (Phil 1:7,13,14,17), but the location and date is not known with certainty. At one time it was thought that he wrote this letter from Rome late in his life (Acts 28:16; 61 to 63 AD). Other possibilities include his imprisonments, either in Caesarea (Acts 24:27, 58-60 AD) or Corinth, but most scholars today believe Paul wrote this letter from Ephesus during a confinement in 55 AD.

Week 25A, Life is Christ (Phil 1:20-24,27). St. Paul wonders aloud whether it is better to be alive on earth enjoying the benefits of physical existence or to be dead in heaven enjoying eternity with Christ. As long as a person is alive, a person should live in a manner consistent with the gospel.

Weeks 26A, The Christ Hymn (Phil 2:1-11). St. Paul begins with an urgent plea for unity within the community (2:1-5). Then Paul includes within his letter a hymn that was sung and recited by the first generation of Christians. It was in use as early as the 40s AD and it may be the oldest piece of New Testament literature. It served as a creed and provides a list of what the first Christians believed about Jesus.

Week 27A, Calm and Peace (Phil 4:6-9). St. Paul offers solid spiritual advice. First, there is no need to be anxious about anything. Prayer and a strong relationship with God is the sure pathway to calm and peace. Paul adds an encouragement to strive for Christian ideals of truth, honor, justice, purity, beauty, generosity, and excellence. These also lead to peace.

Week 28A, Christ is our strength (Phil 4:12-14,19-20). St. Paul describes how in every circumstance, good or bad, high or low, well-fed or hungry, easy or difficult, comfortable or suffering, God supplies the grace and strength that is needed to carry on.

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The Exaltation of the Holy Cross

September 11, 2020

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“The Exaltation of the Holy Cross,” Bishop Macarius raises the True Cross on September 14, 335.

Exaltation. The feast was formerly known as the Triumph of the Cross, but it has been renamed the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. “Exaltation” means “to lift up,” and for centuries Christians have elevated crosses so they can be clearly seen and venerated by genuflection, kneeling, a profound bow, singing, dancing, and other expressions of respect and reverence.

Rich Meaning. The Cross is the primary symbol of the Christian faith. It represents Jesus himself, his suffering, his immeasurable love for us, his victory over sin and death, and our redemption. In Cruce salus. In the Cross is our salvation.

The Tree of Defeat and the Tree of Victory. The Cross represents a stunning reversal. The tree of defeat, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gn 2:17), was where the evil one conquered (Gn 3:6), sin was introduced to the world, and death arose. The tree of victory is the tree of the Cross, so that where death arose, life might again spring forth, and that the evil one who once conquered with a tree, might likewise on a tree be conquered. On this great feast and always, “We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom is our salvation, life, and resurrection, through whom we are saved and delivered” (Entrance Antiphon, see Gal 6:14).

Heraclius I, Byzantine Emperor, carries the True Cross into Jerusalem, March 21, 630.” St. Barbara Catholic Church, Diest, Belgium.

A Multilayered Feast. The Exaltation of the Holy Cross celebrates major historic events associated with the Cross, all which took place in Jerusalem: the triumphant return of the True Cross relic on March 21, 630; the first public veneration of the True Cross relic at the Basilica of the Anastasis on September 14, 335; and the discovery of the True Cross on September 14, 320.

A Glorious Discovery. Queen St. Helena went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 320, and it was her desire to build churches in the locations associated with the most important events in the life of Jesus and also to find the True Cross. When St. Helena arrived in Jerusalem, there was a pagan temple to the Roman goddess Venus over Calvary which her son, the Emperor Constantine, ordered destroyed. As the workers dismantled the structure and reached the foundation, they broke into a cistern which contained three crosses, one which was determined to be the True Cross. Subsequently, two churches were built, the Basilica of the Anastasis over the tomb of Jesus to honor his Resurrection and the Basilica of the Martyrium over Calvary to honor the crucifixion. Both were dedicated on September 13, 335. On September 14, 335, the True Cross was lifted by Bishop Macarius before the crowd. It was venerated with great devotion and then enshrined in the Martyrium.

A Glorious Recovery. Christendom was horrified when Jerusalem was ransacked by the Persians on May 20, 614. The Anastasis was destroyed and the True Cross stolen. The Byzantine emperor, Heraclius I (575-641), a Christian, assembled an army in 622. Historical records differ over what transpired next. One version claims that Heraclius challenged King Chosroes II of Persia to a duel or sword fight and won, while the alternate version reports that Heraclius’ troops conquered the Persian army. One way or the other, Heraclius conquered Chosroes in 628, the relic was returned in 629, and on March 21, 630, the Emperor Heraclius personally carried the True Cross relic in solemn procession into Jerusalem. Immediately a festival broke out. Some knelt in reverence. Others danced in jubilation. All rejoiced, exalting in the glorious Cross of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

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Labor Day

September 4, 2020

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There is a very spiritual side to this civic holiday. It is a blessing to have a job, to be able to put our God-given talents to good use, provide for ourselves and our families, and contribute to the betterment of society.

It is an occasion to thank God for our health, our talents and abilities, the job we have, the help that God has provided, the opportunities that have opened up for us, the work that we have been able to do, the sense of satisfaction and inner peace that have come with all that we have accomplished, the things that we have learned on the job, the partnerships we have enjoyed with our co-workers, the relationships with clients and customers, and the fruits and rewards that we have received for our labors. This weekend is a perfect time to offer God a prayer of thanks.

Holy Family

Mechelen – The neogothic sculptural group of Holy family in the workroom form 19. cent. st. Katharine church or Katharinakerk. iStock-sedmak

For those who are still working, it is a time to recommit to being industrious and hardworking, diligent and dependable, energetic and responsible – to honor God in the performance of our labors. For those who are retired, it is time to pause, look back, take stock of a lifetime of labor, and offer God praise and thanks for the journey.

It is also a time to be mindful of those who are not able to labor, those who are not able to find work, or have been laid off, or have been eliminated in restructuring, the unemployed, or for those who do not have a good job, the underpaid, or for those who have not been able to find a job that corresponds to their abilities, the underemployed. Many are going through labor woes and are suffering hard times. Let us pray for those enduring labor problems that they will be able to find meaningful jobs that pay a just wage.

There are other terrible labor problems. Many workers labor under adverse conditions. Some are required to work too long or too hard. Some jobs are extremely dangerous. Many are mistreated by their employers. Children are forced to work in some places. Many are injured on the job. Let us pray that the problems and abuses associated with labor would be eliminated.

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The Passion of Saint John the Baptist

August 28, 2020

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Beheading of Saint John the Baptist depicted in the Russian Orthodox Church of the Ascension, the Chapel of the Finding of the Head of St. John the Baptist, Mount of Olives, Jerusalem, Israel.

Beheading of Saint John the Baptist depicted in the Russian Orthodox Church of the Ascension, the Chapel of the Finding of the Head of St. John the Baptist, Mount of Olives, Jerusalem, Israel.

August 29 is the memorial of The Passion of Saint John the Baptist.  It was known formerly as The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist.

Annual Memorial.  This memorial in honor of the Baptist began in the Fourth Century AD at the dedication of the Church of St. John at Sebaste in Samaria, Israel, where, according to tradition, John’s skull had been buried by his disciples.  This commemoration gradually spread to the universal church, first to the East in the Fifth Century and to Rome by the Seventh Century.

The Historical Event.  The account of the Baptist’s passion is given in two of the four gospels, the original version in Mk 6:17-29, and an edited and shortened account in Mt 14:3-12.  Biblical historians believe that the beheading of John took place at Machaerus, a fort in the desert on the east side of the Dead Sea in modern-day Jordan.  It had been built by King Herod the Great as a desert hideaway, and his son, King Herod Antipas, went there occasionally.

Foreshadowing.  John the Baptist is the forerunner or precursor.  John went ahead of Jesus with his miraculous birth and his unique role as prophet, preacher, and baptizer.  These set the stage for Jesus’ own miraculous birth, as well as his baptism and his ministry as prophet and teacher.  John the Baptist’s suffering and death prefigures Jesus’ suffering and death, and the details in the account of the passion of John anticipate the Passion of Jesus.  Specific similarities include:  John spoke the truth, Jesus is truth; it was the festive occasion of a birthday, it was the festive occasion of Passover; Herodias bitterly opposed John, the religious leaders bitterly opposed Jesus; John was arrested and bound, Jesus was arrested and bound; Herod declared John innocent, Pilate declared Jesus innocent; John was held in a prison cell in Machaerus, Jesus was held in a prison cell below Caiaphas’ palace; Herod tried to please his wife, Pilate attempted to please the crowds; Herod condemned John, Pilate condemned Jesus; Roman soldiers put John to death by beheading, Roman soldiers put Jesus to death by crucifixion; John’s disciples took his body and laid it in a tomb, and Joseph of Arimathea took the body of Jesus and laid it in a tomb.

Larger Gospel Context.  Mark carefully placed the account of the Baptist’s death between two sections on the missionary work of the first apostles.  In Mark 6:7-13 Jesus sends the Twelve out two by two, and in Mark 6:30-33 the apostles return to Jesus to report what they have done.  Mark wants to show that it requires tremendous courage to speak the truth and proclaim the gospel, and that it will lead to bitter suffering.

Gospel Preview.  The Cross is not mentioned explicitly in the Baptist’s passion account, but it is Mark’s underlying mindset.  The death of John is a preview of the death of Jesus, and for John his beheading was his cross.  Everyone who is a disciple must carry their cross.

Spiritual Applications.  The Baptist had a number of outstanding spiritual qualities.   He was a fierce advocate for truth and justice, fought hard for what is right, demonstrated his faith in a very public manner, walked in straight paths and urged others to do likewise, directed attention away from himself to Jesus, had a humble estimation of himself, and endured the suffering that came his way.  These admirable traits serve as inspiration and guidance for our spiritual lives.

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St. Bartholomew, the Apostle Jesus Saw Under a Fig Tree

August 21, 2020

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When Jesus met Bartholomew for the first time, Jesus told him, “I saw you under the fig tree” (Jn 1:48b). It is a peculiar and intriguing comment. Why would this behavior be worthy of notice or deserving of a comment? What is spiritually significant about sitting under a fig tree?

St. Bartholomew

St. Bartholomew, Apostle and Martyr.” St. Bartholomew Catholic Church, Wayzata.

A shady place is a good place to pray and study. Fig trees have many leaves and a dense canopy. It is hot in Israel much of the year. Most homes were made of stone, out in the open, not protected from the sun, and without fans or air conditioning. During the heat of the day a person could get relief in the shade. It was an ideal place to read Scripture, contemplate it in prayer, study its meaning, and apply it to daily living. “To sit under a fig tree” is a Jewish figure of speech for meditating on Scripture. It is presumed that Bartholomew spent many hours under the fig tree in prayer with Scripture, was thoroughly familiar with its entirety, both the Law and the prophets, and understood that the Messiah had been promised and was coming. When Jesus told Bartholomew that he had seen him under the fig tree, Jesus was telling him that he “caught him” reading Scripture as he was in the habit of doing.

Fig leaves are a reminder of sin. When Adam and Eve realized that the serpent had tricked them and that they had sinned, “they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves” (Gn 3:7b). Fig leaves represent sin. Bartholomew went under the fig tree to reflect upon his life, bring his sins to mind, admit them to God, express his regret, apologize for them, offer repentance, and pledge to do better. When Jesus told Bartholomew that he had seen him under the fig tree, Jesus knew that he was confessing his sins to God, that he was sorry for his sins, and that his sins were forgiven (see Ps 32:5).

Fig leaves provide overhead protection. Fig leaves provide shelter from the searing rays of the sun and the pounding rain during a downpour. Similarly, the many leaves in the canopy overhead represent the protection that the Mosaic Law provides to those who stay under it and abide by it. When Jesus said that he had seen Bartholomew under the fig tree, it meant that Jesus was aware that he was well-schooled in the Law, was fully committed to following it, wished to stay under its spiritual protection, and that he was a righteous man.

We need to spend time in the shade. Bartholomew spent time under the fig tree. We do not know what he was doing for sure, but it is likely that it was quiet time spent in prayer and reflection. Bartholomew probably was following the traditional Jewish practice of reading and praying with Scripture under a fig tree. Or, he may have taken an extended amount of time to reflect about his life, particularly the sins that he had committed, been filled with remorse, sought forgiveness, and expressed his intention to live a holier life. Or, he may have been reviewing the Mosaic Law and been making a pledge to God to adhere to the Commandments more faithfully in the future. Like Bartholomew, it is good for us to reserve a block of time to be in the shade of the fig tree, to get away from people and our tasks, break away from the regular routine, sit down alone, be quiet, eliminate distractions, and spend quality time with God, not just speaking but also listening. Fig tree time can also be an excellent opportunity to read the Bible or do other spiritual reading. The options are many. The need is critical. The urgency is high. The time is now. If we sit under the fig tree, Jesus will see us, and when he does, he will be pleased.

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The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

August 14, 2020

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Each year on August 15, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Assumption, the belief that Mary was assumed, taken up body and soul to heaven, where she lives in eternal glory with her son Jesus. The prayers that are said at Mass, particularly the Preface, provide a concise statement of the major aspects of this dearly held belief.

The first sentence is, “For today the Virgin Mother of God was assumed into heaven.” “Today” seems to imply that the Assumption is happening at the present moment, when in fact it took place centuries ago. The Assumption is being remembered and honored today.

“Virgin” is a major statement about Jesus. The Holy Spirit came upon Mary, and the power of the Most High overshadowed her (Lk 1:35). It was the Holy Spirit in partnership with the Father that was the source of Jesus’ life. Jesus did not have human origins. He is divine.

“Mother of God” is another powerful statement, partly about Mary, but more importantly about Jesus. Jesus is “Son of God and Son of Mary”; he has two natures, divine and human. Mary is Theotokos, the bearer of God (Ephesus, 431 AD), and her son Jesus is not a holy man, a prophet, or an exceptional human being, but truly God, one of the three Persons of the Most Holy Trinity.

“Assumed into heaven” is the belief that Mary was taken up into heaven, and in doing so, she joined elite company. The Bible names only two others who have been assumed to heaven, Elijah who went to heaven on a flaming chariot (2 Kgs 2:11), and Jesus who was taken up to heaven in a cloud (Acts 1:9). It is presumed that Moses also ascended because “no one knows the place of his burial” (Dt 34:6). Jesus and Mary were both without sin, and as Jesus was rewarded by his Father by being ascended to heaven, and Mary was rewarded by her Son by being assumed into heaven.

The Preface continues, Mary is “the beginning and image of your Church’s coming to perfection.” Mary is “the beginning,” the first disciple of Jesus, the first member of his Church. She is also the “image of your Church,” the perfect model of discipleship, the picture of virtue, loving, kind, and generous, and Christians are to follow her example.

Next, Mary is mentioned with regard to the “Church’s coming to perfection.” The members of the Church are far from perfect, but Mary was immaculately conceived, free of sin from the beginning, and she avoided all forms of sin her entire life, free from sin until the end, sinless from start to finish, “perfect.” “Coming” acknowledges that perfection is the desired outcome and that this is a lifelong journey. Every disciple individually and the Church collectively is invited to become more like Mary, to root out all forms of sin and grow in holiness.

The Preface goes on to say that Mary is “a sign of hope and comfort.” The hope is that if Mary was taken up to heaven at the end of her time on earth, that on the day of our death we will be taken up to heaven as she was. It is natural to be nervous about what will happen to us when we die, and it is a source of immense comfort to know that the glorious journey that Mary made to heaven is promised to every faith-filled believer.

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St. Sixtus II, Pope, and Companions, Martyrs

August 7, 2020

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Pope St. Sixtus II was elected to the papacy on August 30, 257, and he served as pope for less than one year, until his martyrdom on August 6, 258. For centuries, his memorial was celebrated on his death anniversary, August 6, but when the liturgical calendar was revised in 1969 it was transferred to August 7 because of the Feast of the Transfiguration. His name is familiar because it is included on the first list of martyrs in the Roman Canon or Eucharistic Prayer I. His name comes after Linus, Cletus, and Clement, and before Cornelius and Cyprian. During the early Church he was venerated as the most important martyred pope after St. Peter.

Botticelli, Sandro. Pope Sixtus II. 1480. Sistine Chapel, Vatican City.

Pope St. Sixtus II succeeded Pope St. Stephen I. During his short eleven months he was faced was a controversy regarding the rebaptism of heretics and schismatics who wished to join the Church. His predecessor had been in a dispute with St. Cyprian, the bishop in Carthage in North Africa, who held that the baptisms conferred by heretics or schismatics were invalid because they were not in communion with the Church, while Stephen held that they were valid. He, with the help of Dionysius, the bishop of Alexandria, Egypt, was able to forge a reconciliation with Cyprian and the churches of North Africa and Asia Minor, by accepting both approaches.

His entire pontificate was during the reign of the Roman Emperor Valerian who ruled from 253 until 260. Initially, Valerian tolerated Christians, but he reversed his position, issued a decree that insisted that all Roman citizens, Christians included, worship Roman gods and take part in their cultic worship, and he banned the celebration of Mass or the assembly for prayer at cemeteries. With that, a savage persecution began. Pope St. Sixtus II escaped detection for a short while. Valerian made a second declaration to the Senate, more stringent than the first, that any clergy, bishops, priests, or deacons, should be hunted down and executed immediately; and that high-ranking lay Christians should be demoted, their privileges taken away, their wealth forfeited, and if they would not renounce their faith, that they should also be put to death. Christian women of status were to have their property confiscated and be exiled, while Christian common folk were to have their homes and possessions seized and be forced into slavery.

On August 6, 258, Pope St. Sixtus II was celebrating Mass, presumably in secrecy of the underground catacombs, at the cemetery of Praetextatus which is located a short distance outside of Rome. Roman soldiers stormed the cemetery, captured him while he was seated and preaching to the congregation, and immediately beheaded him by the sword along with four deacons who were with him: Sts. Januarius, Vincent, Magnus, and Stephen. Two other deacons, Sts. Agapitus and Felicissimus, were beheaded later the same day. St. Lawrence, also a deacon, was beheaded four days later. Pope St. Sixtus II was buried in the catacombs of St. Callistus, across the road from the cemetery of Praetextatus, along the Appian Way.

Pope St. Sixtus II exemplified everything that St. Cyprian recommended to those oppressed by Valerian’s persecution. He did not have his mind fixed on death but on immortality, he committed himself to the Lord in complete faith and with unflinching courage, and he made his confession of faith with joy rather than fear. As a soldier for God and Christ, he was crowned with sainthood and eternal life.

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Not counting women and children, a puzzling passage

July 31, 2020

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Loaves and Fishes

The gospels for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, Corpus Christi, Year A, and for the Eighteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A, is taken from the Gospel of Matthew. It is his account of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes and the feeding of the five thousand (Mt 14:13-21).

This event was so remarkable and noteworthy that all four evangelists chose to include it in their narratives. While the overall stories have strong similarities, there are a few differences, particularly the number, gender, and age of those who were fed. Mark, Luke, and John all say that five thousand men were fed (Mk 6:44; Lk 9:14; Jn 6:10). Matthew is the sole evangelist to add a curious parenthetical detail, “not counting women and children” (Mt 14:21), a comment he repeats in the feeding of the four thousand (Mt 15:38).

So women and children don’t count! Outrageous! Many find this comment to be troubling and offensive. It sounds sexist toward women, demeaning toward children, and frankly, not very loving or Christ-like. What could Matthew possibly mean? Is this comment as bad as it sounds?

Ancient society was thoroughly patriarchal. Society was tiered, and men were on the top rung of the social ladder, women on the second, children on the third, and slaves on the fourth. Most of the writings of that time had a strong male bias. Cynics have quipped, “Ancient literature was written by men, about men, and for men.”

Matthew slyly included women and children, not to denigrate them, but to acknowledge that they were present. His observation challenged ancient patriarchy. While men regularly viewed themselves as superior to others and overlooked or excluded women and children, Jesus welcomed, counted, and included them. Whether at the feeding miracle, in the Body of Christ, or at the eternal banquet, men, women, and children are all equally welcome.

Furthermore, Matthew used this detail to magnify the spectacular nature of the feeding miracle. If five thousand men were present, then, most likely, five thousand women were also present. And if every couple had two children, then there were ten thousand boys and girls in the crowd, which means that the total size of the multitude that was feed was not five thousand, but twenty thousand, which makes Matthew’s version of the multiplication far more miraculous than the other three gospels. And if Jesus could take five loaves and two fishes to feed twenty thousand, then Jesus is great indeed, the Lord, the Messiah, the Son of the living God.

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St. Christopher, Martyr

July 24, 2020

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St. Christopher is a highly revered saint even though the information about his life is more legend than fact. For centuries he had a prominent place on the General Roman Liturgical Calendar with a feast day on July 25, but it was removed in 1969 because there is not enough credible historical evidence to support it. St. James the Greater, apostle and martyr, is celebrated on July 25, while an optional memorial to St. Christopher is allowable on the same day. The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates St. Christopher’s memorial on May 9.

St. Christopher

St. Christopher, Salamanca Cathedral in Salamanca, Spain. Father Michael Van Sloun

Christopher means “bearer of Christ.” He was born in Palestine around 220 AD, the son of a blacksmith, and was martyred in Lycia in southern Asia Minor in 250 AD at the age of thirty during the persecution of the Roman Emperor Decius who reigned from 249 to 251.

According to legend, St. Christopher was a huge muscular man. Some considered him to be a giant. He lived as a hermit along a riverbank. The river had a swift current and travelers were afraid that they would be swept away if they attempted to cross on their own. St. Christopher was so strong that he could withstand the force of the water, and he would place travelers on his shoulders and carry them safely to the other side.

One stormy night a small child asked St. Christopher for this service. Once the child was perched safely upon his shoulders, he began to ford the swollen river. The child grew heavier and heavier as he went. The weight became almost unbearable. He feared that he might drown. When Christopher reached the opposite shore, he asked the child, “Who are you, that you placed me in such peril? It seemed like I was carrying the whole world upon my shoulders.” The child replied, “You not only carried the world, but him who made it. I am Jesus Christ the King.” The child added, “If you would like proof, plant your staff here in the ground.” The next morning the staff appeared as a palm tree with leaves and flowers, and it produced dates. After this miraculous encounter, St. Christopher spent the rest of his life preaching about Jesus.

St. Christopher is one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, a group of saints that was very popular in Europe during the Middle Ages. The saints were approached for intercessory help for the physical ailments like headaches, stomach aches, and fevers, and serious maladies like cancer, tuberculosis, and epilepsy. People turned to the saints for protection from temptation, storms, lightening, the plague, and sudden death. People turned to St. Christopher for safety on their travels and for protection from harm. During Medieval times people believed that if they would gaze upon a statue or painting of his image before noon, they would be spared death that day.

In religious art, St. Christopher is usually portrayed as a giant-like man with the Christ-child on his shoulders, with a walking staff in his hand, as he forges his way across a raging river.

St. Christopher is best known as the patron saint of travelers. In the Twentieth Century his patronage was expanded to also include motorists. It is common for car owners to place a St. Christopher medal somewhere in the vehicle, often hanging from the rearview mirror or clipped onto the visor on the driver’s side. He is also the patron saint of bus, truck, and cab drivers, ferry boat operators, porters, sailors, those with epilepsy, toothache sufferers, and he is invoked for protection from the plague and sudden death.

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The Sower: Perseverance in the Face of Disappointment

July 10, 2020

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Often when we hear the Parable of the Sower (Mt 13:1-9), the point of emphasis is the disciple as rich soil. The metaphor is that the sower is Jesus, the seed is the Word of God, and the soil is the person who receives the Word. The desired outcome is for the listener to be rich and fertile soil, cultivated, soft and receptive, eager to welcome the seed, to let it take root, permeate one’s life, grow and flourish, and produce astonishing results.

Another angle for reflection is the disciple – not as soil – but as the sower. Jesus is the first sower, and we are supposed to imitate him. As Jesus scattered seeds, as he preached the gospel to others, we as his disciples are also supposed to be sowers, to share the gospel with our children, students, and others.

“The sower and the seed.”
Mount Carmel Catholic Church. Minneapolis, Minnesota.

There is a notion that Jesus, because he is the Son of God and all-powerful, was incredibly successful as a sower. But he was not, at least in every instance. Sometimes Jesus was able to achieve wonderful results, yields of a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold (Mt 13:8), but there were many occasions when his results were downright disheartening.

Jesus had tremendous challenges as a sower. One group of potential listeners was totally resistant, hard and rocky, dismissed him, refused to listen, and completely ignored him. It must have been very depressing to Jesus. Another group at least paid attention to Jesus’ preaching. While they had a bit of initial fervor and enthusiasm, they were not very motivated and when it came time to implement the Word that Jesus had spoken, they had so little determination and commitment that they fell by the wayside. Again, this must have been very discouraging. There was yet another group that listened carefully to Jesus. They liked Jesus, were intrigued by his gospel, and were ready to give it a try. But when those in the third group encountered obstacles, either their own inclinations to wrongdoing, or the evil forces of the outside world, or the antagonism of others, they gave up and quit. It must have been a very bitter pill for Jesus to swallow. It was only with the fourth group that Jesus had success. According to the imagery of the parable, Jesus was successful about one-quarter of the time which is a surprisingly and alarmingly low success rate.

What did Jesus do in the face of such disappointment? Did he get angry? Did he become bitter? Did he pout? Did he quit? No. Jesus refused to give up. He had amazing resiliency. He persevered. With an indomitable spirit Jesus went on to other towns and to other people to proclaim the Good News (see Lk 4:43; 8:1).

Every Christian is a sower, parents and grandparents, teachers and catechists, neighbors and priests, and we scatter the seed of God’s holy Word to our children and grandchildren, students, friends, and parishioners. If Jesus had many disappointments, we should anticipate similar results. When we share our faith, there will be occasions when it seems no one is watching or listening, and other times when it seems like we are having a positive impact at the beginning, but with little lasting effect. Hopefully some of our “scattering” will have tremendous results. When we are unsuccessful, which may happen more often than not, like Jesus we must keep scattering and never lose heart because of discouraging results. We must be resilient and persevere. The seed is such a treasure that it must be sown.

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