September 30 – Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Click here for a link to the Sunday readings: September 30 (usccb.org)

Sample Questions on Mark 9:38-41

  1. How might the disciples have tried to stop the man from expelling demons?
  2. How might the man have reacted to the disciples?
  3. Why do you think the disciples objected to the man’s actions?
  4. How might the disciples have felt when Jesus allowed the man to continue?
  5. Who do you think of as an insider? 
  6. Who do you think of as an outsider?
  7. How does Jesus redefine our boundaries?
  8. What’s a modern-day example of v.41? 

Want more? To download discussion questions and commentaries on the second reading and the Gospel passage click here: September 30 – Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Reflection for September 16

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It’s surprisingly easy to believe in Jesus. It’s easy to believe he’s a friend or brother or confidant. It’s reassuring to believe that he’s on our side, cheering for us to get that job or to buy that new car or tv or whatever. It’s easy to imagine him giving us a thumbs up when we drop a dollar in the collection basket or tell someone they look nice today.

It’s easy to believe in Jesus when we tell him who he is. It’s much harder to believe in Jesus when he tells us who he is. Peter told Jesus to be a Messiah who was strong, victorious and admired by all. Jesus told Peter he would be weak, defeated, and abandoned by all. Peter didn’t like that version of Jesus. Peter wanted his own version of Jesus. When Peter pulled Jesus aside to insist on his own version, Jesus called him Satan. Satan! Can you imagine Jesus calling you Satan? That’s a bad day. 

But Jesus also tells Peter to “get behind him.” Jesus wants Peter to get out of his way, but he also wants his disciples to get in line, to fall into step behind him. Jesus has not given up on Peter. He believes that Peter will eventually accept that a selfless act is far more life-giving than a selfish one.

Jesus hasn’t given up on us, either. Despite all the times we try to make Jesus into something he’s not, despite all the times Jesus has to rebuke us, he’s still glancing back to check that we’re behind him. He’s still making sure that we’re keeping up, as best we can, and following where he leads. 

Click here for a link to the Sunday readings: September 16 (usccb.org)

Click here for my questions and commentary: Study Guide for Sep. 16

September 23 – Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Click here for a link to the Sunday readings: September 23 (usccb.org)

Sample Commentary on Mark 9:30-37 

Slow on the uptake

Once again Jesus speaks about his forthcoming suffering, but his disciples don’t understand him. Rather than ask Jesus what his prophetic words mean, the disciples talk about something that actually contradicts him: they debate which of them is the best. Whatever criteria they’re using, it’s clearly not the criteria Jesus wants them to use.

Want more? To download discussion questions and commentaries on the first reading and the Gospel passage click here: September 9 – Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Reflection for September 9

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After healing a man who is deaf and has a speech impediment, Jesus orders people not to tell anyone what happened. Why? After all, Jesus gave the man his speech and hearing back! What better response could the people give than to proclaim what Jesus did? Moreover, isn’t Jesus’ mission all about proclaiming and bringing about God’s reign? He even sent disciples to go forth and help. Why make a big noise about the kingdom one moment, then try to shush everyone up the next?

One reason is people have expectations about Jesus and God’s kingdom that Jesus needs time to revise. Some of the Jews expected their messiah to expel the Romans from Judea, for example, or to take control of the Jerusalem temple. Instead, Jesus insists that he has come to serve others and that life in God’s kingdom is a life of service, of interdependence and mutual care.

Perhaps there is another, more personal reason. Perhaps Jesus simply wanted to slow things down. If people didn’t talk about him, then fewer people would notice him, fewer people would object to him, and fewer people would oppose him. Jesus was as human as he was divine. There are days we don’t want to get out of bed, so there must have been days Jesus wanted to stay right where he was, hanging out with his disciples and taking not one more step toward Jerusalem and the cross.

But there’s no stopping God’s kingdom. It’s happening, and like Jesus, God calls us to participate in it. I hope that whatever God is asking of you doesn’t fill you with dread, but if we are striving to do God’s will, then we won’t always be comfortable with the direction we’re headed. Sometimes we’ll want to stop, to stay in bed. Those moments are ok, as long as we do eventually get up and take that next step forward, doing what we must, day after day, to love, to serve, and to live justly, so that one day people will say of us, “That person has done all things well.”

Click here for a link to the Sunday readings: September 9 (usccb.org)

Click here for my questions and commentary sheet: Study Guide for Sep. 9

September 16 – Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Click here for a link to the Sunday readings: September 16 (usccb.org)

Sample Commentary on James 2:14-18

Lived faith 

James bluntly states that Christian faith must show itself in deeds of service and justice. Although some people think he contradicts Paul on this matter, the two apostles are in perfect agreement. 

Paul makes it clear that a person can’t earn (i.e., work for) salvation because eternal life is a gift from God, which we accept in faith. However, Paul also insists that we demonstrate our faith by living just, moral lives. (Examples include 1 Corinthians 13; Galatians 5:13f.; Ephesians 4:25f.; and 1 Timothy 6:17f.). 

Want more? To download discussion questions and commentaries on the second reading and the Gospel passage click here: September 16 – Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Reflection for September 2

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I couldn’t resist taking the above picture, but it isn’t fair to the Pharisees. They didn’t wash their hands and other objects out of a preoccupation with hygiene but as a way of reminding themselves that they were God’s chosen people, set apart from the world to reveal his glory. Many of the laws that God gave the Jews helped to set them apart from other groups and nations.

As Christianity separated from Judaism, the followers of Jesus wanted to show the superiority of their faith in Jesus. The result is that Jews and groups within Judaism, like the Pharisees, are often portrayed negatively in the New Testament. In this Sunday’s Gospel passage, the Pharisees seem preoccupied with trivial matters while Jesus addresses what is of true and lasting importance. 

A close reading of the Gospels reveals that Jesus upheld the laws of his people. He was a faithful, pious Jew, as were many of the Pharisees. Sometimes Jesus disagreed with the Pharisees — and scribes and Sadducees — about how exactly to follow God’s law, but then Christians often disagree about how to be good Christians. It’s a terrible irony that while telling the story of Jesus, his followers sometimes denigrated his own people and religious heritage.

The Pharisees would agree with Jesus that it is wrong to steal, lie, be greedy and arrogant, and so on. They would agree that these actions and inward states are sinful, that they defile a person. If we think that we are morally and spiritually superior to the Pharisees or to all Jews, then we defile ourselves. We also defile ourselves by dehumanizing immigrants, insisting that welfare recipients are lazy, denouncing people who tell us the truth, and so on. “All these evils come from within and they defile.” They also make it quite difficult for others to see the glory of God in us. We might need to spend some time washing up, both inside and out.

Click here for a link to the Sunday readings: September 2 (usccb.org)

Click here for my questions and commentary sheet: Study Guide for Sep. 2

September 9 – Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Click here for a link to the Sunday readings: September 9 (usccb.org)

Sample Commentary on Mark 7:31-37 

It’s coming true 

The first reading from Isaiah for this Sunday is part of a prophecy that God will free his people and restore them to the land he promised them. Isaiah spoke these words when the Israelites were being conquered by the Assyrian Empire. 

The prophecy includes the words,“then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared…” When Jesus heals the deaf man (and, in 8:22f, a blind man), those who witness the healing aren’t simply impressed, they wonder if the prophecy is coming true through Jesus. 

Want more? To download discussion questions and commentaries on the second reading and the Gospel passage click here: September 9 – Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Reflection for August 26

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Eucharistic Theology, Part 5: Symbols

Whenever I hear a priest speak about the Eucharist, he usually says, “It’s not just a symbol.” What he means is, “It’s not a sign.” Symbols are not the same thing as signs. Signs convey information, but they don’t contain within themselves the information they convey. For example, the outline of a wheelchair indicates that a room is handicap-accessible, but the sign itself does not contain a wheelchair. 

By contrast, symbols both point away from themselves and in themselves contain that to which they point. For example, our bodies are symbols of ourselves. The American flag symbolizes the United States. Burning the American flag is offensive because it’s not only or merely a bit of material that’s being burned, it’s our nation, our homeland, our values. Thus, something can’t be “just a symbol.” If it were, it wouldn’t be a symbol. 

Symbols help us transcend the physical world, maintain our connection with others, and express our role within particular groups. When I hug a friend, my symbolic gesture conveys care, warmth, affection. The hug also maintains the nature of that friendship and expresses my willingness to “keep in touch:” to share myself and to be attentive to my friend’s needs and concerns.

However, symbols like a flag, a dollar bill, and a hug are human constructs, symbols we ourselves have made. The Eucharist is not a human construct; it is God’s gift. At the Last Supper Jesus made himself the basis of our Eucharistic celebration. By changing the meaning of that meal, Jesus ultimately gave us new symbols and symbolic actions. All of our sacraments are thus based on Christ.

The Eucharistic celebration is full of symbols, doorways into hidden dimensions of reality: the priest, the sign of the cross, the paschal candle, the Book of the Gospels and the proclamation of the word, the sign of peace, eating and drinking, and, above all, the consecrated bread and wine. These and other symbols and symbolic actions lead us into unity, compassion, forgiveness, peace, healing, justice, joy. In other words, our liturgical symbols help us recognize and become part of God’s kingdom. The challenging part is to keep living in this kingdom once our Eucharistic celebration has ended, to go forth as living symbols of Christ’s presence for those who haven’t yet become part of his shared and eternal world.

September 2 – Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Click here for a link to the Sunday readings: September 2 (usccb.org)

Sample Commentary on James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27 

Doers of the word

The letter of James focuses on behavior rather than beliefs.We must live justly and morally because one day Christ will hold us accountable for our actions.The points mentioned briefly in chapter 1 are elaborated in the rest of the letter. 

In vv.17-18 James may be alluding to baptism as he speaks about how Christians are part of God’s new creation. He compares Christians to the first crops that are gathered during a harvest. The baptized, who have heard the word of truth, are the first to experience the gifts God bestows through Christ.

Want more? To download discussion questions and commentaries on the second reading and the Gospel passage click here: September 2 – Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Reflection for August 19

Eucharistic Theology, Part 4: Transubstantiation

By the early Middle Ages it became necessary to explain how, exactly, Christ was present in the consecrated bread and wine. People began using the term transubstantiation to affirm that Christ was really, truly present in the consecrated elements though not in a purely physical way, (which is kind of gross). As we’ve come to define it today, transubstantiation means that during the Eucharistic ritual the physical properties or “accidents” of bread and wine remain, but their essence or “substance” changes into Christ’s body and blood. The physical properties are those parts of reality that exist because they’re part of or attached to something else, namely, their substance. The substance on which the properties depend is itself supported, ultimately, by God. All created reality is dependent upon God for existence.

Transubstantiation is a unique way in which God acts within creation, but not by suspending or disrupting the laws of nature. Rather, transubstantiation goes beyond the physical, biological dimension to a different level of reality. We can only see this other reality through faith, just as we can only catch glimpses of God’s kingdom by looking at our world through faith-filled eyes. By transforming food and drink that sustains our earthly existence into food and drink that sustains our eternal existence, God assures us that one day all of creation will be transformed, including us. The consecrated bread and wine reveal that this transformation has already begun. 

If the term transubstantiation works for you, great! If you’re struggling with it, you’re not alone. Although the term is widely used in the Catholic Church today, it has its drawbacks. First, it’s only about 1,000 years old, which is to say that Jesus certainly didn’t use the word. Second, the term is based on Aristotelian metaphysics, and few people today know anything about Aristotelian metaphysics. Finally, an emphasis on transubstantiation makes it seem as though Christ is present only in the consecrated elements and not also in the assembly, the presider, and the proclamation of God’s word. 

Fortunately, in order to treasure Christ’s presence in bread and wine, we do not have to study the ideas and worldview of Aristotle, a Greek philosopher who lived in the fourth century BC. Theologians today offer us other ways of explaining Christ’s presence in the consecrated bread and wine. Their explanations honor the medieval insights while recovering Jesus’ own understanding of ritual and presence. More on that next time.