January 28 – Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Click here for a link to the Sunday readings: Jan. 28, 2018 (usccb.org)

Sample Questions on Mark 1:21-28

Reading closely

  1. Who might have invited Jesus to teach?
  2. What might Jesus have said?
  3. Why might the man with the unclean spirit have been inside the synagogue?
  4. Why might the unclean spirit have been inside that particular person?
  5. What effect might the spirit have had upon the man?
  6. Why does the spirit speak to Jesus?
  7. How does Jesus respond to the spirit?
  8. Do you see any significance in the way the spirit leaves?
  9. How might people have felt about the exorcism?
  10. Who knows Jesus?
  11. If you’d been there, what would you have told people about Jesus?
  12. What evil spirits are among us? within us?
  13. In what ways have you seen people surrender to evil?
  14. In what ways have you seen people resist evil?
  15. Who is the authority in your life?

Want more? To download discussion questions and commentaries on the first reading and the Gospel click here: January 28 – Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Reflection for January 14

It’s a beautiful expression, isn’t it? Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening. Too often, though, we prefer to say, Listen, Lord, for your servant is speaking… And you’ll want to hear this, all of this, so settle in…

For most of us it’s impossible not to begin this way. Our heads are too full for us to be quiet right away. There’s nothing wrong with voicing concerns, fears, and needs, and it’s great that we express our gratitude, but by the time we’ve finished saying all we want to say, we might not get around to listening at all. Maybe we don’t want to. Maybe we don’t know how to listen.

Listening to God isn’t all that different from listening to other people. When we truly listen, we’re completely quiet and attentive to the other person. As they speak, we don’t silently craft our response, we don’t ponder our own ideas. We concentrate entirely on the other person. This is the same posture we assume during the Liturgy of the Word: the posture of receptivity. God speaks. We listen. We listen like young Samuel, who didn’t yet know the LORD and so did not fill up the silence with his own words.

To listen is to honor the otherness of God, to acknowledge that we are much too small and limited to have the last word — and maybe even the first word. To listen is to sit humbly but bravely in the presence of one who is unknowable, who is absolute mystery, yet who becomes a gentle revelation within us. To listen is to hear words that no one in this world could speak to us, even those closest to us. To listen is to discover that there is far more for us to hear than there is for us to say. To listen is to learn what really needs to be said.

January 21 – Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Click here for a link to the Sunday readings: Jan. 21, 2018 (usccb.org)

Sample Commentary on Mark 1:14-20

Saved from the sea

In the ancient Mediterranean world the sea symbolized danger and death. Violent storms could kill fishermen, and monsters lurked in the sea’s dark depths. While fish belong in the sea, people do not. Jesus calls disciples to help him draw people out of the sea of death and into their true and eternal home.

Netting a new family

Jesus’ first disciples respond instantly to his command to follow him. Normally disciples chose their master, not vice versa. The story emphasizes the unusual authority with which Jesus acts. This authority will be questioned throughout Mark’s Gospel, but here it is unreservedly obeyed.

These four disciples are the first members of the new family that Jesus is forming. This new family is united not by common ancestry but by faith in Jesus. This is the beginning of God’s reign. Jesus calls disciples to help him “net” more people into this family.

Want more? To download discussion questions and commentaries on the first reading and the Gospel click here: January 21 – Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Reflection for January 7

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The magi were astrologers, which means they believed that the movement of celestial bodies affected human affairs. Before the dawn of astronomy with its more scientific study of the heavens, most people believed that celestial phenomena were signs that something significant was about to happen. The magi, like many others, were doing their best to make sense out of what they saw in the heavens. One fine evening while looking up, they thought, “Ooh, that’s a big one.” A big what we don’t know, but it put those guys on the move.

The magi arrived in Herod’s court only to find everyone more perplexed than they were. Presumably it was Herod’s son who was or would be the new king of the Jews, but Herod had no idea what the magi were talking about, or at least, he pretended not to. That’s probably when the foreigners knew something was amiss, but they calmly persisted in following the star. They made their way to Bethlehem, where they presented their gifts and reverenced the infant they found.

Herod was startled, all Jerusalem was startled, Mary and Joseph were no doubt startled. Why would some pagan astrologers from the distant east trek however many miles to pay homage to a newly born Jew? How bizarre. Probably the magi themselves had no idea how important that child was, how singular that star was that they observed in the sky. We do, however. The magi accidentally gave witness to God’s coming into our world, but we can be intentional about sharing such extraordinary news. People should no longer have to search the heavens for what has come among us.

January 14 – Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Click here for a link to the Sunday readings: Jan. 14, 2018 (usccb.org)

Sample Questions on John 1:35-42

  1. How might John the Baptist have felt about redirecting his disciples?
  2. How readily do the two disciples leave John?
  3. Why do you think they leave him?
  4. What might the two have expected of Jesus?
  5. What all might the two disciples have talked about with Jesus?
  6. How do you imagine Jesus in this story?
  7. Why do you think Andrew gets his brother?
  8. What might Simon have been doing?
  9. Why do you think Simon goes to meet Jesus?
  10. How might Simon have reacted to getting a new name?
  11. How might the others have reacted?
  12. Do you know what you’re looking for?
  13. What do you want from Jesus?
  14. How much time are you willing to spend with Jesus?
  15. Is there anyone you can bring to Jesus?

Want more? To download discussion questions and commentaries on the first reading and the Gospel click here: January 14 – Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Reflection for December 31

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How might Jesus have turned out if he’d had lousy parents? Parents who didn’t teach him to pray. Parents who never went to the Jerusalem temple. Parents who didn’t tuck him in at night and tell him stories about his Jewish heritage. Parents who told him to be nice to people and do what he wanted so long as he didn’t hurt anyone. Parents who left him to find his own way without offering any guidance or counsel.

I assume God didn’t want to risk the outcome of poor parenting, so God entrusted Jesus to faith-filled, practicing Jews. We may think of Jesus as having an extra edge that none of us share, what with being divine and all, but Jesus was also fully human. He needed love and guidance just as we do. Mary, Joseph, and his extended family formed him and prepared him for ministry.

As we visit with family members this Christmas season, there may be moments when we wonder how well we’ve done as a family. We see pictures of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph looking picture-perfect-holy and we know that we aren’t them: we aren’t haloed mothers and fathers, sons and daughters. We’re just normal, non-divine people. But then, so were Mary and Joseph. They had to figure it out as they went along, too, and they might be kicking themselves even now for mistakes they made. Nonetheless, God entrusted his son to them. Such trust in us mere mortals is a startling first sign of the wondrous mercy that has come into our world.

January 7 – Feast of the Epiphany

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Click here for a link to the Sunday readings: Jan. 7, 2018 (usccb.org)

Sample Commentary on Matthew 2:1-12

The magi

In the fifth century BC the Greek historian Herodotus wrote that the magi, originally from Medes, exercised a priestly role. They also prophesied and interpreted dreams. In truth, we don’t know for sure who they were. Our uncertainty about the identity of the magi enhances the wonder and drama of their visit.

Kings

As current king of the Jews, Herod is shaken by the news that a potential usurper has been born. The negative reaction of all Jerusalem (v.3) points ahead to the ultimate rejection of Jesus, as does Herod’s attempt to kill the child (v.16f.).  The magi, meanwhile, offer the child gifts as was customary when visiting a monarch. These gifts recall the prophecy from our first reading.

Want more? To download discussion questions and commentaries on the first reading and the Gospel click here: January 7 – Feast of the Epiphany

Reflection for December 24

If you’ve ever pondered the virginal conception, you’re not alone. The first person to ponder the virginal conception was the virgin who conceived. Upon learning that she would bear a son, Mary’s response was, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” There was no precedent in Jewish history for such a biological feat, which is why the angel Gabriel, after hearing Mary’s question, didn’t strike her mute as he did Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist.

When Gabriel told Zechariah that he and his wife Elizabeth were going to conceive a son despite being past the age of bearing children, Zechariah asked a question similar to Mary’s: “How shall I know this?” Annoyed, Gabriel prevents Zechariah from speaking until the boy is born, at which point the first words Zechariah spoke were, prudently, words of praise to God. Unlike Mary, Zechariah should have known better. Abraham and Sarah, Manoah and his wife (Judges 13:2f), and Hannah and Elkanah (1 Samuel 1:1f) shared circumstances similar to his. Zechariah’s knowledge of these stories from his own faith tradition should have been proof enough of what was possible.

Mary had no such stories to draw from. Neither do we. What happened to Mary shouldn’t be possible. There’s no precedent for it in human biology just as there wasn’t in Jewish history. The unparalleled nature of the event points to its theological meaning: we cannot save ourselves. We cannot, all by ourselves, produce a savior of the world. We need God to step in, to stoop down, to “overshadow” us with grace.

The virginal conception isn’t a biological conundrum. Rather, the virginal conception confronts us with our need for God. When Gabriel explained to Mary that God would enable her to conceive, Mary had no idea how all that was going to work, but she did know that she, her people, and the world needed God. And so she said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord, may it be done to me according to your word.” In other words, yes, God, we need you.

The virginal conception is without parallel in human history. We, however, can ensure that the virgin’s response to it is spoken and lived every day.

December 31 – Feast of the Holy Family

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Click here for a link to the Sunday readings: Dec. 31, 2017 (usccb.org)

Sample Commentary on Luke 2:22-40

A sign of contradiction

Simeon, guided by the power of God’s spirit, recognizes Jesus as the one he’s yearned to see. In the now famous prayer we call the Nunc Dimittis, Simeon praises God for allowing him to see God’s instrument of salvation.

Once Jesus begins his public ministry, people must decide to accept or reject him. First his fellow Jews will face this choice. After his resurrection, when his followers preach in his name, non-Jews will be confronted with the same choice. Jesus is thus a sign that will be contradicted: his presence causes people to react in conflicting ways.

The fall and rise of many

Simeon, like Anna, is a devout Jew who’s delighted that God plans to save not only Jews but everyone else, too. Some Jews, however, don’t like the idea that God’s kingdom is open to everyone. These Jews seem to be among those destined to fall because they were once God’s chosen people but rejected the next stage of salvation (v.34).

Want more? To download discussion questions and commentaries on the first reading and the Gospel click here: December 31 – Feast of the Holy Family

Reflection for December 17

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Usually we sing something from the Book of Psalms after our first reading, but this Sunday we’re singing part of Mary’s Magnificat (My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord…). Mary is one of the people in our readings who witnesses to what’s to come. In the first reading a disciple of the prophet Isaiah promises that God will heal and elevate his chosen people. In our Gospel reading John the Baptist claims no recognition for himself but points to one who is coming.

On this “pink-candle” Sunday we might expect our readings to be on the light and happy side, but if we look closely we discover that something haunts each of our three witnesses. Mary, living under Roman occupation, was unwed, poor, and a woman in a man’s world. The prophet of our first reading spoke to Jews who lived in a Judea that had been decimated by invasion and whose once golden city, Jerusalem, was still very much in ruins. John the Baptist faced relentless interrogation by people who ultimately rejected both him and the one to whom his words point.

In the second reading St. Paul calls on us to be witnesses of the one who has come by rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks. At times his words may seem impossible for us to obey, but “this is the will of God.” We are the next generation of witnesses in the world. We may be frightened, tired, skeptical, or beleaguered. We might not know what to say. But if a poor woman from Nazareth, a prophet whose context seemed to contradict him, and a wild man who declared his unworthiness could all stand up and boldly witness to the coming of the Lord, we can speak, too.