1st Sunday of Lent

March 5, 2017
Matthew 4:1-11

BACKGROUND:

For the past several weeks the gospel readings have dealt with Jesus teaching the disciples what it means to be his followers. As we begin Lent, the Gospel text takes a dramatic shift. The first Sunday of Lent always presents an account of Jesus being directly temped by the devil. The second Sunday of Lent is an account of the Transfiguration. This year the Transfiguration text comes from Matthew 17:1-9. The next three gospel texts will be taken from John’s Gospel: John 4:5-42, the Samaritan woman at the well; John 9:1-41, curing of the man born blind; and John 11:1-45, raising Lazarus. The last Sunday of Lent is Passion Sunday. That gospel will be from Matthew 26:12-27:66.

As Matthew presents the sequence of events of Jesus’ temptation, it follows on Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:13-17). Matthew describes Jesus coming out of the water and “God descending like a dove [and] coming upon him. And a voice comes from the heavens, saying ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’.” (Matt 3:16-17) Matthew then describes Jesus being led by the spirit into the desert to be tempted. The description of Jesus’ temptation is the gospel text for this Sunday.

Matthew’s community assumed the presence of evil in ways that most modern readers might dismiss as naive or even fanatical. They believed that there was an abundance of evil spirits whose main pastime was interacting with humans, sometimes with a surprising blessing, but often with ill intentions. In order to ward off the ill effects of these spirits, people relied on objects and ritual actions and prayers that were believed to have protective powers. This spirit world also enjoyed its own way of communication and being connected, so that whatever happened was in part known by other spirits.  That fact that God had spoken, of Jesus, that this one was his beloved Son with whom he was well pleased would naturally draw a response from others in the spirit world. Other spirits would want to know if Jesus was indeed worthy of such praise, and tempt him in such ways that he might lose his favored status.

With this being their understanding, it is no surprise for the people for whom Matthew is writing, that, following the baptism, Jesus is tempted by the devil. What is surprising is that Jesus does not rely on any of the things that they would have used to protect them from the powers of the spirit world. Even after he has fasted for forty days, and is hungry and vulnerable on many levels, Jesus faces His tempter unaided.

Matthew is also making use of the community’s familiarity with the events of the Exodus from Egypt. All the responses of Jesus to the temptations are quotations from the description of Israel’s wandering in the desert as recorded in Book of Deuteronomy (8:3, 6:16 and 6:13). Jesus’ temptation and the exodus both take place in the desert, the place normally associated with the evil spirits. They would also recognize that Israel spent 40 years in the desert, and Jesus has been fasting in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights. Matthew is building a connection between the experience of their ancestors in faith and the experience of Jesus.

Matthew also rearranges Luke’s account of the temptations so that the last temptation places Jesus on a very high mountain. Mountains were places of revelation, and the story of Moses’ encounter with God on the mountain was familiar to everyone as Matthew describes Jesus’ last encounter. (Next week, Matthew’s gospel will again place Jesus on a high mountain with three of the disciples for the transfiguration. Matthew’s community knew well the tradition that the mountain was the place where God revealed the relationship God desired to have with them as the chosen people.)

 

Reflection Questions:

  1. What is your experience of evil in your own life and in the world around you?
  2. What do you rely on to protect you from the power of evil?
  3. How do you experience occasions of temptation? Have you ever been tempted to do something that you felt was not only sinful but also evil?
  4. What does the kind of temptation that Jesus faced suggest to you?
  5. Jesus is tempted to use his status as beloved Son of God for his own purposes, to ease his hunger, experience God’s protection, and to be treated as one above others. In his rejection of the temptations, he refused to use his status as highly favored Son of God, and instead he demonstrates his choice to be one of us, even in being tempted. What does that say to you?
  6. Why is it that the Spirit led Jesus into the desert to be tempted?
  7. As you reflect on this text, what sense of yourself and your relationship with God come to the fore within you? What would you like to say to God from that awareness?

 

 

The reflection and questions are written by Fr. Paul Gallagher, OFM.
They are edited by Sister Anne Marie Lom, OSF and Joe Thiel.

8th Sunday in Ordinary Time

February 26, 2017
Matthew 6:24-34

Background:

At the time when Jesus lived, it was not uncommon for families to have servants. When the patriarch of the family died, he might leave one servant to two different sons. That servant had to divide his time and allegiance between both sons. This was not an easy task and would make Jesus’ teaching very interesting for the people of the day. When Jesus talks about loving one master and hating the other, he is not speaking of the affectionate kind of love which comes to mind when most westerners hear the word. Jesus would have used the term “love” as an expression of attachment or loyalty.

In the second part of the gospel Jesus also used examples that would relate to both the men and the women who would have heard him teaching. The Aramaic word for birds is masculine, and the work that Jesus refers to with birds in his teaching, sowing, reaping, and gathering would have been the tasks of the men in his day. The word for lilies of the field is feminine, and the tasks Jesus associates with the lilies, spinning and making clothes were the tasks of women of the day. Without embarrassing anyone, Jesus makes his point and he exhorts them to trust in God to care for them, both the men and the women. The vast majority of the people were peasants who lived from day to day. They experienced on a daily basis a God who provided for them, and they also saw many whose basic needs were not provided for. They would have heard Jesus’ words of reassurance and his call to trust in the goodness of God from a much different life experience than many of us do.

Reflection Questions:

  1. Where in your life are you trying to live two different sets of values or expectations?
  2. What are the different groups that expect your loyalty?
  3. Have there been times when you had a strong sense of God’s care for you?
  4. Have you ever chosen to walk with another who was in a stressful period of their life? Why did you make that decision? What happened to you because of that decision?
  5. Have there also been times when you felt a great sense of worry or dread? What helped you to move on past those feelings?
  6. What are the things you that you worry about? What are the things you do not let yourself worry about?
  7. When was the last time you put a problem or situation into God’s hands? What happened?
  8. How do you think the homeless, immigrants, and chronically under-employed hear Jesus’ statement of reassurance?
  9. As you hear this gospel today, what stirs inside of you? How might God be acting in that response? What would you like to say to God as you become aware of your response to this gospel?

The reflection and questions are written by Fr. Paul Gallagher, OFM.
They are edited by Sister Anne Marie Lom, OSF and Joe Thiel

Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

February 19, 2017
Matthew 5:38-48

Background:

Today’s gospel follows on the text from last week’s Gospel. It is part of the much larger instruction that Jesus gave to his disciples known as the Sermon on the Mount, which began with the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3). The structure of Jesus’ teaching is the same as last week.  He starts with a statement that is familiar from the tradition, and then he elaborates on his understanding of how that teaching should be lived by his disciples.

This group of teachings began with Jesus’ statement: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5:17) It appears that Jesus is responding to those who questioned his faithfulness to their traditions. His response here, and last week, is that he is not contradicting the tradition that has been handed down, but rather his teaching is a deepening of the attitude that lies beneath that tradition.

The familiar injunction “an eye for eye” that Jesus quotes in verse 38 was not meant as a sanction on revenge, but instead to limit what people who felt wronged or humiliated would do to retaliate.  Jesus’ teaching surpasses just limiting acts of violence. He tells his disciples to replace a spirit of resentment with a spirit of generosity. To appreciate how radical Jesus’ teaching is, it would be helpful to understand the culture of Jesus’ time.

The Jews of the day lived under Roman rule. To go to court with a countryman was an embarrassment because they were submitting to the authority of their occupiers. Jesus makes his point even more dramatic by using a person’s coat and tunic for the matter to be disputed. A person’s coat was not only an essential piece of clothing, but it also served as a blanket or sleeping bag at night. If a person offered a coat when they had nothing else to offer as collateral in a promise, that coat had to be returned before nightfall so that the person had something to keep him warm at night. When Jesus suggests that if someone has the audacity to ask for a person’s tunic, they should give him their coat as well, he implies they would be left standing before them naked, without protection and under the weight of cultural norms that said that you did not behave toward another in this manner. 

The other example Jesus uses in his teaching against retaliation is that of a soldier, who could demand that a citizen carry his armor for a mile. The typical soldier was a fellow Israelite who had sold his services to Rome as a mercenary. He could ask a civilian of the day to carry his heavy pack of armor for one mile, but no more. To carry the armor of a fellow Jew who was now serving Rome was humiliating. Everyone knew that—the mercenary, the person forced into service, and all those who witnessed it. But to then volunteer to carry the pack of armor a second mile throws the system of power and shame out of balance. The soldier loses his ability to bully another, and receives a freely given act of service by a fellow countryman who is treating him with respect and not as a hated mercenary.

On the surface, Jesus may seem to be advocating that his disciples accept passively their fate, even if they find themselves the victim of an injustice by a person or a system. Such a reading of this text proves to be a bit naïve.

Reflection Questions:

  1. Do you have memories of being publicly offended? What kind of feelings arise within you as you think of those incidents?
  2. How seriously do you think Jesus expected his disciples to take these teachings? Is there a difference between seriously and literally?
  3. Why would Jesus instruct his disciples to act in ways that very few if any could succeed in living?
  4. How seriously do you take these teachings? How does that get expressed in the choices you make?
  5. What effect does hardship and suffering have on you? Has hardship and suffering ever led to a transformation within you?
  6. As you hear Jesus’ instruction to his disciples, what feelings arise within you?
  7. If you could pull Jesus aside, what would you like to say to him about his teaching here in this gospel?

The reflection and questions are written by Fr. Paul Gallagher, OFM.
They are edited by Sister Anne Marie Lom, OSF and Joe Thiel.

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time

February 12, 2017
Matthew 5:17-37 or 5:20-22a, 27-28, 33-34a, 37

 

Background:

Both the long and short forms of this gospel illustrate one of the ways Jesus used the methods of his day in his role as a teacher. The teacher begins by quoting a familiar teaching from the tradition. Matthew records Jesus’ using this technique five times in the fifth chapter. The two that are not part of today’s gospel text focus on revenge (Matthew 5:38-42) and love of one’s enemies (Matthew 5:43-48). The longer form of the gospel includes more of Jesus’ explanation for his teaching. In either case, it is clear that Jesus expects more than just external observance of a code of conduct.

Jesus is asking that his disciples be obedient to God’s will and not just the law. His teaching includes the whole person, down to what motivates their actions. So in the case of the prohibition against taking the life of another, he asks his disciples to remove those attitudes that could escalate into a situation that might lead to murder.

In the society of the day, daily life isolated men from women, and there was very little if any privacy. Therefore, adultery was rarely about a passionate romance between a man and woman. Instead it was usually motivated by one man’s attempt to bring shame upon another man and his family. If the husband did not respond, he would be considered to be weak and controlled by his wife. If he took no action against the man involved, his own manhood was in jeopardy. The consequences that could flow from this situation were dire, and therefore anything that might lead into a scenario where an act of adultery might take place was to be avoided.

The last prohibition addresses the everyday experience of bartering. In such situations, a person would make great oaths to insure the truth of their claim about the condition of the horse or fishing net that might be involved. Jesus is asking his followers to be known for their honesty; that their yes means yes and their no means no, and there is no need for more to be said.

Reflection Questions:

  1. What would have prompted Jesus to make a statement like: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets? I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”?
  2. What kind of reaction do you think the scribes and Pharisees had to Jesus’ teaching in today’s gospel?
  3. What kind of reaction do you think Jesus’ teaching had among the disciples?
  4. Do you recall a place in the gospel where Jesus sends a disciple away because he was not able to live up to Jesus’ expectations?
  5. What is your attitude toward the rules and laws of the Church?
  6. Which of the Church’s teachings do you find to be helpful guides for your life? Which of the Church’s teachings do you struggle with?
  7. Jesus seems to be asking his disciples to be disciplined not only in their actions toward others but also in their motivations from which those actions flow. Does your examination/reflection include both actions and motivations?
  8. In Matthew 5:23 (which has been omitted from the shortened gospel text) Jesus says: “Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” If you decided to take this teaching seriously, how would your life be different? How would your faith community on Sunday morning be different?
  9. What range of emotions goes through you as you read this gospel? Can you talk to Jesus about how His teaching impacts you?

 

 

The reflection and questions are written by Fr. Paul Gallagher, OFM.
They are edited by Sister Anne Marie Lom, OSF and Joe Thiel.

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time

170205_SaltLightFebruary 5, 2017
Matthew 5:13-16

Background:

Matthew often describes Jesus’ teaching to the crowds and to the disciples. After his own baptism, Jesus moved to Capernaum where he began to preach. After calling the first disciples, Jesus is again described by Matthew as “proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom.” (Matt 4:23) In the beginning of the fifth chapter, the disciples approached Jesus and he began to teach them. The first instruction Jesus gave them was the beatitudes. Jesus concluded the beatitudes by telling the disciples that they should consider themselves blessed “when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me.” (Matt 5:11) The gospel text for this week follows with more bold statements about those who chose to become his followers. Jesus draws on salt and light, two common metaphors, as he asks them to see themselves anew.

Salt was not only used as a seasoning, but it was and is now essential for sustaining life. It was an important preservative, an agent in purifying food, and a catalyst in the community/family oven. Because of the scarcity of wood, camel or donkey dung were mixed with salt, shaped into patties and dried. The dried patties were then placed on slabs of unrefined salt and used as fuel in ovens. The salt acted as a catalyst in burning the dung. Eventually the salt was absorbed and all that remained was a block of minerals. The blocks were placed in mud roads and paths, especially during the rainy season. Matthew uses both functions of the mineral block—the oven and the foot path—when he says to the disciples ‘you are salt for the “earth-ovens.” The word used carries both meanings, “earth” and “clay oven.” Because salt was such an essential part of daily life, it was natural that it would be incorporated into people’s religious life also. Leviticus recorded that each cereal offering must be seasoned with salt. “Every cereal offering that you present to the Lord shall be seasoned with salt. Do not let the salt of the covenant of your God be lacking from your cereal offering. On every offering you shall offer salt.” (Lev 2:13) The scriptures also indicate that salt became associated with the gift of wisdom. “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you know how you should respond to each one.” (Col 4:5) Jesus used this rich symbol to instruct his disciples on how they were to be of service not to themselves, but to others.

The other rich symbol used in this text is that of light. The fact that salt is used for the fire in the clay ovens and would produce a light in the dark night serves as way of connecting the two images. In a world without artificial illumination in buildings and on streets, light could be seen from a great distance. These lights were a welcome sight to travelers caught in the wilderness and in the darkness. In the typical one-room house, a lamp would be placed on a stand in the middle where it provided light for all in the house.

Reflection Questions:

  1. If this evening, at midnight, you wanted to sit in complete darkness, what would you have to do?
  2. Or from the other perspective, how much planning do you have to do in order to have enough light to read at night?
  3. What are some of your favorite spices? How would your enjoyment of food change if the only seasoning you knew of was salt?
  4. Having done that bit of reflection, now suppose that Jesus says that you are the light of the world and the salt of the earth. What goes through you as you hear Jesus say that to you?
  5. If a person is described as having a salty personality, what would you expect them to be like? Can you think of times in the gospels when Jesus’ behavior is a bit salty?
  6. Can you also think of places in the gospel were Jesus seems to be a person who set fires within his community?
  7. The last line of the gospel states that our good works are to be done so that others first of all see our good works, and second, are led by them to praise God. Do you find these words a comfort, a challenge, an encouragement, or something entirely different?

 

 

The reflection and questions are written by Fr. Paul Gallagher, OFM.
They are edited by Sister Anne Marie Lom, OSF and Joe Thiel.

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

170129_JesusSheepLargeJanuary 29, 2017
Matthew 5:1-12a

Background:

In the gospel for last week, Jesus learned of the arrest of John the Baptist, moved to Capernaum, and began his own ministry of preaching and curing the sick. He also called his first disciples, Peter, his brother Andrew, and the two brothers James and John. In the two verses between last week’s text and the gospel for this week, Matthew states that Jesus’ fame had spread throughout Syria, and people were bringing their sick to Jesus, and great crowds from Galilee and beyond followed him.

The gospel for this week includes the beginning Jesus’s instruction to his disciples. (For the next six weeks, the gospel text will be taken from Jesus’ instruction to his new disciples.) Jesus expects the disciples to learn from him and to shape their lives by his teachings. As Matthew describes Jesus’ instruction to his followers, he is drawing on his community’s familiarity with Moses, who went up the mountain and brought back the commandments from God. Here, Jesus takes his disciples up the mountain and sits with them, assuming the position of a teacher. But he is not laying down a new set of commandments; rather, he is teaching in the tradition of a wisdom teacher.

The values that Jesus advocates in the beatitudes run contrary to those held by the society of his day. Throughout Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is described as the one who is poor in spirit, mourning, meek, hungering for righteousness, merciful, pure of heart, and a peacemaker. These beatitudes look to a future time when God’s presence will be brought to fullness on earth. That future day has begun to appear in the person of Jesus. Jesus teaches his followers, by the example of his own life, how to live their lives reflecting the values of the reign of God. Thus, hope for the reign of God will continue to be present and unfold in the world through his followers.

Reflection Questions:

  1. Who were your mentors and teachers?
  2. Who of those mentors were most influential?
  3. What do you think motivated those mentors?
  4. Among the blessings of the beatitudes are the kingdom of heaven, to be comforted, to inherit the land, to be satisfied, to be shown mercy, to see God, and to be called a child of God. Which resonates most deeply with your own desire?
  5. Do the beatitudes speak to you of a path to what it is you desire?
  6. Have you ever experienced blessings during a painful period of your life?
  7. What does it mean for you to be a follower of Christ?
  8. Who are the people who remind you that you are among those blessed by God? Are they same as those you consider your mentors?
  9. How would you like to respond to God as you hear Jesus’ instruction to his disciples in this text?

 

The reflection and questions are written by Fr. Paul Gallagher, OFM.
They are edited by Sister Anne Marie Lom, OSF and Joe Thiel.

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

170123_Fishers-Of-Men1January 22, 2017
Matthew 4:12-23

 

Background:

The arrest of John the Baptist signals the end of his ministry. The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are in agreement, all three indicating that Jesus did not begin his ministry until John’s ministry had ended. The exception is John’s gospel, where Jesus and John are ministering concurrently. Some scholars believe that Jesus may have even been a disciple of John in the very early part of his ministry. He, like John, would have called people to repentance and baptism as a sign of their conversion. But as Jesus preached, he discovered that he was also gifted by God with the grace to heal. As he experienced this gift and it became more a part of his own ministry, his understanding of himself and his mission evolved. At some point, he began to invite others to become his followers. The gospels do not give a clear understanding of how Jesus came to his own awareness of his ministry. But such explanations seem to be compatible with the human experiences most of us might have.

While John is distinct in describing Jesus beginning his ministry while John is still alive, Matthew is unique in his use of quotes from the Hebrew Scriptures to explain events in Jesus’ life. The beginning of the gospel text for today states that Jesus moved from his home at Nazareth to the fishing community of Capernaum. Capernaum was on the trade routes. That would have provided a variety of people for Jesus to engage with his message of repentance and the coming reign of God. But the fact that Capernaum was within the Gentile territory could have been a source of scandal too. By quoting the great prophet Isaiah, Matthew suggests that this move is not a scandal, but rather Jesus obeying the will of God, whose concern extends to the ends of the earth.

Followers of the Rabbis normally presented themselves for training. Contrary to this tradition, Jesus called his disciples. During the dry season, when farmers were waiting for the harvest, the work was left to servants. Traditionally, this was the time when men gathered to debate and to “be seen.” It was the time when one who wished to promote a cause or had a grievance would gather followers. It was assumed that in time those followers would return to their normal daily lives. The pairs of brothers, Peter and Andrew, and James and John, are described as fishermen, one of the most successful and stable family businesses of the day. They are presented as leaving the business, their position in the community, and, in the case of James and John, even their father, to be come followers of Jesus.

Reflection Questions:                                     

  1. Have you ever moved from what was familiar to something very new and unfamiliar? What was going on inside you as you made that change? What did you discover about yourself, your relationships with others, and God?
  2. What are some of the things you have recently been asked to do? What are some things you recently have volunteered to take on? How does your experience help you to appreciate Jesus’ decision to begin his own ministry, and Jesus inviting the first disciples in this gospel?
  3. What might have been going on within Jesus when he heard that his cousin John the Baptist had been arrested? What do you think his prayer might have been like during these days?
  4. The first line of the text states that Jesus withdrew to Galilee. What do you think might be the motivation for Jesus to move to Galilee and then take up residence in the busy city of Capernaum?
  5. What do you think it was like for James and John and Andrew and Peter to have Jesus come up to them and ask them to be his disciples?
  6. How do you experience God’s calling you to discipleship? (Internal restlessness, need to take action, or something else?)
  7. What do you think those early days of Jesus’ ministry were like? What would it have been like to be part of Jesus’ inner circle at this point in his life?
  8. The disciples here are portrayed as leaving behind their former life to become disciples. What have you left behind in your effort to be Jesus’ disciple? (Your way of life, what things you thought were important, the way you spent your free time, or something totally different?)
  9. Have you ever been afraid to think about what God desires of you, because it may be difficult, or because it may demand more of you than you are ready to endure?
  10. As you experience God’s relationship to you through this text, what would you like to say to God?

 

The reflection and questions are written by Fr. Paul Gallagher, OFM.
They are edited by Sister Anne Marie Lom, OSF and Joe Thiel.

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Daniel Bonnell, The Baptism of the Christ

Daniel Bonnell, The Baptism of the Christ

January 15, 2017
John 1:29-34

Background:

This Sunday’s text is from John’s gospel and, while it does not actually describe the baptism of Jesus, it is the Baptist’s testimony of the meaning of the baptism—that it is a clear and trustworthy sign that Jesus is the long-awaited messiah. The text portrays John the Baptist as an eyewitness to the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus, and that the spirit of God told him that when those things happen, it is a sign from God that this person is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. The gospel is making the case that Jesus was, indeed, the long-awaited messiah.

People of the day brought their disputes to the elders of the community. Those on either side of the dispute would bring their “witnesses” who would, with great passion, present reasons for supporting the side of the person they favored. The side with the strongest witnesses in terms of number, status in the community, and passionate arguments usually carried the argument. John uses this familiar practice in the way he has composed his gospel. The witnesses he calls upon throughout his gospel are John the Baptist, Jesus’ own works, the Hebrew Scriptures, and God.

John the Baptist is a very important witness because of his reputation as a person who spoke the truth. In addition, there were those who wondered if the Baptist was the messiah. John describes John the Baptist this way: “A man named John was sent from God. He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to testify to the light.” (John 1:5-8) The gospel indicates that a great many people came out to be baptized by John. Those opposed to the idea of Jesus as the Messiah, the scribes and Pharisees, also opposed the Baptist and questioned his authority to baptize.

Right before the section that is the text for this Sunday, the evangelist reminds his community of this fact. “When the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites (to him) to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ he admitted and did not deny it, but admitted, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ So they asked him, ‘What are you then? Are you Elijah?’ And he said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the Prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ So they said to him, ‘Who are you, so we can give an answer to those who sent us? What do you have to say for yourself?’ He said: ‘I am “the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as Isaiah the prophet said.”’ Some Pharisees were also sent to John the Baptist. They asked him, ‘Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah or Elijah or the Prophet?’ John answered them, ‘I baptize with water; but there is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.’” (John 1:19-27) John the Baptist is a respected and powerful witness to the claim that John is making for Jesus as the Messiah.

Reflection Questions:

  1. Are you the kind of person who would like to have like John the Baptist give a detailed minute-by-minute account of what actually took place the day that Jesus came forward to be baptized?
  2. What does it say to you that none of the gospels record that kind of account of Jesus’ baptism?
  3. Twice in the text John admits, “I did not know him.” What is John saying? Why is it so important that the gospel record John saying it twice? Why is his saying this important to you?
  4. How difficult do you think it was for the Baptist to admit that his cousin, Jesus, was a much more important and significant person?
  5. Have there been times in your own journey when you had to admit that you were not as important as others (or you yourself) once thought?
  6. How is the journey of self-discovery before God taking place in your life right now?
  7. John says in the text; “…the reason why I came baptizing with water was that he might be made known to Israel.” Do you have as clear an understanding as to the purpose of your life?
  8. In the next verse, John the Baptist says that he saw the Spirit come down from heaven and remain on Jesus. Where do you see the Spirit of God present in the lives of others?
  9. In the last verse of the gospel text, John the Baptist states that he testifies to what he has experienced and seen. What is your experience of God working in your life? Are you called, in some way, to give testimony to God’s presence in the world?

 

 

The reflection and questions are written by Fr. Paul Gallagher, OFM.
They are edited by Sister Anne Marie Lom, OSF and Joe Thiel.

The Epiphany of the Lord

170108_epiphanyjJanuary 8, 2017
Matthew 2:1-12

Background:

After a couple weeks of gospels from Luke through Christmas and last Sunday’s feast of Mary, Mother of God, we return this week to Matthew for our gospel. Matthew is the featured gospel for year A of the liturgical cycle, which we started on the first Sunday of advent.  With the exception of next week when the gospel is from John, we will have Sunday gospels from Matthew until the third week of Lent.

The first chapter of Matthew’s gospel ends with Joseph obeying the instructions he had received in a dream. “When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home. He had no relations with her until she bore a son, and he named him Jesus.” (Matthew 1:24-25) Matthew omits a number of important details between the end of his first chapter and the gospel text for this Sunday. Most people fill in those missing pieces with familiar passages from other Gospels, or works of art, and even our own reflection. However, the Church realizes that Matthew’s gospel holds wisdom and insight to be savored on its own.

When Joseph agrees to take Mary into his house as his wife as he had been instructed in a dream, he spares Mary the possibility of being stoned or even being sent away quietly to give birth to the child. Matthew skips over the details of the child’s birth entirely, with all of creation, angels to shepherds, proclaiming the glorious event that has taken place in Bethlehem. Instead Matthew reports that it is Joseph who gives the child the name Jesus, the name Luke reports was given to Mary at the annunciation. “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus.” (Luke 1:31) Matthew has skipped over the census, not finding room in the city and therefore moving to the manger, the angels who declare the birth, and the shepherds. Matthew does not even name Mary in telling us of the birth of Jesus. Despite not having relations with Mary, Joseph takes on the child as his son and gives him the name Jesus. Matthew conveys the other details related to the birth of Jesus in the text that is today’s gospel.

In the world into which Jesus was born, the Magi were those who studied the heavens for clues to the meaning of life. They functioned as political and religious advisers to the rulers of the Median and later the Persian empires. At one point in Persian history, the Magi revolted and replaced their king, demonstrating their importance within their culture. Given that they were looking for a person of significance, it is no surprise that they would first go to Jerusalem on this journey. But the newborn king who was to be found in Bethlehem was an entirely different kind of king. When the Magi arrived there and entered the house, they first saw the child with his mother, and then they prostrated themselves before the infant. Matthew has described this encounter so that his audience will recognize that the birth of this child is so significant that even dignitaries from distant lands have come to acknowledge his importance. He also introduces the idea that Jesus’ presence in the world will draw Gentiles to recognize the presence of God. Who these Magi were, their names, how many — these details that have been added later are not described by Matthew. The Magi are important in Matthew’s text for only one reason: the world is affected by what God has done. They have come to acknowledge and reverence this event.

Matthew highlights the response of the Magi by contrasting it to that of Herod and all of Jerusalem. Unlike the Magi who have esteem and authority in their society, King Herod is merely a puppet ruler for the Romans. Apart from the presence of the star, the Magi have only their understanding that the star’s appearance signifies the birth of a person of importance. Herod has advisors who know of the prophecies about the birth of the messiah, but they seem to be oblivious to the fact that he has arrived. Herod’s reaction is one of distress, and he is not moved to take any direct personal action. Rather, with a deceitful claim for his motive, he directs the Magi to bring him the information he needs. The Magi have taken on the difficult and dangerous task of leaving their homeland to track down the person whom the star’s appearance signifies. They have brought precious gifts that indicate his importance, and they bow before him.

The Magi and Herod represent two very different responses to the presence of Jesus. Those who have the advantage of being familiar with the religious traditions (which should help them recognize the significance of the events unfolding before them) are unable to identify who Jesus is. Those without the benefit of being familiar with the religious tradition are willing to take on personal risk. They are able to recognize the significance of this infant’s birth. The reading suggests that the action of God in our world crosses human barriers. All who sincerely seek the way of God will be successful. God’s love is powerful and pervasive – it will not be thwarted.

 

Reflection Questions:

  1. What qualities do you associate with infants and young children?
  2. What is the range of responses that people in your family might have to news that one of the family is pregnant?
  3. Who in your family are the first in line to hold the babies at family gatherings? Are there any in your family who might be overwhelmed by the presence of a newborn?
  4. The Magi were men who were comfortable enough with the darkness to study changes in the night sky. What are the areas of darkness in your own life today? Are you more apt to avoid reflection on your own darkness, or to look for signs of God’s presence in the darkness?
  5. The Magi offered their treasures as gifts to Jesus. What is your treasure that you would like to offer? Are there treasures that you are not yet ready to offer? Do you think that God is patient enough to wait until you are ready?
  6. The Magi were warned not to return to Herod. What would have had to be different for the Magi to have been directed back to Jerusalem and encouraged to tell of their experience?
  7. How is your community like the Jerusalem of Herod, and how is it like the Jerusalem that might have been suitable for the Magi?
  8. What stands out for you in Matthew’s description of the birth of Jesus? What might this be showing you about how God is present in the events of your life?

 

The reflection and questions are written by Fr. Paul Gallagher, OFM.
This week they are updated from those that Fr. Paul prepared for Epiphany 2016.
They are edited by Sister Anne Marie Lom, OSF and Joe Thiel.

Fr. Paul remains in our prayers during his time off for recovery from surgery.

Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God

madonnahighwayJanuary 1, 2017
Luke 2:16-21

Background:

Most often, Christmas does not fall on a Sunday, and the church celebrates the feast of the Holy Family on the Sunday after Christmas. Then on January 1, the octave day of Christmas, we celebrate the feast of Mary, Mother of God. However, when Christmas falls on a Sunday as it does this year, the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God is still celebrated on the octave of Christmas (January 1). This moves the celebration of the feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph to Friday, December 30th.

The gospel reading from Luke 2:16-21 is almost an exact match to the reading suggested for mass at dawn on Christmas day, where the reading from Luke 2 included verses 15-20.  So depending on when and where you attended Christmas mass, most of this reading may sound familiar, if that is the gospel you heard on Christmas day.

In the verses in Luke immediately preceding this text, the angel appears to shepherds, and after calming their fears about finding the glory of the Lord unexpectedly shining around them, the angel proclaims that a savior has been born.  As a sign, the angel tells them, they will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.  That text closes with the angel joined by a multitude of the heavenly host saying, “Glory to God, and peace to those on whom his favor rests.”  (Luke 2:8-14) These verses comprise the ending for the gospel for Christmas mass at night, and they set the stage for today’s text.

In today’s text, after that visit from the angel and the heavenly host, the shepherds hurry to Bethlehem. They find the unlikely things just as the angel had told them they would, a baby in swaddling clothes lying in the manger.  They can’t help but repeat what was told to them and they tell what they have seen to anyone who will listen, to the amazement of all who hear it.  When they go back, they do so giving glory and praise to God.  And in the midst of all this, Mary keeps all these things, and reflects on them in her heart.

Following the custom of the time, eight days were completed before the new baby’s circumcision, and he was named Jesus in obedience to the direction from the angel Gabriel.  When Gabriel had visited Mary, he told her, “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus.  (Luke 1:31)

Mary has many feast days throughout the year, but the special identity of hers that is celebrated on this feast is her unique role as the Mother of God. God could not become a man in the form of Jesus without a mother to bring him into the world. Honoring Mary, Mother of God, is honoring her womb in particular, as the first chalice or the first tabernacle to hold Jesus on this earth. Without her immaculate body, this world could not have received Jesus. She brings him to us.

Mary brings Jesus to us. But she doesn’t stop there; she remains present throughout His life. In verse 19, “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” She reflects on Jesus’ life, and on how her life is touched by Him. We can follow her simple model in our prayer, reflecting on Jesus’ life and on how our own lives are touched by him. Not only does Mary bring Jesus to us, but she also brings us to Jesus.
After imitating Mary, pondering the life of Jesus in our hearts, our hearts are better prepared to worship Him. At every mass in the preface of the Eucharistic prayer, when the priest says, “Lift up your hearts,” we all respond, “We lift them up to the Lord.” Offering our hearts to the Lord is what worshiping Him consists of. Mary, with her immaculate heart, leads the church in worshiping her Son. By honoring her, we honor Him.

Reflection Questions:

  1. Have you ever gone in haste to a certain person, or to the site of a certain event, after hearing news of an important occurrence? How did the news of this event come to you?
  2. Have you ever had news of your own to share, that had significant and unexpected implications to those who heard it? How was the news taken by whoever you told?
  3. Have you ever had the opportunity to relate the story of the birth of Jesus to someone who received it in amazement?
  4. Have you ever looked into a situation brought to your attention by others, and came away glorifying and praising God for all you had heard and seen?
  5. Have you ever given an unexpected or unusual name to someone or something, after receiving a special inspiration about that person or thing?
  6. What do you think it was like for Mary and Joseph, each having been visited by an angel already, to have unexpected visitors to their unlikely situation with their newborn among stabled animals, and these visitors saying that angels were proclaiming this child’s birth?
  7. What are some of the things that you keep and reflect on in your heart?
  8. How does this gospel story fit into your thinking on this day that in our culture gives special attention to resolutions?

 

 

Our reflection and questions are usually written by Fr. Paul Gallagher, OFM. This week they are prepared by Joe Thiel with guest comments by Fr. Michael Thiel included.  They are edited by Sister Anne Marie Lom, OSF. The excerpts from the Sunday readings are prepared by Joe Thiel. Our guest writer this week is Fr. Michael Thiel, of the Diocese of Green Bay. He serves the Quad Parishes (Annunciation, St. Joseph, St. Patrick, and St. Jude) in Green Bay.