Orbiting Dicta

Monthly Archives: February 2021

2nd Sunday of Lent: Beloved Sons

Back in 1974, as I contemplated a year at Oxford, I had planned to study under the watchful eye of the preeminent scholar of religious mysticism of the day, R.C. Zaehner, who died suddenly on his way to mass just before I arrived. His final book (of many), Our Savage God, published earlier that year, might aptly describe the image of God in today’s first reading. Zaehner took as his starting point the savagery of Charles Manson, who arguably typified how twisted zealotry poisons the waters of religion. Had he lived longer, Zaehner would have grasped the meaning of the Jonestown Massacre four years later, and a decade after that the “massacre” at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. And the atrocities following the rise of ISIS, the so-called “Islamic State.”

By any stretch of the imagination, anyone who sanctions the sacrificial murder of an innocent child (or anyone else) is savage. Slaughtering the entire Egyptian army and thousands of Hebrews as they made their way across the deserts of the Middle East does not soften the image, and we have only to look back at the story of the Great Flood to glimpse a strangely and remorselessly punitive deity. The sacrifice of his daughter by Jephthah to fulfil a vow (Judges 11:30-39) and the killing of Uzzah for steadying the Ark of the Covenant as it wobbled on the cart carrying it to Jerusalem (2 Sam. 6:7) round out but hardly exhaust the ancient dread of what or who was perceived as a savage divinity.

Bronze Age religious sensibility, reflected in these accounts, differs vastly like its morality from the gospel of Jesus, although we still hear echoes of it in the ravings of fanatics to this day. You have only to read Matthew 5:38-44 to see the gulf that separates the visions of the two ages. But it is not only the sacrifice of Isaac that concerns us on this second Sunday of Lent. The mention of Moriah, or Mount Moriah as it came to be known ,the Temple Mount, links the story with today’s gospel, which narrates the vision of Jesus seen by his disciples on yet another mountain, traditionally Tabor. Both accounts deal with a sacrificial death, the second, like the first, becomes the favored explanation of the death of Jesus, as we see in the passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans.

On this second Sunday of Lent, Catholics the world over stop to consider this mystery in the light of one of the most

Gen 22: 1-2, 9-13, 15-18
Ps 115:10, 15-19
Rom 8:31-34
Mark 9:2-10

astounding manifestations of God’s gracious presence in all of scripture, an event which has acquired the title of Transfiguration. The link between the two readings is that fragment of the Epistle to the Romans, which celebrates God’s unquenchable love for humankind, a love that did not spare his own Son, an ominous phrase that may still disturb us.

Like Isaac, Jesus is about to be sacrificed to ratify an unbreakable covenant with God. Unlike Isaac, Jesus will not be spared by his Father. For this beloved child is himself the Lamb of God whose death will take away the sins of the world. He will bear our sins and suffer death in our stead.

In his gospel, Mark tells us that Jesus leads his three chief disciples up onto a mountain where his appearance changes. He is accompanied by two unlikely figures, long dead: Moses and Elijah, who (some scholars tell us) represent the Law and the Prophets. But here, something else is at work. They are talking to Jesus. Mark does not say what they were discussing, but Luke tells us they were talking about his departure, his Passover, “which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem” [Luke 9:31]. They were talking about his coming death. A sacrificial death.

A cloud covers the scene, and the disciples hear a voice telling them to listen to Jesus, who is the beloved Son. But listen to what? In each case, the account is preceded and followed by Jesus’ predictions of his passion and death, and here, in Mark, his resurrection.

The whole mysterious scene is set in the context of the great covenant promises of God, a covenant which was announced on the tops of mountains amid clouds, and glory, and heavenly voices that terrified their hearers. Those great figures of the past who were most identified with the mountain visions of God Almighty were Moses, who encountered the all-holy God on Horeb and Sinai, and Elijah, who seeks refuge on Mount Carmel, where God appears to him in a mysterious, whispering voice. Moses and Elijah are the great eschatological figures of the Ancient Covenant, whose own deaths are not only clouded in mystery, but according to the ancient promises were to reappear before the Day of the Lord. That Jesus appears between them has less to do with Law and Prophets than it does with Revelation: here is the final prophet, the one whose appearance inaugurates the Reign of God. Listen to him!

Jesus tells his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and there he must die. And in that death will be accomplished the inauguration of God’s reign, the salvation of the world. There is no way to glory around the mystery of suffering and death, but only through it, including the death of the innocent, even the death of children. In the death of this divine Child, all such deaths are taken up and ransomed. And we are to listen to him. What he tells us may be disturbing. But in each version of the Transfiguration, Jesus has just told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” [Mark 8:34].

Abraham listened to the voice of God and proved his faith. The disciples listened to the voice of God and learned to believe. And we, in our turn, are challenged to listen to the voice of God and transform our lives.

1st Sunday in Lent 2021: A fresh start?

It seems that no matter how many hills we climb, or how dark the night, there’s another one to deal with. We live in challenging times. But this morning my grand-niece just gave birth to a baby boy, and like a rainbow, it is a sign of hope for the world. But now, Lent. Officially.

Ash Wednesday and the three days afterwards were added some time after Lent was first observed to make up forty full days when people worried about whether Sundays really counted as days of fast and abstinence. There is nothing particularly religious in the name, by the way, at least as far as English is concerned. It comes from an old word, Lenten, which simply means “Spring,” probably because the days are now visibly lengthening.

The “forty days” are taken from the gospels of Matthew and Luke in which Jesus fasts and prays and through a series of tests shapes his ministry,

Gen 9:8-15
1 Pet 3:18-22
Mk 1:12-15

essentially by rejecting paths that would have led him away from the cross. Mark simply says that the Holy Spirit drove Jesus out in the desert where he was tested. John’s gospel doesn’t say anything about it at all.

If we do not sing Alleluias during Lent, it’s because they are an Easter chant, but we are urged nevertheless to “lift up our hearts” despite the somber color of the vestments. Halfway through Lent, lest we forget, there comes Laetare Sunday, a “rejoice Sunday” like that in Advent which with its lighter, rose-colored vestments, points ahead to the wonderful mysteries about to unfold. Lent is really about Easter. So in the midst of our conversion from sin, we are to rejoice. But why? About what? Today’s readings give us a pretty good clue.

The first two readings take as their starting point the unlikely figure of Noah. Not as an emblem of penitence, or even as the good and just man who escaped destruction because of his trust in God’s promise that the Epistle of Peter recalls. The reading from Genesis itself looks a little to the side. Interestingly enough, the number forty, which appears so prominently in the ancient account, is not mentioned in today’s readings except in relation to Jesus’ trek in the wilderness.

The focus in the first reading is clearly on what happens after the flood, when God enacts the second great covenant with the human race following that little problem in the garden with Adam and Eve. It’s an even more inclusive covenant this time, one which embraces the whole earth with all its animals and plants. We will do well to recall that. God will renew it time after time, each time, in fact, that human beings break it. And it always gets bigger – more generous, more inclusive.

Here the sign of God’s enduring love for creation is the rainbow, that beautiful remnant of a storm that appears when the sun comes out again. I don’t know of any tradition in which the rainbow is anything other than a symbol of goodness and mercy. To this day, devout Jews say a special prayer of blessing whenever they see a rainbow.

The second reading looks to Noah as a figure of those who are saved by God’s mercy, just as the followers of Jesus are saved by the mystery of baptism into his death and resurrection. The sacraments of initiation, preparation for which begins officially today for those wanting to be baptized, extend the new and gracious covenant that God made with all human beings, in fact with all creation, through the blood of Jesus. That is sure reason to rejoice.

The biblical theme of covenant with Creation has become urgently important in our time, as we see the devastation modern technological and industrial civilization has wrecked upon the world. Animal and plant species are disappearing at the fastest rate in 300 million years, the “sixth great extinction.” It is a perilous time for life on this planet. It has been estimated that about 30,000 animal species become extinct every year — about 3 every hour. Rain forests are disappearing at an alarming rate, and the seas are being poisoned with plastic and chemicals. For years, environmentalists and earth scientists have been clamoring for a new kind of Ark — responsible care for all the earth’s living systems. Like it or not, the fate and welfare of human beings is unbreakably connected with the health of the natural world. Like it or not, the future of life on earth is at stake, just as it was in the story of Noah. Saving Creation is now up to us.

Pope John Paul II was the first pope in recent history to make ecological stewardship an urgent moral imperative. The American bishops beat him to it by a decade, but few people really listened to them and in recent years they have gone strangely quiet. Pope Benedict renewed the call for ecological responsibility. But it was Pope Francis who made planetary stewardship a major priority with his great encyclical, Laudato sí.

In the midst of trying times — the pandemic, the economic chaos that ensued, political havoc, the downtown in weather as a consequence of global climate change–, Lent presents a special opportunity to join Jesus in his wilderness journey among the animals and angels, not only or even especially by fasting and other works of rigorous observance. Today, the new and eternal rainbow covenant calls us to the work of justice, peace, and charity, which is more than self-denial. It turns our heads around. That’s what “repent” means.

Lent provides an opportunity, a gracious gift, for us to accompany Jesus into the desert, to be tested, to see whether in this round of the journey of our lives we may spiral closer to that burning heart of love around which all things move, and in which they live and have their being, including the earth itself with all its animals and plants. So during the next forty days (Sundays included) may the Holy Spirit cast us out into that wilderness to accompany Jesus with an open and willing and especially a joyful heart.


Sixth Sunday of the Year: Honor, Love, and Cherish

Although today’s readings focus on disease, specifically leprosy, and more importantly, compassion and healing, it is also the traditional feast of St. Valentine (AKA Valentines Day) and for Catholics around the world, World Marriage Day, an observance begun back in 1981 as a project of Worldwide Marriage Encounter and celebrated annually on the second Sunday of February. It is the culmination of a week of preparation known as National Marriage Week. This year’s theme has been “To Have, To Hold, To Honor.”

This week, however, most of us probably paid less attention to love and marriage (except perhaps on the White House Lawn) than to the Senate trial of the former president of the United States, now mercifully ended, if the drama can be expected to drag on for months if not years to come.

It is especially appropriate to focus on honor at this time in our collective history, when so little of it seems to be in evidence where it is most needed. No less should we recover our sense of compassion and healing, not least because of the Covid pandemic still raging throughout the world and the economic hardship it has left in its wake.

The cure of a leper in ancient Palestine may seem to offer little opportunity to reflect on the scripture of the day with

Lev. 13:1-2:44-46
1 Cor 10:31-11:1
Mk 1:40-45

an eye on the TV screen (or as Karl Barth had it, the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other). But it is worth recalling that Hansen’s Disease (the proper name) and similar skin infections were terrifying to people millennia before the advent of antibiotics.  Rare today, except in the poorer parts of the tropical world where between 10 to 15 million people still suffer from it because of poverty and neglect, there are cases of it even in the United States where pockets of poverty and neglect still fester.

Caused by a bacterial infection, Hansen’s disease is only mildly contagious and rarely fatal, and can be controlled with antibiotics and other treatments – if these are available.  But in the ancient world, it was believed to result from some spiritual failing.  There was no cure short of a miracle. (For those with a good memory, the culminating scenes from the 1959 MGM film Ben-Hur accurately depicts the horror and suffering innocent people endured because of this dread disease.)

We don’t call people who suffer from Hansen’s Disease “lepers” anymore, exactly because of the disgrace that made the term a catch-all phrase for anyone who is socially repugnant.  But for that same reason, there are still many “lepers” among us today, it is those lepers who occupy the real focus of the readings from this morning’s liturgy.  We are presented with a serious conflict:  how we tend to treat people who frighten us or seem to threaten us, and how we ought to behave in their regard as those who profess to follow Jesus.

In it here that the second reading is important.  St. Paul tells us “do not give anyone offense, whether pagan or Jew or Christian” [1 Cor. 10:32] — something in itself we could think long and hard about, as anti-Semitism once again increases here and abroad.  The word Paul uses is stronger than what we mean by “offense” — it means “to chop at someone, to cut them down, to attack them.”

And this brings us to Mark’s account of the Jesus and the leper, which follows directly after the story of his curing the man afflicted by an evil spirit which we heard last week.

Jesus not only allows the suffering outcast to approach him, he actually touches him — which immediately made Jesus unclean in the eyes of the Law.  But like the woman with the hemorrhage in Luke’s gospel, the leper’s desperate appeal touches Jesus and by his faith he, too,  is healed.  Their faith opened the way for the grace of God to heal both of these victims.  But here, each seems to violate the very norm that St. Paul endorses — not to give offense to anyone.  Both the leper and the unfortunate woman gave plenty of offense.

What must have amazed Jesus’ disciples and outraged his enemies is that he took no notice.  He saw only need, and recognized only faith.  Not to be offended is at least as important as not giving offense.  Not when we are dealing with those desperate in their need for help and assistance.

We would do well to remember that God is particularly attentive to those who suffer oppression, discouragement, and outright persecution — the poor, the neglected, the forsaken.  “I did not come to call the righteous,” Jesus said, “but sinners” [Luke 5:32].  It is not those who profess to be well who need a doctor, but those who know they are ill.  It is our need that gives us title to the mercy and grace of God.

When we are able to welcome and assist those the world despises, to recognize in them our sisters and brothers, then we will have glimpsed the kingdom of God.  Then we will experience our own healing, and the healing of our nation and the world.

Let the last word today be about honor, compassion, and the greatest force for healing in the world today – unflinching and unconditional love:

World Marriage Day Prayer
“Father, … we thank you for your tremendous gift of the sacrament of Matrimony.   Help us to witness to its glory by a life of growing intimacy. Teach us the beauty of forgiveness so we may become more and more one in heart, mind and body. Strengthen our dialogue and help us become living signs of your love. Make us grow in love with our church so we may renew the Body of Christ. Make us a sign of unity in the name of Jesus, Our Lord and brother. Amen” (Fr. Bill Dilgen, S.M.M.)

Fifth Sunday of the Year: AKA Sexagesima

Buccaneers versus Chiefs might sound like an episode from Peter Pan – if you were born on a different planet or asleep for as many years as Rip Van Winkel (and should you not know what or who those are, more’s the pity…)

In the absence of a wise Super Bowl prediction from the uncanny Sr. Jean Kenny, I have sought refuge in the pre-game show of Puppy Bowl XVII, where there might dwell a clue.  In the meaning, many millions of fans are prepped for the Big Game and the parties before and after, not to mention millions more betting on the outcome of the game. As a premonitory caution, today’s first reading from the Book of Job might come as a foretaste of the aftermath for many millions.  (But not likely to spoil the parties, despite tears in the beers…)

Being old, sick, and desolate is no laughing matter, of course, but the sad plight of far too many people here and abroad as we linger in the

Job 7:1-4, 6-7
1 Cor 9:16-19, 22-23
Mk 1:29-39

grim shadow of the Covid pandemic and the flu’ and other ailments. It is not without reason that Job has inspired some of the great literature of the world.  We understand Job.  And like Job we cling to the possibility that a ray of light might pierce the darkness, something more than the glow from wide-screen TVs.

In Christian ages past today was known as Sexagesima Sunday, and still is by many Christians.  It’s the season before Easter, which is now just eight weeks (56 days) ahead, and only a week and a half before Ash Wednesday.  Carnival time by the old reckoning, although the revelry will be curtailed this year for fear of another surge in viral spread. Even though the name has changed in the Catholic calendar, there is still a shift in the tone of the readings selected for today. Carnival time is coming to an end. In the Book of Job, the central figure  appeals to us as a man of faith and heroic patience, true to God despite all that the Adversary could do to weaken his trust.  If Job was also a complainer, he had cause to be.

If we didn’t know the background, today’s first reading might be called the Prayer of a Chronic Depressive. Day drags into night, night drags on sleeplessly into day.  And yet, it all passes so quickly.  We wake up one bleak morning and find ourselves poor, lonely, old, stiff, sore, and probably not feeling well at all. It just ain’t fair.  Job is even the butt of criticism and disparagement by his wife, friends, and neighbors. And yet, he remains true, a model of fidelity in the face of poverty, illness, age, neglect, and misjudgment.  You might say that old Job is the patron saint not so much of whiners and malcontents, but of the elderly poor in most of the world.

The contrast with Paul’s self-description could hardly be more complete.  Like Job, Paul suffered a lot for his trust in God, and even he complains a bit. Elsewhere, he details his sufferings, miseries, woes, and hardships.  They were considerable, too.  In his second letter to the Christians at Corinth, he itemizes his griefs  (2 Cor 11:24-28) – but not here. He says simply, “my only recompense … is that I offer the good news free of charge.”  But I did this to myself, he adds.  “I made myself the slave of all so as to win over as many as possible.”  Paul’s slavery is a labor of love — patient, kind, persistent.  God’s slave, he offers his drudgery as a ransom for others.

Next we come to the image of Jesus himself, the servant of the servants of God.  We tend to read these accounts of Jesus’ early ministry with an eye to the content — Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law, curing the sick and expelling demons… all of which seems to have been admitted even by those who did not believe in him.  But here we are also invited as with Job and Paul to read between the lines.  It’s not about the what, or even the how, but the why.

Like Ado Annie in Oklahoma!, Jesus was one of those people who couldn’t say no.  The portrait Mark paints is of a man tired from his exertions, but unable to refuse help to those who came to him.  He didn’t seek out the lost sheep of the house of Israel so much as they sought him out. The whole town gathered outside the door, and he cured them, probably well into the night.  And he arose early, stealing off into the desert for some alone time to pray and gather his strength.  And the disciples came scrambling after him, tracking him down with the townsfolk practically at their heels.  Jesus’ response is to go on to the next village and the next and the next, announcing the kingdom of God and driving back the darkness.

One of the adages of the modern world, perhaps not without reason at times, is that we should learn to say no.  “Yes” comes to the fore too easily.  And yet, it is exactly his “yes” that drove Paul to uncommon lengths to preach the gospel, fretting over his little churches like a mother hen in a raging storm.  It was his “yes” that wore Jesus to the bone curing, healing the possessed, and preaching.

In that Second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul reminds us, “As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been Yes and No.  For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we preached among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not Yes and No; but in him it is always Yes.  For all the promises of God find their Yes in him.  That is why we utter the Amen through him, to the glory of God” [2 Cor 1:18 – 20].

Jesus is God’s “yes” to us, and he is our “yes” to God.  In him God heals the brokenhearted, binds up their wounds, and sustains the lonely.  And if that is to happen today, if the Kingdom is to be preached, the darkness driven back inch by inch, God and Jesus will be making some stiff demands on all of us.  Let us pray that our response, like Job’s, like Paul’s, like Jesus, will always be “Yes, Amen,” to the glory of God and the good of our neighbor.