Today, in Mercy, the symbols of yokes and plows shout out across our readings. Again, we are dealing with metaphors not in everyday usage for most of us. But those listening to Elijah, Paul, and Jesus absorbed the symbolism easily.
The yoke has connotations of subservience and toiling; in some ancient cultures it was traditional to force a vanquished enemy to pass beneath a symbolic yoke of Spears or swords.The yoke may be a metaphor for something oppressive or burdensome, such as feudalism or totalitarianism. (Wikipedia)
The writer of Kings has fiery Elijah engaged in one of his several highly dramatic episodes. What a scene, right? But what is the point for us?
The point is the same in all three readings: yoke=commitment. Each of our writers is talking about a further understanding of the word “yoke” —a freely chosen commitment made, by grace, for Love.
Sometimes, as in Kings, we need to break an enslavement in order to commit to something life-giving, such as Elisha’s call to follow Elijah.
Other times, as in Galatians, we must remind ourselves of the freedom and power we have chosen by breaking the old yokes that bound us.
In our Gospel, Jesus acknowledges the cost of a commitment to his Way. He has already told us in Matthew 11:
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
Today, in Luke, Jesus doubles down on his invitation /challenge to follow him:
No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.
The question left for our prayer today? Is my heart fully yoked to the heart Christ? Is my hand firmly grasping the plow?
Today, in Mercy, we celebrate the great Apostles Peter and Paul, first architects of the Christian faith.
From our 21st century perspective, we may be tempted today to celebrate the totality of their accomplishments – the scriptures ascribed to them, the theology traced to them, the cathedrals named for them.
But there is a deeper message given to us in today’s readings, one that challenges our practice of faith. We can access that message by asking an obvious question:
Why were Peter and Paul, simple religious leaders, persecuted, imprisoned, harassed, and eventually executed? What was the terrible threat these unarmed preachers presented to political power?
It was their testimony to the transformative Gospel message of Jesus Christ – the Gospel of Mercy and Justice.
But Jesus’ proclamation of God’s kingdom constituted a serious challenge to the Romans who ruled Israel during his lifetime. The cheering crowds who greeted him, especially during his entry into Jerusalem, as well as his confrontation with the moneychangers in the Temple, constituted such a threat to the unjust power of empire that the rulers crucified Jesus in order to silence him. – Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ
Peter and Paul, and every committed Christian after them, bears the same holy threatto ensuing cultures of domination, violence and greed.
As Jesus, Peter, Paul and so many others down through Pope Francis show us, faith and politics always work hand in hand. The work of faith is to build a world where every person can live, and find their way to God, in dignity and peace. It is to witness to an alternative to any power that feeds on the freedom, joy and peace of another person – especially those who are poor, sick and vulnerable.
May Peter and Paul inspire us to continue the daunting task of such an apostolic faith.
Music:They Who Do Justice – David Haas
They who do justice will live in the presence of God! They who do justice will live in the presence of God! Those who walk blamelessly and live their lives doing justice, who keep the truth in their heart, and slander not with their tongue! Who harm not another, nor take up reproach to their neighbor, who hate the site of the wicked, but honor the people of God! Who show no condition in sharing the gifts of their treasure, who live not off the poor: they shall stand firm forever!
Today, in Mercy, we celebrate the feast of the Sacred Heart, a day of deep devotion and gratitude for God’s lavish mercy to us.
All of our readings today suggest the image of a good shepherd caring for his sheep. This metaphor, perhaps more meaningful for the agrarian society in which these scriptures were written, still retains for us the imagery of tenderness, attentive responsibility, strength, protection, and vigilant presence.
Our first reading comes from Ezekiel whose ministry occurred in Babylon during the second captivity there. God calls Ezekiel to prophesy against Israel’s leaders who have forgotten their defenseless sheep, who have fed themselves instead of their flock. Today’s particular verses have God speaking, taking over the shepherding duties, because the human “shepherds” (kings and priests) have so badly failed their sheep.
The Lord makes clear who will be the beneficiaries of his tenderness:
The lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, the sick I will heal, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy, shepherding them rightly.
As I prayed with this passage, I was struck by the awareness of how some things never change. The parallels to our Church and society are painfully evident. Immorally self-indulgent “pastors” and self-serving, indifferent leaders still plague their “flocks”. The poor and weak are still abandoned by those they had depended on.
Our reading from Romans and Matthew raise before us the model of Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd who both renders us infinite compassion, and teaches us how to dispense it as his disciples. We are invited to become one with the sacred, compassionate Heart of Jesus, being healed ourselves to become healers.
Take my yoke upon you, says the Lord, and learn from me,
for I am meek and humble of heart.
Our world aches for this healing. Let us pray together today for God to inspire and energize us to be Mercy for our world.
Music: Sweet Heart of Jesus – sung by the Irish soprano Maureen Hegarty
(I know this hymn is tinged with a bit of the old, sentimental spirituality. Still, I have loved it from my long-ago youth and it touches me deeply. I hope it will touch you as well.❤️ Lyrics below.)
Sweet Heart of Jesus!
Fount of love and mercy,
Today we come,
thy blessings to implore;
Oh touch our hearts, so
cold and so ungrateful,
And make them Lord,
Thine own for evermore.
Sweet Heart of Jesus!
Oh, make us love Thee
more and more.
Sweet Heart of Jesus!
Make us know and love thee.
Unfold to us
the treasures of thy grace.
That so our hearts, from
things of earth uplifted,
May long alone
to gaze upon Thy face.
Today, in Mercy, Abram and Sarai fall back into a struggle with God’s promise. God tarries with fulfillment and has not yet removed Sarai’s barrenness. The aging couple become impatient.
So, as we all sometimes do when God appears deaf to our prayers, Sarai comes up with her own strategy, clearly outside God’s outlined promise. They will use their slave Hagar to bear Abram’s heir.
The passage doesn’t mean that we should not work hard to fulfill our lives. It isn’t intended to contradict that old wisdom:
Work as if everything depended on you. Pray as if everything depended on God.
Or as St. Ignatius puts it in a more precise way:
I consider it an error to trust and hope in any means or efforts in themselves alone; nor do I consider it a safe path to trust the whole matter to God our Lord without desiring to help myself by what he has given me; so that it seems to me in our Lord that I ought to make use of both parts, desiring in all things his greater praise and glory, and nothing else.
What this reading does hold up before us is the quality of our faith, the depth of our relationship with God.
Do I consider every aspect of my experience in the light of prayer, sharing it with God, listening for God’s voice?
Do I inform my spirit through scripture and spiritual reading, (with what I like to call “a holy culture”), so that I can trust my discernment and be patient for its fulfillment?
Do I seek the counsel and companionship of those who strengthen the resolve of my spirit?
Abram was making good progress with these stepping stones, then Sarai threw him a curve with the offer of Hagar as his concubine. But don’t just blame Sarai. Good old Abram caught the curve and ran with it!🙂
Life pitches us all a lot of curves. It can be hard to catch God’s Voice as the curve buzzes by us!
Let’s pray today to let this story teach us whatever we need to learn about our own faith, discernment, patience, and “holy culture”.
Today, in Mercy, our reading from Genesis invites us further into the gift of our faith.
We see God break into Abram’s life through a vision.
“Fear not!”, God says. I am your shield; I will make your reward very great.”
So Abram must have been a little frightened when God decided to visit him here. But why?
What Abram was nervous about was this: despite God’s earlier promise to him, Abram and Sarai were still childless – barren. In fact, he was so concerned that God would not prove true to the promise, that he was making plans about his own future without God’s help.
… if I keep on being childless (I will) have as my heir
the steward of my house, Eliezer…
Abram was a very practical guy. His newly-sprouted faith expected practical, even instant results. It would take some time for Abraham to grow into a faith rooted in relationship rather than signs; to realize that faithful relationship is for the long run, not the immediate answer.
God helps Abram to understand this long, deep view.
God took him outside and said: “Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so,” he added, “shall your descendants be.”
Abram looked at these stars, made and sustained by God’s hand. He saw that this God Who was inviting him to relationship was beyond time, beyond numbering, beyond human definitions – boundless in life, mercy and love. And so, letting go of his need for concreteness and Immediacy,
Abram put his faith in the LORD, who credited it to him
as an act of righteousness.
Today’s scripture may lead us consider our own relationship with God, God’s promise in our life, how we are being drawn beyond our limited expectations. Is there a place of barrenness, an unmet need, a broken expectation shaking our heart or spirit? Let’s ask to abandon all these things to God’s love.
We might even want “to go outside” ourselves, literally or figuratively, asking God to teach us how God’s Presence in our life is infinite, even beyond the stars – if we have a faithful heart to see.
Today, in Mercy, we celebrate one of the greatest figures of the Bible, John the Baptist. He prepared the way for the Lord.
When I think of John’s role in Salvation History, I am reminded of a captivating poem by Geoffrey Brown, author of Road of the Heart Cave:
The Heart Cave
I must remember
To go down to the heart cave & sweep it clean; make it warm with a fire on the hearth, & candles in their niches, the pictures on the walls glowing with a quiet light. I must remember
To go down to the heart cave & make the bed with the quilt from home, strew the rushes on the floor hang lavender and sage from the corners. I must go down
To the heart cave & be there when You come.
John the Baptist went down to the heart cave of our human perception of God.He understood, in an inexpressible way, that God was about to do something astounding in human history.God was about to become part of it!
John understood this with unquestioning faith, the way we understand heaven but cannot rationalize it. Understanding it, he knew that the world needed to turn itself toward God – to repent – in radical and ardent expectation.
This was his call and his message – this extraordinary man, dressed in his camel hair vestments, preaching at the desert’s edge.
We might pray to John today to be turned from anything that distracts us from God, to long for God’s presence in our hearts and in our world, to love deeply and make a welcome home for Christ within us.
( On this Feast, 53 years ago, my entrance companions and I professed our vows. I think of all of them with love today. May I humbly ask you, dear readers, to join me in prayer for us as we thank God for the gift of our lives in Mercy.)
Music: Apolytikion of the Synaxis of St. John the Baptist ( Dismissal Hymn of the Assembly for St. John the Baptist from the Greek Liturgy)
Today, in Mercy, we celebrate a glorious feast, one through which we can trace the continuing evolution of Eucharistic theology.
Some of us will remember celebrating the Feast of Corpus Christi, perhaps as children. The Host, carried in a beautiful monstrance, was processed through the neighborhood, bringing blessing to all who gathered.
While a rare occurrence today, and considered by some a saccharine expression of devotionalism, the practice was intended to convey a central belief of our faith. It is a belief whose theology continues to evolve and deepen with the passing years:
In the gift of Eucharist, Jesus Christ has made us
one Body with Him. We are One Body in Christ.
A significant step in the evolution of this theology occured with the issuing of the encyclical MYSTICI CORPORIS CHRISTI ( Pope Pius XII, 1943). In this letter, we see a theology beginning to unfold to include not only Christ’s presence on the altar and in the Host, but in the very lives of the faithful.
The Sacrament of the Eucharist is itself a striking and wonderful figure of the unity of the Church, if we consider how in the bread to be consecrated many grains go to form one whole,and that in it the very Author of supernatural grace is given to us, so that through Him we may receive the spirit of charity in which we are bidden to live now no longer our own life but the life of Christ, and to love the Redeemer Himself in all the members of His social Body.
In his encyclical, ECCLESIA DE EUCHARISTIA (2003), Pope John Paul II, expands this teaching:
By the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost the Church was born and set out upon the pathways of the world, yet a decisive moment in her taking shape was certainly the institution of the Eucharist in the Upper Room. Her foundation and wellspring is the whole Triduum paschale, but this is as it were gathered up, foreshadowed and “concentrated’ for ever in the gift of the Eucharist. In this gift Jesus Christ entrusted to his Church the perennial making present of the paschal mystery. With it he brought about a mysterious “oneness in time” between that Triduum and the passage of the centuries.
The infinite mystery of God’s relationship with us in Jesus Christ continues to call us to deeper understanding of our relationship with one another. Let us pray today for greater love and fuller surrender of our hearts to this awesome, self-emptying mystery.
At the heart of the Christian faith shines an open table without exclusion, where Christ is the chef, the host, and the food of life. The broken bread and the pouring wine manifests the Divine attitude to welcome especially the ones who are brokenhearted, neglected, rejected and crushed. And we are transformed into the body and blood of boundless and creative love, incorporated into the same divine DNA as everyone else – regardless of species, ethnicity, religion, gender, nationality, appearance, or social class. (Ivan Nicolleto)
Today, in Mercy,Jesus addresses the confounding problem of spiritual schizophrenia.
No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.
Mammon (μαμωνᾷ), a concept that is rather simplistically translated as “money”, actually connotes a much more complex meaning. Strong’s Concordance of the Bible offers related words that help enrich our understanding of the word “mammon”:
This is the dissonance Jesus speaks to in today’s Gospel. “Money”, or possessions, – like good wine – in excess can dehumanize us. We can become entangled, addicted and covetous of it. We can forget who we truly are when we allow ourselves to drown in it. We can lose connection to the community in which we exist.
But we need “money”, don’t we? Very few people desire real material poverty. How does Jesus guide us to face this internal dichotomy?
Jesus says that our FIRST concern must be the Kingdom of God. Motivated by that core intention, the rest of our concerns will fall into proper place.Pope Francis reiterates this truth for our times in the encyclical “Laudato Sì”. Let’s pray with it today:
Christian spirituality proposes an alternative understanding of the quality of life, and encourages a prophetic and contemplative lifestyle, one capable of deep enjoyment free of the obsession with consumption. We need to take up an ancient lesson, found in different religious traditions and also in the Bible. It is the conviction that “less is more”. A constant flood of new consumer goods can baffle the heart and prevent us from cherishing each thing and each moment. To be serenely present to each reality, however small it may be, opens us to much greater horizons of understanding and personal fulfilment. Christian spirituality proposes a growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little. It is a return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack. This implies avoiding the dynamic of dominion and the mere accumulation of pleasures. (223)
Today, in Mercy, Jesus puts the whole spiritual life in a nutshell:
When I was a kid (and maybe even now), one of my favorite cartoon characters was Uncle Scrooge McDuck.
I was amazed to think that someone could accumulate all that money, and fascinated to see that all he wanted to do was sit on it!
Both Uncle Scrooge and Jesus pose some deep questions to us today.
How much do we really need to make us happy?
Will having it actually make us happy in the long run?
Where does our happiness come from, if we have happiness at all?
We have seen the theme in a hundred books and movies – poor little rich boy or girl starving for love. We all seem to realize that true wealth comes from love. But do we live and choose by that understanding?
Possessions can distract us from what is truly essential for our soul. Greed and selfishness can kill the Spirit within us.
Our coöptation by materialism and greediness doesn’t have to rise to the level of Scrooge’s mounted millions. So often a miserly heart is crippled by things much more complex than money. We can be sinfully stingy with:
our attention to those deemed unimportant
our kindness to those struggling with life
our forgiveness to the unappreciative
our presuppositions about what belongs to whom
The following parable has always shaken me down at the root of my assumed entitlements:
A young woman was waiting to catch a flight in the boarding area of the airport. Given that her wait was going to be several hours she decided to buy a book to read along with a packet of cookies to enjoy. She sat down in an armchair in the VIP room of the airport to relax and read her book in peace.
Beside the armchair where the packet of cookies lay, a man was seated next to her reading his magazine. When the woman reached into the packet of cookies to take the first cookie, the man next to her also took one. She was irritated but said nothing. “What nerve this man has!” she thought. For each cookie she took the man also took a cookie.
She was infuriated but didn’t want to cause a scene. When only one cookie remained she thought to herself, “what will this horrible man do now?” The man reached down and broke the cookie into even halves and handed one half to her. It was more than she could handle! She grabbed her things in a huff, refused the half, and stormed off to the boarding area.
When she got onto her seat on the plane she reached into her purse to get her reading glasses and, to her surprise, her packet of cookies was sitting there untouched and unopened.
We might wish to spend some prayer time considering the application of this story to our own attitudes.