A reading from the prophecy of Amos
When my three grandchildren were little, we would often sit on my couch, and I would read to them from numerous popular softcover books. There was a very lightweight quilt on that couch that we would carefully throw over our laps as the reading session proceeded. We called it the “story blanket.” It added to the fun and magic of those shared moments. The four of us were unified and joyful as we shared the tales about pokey puppies and silly bears and adventuresome spiders. Those were the good old days!
Recently I got thinking about that story blanket and wondering if something similar might be useful in times of stress or anxiety. It could be an actual or even virtual “prayer blanket” or “no-worries blanket” that could be thrown over one or more of us together to offer a respite from discomfort. For a little while, we could distance ourselves from whatever is causing any upset in our lives. Blankets cover up people and things. They provide protection, a measure of warmth, inclusivity, and privacy. Most blankets are soft; so much in our world is abrasive and rough.
With the constant presence of cellphones and computers nowadays, it is not so easy to separate ourselves from outside stimuli. I see people walking, talking, texting, and listening everywhere I go. While it is all done in the name of convenience, there is something to be said for being able to take time to clear one’s head, connect with our loving Father God, and feel a non-technological connection with others. The comfort of the real or imagined “prayer blanket” could give gentle peace a chance.
So many times I hear people say in an effort to comfort others: “We are sending you our thoughts and prayers.” Can that become a stock expression? Do we always really follow through and take the time to think and pray for those individuals as we plow through our busy days and nights?
So let’s frequently pull our prayer blankets over ourselves and be comforted by what St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans (8:38-39):
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor
present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other
creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
A reading from the prophecy of Amos
We tend to think of ancient Israel as a poor nation, and that is true. Most of the people were poor peasant farmers who barely got by and often were vulnerable to the whims of their landlords, seed providers, and more well-off merchants who cheated the poor families that depended on them for their livelihood.
Amos, teaching in the eighth century before the birth of Jesus, socks it to these predators: “The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Never will I forget a thing they have done!” This was a time of relative economic growth, but poor people saw little if any of that money. Sound familiar? One of the biggest issues in our society today is economic inequality. It is not only an economic concern but also a moral issue. People who are working hard, often at two or three minimum-wage jobs per family, are still poor and hungry in our rich country. Imagine what Amos would be saying today, how angry he would be. How should we, as followers of Jesus, act to overcome economic injustice in our society? Can we say that we are truly on the side of those who live in poverty?
(Psalm 113:1-2, 4-6, 7-8)
“Praise the Lord who lifts up the poor.” How does God really lift up the poor unless we believers act as God’s partners here on earth?
A reading from St. Paul's letter to Timothy
The early Christians were not big fans of kings, the Roman emperor, and other officials, but the author of this letter calls upon Christians to pray “for kings and all authority.” He also asks the people to pray “without anger or argument.”
That was a difficult task then, and it is today, especially if we do not agree with our local, state, or national leaders. We can pray to change their minds, work to challenge their positions or their leadership within our democratic process, and join in an ongoing debate on the issues we hold dear.
Then he took the bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them saying,
“This is my body, which will be given for you; do this in memory of me.” (Luke 22:19)
What a wonderful memory that is, revisited at every consecration at every Mass! We remember and treasure that saving, nourishing miracle of our Savior. We have followed his direction gratefully for so many years.
What else do we remember learning about and from Jesus? What else can we do in his memory? We certainly recall his telling Peter to forgive transgressions seventy times seven times. (Matthew 18:22) That’s a tall order, but we can try to develop a willingness to be forgiving and understanding. We remember how good it feels to come out of the confessional. Starting over with a spouse or friend after a disagreement feels very refreshing.
We remember how many times we read in Scripture of Jesus healings of the blind and disabled. We cannot perform healing miracles like those, but we can offer sympathy, aid, and understanding to people who are suffering. Crowds would follow Jesus, even break through a roof, as they brought numerous friends and relatives to be touched by him. They persisted even though Jesus must have been extremely weary. Let’s stop and think about his example when a whining child pursues us or an impatient friend is complaining about a personal problem and wants our help. Remember what Jesus would do.
If we cannot recall all of the Beatitudes, we can read them again. (Matthew 5:3-11) Jesus’ teachings are memorable and give us goals for which to strive. In our world that often encourages selfishness and egocentricity, Jesus reminds us of the holy way of life. When we do the right work on ourselves regarding priorities, peace-making, and mercy, we are “blessed.” Jesus was a methodical and thorough teacher; we can try to emulate his style.
Remember when the Pharisees and Herodians were trying to get Jesus in trouble about paying the tax to Caesar? We see that Jesus amazed them with his answer about the right order of things. (Mark 12:13-17)
So Jesus said to them, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what
belongs to God.” (Mark 12:17)
Keeping things in the right order, keeping our priorities right is a challenge. The Holy Spirit is available to help us.
As we get older, sometimes our ability to remember things becomes far from perfect. That is not so with God. We can take great comfort from the Lord’s words to Israel in Isaiah 49:15-16:
Can a mother forget her infant,
be without tenderness for the child of her womb?
Even should she forget, I will never forget you.
See, upon the palms of my hands I have
written your name;
your walls are ever before me.”
A reading from the Book of Exodus
(Chapter 32:7-11, 13-14)
This reading is about the infidelity of the people who were saved by God from slavery in Egypt. "The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down at once to your people. … They have soon turned aside from the way I pointed out to them, making for themselves a molten calf and worshiping it, sacrificing to it and crying out, “This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” I see how stiff-necked this people is. … Let me alone, then, that my wrath may blaze up against them to consume them.’"
“But Moses implored the Lord, his God, saying ‘Why, O Lord, should your wrath raise up against your own people?’” Then Moses began to bargain with God. This may seem strange to us but “Semitic bargaining” was a feature of life at that time. And God relented and said to Moses, “I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and all this land that I promised, I will give your descendants as their perpetual in heritance.”
Notice that at first God refers to the Hebrews as “your people,” even though he has always considered them as his people. Then, after he has forgiven them for their idolatry, they are once again his people.
We do not worship any golden calf today, but we may be tempted to worship power or money or possessions. Of course, we would never say that, but we might be tempted to discard our values for power or possessions. It is good to ask ourselves these questions every once in a while. What are we tempted to worship? Does anything hold power over us?
(Psalm 51:3-4, 12-13, 17, 19)
“I will rise and go to my father.” The first line of the Psalm says, “Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness; in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.” God’s mercy is always there for us.
A reading from St. Paul's letter to Timothy
(Chapter 1: 12-17)
St. Paul was more responsible for the growth of the early Church than any other person. But he had been a really “bad guy.” As he writes, “I was once a blasphemer, a persecutor, a man filled with arrogance.” This great man had participated in the murder of Christians before his conversion: “But because I did not know what I was doing in my unbelief, I have been treated mercifully, and the grace of our Lord has been granted me in overflowing measure, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. … Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the worst. But pm on that very account I was dealt with mercifully, so that in me, as an extreme case, Jesus Christ might display all his patience, and that I might become an example to those who would later have faith in him and gain everlasting life.”
In the first reading, from the Book of Exodus, we read about God’s mercy for his people. Here, Paul talks about the great mercy that he received from Jesus, a mercy that literally turned his life around.
Has the forgiveness of God, the mercy of God ever turned your life around? Has it helped you out of depression, self-doubt, even self-hatred? The healing mercy of God is truly amazing, transforming, life- changing. Perhaps you know someone who is in need of God’s mercy but does not know it or does not know how to ask for it. Have you ever thought that one of our great gifts and roles in life is to embody the merciful love of Jesus in your life and work? It is right there within us, and the need is all around us.
Decades ago, I used to walk to 11:15 Sunday masses with my mother. St. Joseph’s Church was only about a 15-minute walk from our house in Middletown, New York. We would pass a few businesses on our travels, and all of them would be closed because it was Sunday. Back then, unless the business was a hospital or a pharmacy, most businesses were not open on the sabbath day. Ours would be a quiet, almost sacred walk past the weekday-noisy business establishments, including a laundromat, a car-repair shop, and a few other small enterprises.
On our way home from church, we would stop at a tiny what-we-now-call convenience store for a newspaper and penny candy for me. I really felt like a privileged character circumventing the Sunday sanctions and buying a luxury gumdrop or two on that holy day. The little store was rather dark inside and smelled of age, but as I pointed to the different candies I wanted, the elderly saleswoman would hunch down and gingerly scoop up my choices to put into a small brown paper bag.
During my growing-up years, the Sunday sanctions were relaxed. I remember my catechism teaching about avoiding servile work on the sabbath day. As a child, I was prone to a bit of scrupulosity as I tried to follow every letter of the law. I missed the spirit of the law. I would get caught up in the confusion of law for law’s sake versus law tempered with love.
In today’s liturgy, the Gospel of Luke (6:6-11) relates that the scribes and Pharisees were just looking for a way to defame and criticize Jesus for His merciful cure of a man’s withered hand on the sabbath. Jesus is God, so this was hardly “servile” work for God! Regardless, agendas were more the issue in that circumstance. Confrontation was the scribes’ and Pharisees’ goal, not the joy of the healing!
A reading from the Book of Wisdom
The author of the Book of Wisdom asks, “Who can know God’s counsel, or who can conceive what the Lord intends?” The author gives his answer toward the end of this passage: “Or who ever knew your counsel, except you had given wisdom and sent your holy spirit from on high?”
The only knowledge we have of God comes from God. God sends us his Holy Spirit, according to the author, writing during the century before the birth of Jesus. Today, we Christians say our knowledge of God comes from the Holy Spirit who dwells in us.
(Psalm 90:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 14-17)
“In every age O Lord, you have been our refuge.” Throughout the history of Judaism and Christianity God has always been presented as the recourse of those who are troubled. In your darkest times, do you experience God as your refuge?
A reading from St. Paul's letter to Philemon
(Philemon 9-10, 12-17)
In ancient times, slaves were often treated cruelly as we might imagine, but there were also slaves who rose to positions of wealth and even authority in the Roman Empire. Onesimus was not one of those elite slaves, but he was much loved and respected by Paul who considered him a brother. Paul writes from prison to Philemon, a leader of the Church in Colossae, asking him to also consider Onesimus as a brother. Paul is not challenging the institution of slavery but rather calling this young man, Onesimus, to a whole new identity.
Tragically, it took thousands of years and hundreds of millions of destroyed lives before slavery came to be regarded as unjust and immoral in much of the world. Yet, even today, there are more than a million people still living in bondage. Let us remember to pray for all those who have lived and died in slavery and for those who are still enslaved.
Grudge! That word jumped out at me as it was read in Mark’s gospel at today’s liturgy. I have heard stories of grudges between families and individuals. The stories are never good. I know of one family that for almost 20 years has been damaged by a grudge over the worth of family property. Three members of that large family have isolated themselves from all the other relatives. They never communicate. It is as if the rest of the family had died! There are many causes of grudges, but they all seem to involve unforgiveness or anger or ambitious rivalry. Words are usually exchanged. Emotions come into play.
In Mark 17-29, we learn that John the Baptist has told Herod that it is unlawful for him to have his brother’s wife, Herodias. For that, John is imprisoned by Herod even though Herod enjoyed listening to John’s preaching. Herod promised Herodias’s daughter her heart’s desire after her delightful dance; that is when grudge-ridden Herodias suggested that her daughter ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Herod had to keep his word!
If we hold a grudge, we try to punish the person with whom we are at odds. We really are punishing ourselves by holding on to anger or resentment. In the Lord's Prayer, we ask God to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” If we hold a grudge, we take back our part of the proposed deal with God. Somehow, we might righteously think that if we hold onto a grudge, the object of our anger gets what he or she deserves: the loss of our love or attention. We, however, miss out on the possibilities of satisfying interactions with that person. The grudge can take on a life of its own and be “in charge.”
I suggest that we try to turn grudges into nudges—that is, nudges to bring love into challenging situations. Deflate the grudge balloons! Pray about any situation that tempts us to hold onto anger; ask the Holy Spirit to shine a new revealing light to help us see other sides to the story. We might take a small step and start a conversation about something else upon which everyone does agree. Do a little. charitable work of mercy together. Recall a happy event we have shared and give thanks to God together. Invite conversation and possible new avenues of joint effort.
Remember that grudge-holding is bad-example-giving to others. Diffuse the emotional buildup while remembering past joys.
Psalm 51:12-14 is a good forgiveness prayer:
A clean heart create for me, O God,
and a steadfast spirit renew within me.
Cast me not out from your presence,
and your holy spirit take not from me.
Give me back the joy of your salvation,
and a willing spirit sustain in me.
A reading from the Book of Sirach
(Chapter 3:17-18, 20, 28-29)
This is one of the few times in the liturgical cycle that we read from a book of Jewish writing that is not a part of the Hebrew Bible. Yet, it is part of Jewish wisdom teaching. The first line is problematic: “My child, conduct your affairs with humility, and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts.” Do you think that is true? I suppose it depends on what gifts you are giving and whether you are looking for anything in return. A true giver of gifts such as love, compassion, honesty, and service does not look for anything in return and usually is a humble person rooted in the truth.
(Psalm 68:4-5, 6-7, 10-11)
“God, in your goodness, you have made a home for the poor.” If that is really true, God has a tremendous amount of work to do. We have more than a million homeless people here in our own country and hundreds of millions all over the world, especially refugees. Actually, it is more accurate to say that we humans are God’s partners in making a home for poor people.
A reading from the Letter to the Hebrews
(Chapter 12:18-19, 22-24a)
The early Christians made a clear distinction between the Old Covenant that was approached in fear and the New Covenant that we approach in communion with Jesus and “the Spirits of the just made perfect.” So, too, when we approach our loving Father at the time of our death, we are not alone. We journey in the presence of the Holy Spirit and Jesus and all our previously departed loved ones. As Jesus says over and over again in the Gospels, we are never alone. He is always with us, not only in life but also as we pass from this life to the other ever-lasting life. It is so important for all of us to believe this, especially those in danger of death.