23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Book of Ezekiel is the source of the first biblical reading for this weekend. Ezekiel’s name was “apropos.” It was in effect a prayer, being translated as “May God make (him) strong.” Ezekiel needed strength to be a prophet in a time of great tension for his people.
Seeing the misfortunes that had come upon God’s people, Ezekiel never would have asked, “Why does God let this happen?” but rather, “Why do people sin and therefore bring such chaos and meanness into life?”
While accusing the nation of sin, Ezekiel also reassures that, despite all, God will protect the people.
St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans supplies the second reading. An educated Jew, fully versed in the teachings of Judaism, Paul knew the Commandments well. While he saw a special vocation in his outreach to gentiles, he knew that God had revealed the truth through the Hebrew people. The Commandments were from God.
Paul set the Commandments in context. Properly, people obey God because they love God. Therefore, people should treat others well, according to the Commandments, because they love others.
For its last reading, the Church this weekend offers a passage from the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus teaches the disciples to admonish anyone among them who somehow is at fault.
The Lord gives a progression of steps. First, a Christian should call a wayward brother or sister to task. Then, this step failing, the Christian should seek the aid of others in calling the wayward to task. Finally, this step also failing, the disciple should tell the Church.
If the wayward will not reform, the Church should dismiss the wayward. A pattern is given as to how this must occur. Behind it all, is the fact of the Church and of the fact of the Church’s authority and its place as the repository of all that the Lord has taught and given.
Quite clearly, this reading is about the Church. The Lord anticipates a believing, organized community guided by the Apostles on the basis of all that the Lord taught.
Being a follower of Jesus is serious matter. No disciple utterly can live as he or she chooses. Each must resemble Christ, obedient always to the perfection of God’s law. God’s law was revealed, a gesture of God’s love for us, that we might have life.
The Church has the right to judge a member’s behavior, even a member’s sincerity, indicated by this Gospel revelation. The Church is not simply a convenient, occasional gathering in which people think and act on their own.
Ezekiel’s name in essence was a prayer — asking for God’s strength. Ezekiel knew his limitations and also the challenges that he would face as a prophet. He knew that he needed God’s strength.
For weeks, we have heard advice about being good disciples. To be genuine disciples, we too will need strength from God.
We also need direction. The Gospel reading reveals to us that satisfaction for this need in our lives comes in, and through, the Church. Just over 50 years ago, Pope Pius XII published a marvelous encyclical about the Church, “Mystici Corporis.” This encyclical significantly inspired the Second Vatican Council, that came after Pius XII’s papacy.
The Church, according to “Mystici Corporis,” was founded by God and blessed by God, but it is composed of limited, at times sinful, humans.
When members sin, through the Church, they may be reconciled with God, if they humbly choose to be. The Church acts in the name of Jesus, conveying to us divine truth, God’s law, but also clarifying the difference between right and wrong.
This guidance is not intrusive or oppressive. It is God’s gift, God’s support, God’s care for us. Given this guidance, disciples are strengthened.
We carry our cross by faith
Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
Whenever a feast supercedes a regular Sunday liturgy in the Church, Catholics should realize that the Church is interrupting the usual sequence of Sunday readings to provide us with a lesson that it considers to be especially important.
Such is occurring this weekend. Last weekend, we observed the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time. Next week will be the 25th Sunday. Instead of presenting to us the liturgy of the 24th Sunday this weekend, the Church calls us to celebrate the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
This is because it is important for Catholics to think about the crucifixion of Jesus, not just in historical terms, but in terms of the enormous, miraculous effects of the Lord’s willing gift of self, as sacrifice to the Father, achieved through the crucifixion on Calvary, and of their place in the story.
For the first reading, the Church offers us a passage from the Book of Numbers. The reading looks back to the Exodus, the Hebrews’ long and wearying journey across the Sinai Peninsula in search of the Promised Land. This book recalls how disgusted they were with the want and uncertainty of the trip. Their disgust was understandable. Their very survival was at stake, because they were on the verge of starving. No food was in sight. They could not find their way. But, God led them. They survived. They eventually reached the Promised Land.
Moses called them to look upon a serpent that he had mounted on a pole. Many people detest snakes. In ancient cultures, however, snakes symbolized life, since snakes shed their skins.
Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians furnishes the second reading. Scholars believe that this actually was a hymn in early Christianity, sung during worship. It is one of the most magnificent pieces of literature in the New Testament, dazzling in its exclamation of Christ.
St. John’s Gospel is the source of the last reading. The reading is not from John’s detailed Passion Narrative. Instead, it is from an account of a time when Jesus is explaining salvation to Nicodemus, a prominent Jew.
Jesus draws a comparison between the Messiah and the serpent. The Savior will bring eternal life. To acquire this life, the Christian must look to the Lord, the only bond between God and humanity, between heaven and earth.
What is so urgent about the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, about the crucifixion itself that the Church sets aside the 24th Sunday to celebrate this feast this weekend rather than observe?
The urgency is in the fact that we must realize the ancient Christian adage that disciples must take up their crosses and follow the Lord.
Why? Understanding the story of Calvary helps us to understand our place in the story.
Christ came to reconcile all people to God, and to bring God’s mercy to them. Human sin works against this process. Indeed, human sin can seem to triumph. Christ died. Human sin overtook the situation, but only for a moment. Christ rose. He was victorious. He lives.
We too can live if we resist sin, and if we follow Christ. Following the Lord will require determination, even to the point of seeming to bear a burden as heavy as the cross.
Enabling us to carry our own cross is the mercy of God. Theologians call it grace. It strengthens us. It enlightens us.
We must ask for grace, and we must prepare ourselves for grace, by looking only and always to Jesus. We must resolve never to pause, or desert, our intention to follow Jesus to Calvary, and beyond Calvary to the glory of heavenly life, life eternal.
Jesus faced crucifixion not in despair, but in faith. We too must live in faith.
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