The Third Sunday of Ordinary Time–Jonah

Our first reading today is from the book of Jonah, one of the shortest books in the Old Testament. It’s just four chapters long.  It’s a short book but there’s a lot there. The passage we read today is from Chapter 3, right in the middle of the story.  Today’s reading begins with the Lord speaking to Jonah, sending him to Ninevah to deliver a message.  But it’s not the first time the Lord’s given Jonah the command.

 

Chances are that when you think of Jonah, you think of him being swallowed by the whale, and you’re right.  As Paul Harvey used to say, that’s the rest of the story.

 

When the Lord first spoke to Jonah and asked him to go to Ninevah, he was afraid.  See, the Jews and the Ninevites were bitter enemies.  The Lord wasn’t just sending Jonah to deliver an unpleasant message.  He was sending him into a city where he might be killed, even if he was bringing GOOD news.  Jonah was so afraid that he jumped a ship headed to Tarshish.  He thought he could hide from God.

 

Tarshish was in the land we now today as Spain, more than 2,000 miles from Ninevah.  At that time, around 500 BC, Tarshish was literally the end of the world.  Jonah was running, or sailing, as far away from God as he thought he could.

 

But you can’t hide from God and shortly after the ship set out, a violent storm took hold of it.  To make a long story short, the other men on the ship find out that Jonah is running from the Lord and that the storm is God’s punishment.  At Jonah’s request, they throw him into the sea and immediately the storm stops.  Jonah is swallowed by the whale.  In the belly of the whale Jonah repents of his sin and after three days God commands the whale to take him back to Ninevah and spit him out on the beach.

 

Notice Jonah didn’t spend two days in his watery hell.  He didn’t spend four days.  He spent three days.  Sound familiar?  Jesus also spent three days in the nether world before he was raised from the dead.

 

 

Being 21st century Midwesterners, you and I may not have a lot of insight into 5th century life on the Mediterranean Sea, so I thought I’d share this with you.  In the book Moby Dick by Herman Mehlville, a character called Father Mapple preaches on the story of Jonah.  His congregation was sailors, sailors’ wives and sailors’ widows. He says,

“Shipmates, this book, containing only four chapters—four yarns—is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures.  Yet what depths of the soul does Jonah’s deep sea-line sound!  What a pregnant lesson to us is this prophet!  What a noble thing is that canticle in the fish’s belly!  How billow-like and boisterously grand!  We feel the floods surging over us; we sound with him to the kelpy bottom of the waters; sea-weed and all the slime of the sea is about us!  But what is this lesson that the book of Jonah teaches us?

 

“As sinful men, it is a lesson to us all, because it is a story of the sin, hard-heartedness, suddenly awakened fears, the swift punishment, repentance, prayers, and finally the deliverance and Joy of Jonah.  As with all sinners among men, the sin of this son of Amittai was in his willful disobedience of the command of God—never mind now what that command was, or how conveyed—which he found a hard command.  But all the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do—remember that—and hence, he oftener commands us than endeavours to pursuade.  And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.”

One more passage from Father Mapple:

 

“Then God spake unto the fish; and from the shuddering cold and blackness of the sea, the whale came breeching up towards the warm and pleasant sun, and all the delights of air and earth; and vomited out Jonah upon the dry land; when the word of the Lord came a second time; and Jonah, bruised and beaten—his ears, like two sea shells, still multitudinously murmuring of the ocean—Jonah did the Almighty’s biddint.  And what was that, shipmates?  To preach the Truth to the face of Falsehood!  That was it!”

 

The Lord tells Jonah to go into Ninevah to tell the people that in forty days their city will be destroyed.  Now Ninevah was a fairly large city.  Chapter 4 tells us that it was more than 120,000 people.  The writer tells us that it takes three days to walk across it.  But, in just one day Jonah convinces them to repent.  The king proclaimed a fast and everyone put on sackcloth.  Jonah must have been one heck of a preacher.  When God saw that they had repented, he spared the city.

 

In the second reading, Paul warns the people of Corinth that time is running out, just like Jonah told the people of Ninevah.  “The world in its present form is passing away.” Turn away from sin and turn to God.  The pleasures and the riches of this world are nothing compared to what God has in store for them, and for us.

 

Finally, in the Gospel today Jesus tells the Galileans “This is the time of fulfillment.  The kingdom of God is at hand.”  Simon and Andrew abandoned their nets to follow Jesus.  James and John walked away from their Father and their fellow fisherman.

 

That’s what God is calling us to do.  Walk away from the nets that entangle us.  What are your “nets”?  What are the things in your life that are keeping you from following Jesus with “all your soul, with all your heart, and with all your mind”?  Are they really that important?  The honest answer is, “No, they’re not.”  God speaks to us all the time.  He wants us to do his will.  But that usually means we have to make a choice.  We gave up some other activity to come to church today.  When we spend time in prayer, there’s always something else that we could be doing.  When we do good works for others, we’re sacrificing time and treasure that we could be using for some other purpose.

 

Father Thomas Merton once said that when you’re trying to choose between two things, God’s will is usually the harder choice.

 

When He calls, you can run away like Jonah did.  That didn’t work out so well.  After much suffering and repentance, he ended up doing what God asked after all.  Or you can do what the Apostles did; lay down your nets and follow Jesus.

 

Behold the Lamb of God

Lambchop with Kermit the Frog

You and I, as 21st century Americans, may not get the image John shares with us in this Sunday’s Gospel.  As Jesus walks by, John the Baptist says to his two disciples, “Behold the Lamb of God.”  When we think of a lamb, we probably picture a cute, warm and fuzzy little beast.  I have a stuffed lamb that sits in my office.  My particular lamb is black, reminding me of the back sheep, the rebel, the trouble-maker, that we all tend to be sometimes.  You are probably familiar with Lambchop, ventriloquist Sherri Lewis’ puppet.  Maybe you picture the sheep that promote a certain brand of mattress.

Or, if you’re more into food than stuffed animals, you may think of lamb chops with mint jelly.  Lamb stew, or Irish stew may be in your mind.  If you’ve been to the Emerald Isle, you know that, outside of the cities, sheep and lambs are everywhere.  In America you’re most likely to see an actual lamb at a petting zoo.

But, to a first century Jew, the lamb was a symbol of sacrifice.  When John pointed out Jesus as the Lamb of God, his message was that Jesus would become a sacrifice.  He would be killed.  Even so, the disciples chose to follow Him, knowing that they might also be called to sacrifice their own lives.  The question is, are we willing to follow the Lamb?  Are we willing to give up everything for the sake of the kingdom?

Here’s a link to an excellent homily by Father Robert Barron on this Gospel.  It’s about fifteen minutes long and well worth your time.   Check it out.

Epiphany

Today we celebrate the Epiphany, the day when the Magi arrived in Bethlehem to pay homage to the new born king.  Surprisingly, we don’t know much about the Magi.  Matthew’s is the only Gospel that mentions them.  We don’t know exactly where they came from.  Matthew only tells us they came “from the east”.  The “east” is a pretty big place.

We also don’t know that there were three of them.  Over the centuries we’ve come to think there were three because they brought three gifts.  But, it’s not unreasonable to think that more than one king brought Jesus gold, or frankincense or myrrh. If there were no duplicate gifts, the stores wouldn’t set up special “return lines” the day after Christmas.  In fact, the Eastern tradition believes there were twelve magi.

So what DO we know about these magi.  We know that they followed a star to Bethlehem.  The word “magi” is the root of the word “magic”.  The magi were astrologers.  They were experts on stars and it’s no surprise that they followed one to Bethlehem.

A Greek manuscript from around 500 AD names the three kings; Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar.  Like I said, we don’t know how many kings there really were, but three gifts brought by three kings is logical and the three names have been around for 1,600 years, so we’ll go with that.

But, what’s the point of the kings, no matter how many there were?  In the first reading, Isaiah prophesies that “Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining brilliance.”  The arrival of the kings, following the star, fulfills the prophecy.  These kings, how ever many there were have come to pay homage to a baby; not just any baby, but a baby born in a cattle stall.  You can imagine that those mighty, wise men wouldn’t make such a long trip, bring expensive gifts, and prostrate themselves to anyone less than the Son of God.

Herod tried to use the visitors to find the Baby Jesus.  It makes you wonder, if the magi saw the star, why didn’t Herod?  Obviously, God didn’t want Herod to see it.  If he’d seen the star, he could have gone and found Jesus himself.  Or, he could have followed the magi.  But he didn’t.  And the magi were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod.  As Matthew says, “they departed for their country by another way.”  You could say that once you’ve found Jesus, you can never go back the way you came.  Your life, like the lives of the magi, is forever changed.

OK, so why gold, frankincense, and myrrh?  The gold is a symbol of kingship.  For a king to give a gift of gold showed tremendous respect.  Frankincense, or what we call simply incense today, is a symbol of deity; or Godliness.  We use incense in the church today on special occasions.  Myrrh was a perfume that was used in Jesus’ time for embalming.  It was a symbol of suffering and death.

Look at the words of the hymn “We Three Kings”.

“Born a king on Bethlehem’s’ plain, gold I bring to crown him again.” 

 

“Frankincense to offer have I:  Incense owns a Deity nigh.” 

And, “Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume Breathes a life of gathering gloom”. 

The final verse begins “Glorious now, behold Him arise, King and God and Sacrifice.”  Gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

If these mighty, foreign kings recognized who Jesus was, can we do any less?  We’re at the end of two very special times of the year; Advent and Christmas.  It’s time to take down the trees and the lights and get back to normal.  But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep the spirit of the season in our hearts for the next ten months until we do it again.  Scholars tell us that Jesus probably wasn’t born in December.  But does it really matter?  For faithful Christians Jesus is born in us each and every day.

For the last two months strangers have been greeting strangers with a smile.  We’ve been exchanging greetings with one another.  Why stop now?  [There’s a reason why we exchange the sign of peace during mass.]  At the hospital where I volunteer they have a five foot/ten foot rule.  When someone is ten feet away you’re supposed to make eye contact.  When they’re five feet away you’re supposed to smile and greet them.  That’s a good rule for anybody, anywhere.  Something like that could actually change the world.  And changing the world is what we’re called to do.  If mighty foreign kings could prostrate themselves before a baby in a manger (and think about what’s on the floor of a cattle stall) smiling at strangers is the least we can do.

You’ve probably seen the “Catholics Come Home” TV commercials.  With 70% of people who call themselves Catholic not coming to mass, the commercials are a great idea.  But I think they’re making one mistake.  Where’s the joy?  Yes, we invented the college system.  Yes, we’re the largest charitable organization in the world.  Yes, we created the Bible.  Those are all wonderful things but I’m not sure any of them would make me want to come back to church if I’d been away.

Here’s the thing.  It’s a PRIVELEGE to be Catholic.  We have SEVEN SACRAMENTS.  Most protestant churches have three. We receive the actual Body and Blood of Jesus in the Eucharist.  If you want to join most protestant denominations, all you have to do is show up and say you want to join.  If you want to be a Catholic, you have to go to school!  It takes months!

If we want people to come back to church, and believe me, it’s critical for this particular church that we get people to come back, we have to show them the joy.  You and I have to show the world how happy we are to be Catholics.  We should sing when we’re supposed to sing.  We should pray when we’re supposed to pray.  And we should walk out of here at the end of mass with a big smile on our faces, knowing that we’ve just received the greatest gift God could give a mere creature; the gift of Himself.

There’s no way we can ever repay God for such a great gift.  The magi tried.  They traveled many miles. They gave Him the best they had.  The best we can do is to worship Him and to do whatever we can to share His gift with others.  That’s the message of the kings, no matter how many there were.

There’s a tradition in the Church that we bless our homes on the Feast of the Epiphany.  We do this by writing an inscription above the doors with blessed chalk.  Before the final blessing today, Father will bless chalk that you can use at home.  The chalk will be at the entrances of church along with the prayer that you can use.

With everything that’s going on in the world today, we encourage you to take the time to bless your home and the people who live there.  If you know someone who’s in that 70% of inactive Catholics, feel free to take an extra piece of chalk and prayer sheet for them.

I’m Not Worthy

“This is what John the Baptist proclaimed: “One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.”

Isn’t John the Baptist speaking for all of us? Really, who IS worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals? I know I’m not. But here I am, reading Jesus’ words in the Gospel but knowing that I’m not now and I never will be worthy of such a great responsibility. Then I’m supposed to say something profound.

It’s really hopeless when you think about it. Over the past 2,000 years there have been a lot of people who have proclaimed the Word of God. Some have been great preachers, like Bishop Fulton Sheen or Father Benedict Groschel, or Cardinal-elect Timothy Dolan. Saint John Chrystostom is the patron saint of preachers, but even he, possibly the greatest of all time wasn’t worthy.

Of course, we all know that there are bishops, priests, and deacons who have failed horribly in their responsibility to the Church and to the people. Yet they’ve proclaimed the Gospel, and no matter how unworthy they were or are, the Word is still true.

I guess the trick is to know that you’re not worthy. I know a few guys who think they ARE worthy, but I believe that that kind of thinking makes you even less qualified to speak on Jesus’ behalf. Each of us is called to spread the Good News in our own way. John the Baptist wasn’t anything to look at. He wore animal skins and ate bugs, but people came to him in droves, asking him to baptize them. Unworthy though he was, he was preparing the way for the Messiah. Well, the Messiah came. We celebrated His birthday just a couple of weeks ago. But everyone hasn’t gotten the message. After 2,000 years there are still unbelievers. There are even more who believe that He came, believe that He was the Messiah, but don’t necessarily believe what He said. You and I are called to show them the way. Whether we think we’re worthy or not, we’re the tools that Jesus has chosen to build His kingdom.