In our first reading at Sunday Mass, we hear Moses prophesy the coming of another leader who would shepherd the people like Moses himself had shepherded them, leading them to the Promised Land. In the gospel reading we hear how even an unclean spirit could declare the fulfillment of this prophecy and recognize the truth about Jesus, the Holy One of God.
If you happened to find yourself reading here a week ago, hopefully you remember how we started talking about the kingdom of the Holy One of God.
As Pope Paul VI put it, Jesus came first of all to proclaim a kingdom. His kingdom is the true Promised Land. The phrase “Kingdom of God” refers to the one absolute reality of life. Everything else is relative.
To quote St. Ignatius Loyola: “Health or sickness, wealth or poverty, honor or dishonor, a long life or a short one”– all are matters of indifference, compared to the Kingdom of God.
If you were reading last week, you may recall that we considered two possible interpretations of the phrase “Kingdom of God:” the vague, shallow interpretation vs. the more concrete and precise interpretation, based on the Holy Scriptures.
We were just getting ready to tackle two particularly vague things about the vague, shallow interpretation, when we ran out of time a week ago. The vague, shallow interpretation insists on being especially vague and shallow when it comes to two things.
St. Paul tells us: “After just a brief moment, he who is to come shall come. He shall not delay.”
Who shall come?
When did He walk the earth? How long ago?
After just a brief moment. He shall not delay.
What kind of person considers two thousand years to be a brief moment? Not a New Yorker, to be sure.
What kind of person considers two millennia to be anything less than a “delay?” –Not a delay? Air-traffic control would certainly call it more of a cancellation.
St. Paul says: “Do not throw away your confidence.”
Where is the Lord? Invisible now, yes. He appears to tolerate things like the deflation of footballs, and blizzards that arrive at the wrong location, and other outrages on the face of the earth.
But does he not make the sun rise? Does He not keep the canopy of the sky over our heads? Okay, so He permits a Superbowl involving two of the most odious teams in the history of the sport.
But we have to listen to His supernatural wisdom. Seeds sprout and grow, and we know not how.
We think of 2,000 years as more than “a brief moment.” But, to the One Who laid out the heavens and the earth, a thousand years are like a day.
We know how long it takes to make Minute Rice. But we have no idea how long things like: history, and the filling up of the ranks of the Elect, and the full construction of the everlasting Kingdom of God—we have no idea how long things like that take.
The smart money is on God getting it done, the best way possible, at the best possible time. It could be today. It could be ten thousand years from now.
Our job is to believe, to hope, and to love right now.
To the one who has, more will be given. From the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. (Mark 4:25)
These words of our Lord have troubled and perplexed people ever since He first uttered them. Doesn’t sound like Mr. Nice Jesus at all.
Perhaps one way to understand what exactly is to be given or taken away is this: a genuinely Christian vision of life.
Some people have lived under circumstances when a genuine Christian vision of life practically grew on trees. Church stood at the center of town and the center of life. Books and entertainments referred constantly to saints and Bible heroes; everyone knew the events narrated in the Scriptures; the name of Jesus tripped reverently off everyone’s lips all the time.
Beautiful circumstances, in other words, for cultivating one’s spiritual life. Like I said, some people have lived under such circumstances. Not us.
Obviously, we owe God our weekly act of worship. In the days of Christian culture, everyone owed God a weekly act of public worship. And we owe Him that debt now, too.
But: don’t we also have to recognize that without Sunday Mass every week, it has become practically impossible, these days, for a soul to maintain a Christian vision of life?
“Even what he has will be taken away.” Without regularity in Sunday Mass attendance, won’t whatever little Christian spiritual life a person may have—won’t it wither away and die, sooner rather than later—because the world affords no other supports for it?
On the other hand: “To the one who has, more will be given.” With the habit of regular Sunday-Mass attendance, our souls swell with wisdom, peace, and joy—a kind of wisdom, peace, and joy that has become practically unknown in the world.
So, if I might presume to put it like this: If we want to participate in the New Evangelization, we must become apostles of: Mass every week.
Why would we keep Catholic Schools Week at the end of January? After all, the school year certainly offers other, warmer weeks—when we might have a picnic, or a Catholic-Schools-Week cookout or pool party?
Well, there’s a reason…
Who’s the heavenly patron of all Catholic schools? St…. His feastday falls on January… (28th)
But: St. Thomas Aquinas is not the only heavenly patron of Catholic education with a feastday during the final week of January.
Whose feastday falls on January 31? Right! St. John Bosco, who went out into the streets to find boys who needed an education.
And whose feastday do we keep today, on the 475th anniversary of her holy death? St. Angela Merici. She went out into the streets to find girls who needed an education.
All three heavenly patrons of Catholic Schools Week believed that a good education starts with one thing, namely Jesus Christ.
In our gospel reading at Holy Mass, we hear the Lord Jesus insist that doing the will of God is the most important thing. And in the first reading, we hear St. Paul declare: The will of God is for us to be consecrated through Jesus’ offering of His Body for us.
So we can draw a straight line: Christ ———-> the saints of Catholic education ———-> us celebrating school Mass together.
When it’s cold and blustery outside during Catholic Schools Week, that reminds us that we belong in school. We belong inside, learning about Christ, and about the wonderful things that He has designed, and made, and made beautiful.
At Roanoke Catholic School, we count ourselves thoroughly blessed to have: 1. the constant help of God, 2. the grace of the sacraments, 3. the intercession of our patron saints, and 4. the love and help that we give each other.
We belong together in school. God Himself has united us in the truly worthwhile endeavor of seeking His Kingdom and growing into the people that He made us to be.
Let me quote Blessed Pope Paul VI, interpreting this verse:
Christ first of all proclaims a kingdom, the kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is so important that, by comparison, everything else becomes ‘the rest.’ The Kingdom of God is absolute; everything else is relative. (Evangelii Nuntiandi)
Pope Paul continues: “The Lord Jesus gives the Magna Carta [the Constitution] of the Kingdom of God,” namely…The Sermon on the Mount.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek and gentle, those who mourn the sin of the world.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.
Blessed are the merciful, the peaceful, the pure of heart. Blessed are those who suffer for the sake of God’s kingdom.
“Blessed” because: In the kingdom of God, we will receive consolation, comfort, and true satisfaction. There will be mercy. We will see God.
Pope Paul continues: “Jesus gave us the heralds of the Kingdom,” namely…the Apostles and their successors in the work of evangelization. And: “Jesus described the vigilance and fidelity demanded by whoever awaits the definitive coming of the kingdom of God.”
Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or naked or sick or in prison? To those who inherit the Kingdom, the Lord will say, “You did for Me whatever you did for…”
The Kingdom of God is at hand.
Now, I think we need to sort out the two ways in which this declaration of Christ’s can be understood. The two ways the phrase “Kingdom of God” can be understood.
Way #1: The vague, shallow way.
According to the vague, shallow interpretation of the idea of the Kingdom of God, it doesn’t matter what religion you are, or what you believe, so long as you are nice. It doesn’t matter whether your good deeds actually help anyone in particular, or if you even ever do any real good deeds at all.
The vague, shallow interpretation holds that God is very nice and very imprecise himself. God does not really concern himself with what I do, or fail to do, exactly—according to the vague, shallow interpretation. But I can count on the vague, nice God to give me good feelings whenever I show up in a church or temple for a wedding or a funeral.
Actually, according to the shallow interpretation, I get to judge the vague, nice God, applying my own criteria. If God doesn’t meet my expectations, I am allowed to pout and stew. I might forgive him, provided he conform to my ideas and plans.
The second way of interpreting the phrase “kingdom of God” involves actually reading the Holy Bible.
When we read the Bible, we discover that one particular character never appears, not even on a single page—from Genesis, all the way through to Revelation, he’s not there. Namely, the vague, nice God.
In the Sacred Scriptures, we read about God, Whose kingdom flows with a kind of milk and honey so wonderful that we can’t even imagine it. All the dreams about heaven that we could concoct would never touch the sublime beauty of what God has revealed through His prophets and apostles.
We read, and we meet a God so powerful and wise that even the strongest and smartest human beings either have to tremble at the very thought of Him, or He humbles them to nothing by crushing all their delusions of grandeur into the dust.
We read, and we encounter a divine King Who insists that the most annoying and demanding of His subjects–who smell bad and often sit near us–are precisely the ones that we have to find a way to love as much as we love ourselves.
We read the Bible, and we see that God relentlessly concerns Himself with a lot of things that the vague, shallow interpretation regards as petty details. Like how to do holy ceremonies properly. And how to avoid lying, and lusting, and gluttony, and all kinds of hidden sins. He concerns Himself painstakingly with how we live in a marriage and as a family. And with what we ought to do when someone asks for help.
In other words, the actual King of the kingdom of heaven is demanding as hell. You have to belong to the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. And not only do you have to belong, you have to do all the required things. And you have to do them with a loving and cheerful heart.
You also have to give up anything and everything that stands in the way of reaching the Kingdom of God—a kingdom that exists on its own, no matter what I think or don’t think about it. There’s a real King ruling over it, Who was born of Mary in Bethlehem and was crucified under Pontius Pilate.
The vague, shallow interpretation of the Kingdom of God insists on being especially vague and shallow when it comes to two things in particular. We will have to cover those next week.
Our first reading at Holy Mass Sunday comes from the first book of Samuel the prophet. We hear about the young Samuel. While he was still a boy, he lived in the temple.
The Lord spoke to little Samuel. But the prophet hesitated to think that a revelation had come to him. Instead, he thought that the old priest sleeping nearby must be speaking.
When it comes to making bold pronouncements about ‘the will of God,’ we Catholics tend to operate like the young Samuel. We will not be the first to insist that we know God’s mind, that we have the answers, that we get to speak for Jesus.
In other words, holy rolling is not our way. We take a humbler tack. A Catholic thinks to him- or herself: “I have to worry about getting myself to heaven. That’s more than enough work for me. I don’t need to worry about conveying divine communiques, telling other people their business. Let them follow their consciences, as I strive to follow mine.”
St. Paul’s letter to the Hebrews offers us the definitive interpretation of Psalm 95. And Psalm 95 must be important, since we priests recite it every day, first thing. It is the daily opening of the Divine Office.
The psalm exhorts us to sing praise to the Creator, to acknowledge His universal sway, and to submit to him like sheep submit to their shepherd. “Today, listen to the Lord!” Soften your hearts. Because the stubborn will not enter into his rest.
Interpreting all this, St. Paul exhorts us: “Let us strive to enter into that rest.”
A paradoxical thing to say, to be sure. Strive! To rest. Since I am a runner, and therefore know that there is nothing more relaxing than running many miles, I can feature this paradox pretty well.
We all can, I think. Back in the day, before Roe v. Wade, the few weeks before Ash Wednesday had a sleepy, restful feel in the typical American parish, and naps were allowed. But we cannot rest in late January now. We have to go on a pilgrimage and stand up for human rights.
So we strive, in order to enter into rest.
Speaking of striving and entering into his rest: Father Junipero Serra, Apostle of California.