On the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, the readings teach us about leadership. Peter exhorts the presbyters to oversee the people, but not “by constraint.” They should not be stiff and tyrannical. They are to lead them by persuasion— “willingly.” He tells them not to profit from their position over the people, and that the best way to lead is through example. Leading by example requires the leader to be a good example. If I encourage people to pray, but never pray myself, and in general act like a person who doesn’t pray, it will be hard for them to follow me. If I tell people to eat healthy, and am morbidly obese, they won’t believe me. If I tell people to love, but then do not treat others with love, who will believe me?
Leaders must lead by example, and they must be with those they lead. If they cannot be with them, it is much harder to form the bond of trust needed to effectively be a leader. The bond of trust with the leader is critical, because it helps us know that our leader is on our side. He will not betray. Today’s psalm expresses this well. “Even though I walk in the dark valley I fear no evil; for you are at my side.”
The Gospel today shows Peter’s willingness to jump out first. When Jesus asks, “who do you say that I am, Peter is the first (and only, I presume) to reply that he is “Christ, the Son of the living God.” For his faith in Jesus, Peter is called the “rock” upon which Jesus will build his church. He is given the keys to the kingdom.
This imagery and text ties Peter and Jesus’s relationship to the Davidic kingdom of old. David’s son Solomon had 12 ministers, like a presidential cabinet. One of these men was selected as the prime minister. He was given the keys of the kingdom—literally the keys to the city and the palace. Furthermore, when any of the ministers—especially the prime minister—spoke, it was in the name of the king and had the same effect as if the king had said it.
Jesus, by using the language that he did, made the 12 apostles the Davidic ministers of his kingdom, and made Peter his prime minister. Jesus’s kingdom is not just in this world, but extends into the next. While Jesus is enthroned in Heaven, his prime minister rules in his stead: Peter speaks in the name of Jesus on this earth. The Pope, the successor of Peter, must continue to rule by example and shepherd God’s Church through the ages.
May we all be examples to those around us. Even if we are not placed in a leadership position, we can still lead others to God through our good example. When we do this, we become the most important kind of leaders—the sort of leaders who lead people to God!
Today’s reflection is based on the optional Gospel reading for memorial (Jn 15:1-8) and the hagiographical reading from a letter by St. Peter Damian in today’s Office of Readings (PL 144, 473-476).
St. Peter Damian was a Benedictine monk who worked tirelessly for the reform of the church. But his first devotion was always to God. A man who did not totally love God and give himself over to God’s mission would never have been able to achieve what St. Peter Damian did. He reformed the monasteries, the clergy and even aided the popes.
In the Office of Readings today, St. Peter Damian wrote “some words of consolation” to someone he refers to as brother. He encourages the brother to remember that he is a son of God, that he need not fear.
“…for God’s chosen ones there is great comfort; the torment lasts but a short time. Then God bends down, cradles the fallen figure, whispers words of consolation. With hope in his heart, man picks himself up and walks again towards the glory of happiness in heaven.”
In this beautiful quote, Damian writes that while we may encounter trials, God is always there to comfort us. All we must do is remember to ask God for his help and comfort.
This ties in perfectly with the Gospel selected to accompany St. Peter Damian’s memorial. We are the branches on the vine of the Father. We are pruned so that we may grow and bear much fruit, but we are always connected to the Father. When stay close to the Father, and allow his words to remain in us—allowing Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit to live and act in our lives—we can ask of anything and it will be done. When we are so intimate with God that we live in him and he lives in us, we will only what God wills, so it would be impossible for us not to receive those gifts for which we ask.
“If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”
Today’s Readings: Sir 1:1-10; Ps 93:1ab, 1cd-2, 5; Mk 9:14-29
“O faithless generation, how long will I be with you? How long will I endure you?”
The disciples could not drive the demon out of the boy, because they did not have the faith. Jesus, Peter, James and John are just coming down the mountain from the Transfiguration—an intense experience of prayer for Jesus, and an intense confirmation of faith for Peter, James and John. The other disciples, though, weren’t there. They had faith, but not enough.
Jesus, after casting out the demon, explains to his disciples that prayer is required for this sort of demon to be driven out. But Jesus just said they did not have the faith necessary. Which one is it? Both. Prayer and faith work together. Prayer increases our faith, and faith improves our prayer.
This faith can allow us to do wondrous things, Jesus says it could move mountains, but it also can give us something even great: true understanding—the ability to see things as they are. Seeing things as they are—this is what wisdom is.
When has the story of the wise sage on the mountain ever ended with him telling us to do something in order to fix some problem? The wise sage helps his visitors to see clearly what they already know, what they already have seen in an obscured way.
Faith and prayer helps us to see God, who created all things and gave humanity wisdom. If we have a relationship with Him, properly established through prayer and faith, then we will be able to see other people and the material things of this world as they truly are.
Without humility, we are like tyrants. Without humility, we cannot truly listen to others. Without humility, we cannot endure suffering. Without humility, we cannot grow to be the man or woman who God created us to be. The readings today show us the need for humility.
The first reading tells us not to bear hatred for our brothers and sisters, to take no revenge and hold no grudge, to not incur sin even if we might need to correct them. Without humility, we cannot do this! The golden rule, formulated here in Leviticus as “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” is a call to humility. This is a challenging command! When I make a mistake, sometimes I am able to realize it, but many times I don’t even realize when I have done it. If I knew about it, I would try my best to correct it. In these cases, the only way that I can grow is for someone to offer me correction. That is why correcting a brother or a sister in Christ is an act of charity!
But without humility, this can become the act of a tyrant. Humility helps us to recognize that we all make mistakes. We all have faults. When someone corrects us, we desire for them to do it out of care and love. When someone corrects me out of anger, spite or a desire for power I can feel it. I do not wish that feeling on others. It is painful! It is hurtful! When we have humility, we can recognize our faults—or at least that we have faults—, and we allow ourselves to be corrected and to correct others in charity and kindness.
As I mentioned, humility allows us to truly hear others. Without humility, we may be tempted to assume that we our always right, and that others are the ones who need to change. Whenever I am driving, I know that I am the best driver on the road. If something doesn’t go my way when I’m driving, it’s never because I made a mistake. It’s the other guy, who obviously never learned how to drive and wants to cause a wreck. Humility, by helping open us to correction, helps us to recognize that maybe, perhaps, I was wrong. Maybe the reason people keep brake-checking me and giving me the “single-finger peace sign” is because I did something wrong while driving. Maybe I should listen when my friend tells me that texting while driving is bad, and that, really, 20 over the speed limit is a bad plan.
Humility helps us to be open to the input of other people in our lives. Paul reminds the Corinthians today that they must be open to others: “If anyone among you considers himself wise in this age, let him become a fool.” The wise one is the person with all the answers. When we think we have all the answers, we are not open to others.
Finally, without humility we cannot fully accept the gift of suffering. Suffering is not fun, and we should not seek it out for its own sake. But, when suffering is inflicted on us we have to deal with it. How we deal with it makes all the difference. Saint John Paul II wrote an encyclical letter called Salvifici Doloris where he searches for the meaning of suffering. Ultimately, however, why God allows suffering remains a mystery to us. This, in itself, is an experience of humility. We are called to recognize that we cannot and will not know everything in this life.
But we are not left alone in this struggle. We are not alone in seeking humility. God himself gave us the ultimate example of humility by suffering and dying on the cross. God become a human being. Think about this for a moment. The all-powerful and all-knowing God became a weak and defenseless baby, and then allowed other men to kill him. Nobody understood what God was trying to teach us until the Resurrection, when Jesus rose from the dead. God was teaching us that there is life after death—death has no power over us! But we must have the humility to accept that we will not always understand.
We also learn humility through suffering because we often need the help of others to endure our suffering. We depend on others emotionally or physically. We are forced to exit ourselves and become a part of the larger community. The best way in which we can do this is by joining our suffering to Jesus Christ Crucified. The Crucifixion was grotesque, and in addition to the physical suffering, the spiritual and emotional suffering Jesus must have been immense. My most intense experience of suffering and pain was not due to a physical torment, but from emotions. Something had occurred which did not initially seem like a big deal at first, but I felt a betrayed. I did not even realize that this feeling was growing and growing inside of me until it completely overwhelmed me a few days later. I could not focus on anything, and I was very distraught. People who knew me could tell that something was very wrong. After a couple of days, I was finally able to bring it to prayer. I asked God to help me understand what he is trying to teach me, and I did my best to offer it up to him—but this is easier said than done. Eventually, God allowed me recognize that what had occurred was ultimately for my good. It still hurt, but it changed me. For the better.
When we suffer we can join our suffering to Christ’s suffering, and offer it for the salvation of souls—including our own—and the redemption of mankind. In a way, suffering makes us co-workers with Jesus on the Cross in a very special and unique way. Today’s Gospel doesn’t call for us to be crucified—not here at least, but it does call us to turn the other cheek, and to go the extra mile. These aren’t fun, and they often involve a little suffering. But these small experiences of suffering prepare us for the road ahead. They teach us the humility we need for the big suffering that will inevitably come to most of us.
Humility is fundamental to the Christian way of life. It can get us through our suffering. It can help us listen. It can help us be kind and compassionate in dealing with others.
Today’s Readings: Heb 11:1-7; Ps 145:2-3, 4-5, 10-11; Mk 9:2-13
Faith is at the core of everything. The Letter to the Hebrews goes through of creation, showing what we know by faith: that God created and ordered the universe, that we can offer fitting sacrifice to God, that there is an afterlife and that we are invited to share that with God. What do we have if we do not have faith?
Peter, James and John witness the Transfiguration in the Gospel. They are frightened. The voice coming from above tells them “This is my beloved Son. Listen to Him.” Why do they have any reason to heed this voice? It is precisely because they have faith—perhaps in the voice, but even more likely in Jesus himself. Then Jesus told them not to reveal what had occurred until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
Why would Jesus not want them to reveal the incredible miracle of seeing Moses and Elijah speaking with Jesus? I think it is because that sort of miracle can build faith in those who are ready, but it can also stifle faith in some ways. Instead of slowly growing in faith, understanding the deeper realities behind Jesus and his ministries, the Transfiguration would have given an almost supernatural faith. This is a faith to which few people can relate. The disciples had to grow in their faith—slowly and painfully—just like we do today.
Let us never lose our faith, and try to grow it little by little every day. Faith the size of a mustard seed can move a mountain: imagine what we could do if we let it grow!
The optional memorial celebrating the Seven Holy Founders of the Servite Order may be celebrated today.
Today’s Readings: Gn 11:1-9; Ps 33:10-11, 12-13, 14-15; Mk 8:34-9:1
We must not presume on our salvation. By building the Tower of Babel, the people of the Shinar valley were presuming to be greater than God. In the English translation, we do not see some of the subtleties in this story. The people say that they will build this tower to “make a name for themselves.” The Hebrew word for “name” is the same as the name Shem. Shem was one of Noah’s sons, and was a righteous man. He was the father of the Semitic peoples, and his descendants were their rightful leaders. Jew and Christians—as late as the 16th century—have understood the old testament priest Melchizedek to actually be Shem.
By “making a name for themselves” the people of the Shinar valley were intending to throw off the leadership of Shem and to take control of their own destiny. They presumed that they knew better than Shem’s line, and ultimately that they knew better than God. By confusing their language, God was doing the people a favor, because he shattered this presumption. They could no longer even communicate from one another. They would, thus, be able to accept the guidance of others.
We see a similar theme in today’s Gospel. “What profit is there for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” We cannot presume to be in God’s favor simply because of our worldly successes. In fact, these often lead us to act against God and his plan for our happiness. Instead, we must lay down our very lives in service of God: we must deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Jesus.
When we do this, we take up our true mantle as citizens of the Kingdom of God, which is present on this earth. Jesus promised that the Kingdom would come into power before all of his disciples perished, and it did. The Catholic Church, established by Jesus Christ, led by the apostles, and handed down through the ages by their successors, is the Kingdom of God. Christ gave his apostles extraordinary powers to forgive sin and distribute grace in his name. When we participate in God’s Church, when we fully become citizens of the kingdom, then we can call ourselves friends of God.
So let us take up our crosses, deny ourselves, and follow Jesus, so that we may all be friends of God, and participate in the eternal joy of his Kingdom.
God makes a covenant with Noah and his sons. But the parties to the covenant are not just Noah and his family—all of creation is party to the covenant. This is a theme that appears later on through the Bible: humanity acts as a priest of creation. By our works, we can sanctify and make holy all of God’s creation. No other creature can do this. This is something uniquely human. Even angels are only referred to as “ministers” in the Bible.
Humanity is in a unique place in creation. We are material: we have bodies; however, we are also spiritual: we have souls. It is because of this very fact that we can act as the priests of creation. We can make ourselves holy, and we can shape the material world around so that it too gives glory to God.
In the Gospel, Jesus is preparing his disciples to make a new covenant. It starts with the disciples seeming that they maybe finally get it. Peter replies “You are the Christ!” But this hope is quickly dashed. Jesus tells his disciples that he will have to suffer and die, but Peter rebukes him. He is not ready to accept that Christ’s death and resurrection might fundamentally transform humanity in a new way.
As humanity acts as the priest of creation, so Christ acts as the ultimate priest of humanity—most especially in the Passion, Death and Resurrection. By dying and rising, he destroyed death and allowed us to rise again. This is why what we do in this life is so critical. Our decisions don’t simply have an effect on us now, but when we die they will continue to affect us: every day we make choices that have consequences on our eternal souls. Because we are the priests of creation, the ones who are supposed to take all of the gifts that God has given us and use them to make all things holy, our decisions also affect the entire universe. Every sin that we commit, every good deed that we do, changes everything.
Our choices matter. They matter a lot. This cannot paralyze us, but we must always remember that each and every person has a unique role to play for all of reality. We should do our best to ensure this is a positive role! We also must make sure that every person who is conceived is allowed to be born, to grow, and to take on their unique role in the universe.
Today we heard about Noah waiting for the land to dry out so that he could exit the ark. Just before our reading starts, the Genesis account tells us that the ark had come to rest on the top of Mount Ararat and that the tops of the mountains were visible. Yet, Noah could not yet leave the ark. He sent out a raven. It flew around until the was some dry land where it could perch—there was enough land for the raven to rest! Then he sent out a dove, but it came back—there wasn’t enough land for the dove to find food. He tried again after a week, and the dove returned with an olive branch—plants were growing again! The third time he sent out the dove, it did not return. The dove was able to find a home for itself! Only after all of this waiting was Noah allowed to exit the ark.
In the healing of the blind man today, something similar is happening. Jesus places his hands on the man twice before his blindness is fully healed. Why is this? Why could Jesus not simply touch the man once and heal him?
There are many reasons we can come up with, but the first I think part of the lesson in these readings is to teach us about patience. Noah had been in the ark for months, the ark was resting on the top of a mountain, and he still had to wait before leaving. The blind man encountered Jesus with faith, and knew he would be healed, but it still took some time before he was fully healed.
Everything in our lives takes time. Even waking up takes time! Like the blind man regaining his sight, we only see shapes and blobs at first, until later when we see things clearly. Trying to grow in good habits takes time, weeks and months even. One of the hardest things for me to do is to stick with a healthy diet. Until I have the patience and the strength to stick with it, it simply won’t change. When I see some delicious thing to eat, I have to remind myself that I don’t have to eat it right now. I imagine that Noah, his sons and their wives all wanted out of the ark as soon as possible—it had to have smelled like a zoo in there! —but they had to wait and persevere just a little bit longer, so that they could fully flourish when they left the ark.
Let us be like Noah and the blind man that Jesus healed, having enough faith in God that we can be patient and persevere through difficult things, knowing that God has a plan for us.
The Gospel today is a little strange. Jesus is talking about leaven in bread. There doesn’t seem to be any context around this. The disciples appear confused as well. They assume he must be speaking of the fact that there is only one loaf of bread on a boat with 13 men. Jesus, however, rebukes them for thinking in this way. He reminds them of the two major feeding miracles that he had just performed. What, then, is Jesus trying to tell us when he said “Watch out, guard against the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod?”
Leaven is the rising agent in bread. A little bit of yeast, and an entire loaf of bread rises. It is a tiny ingredient that has an enormous effect on the outcome of the loaf of bread. Without it, it will not come out correctly, it won’t taste correct—it won’t be good bread! If we see the bread as our lives, then the leaven are the tiny things we believe that we take for granted. We don’t know exactly what these would have been for the Pharisees or for Herod, but we can see what they are for us.
Today is Valentine’s Day in the USA. The feast of St. Valentine has morphed into a generic celebration of love. A modern “leaven” is the idea that love is just a feeling that comes and goes. It does not involve a deep, lasting commitment. This belief is at the center of so much of modern life, and it corrupts us! When there is no deep commitment in love, we cannot relate to each other properly and we cannot see each other as worthy of love. We are built to love. When we corrupt the meaning of love into something lower than it is, we lose part of what makes us human.
Sts. Cyril and Methodius (and the real St. Valentine, too!) show us a path out of this. Cyril and Methodius loved God and their neighbors so much that they created the Cyrillic alphabet so that the people could communicate with one another and so that they could read scripture. This was no simple task, and I’m sure that there were days when the saints wanted to give up, but they stuck with it until the end. True love is desiring the good for another, and the highest good is union with God. These men devoted their entire lives to bringing the un-evangelized people of Eastern Europe to God. It was difficult, and they were often criticized, but they persevered out of true love.
In the first reading, God prefers Abel’s sacrifice. A close reading shows that Cain eventually brought some of the fruits of his labor, while Abel immediately brought the best of his labor to sacrifice to the Lord. Cain is jealous. God asks Cain “Why are you so resentful and crestfallen?” God tells Cain that he must try harder and his sacrifice will be accepted, otherwise evil will overtake him. Cain decides to take option two, and kills Abel. God condemns Cain’s action, and further condemns anyone who might attempt to kill Cain. Already in the fourth chapter of Genesis, we are learning that God is a God of Life—not of death!
Today’s psalm ties in to the Genesis reading very wonderfully. The Israelites do not understand that God does not desire disingenuous sacrifice. We must offer our sacrifices to God because we love Him. The final verse of the psalm is, perhaps, the most poignant. “You sit speaking against your brother; against your mother’s son you spread rumors. When you do these things, shall I be deaf to it? …” This strongly echoes the first reading, where Abel’s blood “cries out” to God, except in this case it is not even physical death. Attacks on a person’s reputation are condemned. Our words matter, and a verbal attack can be just as strong or as painful as a physical attack.
So let us be like Abel, offering our best to God out of love, and trusting in God to provide for us.