Nativity of St. John the Baptist

June 24: Isaiah 49:1-6, Acts 13:22-26, Luke 1:57-66, 80
By Fr. Tom Hoisington
The Nativity of St. John the Baptist is so important a feast that there are two full sets of scripture readings for Holy Mass. One set is proclaimed at Vigil Masses on the evening before the feast day, while the other set is proclaimed on the day itself. Yet regardless of whether you attend Mass this weekend on Saturday evening or Sunday, the Gospel passage you hear will be taken from the first chapter of St. Luke’s account of the Gospel.
The Vigil’s Gospel passage comes from the beginning of Luke 1. The Gospel passage for the feast day itself comes from the end of the chapter. These two passages bookend the story of St. John’s birth. As with the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ birth, the child to be born is the focus, but not the central actor. In the Gospel passages for today’s feast, the central actor is John’s father, Zechariah. St. Luke the Evangelist here contrasts Zechariah with the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Zechariah was an elderly husband, yet without children. Mary was a young betrothed virgin. Saint Gabriel appears to each of them separately, and tells each not to be afraid. The archangel announces to each that a son is to be born. Yet their responses differ profoundly.
The man persists in unbelief, while the woman believes. Mary’s final word in response to St. Gabriel’s announcement is “Fiat”: “Let it be done unto me according to your word” [Luke 1:38]. In response to Zechariah’s unbelief, St. Gabriel declares in a verse not long after the end of the Gospel passage for the Vigil Mass: “behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things come to pass” [Lk 1:20]. That “day” is narrated in the Gospel passage for Sunday.
Saint Augustine in Sunday’s Office of Readings explains that “the silence of Zechariah is nothing but the age of prophecy lying hidden, obscured, as it were, and concealed before the preaching of Christ.” Later in the same sermon, St. Augustine expounds the distinction between Jesus and his cousin: “The voice is John, but the Lord ‘in the beginning was the Word.’ John was a voice that lasted only for a time; Christ, the Word in the beginning, is eternal.”
But if the voice must decrease, so that the Word may increase, what can be said of Zechariah? he is not even a voice, but silence: the silence in which the Voice is conceived, and a silence which you as a sinner must enter.
The silence illustrated by Zechariah is born of unbelief. Every sinner is called into this silence. Most of our fallen world is a modern Babel. We are unfaithful to God’s Word, because we cannot hear it for the cacophony of the modern world. We are among those of whom the Beloved Disciple writes in the prologue to his Gospel account: “the Word came to his own, and his own people received him not” [John 1:11].
Because it’s always so in this valley of tears, God calls fallen man into silence so that there we might recognize our sins, and hear and heed God’s Word. The silence of Zechariah is what St. John of the Cross writes about: “What we need most in order to make [spiritual] progress is to be silent before this great God, with our appetites and our tongue.”
This silence is a means to man’s true end. This is the end for which God created man “in the beginning”: to share in the divine life of the Trinity in a holy and eternal silence. About this final silence, the end of all we are and do as disciples of the Word made Flesh, St. John of the Cross also speaks: “the Father spoke one Word, which was his Son, and this Word he speaks always in eternal silence, and in silence must it be heard by the soul.”
St. John the Baptist was born so that the Old Testament might die. Yet such a death was meant all along in God’s providence to be fulfilled by a new life, like the grain of wheat that dies in order to bear much fruit. St. John the Baptist was born to preach the message of repentance: the need to accept ourselves as sinner, and the need to accept Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away our sins and those of the whole world.

Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

June 17: Ezekiel 17:22-24, 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, Mark 4:26-34
By Fr. Tom Hoisington
These reflections mean to prepare you to hear the Scriptures at Sunday Mass. Usually this preparation involves looking at the words of scripture themselves. But today, step back and consider a general way for preparing on your own to hear the Scriptures at Sunday Mass. This way can be utilized every week of the church year.
Lectio Divina is a form of praying Sacred Scripture: not just reading Scripture, but praying it. At first glance, we might not think there’s any difference between “reading Scripture” and “praying Scripture.” However, there can be a radical difference.
Picture a dedicated atheist. This atheist sees himself as doing battle against religion. So he puts into practice one of the most basic principles of combat: “Know your enemy.”
Wanting to understand how believers think so that he can debunk their beliefs, he takes a course at a noted Christian university in order to learn all about the Bible. In his zeal, he might even earn a Ph.D. in biblical studies, and be able to quote at length from the Bible, name all the books of the Bible, and even teach others about the history and geography of the peoples and places of the Bible. But all of that knowledge would not make him a believer.
By contrast, the aim of your praying scripture is not merely knowing about scripture, but believing in the God who wrote these Scriptures for your good, listening to him speaking to you, and speaking to him in response by your words and actions.
There are several easy ways to prepare for Lectio Divina. One is to purchase a hand missal, which contains the complete set of the three-year cycle of prayers and readings that a missalette covers only for part of a year. Another way, if you’re tech-savvy, is to go to the website of the United States bishops, where you can print out the scriptures for any day in the coming months. Another way is to go to your parish church for a visit to the Blessed Sacrament, and during your visit use the missalette in the pew for prayerful reading of Scripture.
The first step of “praying scripture” is an act of choosing: choosing a text from scripture. Some saints in explaining Lectio Divina recommend choosing a single chapter of a book of scripture. Others recommend a single verse, while others recommend only a single phrase or even only a single word. A single verse is a good ideal. You’ll notice in many hand missals or missalettes that, at the head of each scripture passage, often in red, is a verse from that reading. That is given to help you focus your attention, and this verse can be used for the practice of Lectio Divina.
Wherever and whatever resource of scripture you use, find the Gospel passage for the coming Sunday. The other steps of Lectio Divina help one to draw spiritual fruit from one’s chosen passage or verse. As a simplified form of Lectio Divina, reflect on the coming Sunday’s Gospel passage for at least 10 minutes a day during the weekdays leading up to Sunday.
Each of these days, ask the Lord to draw your attention to one verse in particular. Not only will you grow in your love for the Word of God, but he –the divine person who is the Word—will open your heart and mind to accepting more faithfully the Word made flesh in the Holy Eucharist.

The Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

June 10: Genesis 3:9-15, 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1, Mark 3:20-35
By Fr. Tom Hoisington
Jesus explains today that each of us needs to carry out the will of God in order to be his brother or sister. But how can someone learn what that will of God is? Granted that your average Christian does want to carry out God’s will, how can he learn what this will is? Consider three possibilities that the average Christian might weigh.
First, the Christian might follow the simple instruction: “Do good and avoid evil.” Such counsel is straightforward, but there are two potholes to be avoided. On the one hand, how does one know what’s good in a complex moral situation? The Ten Commandments are good guides, as are the teachings in the third quarter of the Catechism, but we don’t always know how to apply these to difficult situations.
On the other hand, the simple instruction of “Do good and avoid evil” can devolve into the whole of one’s approach to morality. In a word, we might describe this pothole as “minimalism.” Often, a moral minimalist considers that he’s doing God’s will as long as he avoids evil. After all, if something’s not evil, it must be good, the minimalist reasons. Morality in this case is nothing more than avoiding whatever God shakes his finger at.
A second way of learning God’s will considers the wealth of truly good choices that the Christian has before him. The key to this way of learning God’s will is the cardinal virtue of prudence. In this case, there’s not a simple choice between good and evil. That’s presumed. But once all evil choices are rejected, the Christian still has many morally good options remaining. Amidst these many good choices, the Christian wants to exercise the virtue of prudence. Prudence helps the Christian advance in his moral life, and by that means, also in his spiritual life. Morality in this case moves us from choosing any old good action to choosing what is best, for as the best possible good, it shares most in the perfection of God’s goodness, and thereby draws us closest to God.
The third way of learning God’s will is the most demanding. This way could be summed up by the word “discernment.” In the process of discernment, the Christian listens for and to the Lord’s voice because there is more one needs to know.
Perhaps the Christian is uncertain which of several good choices is the best. Perhaps he is uncertain if he has all the underlying facts upon which to base a determination of the best choice. Perhaps he’s wondering if there are further good options not yet visible to him.
Amidst all the different reasons for discernment, the virtue of obedience is key: obedience to the voice of Jesus, and to the word he speaks. Morality in this case is founded upon a relationship with the living God, who sacrificed his own Son so that we might become, through Jesus’ self-sacrifice, his brothers and sisters.

The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ

June 3: Exodus 24:3-8, Hebrews 9:11-15, Mark 14:12-16,22-26
By Fr. Tom Hoisington
The historical event Some 50 years after the close of the Second Vatican Council, disagreements still simmer over the best way to interpret its teachings. Disagreement is found in different areas of the church’s life, such as marital morality and ecumenism. Yet nothing engenders more disagreement than the celebration of the Eucharist. Today’s feast of Corpus Christi can help us reflect upon the church’s teachings about this most blessed of the seven sacraments.
One of the more confused ideas used to interpret the council is that Holy Mass ought to be entertaining (for example, through its music or preaching). During summer vacation, if you travel far enough outside our diocese, you might stumble upon Masses animated by the principle of giving the faithful what they want.
By contrast, the church’s history shows a different approach: give the faithful what they need, and do so by giving them what God has handed down. There are two questions that have to be answered, then. First, what do the Christian faithful most need? Second, what has God handed down?
We’re not talking here about the sacraments’ inner essence, which is grace, but about their outer form, which the church has the power to change to some extent. Concerning the form of Holy Mass, what principle should shape it? What would be wrong with elements drawn from popular entertainment, which clearly draw crowds marked by outer enthusiasm?
Some seem eager for great crowds and great outer enthusiasm in churches. Yet the history of the church, both ancient and modern, shows that when the church sets the course of her mission according to numbers and outer enthusiasm, the church bears little lasting fruit for lack of roots. Consider that during the hours that Jesus was nailed to the cross, the number of his followers was few, and they had little enthusiasm for the way he had trod. Nonetheless, the church knows that she is called to preach nothing but Jesus Christ crucified [see 1 Cor 2:2].
At the heart of this preaching is self-sacrifice. If we want to know what the Christian faithful most need, then, we need to know self-sacrifice. Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, when he instituted the Eucharist, reflect this central principle. “This is my body, which will be given for you; do this in memory of me.” “This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many.” These words of Jesus don’t reflect a spirit of entertainment, which indulges whatever the crowd currently cries for.
But how can a principle like self-sacrifice take form within Holy Mass? Consider the example of hymn lyrics. Tally the proper nouns and pronouns in any given hymn. Are most of them first-person (I, me, mine, we, us, ours), or do most of them refer to God? Who is the focus of the hymn: man or God? A hymn that illustrates the principle of self-sacrifice sings more about God than man, and sings about man as fallen and redeemed by Jesus’ self-sacrifice on Calvary.
So if the faithful need chiefly from the form of Holy Mass a spirit of self-sacrifice, what, secondly, has God handed down to the church to foster this goal? The simplest answer is that he has given Himself, in Word and Sacrament. God’s Word and the Sacrament of Corpus Christi shape the form of Holy Mass.
The content of the Mass shapes the form of the Mass. Form follows function, and one of the functions of Mass is to form us into the likeness of Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.
If that seems a bit abstract, consider practical examples regarding the role of Scripture within Holy Mass. With a few exceptions, most consider the fact that more of the Bible is read at Mass during the year to be a positive change made after the Second Vatican Council. Yet two other modern changes distort – towards one extreme or the other – the place of Scripture within Holy Mass.
In some churches built or renovated after the Second Vatican Council, the altar and pulpit are positioned at equal distances from the sanctuary’s midpoint. This arrangement suggests that the two chief parts of Holy Mass – the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist – are of equal importance.
Yet the church throughout her history has taught that the structure of Mass – like salvation history itself – contains a dynamism. The first half of Mass prepares the faithful for the second half, as the Old Testament prepares God’s People for the New, where the Word becomes Flesh and dwells among us.
On the other hand, the modern change that gives prominence to hymns at Mass has come at the cost of the proclamation of Scripture. In the form of Mass used before the Second Vatican Council, hymns didn’t supplant the singing of the scriptural antiphons (during the entrance procession, the offertory, and the Communion procession). Each of them – antiphons and hymns – had its own place. But the modern form of Mass allows these scriptural antiphons – which may be sung either in a brief form or in an extended form like the responsorial psalm – to be omitted altogether, impoverishing the faithful by substituting the human words of hymns for the divine Word of Scripture.
What the Christian faithful most need is what they most deeply want. God has handed down to man through the church what mankind most deeply wants: self-transcendence through self-sacrifice. The church’s Sacred Liturgy inspires us, nourishes us, and fits us for self-sacrifice, and so for fitting praise to God for his own self-sacrificial love.