- Read & pray with the Book of Lamentations.
- Meditate on the Gospel passages preceding the Nativity.
- Learn about St. Nicholas and celebrate his day, December 6th.
- Keep Jesus from your manger scene until Christmas comes.
- Box Baby Jesus under the tree as the first gift you will open.
- Have Joseph & Mary journey across your home to the manger.
- Abstain from Christmas songs until Advent season ends.
- Wait to light your tree and house until the light of Christ arrives.
- Meditate upon what your life would be like without Jesus Christ.
- Go to confession so that Christ may reign in your heart.
The St. Wenceslaus parish bulletin for Sunday, November 29th, 2015.
A 32-year-old Ronald Reagan plays a (fictional) Catholic priest army chaplain in this 1943 short film. “Chaplain Michael O’Keefe” is depicted celebrating Mass, working alongside his Protestant and Jewish chaplain friends, visiting a prisoner, and being mourned among the fallen in New Guinea.
The film was made to give army personnel “a better understanding of the chaplain’s place, work, and accomplishments in the army.” It was produced by the U.S. Signal Corps and filmed at MGM Studios. [source]
Contemporary politics make a brief appearance in the dialogue: Vermont is referenced as being a Republican state and Georgia as a Democratic one. (Today, those political alignments are reversed, though Ronald Reagan did win Vermont while losing Georgia in 1980.)
This evening, I received an email from a concerned parish visitor who was responding to a pair of area ecumenical Thanksgiving services being promoted in our bulletin:
Dear Father. I was severely shocked and disappointed to see this in a CATHOLIC bulletin. I am a devout Roman Catholic visiting family in the area. Not only is this confusing to to parishoners. It is outright contradicting to Church doctrine. You have beautiful homilies, and seem to be a devout priest ! Which is why I’m so confused and outright shocked !!! I will also be emailing the Bishop to address this issue with him. God bless [F]ather. And may the Sacred Heart [guide] us both ! [-Signed-]
In case there is wider confusion and concern on this subject, here is the reply I sent.
Thank you for your note. Properly representing our Catholic Faith and preventing scandal are important to me and I’m glad you wrote me.
The Catholic Church calls Protestants our “separated brethren.” This is because we are united as brothers and sisters in Christ though, at the same time, divided in non-trivial ways. (I hope this teaching of the Church is clearly reflected through my preaching, for I believe our Lord desires all of his disciples and all people to come into full communion with his Catholic Church.) While Catholics and Protestants are certainly not in full communion with each other, we share and revere many of the same elements of Christian Prayer, Scripture, and Tradition. Without compromising on the truth, the Church allows Catholics to come together with other Christians for ecumenical prayer events such as the upcoming Thanksgiving gatherings you saw advertised in the bulletin.
This evening, I spoke with Mr. Christopher Carstens, our (solidly orthodox) diocesan director of liturgy, regarding your concerns. He confirmed that these ecumenical events are not condemned by the Church. In fact, The Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism promulgated by St. Pope John Paul II in 1993 states that, “In liturgical celebrations taking place in other Churches and ecclesial Communities [i.e, Protestant churches], Catholics are encouraged to take part in the psalms, responses, hymns and common actions of the Church in which they are guests. If invited by their hosts, they may read a lesson or preach.” (#118) The upcoming area Thanksgiving ecumenical services are celebrations of this sort, consisting of scripture readings, psalms, prayer responses, hymns, and talks (without common communion.) And so, Catholics may feel welcome to take part.
Through our participation in such ecumenical events and gatherings, while remaining firmly and unabashedly Catholic, I hope that our separated brethren may be drawn from (perhaps) prejudice against Catholicism, to curiosity, to understanding, to attraction, and finally into full communion with Mother Church. Sharing the truth with love and showing love informed by truth through encounters like these will be key to the reunion of all Christians.
Thanks again for writing me with your concerns, which are hopefully now relieved.
Fr. Victor Feltes
Be among the first to peruse the Diocese of La Crosse’s new magazine online. (The first paper copies of the magazine ship on November 20th.)
The story of a new, young priest, Rev. Billy Dodge.
About the La Crosse Diocese’s work with social ministries & concerns.
The good work of the diocesan TV Mass.
One night in 1844, the year after he published A Christmas Carol, a 32-year-old Charles Dickens seemingly encountered a visitor from beyond while vacationing in Venice, Italy. Within this dream or vision, Dickens thought himself speaking to his dearly-beloved sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, who had died in 1837, yet he also observed that the spirit “bore no resemblance to any one I have known.” Dickens recorded this experience soon afterward in a letter to a friend:
“Let me tell you of a curious dream I had, last Monday night; and of the fragments of reality I can collect, which helped to make it up. [I] had laid awake nearly all that night…. [W]hen I fell asleep and dreamed this dream. Observe that throughout I was as real, animated, and full of passion as [the English actor William Macready] in the last scene of Macbeth.
In an indistinct place, which was quite sublime in its indistinctness I was visited by a Spirit. I could not make out the face, nor do I recollect that I desired to do so. It wore a blue drapery, as the Madonna might in a picture by Raphael; and bore no resemblance to any one I have known except in stature. I think (but I am not sure) that I recognized the voice. Anyway, I knew it was poor Mary’s spirit. I was not at all afraid, but in a great delight, so that I wept very much, and stretching out my arms to it called it “Dear.”
At this, I thought it recoiled; and I felt immediately, that not being of my gross nature, I ought not to have addressed it so familiarly. “Forgive me!” I said. “We poor living creatures are only able to express ourselves by looks and words. I have used the word most natural to our affections; and you know my heart.” It was so full of compassion and sorrow for me—which I knew spiritually, for, as I have said, I didn’t perceive its emotions by its face—that it cut me to the heart; and I said, sobbing, “Oh! give me some token that you have really visited me!”
“Form a wish,” it said. I thought, reasoning with myself: ‘If I form a selfish wish, it will vanish.’ So I hastily discarded such hopes and anxieties of my own as came into my mind, and said, “Mrs. Hogarth is surrounded with great distresses (observe, I never thought of saying ‘your mother‘ as to a mortal creature) will you extricate her?” “Yes.” “And her extrication is to be a certainty to me that this has really happened?” “Yes.”
“But answer me one other question!” I said, in an agony of entreaty lest it should leave me. “What is the True religion?” As it paused a moment without replying, I said—Good God in such an agony of haste, lest it should go away! “You think, as I do, that the Form of religion does not so greatly matter, if we try to do good? or,” I said, observing that it still hesitated, and was moved with the greatest compassion for me, “perhaps the Roman Catholic is the best? Perhaps it makes one think of God oftener, and believe in him more steadily?” “For you,” said the Spirit, full of such heavenly tenderness for me, that I felt as if my heart would break; “for you, it is the best!” Then I awoke, with the tears running down my face, and myself in exactly the condition of the dream. It was just dawn.
I called up [my wife] Kate, and repeated it three or four times over, that I might not unconsciously make it plainer or stronger afterwards. It was exactly this. Free from all hurry, nonsense, or confusion, whatever.”
One’s Catholic imagination wonders if this tender, compassionate, glorious “Mary” who visited Charles Dickens that night was actually the Blessed Virgin. Like Our Lady of Lourdes responded to Bernadette’s initial requests for her name with a silent smile, this visitor holds back at first to finally reveal a climactic answer. Whether this was a true vision or merely a dream we cannot say, but this visitor’s answer to his religious question does not disqualify our Blessed Mother: the glorious woman told him, “For you, [the Catholic religion] is the best!”
Would this statement imply that Catholicism would not be the best religion for some? Dickens himself held that the form of one’s religion did not greatly matter if someone tried to do good, and his strong distaste for formal religion had drawn him to Unitarianism. If our Mother Mary, who knew Charles through and through, wished to lead him into full communion with the Catholic Church, she would speak truth to him in the way which he could best receive it. Indeed, for him the Catholic faith truly would be best, but he may have balked-outright at her teaching that it is best for everyone. If his was a vision of the Blessed Virgin sent from God, the plan was to bring him into the fullness of the truth over time, as we often see God patiently doing with others.
Charles Dickens never did become a Catholic during his lifetime, but after 1847 (three years after this experience) he began attending the Anglican church near his home and prayed each morning and night. A year before his death, he wrote in his 1869 last will and testament, “I commit my soul to the mercy of God through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ….” Today his body lies buried in Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey.
A new liturgical Church year will begin in a couple of weeks with the first Sunday of Advent. As this Church year ends, our Mass readings (like today’s Sunday readings) focus on the Last Things and the end of the world as we know it. This weekend’s news reports, especially the terrible events in France, remind us that though the Kingdom of God is among us, we pray “thy Kingdom come” because it is not yet fully here in total, unveiled power. This weekend’s readings and news events remind me of passages from C.S. Lewis in excellent book Mere Christianity:
“Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage. When you go to church you are really listening-in to the secret wireless [radio] from our friends: that is why the enemy is so anxious to prevent us from going.”
Why does Lewis say that our king has landed “in disguise?” Well, where would you expect a king to be born? The Magi sought the newborn king of the Jews in the palace at Jerusalem, but Jesus was born in a barn—a cave in Bethlehem—to a pair of poor parents. How would one expect the Jewish Messiah to enter into Jerusalem to claim his throne? Probably riding on a warhorse, but Jesus came meekly riding on a donkey, just as had been prophesied about him. Who would have thought that God would become a man, and then suffer and die as he did? After the vindication of the resurrection, one would have thought he would appear to the high priest and Governor Pilate, or to the Emperor Tiberius in Rome, to declare that he was indeed who he claimed to be. Instead, Jesus appeared discretely, to his disciples.
Lewis writes that God has landed in this enemy-occupied world in disguise and has started “a sort of secret society” to undermine the devil. This secret society he speaks of is the Church. But what is so secret about the Church? We have a sign in front with our Mass times. We don’t check ID’s at the door. And if anyone wants to know about what we do or what we believe, we will gladly inform them. But, in a sense, the Church is a secret society—for the world and even many Catholics do not recognize who and what we really are. We are a holy conspiracy. We are fighting the propaganda of the world and the devil with the truth of God. We are recruiting others to the side of the Lord. We are his special forces sabotaging evil with the weapons of love in preparation for the king’s arrival.
From where do we receive our power for this mission? The source of our power is the Holy Mass. Today’s second reading says that the Old Testament’s priests offered many sacrifices because those could not truly achieve their purpose, but Jesus our High Priest offers his sacrifice once for all. At Mass we transcend space and time to personally encounter that sacrifice, and it’s power is applied to us here and now, providing all the graces we need to fulfill his will.
Lewis asks, “Why is [God] not [yet] landing in [total unveiled] force, invading [our world]? Is it that He is not strong enough? Well, Christians think He is going to land in force; [but] we do not know when.”
Indeed, as Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “of that day or hour, no one knows… but only the Father.”
We do not know when the Lord is going to land in force. “But,” Lewis continues, “we can guess why He is delaying. He wants to give us the chance of joining His side freely. I do not suppose you and I would have thought much of a Frenchman [during World War II] who waited till the Allies were marching into Germany and then announced he was on our side. God will invade.”
Why has God not yet invaded our world with his full, unveiled force? Why does he allow the wicked to use their freedom for evil, like the terrorism we saw in Paris?
Lewis writes, “I wonder whether people who ask God to interfere openly and directly in our world quite realize what it will be like when He does. When that happens, it is the end of the world. When the author walks on to the stage the play is over. God is going to invade, all right: but what is the good of saying you are on His side then, when you see the whole natural universe melting away like a dream and something else—something it never entered your head to conceive—comes crashing in; something so beautiful to some of us and so terrible to others that none of us will have any choice left?”
I think “the whole natural universe melting away” is an excellent reflection on today’s gospel. Jesus tells us that at the end:
“the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from the sky,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken…”
In the ancient world, the sun and moon, stars and planets, were considered the most stable and eternal things in the cosmos (and you can understand why.) But when even these things are passing, you know the universe as we know it is melting away. After this, the Lord Jesus comes with judgment. “And then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in the clouds’ with great power and glory… (and his angels, like St. Michael from our first reading, along with him…)”
Perhaps we may find it surprising that Jesus describes these events as a good thing to his disciples. He says:
“Learn a lesson from the fig tree. When its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see these things happening, know that [the Son of Man] is near, at the gates.”
We usually associate the end of things with the fall. Youth is called the springtime of life, while old age is the fall. In the Northern Hemisphere, every Church year ends in the fall. Yet Jesus presents an analogy for the end of the world as one of spring becoming summer: ‘When the tender branch sprouts leaves, you know that summer is near.’ A small thing, the branch, points to the arrival of a much greater reality, the summer. Why would we cling to the branch when the whole world is being renewed in glory? For friends of God, what is to come is better than what we see. The life we live now in this world is the winter. What is still to come for us is the spring and summer. Let us not hesitate to hope for it, envision it, and rejoice in it.
When the last day comes, “it will be God without disguise; something so overwhelming that it will strike either irresistible love or irresistible horror into every creature. It will be too late then to choose your side. … That will not be the time for choosing: it will be the time when we discover which side we really have chosen, whether we realized it before or not. Now, today, this moment, is our chance to choose the right side. God is holding back to give [people] that chance. [But it] will not last forever. We must take it or leave it.”
How long will it be until the Lord comes again? Jesus says in today’s gospel that, “This generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” But he said this a long time ago. Was Jesus wrong? No, for when you read these passages from Mark in full context, Jesus is responding to his disciples questions about two things side-by-side: the fall of Jerusalem and the end of the world. The Romans destroyed the great city and its temple in 70 A.D., during the lifespan of some of Jesus’ hearers, and to many Jews it felt like the end of the world. This event prefigured the passing away of all things. Like other prophesies in the Bible, Jesus’ prophesy has a near and distant fulfillment, one after a forty-year opportunity for conversion, and another at the end of time.
So when will the Lord come again? The answer for every generation before us has been “not yet.” If this world endures to the year 10,000 A.D., the Christians of that time will probably regard us as the early Christians. I personally think it will still be awhile before he comes, for it is still legal to be a Christian in too many places on earth. Yet, in a sense, it doesn’t matter when Jesus is coming, for the end of our individual lives is equivalent to the end of the world for us. If you’re ready for one, you’re ready for the other. But if you, or people that you know, are not ready for either, then now is the time for conversion.
The Lord our King has recruited us into his holy conspiracy, arming us with the weapons of truth and love. You and I are his advanced forces and, among other tasks, he is sending us on rescue missions to bring others to himself. Who do you know that is far from Christ? We are to draw on the power of this Mass for them. We are called to pray, fast, and sacrifice for them, and even to be so bold as to talk with them—inviting them to come to Jesus Christ and his Church. Seize this opportunity and do not let it pass away, for whether the Lord first comes to us or we go forth to him, each and all will encounter him soon, face-to-face, in his full, unveiled glory.
(Based on his 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia entry)
St. Michael is one of the principal angels. His name (translated from Hebrew, “Who is like God?“) is the war-cry of the good angels in the battle fought in heaven against the devil and his followers. His name is recorded four times in Scripture:
Daniel 10 — Gabriel says to Daniel, when he asks God to permit the Jews to return to Jerusalem: “The Angel of the kingdom of the Persians resisted me … and, behold Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me … and none is my helper in all these things, but Michael your prince.”
Daniel 12 — An angel speaking of the end of the world and the Antichrist says: “At that time shall Michael rise up, the great prince, who stands for the children of your people.”
Jude 1 — St. Jude alludes to an ancient Jewish tradition of a dispute between Michael and Satan over the body of Moses: “[The archangel Michael] did not venture to pronounce a reviling judgment upon [Satan] but said, ‘May the Lord rebuke you!’”
Revelation 12 — St. John speaks of the great conflict at the end of time, which reflects also the battle in heaven at the beginning of time: “Then war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels battled against the dragon. The dragon and its angels fought back, but they did not prevail and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The huge dragon, the ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, who deceived the whole world, was thrown down to earth, and its angels were thrown down with it.”
Following these Scriptural passages, Christian tradition gives to St. Michael four offices:
(1) To fight against Satan.
(2) To be the champion of God’s people, the Jews in the Old Law, the Christians in the New Testament; therefore he was the patron of the Church, and of the orders of knights during the Middle Ages.
(3) To rescue the souls of the faithful from the power of the enemy, especially at the hour of death.
(4) To call men’s souls away from earth and bring their souls to judgment.
Regarding his rank in the celestial hierarchy opinions vary; St. Basil and other Greek Fathers place St. Michael over all the angels; they say he is called “archangel” because he is the prince of the other angels; others believe that he is the prince of the seraphim, the first of the nine angelic orders. But, according to St. Thomas Aquinas he is the prince of the last and lowest choir, the angels.
“I have no intention of explaining how the correspondence
which I now offer to the public fell into my hands.”
—C.S. Lewis, in his preface to The Screwtape Letters
(A great book you should certainly read.)
1st Sunday Advent, Year B (Nov 30, 2014)
2nd Sunday Advent, Year B (Dec 7, 2014)
Immaculate Conception, Year B (Dec 8, 2014)
3rd Sunday Advent, Year B (Dec 14, 2014)
4th Sunday Advent, Year B (Dec 21, 2014)
Christmas, Year B (Dec 25, 2014)
Holy Family, Year B (Dec 28, 2014)
Mary, Mother of God, Year B (Jan 1, 2015)
Epiphany, Year B (Jan 4, 2015)
Baptism of the Lord, Year B (Jan 11, 2015)
2nd Sunday Ordinary Time, Year B (Jan 18, 2015)
3rd Sunday Ordinary Time, Year B (Jan 25, 2015)
4th Sunday Ordinary Time, Year B (Feb 1, 2015)
5th Sunday Ordinary Time, Year B (Feb 8, 2015)
6th Sunday Ordinary Time, Year B (Feb 15, 2015)
Ash Wednesday (Feb 18, 2015)
1st Sunday Lent, Year B (Feb 22, 2015)
2nd Sunday Lent, Year B (Mar 1, 2015)
3rd Sunday Lent, Year B (Mar 8, 2015)
4th Sunday Lent, Year B (Mar 15, 2015)
5th Sunday Lent, Year B (Mar 22, 2015)
Palm Sunday, Year B (Mar 29, 2015)
Holy Thursday, Year B (Apr 2, 2015)
Easter Vigil, Year B (Apr 4, 2015)
Easter Sunday, Year B (Apr 5, 2015)
Divine Mercy Sunday, Year B (Apr 12, 2015)
3rd Sunday of Easter, Year B (April 19, 2015)
4th Sunday of Easter, Year B (Apr 26, 2015)
5th Sunday of Easter, Year B (May 3, 2015)
6th Sunday of Easter, Year B (May 10, 2015)
7th Sunday of Easter, Year B (May 17, 2015)
Pentecost (May 24, 2015)
Most Holy Trinity, Year B (May 31, 2015)
Corpus Christi, Year B (June 7, 2015)
11th Sunday Ordinary Time, Year B (June 14, 2015)
12th Sunday Ordinary Time, Year B (June 21, 2015)
13th Sunday Ordinary Time, Year B (June 28, 2015)
14th Sunday Ordinary Time, Year B (July 5, 2015)
15th Sunday Ordinary Time, Year B (July 12, 2015)
16th Sunday Ordinary Time, Year B (July 19, 2015)
17th Sunday Ordinary Time, Year B (July 26, 2015)
18th Sunday Ordinary Time, Year B (Aug 2, 2015)
19th Sunday Ordinary Time, Year B (Aug 9, 2015)
19th Sunday Ordinary Time TV Mass, Year B (Aug 9, 2015)
Solemnity of the Assumption, Year B (Aug 15, 2015)
20th Sunday Ordinary Time, Year B (Aug 16, 2015)
21st Sunday Ordinary Time, Year B (Aug 23, 2015)
22nd Sunday Ordinary Time, Year B (Aug 30, 2015)
23rd Sunday Ordinary Time, Year B (Sept 6, 2015)
Feast of the Holy Cross, Year B (Sept 13, 2015)
25th Sunday Ordinary Time, Year B (Sept 20, 2015)
26th Sunday Ordinary Time, Year B (Sept 27, 2015)
27th Sunday Ordinary Time, Year B (Oct 4, 2015)
28th Sunday Ordinary Time, Year B (Oct 11, 2015)
29th Sunday Ordinary Time, Year B (Oct 18, 2015)
30th Sunday Ordinary Time, Year B (Oct 25, 2015)
Solemnity of All Saints, Year B (Nov 1, 2015)
32th Sunday Ordinary Time, Year B (Nov 8, 2015)
33rd Sunday Ordinary Time, Year B (Nov 15, 2015)
Solemnity of Christ the King (Nov 22, 2015)
Let me open with a joke:
The pastor of a big-city parish answered his rectory door to find a man wearing a face of great anxiety and concern. “Father, there’s a local family in dire need that could really use the church’s help.” The priest invited him inside and listened to the details. “The mother is a young widow with ten kids who lost her job last month. She’s been looking for work, but they’re barely keeping food on the table. Worst of all, unless they can scrape together $300 for rent by this Friday, they’ll be evicted and thrown out into the street.” The priest replied, “That’s a terrible and difficult situation. By the way, how do you know the family?” The man wiped a tear from the corner of his eye and said, “Oh… well, I happen to be their landlord.”
Hypocrisy is the pretense of holding beliefs, standards, behaviors, or virtues that one does not truly hold. Not many good things are usually said about hypocrisy, but I can say one. Usually, hypocrisy acknowledges (however insincerely) what is really true and truly good. Even a corrupt politician speaks the truth when he or she says that government should be transparent, politicians should be honest, and campaign promises should be kept. A wedding ring is a visible sign that proclaims marriage to be a sacred and lifelong bond even on the hand of an adulterer. Hypocrisy is the homage, the respect, that vice shows to virtue.
In today’s gospel, Jesus talks about the scribes and a poor widow. He praises her, but criticizes them. Jesus saw her at one of the Temple’s thirteen contribution trumpets in the court of the women. These were donation chests topped as with tall road cones, but made of metal, with an opening at the top for dropping in coins. The coins of large contributions would make a large racket, like how a slot machine pays out in a casino. But the poor widows two coins fell in: *click* *click*
Jesus called his disciples to himself to point her out to them. (Perhaps he saw in her an image of himself, the one who trusts in God and is willing to give everything to him.) After criticizing scribes who “devour the houses of widows” as those who “will receive a very severe condemnation,” he praises this poor widow’s gift.
Most homilies preached around the world today will be about the poor widow’s trusting generosity. (You may have noticed that our lectionary gives the option of omitting the scribes from this reading entirely, making a brief gospel reading even shorter.) But today I will be preaching about the scribes and from an angle that I would bet you’ve never heard before: what we have to learn from what the scribes were doing right.
Jesus condemns the scribes for their hypocrisy, and rightly so, but at least they acted like God and true religion were the most important things in their lives. Do our acquaintances at work or school have reason to think that God comes first in our lives? If it were illegal in this country to be a Catholic Christian, would there be enough public evidence to convict you? Our words and actions should reflect our faith in Jesus and his Church.
The scribes took seats of honor in synagogues, but at least they were faithfully there each week. God commands us to keep his days holy—every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation. He commands this because he deserves our praise and thanks, but also because he knows how much we need this.
The scribes liked to go around in long robes, but at least they dressed up in a God-honoring way. Our clothing should always be modest and dignified, but especially at church. How would you dress for our boss at work, for an interview with the president, or an audience with the pope? How much more then should we dress well to come before God at Mass.
The scribes accepted greetings in marketplaces and places of honor at banquets, but at least they were active and known in their community. We should not be mere homebodies, but involved in our own community.
The scribes recited lengthy prayers for show, but at least they were not afraid to acknowledge God before others. Do you pray before meals at restaurants? Do you talk about Jesus or your faith with anyone? When someone shares their burdens with you, do you offer to pray with them? (Try it sometime. They will probably be more receptive than you think.) We should not be afraid.
Why did Jesus say the scribes deserved a severe condemnation? Because they focused on externals and disregarded what was within. They cared about fancy clothes, and prayers and deeds that others would notice, but did not care whether widows became destitute. It’s fine to desire friendship—it’s one of life’s great blessings—but we must desire God’s friendship more. We naturally care what others think of us—no one wants to be hated—but we should care more about what God thinks about us. The scribes were attentive to appearances, but neglected the truth and love.
After the poor widow put her coins into the treasury, the gospel says that Jesus called his disciples to himself. He summoned his followers to physically draw nearer in order to teach them and highlight her deed. But in a deeper sense, Jesus was calling them to his very self, that they would come to resemble him like the widow did. Jesus is the man of integrity whose exterior words and actions perfectly align with his inner-self. He wants all of us to be like himself. Jesus wills that our secret selves would be as noble and admirable as our public personas, and that our interior faith would be reflected through all of our external words and actions. Like the landlord in the opening joke, whether or not Jesus is welcome to dwell and live with us as he desires, increasing our likeness to his, is entirely up to us.
I would like to share with you the most interesting Scripture interpretation that I have come across in some time. This theory proposes that St. Mary of Bethany, the beloved sister of Martha and Lazarus, had some form of cognitive disability, perhaps from a genetic disorder. While we cannot prove this speculation (short of DNA testing her first-class relics) this theory fits with the Gospels and illuminates familiar stories and figures.
Martha’s Toil & Mary’s Rest (Luke 10)
Jesus and his disciples journeyed to Bethany where a woman named Martha welcomed him. Martha’s sister, Mary, lived with her because (as per this theory) Mary was unmarried and could not live on her own. While Martha was burdened with much serving, Mary sat beside Jesus at his feet, listening to him speak. Mary was oblivious to the social expectation that she should not assume the place of a disciple like a man, yet Jesus showed no signs of disapproval.
Martha, frustrated and knowing that Mary would not heed a quiet cue, called upon Jesus to redirect her, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” Jesus said to her in reply, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” Mary was not accustomed to her decisions being praised. She smiled broadly as she got to remain close to Jesus.
The Mourning of Lazarus (John 11)
Jesus loved Martha and Mary and their brother Lazarus, and they each believed in him. So the sisters were heartbroken when Jesus did not come in time to save Lazarus on his deathbed. When Martha heard that Jesus had finally arrived she went to meet him outside the village while Mary sat at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” The two spoke for a time and then Martha went to secretly call her sister. Martha was so discrete because the village of Bethany was just two miles from Jerusalem and she knew that Jesus’ enemies were out to get him.
Martha went into the house and whispered to Mary, “The teacher is here and is asking for you.” As soon as Mary heard this, she rose quickly (without caution or subtlety) and went single-mindedly to Jesus. Many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them about their brother, so when the Jews who were with Mary in the house comforting her saw Mary get up quickly and go out, they followed her, presuming that she was going to the tomb to weep there. (They had not previously followed Martha out, but they felt it prudent to accompany Mary and make sure that she would be safe and alright.)
When Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and tearfully repeated the same lament that she had heard her sister saying over the past four days: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (These are the only words of St. Mary of Bethany recorded in the Gospels.) Imagine her unrestrained joy when she soon saw her brother Lazarus alive once again.
[Although these three persons have sometimes been conflated, we assume here that that Mary of Bethany is neither Mary of Magdala (also known as Mary Magdalene) nor the penitent woman who anoints Jesus in Luke’s Gospel.]
Jesus’ Passion was near and he came with his disciples to a supper in Bethany. Lazarus was there, reclining at table with Jesus, while Martha served. Mary was also present, holding a stone, alabaster flask containing a liter of very expensive ointment. (It was made from genuine aromatic nard, an oil derived from a plant in the Himalayas.) Perhaps Mary borrowed the perfume from her sister, or perhaps she had inherited it when their mother died. Regardless, although Mary treasured this perfume and loved to smell it from time to time, she was resolved to make a gift of it to Jesus. She approached him, anointed his head and feet, and dried his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.
Mary loved Jesus very much and was delighted to do something extra special for him. But the other guests at table became indignant: “Why was this ointment wasted? Why was it not sold for three hundred days wages and given to the poor?” Mary began to cry, but Jesus defended her. “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing for me. For you will always have the poor with you… but you will not always have me. … In pouring this ointment on my body she has done it prepare me for burial. And truly, I say to you wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” (Indeed, Jesus’ prophesy is fulfilled in your sight.)
Mary of Bethany, One of Jesus’ Simple & Beloved Little Ones
Jesus said, “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me.” (Matthew 18:3-5)
In a world with little welcome or regard for the mentally or physically flawed, the acceptance and love that Jesus showed St. Mary of Bethany are an important and powerful statement. Her openness, generosity, and childlike devotion to Jesus made her truly great. She is now celebrated in Heaven and throughout the whole world, wherever the Gospel is proclaimed, and perhaps we know her better now than we ever have before.
Jesus, our Lord, we gather to remember and to celebrate Bridget, your sister and friend. Though gone forth from us, she is not parted from you, for to you all are alive.
Lord Jesus, your word reminds us that ‘We are surrounded by a great a cloud of witnesses like Bridget… who urge us to persevere in running the race that lies before us, while keeping our eyes fixed on you, the leader and perfecter of our faith.’
Lord Jesus, it is written that they who hope in the you ‘will renew their strength, they will soar on eagles’ wings; They will run and not grow weary, walk and not grow faint.’
Lord Jesus, one day, when we reach the end of our earthly lives, may it be said: ‘We have competed well; we have finished the race; we have kept the faith.’
Jesus, please grant that this may be a safe and joyful event. Please bless Bridget and each of us. Amen.