By: Fr. James Gross
We’ve just heard one of the most popular and discussed passages in the whole Bible. As we look more closely at what’s come to be called the Beatitudes, let’s explore how our ancestors in faith grappled with the issues of material blessings and God’s distribution of punishments and rewards.
In the centuries prior to the birth of Christ, belief in an afterlife was largely undeveloped compared to today. Many of the Israelites had a sense that a part of us carried on after death, but were uncertain as to what exactly that meant. They were certain, though, that God is all-powerful and perfectly just: nothing we do, either for good or for ill, escapes His notice. It follows, then, in this line of thinking, that God metes out justice in this life either by rewards or punishments.
Here’s the conclusion that they reached: those who are healthy, wealthy, or respected have conducted themselves virtuously, and God is rewarding the interior convictions of their hearts by granting exterior gifts. On the other hand, the vagrants and destitute among us have preferred sin over virtue, and God is letting them have it. Yes, there are crooks and thieves who become rich because of their crimes, but they are the exception to the rule. This philosophy of life leaves no room for the claim that material goods are corrupting influences. All that God created is good, and He appointed us to be stewards of His many gifts. However, both the haves and the have-nots are ultimately responsible for their lot in life.
It doesn’t take a sophisticated person to see how deficient this world view is. In fact, the Bible denounces it in several cases. The Book of Job, for example, is a classic study of this very question. Job is an unquestionably faith-filled man. But his holiness does not spare him from a series of tragic events: bandits overtake his hired men and steal his livestock, he develops painful sores over his whole body, and his children die in a violent storm. Soon after all this occurs, three of Job’s friends come to console him, but eventually they can’t restrain themselves. They tell him: “What did you do, Job? You must have gotten yourself into this mess somehow. Just ask for forgiveness from God, and He’ll make things right again.” In vain Job tries to persuade them that sometimes bad things do happen to good people.
In recent times, certain Christian communities have fallen prey to what’s being commonly called the “Prosperity Gospel.” Join our church, play your cards right, and God will bless you with tangible rewards. Taken to its extreme, this movement reduces life to a simple formula by attaching positive, concrete results to one’s expression of faith in God; it essentially seeks to confine the workings of God.
Real life is more complex. Lacking what the world considers blessings—the right house, the right car, the right job—doesn’t automatically plunge us into the depths of despair. Today Jesus reminds us that one who is without God is the most wretched person of all. He boldly proclaims that the Kingdom of Heaven is already here, although it is not yet fully realized.
To a worldly person, the Beatitudes are nonsense. But they ring true from the perspective that Jesus, as God’s Son, has the power to make real what he proclaims. To be a peacemaker, to be clean of heart, or to be merciful means that we look the world’s trivial and petty pursuits in the eye and reject them. To hunger and thirst for righteousness and to receive mistreatment for the sake of our Catholic faith require that we suffer with Christ. But when we do all these things, God is very near to us. And in His perfect justice, God will give us in His time reason to rejoice, no matter the size of our bank account or the amount of praise our peers heap onto us.
Remember the Gospel parable from St. Luke of Lazarus and the rich man. When the rich man sees Lazarus in heaven, as he himself is in torment, he finally sees that the blessings of the self-made man cannot last. He learns too late that luxury and comfort do not equal salvation, while Lazarus shows us that faith in God is the one true path to being someone special.
Every single year we hear this Gospel reading on All Saints’ Day. This reading is the answer to the question of “How do we live lives of holiness?”
By: Fr. James Gross
I want to begin by asking for your prayers for a group of us taking a pilgrimage to Washington, DC for the March for Life this coming week. I have been asked to accompany the delegation from Dickinson Trinity High School; their religion teacher is a good friend of mine, and their priest is not available, so she asked me to pinch hit. We are leaving Monday and returning Saturday night. Google maps tells me that, from Fargo, it will be a 2,694-mile round trip by bus, and add six hundred miles to that number for the rest of the group from Dickinson. Teenagers seem to sleep just fine on a bus—we grownups are not nearly as flexible.
Usually this event occurs closer to the 22nd, the anniversary date of the Supreme Court Roe vs. Wade decision. Because of the Inauguration, it got pushed back to this coming Friday, but is still held on a weekday instead of a weekend in order to have the greatest impact on the local life of the city. You may not hear a single thing in the news media about the hundreds of thousands of us who will be there, most of them young people. This is where social media helps to fill that void by telling the real story.
The goal we seek is to safeguard the gift that is every single human life—the child in the womb, their mothers and fathers, and everyone else. We can love and honor all of the above, and in fact, are mandated to do so by Christ. Perhaps our federal and state laws will again come to reflect godly values and renounce the culture of death; of course we earnestly pray for this. But the means to lasting change is the transformation of hearts. That is the work of the Holy Spirit, and we are his instruments.
The Bishops of the United States ask us to commemorate January 22nd as a day of prayer and fasting for the legal protection of unborn children. When the 22nd falls on a Sunday, it is transferred to the following day. I challenge each and every one of you to treat Monday like Ash Wednesday, with spiritual and material sacrifices. Prayer is the powerful tool that we all have close at hand to achieve a civilization of love, one that honors life no matter the circumstances or the cost.
Isaiah begins today’s reading by mentioning “the land of Zebulon and the land of Naphtali.” I’m assuming these are not household names to most of us, so we need to look at the background. Halfway through the book of Genesis we read about the patriarch Jacob. In a famous scene in which Jacob wrestles with an angel who appeared to him, God changed Jacob’s name to Israel, so those two names are for the same person. Jacob had twelve sons, and we refer to the extended families of each son as “tribes.” When we hear the phrase “twelve tribes of Israel,” it’s a way of thinking about the nation of Israel in terms of heritage and genealogy—which tribe one belongs to. Zebulon and Naphtali are two of Jacob’s sons.
When the nation of Israel finally took possession of the Promised Land, the tribes of Zebulon and Naphtali occupied border regions of the country, quite distant from Jerusalem, which was in the south. Some five hundred years later, the Empire of Assyria attacked Israel, and the regions of Zebulon & Naphtali were most susceptible to that invasion. Isaiah’s prophecy speaks to God’s compassion for those tribes. Although a foreign power devastated the residents of that place, God would bring a great light to them to overcome their darkness. The places in Palestine that were far from the Temple were not far from the kingdom of Christ.
While Jesus reached out to all the lost sheep of the house of Israel, he began by setting out for the frontier of Galilee. It’s in this part of Palestine that a great many of Jesus’ parables and miracles take place. I really like the choice Jesus made to travel to an outlying area first. People are always “worth it:” they always deserve to hear the good news, regardless of where they come from. When Jesus makes tracks for Zebulon & Naphtali, one might say there’s some similarity to traveling to North Dakota. We know we’re worth the trip, even if hardly anyone else thinks so.
Once Jesus begins, his message is very simple and clear: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The specific meaning of the word “repent” is not necessarily based on conversion from sin, though that is a part of all of our lives. What “repent” actually means here is to turn one’s life around, to go in a different direction. The first concern in the Lord’s mind was that people think of their lives differently, that they would come to know and experience the deep, personal love God has for them. Once God becomes more than some mysterious force and begins to take hold of our hearts, then moral conversion occurs more organically. Then sin displeases us as it displeases God. We practice virtues, not only to play by the rules, but to live in Communion with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Only when we repent does that make sense to us.
Jesus then starts to call people to follow him as disciples. The candidates we hear about today are Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John. These four would later become Apostles, and from the very start they prove their mettle by immediately abandoning their homes and careers—everything familiar to them—to follow Christ. They remind us that a vocation starts with God, and not with us. Everybody asks the question as they grow up, “What am I going to do with my life?” The Christian inserts a second, and more urgent, question: “What is God inviting me to do with my life?”
When someone at St. Philip Neri parish in Napoleon commented that they thought I might make a good priest, it wasn’t just their opinion. God showed them something about me that prompted them to tell me. And doing that is a sort of risk; it’s saying something that one might be more comfortable keeping to oneself. But when we discern that God may indeed be moving a young man’s heart to a religious vocation, he counts on us to trust what we’re seeing. This is one of the most important ways that a parish promotes priestly vocations. A pastor or vocations director can make their pitch, and those things have their place, but as far as that goes, we do not take your place. Don’t just leave it up to mom and dad, either. We all need to speak up, because the future of the church depends on generous hearts serving in Christ’s name.
Dioceses in cities across the country like Denver, Minneapolis, and St. Louis are undergoing building projects to add to their seminaries because of the increase in numbers of candidates. Many parts of the country are enjoying a resurging interest in priestly ministry. What these places are doing (and we can include the diocese of Fargo and Bismarck in that list) is no big secret. They are inviting their home-grown high school and college age men to pray about their vocation, and above all to listen carefully for the voice of Jesus. They’re turning to the powerful intercession of Mary. Their priests are giving joyful and confident witness to the beauty of the priestly life. Let’s join with them by spreading, and sharing in, that hope that Jesus gave to every corner of Galilee in his three-year ministry and continues to give to all of us today.
By: Fr. James Gross
“This is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” I make that declaration just before receiving Holy Communion at every single Mass. And because we hear these words so often, they can become commonplace to us. But we know this act is anything but common. That moment during Mass is far too important to ever be routine.
While I was praying about today’s readings, immediately my mind went to this part of the Mass when all of us acclaim Jesus as the Lamb of God. I keep thinking about what I’m doing at that precise time—how dramatic and powerful that reality is. The Church entrusts me, as a priest, with the honor of holding the Precious Body of Jesus Christ in my hands! How is it that I can do such a thing? How could I ever allow myself to appear complacent at that moment, as if to suggest, “Ho-hum, I’ve done this thousands of times before?” What an injustice that would be!
Let’s dive deeper into that title “Lamb of God.” With this phrase John the Baptist both links Jesus to the ancestry of Israel and at the same time sets him apart. John didn’t say, “Behold, the newest prophet” or “Behold, a great teacher.” First of all, the Messiah has many different characteristics, and secondly, he doesn’t blend into the background, soon to be forgotten. Instead, John calls him Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God.
A lamb would have signified the image of sacrifice to that Jewish audience. Lambs were sacrificed in the temple in Jerusalem as expiation for sins. The reference here is most directly to the time of Moses and that special lamb of the Passover.
When Pharaoh refused to let the Israelites go, but kept them bound in slavery, the Lord sent a series of plagues upon the Egyptians: frogs, boils, locusts, darkness, etc. Pharaoh was stubborn; he told Moses and Aaron, “I don’t know this ‘God’ of whom you speak, and even if I did, I still wouldn’t let them go.” So God sent the worst plague of them all: the death of every first-born among humans and beasts in Egypt. Only the Jewish children were spared, because God had forewarned them to apply the blood of a sacrificial lamb to their door frames. That night of the Passover, according to the Book of Exodus, the contrast was so great that while in the Egyptians’ homes there was much wailing and commotion, among the Jewish neighborhoods not even as much as a dog growled.
The Passover lamb was to be one year old, male, and without blemish. Jesus was sinless and a man in the prime of his life. This was far more than a coincidence to Jesus’ earliest followers. Also, lambs portray gentleness. They don’t run wild through the wilderness and howl in the night. They are domesticated and protected. With that same docility and silence Jesus was led to slaughter.
But Jesus ushered in a new and eternal covenant, as we pray in the Eucharistic Prayer, and he served as both priest and victim of the sacrifice. So here we have both the meekness of a lamb and the firmness of a king whose kingdom was not of this world, receiving scourges and embracing a cross. In the Lamb of God we see purity and innocence, and we see a supreme sacrifice unlimited by time or population; Christ’s death will never have been too long ago, and there will never be too many of us to save.
John’s declaration paved the way for his countrymen to say: “As far back as I can remember, our family has made pilgrimages to Jerusalem to offer animal sacrifices in the Temple. But in his one sacrifice Christ has brought all of that to completion. Now, when we gather on the Lord’s Day to offer our gifts of bread and wine, they become an acceptable sacrifice to the Father.”
Every Catholic Church is, one might say, a fulfillment of what the Temple in Jerusalem prefigured, because an altar by definition is a place upon which sacrifice is offered. We have no use now for the slaughter of sheep or other animals as an act of worship. The unbloody sacrifice of Jesus Christ is presented upon this very altar at every Mass. Simply put, the altar is the cross. To make such a claim, we’d have to be honest or crazy—there’s no in between.
During the Ordination of a Catholic priest, there’s a special ritual that takes place after the gifts are brought forward. The Bishop is seated, holding a chalice and a paten with a host on it. Each newly ordained priest, one at a time, kneels before the Bishop and grabs an edge of the chalice and paten. The Bishop sends him forth to be a minister of Christ’s Body and Blood, and he recites the following prayer: “Accept from the holy people of God the gifts to be offered to Him. Know what you are doing, and imitate the mystery you celebrate; model your life on the mystery of the Lord’s cross.” Not only is the priest expected to celebrate the Liturgy reverently, but he is also to consecrate the whole of his life to Christ the High Priest, to be at all times a living icon of the Good Shepherd. Heaven knows we’re not perfect. We have our faults. But a meaningful way that priests imitate the mysteries they celebrate is how they acknowledge the areas where they need to grow and let God work on them.
The Lamb of God is truly here with us. He is ours, and we belong to him as much as anyone else does. And he sends us forth from here to live out our faith by sharing it with the world. Imagine that we were to ask those in our lives who used to practice their faith actively but have turned away from it, “What has taken the place of the Lamb of God? What did you decide was better or more beneficial, and why?”
A few weeks ago I used the analogy of making sure that we don’t trade in a Cadillac for a tricycle. Jesus is the Father’s willing servant who brings salvation to the ends of the earth. He has formed each of us in our mothers’ womb and called us to draw life from him. And when we consider all of the graces he makes available to us in his Church, it’s his way of saying “here are the keys to the Cadillac. Hop in and drive.” The encounter with the Living God at every Mass is too good an offer to pass up.
By: Fr. James Gross
“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” If I’m on track, I pray these words many times every single day—at least 53, to be exact, when I recite the rosary. Multiply that by the number of days in a year, and we come up with 19,345. Small wonder, then, that these words seem very familiar to me, and to a great many of us here. Would you be surprised to learn that these words were at the heart of one of the biggest controversies in the Church 1,600 years ago?
The reason for the controversy was a prominent Bishop named Nestorius, who screwed up big enough that history only remembers him for the heresy that bears his name. Nestorius taught and believed that one could only use terms like “Mother of Christ” or “Mother of the Savior” in reference to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The problem with the title “Mother of God,” in his thinking, was that it diminished the stature due to God alone and created confusion.
In response, the Church fathers argued that it is a simple matter of logic. Jesus is not just a spiritual guru or teacher, or a dynamic public speaker. Jesus is the only-begotten Son of the Father, possessing both a divine and a human nature. Mary is truly his mother, by means of giving birth to him. Therefore, simply put, Mary is the Mother of God. Such a title does not insult God, but shows how His magnificent plan intervenes in our lives. We affirm this every time we pray the Nicene Creed at Sunday Mass, with all of its phrases: “God from God, light from light, true God from true God.”
We could say that today’s feast day is not principally about the person of Mary, but concerns the true identity of Jesus, her Son. However, today gives us the chance to make an important observation about Mary from the scriptures.
Today’s gospel tells us that Mary pondered the events regarding the birth of her child and reflected on them in her heart. Out of that reflection came an unflinching courage manifested in her discipleship and her desire to follow Jesus to the very place of his death. How often in the Gospels would large crowds seek out Jesus, to the extent that, when at a lakeshore, he would climb into a boat so as not to be crushed the throng? When we hear the Passion of Our Lord every Good Friday, there’s a very small group of supporters gathered near the foot of the cross of Christ. These early enthusiasts were nowhere to be found, including the majority of his inner circle. Among them are St. John the Apostle and Mary.
Our devotion of the Stations of the Cross makes further mention of Mary, according to tradition, meeting Jesus on the Via Dolorosa and later receiving the broken, lifeless body of her Son as he was taken down from the cross. Michelangelo captured this moment with his dramatic sculpture called the Pieta. Anyone who has seen it in person near the entrance of St. Peter’s Basilica can tell that they are beholding a masterpiece in the Christian heritage: Our Lady’s face is both serene and grieving, trying to come to grips with the cruelty of Christ’s crucifixion, cradling him in her lap more like he were a small child than a grown man.
If her sharing the sufferings of her Son were intense, how much more exuberant was Mary when she first saw for herself that Jesus was raised from the dead. For the remainder of her days on earth, the Blessed Mother would be a powerful eyewitness of her risen Lord, and gathered with her in the days leading up to Pentecost, the Apostles no doubt drew strength and consolation from her as they looked ahead to the missionary task that would await them.
Through it all, our mother Mary was courageous, with a flinty determination to be present to her Son in good times and in bad. Sacred art frequently portrays the Blessed Mother as a dainty, youthful woman, endeavoring to capture her purity and beauty. But we must not think of Mary as a shrinking violet, hiding away from the troubles of the world. The Mother of God stood firm in the face of unspeakable pain. And rather than to remain sequestered, she has appeared numerous times in places like Fatima, Lourdes, and Mexico City, often to poor children, drawing us through them to her Divine Son with fresh confidence.
I want to share one quick story with you about the tenacity of Our Lady’s motherhood. Several years ago, I was in an assignment with a bunch of vexing problems like division among the parishioners, and large decisions that needed to be made about building a rectory, etc. Once when my parents were visiting, I was venting about my anxiety and exasperation. No matter what I did, someone would be pushing back vigorously. I saw my mom getting irritated in a way I’d seldom seen. “How dare they give my boy a hard time?!” She was ready to read someone the riot act. I’ll never forget that expression on her face. I’d like to think that we also get a taste of that in our relationship with Mary, a mother who was tough as nails in order to remain with Jesus at Calvary, and overflowing with tenderness as a refuge for poor sinners everywhere.