Gaining salvation by putting away parts of us that are earthly
August is a difficult month with its heat and humidity. It’s the perfect time to meditate on how a Christian should live in a world that can be a very difficult place to evaluate, to make decisions, and to find joy.
The Sunday Liturgies of the Word in August help us to sort things out, to form a way of life, and to develop the attitude we need to maintain so we can conquer the world. Each Sunday reading builds on the previous one, forming a straight line to a new plan of living the Christian life on a perplexing planet.
We begin on Aug. 4 with the 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time. Our first reading presents the height of Old Testament wisdom about the world. The wise man of the Jewish community Qoheleth looks back over history and proclaims everything in the world is vanity. Actually, the literal translation would be ‘wind.’
All our days are sorrow and grief, leaving us with nothing but a handful of wind. This conclusion is to warn us to be wise and realize we shouldn’t expect much if we live for worldly gain. That opens us up to look for another source if we desire fulfillment.
Paul writes to the Christian community at Colossae to “put away the parts of you that are earthly.” Fortunately, he also gives the alternative. We can and should “seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.”
He wants us to know that we, as baptized people, have died and have put on a new self that is becoming an image of our creator. We no longer see things in a worldly way. We no longer see distinctions between people. Experts point out that the first consequence of original sin was for Adam and Eve to begin to see distinctions. They saw themselves as different and had to put on clothes. Earthly distinctions make us ashamed and fearful. Entering Christ’s life makes us one again. We can escape our shame and fear and the conflicts they cause.
The Gospel offers us a surprise. Jesus is asked to settle a family matter and he refuses. How many of us bring such problems to the Lord expecting a different response. Why does the Lord refuse to enforce justice? Well, it’s a worldly problem and, as such, it is a matter of wind or vanity. It amounts to nothing and keeps us from seeking the divine.
Jesus calls it greed. Then, he tells a parable that ends with a rich man thinking he can retire happily; but he will die before enjoying any of his wealth. Jesus calls him a fool. Such a person has missed the opportunity to become rich in what matters to God.
So, the first Sunday of August has taught us that seeking happiness in worldly things is futile. Rather, we should seek the things of God. If so, we will live on earth happily seeing all others as our brothers and sisters in unity. We can put away fear and divisions. Our happiness will fill our hearts with joy now and in eternity.
On Aug. 11 we learn the next step in developing a correct attitude towards the world. The Old Testament passage is from the Book of Wisdom. It hearkens us back to the original Passover. The Egyptian leadership changed and began to fear the Israelites in the country and, consequently, persecuted and eliminated them. When a worldly attitude conflicts with a divine reality, the earthly loses. The Book of Wisdom calls the resulting action of God “punishment.” The first-born males of the Egyptians were killed; and God’s people were “glorified.” If we want to be glorified, then we need to know what side to be on. We also should know what kind of attitude to have.
The passage from Hebrews, our second reading, names our desired attitude. It is faith. Of course, faith is much more than an attitude. It is a theological virtue. That means it is a power that comes from having a relationship with God.
A person of faith can see things as God sees them. Using Abraham and Sarah as examples, the author of Hebrews communicates how trust in God changes us. Even though Sarah and Abraham never did see the promise of God (that they would be the parents of a countless number of people) come to fruition in their lifetime; nevertheless, they persevered and were happy people. They even named their son Isaac, the laughing one.
In the Gospel, Luke shows us the kind of faith we need to have. We have been given (not merely promised) the kingdom of God. If we truly had faith we would experience its effects in our lives. As opposed to the worldly, we would no longer be afraid of anything. We would give away all our money and still live as if we had a fortune. It’s an attitude beautifully portrayed by St. Francis.
He and his followers proved that apostolic poverty is an attitude that works for all who risk following Christ’s challenge. It takes faith, and it works. This attitude is that of servants looking forward for their master’s return from a wedding. They anticipate joy and rich rewards even though they were left alone. A person of the world would be afraid or apprehensive of something going wrong.
So, the parable at the end of this passage is telling. In reply to Peter, Jesus tells about the servant whose master is away for a long time. If that servant followed the way of the world, then he would lose his confidence and misuse the other employees and get drunk. He will be punished. It’s the same principle as the Egyptians at the time of the Passover. The world renders us nervous and fear-filled, leading us to treat people badly. Such attitudes and actions automatically put us on a sure route to evil consequences either here or hereafter.
Now, in the very middle of the month, we come to a wonderful rest. It is the solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a holy day of obligation. One would think that this feast would provide a kind of intermission of the progress of the Sunday liturgies. However, that is not the case in this instance. Rather, the basic theme is exemplified and carried forward in the person of our Blessed Mother.
The first reading is from the last book of the Bible, Revelation. There is a reference of the Ark of the Covenant. In Christian literature this is a clue that Mary is soon to appear. So she does in a special device of John, the Divine. The woman clothed with the sun could stand for more than one reality.
Many fathers of the early Church have seen a reference to Our Lady and also to holy mother, the Church. The image portrays the relationship of the blessed to the worldly. The dragon is an earthly force, perhaps the pagan Romans, whose lifestyle directly opposed the Christian. They, like the Egyptians to the Israelites, came to fear those who lived differently from them. What they feared they tried to destroy. The Church had to go to the desert. It was there that God had prepared a place for them. So, God does care for us in time of persecution. This is still happening today. In more than one place right now Catholic communities have been forced to leave their homes under threat of death and have found not only safety in a remote place but they have found a joy that allows them to flourish there. The scripture is true. The kingdom of God and the power of his salvation prevail even in hard times.
The New Testament passage for the Assumption is from Paul’s first Letter to the Corinthians. There, Paul promises that God will destroy “every sovereignty and power.” Once again the Egyptian theme reappears. What challenges God’s work on earth will necessarily face destruction. That is the way the world works. It is merely wind and will blow away.
Paul adds another villain into this progression. It is death, the last enemy. Death also will be destroyed. We tend to fear death most of all the enemies of life. When death confronts earthly life, it wins. When it confronts eternal life, it loses. Here again, the basic theme of the month reappears. All that is worldly eventually goes away, including death. All that is of God will abide forever.
The Gospel on the feast of the Assumption is the story of the Visitation, complete with Mary’s Magnificat. Here we have two people who experienced the power of God within them. They both were pregnant in ways that were unusual. That indicates they both had relationships with God. Elizabeth was too old to have a child. Mary was a virgin-mother. Elizabeth exhibited another trait of someone living for God and not for the world. She was a prophetess. Without being told, she knew that Mary was to be the mother of the Lord. Luke tells us she was filled with the Holy Spirit. Here we have a new attribute of those who live God’s way. We can be aware of God within us. We can feel and see the power of God alive. For, God is in us. We are blessed. Mary then proclaims her Magnificat, in which she tells the world about this month’s theme. Those who fear God possess God’s mercy and life. Those who are mighty in this world will be cast down.
The Sunday Liturgy for Aug. 18 warns us of the power of the world. It can take a big bite out of us. It doesn’t draw so many people to it without possessing a great deal of strength and the power to persuade. The readings present some of its traps that we need to be aware of and avoid.
The prophet Jeremiah’s life was filled with problems and sadness. One of them is depicted in the first reading. He was thrown into a cistern. That was a situation in which he was in the dark and slipping into the mud that was about to suck him in to his death. Thankfully, God sent men to save him. Yes, we can have close encounters with evil, but God saves us. He can even use the fickle king (as he did in Jeremiah’s case) to change his mind and help the prophet.
The Letter to the Hebrews presents the ultimate of evils to those who live for God and not the world. It is none other than the cross of Jesus. As bad as it was, Jesus “for the sake of the joy that lay before him endured the cross, despising its shame and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God.” Here, another aspect of our theme shines forth: the greater the challenge from the world, the greater the reward for enduring it. Jesus suffered and died on the cross with joy; and he received the reward of being seated at the right hand of the Father in glory.
Another problem the world throws at us is family discord. Many a canonized saint had to overcome discouragement from family members. Our own homes can be places where the temptations of the world come to us. In the Gospel for the 20th Sunday of Ordinary Time Luke relates Jesus saying that he came not for peace but for division. Whenever the good presents itself, evil will immediately attack it. We all experience this reality. So, Jesus wanted us to know that his presence in our world would mean constant opposition even from our own families. We need to be ready to answer their objections with the love of God. It may even be an instance where we can change people to the way of God.
We come to Aug. 25 and the last Sunday of the month. Here we come to a happy conclusion. We have been looking at confrontation and battles with the forces of this world. Life seems to be problematic and filled with struggles. Now, we concentrate on the beauty of it all. The Old Testament reading is from Isaiah, chapter 66. The prophet shows us that God’s way is the way of unity. Isaiah pictures a world where the nations of the world are coming together. They are all coming to Jerusalem and bringing the Israelites scattered around the world back home. The bottom line of God’s way of doing things is to accomplish complete unity and joy and peace. His means for doing this is love. So, at its heart the kingdom is God’s love.
Once again, the New Testament reading is taken from the Epistle to the Hebrews. Its contribution to the grand finale of August is to alert us to the fact that everything we experience in life is meant for our good. Even the trials of life come to us as discipline from God to direct us in the right direction. There is cause for hope. So, we can strengthen our drooping hands and be healed.
The last Gospel of the month is appropriately about heaven. Jesus is asked about how many are in heaven. That’s a worldly question that Jesus doesn’t answer. He responds by telling us that people will be coming from the four corners of the globe. Yet, it won’t be everybody. There is urgency for us to choose the kingdom of God. It does make an eternal difference. Our choices are critical. They can lead us to eternal glory or lead us in another direction.
By the time August rolls into fall, it has given us a great lesson. We should be better able to discern God’s will for us in this world. We can develop the attitude of a person of faith realizing that giving in to the temptations of the world will lead us to an end that is lonely and empty. All we would have is wind. Rather, we can trade that ending for an alternative, namely the glory of heaven.
Sunday, Aug. 4: Ecclesiastes 1:2 and 2:21-23; Psalm 90:3-6, 12-14, 17; Colossians 3:1-5, 9-11; Luke 12:13-21
Monday, Aug. 5: Numbers 11:4-15; Psalm 81:12-17; Matthew 14:13-21
Tuesday, Aug. 6: Feast, the Transfiguration of the Lord, Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; Psalm 97:1-2, 5-6, 9; 2 Peter 1:16-19; Luke 9:28-36
Wednesday, Aug. 7: Numbers 13:1-2, 13:25–14:1, 26-29, 34-35; Psalm 106:6-7, 13-14, 21-23; Matthew 15:21-28
Thursday, Aug. 8: Numbers 20:1-13; Psalm 95:1-2, 6-9; Matthew 16:13-23
Friday, Aug. 9: Deuteronomy 4:32-40; Psalm 77:12-16, 21; Matthew 16:24-28
Saturday, Aug. 10: Feast, St. Lawrence, deacon, martyr, 2 Corinthians 9:6-10; Psalm 112:1-2, 5-9; John 12:24-26
Sunday, Aug. 11: Wisdom 18:6-9; Psalm 33:1, 12, 18-22; Hebrews 11:1-2, 8-19; Luke 12:32-48
Monday, Aug. 12: Deuteronomy 10:12-22; Psalm 147:12-15, 19-20; Matthew 17:22-27
Tuesday, Aug. 13: Deuteronomy 31:1-8; Deuteronomy 32:3-4, 7-9, 12; Matthew 18:1-5, 10, 12-14
Wednesday, Aug. 14: Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 66:1-3, 5, 8, 16-17; Matthew 18:15-20; vigil for the Assumption, 1 Chronicles 15:3-4, 15-16 and 16:1-2; Psalm 132:6-7, 9-10, 13-14; 1 Corinthians 1:15:54-57; Luke 11:27-28
Thursday, Aug. 15: Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Revelation 11:19 and 12:1-6, 10; Psalm 45:10-12, 16; 1 Corinthians 15:20-27; Luke 1:39-56
Friday, Aug. 16: Joshua 24:1-13; Psalm 136:1-3, 16-18, 21-22, 24; Matthew 19:3-12
Saturday, Aug. 17: Joshua 24:14-29; Psalm 16:1-2, 5, 7-8, 11; Matthew 19:13-15
Sunday, Aug. 18: Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10; Psalm 40:2-4, 18; Hebrews 12:1-4; Luke 12:49-53
Monday, Aug. 19: Judges 2:11-19; Psalm 106:34-37, 39-40, 43-44; Matthew 19:16-22
Tuesday, Aug. 20: Judges 6:11-24; Psalm 85:9, 11-14; Matthew 19:23-30
Wednesday, Aug. 21: Judges 9:6-15; Psalm 21:2-7; Matthew 20:1-16
Thursday, Aug. 22: Judges 11:29-39; Psalm 40:5, 7-10; Matthew 22:1-14
Friday, Aug. 23: Ruth 1:1, 3-6, 14-16, 22; Psalm 146:5-10; Matthew 22:34-40
Saturday, Aug. 24: Revelation 21:9-14; Psalm 145:10-13, 17-18; John 1:45-51
Sunday, Aug. 25: Isaiah 66:18-21; Psalm 117:1-2; Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13; Luke 13:22-30
Monday, Aug. 26: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5, 8-10; Psalm 149:1-6, 9; Matthew 23:13-22
Tuesday, Aug. 27: 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Psalm 139:1-6; Matthew 23:23-26
Wednesday, Aug. 28: 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13; Psalm 139:7-12; Matthew 23:27-32
Thursday, Aug. 29: 1 Thessalonians 3:7-13; Psalm 90:3-4, 12-14, 17; Mark 6:17-29
Friday, Aug. 30: 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8; Psalm 97:1-2, 5-6, 10-12; Matthew 25:1-13
Saturday, Aug. 31: 1 Thessalonians 4:9-11; Psalm 98:1, 7-9; Matthew 25:14-30
Father Joseph Brando is the pastor of St. Mary Parish in Gatlinburg.