Living the readings: Making it through rough times

Many lessons are learned about God’s abundant love

August is known for its long hot days and sweaty boring nights that made kids wish school were back in session. Schools, in Tennessee at least, have accommodated this desire and have welcomed the children back ever earlier each year, making today’s students regret the ill-conceived desires of their ancestors in primary and high school. August also is a vacation month and a time to get away from work to take a breather.

The liturgical readings fit the August environment to a tee. There is the hint of tremendous doings in the near future as well as the need “to get away from it all.” Let’s look first at the Old Testament and Gospels for each of the five Sundays in August and then examine the thoughts of Paul, starting with the end of Romans’ eighth chapter to the beginning of the 12th, highlights of which form the New Testament readings this month.

In the first reading of the 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time we find Isaiah speaking to the Jewish deportees in Babylon. They’ve lost everything in their lives except their talents and, perhaps, their belief in God. Belief is what the prophet was concerned about and spoke about to the exiles. Everyone knew that every nation that was deported en masse, like the Jews were, faded out of existence along with their religion. What could they do? Isaiah’s answer was surprising. First, they were to drink and eat freely. In effect, they were to take advantage of the upscale Babylonian society and make themselves rich even if it meant their conquerors would grow in wealth with them. Second, at the same time, they were to heed the Lord. God would bless them in this foreign land until Babylon would be destroyed by their enemies and the Jews could return freely to their own homeland to the astonishment of the whole world.

The Gospel for today begins a cycle in Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus withdraws. That’s a biblical way of saying he wanted to take a vacation. Today’s passage has Jesus going to what Matthew calls a “deserted place.” It wasn’t deserted for long.

A large crowd followed him and the Lord had to give in to their desire to hear him speak. So, school was coming back into session for the Twelve. Their initial class was tough. Jesus instructed them to feed the crowd even though it was huge and they only had five loaves and two fish. They were stumped by the task put to them. Jesus had their attention. He blessed the meager meal and gave it back to the Twelve to distribute to the crowd. Amazingly, they fed all 5,000 men there with an overabundance of 12 wicker baskets.

The Apostles learned the lesson that when the Son of God blesses their endeavors, they will be successful beyond estimate.

On the next Sunday, the Old Testament reading tells us the story of Elijah at his cave on Mount Horeb. He already had defeated and slaughtered the 450 priests of Baal that Jezabel had introduced into Israel to establish her national religion in the Holy Land. In modern parlance, Elijah was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He needed to know where God was. God promised that he would show himself. As Elijah waited, he saw rocks crushed by a driving wind followed by an earthquake, followed, in turn, by a fire. Yet, he did not sense God’s presence in any of those phenomena. Then, he heard a tiny whispering sound. Elijah realized God was present and discerned he was the object of God’s love. That cleared his mind and he was ready to return to Israel to do God’s work.

The Gospel for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time takes place the evening after the events of the previous Sunday’s Gospel. Jesus told the Apostles to take the boat and cross to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. He stayed behind to pray. If the disciples thought Jesus was still looking for peace and quiet, they soon found out otherwise, for they encountered a death-threatening storm.

Lesson two of their summer school session was learning what to do when they were afraid. They looked out on the sea and witnessed Jesus coming towards them. Matthew relates that this apparition scared them even more. Jesus had to speak to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” I don’t believe any in the boat forgot Jesus’ admonition. Perhaps it’s one of the most important commandments that Jesus gave us. When He is present, we are not to fear.

On the 20th Sunday of Ordinary Time, we go back to Isaiah in Babylon. God offers a concept to Isaiah that could have changed Judaism forever. Only in Christianity was it finally fulfilled. Foreigners would be made joyful. They will minister to the Lord. To do so, they needed to serve the Lord, keep the Sabbath, and live within a Covenant relationship with God. What a change! The conquered Jews, instead of adopting the Babylonian myths and religion, would convert the victors to their religion.

The Gospel starts off by declaring that Jesus is again withdrawing. This time he leaves Israel and enters the vicinity of towns in present day Lebanon. Soon enough, wouldn’t you know, a woman recognizes him and asks that he heal her daughter. Jesus makes it obvious that he is really taking a rest.

He, long ago, discovered that one miracle quickly generates a crowd. So, he rudely tells the lady it is not right to throw the food of children to the dogs. Without blinking an eye, she retorted that even dogs are allowed to eat scraps from the family table. The Gospel does not say this, but my mind generates the picture of Jesus laughing a huge guffaw as he relents and, with a lingering smile, heals the child from afar.

The Apostles received another lesson about the infinite bounty of God’s goodness.

On the 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time, we are introduced to the meaning of the term “key.” It means “authority.” Eliakim is identified by no less than God to be the leader of His people. He is given a “key” by God to symbolize his newly given power.

In the Gospel, Peter is given keys to the kingdom of heaven. There is a point of authority in the kingdom Jesus is establishing. It is symbolized in the keys possessed by Peter. It’s interesting that Jesus’ presentation of the keys occurs in a place of relaxation. Caesarea Philippi is still a beautiful place. Herod had built a summer palace there.

The locale, in the Golan Heights, is resplendent with trees and waterfalls. It is situated at the headlands of the Jordan River, lush and cool in the depths of summer. The water there bubbles. It was venerated by the Greeks as a place of living water. Peter may be led by these surroundings to call Jesus the Son of the living God. Peter obviously took his lessons to heart and received the keys as his reward.

The last Sunday of August is the 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time. Jeremiah is the subject of this passage. He found out, after the fact of his becoming a prophet, that this life was not filled with a lot of fun. He complains that he had been duped by God. He doesn’t like being laughed at. He doesn’t like having to announce bad news. The last of his list of complaints is that, whenever he tried to get out of his position, his heart burned with fire. He is stuck being what he is. That is the nature of a prophet. They wrestle with God.

Jesus has a “Jeremiah” moment in today’s Gospel when Peter counsels him to avoid crucifixion. Jesus calls Peter (the one with the keys) a Satan for trying to make his life easier and less painful. Infinite love is what motivates the Lord.  Everyone who has truly loved knows it can be painful. So, the message that Jesus presents at beautiful Caesarea Philippi is that he will be heading for Jerusalem in order to die for us. That would be his most beautiful gesture for us – to accomplish our salvation. That is the lesson we all must learn.

Decades later, Paul is asked by the Christian community in Rome to sum up his thoughts about our religion. He had all the time and peace he needed. The result is his Epistle to the Romans. In the August liturgical readings there are five snippets from that deep work of art and wisdom.

The first of these might have been a meditation on the scene at Caesarea Philippi. Who will separate us from the love of God? The short answer is: nothing.  The love of God is inseparable from us. He already suffered death for us proving his point. In the reading, Paul does admit that life has made him remorseful. His own people, the Jews, have not accepted Christ. That is what saddens him.

However, on the other side of the same coin his glory is that gentiles are accepting Christ through his preaching. In fact, he can say that because of the rejection of Christ by the Jews, then the gentiles can be reconciled with God. Paul then adds it up and writes “because God delivered all to disobedience that he might have mercy on all.” Soon after that statement Paul is led to write, “how inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways!”

In the last quote of the month Paul applies what he wrote about God to the individual Christian. He concludes that we should “offer our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.” As far as our lives in this world, Paul’s admonition stands as apt for our society as it was for his. “Do not conform yourselves to this age [an age of comfort…a throwaway age] but be transformed by the renewal of your mind that you may discern what is the Will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.”

Perhaps, you’ve noticed that something has been missing. Within the heat of August and the deep agonizing, there is a garden of relief that takes the form of the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Its message is a cool breath of fresh air proclaiming the greatness of the Lord. She tells us how great the Lord is to us by admitting that the Lord has been good to her. She responded to God’s graciousness by serving as the model mother of the Lord as well as his most loving disciple. At the cross, Jesus gave her to us as mother of the Church.

As we enter Christ’s life in baptism, we become her children as she is the mother of the Lord. So, all the tension of the Sunday readings finds meaning and joy as we learn that a real human being like us is body and soul in heaven and can care for us as only a caring mother would. That’s a great lesson for us to learn in our August session.

Father Brando is a retired priest of the Diocese of Knoxville.