It is extraordinarily significant that the liturgical year ends with the feast of Christ the King. For this great fact—that Jesus Christ is the king of the world—is indeed the culmination of the biblical revelation. It is, in a very real sense, the point of the whole story the Bible is telling.
I’m pretty sure that in thirty years of priesthood, I’ve never preached on this Sunday’s short second reading from Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians. And what a little gem it is! Isn’t it fascinating that St. Paul, precisely in the context of a letter to his church on spiritual matters, endeavors to speak of work? When we do authentic work—of whatever kind—we participate in God’s ongoing creation and providence. Don’t follow the instinct to secularize work; rather, see your daily labor, however humble, as part of God’s plan to bring you to joy.
The story conveyed in our first reading from the second book of Maccabees is one that resonates up and down the ages, that still stirs our hearts today. It’s the story of a martyr’s death. We can talk about heaven, we can speculate about it, we can write learned treatises about it, and we can hope for it. But up and down the centuries, it is the martyrs—from the ancient Maccabees to the Christians slain by ISIS—that most vividly witness to the promise of heaven. They literally bet their lives on it.
In Luke’s Gospel we read the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus, as chief tax collector, was considered a very bad man in first-century Israel, but Christ greets him with love. It is the love of God that causes everything to be, and comes before everything we do. God does not love us because we do good; we do good because God loves us.
Our gorgeous and deeply moving second reading this week is taken from Paul’s second letter to Timothy. I wonder whether I might invite especially the elders among us to attend carefully to this letter. It is the letter of an old man at the end of his life’s work, passing advice and authority on to his younger colleague. As he often does, Paul makes a comparison to sporting events. There is something at stake in the Christian life, something worth striving for. It is like a great race, in which we strive to win. We are meant to make it to the goal line—and perhaps the last miles will be the hardest.
The Bible and the great Tradition are massively interested in prayer, especially the prayer of petition. There are many types of prayer—meditation, contemplation, adoration, etc.—but the most basic and most practiced form of prayer is the prayer of petition, of asking God for something. Studies have shown that everyone prays, that even professed nonbelievers pray. It seems to be born of a profound instinct in the human heart. We ask God for things; we beg; we implore; we desire; we long. But what precisely is petitionary prayer, and how does it work? Our first reading and Gospel for this weekend shed a good deal of light on this issue.
I have always loved the story of Naaman the Syrian, which is found in the second book of Kings, as part of the Elisha cycle of readings. It is, on the surface at least, a very simple narrative, but it packs a punch spiritually speaking.
Last week, I plunged for the second time into the world of the Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything). I can’t tell you how many participants in the AMA posed some version of this question: How could an all-loving God possibly countenance so much violence, suffering, and pain? Most questioners turned up the heat by putting special emphasis on the suffering of children and of the innocent. Every single major theologian has wrestled with the issue, as well as many of our most important artists. And our first reading clearly indicates that people in biblical times wrestled with the very same issue.
When the conclave of 2013 was finishing up, and Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope, Cardinal Hummes of Brazil came up to him and whispered into his ear: “Don't forget the poor.” In emphasizing “a poor Church for the poor,” Pope Francis is continuing an ancient and powerful tradition that stretches right back to the Bible, including our first reading and Gospel for today.
Our first and second readings for this weekend beautifully sum up the Church’s classical attitude toward those in power. I’ve long argued that the most influential philosopher of the nineteenth century was Friedrich Nietzsche. For this very influential and quirky German thinker, power is the fundamental reality—a perspective that has found its way into our cultural and political realms. But the Bible is not in sympathy with either the demonization of—or the exclusive holding up of—power.