Fr. Bryan Howard
11th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B – 13 June 2021
Our first reading from Ezekiel and our Gospel today are both describing a kingdom using very similar images, but the picture they paint is very different. They talk about small things, a twig and a seed, that grow into great trees that all the birds come to rest in. The trees represent kingdoms, and, since God is the One who makes them grow, we could call it God’s Kingdom, or the Kingdom of God. We often talk and pray about the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven. In the Our Father we pray, “Thy kingdom come,” and the third Luminous Mystery of the Rosary is the proclamation of the kingdom. How can we become good citizens of this kingdom and good subjects of Christ the King? By allowing Him to reign in our lives.
Our first reading is from the end of the 17th chapter of Ezekiel. In this chapter the prophet Ezekiel reminds the people what lead to the fall of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judea. God brought the people into the land, he planted them and made them grow, he established an international kingdom under David and his sons, ruling over the surrounding lands. The vine, Israel, he planted didn’t produce fruit, so God allowed the vine to whither. Meaning that the rulers, priests, and the people didn’t obey god but chose sin, so God allowed the Babylonian Empire to conquer them and bring many of the people, including the king, into exile. The kingdom was conquered, the line of kings broken, and it appeared hopeless.
This is where today’s reading starts. Just when everything appears hopeless, God will take a shoot from the cedar of Lebanon. The cedar is the kingdom and the shoot is the new king, the Son of David. Even though the tree was cut down, God will make it grow again. Even though the kingdom was destroyed, God will restore it. Ezekiel says that birds of many kinds will dwell in it. The kingdom won’t just be a Jewish kingdom, but many nations will be part of the kingdom.
Almost 600 years after Ezekiel gave his prophecy, the people were still waiting. The Babylonian exile had ended and the people returned to the land, but the kingdom was not restored. King Herod claimed to be a descendant of David, but everyone knew that was a lie; he wasn’t even Jewish. Then Jesus comes along calling Himself the Son of David and talking about a kingdom. In the first parable, He says that the seed grows of its own accord. In other words, this isn’t a human kingdom, but a heavenly kingdom, because God is the one who makes it grow. Unlike the first kingdom, this one will yield fruit for God; the fruit is faith, good works, and growth in holiness.
In the second parable, He says that the kingdom starts off very small, like a mustard seed, or like the tender shoot that Ezekiel talks about. It’s not impressive at all. This is the Church. The Church often doesn’t look very impressive. We want the Church to be like the cedar of Lebanon, a great, majestic tree but it usually looks more like a mustard tree, and I want everyone to go look up a picture of a cedar and a mustard tree to see what I’m talking about. However, even though it doesn’t look like much, it still spreads out its branches to give shelter to all the birds of the sky.
It’s like an upside down iceberg. Most of the iceberg is underwater, with just a little piece sticking up. The Kingdom of God is a heavenly kingdom, most of it is in heaven, but a little piece of it is down here on earth, and that piece is the Church. God gives life to the Church, but we still need to bear good fruit. We need to spread the Good News, be peacemakers, share God’s love and mercy, have a special love for the poor, and work for justice in the world. We can make a real difference in the lives of other people by bringing them to God, and by bringing God to them. God can work on His own, but He normally chooses to work through us. He wants us to cooperate in His plan.
One more thing. Did anyone notice what kind of fruit those seeds are producing? He says, “Of its own accord the land yields fruit, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.” This is a wheat plant, which of course becomes bread. Do you think it’s a coincidence that we use wheat bread for the Eucharist? God’s Church produces the fruit of the Eucharist. We receive the Eucharist, so that we can go and bear the fruit of faith and charity in the world. Don’t become discouraged when the Church looks more like a mustard tree than a majestic cedar. God is with us, and the Prince of Peace is establishing a Kingdom of Peace that we don’t have to wait for, if we do His will: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Two weeks ago I made the point that art informs the way we think about the world, it forms our imaginations, and it influences our lives in a powerful way. That’s why it’s so important that we make sure only the best works of art, that truly reflects what is true, good, and beautiful. If it’s important for adults, then it’s even more important for children, because the movies, tv, music, and books that we take in as children influences us for the rest of our lives. When I was a kid, my mom struggled to get me to read. Instead of trying to force me, she tried to find something that I would get excited about. What finally caught on were a series of abridged classics that we would read together. She would read a chapter out loud, and then I would. This gave me a love for reading good literature, and I would go on to read the full and complete versions of many of those classic novels. The interesting thing is that reading those classics to me influenced my mom to read more classic novels, too.
One of the classics of children’s literature is C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Lewis was a convert to Christianity through the influence of other Christian and Catholic writers, like G. K. Chesterton and J. R. R. Tolkien. He didn’t become Catholic, but he did become a very effective defender of Christianity with books like Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters.
The seven books of The Chronicles of Narnia series, of which The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is the first, are explicitly Christian books that try to illustrate the truths of the faith through stories. The lion, Aslan, is the Christ figure. He has gone to other lands, but is prophesied to return one day to drive off the enemy, the witch, and restore the Kingdom. The story is told through the eyes of four children, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. They live in World War II era England during the bombings of London, and are sent out to the country for their safety. They find an old wardrobe through which they enter the mythical land of Narnia.
If you’ve never read these books (and watching the movies doesn’t count) then you definitely should, no matter what age you are. If you’re a parent or grandparent, then you should get these books for your children or grandchildren and read it with them. Don’t just give it to them to read, read it with them. That’s a way of showing that this is something special, something different, and that we should pay extra attention to it. It’s best to form a Christian imagination and outlook on life when we’re children, so that we begin to think about life from a Christian perspective. However, as C. S. Lewis shows us, it’s never too late to start forming our Christian imagination.
St. Ignatius of Antioch, in his letter to the Ephesians, wrote, “Take heed, then, often to come together to give thanks to God, and show forth His praise. For when you assemble frequently in the same place, the powers of Satan are destroyed, and the destruction at which he aims is prevented by the unity of your faith. Nothing is more precious than peace, by which all war, both in heaven and earth, is brought to an end.” From the earliest days that Christian community used to come together in one place to worship God and to give Him thanks. Remember that the Greek word eucharistia means giving of thanks.
How did the early Christians understand this teaching on the Eucharist? In his letter to the Philadelphians, St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote, “Take heed, then, to have but one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup to [show forth] the unity of His blood; one altar; as there is one bishop, along with the presbytery and deacons, my fellow-servants: that so, whatsoever you do, you may do it according to [the will of] God.” St. Ignatius of Antioch died between 98 and 117 AD. In an early Christian work called the Didache, there is a description of the Mass, “But every Lord’s day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one that is at variance with his fellows come together with you, until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be profaned. For this is that which was spoken by the Lord: in every place offer to me a pure sacrifice; for I am a great King, says the Lord, and my name is wonderful among the nations.”
Finally, the first detailed account of the Mass in the early Church comes from St. Justin Martyr, who would eventually die for the faith. He wrote several works defending the faith. One of these, The First Apology, was addressed to the Emperor Titus Aelius Adrianus Antoninus Pius Augustus Caesar, who reigned from 138-161 AD, so it must come from that period.
“And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succors the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Savior on the same day rose from the dead” (St. Justin Martyr, The First Apology, chapter 67).
This description is remarkably similar to what the Church is still doing today. They gathered specifically on Sunday. They have readings from the Old and New Testaments, although they weren’t called that yet, and then the “president,” or presider, instructs and exhorts the people, reflecting on the readings. Then they rise and pray, bread and wine and water are brought up, and the presider prays over them and distributes them to the people, and the deacon takes some to those who are absent. Then a collection is taken up, so we can see that the collection is actually an ancient tradition of the Church. About the Eucharist, St. Justin Martyr clarifies, “For not as common bread and wine do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh” (chapter 66).
Fr. Bryan was pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes from July 3, 2017 to June 2022.