Commentary on the Gospel of
Memorial of Saint Andrew Dung-Lac, Priest, and Companions, Martyrs
This is the memorial of 117 Catholics, martyred for their faith, in Vietnam, in the period between 1820 and 1862. They were the victims of religious persecution and their blood was a great source of life for believers in Vietnam, since then. Pope Francis has reminded us that there are many martyrs today, in our times, who witness to their faith in various ways. Let us ask for the grace of courage and freedom in witness to our faith, when and how we are called to witness today.
It is powerful to read of the joy with which the Maccabees and others of their time celebrated the re-dedication of the Temple, after the persecution they suffered. Strong, deep, enduring faith is powerful and inspiring.
In the Gospel, we read about Jesus' response to what he's seeing in the Temple. He's been struggling with the "religious" people of his day who appeared to be "religious"without finding a place for mercy in their practice of religion. They were severe and judgmental. The law was their highest priority. They didn't like the way he ate and drank with sinners. They didn't like his care for the sick. They didn't like the focus he placed upon compassion and care for the hungry and thirsty, the stranger and the sinner. They certainly didn't like the way he identified himself with their way to true worship.
The "buying and selling" he saw in the outer court of the temple was all about sacrifice. Merchants were selling animals, down to pigeons for the poor, to purchase for sacrifice. And, since people came from all over, there were money changers doing the currency exchange business. Jesus quotes Jeremiah, in chapter 7:11, in saying they had lost something of the meaning of sacrifice - as prayer - and had turned it to a "den of thieves."
Pope Francis has challenged us in many contexts and on various occasions to a renewal, close to the spirit of what Jesus says in Matthew (7:13) "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." Francis has said that legalism is one of the "diseases" of Christianity. Here are a few of Francis' words to the Vatican officials, as part of his Christmas greeting in 2014:
Then too there is the disease of mental and spiritual “petrification”. It is found in those who have a heart of stone, the “stiff-necked” (Acts 7:51-60), in those who in the course of time lose their interior serenity, alertness and daring, and hide under a pile of papers, turning into paper pushers and not men of God (cf. Heb 3:12). It is dangerous to lose the human sensitivity that enables us to weep with those who weep and to rejoice with those who rejoice! This is the disease of those who lose “the sentiments of Jesus” (cf. Phil 2:5-11), because as time goes on their hearts grow hard and become incapable of loving unconditionally the Father and our neighbour (cf. Mt 22:34-35). Being a Christian means “having the same sentiments that were in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5), sentiments of humility and unselfishness, of detachment and generosity.
The disease of gossiping, grumbling and back-biting. I have already spoken many times about this disease, but never enough. It is a grave illness which begins simply, perhaps even in small talk, and takes over a person, making him become a “sower of weeds” (like Satan) and in many cases, a cold-blooded killer of the good name of our colleagues and confrères. It is the disease of cowardly persons who lack the courage to speak out directly, but instead speak behind other people’s backs. Saint Paul admonishes us to do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent” (Phil 2:14-15). Brothers, let us be on our guard against the terrorism of gossip!
We can let Jesus cleanse our temple. We can let Jesus help us examine what has become a "disease" to the genuine spirit of our faith and commitment. We can ask for new graces, as we ask that we might be more of a "house of prayer" - in communion with him in our everyday lives. And, we can ask for the grace to allow us to be kind and merciful more and more, especially with those closest to us. Then, with his grace, we might more clearly hear and be open to the cry of the poor and be in the deepest communion with Jesus in that solidarity with the poor, the sick, with sinners, that allows our hearts to be like his.