Dear Fellow Parishioners,
I’ll begin by wishing you all a blessed and safe Labor Day weekend. In the past, school started on the Tuesday after Labor Day. So much of our school calendar was designed around agricultural life. Even today, there is Harvest Break in northern Maine for school children to help bring in the potato crop, and I suspect there are other regions that still have similar traditions.
At Masses last weekend, I mentioned that the official beginning of fall is about three weeks away. As if to reinforce the point, I mentioned to a supermarket checker that I was amused to see the Halloween candy out. She responded that at Costco, they’re already selling Christmas merchandise! (The most egregious offender is the Hallmark Channel, which has Christmas in July…)
As we approach the end of the liturgical year, the Sunday Gospel readings take on an increasing note of starkness and of judgment. This weekend is no exception: “If anyone comes to me without turning his back on his father and mother, his wife and his children, his brothers and sisters, indeed his very self, he cannot be my follower.” The phrase “turning his back on his father and mother” has often been translated as “hates his father and mother” There is more than a bit of overstatement for effect in this. Jesus preached faithfulness to God, not hatred of others.
In the ancient world, society was seen, not as an aggregate of individuals, but a community of clans or families. The common morality was to do as much good as one could for family and friends, with limited regard for those outside of that circle. (Remember the Good Samaritan…) In this weekend’s Gospel, Jesus was not demanding that his followers abandon their dependents and loved ones. Instead, he was almost certainly referring to those who believed in Him over the objections of their families. This is not unlike today, when some young men and women enter seminaries or religious communities despite the indifference, or even vociferous objections, of their families.
During the earthly life of Jesus, the demands on believing Christians became increasingly difficult, and would soon become a full-on persecution lasting nearly three centuries.
The Letter to Philemon makes a point, shared by the New Testament as a whole: the wide and almost unlimited variety of deep relationships associated with the ministry of Jesus and within the Early Church. While the modern tendency has been to read the “traditional” American nuclear family back into the Gospels, the Gospels themselves tell another story.
In this weekend’s second reading, Paul refers to Philemon as a “begotten son,” not a “slave,” but as a “beloved brother, especially dear to me”. As Jesus traveled, his traveling companions at times included a small group of (what would have been called) “undomesticated women,” i.e., women traveling freely and unattached to a household. Jesus had his “Beloved Disciple” who used to rest his head on Jesus’ breast. (Today, that may be referred to as a “PDA”– a “public display of affection.”) While it would be a mistake to equate the customs of any particular culture with Christian teaching, this does invite us to read the Gospels and epistles with new eyes and attention to detail.
I wish you all a blessed and restful (and cool) Labor Day weekend,
Fr. Bill Donahue