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A Reflection for the Memorial of St. Aloysius Gonzaga

You can find today’s readings here. Other readings, specific to St. Aloysius Gonzaga, are here.

Except in places where St. Aloysius Gonzaga’s feast is celebrated, today’s readings come from the continuous cycle of biblical texts that the Church reads during Ordinary Time, and they are not fitting for the saint. This goes a long way in explaining how such a gruesome first reading accompanies the memorial of a saint known for his humility and kindness.

Ancient Israel was a small country that sat at the crossroads of empires. Significant wealth passed through it and around it. Powerful nations attempted to exert influence on Israel’s rulers at every stage in its history. Sometimes this influence was easygoing and friendly, taking the form of gifts from powerful leaders, marriages between families and trades of luxury items. At other times, however, this influence was utterly malignant and led to palace intrigues, coups, death and destruction.

This is the background of today’s first reading. Archaeology suggests that early Israel (1200-950 B.C.E.) had an egalitarian society. It was rural; there were no cities of any great size and most people lived on the land. It was also built on subsistence agriculture. People produced everything they needed on their own farms. Archaeological excavations show few trade items or luxury goods. Regardless of tribal, religious or national status, people lived in more or less the same manner throughout the country.

By the time Queen Athaliah came to power (ca. 850 B.C.E.), this egalitarian system had changed. Social stratification appears in the archaeological record. Towns had grown into cities, and showed obvious elite sectors, with large and complicated structures that may have been palaces, administrative centers or houses for the wealthy. Luxury items appeared in these sectors but are mostly absent from other parts of the same city or the countryside. Meanwhile, biblical prophets from this period, like Hosea and Amos, decried the treatment of the poor and the excesses of the wealthy.

David’s descendants in Jerusalem were not exempt from these social pressures. David’s great-great-great-great-grandson Jehoram, the husband of Queen Athaliah, ruled over a tottering state that was beset by hunger, rebellion and civil unrest. His response was to increase violence and oppression to quell the unrest, a strategy that failed and probably led to his untimely death. When his son, Ahaziah, succeeded him, he fell under the foreign influence of his mother’s Canaanite family. Under her pressure, he entered into the power politics of the region, and the resulting conflicts resulted in his death after only about one year on the throne. Upon his demise, Athaliah secured the throne for herself by killing off any relative of her son who might have challenged her. One of her young grandsons survived, however, hidden away in the temple. Today’s first reading recounts the day that the boy came out of hiding and was proclaimed king. His ascension to the throne resulted in Athaliah’s murder and the end of the cultural, religious and political policies that had drawn Jerusalem and Judah into the intrigues of the region.

The Gospel reminds us, “Where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.” Throughout human history, empires have risen and collapsed because of the desire to accumulate power, social status and wealth. Jesus counsels instead to store up treasure in heaven. These virtues make us weighty in God’s eyes and are the things Jesus preached throughout his ministry: forgiveness, mercy, humility, generosity, faith and love. In this sense, today’s readings are perfect for the memorial of St. Aloysius Gonzaga. His family had wealth and power and lived in a Renaissance world of intrigue and conflict. He could have chosen to live according to those values, but he did not. He chose instead to store up his treasure in heaven. Centuries after his death, we still recognize that his eye was sound, and his whole life was filled with light.

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