Saturday, December 29, 2007

Sisters and Brothers

(Holy Family, A)

The feast of the Holy Family deepens our appreciation of the Christmas mystery. This past week we celebrated the great miracle of our Lord’s birth, but that’s not the end. Part of the mystery of the Word made flesh is the mystery of our God being born into a real human family.

From the very beginning of creation God has shown his special love for the family. He put our first parents together and blessed their union, commanding them to “be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it.” So rejoice in your dignity before God, you who are married. You are fulfilling the original vocation God gave to humanity, long before there was a priesthood or anyone had heard of religious life.

We celebrate today that God has blessed the human family with his own presence, making himself the child of two young parents. As we know, Jesus was only biologically related to Mary, both Joseph and Mary were his parents on earth. Think of the sublime humility of God! The same Word of God, through whom everything was created, makes himself subject to these two young people who were forced to have their child away from home, and, as we heard in the Gospel today, were not even able to settle down for quite a while. Life wasn’t easy for the Holy Family, and everyone knows that family life always has its anguish and challenges. But in this regard our membership in both our families of origin and in the families we ourselves found through marriage, these are schools of charity and dependence on God’s grace. In the prayer after communion we will express our desire that Holy Communion strengthen us to face these “troubles of life.”

Just as the Incarnation of God in the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth sanctifies the humanity of us who have Holy Communion with him in this Eucharist, so the Lord’s presence in the Holy Family sanctifies our own families. We recognize this mystery in the prayer over the gifts for today’s Mass when we will pray that the prayers of Mary and Joseph “unite our families in peace and love.”

I think part of reason the message of St. Francis is so attractive and compelling is that he recognized God’s sense of the universal family of all creation. We Christians know that we are brothers and sisters in Christ, for it is in Christ that we are drawn into the one Sonship of Christ with God the Father. But St. Francis took this a few steps further. He preached to birds and called them his sisters. He even called fire his brother, praising the fire for being robust and lively. He called water his sister, praising for being precious, useful, and chaste.

The insight is simple. If everything that is comes from the one God that puts all creatures in the relationship of siblings. And so we are called to treat every fellow creature from our sister and brother humans to the animals and even to the plants and inanimate things with all of the love, loyalty and sometimes anguish and long-suffering that goes with being a family.

That’s what Francis meant when he called himself “brother Francis.” He wasn’t giving himself a fancy religious title, he was just saying that he was trying to be brother to every other creature he met.

And so let us pray today that the example and prayers of the Holy Family of Nazareth will help us to unite our own families in peace and love, and to learn to live as sisters and brothers to everyone, and indeed to all of creation.

Monday, December 24, 2007

In Nativitate Domini: Ad Missam in die

(Nativity of the Lord, Mass during the day)

Everyone needs a way to express themselves, an outlet for self-expression. It might be music or art or a hobby, or just a place and time during our schedules when we can relax and just be ourselves. It’s important. We need to express ourselves in order to be fully alive.

God is no exception. And I suggest to you that on this solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord, we celebrate the feast of God’s self-expression. God is a Goodness so good and a Love so loving that it overflows. God overflows into a self-expression we call God’s Word, the Word that God speaks forth from the beginning of time. As John says, “In the beginning was the Word.” From the very beginning God has been a God of overflowing communication.

In the creation story we hear how God created the world through his Word. You remember, at the very beginning God said, “Let there be light,” and so it happened. And so it went through everything God created. God spoke, and the divine power of his Word made it happen. So let us always appreciate the creation around us, for it is the overflowing self-expression of the goodness of God.

But now, in the fullness of time, the same self-expression of God is born as one of us. We just heard it in the prologue to the Gospel of John: “And the Word became flesh, and his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.”

When we fall in love with someone, we want nothing more than to be close to them, to be near them. And what greater sign could there be of God’s love for us than God coming near to us as one of us? Indeed, my friends, the Incarnation of the Word of God, the appearance on earth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the revelation of God falling in love anew with the humanity he created.

The birth of Jesus Christ reveals to us, in our own humanity, what the love of God is like. And if you look over to the right of the sanctuary [to the Nativity scene and the big crucifix] it becomes very clear. Here we have the two most important images of what God is like: First, a baby born away from home, in the poverty of stable, to young, poor parents. Second, a grown man, dying on the Cross, breaking his body and giving his life for the life of the world. God comes to us not as someone grand and awe-inspiring and powerful, but as someone vulnerable and poor.

This baby born in poverty and this man being executed on the Cross, these are the revelation of God’s idea of what it means to be a human being. And as soon as we can learn just a little bit of that humility before creation and before one another, God will be able to save the world in no time.

Behold the humble God! Behold the God who, when he expresses his own heart of love, a poor baby in a stable and a condemned, humiliated man on the Cross come out.

And as we marvel at the humility of God in his birth among us in the Nativity, we marvel as well at the humble God who comes to us as our bread of life in this Eucharist. As he sanctified our flesh by being born in our humanity in, so he sanctifies us again by giving us his body as our true food from this altar.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Divine Names

(4th Sunday of Advent, A)

The birth of our Savior is near, and in our Scriptures on this last Sunday before Christmas we hear of two names that he will bear. They are “Emmanuel,” and “Jesus.”

Before we even reflect on the intense meaning of these names, we ought to appreciate first that a name for God is revealed to us at all. Yes, God revealed the divine name to Moses, “I am,” or “I am who am,” or “I am who comes to be,” but this is hardly a name in any sense we can understand.

But for us God now has a name: Jesus. It is the wonderful revelation that we have a God who can be called upon by name, with whom we can have a personal relationship. But it is also a scandal, for it is against the so-called “spiritualities” of this world. We don’t believe in a “supreme being” or a quote-unquote spirituality. We believe in a person, a human being who is the very Word of God made flesh, made one of us.

In the first reading from the prophet Isaiah, God reveals to the sinful king Ahaz his intention to save us from our sins through a miraculous birth from a virgin. And the child to be born will be called Emmanuel. “Emmanuel,” literally, “God with us.” This is the beauty of the mystery we celebrate at Christmas—God is with us. God is not off somewhere in an abstract heaven that we don’t even really believe in. God is here, as close to us as we are to those we love and care for—indeed even closer.

“Emmanuel,” “God with us,” also means that God is for us. In Jesus Christ, God is on our side. Sometimes we act like God is a kind of landlord. If we behave ourselves and try to do good, he’ll let us live in his blessing, in his grace. If we’re careless and let ourselves become sinners, he’ll reject us. Not at all! God is on our side, and suffers with his own passionate desire for our salvation and happiness. God is for us, and wants to save and heal anyone who will accept him, saint or sinner.

The great birth we celebrate this week is our Emmanuel, God with us and God for us. And in our Gospel today, the angel of the Lord reveals his given name to Joseph. “You are to call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

“Jesus” is the Greek version of the Hebrew name we usually translate into English as “Joshua.” It simply means, “God saves.” And that’s the simplest version of the Christmas message we could have. A child is born, and his appearance on earth is the salvation God brings.

Think back to Jesus’ namesake in the Old Testament, the great Joshua who was Moses’ successor. Moses led the Israelites out of their slavery in Egypt, but he never entered the Promised Land. It was Joshua who went before them, leading the people to conquer the land of Canaan so that they might take possession of the land that God had given them.

In the same way, the Savior who is born for us, Jesus Christ, leads into the promised land of grace and peace. In his divine humanity he will battle the forces of evil on our behalf in his temptations in the desert. He will cure diseases and lift from people the burden of their sin and guilt. And finally, he will break all our cycles of violence by taking all of our violence and hardness of heart to the Cross. Taking all of that evil upon himself, he gives us back nothing but the utter blessing and goodness of the new life of Resurrection.

That’s the God who is with us as our Emmanuel. And that’s the God who in his own heart of hearts, is the Savior, Jesus.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Renovation

(3rd Sunday of Advent, A)

Have you seen those shows on TV where they take an old mess of a house and renovate everything to make it fresh, new, and valuable? It’s a great fantasy because everyone, if they had a big pot of money, would like to re-do their kitchen, or a bathroom, or finish their basement, or something. It’s because we just love that feeling when things are new, up-to-date, shiny, and fully functional. It’s like when we were kids and at the beginning of the school year we had that new box of crayons. Everything had a sharp point, your favorite blue or green wasn’t missing, and the black one wasn’t worn down to a raggedy little stub. Or it’s like that feeling of stepping into a brand new car and driving it off the lot for the first time. Everything works, everything is clean and new, and you just feel cool.

We human beings, we crave that kind of experience. We love a fresh start, a new beginning. And this is the joy of the coming mystery of Christmas, for Christmas is a renovation, a new beginning, and a fresh start. This renovation is so much greater than a new kitchen or a new bathroom; it is the renewal of us ourselves. Our very humanity is renovated because, on Christmas, God himself is born as one of us.

The spiritual joy of Christmas is that the birth of Christ is for us the beginning of a new creation, of a renovation of our humanity.

Recall the very beginning of the Sacred Scriptures, when God was creating the heavens and the earth. How did God create? It was a kind of self-expression: “God said, “let there be light,” and there was light.” It is by his word that God creates. He speaks, and it comes to be.

In the birth of Jesus Christ, this same Word, this same perfect self-expression of God takes on our humanity and becomes one of us. The same Word through which God made the world now becomes a human being. The result: we are re-created because Jesus Christ, in his divine humanity joins us to the utter joy and peace of God’s own life, giving us a chance to be freed from all our anxiety, all our depression, all our spiritual illness, and all of the misery we bring upon ourselves with our sins.

The coming birth of Christ is the renovation, the re-creation of the world. This is what the prophet Isaiah was hoping for when he wrote those beautiful words we just heard about the land itself rejoicing and the desert blooming with flowers. This is the new beginning that Jesus himself was pointing out when he asks us in the Gospel today, “what do you see and hear?” And he points out all the signs of world in the process of healing and renewal: the blind and deaf can see and hear again, the sick are healed and the dead are raised, and the poor hear good news.

As Isaiah proclaims, sorrow and mourning have been scared away, having been put to flight by the joy that is on its way: the child that will be born, who is, for us, the beginning of a new creation, a fresh start, a renovation of our hearts.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Changing Our Minds

(2nd Sunday of Advent, A)

John the Baptist, the forerunner of the coming Lord, “appeared in the desert of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!’”

“Repent,” he urges. The word we translate as ‘repent’ is the imperative, metanoeite. Metanoeite, which can be more literally translated as ‘change your mind.’ That’s our call as we enter into the second week of the advent season. We are to change our minds.

This isn’t like how we usually talk about changing our minds, like about which shoes we want to wear or what we want to watch on TV. It’s about changing our whole perspective, changing the way we look at things.

Why? It’s because the Lord is coming, and he sees the world from God’s perspective. As we hear today in the prophet Isaiah, “not by appearance shall he judge, not by hearsay shall he decide, but he shall judge the poor with justice, and decide aright for the land’s afflicted.” God has a very particular way of looking at the world, a perspective that wants to save and lift up the oppressed, the poor, and the hungry. God’s perspective brings a judgment on the world that will, as Our Lady says in her Magnificat, “cast down the mighty from their thrones.”

So as we prepare for the coming of the Lord, we need to change our minds and bring our perspective around to the way God sees the world. For the judgment of God takes sides in human history, against the arrogant and the oppressors and in favor of the poor and the hungry.

So if we ourselves wish to come out favorably in the coming judgment of God, we too ought to get on the side of the poor and the oppressed. If we wish be among those who enjoy the new world of peace promised by the prophet Isaiah, where the “wolf will be a guest of the lamb,” and where there shall be “no harm or ruin,” we must change our minds, we must repent and get on the side of all those who suffer because of our sins and the sins of the world.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

You Have One New Message

(1st Sunday of Advent, A)

Let’s say you went home from Mass today and there was a message on your answering machine. So you go to listen to it and you hear,

“Hello, so-and-so, this is Your Lord Jesus Christ. I’d like to come see you, maybe talk about a few things. So if it’s o.k. with you, I’ll be by the house sometime on Wednesday afternoon.”

What would you do if you got this message? What would you do if the Lord himself was coming by to see you three days from now? Would you clean house a little bit? Would you go buy some good coffee or maybe bake a cake so that you had something nice to offer him when he comes? Would you try to bend your heart and mind back into a spirit of prayer, so as to be found watchful in prayer when the Lord comes? Would you make an extra effort to leave your sins behind as Paul recommends today in the second reading?

Brothers and sisters, this is what the season of Advent is all about. It’s a time to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Lord. As the days get to be the darkest they will be all year, and as nature around us goes into its winter sleep, we ought to take the hint. It’s a time to quiet our hearts and minds and so make a space in them for the Lord to appear anew on earth.

As the prophet Isaiah proclaims today, in days to come the Word of the Lord shall go forth from Jerusalem and become the teacher of all nations. This is the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ, the Word whose birth as one of us we will celebrate at Christmas.

But it’s not like this Advent is a time of preparation for a coming of the Lord that’s only off somewhere in the future. The reason we try to pray and quiet ourselves down and prepare for the coming of the Lord is to help us to be aware of the coming of the Lord at every moment. Because God is eternal, the presence of God to us is always new. At each moment of our lives, the presence of God is a perfect Newness that is a holy desire to refresh and renew the world.

That’s why we pray, so that we might soften our hearts and minds and make them sensitive to the presence of God appearing anew at every moment. For God is born anew in each encounter we have with another human being—that other person made in the image of God and recreated according to the image of God’s son. Every time we see God’s creation—the moon and the stars especially at this time of year—we are invited anew to an attitude of wonder and of the praise of God the Creator.

So let us stay awake, as the Gospel recommends today. As Paul says, our salvation is closer than we previously thought. Indeed our salvation is closer than we can even imagine. For God comes to us in each moment, always planting seeds of wonder and prayer in our hearts. Let us quiet ourselves in prayer and preparation, so that we might come to notice and appreciate this ever-new Presence of God.

Let us begin again, for the first time, to prepare for the coming of the Lord.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Christ the King

(Christ the King, C)

The Lord’s torturers made fun of him as he hung upon the Cross. They said, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.”

This only shows that they didn’t know the Scriptures, or the ways of God, or what it means to be the King of the Jews. For as we heard in the first reading from the second book of Samuel, God said to David, “you shall shepherd my people Israel and shall be commander of Israel.” The King of the Jews is not someone who saves himself, but one who shepherds and leads. He is a “suffering servant,” as the prophet Isaiah teaches.

But this is often hard for us to grasp well. God is not a God who is going to control the world. He is not going to make us rich, he is not going to shield us from the consequences of our sins, or from the violence we insist upon for this world with our selfishness.

Look at Christ the King! There he is, nailed to the Cross, unable even to move his hands or feet. This is not a powerful person in any sense that our culture or our world knows.

The power and kingship of Christ consists not in controlling or ruling over the world, but in giving himself, in emptying himself of all his divine prerogatives as God. Just as he offers himself on the Cross, he pours out his divine life in this Eucharist.

This is Christ the King. Not a God who issues commands and demands our subservience, but a God who doesn’t even hold on to being God, and who empties his own divine life into these little forms of bread and wine. He is not a God who rules over us from some heaven, but a God who humbly nourishes us from below.

This is our call as well, brothers and sisters. If we want to be leaders according to the model of Christ the King, we must offer ourselves for the nourishment and support of others. Control, power, influence, fame, glory...these are all dead ends. We could never have enough of them to satisfy us anyway. We should let go of our desire for these things, and accept that true greatness lies in emptying ourselves for the sake of others. And if we can begin to do this in even the smallest way, we too will hear quiet promise of the Lord in our heart, “today you will be with me in paradise.”

Christ the King is the Good Shepherd, who shepherds the New Israel, the people of God, to true freedom.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Fiery End

(33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, C)

And so we come almost to the end of church year, and at the end of the year the Scriptures we proclaim always invite us to reflect on the “end times,” on the final destiny of creation.

In St. Luke’s apocalypse, which we have just heard, the end is a described as a time of great distress. It will be preceded by natural disasters like plagues and earthquakes, and even supernatural events like “awesome sights and signs in the sky.” The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, a genuine catastrophe in the history of people of God, provided St. Luke’s community with one way to look upon the utter and decisive change that the world was coming to: “there will not be left a stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”

Jesus’ words can be hard for us to interpret, as we live in a time when we hear unremitting reports of fires, earthquakes, and floods. The bad omens of global warming and new diseases hang over heads. Each day we hear about the wars for which no purpose or end can be imagined. But amid all this, we must listen to what the Lord says in the Gospel today. He says that these things “will lead to your giving testimony.”

All of the troubles and disasters and miseries that this world insists upon for itself, these are all our opportunity to give testimony, to become witnesses of God. Witnesses—in Greek, martyroi, martyrs—those who witness to the goodness and gentleness of God amid all the bad news that this world has to offer.

As the world approaches its end, its final fulfillment in the overwhelming love of God, this is our vocation as Christians. We are to give witness, to give testimony, to be signs that God is good and the destiny that God desires for the world is not something to be feared.

As John Paul II used to say, echoing the words of the Lord himself, “be not afraid!”

Yes, the world will end in fire, blazing live an oven, as the prophet Malachi tells us today. But what is this fire which will bring the world to its final destiny? It is certainly the fire of the Holy Spirit, the fire of God’s own passionate desire for our salvation.

And how could this fire hurt us? We’ve already been through it! As John the Baptist promised, someone was to come after him who would not baptize just with water, but “with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” (Luke 3:16) In our baptism, we have all passed through this fire, our sin and despair burned away and our hearts warmed by the “healing rays” of God’s justice.

And so when it comes to the end of the world, when all creation is consumed and brought to its final destiny in the burning passion of God, we have only to look forward in joyful anticipation to the fulfillment of the promises of the Baptism in the Holy Spirit we have all received.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Resurrection (and Jaws)

(32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, C)

The year of grace 2007 is beginning to come to a close, and we find ourselves once again at the end of the liturgical year. And at the end of the church year, the liturgy and the readings from Sacred Scripture always invite us to reflect on what will come at the end, the Last Things. Today the readings invite us into the primary mystery of our final destiny, the Resurrection. Though we aren’t sure about what it will be like—and this is clear from the Gospel we just heard—our Resurrected destiny ought to give us faith and courage, as it did for the seven brothers we heard about in the reading from 2 Maccabees.

Since the Resurrection is where we are going, since it is the new life to which we are looking forward, it is good for us to have a strong and intelligent idea of what we mean by the Resurrection.

Whenever we say anything about Resurrection, we are first of all talking about the Lord’s own Resurrection, his rising to new life that we celebrate every Easter and on each Sunday. But what do we mean by our Easter proclamation, “Christ is Risen”? Well, here’s one way to think about it—just go with me on this for a moment.

Do you remember the movie Jaws? Do you remember how Jaws is finally killed? Roy Scheider throws a tank of compressed air into the shark’s throat, and then shoots it with his gun. The tank of air explodes, blowing Jaws up. This is a little bit like what we mean by the Lord’s Resurrection. Jaws is like death, and the tank of pure air is like Jesus Christ.

Just as Jaws was able to partially swallow the tank of air, so in the human nature he borrowed from us, Jesus was able to be die, to be swallowed by death. But because Jesus Christ is also God, death can’t hold on to him. The power and love of God explode death from the inside; though he could be swallowed by death in his humanity, death could not hold on to Jesus Christ in his divinity. As the tank of compressed air blew up Jaws from the inside, so the divinity of Christ destroys death from the inside.

This is the Resurrection, and the good news for us is that there is now a path through death to new life, a path established by Jesus Christ in his humanity and divinity. And we are on this path to the Resurrection because of our baptism and because of the Holy Communion we celebrate in this Eucharist. This communion is the joining of Christ’s humanity to ours; the Mass is a celebration and ratification of the unity of our humanity—indeed our very bodies—with the humanity of Christ. And thus as the body of Christ was raised from the dead, so we too as the body of Christ which is the Church are on our way to Resurrection.

Now it’s true, we don’t know what our resurrected life will be like. That much is clear from the Gospel today, in which the Sadducees make all kinds of trouble because they are imagining our final, resurrected destiny in terms of the human society we have now. And Jesus gently reminds them, no, this is a whole new reality, and you can’t think of it in terms of the life and commitments we have in this life.

But even though we don’t really know what this “life of the world to come” we will be like, it can give us a lot of courage. Think of the seven brothers in the first reading today. They had no fear of death because they knew that God would provide new life for them on the other side of death. Thus, there was no suffering that could make them turn from God. Nothing could scare them. They were perfectly free.

Let us enjoy our freedom from the fear of death. It sets us free to live! Yes, every one of us will die. But we have no need to fear our death, because we know that Jesus Christ has passed through our human death ahead of us, taken away its power, and provided for us a safe path through our dying to the new life of the Resurrection.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Seeking the Lord

(31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, C)

Note how Luke describes Zacchaeus: he was “seeking to know who Jesus was.”

We should all find and cultivate a little of this desire, to want to see and to know Jesus. But we should be aware that when we do seek the Lord, there will be obstacles. As Zacchaeus had to climb a tree in order to see Jesus, sometimes we too will need to find a way to see over the crowd, to see through all the noise and nonsense of our culture. And sometimes, just like with Zacchaeus, the crowd will even try to stop us, telling us we aren’t worthy, or that it isn’t worth trying to see and get to know Jesus.

The good news is that as soon as we find the desire to see Jesus Christ, we realize his desire to see us. This too we see in the Gospel today. Remember the beginning: “Jesus came to Jericho and intended to pass through that town.” But as soon as Jesus sees that Zacchaeus wants to know who he is, everything changes. He goes from intending to pass through the town to saying to Zacchaeus, “today I must stay at your house.”

Let us also seek to see and know Jesus Christ, and we too will hear him in our hearts as he says, “Today, I stay with you.”

Saturday, October 27, 2007

How to Pray

(30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, C)

Last week we heard a parable about “the need to pray always without becoming weary.” You remember; it was the story of the persistent widow who gets a favorable decision from the unrighteous judge. So having heard about how we need to pray always, today we hear a parable about how we are to pray.

And we have a good example and a bad example. The Pharisee, as usual, is our negative example. First of all he thanks God that he’s not like other people, who are dishonest and adulterous. He even thanks God that he isn’t like the other man praying there. He knows he’s so good, and he let’s God know too, explaining how well he fasts and pays his tithes.

Not that these are bad things! If God has given us the gift of being religious, or of a desire for prayer, or of being generous, these are good things! But the problem with the Pharisee was that he appropriated these gifts to himself. Notice what the Lord says: the Pharisee spoke his prayer “to himself.” He was pleased and self-satisfied with how religious he was, as if it was his own property.

We religious people need to careful of this trap. We have the gift of faith and the gift of loving our Lord here in his Eucharist. But why us? Why does God seem to have given us the gift of faith but not others? Is it because we are better people than the unbelieving world out there? Is it because we are less of sinners than those who ignore God? On the contrary! We are greater sinners, because we do the same things and yet, because we believe God, should know better.

The righteousness and faith that we have in us is not ours—it is, in fact, the righteousness of God himself. This is the good news of this Eucharist; that we come into communion with God through Jesus Christ. Our lives become part of his, and his body becomes part of our body. That’s holy communion, and that’s how the righteousness of God comes to dwell within us.

So we never have any reason to boast in our prayer. Even that we are praying at all is the pure gift of the Holy Spirit of God praying within us. Knowing that prayer is a gift brings us to our positive example of prayer, the tax collector.

The tax collector would not even raise his face to heaven but only prays, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.” This is not false humility . He is, in fact, a sinner. And he prays the only way he can, for the mercy of God.

Brothers and sisters, as Ben Sira tells us in the first reading, God knows no favorites. Even the goodness of the greatest saints is as nothing before the overflowing goodness of God. And so none of us can boast of how holy we are, how good we are, how religious we are. We all belong in the same place as the tax collector, praying simply, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

But this sense of our own unworthiness shouldn’t make us discouraged or sad. For as Ben Sira also says in the first reading, it is exactly the prayer of the oppressed and lowly that God hears. So we ought to call out, oppressed by sin as we are both individually and as a society.

It is when we are able to pray in this way, from the heart, that we will find gratitude. For it is when we recognize our need for the mercy of God that we will appreciate our faith and our salvation in Christ. The one who doesn’t need anybody doesn’t appreciate anybody.But when we realize how much we need God, that’s when we truly find faith and gratitude.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Afraid of Getting a Black Eye

(29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, C)

Before anything else, we should note first that the parable Luke gives us today is rather humorous. Here’s this tough guy of a judge, who has no respect for anyone, even God, and this widow gets the better of him. She bothers and embarrasses him so much that he’s afraid she’s going to come give him a black eye. That’s the literal meaning of the phrase, “lest she finally come and strike me!” Can you imagine the dishonor this man feels at the prospect of being beat up by a little old lady?

But that’s the issue: honor. In the ancient world, widows were very vulnerable. That’s why, along with orphans, the prophets of the Scriptures always remind the people of God of their need to take care of them. This judge wasn’t living up to this obligation. But the widow shames him into giving her justice anyway.

So, if the persistence of this widow gets her a just decision even from this bad judge, how much more will our prayers help us to receive the justice of the one true Judge who is Justice itself, and whose honor is the joy and peace of his creation?

God’s desire is for justice and peace in our hearts, in our families, and in our world. By our persistent and faithful prayer, he will help us to accept the peace and joy he wants to give to the world. This is the point of the parable, as we heard at the beginning of the Gospel: the “necessity” to pray always, “without becoming weary.”

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Giving Thanks

(28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, C)

These ten lepers who approach the Lord on his way to Jerusalem in the Gospel today are, in many ways, a model for our own spiritual life.

How do they begin? At first they are calling out for his pity, standing at a distance. Of course they must remain far off, because their disease is considered to be contagious. In much the same way, our own diseases of sin, selfishness and indifference keep us at a distance from God. But we too can call out from our misery, “Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!”

And what is Jesus’ response? He says, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” Now according to the Law of Israel, it was up to the priests to examine people with skin conditions and decide whether they were lepers who had to be excluded from the community. Jesus invites the ten lepers to address their situation through the ordinary practice of their religious tradition.

In the same way, when we decide that we are sick of our misery and sin and we call out to the Lord for healing, he invites us into the plain, ordinary practices of faith. He calls us to enter into the life of his church and the life of his sacraments. Sure, we can say, “I have spirituality, but I don’t need this quote-unquote ‘organized religion.’” Trouble is, when we try to live a life in the Spirit—which is what “spirituality” is supposed to mean—without a community of faith and teaching, well, we will have nobody to challenge our ideas and nobody to correct our misperceptions. And so we will eventually find out that our so-called spirituality is really just another kind of vanity and self-service.

But let’s say we have avoided this trap, this danger that the marketers of home-made “spirituality” have put before us. Instead we have called out to the Lord and have followed his call to enter into the life of his Church. Indeed, all of us who are here for Sunday Eucharist have presumably done this. Good for us, no? We’re all set, right?

Well, almost. We’ve gone as far as the nine lepers who were healed but who didn’t return to the Lord to give thanks. We must never take what we are receiving here in the Eucharist for granted. And for us who attend to our religion day after day, year after year, it’s easy to do. That’s why we should always notice that in both the first reading and the Gospel today, it is the foreigner who remembers to return and give thanks to God. Sometimes it takes the enthusiasm of the convert or of the one who has been away from the Lord to remind us how tremendous the gifts of God have been in our lives.

We have this great grace in our lives because God himself has not only invited us into it, but given us the willingness to follow and accept it. And this ought to produce a prayerful attitude of gratitude within us. In this Naaman the Syrian from the first reading is a model for us.

After he was healed by following the advice of Elisha the prophet, what is his response? He asks for the two mule-loads of earth. He does this because he will build an altar out of them, because he now realizes that there is no god but the God of that place, of the land of Israel. Naaman’s response to what the God of Israel has done for him is to assume an attitude of grateful worship.

And this is what our Mass will be if we do it well. The word “Eucharist” is derived from the Greek verb “to give thanks.” It is celebration of thanksgiving to God.

Part of the purpose of practicing our religion is to challenge us into noticing the goodness of God. And when we do, we need, like Naaman, like the lone leper in the Gospel, to return to the Lord in our heart and thank him for the healing and peace he has worked in our lives. And if we do this, we too will hear the words that Jesus offers to the leper who came back: “your faith has saved you.”

May we too begin again to return to the Lord to say, ‘thank you.’

Saturday, October 6, 2007

What Do You Get Out Of This?

(27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, C)

One night when I was riding the subway up in Boston, during my theological studies, a man came up to me. Looking over my Franciscan habit, he asked, somewhat sarcastically I might add,

What do you get out of this?
Maybe it was because it was late and I was tired, but I responded with equal sarcasm:
I’m supposed to get something?
O.k., maybe it wasn’t my greatest moment of pastoral ministry or evangelization, but there’s some truth to it. In our consumer society, so based on individual gratification, the collecting of more and more things, thrills, pleasures, and comforts is a high value. So when the people of our time see us who try to live as disciples of the Lord, it’s natural that the first thing they should ask is, what are we ‘getting out of it?’

Even if we are supposed to get something out of this, do we deserve it? I know that in my life of trying to be a Christian, I haven’t even remotely begun to live up to the basic commandment Jesus gives, to love God with all our heart, and to love our neighbor as our own self. So what do I deserve, when I can’t even call myself the “unprofitable servant” from the gospel, who only did what he was supposed to do. I haven’t even done that! And if your life is anything like mine, you know what I’m talking about. Why should God be obliged to give us anything?

But the truth is that we get a lot out of this, not because we deserve it, but out of the overflowing goodness of God. We have received the eternal life that Jesus has won for us through his obedience to the Father. We have received forgiveness of sins, giving us the opportunity to walk in freedom from shame and guilt. And we have received the assurance that God has won the battle against violence and death, and that, for all of its despair and sin, the history of the world is going somewhere very, very good.

But because the people of our time have ceased, in large part, to be interested in spiritual things, they often fail to understand these great and deep blessings.

It’s also hard for us to understand that, though we taste these great blessings in our life of prayer and sacraments now, they are also a matter of hope for the future. Our culture doesn’t know about hope; it only knows right now. But as the prophet Habakkuk proclaims in the first reading today, the vision of God, that is, God’s dream for you and me and all of history, “presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint.” And as the prophet then says, “the just one, because of his faith,” will enjoy the promises of God.

That is what it means to have faith: to believe that God is true to his Word, and that God will accomplish what he has promised to the word. Maybe sometimes we feel like we don’t have a lot of faith, and like the apostles we pray for an increase in our faith. But often when we feel this way we don’t really want faith at all, but an increase in certainty. That’s because having utter certainty about God and his promises would relieve us of having to risk anything in giving ourselves to the Lord.

But God doesn’t give us that kind of certainty. God wants our faith instead. God wants us to take the risk of faith in giving ourselves to him, with whatever imperfect understanding we have. To take that risk makes our hearts vulnerable, and God wants us to accept the challenge of this vulnerability, because it will make us humble and open to him and to our brothers and sisters in their own sufferings and struggles.

Let us take the risk of faith, of taking God at his Word. And we don’t even need a lot of faith. Jesus assures us that just the smallest amount accomplishes wonders in this world.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Com-passion

(26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, C)

In order to start reflecting on the good news that Luke gives us today, we have to think back a few Sundays—thirty-two in fact—to the sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time when we heard Luke’s beatitudes and woes. Recall Luke’s first beatitude:

Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

And recall the first woe that goes with it:

But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

In today’s Gospel, in the story of the rich man and Lazarus, this beatitude and this woe come true. The rich man who enjoyed himself—all the while ignoring the needs of others—dies, is buried, and goes to his torment. But Lazarus the poor and sick man, neglected by those who could have helped, dies and is carried off to the “bosom of Abraham.”

The story illustrates for us the spiritual danger of riches. Riches can easily make people arrogant, and arrogance is the opposite of the fundamental virtue we are called to before God: humility. And this isn’t just the riches of material wealth! It could be riches of talent, of education, of class, of position in this world. It can even, as we know so well in our shallow culture, be the riches of something like good looks. Any of these forms of wealth and influence carry the danger of making us arrogant.

Look how arrogant the rich man in the Gospel is! Even after he dies and goes to his torment, he is still trying to boss the poor man around! He says to Abraham, ‘send that poor man down here to get me some water.’ Even after the warning of the beatitude and woe come true, he still thinks he’s better than Lazarus the poor man. He hasn’t learned his lesson. His arrogance has blinded him.

We must all be on guard against this kind of arrogance. In place of it we must cultivate sensitivity and humility. We need to pray for the willingness to see the poor who lie at the gates of our civilization. The prophet Amos accused the arrogant rich of his own time with not being upset about the “collapse of Joseph.” We too are called to be upset at the sin, violence, and suffering that is so common—and so needless—in our world. It’s like the old bumper sticker says,

If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.

But we need to be upset in such a way that we are led to action—to beginning to change our own hearts and to seek to change the world around us. And to do this we need God. For without God, the question of what to do about the poverty, hunger and wars of this world will leave us overwhelmed and paralyzed.

If we want to do something about poverty and suffering, if we want to learn compassion, we must look first to Jesus Christ who had compassion on us and suffers with us on the Cross. It is from him that we will learn how to act, how to “pursue righteousness” as Paul puts it in the second reading today.

God noticed the suffering and meaninglessness of death we had brought upon ourselves in our sins, and he sent his son to enter into our suffering and, rising from death, liberate us from it. In the same way, if we are to be true Christians, if we are to become the body of Christ we receive in this Eucharist, we must notice the suffering and poverty around us, and seek to do something about it.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Radix Bonorum

(25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, C)

Many times I’ve heard people say that they hate hearing sermons about money. But in this Mass we have no choice, because that’s what the Scriptures are about today. In the prophet Amos, we heard about some of the dangers and injustices that arise from money. In the Gospel we heard about the so-called “dishonest steward,” who, oddly enough, ends up being a good example of how we should behave wit the resources of this world.

The prophet Amos is very strong in his condemnation of those who abuse and take financial advantage of the poor. As a prophet, he has intense sympathy with the hurt that God feels on account of such injustice.

Amos paraphrases the thoughts of the oppressors who look forward to the end of the Sabbath that they can do more of their crooked business. They are so greedy that even the weekly rest of the Sabbath has become an unwelcome annoyance.

And we hardly need to do any fancy interpretation on Amos’s words. Our world isn’t much different. Economic injustices such as the gap between rich and poor, the enduring legacy of race and class privilege here in the United States, these sins are deep scars upon God’s creation. And they break out into further problems and occasions of injustice: war, migration, cycles of domestic violence and drug abuse.

Each and every one of us needs to have a consciousness of the need for economic justice, and to examine our conscience about our complicity in sins against the poor. As Amos puts it, God does not forget sins committed against them.

In contrast to the stern warnings of Amos, in the Gospel we have a parable of someone who used money well. It’s somewhat humorous too. This so-called “dishonest steward” is about to lose is job managing his master’s accounts. But before he’s fired, he goes, and, “cooking the books,” reduces the debts of two of his master’s business partners. By this little ruse, the steward accomplishes two things: First, he makes friends with his master’s debtors, so that, once he is out of a job, he has some friends to call on! Second, he makes his master look like a generous and kind man in the community. In business, that’s often worth just as much, if not more, than money.

In contrast to the merchants that Amos describes as robbing the poor and destroying community, the dishonest steward uses money to create and reinforce relationships in the community. He makes friends for when he falls on hard times, and he makes his master look good in the process.

And there’s a moral for us in this. We too ought to use whatever it is that we have—whether it be wealth, or the wealth of talent or time—not to build up just ourselves in selfishness, but to create relationships and build up community. Whatever it is we have, we need to be stewards of what God has given us in such a way as to build up the body of Christ. Yes, it’s a little altruistic, but it’s also practical. If we have used what we have to build relationships, we will have friends when we find ourselves without it.

Our model in all this is the Son of God himself. He had the greatest wealth of all—his divinity. And yet, as Paul tells us, he didn’t consider his divinity something to be clutched to himself. Instead, in the most perfect act of generosity there has ever been, he poured out his divinity into our humanity and became one of us. And he continues to let go of all that it means to be God by pouring his blood out in this Eucharist for the forgiveness of sins.

Let us take our Lord as our model, and pour out whatever treasure we have for the reconciliation of the world.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

What God is Like

(24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, C)

We have in the first reading today the consequences of what, in my interpretation, is the worst sin in all the Sacred Scriptures. Yes, I know, there’s our first parents who ate from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge, but they were tricked, after all! But when the children of Israel got Aaron—who should have known better—to make the golden calf for them to worship, that was all on them.

God was very angry, and God resolved to destroy the people and to make a fresh start with just Moses. But Moses convinces God to change his mind. How? What strategy does Moses take in getting God to repent from his decision to destroy the people?

Does Moses say, “God, the people are really sorry, and it won’t happen again.” No. Does he say, “They’re going to put their mind to it, and really try to do better.” No. In fact, the tack that Moses takes in convincing God to spare the people has nothing to do with the people at all! It has everything to do with what God is like.

Moses says, “Remember you servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and how you promised to make of them a great nation, powerful, and more numerous than the stars in the sky or the sand on the shore of the sea.” Moses reminds God that he is a God whose good purpose in human history is not to be stopped by human sin or by our consistent failure to respond well. And God spares the people.

Moses’ intercession works because he knows what God is like. He knows that God is faithful in his covenant, and refuses to be foiled by human sin.

In the same way, if we desire to have a healthy spirituality, we need some idea of what God is like. It seems obvious, but there are a lot of unhealthy images of God out there—and in here. This is critical, because, as the letter of John tells us, no one has even seen God. In fact, if we have the courage to bring our ideas out into the sober light of day, it’s pretty hard to even know what we even mean by an utterance like “God.” What—or better, Who—are we talking about when we say, “God”?

This is why it is important for us to take our ideas of what God is like from divine revelation—from the Scriptures. And in this, a Gospel like we have today is very beautiful and useful.

The Pharisees from the Gospel had a certain idea of God as pure, holy, and righteous. And this is quite true. But their problem was in their next logical step: since God is pure, holy, and righteous, then he is the God of the pure, holy, and righteous. And this isn’t exactly the case.

But this is why they complain when Jesus receives sinners and welcomes them to table. In response Jesus offers two beautiful images of God: the diligent shepherd and the woman caring for her house.

God is like the shepherd who seeks after the sheep that has wandered off. God is like the woman sweeping her house, looking for the lost coin—and the valuable coin is our soul.

It changes our idea of what repentance means, no? Sometimes we have the idea that if we have sinned or drifted away from God or from prayer or from our faith entirely, well, then we need to somehow claw our way back. We need to return to prayer, return to the diligent practice of our religion, and once we have done this, we will be acceptable to God again. The images of God in the Gospel today turn all of that on its head. When we drift away it is God who is looking for us! Repentance is not our turning back to God but our allowing ourselves to be found.

Let’s imagine ourselves as the lost coin. We’re under the couch or something, in the dark because of our distractions from God. We’re a bit dusty and tarnished because of our sins. But here comes God the little old lady sweeping the house. And she finds the coin, smiles, picks it up, dusts it off, and holds it to her heart. This is the same way God will behave with us if we only pray for the willingness to be found.

And what will be the response when the coin—our souls—are found? The woman calls her friends and neighbors and has a party. So let’s give heaven a chance to rejoice, and allow ourselves to be found by the God who seeks us, especially when we are lost.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Francis and the Sultan


(23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: my first Mass)

Just in case there’s anybody here who doesn’t think divine Providence has a sense of humor, for my first Mass I get this gospel: “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother…he cannot be my disciple.” Fortunately for me, my parents aren’t here this morning; they will be at another Mass closer to home.

Nevertheless, Jesus’ words to us are shocking. Did not God create the family when he commanded our first parents to “be fruitful and multiply”? Did not Jesus himself teach us to call God “Our Father,” thus revealing that the structure of the family, which is so basic to our human society, has its origins in God himself?

So how are we to understand it when the Lord tells us to hate our families? First of all, we must interpret them in the context of the honor-shame culture that Jesus came from, rather than in the world we live in—one in which our concept of love and hate has been so influenced by the sentimentality of greeting cards and the easy-to-solve problems of sitcom families.

When Jesus says that we must hate our parents and families if we want to be his disciples, we should understand this “love” and “hate” in terms, not of feelings, but of priorities, of obligations, and of our social behavior. In the starkest possible way, Jesus is simply asking us, to whom do we give our first priority? To whom are we obligated in this world in the first place?

And the answer is clear: we must, first of all, give our love and allegiance to the God whom Jesus reveals. We must put God first. To put God ahead of all human prejudice and sin is only the first step. Jesus invites us to put our love of God before any human relationship or institution. But this never means than we forget or don’t love the people God has so graciously put in our lives! On the contrary! God is love, after all. But when we put God first, it is only then that we will learn how to love everyone else.

For me, Francis of Assisi is my hero in this. You’ll notice him on the souvenir holy card I had prepared for this Mass. The other man in the icon is the sultan Al-Kamil, brother of the more famous Saladin. Francis met him when he went on one of the Crusades. Francis was hoping to be martyred, but it didn’t work out. Instead, after trying to convert the sultan, Al-Kamil refused to carry out the required death sentence on Francis. Why?

I believe that the sultan was able to perceive that Francis simply loved God. Francis had no motive of human accomplishment or vanity in trying to convert the sultan. Francis didn’t see him as an enemy, or an infidel, or even a danger. He only loved God and wanted to share it. And that, my friends, as this story shows, breaks down even the burning violence of human war and the crippling entropy of human prejudice. The courage to love God first gave both Francis and the sultan the power to overcome, between the two of them, for a brief moment, one of the most enduring and damaging scars upon our Christian history—and one with a legacy with which we still suffer today.

If we too put God first, he will teach us, as he taught Francis, not only how to love our parents and our children, but also to love those whom the world tells us are our enemies. But if we try to love each other without reference to the God who is love, we will succeed in loving only partially. As our first reading from the book of Wisdom puts it today, our plans are timid on their own, and our choices unsure. We grasp the truth only with difficulty. If we are to love fully we need God.

So thanks be to God that in Jesus Christ and in this, the Eucharist he left us, God wills to become graspable by us! This means that the perfect love and truth that is God becomes available to us on our terms—as a human being, and as food our journey. So Let us approach this altar with joy and take his presence in this Eucharist into ourselves, become his disciples first of all, and learn how to love each other with a love that can change us, change the world, and even change history.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Banquet to Come

(21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, C)

On his way to Jerusalem someone asks Jesus, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?”

And this is a question that is somewhere inside all of us, because at the heart of the question is the real concern: will I be saved? Will those I love be saved?

As often happens, Jesus doesn’t answer the question directly. Instead of giving a simple response, Jesus offers us an image, a promise, and a warning.

The image is one of the most appealing and beautiful descriptions of the fullness of kingdom of God. Jesus describes heaven in terms of the banquet. He says, “People will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and recline at table in the kingdom of God.” Imagine it as a big and grand wedding reception, in which everyone is happy for the love and faith they are celebrating. This is the communal joy of the “life of the world to come” we proclaim each Sunday in the creed, and it is the fruit of the great announcement of the Resurrection we hear each year in the Easter Proclamation: “heaven is wedded to earth, and the world is reconciled with God.”

Jesus promises us that this great banquet, this happy and eternal destiny which is ours in Christ, is not only for a few. It is not for a select group, or an exclusive club. This is because salvation is not based on human ideas of righteousness or on our notions of worthiness or religion, but on God’s intense desire to give every good thing to anyone who will accept it.

This promise of Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah that we heard in the first reading. Isaiah looks forward in faith and proclaims the thoughts and desire of God: “I come to gather nations of every language; they shall come to see my glory. I will set a sign among them.” And the sign set among the nations is Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord, who raises up our humanity—yours and mine—and makes it part of the inner life of God. And this is the great good news to which Isaiah is witnessing when he imagines “brothers and sisters of all nations” coming to the Lord in a great parade of chariots and horses.

Yet, amid all this joy and promise, Jesus also offers us a warning. In today’s Gospel he also describes those who are excluded from the great banquet of heaven--those who are left outside, peeking in at the joy of the patriarchs, prophets, and saints—and who, despite thinking that they were righteous or religious or worthy, find themselves being told, ‘Depart from me, I do not know where you are from.’

This is a very frightening prospect, but it is a possibility. The beautiful and generous salvation of God is something we can lose. How do we avoid this awful possibility? The author of the Letter to the Hebrews, as we heard in the second reading, recommends to us that we need to accept the discipline of the Lord.

Now when we use the word “discipline,” it conjures up bad images for us—like being put in ‘time out’ or being hit with a ruler or whatever. But that’s not what the Scripture means at all. Discipline just means the acceptance of someone’s teaching. It is discipline that makes someone a disciple.

The discipline that will make us the Lord’s disciples is the daily listening, in prayer and in everything else, to the inner guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit will help us to discern God’s will, and will remind us that every joy and experience of love and care in this life is a foretaste of our happy destiny in the banquet of heaven.

Let’s accept the discipline of the Lord and become his disciples. By doing so we will ensure our own salvation and we will help to fulfill God’s great desire and dream—to bring the whole world to the great banquet that will celebrate the marriage of heaven and earth in Christ.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Away on Pilgrimage

I'm leaving for pilgrimage soon, so I'll be (gratefully!) off the grid for a while. If I get a chance to post, I will. Otherwise, I'll be back around the middle of August.

I'm going to Assisi, Rome, San Giovanni Rotondo, and some other places of Capuchin significance.

Pray for me and my brother pilgrims!

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Good Samaritan

(15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, C)

Today, friends, we have St. Luke’s beautiful parable of the Good Samaritan. It’s a very rich parable and it deserves some sustained reflection. And one classic way to enter into Jesus’ parables is to imagine ourselves as one of the characters in the story, immersing ourselves in the feelings and spiritual insight of the experience. And so I’d like to try that today.

So let us imagine ourselves as the wounded man, for we are all wounded. We are bodies that are subject to decay, disease and eventually death. We are souls that are often compromised by our selfishness, shortsightedness and sin. In all of these things we experience ourselves as very limited in this world: sometimes frustrated, often anxious, sometimes depressed.

Who can save us from this wretched situation, as we lie hurt on the side of the road, often unable to move forward with our lives in every way we feel we should? Well, back to the story:

Who comes by first as we lie there half-dead? It’s the priest. But can the priest save us? No, the priest walks right by. The clergy, if we’re good, we might be able to point the way, but we can’t save anyone. Only God can do that. Who comes by next? It’s the Levite, the servant of God’s Temple. He represents the practice of religion. Can this save us? Will we be saved by our many prayers or devotions or religious practices? No, these can’t save us either, because salvation can never be earned—it is always a free and unmerited gift. The Levite walks right by us too—he can’t help our wounded situation.

But then someone comes by who has a compassion big enough to save us. It’s the Good Samaritan, an outsider, someone from somewhere else. It’s Jesus Christ, the human being who is also God, the Word of the Father made flesh. It is he who can save us, he who can tend our wounds. This is one of the deeper meanings of the parable: that the Good Samaritan is Jesus Christ himself.

So how does he save us? First he soothes our wounds with oil. This is the anointing of our baptism and our confirmation, both of which claim and mark us for Christ. He then pours wine on our wounds, disinfecting them. This is the Precious Blood of Christ that is the wine of this Eucharist—which we receive and which heals the wounds of sin and sadness in our hearts.

Then, having tended our hurts the Good Samaritan takes us to an inn where we may rest and recuperate. And this inn is the Church, brothers and sisters. Some people think the Church is a club for self-righteous saints. No—in the variously attributed quote, the Church is a “hospital for sinners.”

Thus, our wounds tended, finding ourselves in the safety of the inn, the Good Samaritan promises to tend to us again on his return journey. In the same way, as we proclaim in every Mass, “Christ will come again,” to bring us along in his journey back to the Father.

Now if we are even a little bit grateful for all this—that Jesus has come to us in our wounded state, soothed and disinfected our injuries, brought us to a place of safety and security, and promised to collect us on his way back to the Father—if we are at all grateful, there is only one appropriate response. And it’s the one Jesus himself gives after telling the parable: “go and do likewise.”

And this means that we who have been treated with such mercy and compassion by God should join in with God’s work in the world. As Jesus has been such a good neighbor to all of us, so we are called to be neighbor to all we see in need. And if we respond generously, we will join God is the great and divine work of healing, soothing, and making this world a place of safety. Let us “go and do likewise.”

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Lambs among Wolves

(14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, C)

We continue today, friends, on the journey we began last week. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and he sends his disciples ahead of him to proclaim the arrival of the kingdom of God. This is us, brothers and sisters! In our hearing of this gospel, we too are sent by the Lord to proclaim his kingdom to all who have ears to hear. This is our call, this is our vocation, and this is our God-given mission.

And as the Lord sends us out as the laborers for the great harvest of God’s kingdom, well, there’s good news…and there’s challenging news.

Let’s take the good news first. For one thing, this mission we have all received requires no more preparation or equipment than each of us already has. Jesus sends his disciples forth with nothing—no money, no bag. All they needed was the grace of God and the path that the Spirit of God would show them. And it’s the same with us. In order to follow the Lord we don’t need a degree, or an office, or a religious habit. All anyone needs is a little desire to be faithful to God. Nothing more. In fact, we are always sent with nothing so that we might possess God alone and depend only on him for everything we need. Rejoice then! You already have everything you need to live a life of perfect discipleship in Christ.

And God promises every good thing to those who follow him and let themselves be sent to proclaim his kingdom. As the prophet Isaiah proclaims in the first reading today, God “will spread prosperity over Jerusalem like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing torrent.” And this promise is ours as the heirs of all the promises God made to his people in the old covenant—as Paul says in the second reading today, we are the “Israel of God;” we who believe in Jesus as the Son of God are the New Jerusalem. And as we gather here as God’s people, as the “Israel of God” and as the New Jerusalem growing in the world, the prosperity of God’s grace flows over us in this Eucharist—the Precious Blood of Christ poured out in the new and eternal covenant.

So that’s the good news in our call to be disciples: we have all we need for the journey, and God will bless us abundantly in it. But there is also challenging news.

As Jesus himself admits in today’s gospel, sometimes people don’t want to hear our message. Sometimes we and our message of peace will not be received. And we all know this. The world around us, so driven by competition and greed, often does not want to hear the gospel. Dominated by the fear of terrorism and the crime of pre-emptive war, they don’t want to hear about the dignity of the human being. Committed to a culture of convenience and abortion, they don’t want to hear about the gospel of life that we Christians proclaim.

And we can all expect to experience difficulty, rejection, misunderstanding and all kinds of trouble as we fulfill our mission as disciples who proclaim the kingdom of God.

St. Paul was no stranger to this. In many places he catalogues the sufferings he endured for the sake of the Gospel: beatings, imprisonments, shipwrecks. And he points to what he endured in the second reading today when he says, “let no one make troubles for me, for I bear the marks of Jesus on my body.”

The word translated “marks” is stigmata. And we all know about the saints who had the stigmata like St. Francis or Padre Pio. They shared in the wounds of Christ. And yet Paul points out to us today that the sufferings he endured for the sake of Gospel mark him out as belonging to Jesus Christ.

And again, it is the same with us. Every suffering, every rejection, every misunderstanding that we suffer in our effort to follow the Lord and to proclaim his kingdom—these are all way in which we share in the very sufferings of Christ. In this Eucharist we receive the Body of Christ and we become what we receive. Our sufferings become his, and his become ours. Everything difficult we go through marks us for Jesus as our stigmata, our sharing in the sufferings of Christ. When we take up our cross, the Lord makes it his own.

And we know by faith that within the cross is the path to the new life of the Resurrection—a new heaven and new earth. Let us allow ourselves to be sent on our journey toward them today.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Priorites

(13 Sunday in Ordinary Time, C)

“Lord, let me go first and bury my father,” but Jesus answered him, “Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God

These are strong words that we have from Jesus today. And as I reflected upon how we might understand them, I was reminded of someone I met once. I spent one of my summers when I was in college volunteering down in Appalachian coal country, and one of the things I did was pay visits to the older folks who often lived alone and weren’t able to get out much. I would see how they were doing, and if they needed anything. It was certainly never boring. One day I would be helping with the canning of tomatoes or cabbage and on another I was invited to throw rocks at the wood-pile to “scare away them snakes.”

In the course of my adventures I met a wonderful older woman named Ocie. That’s O-C-I-E. Ocie had recently lost her husband, so I went to see her to see how she was doing. When I asked her how she was doing with her grief, she said to me:

“Young man, it was sad to see him go, but I’m not too troubled.”

“Oh?” I said. She continued,

“’Well, before my husband died I asked him a question. I said, who do you love more, me or the good Lord’? And he said, ‘Well, Ocie, I love you, but I reckon I love the good Lord more.’”

Ocie was delighted with this answer! She said,

“When I knew my husband loved the good Lord more than me, I knew I would be with him again in heaven.”

Now this is an expression of a simple faith, but I think it can help us to understand what God demands of us as disciples of Jesus Christ. It’s not that in order to follow Jesus we have to leave everyone we love behind, but that when we put God first the way we relate to them will be transformed by grace. It can help us understand the Lord’s words that “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.”

It’s not as if in order to follow Jesus we need to run away to the desert or abandon our families or jobs. Because once we put God first, the way we love and work will be made new by grace. So when we return from prayer to our daily life, we’re not looking back, but looking forward to the kingdom of God, because the way we will do even the plainest things will be lifted by the light of grace.

Look at the prophet Elisha. Yes, his life was radically changed by the call to become a prophet of Israel. He even destroys the plow and oxen that were his livelihood. But what does he do with them? He cooks the animals, using the plow as fuel, and feeds the people he leaves behind. The call of God never leaves anyone abandoned.

Take the Lord’s own words as another example, “let the dead bury their dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Being Christians doesn’t mean that we should ignore the needs of those we love while they are alive, or not bury them with dignity when they leave us. But once we put the kingdom of God first, once we make it our first priority in life to have the love of God reign in our hearts and minds, we will no longer care for those we love or bury those who die in the same way.

In fact, once we put God first, the love with which we love those around us becomes part of God’s love—and thus we touch the caring and gentle Mystery at the heart of all reality. Once we put God first, though we might seem to be burying the dead, we are actually just saying goodbye to those who are being born ahead of us into eternal life. So when we grieve for our loved ones who have passed on, we are not the dead burying the dead, but the living who suffer with a brief separation from the living. The way we remember those who have passed from this world ought to reflect our faith in the eternal life we have in Christ, the eternal life of which this Eucharist is like a sample taste.

And to live this way is freedom from sin and selfishness, as Paul points out in the second reading. Because when we put God first, everything else we do becomes a little part of what God is doing in the world. And in God there is no misery or evil. In the inner life of God there is only peace and gentleness and joy. And this life is ours through the humanity of Christ, through the Body of Christ we receive and we become at this Eucharist. So let us follow receive the Body of Christ and follow the Lord into the peace of his kingdom. Amen.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

John the Baptist

This past Thursday we had the longest day of the year—with just over fifteen hours of sunlight. For the rest of the year, until we celebrate the great feast of Christmas, we will lose a little bit of that light each day. And so it’s fitting that this Sunday we celebrate John the Baptist, who proclaimed that he had to decrease that Christ, the light of the world, could increase. John came not as the Light, but as witness to the true Light, Jesus Christ.

John the Baptist is the hinge that connects the Old Covenant with the New. He is the last and greatest of the prophets of Israel, and yet, his main role in the history of God’s salvation is to be the forerunner of Christ. For as the Gospel teaches us, in Jesus we have a prophet, and yes, more than a prophet.

By fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah: “Prepare the way of the Lord…make straight a highway for our God,” John the Baptist sets up the means by which God will make the promises made to the little nation of Israel the inheritance of all the peoples of the world.

For in Christ, all of the promises made to Noah, to Abraham, to Moses, and to David…all these promises burst out and become the hope of all the earth. Indeed, as Paul says in the second reading today, it was to the family of Abraham that “the word of salvation has been sent.” But it is in Christ that the first reading, the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled: that the people of Israel would be made a “light to the nations,” that God’s “salvation might reach to the ends of the earth.”

God promised to Abraham that he would be a great nation, and that God would settle him in a land of peace and prosperity. In Christ this promise becomes our own as heirs and citizens of the kingdom of God. No, it’s not a kingdom like the ones of this world, but it is a place we are to cultivate in our hearts, our families, and our communities, that, like John the Baptist, we may prepare a place for the Lord in this world.

Every Christian shares in the vocation of John the Baptist, as the forerunner of the Lord. Quoting the Gospel of John, the entrance antiphon for today’s Mass puts it quite simply: “There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came to bear witness to the Light, to prepare an upright people for the Lord.” All of us who know Christ are sent in the same way. We are to bear witness to the presence of God in the world, so that we may share in the raising up—the Resurrection—of this world in Christ.

Recall another line from John’s Gospel—one that we proclaim in every Mass as we prepare to receive Holy Communion. When John saw Jesus he announced, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”

We share in this ministry of pointing out the Lamb of God! Sometimes people call this “naming grace.” It’s simply the practice of noticing that God is at work in the world. And it’s a practice we need, because the world is largely ignorant of God, and even we ourselves with all of our busyness and chatter often miss the presence of God.

Think about it. Even in the most war-torn and troubled places on earth people still insist on falling in love with each other. How can this be? Because the presence of God—who is love—is more powerful than any of the suffering we inflict on each other with our sins. Wherever there is compassion, wherever there is gentleness, forgiveness, and care, we know that it is the pure grace of the loving Mystery we call God.

It is up to us to imitate John the Baptist by naming this grace, by proclaiming to the world that the love of God is in its midst, especially when people don’t know it. In this ministry each one of us fulfills our vocation as forerunners of the Lord, as those who prepare a path for God in the world.

(Nativity of John the Baptist, Mass during the day)

Saturday, June 16, 2007

How to be a Sinner

This past Lent I was invited to help with a day of recollection at one of our parishes in Manhattan. The focus was on St. Francis’ Prayer before the Crucifix, and the line I was given to speak on was the one in which Francis prays, “enlighten the darkness of my heart.” Now you can only make such a prayer if you have and are aware of some darkness inside. So I asked the people I was working with, “Is there anybody here who sometimes has some darkness in their heart?” Well, every hand in the place went up, and mine too!

Everyone can relate to a consciousness of sin. We can all say with confidence, “I am a sinner.” Now I haven’t had the chance to meet all of you here at Sacred Heart, but I doubt that many of us here are sinners with the intensity of the great king David, who was not only adulterous, but who also made himself a murderer in order to commit adultery. But we can all identify with the words that God speaks to David in the first reading: “Look at everything I have done for you. Why have you spurned the Lord and done evil in his sight?”

Yes, even the saints know that their great holiness is inadequate when it is compared to the burning and intense generosity of God. The love and mercy of God are so overwhelming that they always make us look lukewarm and more aware of our faults.

But our confession before God that we are sinners begs another spiritual question: What do we do with this awareness?

The easiest thing to do is to be ashamed. This is the answer on the human level. We feel like we have sinned against God, so we stay away from God, stay away from prayer, stay away from communion with Body of the Lord here in the Eucharist.

This is the certainly the response that Simon the Pharisee expected of the sinful woman in today’s Gospel. There he was, hosting a nice dinner party with respectable people and entertaining this local celebrity, Jesus of Nazareth. And then his party is crashed by this woman who was known to be a public sinner. You can almost hear him saying to her, “Get out my house, and go back in the street where dirty people like you belong. Can’t you see this is a man of God! Have some respect! A sinner like you shouldn’t approach the great teacher.”

But Jesus explains to Simon the Pharisee how he has it all wrong. Jesus points out how the sinful woman showed much more love than Simon, the decent, respectable, religious man. And with the simple parable of the two debtors Jesus explains why she loved more: the one who is forgiven more will love that much more.

And this is what we must do. When we are aware of our sinfulness it ought not to discourage us. We shouldn’t let it make us stay away from prayer or from this Eucharist. When we are aware of our sinfulness it ought to make us more grateful for the forgiveness of sins that God has accomplished in Christ. The more we are aware of how much we have been forgiven, the more we will love in return.

So let’s give thanks that we begin every Eucharist with an invitation from the priest to “call to mind our sins.” Because is we do this well, it will make us more grateful for our Savior and will make us love the Eucharist even more. On this altar the Precious Blood of the Lord is poured out, precisely for the forgiveness of sins. And this life-giving and renewing Blood washes over us. As the author of the book of Revelation puts it, we are washed and made clean in the Blood of the Lamb.

Let us confidently approach the throne of grace today, knowing that we are sinners. We shouldn’t be happy about our sins, but we should be grateful for the knowledge that we are sinners. Our role model today, the sinful woman, shows us how this knowledge will make us love God even more.

(11th Sunday in Ordinary Time, C)

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Farewell

Friends, I’m especially grateful to our pastor Fr. Joseph, for the chance to preach today, on my last weekend here at St. Anne-St. Augustin. The friars have assigned me to our parish in Yonkers, New York, where your own pastor’s predecessor, Fr. John, is pastor. I will be moving there in the coming days. Thanks to your prayers, I will eventually serve there as priest.

Preaching today gives me the chance, even though I have been with you only a short time, to tell you how and why I am grateful for the opportunity to have prayed and walked and broken open the Word of God with you over these past nine months.

As I thought about how I could express my thanks to you, the people of this parish, I thought—just trust me on this one—I might start with original sin.

I say this because I think one of the most debilitating consequences of original sin is our frequent inability to notice what is good in us. Instead of rejoicing and being grateful for our good points and the things we have accomplished through cooperation with the grace of God, we often tend to focus instead on our faults, on our failures, on the things about us that aren’t quite as they should be. And this goes both for us as individuals and as communities.

Therefore it is a great grace to have in our lives people who will remind us of how good we are. We all need folks around us to remind us the action of grace in our lives. That’s part of what friends are for. I know personally that it’s one of the great things about having my religious brothers. Though I don’t have the experience myself, I imagine that this is one of the graces of marriage as well, to have someone who will quietly insist to us that we are irresistibly loveable, even though, sometimes, we can hardly believe it ourselves.

So, as I finish up my time here, I want to try to do exactly this for you. In case you don’t see it, and in case it would be good to be reminded, I want to tell you, from the point of view of one visitor to your parish, what it is that makes this place so loveable and so graced by the Holy Spirit of God.

Now I’ve spent just about my whole life in the Order in multicultural and multi-lingual parishes. Even when I was a novice among the cornfields of Wisconsin, there were old folks in church on Sunday speaking to each other in German. In both New York and Boston I have served in parishes with a Spanish-speaking majority. So I’ve been around the multicultural block, as it were.

Now nobody knows how to do this multicultural thing real well. It’s awkward, almost by definition. And yet, here, in this place, I have seen, more than anywhere else I have ever been, the willingness to risk, to try, and experiment, and to learn.

In most places, different language and cultural communities are happy to co-exist. But you are doing more—reaching out to each other, hearing each other’s stories, praying with each other to the one God. And I want to tell you today that this is a tremendous grace that you have going for you here. It’s a hopeful stab at the unity that is God’s own desire and dream, not only for little parish of St. Anne-St. Augustin, but for the whole world. This is the very prayer of the Lord himself in today’s gospel, that all might be one as he and the Father are one. Rejoice and be grateful for your hope-filled response to God’s own dream of unity!

Recall the visions of the prophet Isaiah that we hear so much during Advent. Isaiah prophesied that all nations would come streaming to God’s blessings. And as we know, this hope is fulfilled for us in Christ. In Christ, the promises made to the little nation of the Israelites become the hope of all peoples of all times. And the final fulfillment of these prophecies comes in our second reading today, as people from all nations, having washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb, enter through the Tree of Life—the Cross—into the New Jerusalem.

What I want to tell you today is that when you gather here for the Eucharist, and especially when people of different cultures and languages—all the nations of the world, as it were—process up to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, to affirm and receive communion with the Lord and with one another, these words of the prophets and these visions of Revelation are being fulfilled here and now. Rejoice and be glad, for this is the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God is here.

If the prophet Isaiah were here today, I have no doubt he would praise God to see the fulfillment of his vision of different cultures streaming to the Lord’s blessings. And if John, the author of Revelation, were to see the communion procession of the people of God here at St. Anne-St. Augustin, I have no doubt that he would rejoice, and see in you his vision of the saints processing into the New Jerusalem.

So, be grateful to God for the work of the Spirit in this place. Your faith and willingness are answering the Lord’s own prayer for the unity of those who believe. And for my part, I want to thank you for the chance to meet you and to be edified by your faith. I go forth better for having known you, and encouraged in the Lord. Thank you.

(7th Sunday of Easter, C, Last Sunday at St. Anne-St. Augustin)

Saturday, May 12, 2007

My Peace I Give You

It’s hard to believe that we are already coming near to the end of the Easter season. Easter is the longest of the privileged liturgical seasons, but it seems to go by the fastest.

And as we come to these last Sundays of Easter, we’re aware of a real shift that has occurred in our celebration of the Easter mystery. At the beginning of Easter we recalled with joy the Resurrection appearances. We celebrated the fact that the Lord is risen from the tomb.

But in these later Sundays, we celebrate the mysteries of how the presence of the Risen Lord is with us now. This started in earnest two weeks ago on Good Shepherd Sunday, when we heard about how the presence of Jesus continues to guide and lead us in our lives. Last Sunday we celebrated the new commandment to “love one another” as Jesus Christ has loved us.

Today we hear of another great gift and presence of the Risen Lord among us: Peace. Jesus, as he is preparing his disciples for the coming of the Holy Spirit, tells them not be troubled or afraid—he is giving them the gift of peace. And we have that beautiful expression that we use in every Eucharist as we prepare ourselves for Holy Communion: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.”

The active, positive presence of peace wherever it is found, whether it be among friends, within families, or among nations, it is a “real presence” of Jesus Christ, Resurrected and risen anew for the new life of the world.

But notice! The Lord makes a critical distinction when he makes this gift of his peace. He says that he gives us his peace, but “not as the world gives do I give it to you.” So what’s the difference between the peace the world gives and the peace that is the presence of Jesus among us?

Here’s an example of the so-called peace that the world gives. When I was in college I had a girlfriend, and, as sometimes happens, her mother did not approve of me. And one day, she took me aside, and here’s what she said: “Charles, my daughter will love you no matter what you do. But I won’t. Therefore, you might as well do what I say because then you will be pleasing to us both.”

She was offering me a peace treaty, and you can’t argue with the logic. But it’s the peace the world gives, the cheap peace that says, “You and I can be at peace, as soon as you come around to thinking and acting the way I think you should.” And we do this kind of thing to each other all the time, and we mistakenly call it peace. When politicians announce peace at the end of a war, it’s not the real peace that is God’s gift, but simply the fact that one group of people has succeeded in forcing another around to their way of doing things, their way of using resources, or their form of government.

This happens in religion too, as is painfully evident in the first reading today. In the apostolic Church there were struggles between the older, Jewish Christians, and the newer converts, who had not been Jews. And as we heard, the original, Jewish Christians were trying to say that theirs was the only way of being a Christian. They said: it’s great that you gentiles want to be disciples of Jesus Christ, but you have to do it our way.

So thank God for Paul and Barnabas, who had the courage of the Spirit to say that were not going to hold back the grace of God by saying that there was only one way of being a Christian. Without denying the beauty and validity of Jewish Christianity, they found compromises that allowed others to come to the Lord as well. They found a way to make peace.

Too often we let ourselves be tricked into thinking that peace is a kind of absence. We think of peace as the absence of conflict, or as the absence of any difficulties or problems that interfere with our own plans and needs.

Real peace, the peace that is Jesus’ gift to us and is his risen presence among us, is so much more than that. It is a powerful and active force, bubbling up like a leaven for the renewal of all creation. It is the power that can make us brave enough to forgive each other. And it will encourage us to risk the vulnerability that lets us ask for and accept forgiveness for the many ways we have hurt those around us.

“My peace I leave you, my peace I give to you.” Let us rejoice in the Risen Lord’s gift of peace, the peace that, should we accept it, will break our cycles of violence and revenge, and will re-create the world according to the “original blessing” that is the very happiness of God.

(6th Sunday of Easter, C)