Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Life of the World to Come

Today we have one of the most beautiful images from John’s gospel: Jesus the Good Shepherd. Jesus assures us that through him, we can never be taken out of God the Father’s loving and caring hand, and that in Jesus we are given the great gift of eternal life.

It is Jesus himself who leads us to our destiny. As our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles puts it today, “All who were destined for eternal life came to believe.” Think about what that means—it’s not that we believe and then come to have eternal life, but that it is because God has destined us for salvation that we come to receive the gift of faith.

And God will lead us there. By the example of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit present in our hearts and minds, we are led along and through the paths and troubles of this life. But the work of the Good Shepherd also goes beyond this life. Not only are we led by Jesus here and now, but we are being led somewhere. There is a final destination in this journey, in the pilgrimage of this life. Our destiny, our destination, is heaven—eternal life with God. Heaven is the end, or purpose, of our lives and indeed of the whole of creation.

Now we Catholics, sometimes we don’t talk much about the end of the world. But we should! For one thing, we proclaim our belief in the final goal of the world each time we come together for the Sunday Eucharist. At the end of the creed we proclaim that we look forward to the vitam venturi saeculi, the “life of the world to come.” It’s not just that we are looking forward to a mysterious new heaven and earth, but to the new life that the Good Shepherd promises us today in the gospel.

For another thing, there are a lot of people out there preaching the end of the world, from the Jehovah’s Witnesses on the street, to the Left Behind books that have become so popular. Trouble is, at least as I hear them, a lot of times people who preach the end of the world are preaching revenge. It’s about how God will finally punish all of the sinners and vindicate all of us poor folks who trying so hard to do the right thing.

The heaven of our final destiny is not about revenge or taking rotten glee in how God will punish sinners, but about God’s overwhelming desire to save the world, about God’s overflowing desire to share the perfect joy of his own life with every single part of his creation.

In the second reading today, from the book of Revelation, we have a beautiful picture of what our eternal life in God will be like. There is no hunger of thirst, no tears, no anxiety. There is only the joy and love that is the perfect worship of God and of his Lamb, Jesus Christ. And, as one of the heavenly elders describes to John, the author of the book of Revelation, heaven is populated with those who have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

That’s us, friends. It’s us in the very celebration of this Eucharist. In this life we wear the robe of the flesh; our bodies are the robes that express our hearts and souls in this world. And here at Mass we receive the blood of Christ into our bodies, the Precious Blood poured out for the forgiveness of sins.

The blood of Christ will wash our hearts and minds. We may have made our feelings dingy and our devotion shabby through our sins, but the blood of Christ will wash us clean that we may begin again in the newness of the Risen Life of Christ.

In this Eucharist the Lord washes and renews us, and we are made new and clean in the blood of the Lamb. And this is just a little taste of what it will be like for us in heaven, forever enjoying the “life of the world to come.” May we let this little foretaste of the perfect joy of heaven make us desire our final destiny all the more.

(4th Sunday of Easter, C)

Saturday, April 21, 2007

A Matter of Life and Death

Well, friends, we are hardly a third of the way into our joyful celebration of this Easter season, and a tragedy has struck this week, reminding us that, despite the Resurrection of the Lord, we still live in a violent world. We still live in what John Paul II called the “culture of death.”

So we pray especially in these days for eternal rest for the victims of the Virginia Tech massacre and for the consolation of their families and friends in their overwhelming loss. And we pray too for the perpetrator, that somehow, in the eternity of God’s irresistible gentleness, he might be freed from the horrible inner torment that drove him to these crimes.

And thus we are reminded in our Easter joy that the Resurrection does not magically remove suffering and violence from our lives. We are reminded that in Jesus Christ we are freed from death, but not from dying.

In fact, the kind of violence and brutality we witnessed this past week are part of the very mystery we worship! As the book of Revelation says today, “Worthy is the Lamb…worthy is the lamb who was slain, to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength, honor and glory and blessing.” And as the apostle Peter proclaims in the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, “the God of our ancestors raised Jesus,” the very Jesus we killed by “hanging him on a tree.”

Jesus Christ enters into all of the violence and isolation and brutality that we have brought upon the world with our sins, not to take violence away, but to open for us a path for its transformation.

And so, as Peter says later on, the Holy Spirit is given to us who obey God. This is the same Holy Spirit which conceived Jesus in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary and which raised Jesus Christ from the dead. And it is by this Holy Spirit present in our hearts and minds, that we will be able to see the Risen Lord. The Spirit will help us to notice ways that we can begin to transform the meaninglessness of suffering and death into the joy and peace of gentleness and new life.

This movement and possibility are clear from our gospel today. The disciples had been fishing all night and had caught nothing. But once they are able to perceive Jesus Christ risen from the dead and present with them, eating with them, fishing with them, their efforts are transformed and they catch an overwhelming number of fish.

And the same thing is possible for us. As the disciples found courage in the Lord to keep fishing after a discouraging night, we must not let something like the Virginia Tech massacre or the horrifying situation in Iraq make us discouraged in our faith. We must ask for the Holy Spirit, who will give us the eyes to see through the culture of death to the possibility of proclaiming a culture of life.

God is always inviting, always calling us back to the path to new life he has established for us in the Passion and Resurrection of his Son. Today at the end of our gospel we have the beautiful story of the rehabilitation of St. Peter. Having denied Jesus three times on Good Friday, today the Lord asks him three times, “do you love me?” And each time Peter responds that he does, the same imperative comes from the Lord: “feed my sheep.”

Let us pray for the Holy Spirit, the Spirit who will teach us the path to the transformation of our violent culture of death into a gentle culture of life. The strength of the anger and bitterness that breaks out into wars and school shootings can be transformed and re-directed to gentleness and the conviction of faith in goodness. We call this transformation the Resurrection.

Feed my sheep, don’t shoot them, says the Lord. And the pattern and path to do this have been provided for us by Jesus, the first-born of the dead and the beginning of the new creation. Let us believe in him, and in whatever small way we can, begin to gather up the whole world into the new life of his Resurrection. The world is desperate for it, though they don’t know it. Let’s make the new life available to us in Jesus Christ risen from the dead the worst kept secret in the world. They need to hear it.

(3rd Sunday of Easter, C)

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Divine Mercy Sunday

On the first Easter Sunday evening, Jesus came and stood in the midst of the disciples and said, “Peace be with you.” This is the great good news of the richness of God’s mercy—that, in return for all of our sins and violence and unbelief, God in the Risen Lord gives us just one thing: peace.

Therefore it’s wholly appropriate that on this second Sunday of Easter we celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday, the great feast of Mercy instituted by our Holy Father John Paul II. So let us rejoice in God’s mercy! As John the Evangelist says of the disciples, “they rejoiced when they saw the Lord.” So let us rejoice as we encounter Jesus Christ risen into the new life of this assembly, and risen into the bread and wine we receive as the Body of the Lord broken for our salvation and as his Precious Blood, poured out over the world for the forgiveness of sins.

Consider how this is displayed in the famous image of Jesus the Divine Mercy. It shows the Risen Lord touching his heart—and from his heart come forth two rays of light, one white and one red. These are the water and the blood that came forth from the side of Christ on the Cross when he was pierced in death by the soldier’s lance.

On the Cross these were just water and blood. But in the Resurrection, in Jesus Christ risen from the dead, the water becomes the waters of our baptism. And the blood from Jesus’ side becomes the blood of the Eucharist, through which we are made sharers in his new and eternal covenant.

This is the key to this famous image of the Risen Lord we call the Divine Mercy. From the heart of Jesus, in the utter generosity of God, the waters of baptism and the blood of the new and eternal covenant flow out over the world.

But as we gratefully recall the great mercy of God in the Passion and Resurrection of Christ, we must always remember that the only appropriate response is to become merciful ourselves. The personal religious experiences of St. Faustina Kowalska form the basis of Divine Mercy Sunday, as well as of the Divine Mercy devotion. And the Lord said to St. Faustina, in no uncertain terms, “You must show mercy to your neighbor out of love for me, and you must not try to excuse yourself from it.”

Having gentleness and mercy for the people around us is the only adequate response to the great mercy that God has given to us in Jesus Christ. If we want people to see the good news of Jesus Christ, risen again from the sufferings of his Passion and death, we must allow him to be raised into our com-passion for each other!

Note how this is exactly what the apostles were doing in our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Having experienced the Resurrection of Christ, and drawing new life from this great revelation of mercy, they turn to those in need. The sick and the disturbed, they were all cured by the power of the Risen Lord present in the faith and zeal of the apostles. And this is our task too, as the apostles that God has sent into this suffering and tired world. As God has had such mercy on us, giving us new life in the waters of baptism and the blood of the Eucharist, may we give our life and blood to the service of others in mercy.

Do you want to see the risen Jesus as the apostles did? Then insist, like our friend doubting Thomas, on putting your finger into the nail marks and your hand into the wound in Jesus’ side. There is so much hurt and sickness and fear in the world, we are bound to encounter someone who is suffering. They are the suffering Christ for us. Be with them. Take care of them, and comfort them. In this way you put your own hand into the wound of Christ and allow Jesus to be raised into your own compassion.

And, hopefully, when we see the Lord in the compassion that God puts between us and the other, we will step back in awe like Thomas and say, “My Lord and my God!”

Once we have had mercy on and compassion for our neighbor, once we have put our hands into the wounded side of Christ, we will be able to say in the words of that old prayer, the Anima Christi, “wounds of Christ, hide me!”

By encountering the suffering around us with openness and a desire to help, we allow, in our own selves, mercy and compassion to be resurrected in the world. And we will see the suffering of the world transformed into the wounds of Christ, from which the new creation is born in the waters of baptism and the blood of the Eucharist.

May we be merciful, as God has shown us his Divine Mercy. By the courage that the Spirit of God gives, we can show the new hope of the Resurrection to a tired and despairing world.

(2nd Sunday of Easter, C)

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Believing is Seeing

Happy Easter, friends. May the new life of the Resurrection bubble up in its freshness in all our tasks and relationships this day and forever.

In our first reading today we have St. Peter’s speech in the house of Cornelius. Peter boldly proclaims how God had anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how Jesus went about doing good and healing all.

But wait a second. Peter? Is this the same Peter whom we heard about two days ago on Good Friday, about how we denied that he even knew Jesus, not once, but three times? Standing there in the cold and darkness of night outside of Jesus’ trial, he didn’t even have enough commitment to the Lord to even admit that he had heard of Jesus.

And yet here he is, in the house of an officer of the Roman army no less, proclaiming that this same Jesus is the judge appointed by God, through whom we receive forgiveness of sins in his name. This is quite a transformation! The same man who denied that he even knew Jesus, not once, but three times, is now proclaiming belief in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins.

This transformation, this change from being someone dominated by fear to someone who preaches the name of Jesus with courage and faith and conviction, this, friends, is the transformation we call the Resurrection.

Recall our second reading today, from the letter to the Colossians, in which we heard that “we are raised with Christ” and that we may now “seek what is above.”

We are the body of Christ, the Church. And the body of Christ is raised from the dead in the Resurrection—it’s us who form his body in the world and in history. Our common baptism into the death of Christ was celebrated by the Churches of God most clearly last night at the Great Vigil of Easter. And by allowing ourselves to be baptized into the Passion and death of Christ, we allow him to take all of our fear, all of our hurt, and all of our sins to die with him on the Cross.

But even though in the humanity he borrows from us, Jesus is able to suffer the abandonment and death we have brought upon ourselves with our sins, these cannot hold onto the almighty power of his divinity. And so the Incarnate Son of God bursts forth from death, destroying death from the inside, and creating a path for all humanity to join him in the new and Risen life of a newly re-created world.

And through the utter generosity of God in Jesus Christ, the fruits of the Resurrection are available to us: freedom from anxiety, freedom from guilt, freedom from slavery to sin—and in the end, freedom from death itself. But you have to believe it.

People like to say, “Seeing in believing.” But, friends, in the case of the Resurrection, it’s the opposite—“Believing is seeing.” You have to believe if want to see Jesus Christ raised from the dead, the Risen Lord who is with us always.

Consider the beautiful Gospel we heard this Easter morning. After Mary Magdalene discovers Jesus’ tomb to be empty, Peter and the Beloved Disciple come to see what has happened. The Beloved Disciple enters the tomb, and the evangelist tells us that, “he saw and believed.”

He saw and believed. But think about it—he didn’t see anything. What he saw was an absence. He saw an empty tomb. What he believed was what the Lord had spoken during his earthly life, and this allowed the Beloved Disciple to see through the empty tomb to the Resurrection—and the Resurrection is the truth that suffering and death could not hold onto the Son of God.

Believe and you will see. Believe that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead and you will see his Resurrected Life in the joyful eyes of those you love and in the trees and flowers that come back to life each year at this time. Believe and you will begin to see the re-creation, the renovation of the world in Christ wherever you look.

Believing is seeing, friends. Peter himself says this in his speech in the first reading: Jesus “was raised on the third day” and God “granted that he be visible, not to all the people, but to us, the witnesses chosen by God in advance.”

Today, this Easter Sunday, we are those witnesses chosen by God. We are chosen by God to have the power to see through all the difficulties and troubles of this world to the new life and hope that is the Resurrection of the Lord.

So let us rejoice today in our divine vocation! Let us believe in Jesus Christ risen from the dead. And let us see in every scrap of hope—the newness of Spring, the wonder in the eyes of children, the fact that no matter how troubled and violent this poor world becomes, people still insist of falling in love with each other—let us see in all these things the re-creating and renovating power of the Resurrection.

(Easter Sunday)