Saturday, December 26, 2009

Holy Family

(Holy Family, C)

The other day I was taking a walk near our friary in Jamaica Plain, Boston. Around the corner is an apartment building with a big dumpster. And stuffed into the dumpster, top down, was a big, full, beautiful Christmas tree.

And I thought: that’s what Christmas is to the world that doesn’t know the Lord—a lovely celebration and a time to enjoy the warmth of home and family and friends, but then, that’s it. When it’s over, that’s the end.

But we who have been given and have accepted the grace of knowing and loving God, we know that Christmas is more than this. We know that what we celebrate is the Incarnation of the Eternal Word, the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. We know that all of giving and receiving of gifts is only a way to remember and honor God’s great gift of his own divine life to us in the humanity of Christ.

Friends, the mystery of Christmas, the mystery of the revealing of God in the Word made flesh; it’s a gradual process, a gradual revelation. Last week we celebrated the beginning of this process, when we were here for the feast of the Nativity of the Lord. At first he was revealed only to Mary and Joseph, and then to the poor shepherds by way of the announcement of the angels.

Today we celebrate the feast of the Holy Family, the presence of the Incarnation within the ordinary family life of a husband and a wife and their child. In today’s Gospel we hear the beginning of the revelation of Jesus to his own religion in his discussion with the teachers in the Temple. They were all “astounded” with his answers, even at so young an age. They knew they were dealing with someone special.

Next Sunday we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany, when we will recall how, in the presence of the three wise men from the East, Jesus begins to be revealed to all the nations of the world. In these three great feasts of Christmas—the Nativity, the Holy Family, and the Epiphany, we see the gradual revelation of God’s goodness and kindness to the world in the Word made flesh. First he is revealed to Mary and Joseph and the poor shepherds of their own neighborhood, then to Israel, the people of God, and finally to all the nations.

But let us return to today’s feast, the feast of the Holy Family. We have in our Gospel today the beginning of Jesus’ great revelation when Mary and Joseph find the boy Jesus in the Temple. He says, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Jesus calls God his Father, revealing the identity of the unseen God, and thus begins the great grace of Christianity, of our being freely made children of God by being ourselves absorbed into the humanity of Christ.

Remember the line from the old the prayer, the Anima Christi: “O good Jesus hear me, within thy wounds hide me.” When we hide in the wounds of the Savior, when we live our lives within the Body of Christ we receive here at Mass, then God is our Father because he is Jesus’ Father.

Notice, however, that this great revelation, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” only comes about because of a family misunderstanding. It only happens because Mary and Joseph lost track of Jesus in their travels. Men and women traveled separately in a caravan in those days, with the women taking the children. Jesus, being at the age just in between being a child and a grown man, could have gone either way. So Mary and Joseph each perhaps presumed he was with the other, and, as often happens with teenagers, there was a misunderstanding and a miscommunication. But it’s only because of this confusion, because Mary and Joseph had to search for Jesus, that we have this great revelation of Jesus being found in the Temple, in which he begins to reveal the great good news of the Fatherhood of God.

Now this ought to be encouraging for us! All of us have had parents, and some of us have children. Most of us live with some kind of family, even if sometimes, they aren’t family in the biological sense. And when it comes to family, as we all know, things don’t always proceed in the smoothest or most peaceful manner. So when we hear about the Holy Family, this family made up of two saints and the Lord himself, having a misunderstanding and miscommunication, it should encourage us! Even the Holy Family of the Lord himself had its troubles.

But the revelation, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” only comes because Mary expresses her anxiety to Jesus and asks him where he’s been. And it’s the same with us, friends. If we don’t risk talking to each other about our family misunderstandings and how we hurt each other and give each other anxiety, we don’t make room for the grace of God to spring up.

We’re not always going to get along. There are going to be problems and fights. As we see today, even the Holy Family had its misunderstandings, so we shouldn’t be surprised when we have them too. But what matters is what we do with them. If all we do is stuff our feelings down, or wear out the patience of our friends by complaining to third parties, we will only bear more misery into the world. And there’s enough of that already. But if we keep taking the risk of talking to each other, of saying, with Mary, “you are giving me great anxiety by your behavior!” perhaps we are accepting the humility and vulnerability through which the grace of God can come into the world.

And making room for the grace of God to take flesh in our little lives with each other; this is nothing else but the mystery of Christmas, of the birth of God in the world.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Visitation

(4th Sunday of Advent, C)

We are very close, friends, to the great mystery of our salvation, to the great mystery of the Eternal Word made flesh, to the birth of the Lord. We’re not quite yet there — but nevertheless, today we rejoice in expectation with two great mothers, with Mary and Elizabeth, the mothers of John the Baptist, greatest of Israel’s prophets, and Jesus of Nazareth, who is called the Christ, the Son of God.

Since today’s Gospel is the story of the Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth, I was recalling when I was first learning to pray the Rosary. I had one of those little pamphlets with the prayers written out and a diagram of what to say on each of the beads. This was before the new “luminous mysteries,” so there were only the original fifteen mysteries arranged in a little chart. For each mystery there was a little picture, a verse from Scripture, and something called the “fruit” of the mystery. I was never sure what was meant by the “fruit” of the mystery, but I guessed, I think correctly, that it was the virtue or disposition in yourself that would be strengthened by the meditation on each mystery.

Now when it came to the second joyful mystery, the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, the Gospel story we hear today, the fruit of the mystery was listed as “charity.” So I would like to reflect a little with you today about how entering into this mystery of the Visitation, together with Mary and Elizabeth, can help us to grow in the love of God, of the charity we have toward one another.

First of all, we adore and celebrate these beautiful mysteries of the Christmas season, and as well we should. But we always need to go further, and enter into the mysteries of faith with our own hearts, and with our own hands and feet too. In other words, God invites all of us to be Marys and Elizabeths for each other.

Mary, of course, is “blessed among women” as Elizabeth cries out. She is the mother of God and the mother of the church. Even more, she has been the mother of every one of the Lord’s disciples, including us, ever since Jesus gave her to us as our mother from the Cross. To take two of her titles from the Litany of Loreto, she is the “gate of heaven” and the “spiritual vessel” through which God becomes Incarnate in this world. She is, in her great Greek title, the Theotokos, she who bears God into the world. And friends, it is us who are called to continue her vocation of bearing Christ into the world – us, the Church!

St. Francis called Mary the Virgo ecclesia facta, the Virgin made church, and what an insight! Just as Mary bore the Incarnate Word, the Son of God into the world, so we, the Church, are called to continue to make Christ real in the darkness of this world. Mary is the Church and the Church is Mary – we continue her great “yes” to God by bringing Jesus Christ to birth in our faith and in the love we put into practice for the sake of each other and for the world.

So let’s go ahead and imitate Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth. The great gift of faith that we carry in our hearts, the love of God that inspires our actions, let’s take it to each other. We see a lot of people this time of year, and like Mary, we often see family and relations we might not visit with often. Let’s bear the love of Christ to them, just as Mary did for her cousin Elizabeth. Though you can, you don’t have to preach it out loud – you preach just as much by your attitudes of gentleness, forgiveness, and care. And if those you are with have eyes to see your faith and ears to hear you words as the love of God, they will bless God on your behalf just as Elizabeth did and say, “how does this happen to me, that mother of my Lord should come to me?”

And so that brings us to Elizabeth, to the other half of this mystery of the Visitation, to the other part of our learning of God’s charity. Just as we are called to continue Mary’s work in the world, we must also learn to do as Elizabeth did. We must bear the love of Christ to one another, for sure. But we also learn how to graciously receive the love that others bring us, to accept the humility and vulnerability of letting other people love us with the love of Christ.

Remember how Elizabeth felt the infant John the Baptist leap in her womb when she heard Mary’s greeting. In his commentary on Luke St. Ambrose writes: “Elizabeth is the first to hear Mary’s voice, but John is the first to be aware of grace. She hears with the ears of the body, but he leaps for joy at the meaning of the mystery.”

So it needs to be with us. When anyone bears love to us, when anyone greets us with kindness or forgiveness or gentleness, we must go beyond just seeing and hearing them with our bodily eyes and ears. Through our faith we must perceive, like John the Baptist, the love of God, the charity of Christ that is being borne to us by someone else.

It could be the long-suffering love and care of our family members. It could be the forgiveness of someone we’ve hurt long ago, or over and over. It might just be the smile or kind word of a stranger on the street, or the delight and wonder in the eyes of a child. In all of these we must, with our eyes and ears of faith, see the love of Christ that is being brought into the world. And then we can say with Elizabeth, “how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

Let’s let Jesus open our eyes of faith, that we may notice some of the many chances we have in a day to continue Mary’s great “yes,” and bear the love of Christ into the world. And let us imitate Elizabeth by glorifying God for the many ways God uses the people around us to show us his love and care.

Merry Christmas, everyone. The Son of God, the Eternal Word of the Father, desires nothing more than to be born anew into this world. He’s literally dying to be born. The Eternal Love that is Christ wants nothing more than to be born into the dank caves of our hearts and the messy stables of our lives. Like our mother Mary, let us accept him with faith, and, like our sister Elizabeth let us rejoice with those who share his love with us.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Baptized or Burned

(3 Advent, C)

Brothers and sisters, we have a choice to make. To those who came to him in heartfelt expectation and received the baptism of repentance, John the Baptist announces that a fire is coming upon the earth. What will this fire will be for us? Will it be the fiery baptism with the Holy Spirit or the unquenchable fire that burns the chaff? John promises that both are coming. Indeed, they are the same thing.

For those who have looked forward to the arrival of the Savior and are ready to receive Him, this is a moment of rejoicing. “Fear not, O Zion, be not discouraged! The LORD, your God, is in your midst” proclaims the prophet Zephaniah. The love and salvation of God is arriving in our world and in our lives, and there is no greater cause for rejoicing. The classic name for this third Sunday of Advent is Gaudete Sunday, from the Entrance Antiphon for today’s Mass, which is taken from the second reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians: Gaudéte in Dómino simper: íterum dico, gaudéte. Dóminus enim prope est. “Rejoice in the Lord always: again I say, rejoice! The Lord is near.”

This nearness of the Lord is the coming fire of which John the Baptist speaks. The fire is the passionate love of God, God’s burning desire for our salvation. In his infinite compassion, God saves the world by uniting his own divine life to our humanity in Christ, so that our human nature—yours and mine—can be reformed and re-created from the inside out. Jesus Christ continues this divine mission each day for us who are baptized into his death and receive his Risen Life into our very bodies in Holy Communion. The Body and Blood of Christ is the medicine of the divine physician, meant to cleanse and re-create our lives from within.

The Incarnation of the Word, which we prepare to celebrate at Christmas, is the dawn of this divine plan of salvation, the arrival of the fire of God’s burning love in our humanity.

As God’s burning love descends to make a home within us, it is up to us to decide what this divine fire will be for us. It is too intense to ignore, and if we try it will burn us away like chaff in the wind, lost to eternity. Instead, may we rejoice to consent to God’s love as a cleansing, spiritual, fiery baptism for each of our hearts and lives. Let us make ourselves homes for the fire of God’s love, that God’s delight may be our joy as we become those called to radiate divine love to the world.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Joy, Longing, and Mission

(2 Advent, C)

“I am confident of this,” St. Paul assures us, “that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus.” This is our whole Advent spirituality, brothers and sisters. We are those in whom God has begun the “good work.” We have been baptized into the death and Resurrection of Christ, confirmed in his Holy Spirit, and each Sunday we are further configured to the Sacrifice of Christ here by our prayerful participation here at Mass.

This “good work” is accomplished in us by the God who is always arriving in our daily life. Advent reminds us that our God is precisely that: adventitious, showing up at certain and graced moments. Theologically, this is because God is eternal; there is nothing God was doing yesterday that he is not doing today, and nothing God will be about at the end of time that is not already with us—though obscurely—in the present. In our own limited consciousness as temporal creatures, the closest thing to eternity in our experience is the now, the present moment in which we always find ourselves. And this is where God is revealed; gently arriving in our lives through the call to prayer, the love and care of people around us, our wonder at the beauty of creation, and in many other ways as well.

The spirituality of this Advent season is to find the deep part of our hearts that longs for the fullness of this revelation of God. God has begun this good work in us, and caught our souls for this path. We who have had this taste of the grace of God arriving in our lives are called to “prepare the way” for God’s saving goodness to find a home more and more in this world. This is the work by which we take up and imitate the ministry of John the Baptist. We are called, in the words of the classic Advent hymn, On Jordan’s Bank, to “make straight the way of God within.” One of the intercessions in the Liturgy of the Hours caught me earlier this week in this regard, “Bring low the mountains of our pride, and fill up the valleys of our weakness.” This is a good example of the ascetic work we are called to during the Advent season: we know that the Lord Jesus seeks to be born into our hearts and make a home in our lives, so let us sweep his new home clean and prepare a fitting place for Him.

Advent comes to us as a joy, as a longing, and as a mission. We recall our joy at being those within whom God has begun his good work of inaugurating the new creation. As Baruch puts it, we rejoice that we are “remembered by God.” We long for the fulfillment of this great work, which God has begun in a mysterious and obscure in the birth of our Savior, and in a public and definitive way in his Resurrection. For those of us who have the grace of his knowledge of Truth, and of God’s purpose, we are called to prepare His way within, and to call the world to recognize the arriving grace of God, until the destined Day when “all flesh will see the salvation of God.”

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Spirit of Vigilance

(1st Sunday of Advent, C)

I love the first Sunday of Advent, because it’s one of those ‘cognitive dissonance’ days in the liturgy. We have the giddy joy of starting this new year—the year of our salvation 2010—and as we arrive at Mass the church looks different for the first time in a while. We’ve all absorbed the catechetical sound bite about how Advent is the time to ‘prepare for Christmas’ and we’re ready for this ramp-up to that sweetest of Christian solemnities. And so we settle down here for Mass, ready to begin ‘preparing ourselves for Christmas,’ and we hear a very different kind of word in the readings: The Gospel warns us that in “anticipation of what is coming upon the world,” “people will die of fright” and “on earth nations will be in dismay.”

What gives? Christmas may mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but for most I don’t think it involves people dying of fright or nations being in dismay. Here we see the twofold meaning of the Advent season: Yes, it is a time when we prepare to recall the dawn of our salvation in the Incarnation of the Word of God, the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, but Advent is also a time when we look forward to the return of the Lord in glory, to the destiny and end of the world. To hope for and anticipate the return of Jesus Christ at the end of time is a permanent and ordinary part of our Christian faith, and we recall this to ourselves in every single Mass in the prayer after the Our Father: “…as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our savior, Jesus Christ.”

That spirit of waiting “in joyful hope” is at the core of this special season. We are joyful as we recall the mysteries of the Lord’s Nativity, and we are hopeful as we look forward to his return. The Advent season as the privileged time to meditate on the “in between-ness” of our existence; we are those pilgrims on the earth who live in between the inauguration of the new creation in the birth of the New Adam and before the final fulfillment and destiny of creation at the end of time.

As we enter into this time of looking both back and forward from our place in between, the readings we hear today help us to learn the spirituality appropriate to this season. St. Paul exhorts to “conduct” ourselves “to please God.” In the gospel we are similarly invited by Jesus to beware that our “hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life” so that we are not rudely surprised by the day of the Lord when it comes. To me this is very appropriate spiritual advice for this time of year; on the one hand there are a lot of parties to attend and we must be careful that the festivities do not distract us from our spiritual vigilance, our waiting on the Lord. On the other hand, it’s also a time of year when the anxiety of this life weighs heavily on a lot of people, and to hope in the Lord is the soothing remedy.

This spirit of vigilance, of waiting on the Lord, is the spirit we cultivate and protect in these days of Advent. The season of Advent reveals to us a God who is just that, adventitious. Our is a God who is arriving in the world: his obscure birth in poverty is a mystery played out at every celebration of the Eucharist, as God in Christ is just dying—literally—to make a home and be born anew into each our lives in Holy Communion. In these days, let us await the coming of the Lord with joyful vigilance, until the fullness of his Kingdom is revealed “at the coming of the Lord Jesus with all his holy ones.”

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Christ the King

(Christ the King, B)

Back in studies I once took a political science course, and in the class I met a guy from the island of Tonga. Now maybe you’ve never heard of Tonga – I know I hadn’t. Tonga is a little island in the south Pacific, and our political science teacher, interested as he was in different systems of government, was very interested in meeting someone from Tonga. You see, Tonga is one of the last places in the world with a real monarchy. They have a real king who actually rules the country.

Now this is pretty foreign to our experience. We’re not used to being ruled by royalty. For us, we are familiar with more modern forms of earthly government: presidents and prime ministers, parliaments and congresses. For us, kings are a thing of the past.

Does this make it hard for us to get into this feast of Christ the King? I don’t think so. Fact is, the kingship of Jesus Christ and the nature of his kingdom are so different from any earthly idea of power and government that perhaps we who don’t have any experience of earthly kings will understand today’s feast more easily.

Think about it. Take a look at Christ the King. What kind of power is this? Instead of earthly power he is nailed to the Cross and can’t even move his hands and feet. Instead of royal robes he is naked and shamed. For a crown he has only the crown of thorns made by his torturers.

What kind of king is this? Pontius Pilate was pretty curious about it. Seeing the beaten and bound Jesus before him, he wondered what kind of king he could possibly be dealing with. And so Jesus described his kingship to Pilate: For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth hears my voice.

The kingdom of Christ is about truth, not earthly power. Reigning from the throne of his Cross, Jesus Christ reveals the truth. And the truth is that real power in this world is humility and the giving of oneself for others. It’s not about having it your way, and not the power to influence and control anybody. Real power is humility and the willingness to give of oneself for others. And this is the kind of king we are dealing with in Jesus Christ.

Reigning from the throne of the Cross, Christ the King reveals to us the truth about our world. The true story of the world is not in the halls of power or in the overwhelming suffering of war. It’s not even in the world’s false hope for an earthly peace which is only about everyone being able to pursue their own desires without interference. The real history of the world is not found in the careers of presidents and prime ministers.

Christ the King reveals to us from the Cross that the true royalty of this world are those who quietly struggle to love each other, to bear with each other’s burdens, to give of themselves without counting the cost or expecting anything in return. The true story of this world is the story of those who in so many small and forgotten ways, give of themselves for each other, give of themselves for the life of another. And this is the Kingdom of God. It’s the real history of the world, and you won’t see it on CNN.

Jesus explains to Pontius Pilate that his kingdom “does not belong to this world.” The kingdom of Jesus Christ is not of this world, but it is in this world. And the kingdom of Christ is in the world because of you and me. In the book of Revelation we hear today how Jesus Christ has made us into a kingdom, priests for his God and Father. It is us who are made into the kingdom of God in this world.

In the sacrament of baptism we witness the royal anointing with oil we have all received. Just as David was anointed by the prophet Samuel to be the greatest of the kings of Israel, and just as Jesus was anointed on his feet by Mary in preparation for his enthronement and glorification on the Cross, we too are anointed in our baptism to share in the kingship of Christ.

You and me, we are the anointed royalty of the kingdom of God. As baptized Christians we are the kings of the world. But our royalty doesn’t get us anything as this world counts power and value. Our royalty is the kingship of Christ the King who rules from the Cross, naked, unable to move, and crowned with thorns.

Our kingdom is the kingdom of God, the kingdom of those who try to follow and imitate Christ by giving of themselves for each other, who offer their efforts and love and lives for the life of the other, indeed for the very life of the world.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The End Times

(33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, B)

As they do each fall as we approach the end of the liturgical year, the readings and prayers today invite us into a reflection on the end of the world and the Last Things. This creation had a beginning, and it will have an end according to God’s loving and gentle purpose.

Great care must be taken when we begin to talk about the end of the world. In the whole history of the faith and down to our own day, there are many who have preached the end of the world. They proclaim dates and issue warnings, but often what they imagine is a vision of the ‘end times’ made in their own image; one that provides vindication for them and their associates, and punishment for everyone else. Always run—don’t walk—from self-serving apostles!

In fact, it’s hard to for us to know and understand what the end will be like. We are creatures and this creation is the world we know, and just as it would be impossible to explain the breadth and variety of this world to an unborn baby whose whole world is her mother’s womb, so it’s hard for us to wrap our limited minds around the “life of the world to come” to which we look forward in the Creed.

But we do know some things. Perhaps more importantly, we know what we don’t know. We know that we don’t know when the end will come. Jesus himself says it in the gospel today: “But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Even Jesus doesn’t know. Now this has never stopped people from setting dates. As the year 1,000 approached, people were so afraid of the end times that peace movements sprang up all over and many wars were stopped. Sadly, we know how much that takes for us. Back before the year 2,000 we had a little taste of the secular, technological fear of the end times as we looked forward to the end of society when Y2K would come. Right now the stylish date for the end of the world is December 21, 2012. If no one has informed you already that the world will surely end on that day, no doubt you will hear about it soon. Jesus cuts through all of this needless anxiety and speculation. We know that the end times will come, but—at least in this gospel passage—Jesus doesn’t know when and neither do we. So, we shouldn’t be surprised if the end comes later today, tomorrow, in 2012, or somewhere long after we have gone to our rest.

Though we don’t know exactly what will happen when the end times come, the readings today give us some idea what it will be like. Jesus’ advice that we “take a lesson from the fig tree” helps us to understand that the end of the world will be something like the annual transformations of the changing seasons. Both the gospel today and the first reading from the prophet Daniel let us know that the end will be something like a gathering or a harvest. At this time of year when we look forward to Thanksgiving, the image of the harvest is very much with us. It is a rich and encouraging image for the good news of the coming end times. Through our communion with God through Christ, God promises that the destiny of creation is a harvesting and gathering of all the love, care, and goodness we are for each other, preserving it unto eternity.

This recalls to me one of my favorite prayers from the entire Liturgy, which is the introduction to the Vigil for the Deceased, commonly called the wake service: “We believe that all of the ties of friendship and affection which knit us as one throughout our lives do not unravel in death.” This is the gospel, the good news of the end time, whether it’s our own end at our personal death, or the final destiny of all of creation at the end of time: Because we are lifted up into the life of the Blessed Trinity by our baptism into Christ and our Communion with him here at Mass, all of the love and goodness we are for each other in this life does not just evaporate into nothingness when our pilgrimage on earth is over. On the contrary, in God’s great gathering and harvest, all of the loving good we were created to be is not only preserved, but made indestructible as God draws it lovingly into his own eternity.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Priesthood

(32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, B)

(Follow this link for my introduction and apology for this homily.)

For the past five weeks we have been hearing the letter to the Hebrews in the second reading here at Sunday Mass. Since we finish the lectionary’s selections from Hebrews today, I thought it might be good to stop and reflect upon its teachings. On these Sundays in Ordinary Time, the readings from the gospels and the first reading from the Old Testament are selected to match and complement each other, while the second reading proceeds on its own cycle. Because of this, preachers sometimes don’t pay a lot of attention to the second reading during Ordinary Time. Hebrews is worth our time, however, and the readings given by the lectionary lead us into a reflection on the priesthood of Christ. This priesthood matters for us, because we all have a share in it. In some ways, it is the good news of our whole religion.

When we think of the priesthood, we often think just of the ministry of ordained priests in the Church. That’s too bad, because for us Christians priesthood is much more than that. In the simplest terms, a priest is someone appointed to offer sacrifice to God. Since the earliest times, indeed since Adam and Eve’s sons Cain and Abel first offered sacrifice to God, the loving relationship between God and his people has been ratified, exercised, and bonded by sacrifice. Under the old covenants sacrifices of all kinds were offered to God, day after day, year after year. The Temple of Jerusalem, the preeminent place to offer sacrifice in God’s Presence, became the center of the world for the people of God.

The New Covenant ratified in the Precious Blood of Christ reveals all of these prior sacrifices to be foreshadowings of his own sacrifice of himself. Jesus fulfills, ends, and goes beyond all of these sacrifices of religion by offering himself as the perfect, eternal sacrifice, once and for all. In his Passion Jesus takes upon himself everything we are at our worst, even to our dismissing, torturing, and killing each other. On the Cross Jesus enters into the deepest misery and suffering that we have brought upon ourselves and each other with our sins, up to and including the searing alienation from God our modern world knows so well, to the depths of losing even our consciousness of our Creator and the Ground of our being: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me.”

But though Jesus could suffer and die in the humanity and human body he borrows from us through our Most Blessed Mother, death could not hold on to his divinity. The divine Son of God bursts forth from the death we have brought upon ourselves and brings our humanity and human body with him into the new life of the Resurrection. This is what we call the Paschal Mystery of Christ, his passing over through our death into what can now be our new life.

This is why Christ is our High Priest; he is the one who offers the perfect sacrifice to God, and indeed, within God. So in Christianity, there is really only one priest, Jesus Christ, because there is only one Sacrifice. This priesthood of Christ is the priesthood of the Church, because the Church is the assembly of those who have baptized into the death and Resurrection of Christ, and who become his broken body and blood poured out in the offering of the Eucharist.

What this means is that each of us who is a Christian, a member of the mystical Body of Christ, shares in the priesthood of Christ. Each of us is a priest, because the communion each of us enjoys with Christ enables us to offer our own sacrifices and have them drawn up into the one, saving sacrifice of Christ.

This isn’t necessarily some big or glamorous thing. Many of the sacrifices we make in our day to day lives are very small. We give someone our ear or some of our time when we don’t want to. We let go of some our feelings or plans and enter into the messiness of someone else’s life so as to give them some mercy and comfort. Not that there aren’t immense sacrifices that people often make in life, such as the many ways ordinary people give up possibilities and opportunity in order to care for or give to others. The good news for us who share in the priesthood of Christ, is that God raises all of our sacrifices, large and small, to a certain divine dignity. By our baptism and our Communion with the sacrificed Body and Blood of Christ, God draws the sacrifices of our individual lives into the one, perfect, and eternal Sacrifice of the Son of God. Our sacrifices become part of the Sacrifice that saves and renews the world, leading us all from the meaningless of death to the hope of Resurrection. Each of us is a priest of the New Covenant, a sharer in the one Priesthood and one Sacrifice of Christ. This is our dignity and our joy as the priestly people of God.

As we offer our humble gifts at God’s altar today, let each of us offer the sacrifices of our own lives, uniting them to the Sacrifice of Christ we make present in this Eucharist, and let us be grateful to the God who makes us a priestly people in the Blood of Christ.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Catholicity

(All Saints)

The feast of All Saints today and the commemoration of All Souls tomorrow are perfect opportunities to recall to ourselves the catholicity of the Church. We are members of the Catholic Church, practitioners of Catholic Christianity. Catholic is a Greek word that simply means general or universal. The Church is ‘universal’ or ‘general’ in many ways. In one sense the Church is universal because it extends over the whole earth. There’s even a Catholic chapel in Antarctica; it’s dedicated to St. Francis by the way. The moon, it’s already been decided, is part of the diocese of Rome, in case you were thinking of making a visit and were wondering who your bishop might be. The Church is also universal because it extends until the end of time. But most of all, the Church is universal and catholic because it passes beyond the boundaries of time and space to include both heaven and earth.

This teaching on the catholicity of the church comes to us in the classic language of the Church Triumphant, the Church Militant, and the Church Suffering or Expectant. The Church Triumphant is the Church we honor today on All Saints’ Day: those Christians who have completed their journey and enjoy the vision of God in heaven. We who make up the Church on earth are classically called the Church Militant; “militant” in the sense that we are in the midst of the struggle with sin and the work of ushering in the fullness of the Kingdom of God.

Indeed God is so merciful and gentle, that even if we don’t complete this purification of our hearts by the time we finish our pilgrimage of this life, even if we don’t succeed in allowing the grace of God to make us saints by the day we die, God provides a stage of further purification for us after our death. This is the Church Expectant or Suffering, the holy souls in purgatory. These are the dead for whom we are always praying at Mass, that they might arrive at the fullness of God’s presence in heaven and become the saints who pray for us.

So that’s the universal, Catholic Church: the Church on earth, in the midst of the struggle with sin and the work of the kingdom of God, the Church in purgatory made up of those enduring their final purifications for the perfection of the life of heaven, and the saints themselves, those who have completed their journey and enjoy the perfect joy and fulfillment of God’s immediate presence.

The good news for us today is that we enjoy the communion of saints. This ancient doctrine teaches us that the Church in Heaven, the Church on earth, and the church in Purgatory are not spiritually separate. We are all in communion with each other and connected to each other on the spiritual level. This is why I can ask Blessed Mary or St. Joseph or St. Francis to pray for me just as easily as I can ask one of you to pray for me. Our communion also enables us to pray for the holy souls in Purgatory, and even to apply our good intentions to them to speed them on their way to Heaven.

So in the sublime observances of these two wonderfully catholic days, let us honor all the saints, those who are canonized and those whose holiness remains unknown, those who kept the faith safe to be handed on to us, and those whom we knew ourselves. Let us give thanks to God for their constant prayer for us. Tomorrow, let us pray for the holy souls in Purgatory, thanking God for this most merciful expression of his gentleness, that the holy souls may be sped on their way to heaven and become intercessors for us who remain on the pilgrimage of this life.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Can You Drink The Cup That I Drink?

(29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, B)

As soon as we begin to hear the gospel today, we know that something is very wrong. James and John approach the Lord and say, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” What? The disciples don’t get to boss around the master, or the learners the teacher! That’s backwards! We’ve all been in those homes where it is the children who are running the family, or God forbid, the cat. The rotten fruits of such disorder are many, and such confusion is the problem of James and John as they try to tell the Lord what to do.

James and John want to sit on Jesus’ right and left when he comes into his glory. Fine; Jesus knows that they will, but he also knows that they do not understand that his glory will be his exaltation on the throne of the Cross. They do not understand what they have surely heard in the Scriptures: Isaiah’s prophecy that the one who accomplishes the will of the LORD will be God’s “suffering servant.”

Jesus asks, “Can you drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” St. John Chrysostom teaches that this cup is Jesus’ destiny as the Suffering Servant, and the baptism is his Passion. The Passion of Christ is a baptism because it accomplishes the purification and renewal of the world. Are James and John ready for the same destiny? Or perhaps closer to home, are we?

Here at Mass we ought to keep Jesus’ challenge in mind—“Can you drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”—when we approach the Lord’s suffering in Holy Communion. We who are devout Catholics have received Holy Communion many more times than we can remember, and so one danger for us is that we might begin to receive casually. It’s a serious thing to dare to receive Our Lord in Holy Communion. Here at Mass we receive his broken Body and his Blood poured out on the Cross. We consent to receive the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus Christ into our bodies. It ought to fill us with a little bit of healthy fear and trembling, because to receive the sacrifice of Christ into our lives and our bodies is to allow God to configure our souls to Christ the Suffering Servant. In our Holy Communion we are asking to drink Jesus’ own cup of suffering, and to be baptized into his Passion and death. Now this is the Passion and death that is the purifying baptism for the world, but that doesn’t make it easy. It is a joyful thing to receive our Lord in Holy Communion, but it is also a grave challenge.

This is how the reversal Jesus teaches at the end of the gospel today makes sense. When we consent to be configured to the sacrifice of Christ, when we become willing to share in the saving work of the Suffering Servant, we effect in our own selves a reversal of the abusive power structures of the world. The rulers of this world like to lord it over those subject to them, but Jesus says it shall not be so among us who are his disciples. “Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.” To be great in Christ is to be servant; this is the salvation from abuse of power and oppression that God offers to the world in his Son. Let us reverently approach the Lord in Holy Communion today, and allow ourselves to be shaped into the pattern of God the Servant revealed to us in Jesus Christ, that God may accomplish in us the salvation He gives to the world in his Son.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

But Wait, There's More!

(28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, B)

After our break last week for the feast of St. Francis, we return to our reading in the gospel of St. Mark, and we have a real treasure today in this account of a man who seeks to know from Jesus how he can “inherit eternal life.”

The story is worth breaking down step by step. We first meet the man when he runs up to Jesus and kneels down before him. So right away we see the man in a posture of prayer, kneeling before the Lord, and no different from we ourselves when we come here before the Lord’s sanctuary and kneel before him in the Most Blessed Sacrament. We also note that the man ran. This prayer of his is urgent, and it’s one of the most basic prayers: “Good Teacher, what must I do?” We all know this prayer; I’ll bet that we have all prayed it. For the young who still have to decide what to do with their lives, the prayer has a particularly strong edge, ‘Lord, what should I do? What will be my vocation in this life?’ But the prayer is real for all of us; all the way through life we find ourselves in new situations, in new troubles and joys that push us to prayer, to the seeking of what God means for us to do. This is one of the basic prayers of every human heart: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

The first answer Jesus gives is very plain: “You know the commandments,” he says. The way to salvation is no big secret; it isn’t specialized or arcane knowledge. The commandments are there for us to keep and inherit eternal life. So the man says, “all of these I have observed from my youth.” So what is this man’s problem? If he has kept all of the commandments from his youth, why is running up to the Teacher to ask what he is supposed to do? He seems to have already done what God asks!

Here we arrive at one of the spiritual truths that this gospel passage brings out. Has anyone here ever felt as if she or he wasn’t doing enough for God? You know, not praying enough, not thinking on God enough, not doing enough to live out our faith? I certainly feel that way all the time. I once read something by a retreat director who said that when people go on retreat, the first thing they do is start apologizing for not praying enough, not reflecting adequately on their Christian life, etc. Why do we feel that way? It’s simple: The Love of God is eternal and infinite. Our response to the Love of God, as limited creatures, is never going to live up to God, never going to be adequate to His infinity and eternity.

In fact, the holier we become in this life, the closer we come to the Mystery of God, the more inadequate our own prayer and devotion will feel. That’s why the saints saw themselves as the greatest of sinners. Because they were so close to God, the overwhelming brightness and goodness of God magnified their faults and sins. When people distance themselves from God, they stop caring about their sins. It’s only when we get close to God that we worry about them again.

So, if we ever felt as if our Christian lives or our prayer isn’t what it should be, congratulations! This is a sure sign of some closeness to God! And when we are ready to consent, the Love of God is always ready to invite us into the next step. Notice again one of the little details in the gospel: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him,” and that’s when Jesus invites the man to sell what he has, give to the poor, and to follow him.

When we consent to receive the Love of God, it’s not always ‘warm and fuzzy;’ God’s Love is very challenging! And as we heard, the man found that he wasn’t ready for the next step to which the Love of God invited him. He “went away sad” because of his many possessions. But notice also that it doesn’t say that the man didn’t do it! For all we know he may have regrouped spiritually in prayer, and fulfilled Jesus’ invitation later on. New moments in our spiritual life often seem overwhelming at first, but this is only to teach us to rely upon God’s help as we go forward.

So, as we make our Holy Communion today, may each of us run up to Jesus and kneel before him. Let us meet his loving gaze into our eyes and seek from him the next step into the goodness of God for each of us.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Francis

(Solemnity of our our holy father Francis, deacon, founder of the three orders)

It’s almost overwhelming to have this beautiful opportunity to preach of the feast of our holy father Francis. You could make a lifetime hobby out of reading biographies of St. Francis. You could make a whole film festival out of St. Francis movies. Everyone seems to have something to say about him, and a lot of different people come to be attracted to Francis for a lot of different reasons. So where do we begin our reflection today for this memorial of his passing to eternal life, 783 years ago this night?

Well, for all that has been written, filmed, and said about St. Francis, we actually have precious little that he wrote about himself. Within that, we have still less that he wrote about his conversion, and what went on within him to make him into this great saint and founder not only of religious orders, but of a movement, of a family and style of Catholic spirituality that flourishes in the Church down to our own day. So one of the most precious documents in the Franciscan tradition is the Testament that Francis wrote for the friars at the end of his life. It’s a short, dense little document—hardly three or four pages in a modern printed book—but is full of the passion and heroic faith of our holy father. Today I though I would share a little of it with you.

Francis begins his Testament by recounting his conversion: “The Lord gave me, brother Francis, thus to begin to do penance in this way…” Notice that! When St. Francis tells his own story, who is the first character we meet? It’s the Lord! The main character in the story of Francis is not Francis, but God. That says so much. We do not really celebrate today the man Francesco di Bernardone, this spoiled son of a affluent merchant who became—perhaps much to his own surprise—someone celebrated for his sanctity in his own lifetime, but instead we celebrate the willingness of Francis to let the grace of God shine through him into the world. This is what it means, in this context, to “do penance”—simply to turn oneself back to God. It’s not, as people sometimes say in our own time, ‘this is how I found the Lord,’ or ‘I converted,’ but, “The Lord granted me, brother Francis, to begin to do penance in this way.”

This primacy of God’s initiative continues in Francis’s life. A little further on, in one of the most beloved parts of the Testament, Francis writes that when “the Lord gave me some brothers, no one showed me what I had to do, but the Most High Himself revealed to me that I should live according to the pattern of the Holy Gospel.” Here we see the beautiful simplicity of Francis. Did he make up a way of life for himself and his brothers? No. “The Most High Himself revealed to me that I should live according to the pattern of the Holy Gospel.”

So, what is this beginning “to do penance,” and this living “according to the pattern of the Holy Gospel”? We return to the beginning of the Testament: “the Lord granted me, brother Francis to begin to do penance in this way: for when I was in sin, it seemed too bitter for me to see lepers. And the Lord himself led me among them. And when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body.”

The Lord himself effected Francis’s conversion by leading him among the lepers and inspiring him to have mercy on them. The lepers were those in Francis’s time who—because of their terrible suffering and disfiguring disease—were excluded from society. They had to live outside of the protection of the town, vulnerable and despised. By allowing himself to be led among the lepers, Francis reverses the course of his life; he turns, he converts, and begins to do penance. You see, Francis was born into the up-and-coming merchant class, those traders and bankers who were the first developers of the capitalist world we know today. In Francis’s time, this new class of merchants were beginning to have enough power—through their wealth—that they could sometimes challenge the old, hereditary power of the nobility. Indeed, this happened in Assisi when Francis was a younger man. So Francis arrived in this world as part of a group of people who were moving up. By going to the lepers, Francis reversed this process. He went from ‘upwardly mobile’ to ‘downwardly mobile.’

This turn is the core of the Franciscan spirit. The world tells us to become richer and more powerful, and Francis was on his way. But instead he chose to put himself below those who were least in his society. He became a lesser brother, a “friar minor” as he would decide to call the brothers who followed him. For me, this is why Francis and his vision and life continue to speak to us. We live in an increasingly aimless and violent world, and on this Respect Life Sunday we might call to mind some of the terrible crimes that have become normalized in our society because we have traded in the Living God for the cults of power, wealth, security, and convenience. Francis shows us the way out: renounce our idolatry of money and power and “begin to do penance” by making ourselves into the servants of the least.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Prophets

(26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, B)

In the first reading today we hear the interesting account of the spirit of prophecy being given to the seventy elders of Israel. As we heard, two of these elders missed the prayer gathering, but even though they were absent the spirit of prophecy descended on them as well. As it was then, so it is now—there are always people who begrudge God for his generosity, and when Eldad and Medad are seen prophesying without having shown up for the service or whatever it was, Joshua entreats Moses to put a stop to it. So Moses, in rebuke, utters one of his greatest lines in the Sacred Scriptures: “Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets! Would that the LORD might bestow his spirit on them all!” The only Christian rock act I have ever been able to abide, a wacky garage band called the Knights of the New Crusade, sometimes ends songs or sets with this cry, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets!”

There is a little irony here; perhaps he doesn’t know it, but Moses is proclaiming the principal prophetic word of the passage. ‘Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets! Would that the LORD might bestow his spirit on them all!” The good news for us is that in Jesus Christ, God has indeed bestowed his spirit on all of his people and made us into prophets. Recall for a moment the scene of Jesus’ baptism, and how in every version we are told of the Holy Spirit that descended upon him at that moment. Now just as God took some of the spirit that was on Moses and gave it to the seventy elders, so by our baptism into the death and Resurrection of Christ, God has taken some that Holy Spirit that descended upon Jesus and given it to each of us. The Holy Spirit is given to each baptized Christian, is nourished by our sharing in the Holy Eucharist, and sealed and strengthened in each of us in the sacrament of Confirmation.

This is a big deal. As individuals and as the universal Church of Jesus Christ, we are the fulfillment of Moses’ cry, ‘Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets! Would that the LORD might bestow his spirit on them all!’ We have been given a prophetic vocation, that is, the call to be those who speak the Truth in the world.

You only have to take a brief look at our society to see how confused and vague we have become about the Truth. In college I was taught that there was no such thing as the Truth of human life, but only ‘truths in life’ that one might find for oneself. This is the grave situation of relativism which our Holy Father Benedict has warned us about so many times. We can see the rotten fruit of a world in which is there is no right and wrong—only ‘right for me’—all around us, and this is why it is so important for us to embrace our prophetic vocation as those who are called to tell the Truth. We who are baptized are given the privilege, joy, and duty of sharing in the ministry of Christ the Prophet. Maybe we don’t always think of ourselves as prophets, but that’s what we are. And the role of a prophet is to tell the Truth.

This is a big deal, and it is important to God. Through Jesus Christ, God has placed his prophetic Spirit on us, that we ourselves might be the truth-telling presence of Christ in the world. This matters so much, that, as we heard in the gospel, if someone should interfere with one of Jesus’ little ones becoming this kind of disciple, it would be better for him to be drowned in the sea. And for ourselves, our vocation as those who have become prophets for the sake of the world is so precious that anything at all within us that keeps us from it is to be cut off and thrown away.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Humility Against Fear

(25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, B)

The gospel we hear today continues the section of St. Mark we read last Sunday. Recall how we heard St. Peter make his great confession of faith, “You are the Christ.” But when Jesus explained what it will mean be to the Christ of God—that he will have to be rejected, suffer, be killed, and rise after three days, Peter did not understand and even tried to rebuke Jesus. At that point Jesus turned it around and rebuked Peter instead, identifying him with the tempter himself, saying “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”

After this, as we hear today, Jesus and the disciples then begin a journey. While they are on the way, Jesus continues to try to teach them what it means that he is the Christ: “The Son of man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise.”

But the disciples still don’t get it, and, as St. Mark tells us, they are afraid to ask. In fact, the gospel reveals in a subtle way the confused spiritual condition of the disciples. On the one hand, they discuss on the way the question of “who is the greatest.” But on the other hand, these alleged candidates for greatness are afraid to even ask Jesus a question! If they’re so great, what are they afraid of? A very human truth is revealed here. So many times when people are full of themselves, think that they’re great, are stuck up, bossy, or conceited, the truth inside is that they are insecure and afraid.

By even concerning themselves with ‘who is the greatest’ the disciples are indulging themselves in a spiritual dead end. But by his act of placing the child in the midst of them, by his embrace of the child and his words, Jesus cuts through the fear and arrogance of the disciples in two ways.

First, Jesus teaches us that if we love God, if we desire the presence of God in Jesus Christ in our lives, then we must receive him in those who are vulnerable and powerless in this world. “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.” This is the self-denial that we as disciples of the Lord are called to; this is what it means to take up our own cross. We must forget about ourselves, sometimes even about how religious and holy we are, and cast our attention on receiving the poor and vulnerable around us. It is in these that the Presence of Christ is hidden.

The second teaching is the other side of the first. Each of us has ways in which we are poor, needy, and vulnerable, at least on the spiritual level. Thus, each of us, like the child Jesus embraces—a powerless nobody in society at that time—can be a bearer of the Presence of Christ to other people in our lives. But this only works if we are willing to accept and embrace our spiritual poverty, to admit our brokenness, to confess that we are all more or less at fault for the fallen state of the world. If we try to cover up our fears, anxieties, and other spiritual poverties by pretending to be great, we prevent the Presence of Christ from shining through our weakness and poverty, and deny that Presence to the people around us.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Scandal of the Cross

(24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, B)

Today we arrive at Mark the Evangelist’s account of St. Peter’s great confession: “You are the Christ,” the basic and fundamental confession of faith of Christianity. Peter’s confession, which is recorded by the gospels of Matthew and Luke as well, is important for us on many levels. First of all, as we know from St. Matthew’s version, Peter’s faith is the Rock on which Jesus builds his Church, and this faith is kept for us in an unbroken handing-on, a “tradition” down to St. Peter’s successor in our own day, our Holy Father Benedict XVI.

Along with that, Peter’s confession, “You are the Christ,” is important for us on a personal level. We’ve all had that moment or moments of the interior realization of faith, of confession that Jesus is the Christ, or else we wouldn’t be here at Sunday Mass. And our confession of faith has consequences that are not easy, as Peter learns the hard way.

As soon as Peter expresses his faith that Jesus is the Christ, Jesus goes on to tell him what this means: that the Christ will be rejected and killed, but will rise on the third day. Peter is scandalized; he is offended. To be the Christ is to be a great person, indeed the greatest of people; he should be like the powerful of this world who sit and dispense benefits on their friends and trouble on their enemies. That’s what the Christ should be like, Peter thinks, perhaps. Jesus regards this as a temptation, and rebukes Peter in turn, identifying him with the tempter himself, Satan. “Get behind me…you are thinking not as God does, but as humans do.”

This is the scandal of the Cross, and it is the heart of Christianity. In Jesus the almightiness and the power of God are revealed not in a lording over the world or a need to control, but in a perfect self-sacrifice. Our God is not a god who sits above us like a worldly ruler, doing good for his friends and condemning his enemies. No, our God is a god who places himself below us as a “suffering servant,” offering salvation and grace to all, deserving or not, grateful or not, good and bad.

As if this isn’t hard enough to swallow, Jesus goes on to say that if we wish to follow him, the Cross is our destiny as well. So when we have the realization, the grace of making the confession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord, we know that the Cross awaits us. “Whoever wishes to come after me, must deny himself.” That goes against everything the world teaches. For the world teaches us to take care of ourselves, to get for ourselves what we need and want, and to protect our security once we have it.

Where has the worldly doctrine of self-service gotten us? What has it done to the world? Well, the evidence is all around us. The world teaches us to seek comfort, pleasure, convenience, wealth, and security, but it is a cult of values that do not exist, and it has left us with a world plagued by divisions and injustice. It is has left the conscience of the public so seared and confused that we can even entertain the question of killing our unborn children or of destroying God’s earth in the name of our extravagant and indulgent lifestyles, for example.

But we must not be discouraged, for Jesus has demonstrated for us the way that this world can leave this selfish self-destruction behind and find salvation instead. We are to follow him by taking up the Cross, by imitating him as suffering servant, as the self-emptying and self-sacrificing savior. If we care about the world and its well-being—as God does so passionately as to turn over his own Son into our violent hands—may we let go of our cult of comfort, convenience, and security, forget about ourselves and offer ourselves in sacrifice for each other. Anybody who has ever done direct service to the poor, cared for their own or someone else’s child, or even prayed for a friend knows that self-sacrifice in imitation of Christ is the path to true freedom and happiness. Let us follow that joy, for it is the taste of the Passion and passionate Love with which God longs to save the world through the Christ.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Speech Impediments

(23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, B)

I’ve been here with you over two years now, and so I’ve fallen into various regular patterns of life, like what I might do on a day off, for example. Sometimes on a day off I like to take a walk down to St. Mary’s. I like that church very much, and I can make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament, or maybe go to confession or attend the midday Mass. Then I walk back down the Square, have a couple of tacos, and then get on the #2 or the #6 bus and come home. I know; I lead a pretty boring life.

So one day a couple of months ago I was walking down Park Avenue on my way to St. Mary’s. I had just crossed Lake Avenue when I noticed a funeral procession emerging from Whalen & Ball. That’s when I remembered there was to be a funeral here at Sacred Heart morning, so I paused in my walk there on the corner of Park and Lake to pray for the deceased and the mourners as the procession passed. Now I don’t know what happened, but something went wrong in the intersection: somebody got cut off; I wasn’t sure. But whatever happened, one of the mourners, with his car windows down no less, started cursing another driver pretty forcefully. I mean, it was pretty bad—the sort of thing you might expect to hear hanging out with drunken merchant marines, but not from someone on his way to Holy Mass. As I stood there, and as I continued my walk, I began to reflect on how there was a good chance that this man would soon be receiving Holy Communion with that same foul and cursing tongue.

Now, it’s sad, and it reveals something of the terrible sickness of irreverence for the Sacraments that afflicts us as a Catholic culture, but it also reveals something about God. Jesus is willing to be received by sinners; he allows himself to be placed on the same tongue that indulged such useless and self-destructive passion as that man displayed that morning. In this, and in the Holy Communion we receive, Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise we hear today in the prophet Isaiah, “Here is your God…he comes to save you.”

Are we so different from the foul-mouthed, angry man I encountered that morning on the corner of Park and Lake? I know I’m not. In fact, it seems to me that a very large proportion of our day-to-day sinning we do with our voices and our tongues. Gossip, bochinche, detraction, calumny, foul or unchaste words—all of these sins flourish in our workplaces and our neighborhoods. When we commit them, we aren’t much different either from the man with the speech impediment in the gospel today, because whenever we fail to use our voices for the prayer, praise, and “good things people need to hear” as Ephesians 4:29 puts it, we impede the grace of God in the world. That we have these voices by which we speak is an aspect of our creation in the image and likeness of God, who from all eternity speaks the Eternal Word Who becomes flesh for our salvation in Jesus Christ. We are created to imitate our Creator, and our voices are no exception. They are meant to be voices that speak God’s words and breathe forth God’s kindness and gentleness in the world.

As Jesus gave his healing touch to the man in the gospel and healed his speech impediment, so he also touches our tongues today in Holy Communion. Let us hear the prayer of the Lord for us: “Be opened!” Let us allow the healing touch of Christ open our voices to let go of whatever sin we commit with them, and become channels for the Word of God to enter the world, voices of prayer, praise, and the “good things people need to hear.”

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Religion

(22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, B)

The readings we hear today invite us into a reflection on religious observance. Now this is an old-fashioned term, ‘religious observance.’ Nowadays people like to talk about ‘spiritual practice.’ But whatever we call it, we’re talking about the practices that we perform and the day-to-day habits we work on in trying to enshrine spiritual values in our lives. It’s all the stuff that we do with the specific goal of the worship of God and as a response to God’s loving initiative in our lives. In short it’s our religion. Indeed, one possible etymology of the word “religion” suggests that it derives from the Latin verb ligo, which means to tie or bind something. Acts of religion, religious observance, spiritual practice, these are all ways of talking about deliberate, concrete behaviors to which we bind ourselves so as to tie our lives more closely to the God we adore.

It seems to me that the Sacred Scriptures today help us to reflect on three points with this. First, why we observe religion; that is, the question of motivation. Second, what it is we ought to practice. Third, how we can discern, review, and judge our own religious habits or spiritual practices.

The first reading from the book of Deuteronomy addresses the question of why. Moses introduces God’s Law to the people, explaining to them that by observing it, they will give evidence of their wisdom, intelligence, and intimacy with God. Now you only have to look at the newspaper to see or go out into the streets to see how sorely wisdom and intelligence are lacking in our world. It’s because people have forgotten about the Source of Wisdom and Intelligence whom we call God. So by observing religion and doing our daily spiritual practice, we are serving not only ourselves but the world; we are missionary witnesses to the Truth—the truth of itself about which the world has forgotten.

Given this motivation, we are ready to renew or embark on habits of religion and spiritual practice. But what should we do? Exactly what will we observe? This can be a very delicate question, and it brings us to the gospel for the second point. Jesus and his disciples are attacked for the failure to observe. But are they attacked for failing to observe the Jewish Law? No; it’s the so-called “tradition of the elders” that they don’t observe. There’s the problem. These particular Scribes and Pharisees—at least according to St. Mark—were teaching their particular traditional practice as if it were the Tradition, which it wasn’t. This sort of thing goes on among religious people to this day. In Catholic Christianity we have a deposit of Sacred Tradition that is immensely rich, and full of many different spiritual practices and styles. But many times someone will find the little strain of the Tradition that works well for them, and then begin to teach it as if it were the Tradition itself. So you get one person who says that you’re not really praying unless you say the Divine Mercy chaplet every day at three in the afternoon. One says that the Extraordinary Form of the Mass is the only one worth offering, while another says that only the Ordinary Form is correct. If they’re real spiritual snobs they might say that contemplation is the only real prayer. And though all of these practices are beautiful and holy and dear to God, this line of argument is completely false and dangerous. Prayer is close to the heart and thus close to the temperament of the individual. In other words, there are lots of ways to pray in the tradition because we are the ‘catholic’ or universal Church, and there’s room for everybody. So pray in whatever way you are attracted, and be grateful—for this is the Holy Spirit within you.

The third point is about reviewing and judging our religious habits and our spiritual practice. This is important to do—if the gospels teach us anything about religion, it’s that it can go very wrong. So we always need to step back from time to time and examine ourselves as practitioners of the faith. But here’s the trick: we can’t evaluate our practice of religion by looking at the practice itself. Just because we attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation and offer our prayers each day doesn’t mean we’re all set. To evaluate our personal—or even communal—practice of religion, we need to look at what comes out of our heart the rest of the time. Jesus lists for us all the evil that proceeds from our hearts: theft, unchastity, greed, arrogance, envy, deceit, and all the rest. If our hearts continue to produce all of these unabated, then our prayer and practice aren’t working. If we notice our hearts becoming more patient, gentle, chaste, and forgiving, then we know our spiritual practice is working by drawing is further into God. This is why we don’t judge the holiness of our religious observance by the observance itself, but by who we are during the remainder of the ordinary moments, relationships, and interactions of our days.

So let us take up the solid, spiritual food of the tried and true spiritual practice of the Catholic Tradition, and let us watch our hearts so as to rejoice to see how it puts us on the path to sanctity in this life and sainthood in the next.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Hard Saying

(21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, B)

For the last four Sundays, we have been reading in the section of St. John’s gospel called the ‘Bread of Life discourse,’ and we have heard all the sublime and beautiful teaching of Jesus about how he gives himself to the world as the food of salvation we receive here at Mass. Today we arrive at the end of the discourse and its jarring and anti-climactic conclusion. After all of this encouraging and beautiful teaching, “many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.” They said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?”

So it was with the first disciples of Jesus, as it was with the first hearers of the gospel of John, and so it is now. Our Lord’s gift of himself as the Bread for the life of the world, kept for us in the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist down through the centuries, remains a ‘hard saying.’ The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist "the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained.” (§ 1374) From the early Church until today, unbelievers have mocked, despised, and disregarded our Catholic teaching on the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Even among us Catholics, public opinion polls have suggested that many of us don’t even really believe what the Church teaches about the Body and Blood of Christ we receive here at Mass. Not that they’re really to blame sometimes, because there is a lot of bad or at least incomplete doctrine and preaching out there. I remember one of my own teachers, a Catholic priest and professor of theology, taught us a certain analogy for understanding the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It seemed kind of fishy to me at the time, so imagine my surprise and vindication when I came across the same analogy—in the works of the protestant reformer Ulrich Zwingli!

That Jesus Christ, broken on the Cross and rising to new life as the first fruits of the Resurrection to come, should give that same broken and risen body to us as the Bread of Life here at Mass, remains a ‘hard saying,’ and even us who are believers can admit it. To me, I think this is a hard teaching on two levels. The first level seems hard at first but really isn’t, and the second level we don’t always think about, but it’s the one that is actually the hardest.

To believe that the bread and wine we offer here at Mass become the Body and Blood of Christ is perhaps not too hard. Since there is nothing to see, no observable change in the elements—God being way too humble a character for that—our belief is basically just an intellectual assent. But it’s also an assent we come to by our concrete experience. If we receive Holy Communion each week as devoutly as we can, making use of the sacrament of confession when we need to, we will see the fruits of the Presence of Christ we receive in our lives. We will be changed and set each day more on the path of spiritual freedom and sanctity. Thus we will come to believe more fully that we have actually received the Presence of Christ into our lives and we will have an ever easier time consenting to the truth of his Presence in the Eucharist we receive.

The really hard thing is to encounter the kind of God who wills to be revealed in this way. This, to me, is the truly difficult teaching, the ‘hard saying’ of Christianity. When God reveals himself to the world, what appears? On the one hand a newborn, vulnerable child, born of young, poor parents away from home. On the other hand, God reveals himself as a condemned criminal, tortured and in the midst of his execution. These are the mysteries of the Nativity and the Passion, the revelations of God in the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, and they reveal a God who is sublimely humble. Far from lording it over the world like a god we might create in our image, our God is one who places himself below us as our Suffering Servant.

This is not a god sitting on a lofty throne dispensing blessings to his friends and punishments on his enemies. This is not the landlord god who allows us to live in a state of grace as long as we behave. This is not a god who delights in controlling his creation. No. This is the living God who reveals himself in the humility of a vulnerable baby, in the humiliation of a tortured criminal, and who continues these sublimely humble and humbly sublime Presences among us by giving himself to us as our Nourishment. So let us receive the humble God into our bodies and our lives as devoutly as we can, and so become the mystery of humble service to the world that we receive in the Bread of Life.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Lady Wisdom

(20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, B)

In the first reading today from the book of Proverbs, we encounter one of the great feminine images of God in the Sacred Scriptures, Wisdom, is preparing her table for her dinner guests. This passage we heart today is part of a larger section in which two banquets are being prepared, one by Wisdom and the other by Folly. Whose invitation will we accept? Who will be our hostess in this life, Wisdom or Folly?

We who are Christians know this personification of divine Wisdom, the Lady setting her table, as one image of the second person of the Blessed Trinity. Let’s just review our theology of the Trinity: God is so good, such an overwhelming Love, that from all eternity God overflows into a perfect self-expression. We usually call this first procession of the Blessed Trinity the Word or the Son. It is through this Word that God makes the universe; i.e., ‘God said…and so it happened.’ This is the Word that becomes flesh for us in the humanity of Jesus Christ.

So we are talking about the self-expression of God. Word, Son, Wisdom, there are all ways of talking about the self-communication of God, revealing to us what God is like, what is God’s personality, if you will; God’s style, desire, and will. This is what the written Word of God is for us in the Sacred Scriptures, just as is the birth, teaching, passion and death of the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ; it is all the loving God speaking to us of his desire and will for the good of every creature.

And so it also with minor images from the Sacred Scripture of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, like the woman Wisdom we encounter in Proverbs today. She reveals for us something of what God is like. God is like a woman carefully setting a table and preparing a meal. She calls to her potential guests, inviting them to “forsake foolishness” and come into her wise Presence.

Jesus proclaims that the one who feeds on him will have life, just as he has life from the Father. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.” This is the same invitation: to come to the table of Wisdom and receive the food of eternal life. Jesus says that the one who eats his body and drinks his blood has eternal life. Not, will have eternal life, but has eternal life. Now. So in our communion with the humanity of Christ in this Eucharist, the overflowing Love—which is God—comes to live in us in all its eternity.

In one of the quiet prayers of the priest during the Mass, our Holy Communion is called the remedium sempiternum, or as our new Mass translation will call it, a “healing for eternity.” Coming here to this altar, to the table that Wisdom has prepared, we receive our divine medicine, the antidote to the wisdom of this world.

For the wisdom of this world is just cleverness at it best or pride at its worst. The wisdom of this world is about getting for ourselves something that somebody else lacks. But the Wisdom of God is instead about letting go of ourselves that others might live and flourish. This is nothing more than to imitate the self-emptying Incarnation and sorrowful Passion of Jesus Christ, and to imitate and become like Christ is the work of us who are Christ-ians.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Get Up and Eat

(19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, B)

Elijah, in the course of fleeing for his life from Ahab and Jezebel, gets tired. He gives up. He prays for death, and goes to sleep under a tree. The angel comes to him, not with an invitation, but a command: “Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you.” The food the angel provides strengthens Elijah to walk forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God.

Now when we hear this account of the man of God Elijah, right away we see ourselves in the story. We are in the same position. Our lives, like Elijah’s flight, can seem like a tiring journey. We are constantly threatened by sickness, insecurity, relationships that don’t work, and so many other hard things. The world around us isn’t very encouraging either; increasingly violent and aimless, a world without God or even respect for life or nature leaves us all a little more empty of motivation.

Now probably not a lot of us, faced with the terrors and troubles of this life, are going to totally give up and lie down and pray for death like Elijah did. Nevertheless, there are lots of subtle ways in which we can tempted to give up. Perhaps we see the social problems of our neighborhoods or our nation and they seem overwhelming, so we withdraw from our privilege of being active citizens locally and nationally. Maybe we notice here at Mass that there are a lot Catholics missing from the Lord’s assembly, but we don’t ask the Holy Spirit to show us opportunities to challenge the lapsed Catholics we know to be faithful to the promises of their baptism. In religious life or the priesthood we can tempted to just live our own journey as best we can, while ignoring the malaise and the decadence around us, and thinking that the scandal some religious and priests give to the world is somebody else’s business.

In the Lord’s own words, we Christians, no matter what our state in life, are meant to be light, salt, and leaven for the world. We are called by our baptism into Christ to be a force for the enlightenment and transformation of the world as it makes its way into the Kingdom of God.

This is a very tall order. It will not be easy, and left to ourselves and our own lights and strengths, of course we would give up. So God says to us, as the angel said to Elijah, “Get up and eat” and be fortified for your journey. This is God’s response to the mess we have made of our lives and this world: not a magical fix, but a desire to share with us his own divine life and power, so that we might take responsibility for ourselves. This is the word that comes to us here at Mass, “Get up and eat.” Here we receive the strengthening nourishment we need to fulfill our vocation of holiness and Christian leadership during our earthly journey.

In the Eucharist we receive the divine nourishment we need to let go of fear and walk boldly through troubled lives and a lost and violent world. As Jesus says, “the one who believes has eternal life.” Not, ‘will have eternal life,’ but has eternal life. Now. In our Holy Communion the eternal and indestructible Life and Creativity that is God himself comes to live in our hands, in our bodies, and in our lives. The fruit of this for us is twofold. First, our communion with Christ unites us to his dying and rising, and gives us the confidence that we will share in his Resurrection. “Whoever eats this bread will live forever.” Second, by receiving the Bread of Life we make a home for divine power and creativity in ourselves, and so far from giving up, we are empowered to become the light and leaven for this world, challenged to lead ourselves and all our suffering brothers and sisters out of darkness and gloom into the blessed light and peace of the Kingdom of God.

So if we are ever tempted to give up, let us listen to the words of the angel as we prepare to make our Holy Communion, “Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you.”

Friday, July 31, 2009

Making An Easy Thing Hard

(18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, B)

The crowd asks Jesus, “What can we do to accomplish the works of God?” Anyone who believes in God asks this question at some level. If there is a God, what does it mean for me? What does God ask of me? What is God’s will? It’s a really big question, so it’s very good news to hear in the gospel today that the answer is so simple! What does God want from us? “To believe in the one he sent,” Jesus says. That’s it! It’s like that advertising slogan, ‘that was easy.’ “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.” When we do that with all our heart and mind, everything else will fall into place.

But notice how the people in the gospel respond. Rather than accept the good news of this easy answer, they make it hard. They ask, “What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you?” What sign? Are they kidding? This gospel passage follows upon the one we heard last Sunday, when Jesus fed five thousand people with five loaves of bread. What sign can you do? Are these folks that forgetful?

But aren’t we like that all the time? Take this very morning for example. We wake up, open our eyes and begin to see this miraculous and beautiful creation. The sun rises on both the bad and the good, a symbol of God’s generous blessing to each of his creatures. If we have a family, perhaps we are greeted by people we love in the morning, revealing the grace of God as it has come to dwell in our lives through the love that is God’s Spirit among us. If we are aware of all this, we arrive at Mass filled with gratitude and bursting with the desire to thank God for his goodness to us. But if you’re anything like me, this isn’t what usually happens. Perhaps I’m preoccupied with some difficult relationship, or missing the miracle of the present moment by worrying about something I have to deal with later.

We do this kind of thing a lot. We miss the miracles and beauties of the moment because we are worrying about the future or living in the past. We miss a lot of the gentle acts of God when we live not in the reality of the now, but in futures that don’t yet exist. Or maybe we miss the presence of God in the present because we are living in the past. Look at the people in the first reading. They complained to Moses about being led into the desert, and want the ‘good old days’ in Egypt when they had better food and bread to eat. They were conveniently forgetting that in Egypt they were slaves and victims of hard, forced labor! People always do this. When thinking back to the past, we imagine that things were better because we’re only remembering the things that were in fact better, while sometimes ignoring that the ‘good old days’ weren’t always so good.

God is eternal, so there is no before or after with God. God lives in the eternal Now, what the medievals called the nunc stans. So if we want to notice, appreciate, and live in the wonders and blessings God gives us, we have to notice the now. We have to work against the twofold distraction illustrated by the two readings today: not forgetting the miraculous signs God does at each moment, like the crowd in the gospel, and not selectively remembering the past like the Israelites in the first reading. Let us make it our spiritual practice to pay attention to the goodness of God that comes to us at each moment of the day, for it is the pouring out of the divine life on the world in the Son. When we see it we will believe in the One God sends, and this is the work of God.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Example of the Shepherd

(16th Sunday, B)

When Jesus “saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd.” And isn’t it still true? Our troubled world rolls along day after day, year after year, confused and suffering, and not quite knowing how to really move forward. Turn on one of the TV news channels. Politicians and ‘experts’ argue all day about the fine plans that will get us out of war, protect us from terrorism, fix the economy, and put and end to poverty, racism, hopelessness, and every other social evil. But it doesn’t seem to happen. What’s wrong with us? Why do we have so much trouble trying to make a better world?

The world has not yet succeeded in hearing the voice of the true Shepherd. So often the shepherds of this world fail us. The constant news of political scandals—and Church scandals too!—makes the lament of the prophet Jeremiah just as current for us: “Woe to the shepherds, who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture, says the LORD.”

Yes, both in the Church and in the political world, we can understand Jeremiah’s harsh words against those who were supposed to be good shepherds of the people. But we are also heirs to Jeremiah’s promise: the true King and Son of David, the “LORD our Justice” has indeed appeared, and he is the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the Good Shepherd who shows us the true and successful way to be human beings.

This is part of God’s purpose in the Incarnation of the Son; God gives us our Lord and our Lady to show us how to be human beings. Jesus and Mary reveal humanity as God sees it and was God would have it. The divine humanity of Jesus Christ is for our imitation, as is the perfect discipleship of Christ we see in his Blessed Mother.

Jesus is the Good Shepherd not just in what he teaches, but also by example. Again, in Jesus we see God’s idea of what a human being is—someone who announces the Kingdom of God, meets others with gentleness and peace, heals the sick and suffering, and ultimately offers his life for others. That’s the Jesus we meet here at Sunday Mass.

It’s no accident that the very next passage in St. Mark’s gospel after the one we hear today is the feeding of the five thousand. In this great prefiguring of the holy Eucharist, Jesus acts out his concern for the vast crowd by nourishing them with the bread that only he can give. And so it is with us here at holy Mass. Jesus offers his own divine humanity as our nourishment, so that God’s own idea of perfect and flourishing humanity might find a home in our lives through our Holy Communion.

It is in this sense that as Catholic Christians, we can say that the Eucharist is our social and political agenda. It is the Mass that the divine humanity of the Good Shepherd, the one who can lead us to a safer world of justice and peace, becomes present for us. Let us listen to his voice, rejoice in his Presence come to live within us through Holy Communion, and may we help the world to follow the true Shepherd, the only one who can lead us out of all the self-inflicted misery of this world.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Spirit of Adoption

(15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, B)

The second reading today is the beginning of the letter to the Ephesians. This passage occurs in the Church’s liturgy ever single week, as the New Testament canticle for Evening Prayer, or Vespers, on Mondays. So, if we believe ourselves as Catholic Christians when we say the liturgy expresses our deepest identity, we realize that this is a very important passage of Sacred Scripture for us. And indeed it is, because the letter to the Ephesians contains a deep and beautiful explanation of a key concept for us Christians, namely the “adoption” we enjoy in Jesus Christ.

To begin to understand the wondrous gift of divine adoption we have in Christ, we have to back up a little. Let’s recall what we believe about the Blessed Trinity. God is Love, and anybody who has been in love knows that love—by its nature—wants to overflow; love is superabundant. So, from all eternity, God overflows into a perfect image of God and there is Lover and Beloved in God, the relations we call the Father and the Son. This is what we mean in the Creed when we say that the Son was “begotten, not made,” and “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.” Our belief in the Blessed Trinity is nothing more than the confession that God is Love, and thus God is not a static “supreme being” but a dynamic, relational, Force.

God is a dynamic, perfect, divine Love. Now it’s the nature of love to want to share itself with others. We all know this from our ordinary experience. It’s why people invite friends and families to their weddings. It’s why people want to show us pictures of their children. They have had an experience of love, and want to share it. So it is with the divine Love Who is God. God desires to share himself with someone. And so what happens? Creation. The creation comes to exist so that God might have someone with whom share his Love.

Now we can get back to the grace of adoption. For us creatures endowed with a spiritual and rational soul, God delights to draw us into the divine Love that is between Father and Son, the Love we call the Holy Spirit. God wants to “adopt” us into the filial relationship of God the Father and God the Son. So how is God going to do this? The Son of God will become flesh; this is the mystery of the Incarnation. The Son of God will become flesh so that divine Love will be united to our humanity. Thus our humanity—yours and mine—has a chance to be united to God through the humanity of Christ, “adopted” into the Love of the Lover and Beloved in God and made a sharer in the Holy Spirit which is the bond between Father and Son.

You know, sometimes we have this idea that the Incarnation of the Son was like “plan B” for God. God made the world, our first parents messed it up for everybody, and so then God had to think again and send his Son as man to fix it. But this idea of things doesn’t really stand up to Sacred Scripture. As we heard in the reading, God “chose us in him, before the foundation of the world...for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ.” It’s quite the other way around; creation happens so that the Son of God might become incarnate in it, in order to lift our lives into the original blessing of the Blessed Trinity.

When the Body of Christ is broken on the Cross, the Life of heaven pours out. In our Holy Communion, we climb into the divine Love through the open wounds of that same broken body—the Body of Christ we receive here at Mass. Entering the life of God through our communion with the humanity of Christ, we become daughters and sons in the Son, adopted into the dynamic and eternal Love we call the Blessed Trinity.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Thorns in the Flesh

(14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, B)

Today we hear one of St. Paul’s most famous passages, in which he talks about the “thorn in the flesh,” the “angel of Satan” sent to “beat” him and keep him from being too proud or “elated.”

We can all relate to this. Here we are at Sunday Mass, and our presence here alone reveals that we are people who, to one degree or another, desire a devout life, a life of faithful response to the benevolent initiative of God. Each of us is here because at some level, we want to be good Christians. Now, as we well know, as soon as someone resolves to follow God faithfully, all kinds of obstacles appear. Some of these are internal: perhaps we feel called to pray but are distracted by useless thoughts or temptations to sin. Other obstacles are external: if we resolve, for example, to be patient and kind during our day, we may be eventually worn down by all the tiresome or annoying people we have to deal with.

In our shallowness, we tend to look at such things as preventing us from having the devout life we think we want. But in fact, troubles that appear on the surface as obstacles to our spiritual life are opportunities. We don’t know what Paul was referring to when he talks about the “thorn” in his flesh; perhaps it was a recurring temptation or a physical disability. Maybe it was a human adversary or a particularly annoying co-worker. But whatever his trouble was, the point is that Paul did not see his “thorn in the flesh” as something keeping him from sanctity, but as something that helped him. And we can do the same thing with our own distractions, with our temptations, and with everything that threatens to take away our peace in the course of our day.

Here’s a simple, almost trite example to bring out the point. Our parish secretary is a sweet lady, and in her sweetness she keeps a big jar of jelly beans on her desk. I really like jelly beans. But in truth I don’t really want to eat them. First of all, once I start I can’t stop. I’m already too heavy, and refined sugar plays with my emotions. If I eat the jelly beans, an hour later I feel depressed for no reason. In the course of a day, I pass by the jelly bean jar many times, and I have to deal with the little temptation. In this situation I have a spiritual choice. I can indulge a kind the pious self-pity that says, ‘If only the jelly beans weren’t there, I wouldn’t have to deal with this temptation and I could go through my day in prayerful peace.’ Or, I can use the little temptation as an opportunity to turn to God and hear from him, with Paul, the assurance that God’s grace is sufficient for the salvation of even a sinner like me. Thus I can turn what seems like a temptation and a spiritual obstacle to my advantage, as a reminder that I need to turn to God and depend on God’s power to help me live the healthy and joyful life that I really want.

Now this is a light and silly example. But the point is the form of the spiritual choice. And we can do this with everything negative, from bad thoughts to misfortunes, and even with the annoying and unreasonable people we have to deal with. Instead of pitying ourselves because some temptation or problem has taken away our peace, we can use the trouble as an opportunity to turn and entrust ourselves to God.

So, whatever the “thorn in the flesh” is for each of us, let us see that we have a choice in how we use it spiritually. Let us not lament it in self-pity, but give thanks to God for it. When our particular “angel of Satan” comes to tempt and beat us in the course of our day, let us use our trouble well and let it turn us to God. And let us pray, ‘I know Lord, that your grace is sufficient for my salvation. Thank you for these troubles and temptations, because they remind me that all my strength comes from you. Thank you for yet another chance to turn to you, who are my God.”

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Sickness and Healing

(13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, B)

The Scriptures we hear today lead us to reflect on the mysteries of sickness and health, of illness and wellness. Everyone knows the experience of sickness, both in themselves and in the suffering of others. We know the tragedy of the terrible diseases that afflict those we love, and we are always aware of the fact that most of us will one day suffer through the last illness that will end in our death.

We automatically know that there is something wrong with this. It isn’t right that people suffer, that disease unjustly ends lives prematurely, and that people die. Sickness and death, in a way, are the simplest signs that there is something wrong with the world. We all know it in our hearts. People shouldn’t have to get sick, and shouldn’t have to die. The first reading today confirms this knowledge for us; the author of wisdom puts it simply: “God did not make death,’ but made all things “wholesome” and “man to be imperishable.”

So if God made everything wholesome and human beings to be imperishable, why do we get sick and die? Since God did not make death and does not will any creature to suffer, we know that sickness and death are part of the fallen state of the world. They are part of the fallenness of the world that derives mysteriously from, as Wisdom says, the “envy of the devil” and the disobedience and sin of our first parents. But here we have to be a little careful. Even though we know that sickness and death are part of the fallenness of the world that resulted from the original sin of our first parents, this does not mean there is a simple correspondence between sickness and personal sin for us as individuals. In other words, people do not suffer the punishment of illness in this life because of their individual sins. Instead, we all live together in an atmosphere of physical corruption and death because of the general sin of the world, and we suffer corporately on account of it.

This isn’t how God wills the world to be. God desires that his creatures be healthy and joyful. This is a large part of why we worship God for sending his Son into the world, because where God is there is only life and wellness. In Jesus the presence of divine wellness arrives among us. We see this in the two sandwiched parts of the gospel we hear today: The woman who had suffered for so long just had to touch Jesus’ clothes and she was healed. The little girl only had to receive Jesus’ word, and she rose again from death. Where Jesus is, there is only life and there is no room for sickness or death. This is why, for the Fathers of the Church, one of the favorite titles for Jesus was the “divine physician.”

This is why Holy Mass is such a sublime gift for us. In every Mass we hear Jesus speak the word that delivers us from death, just as it did for the little girl in the gospel today. In the Holy Communion we receive we are like the afflicted woman who reached out in faith to touch the Lord. She touched his clothes and Jesus’ healing power went into her body. We receive his Body and Blood and his healing power enters into our bodies and souls. One of the quiet prayers of the priest before Holy Communion expresses it so well: “Lord Jesus Christ, with faith in your love and mercy I eat your body and drink your blood. Let it not bring me condemnation, but health in mind and body.” The new, more accurate translation (which we should have soon) puts it even more strongly, calling Holy Communion the “healing remedy.”

As the afflicted woman pushed her way through the crowd just to touch the Lord, let us strive in prayer to seek his healing presence. And as Jesus entered the house of the little girl to bring her healing, so he enters the inner room of our hearts through Holy Communion. Let us welcome his healing arrival.