Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Outpouring

(Pentecost, Day, B)

Brothers and sisters, today is the big payoff. Today is the feast of God’s overwhelming generosity. By everything Jesus Christ has done for us in his Incarnation, his teaching, his Passion, his Resurrection from the dead and his Ascension into heaven, today we receive the definitive and surpassing gift of God, the Holy Spirit.

Back at Christmas we celebrated how the Holy Spirit conceived Jesus in the womb of the Virgin Mary. The Word of God was thus born as one of us. The Word became flesh as Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus took this divine humanity and accepted for himself the worst evil we inflict upon each other, even to disregard, torture, and death. But because death could not hold onto his divine nature, he emerged anew in the Resurrection, thus creating a path for our humanity from death to life. He took that same humanity and ascended to the Father, and so all of us who are in communion with him are already citizens of heaven.

Today we rejoice in what this means for us. We are Christians, those who are united to God through the humanity of Christ and each of us is called to be “another Christ,” an alter Christus, as the tradition says. Just as the Holy Spirit stretched the dynamic love of the Blessed Trinity into the world by conceiving the Word of God as man, so the Holy Spirit delights to conceive the Presence of God in each of us who is baptized into Christ.

This is the ongoing self-emptying of God. The Incarnation of God continues in us who are other Christs for the world. And the most sublime and beautiful good news is that God in his humility wants to live in each of us in a way that doesn’t displace our humanity. God wills to live in each of us as our love, as our care for the world, as our Christian service to our neighbor. That’s what St. Paul is getting at in the second reading, when he is talking about how the Spirit produces different gifts in different people. Each person is a unique creation of God, and so the Spirit of God made flesh within them will be a unique and unrepeatable grace for the world.

And with these gifts raised up the Spirit within us, we are sent. In the gospel we hear today Jesus empowers us with divine forgiveness. This is the power of the Holy Spirit for the reconciliation—a reconciliation that our world, so plagued by selfishness and greed and violence, needs so desperately. Let us take the gifts that the Spirit has conceived within us, and be about our mission of forgiveness and reconciliation. Amen.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Desire of our Hearts

(Pentecost, Vigil)

For me the spirituality of the Pentecost Vigil, which we celebrate tonight, connects all the way back to the other side of the liturgical year at Advent and Christmas. Just like the season of Advent, the Pentecost Vigil is about the desire of the human heart, our deepest longings, and what we really want and look forward to.

That’s basically what we are as human beings, a desire. We seek. We want. We do everything we do because of the belief, right or wrong, that it will make us happy. But what is it that we really want? At a basic level, the goods of security, comfort, and pleasure. Go a little deeper, become a little more mature, and we realize that we want beauty and goodness. In the end what we want is love, to delight in loving and being loved. Ultimately what we want Love Itself, and this Love is the goodness out of which all of the goodnesses of the creation overflow, the Mystery and Source of all that we call God.

It is God that the heart wants. St. Augustine calls the human being a capax Dei, a “capacity for God.” (De Trinitate, XIV:11) The human person is a desire, a home, and a capacity for God. St. Paul expressed this so viscerally in the second reading tonight: our longing for adoption into God, the redemption of our bodies for which we long and for which all creation is “groaning.”

The trouble is, we are often misguided in our effort to satisfy our desire for God. We reach out for the wrong thing, thinking it will make us happy, but it doesn’t. And this goes for all of our little, distracting personal sins all the way up the great tragedies of violence that scar families, communities and nations. The classic Biblical example of this problem comes to us in the first reading today. The prehistoric people tried to build a tower that would go up to heaven. They wanted to reach up and grab the heaven that they desired. And so it is with us whenever we try to get what our heart wants by grasping. And we see the result of it all: mass confusion. This confusion continues in our own society, when crimes and errors that are clearly against human dignity and goodness have become all but normal and acceptable.

All of our grasping and grabbing for happiness, pleasure, and security is ultimately doomed because we are looking the wrong way. The great gift of Pentecost, the good news of this beautiful celebration, is that the God that we desire is right here. Jesus says in the Gospel tonight, “"Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink. Rivers of living water will flow from within him who believes in me." By his Incarnation among us, Jesus has placed the divine life of God within our humanity, and we join our humanity to his by our faith and our Communion with him here at Mass. Thus the real desire of our hearts is right here, flowing from within. It is the living water of our baptism into Christ.

Therefore, let us turn our attention inwards in prayer, that we might notice this great gift of God. Prayer will teach us how to unseal the Spirit God has placed within us, that He might flow forth from us for the recreation and renewal of the world.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Mission Handed Over

(7th Sunday of Easter, B)

In these days, brothers and sisters, we find ourselves in the midst of the Church’s first and original novena, the nine days of prayer that extend from the Ascension of the Lord to the arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. (Our word novena is derived, of course, from the Latin numeral novem, nine.)

In this time of the great novena we look forward to the feast of Pentecost next week, which is one of the real crowns of the whole liturgical year we celebrate here at Sunday Mass. So as we approach the coming of the Holy Spirit and the fulfillment of all our hope, where are we left as another cycle of the Advent-Christmas and Lent-Easter seasons comes to a close?

Well, we are not left at all. We are not abandoned, but instead we are sent. In the Gospel we hear today, after praying for us, his disciples, and assuring us of his desire to have us share in his joy, Jesus sends us into the world. Jesus prays to the Father, “As you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world.” As Jesus ascends to the Father, we inherit his mission. As Jesus was sent, so are we, and our mission is continuous with and identical to his.

But what exactly was the mission of Jesus? If we back up a little bit in St. John to the gospel we heard back on the fourth Sunday of Lent, it becomes very clear. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” The mission of Jesus is thus twofold: to be the expression of God’s love and to save the world. In our own lives—and in our deepest identity as the Body of Christ we become in the Eucharist—this mission is handed over to us. This is the first sense of what we Christians mean by tradition, from the Latin tradere, to hand on or hand over. As Jesus was handed over for our salvation, so his mission is now put into our hands that we might continue to make it real in the world.

This mission is our great joy, but it also our most intense challenge. It is our joy because, through our communion with God through the humanity of Christ, God delights to live in us and to express his own divine love and care as the love we offer to our brothers and sisters. The love of God takes shape in the world as our love. That’s the joyful payoff of the mystery of the Incarnation. This is what it means to say that we are sent into the world, just as Jesus was, to be the expression of God’s love. “God so loved the world,” that he sends you and me into it to be the bearers of divine love and delight.

But our mission is also a challenge that can be very difficult and very painful. The Body of Christ saves the world by offering itself to be broken on the Cross, that its life-giving blood might be poured out for the forgiveness of sins and the ratification of the new and everlasting covenant. When we say “Amen” to the minister of Holy Communion after being addressed with our real name, “the Body of Christ,” each of us affirms that we will have to embrace the Cross in the particular way it takes shape in our life. Each of us will have some way we need to break ourselves in order that God’s love and salvation might flourish more in our lives and be expressed more fully to the world around us. It might be pride, or selfishness, or spiritual listlessness, or any number of things that hold us back from being the fully loved and completely loving people God calls us to be for the world.

Let us accept our mission. Let us be sent anew into the world as the Body of Christ, expressing God’s love and offering itself for the world’s salvation. This is the new life of the Holy Spirit, Whose renewed Presence we seek and long for in these days.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Love of God

(6th Sunday of Easter, B)

We arrive today, brothers and sisters, at the thirty-sixth day of the Easter season, so we know that we are close to that fortieth day after the Resurrection when Jesus will ascend to the Father. So as we prepare to mark the departure of the Risen Jesus from our midst, that we might welcome his abiding presence among us in the Holy Spirit, Jesus gives us his farewell commandment: “Love one another, as I love you.”

In order to know how it is we are to love one another, we must first understand how it is that God has loved us; only then can we love each other with that same love. In his first encyclical, Deus caritas est, our holy father Benedict wrote to us extensively on the love of God. Benedict reminds us that God loves us in a “completely gratuitous manner, without any previous merit” on our part. (10) This is why the love God has for us is a love that is always ready to forgive; because God—in the Love that he is—desires and delights only in the happiness and flourishing of his creatures. In the service of that desire and delight God wishes to remove from us all the guilt and selfishness that hold us back from loving with our entire being.

Jesus is for us the incarnation of this love. In the self-emptying of his humble birth we see the God who is ready to give up everything it ought to mean to be God. And especially in his self-sacrifice on the Cross and his giving of himself into our hands in this Eucharist, we see the incarnate love of God, passionately expressing God’s desire to share his love with us. (13)

To love God is to love the love that God is; to love God is to be in love with God’s goodness to his creation. And so when we love God, we begin to share God’s loving attitude toward his creatures. This is why the love of God and the love of neighbor always go together. In loving God we love him in his love for each one, and so we come also to share in God’s love for our neighbor.

Jesus commands us to do precisely this: to love each other with the same love with which God loves the world. Indeed, the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives is exactly this: that the love of God should live in us as our love for our brothers and sisters. By our communion with God through the humanity of Christ, the Holy Spirit of love comes to expression through our love of each other. This is what the first letter of John is talking about in the second reading, when John writes that everyone who loves is “begotten of God.” The love we express for each other is the renewing and re-creating force of God’s Spirit present in our lives. It has the power to bring us and the whole world to a new and spiritual rebirth.

This is certainly the most beautiful that there is, but it won’t be easy. All who resolve themselves to fulfilling Jesus’ commandment of love will also have their share of the Lord’s Cross. Supporting the Church’s institutional works of charity requires of many the sacrifice of time, talent, and treasure. On a more personal level, many of those we are called to love will be people we can’t stand on the emotional or natural level. Many times our attachments to our own feelings and prejudices will have to be mortified in order to see every person as the lovable creation they are in the loving gaze of God. But to see each brother or sister as God sees them is to love them with a perfect love. When we let ourselves fall in love with God, we will begin to love each other with the Love that is the Holy Spirit, and he will be poured out from our hearts to renew the face of the earth.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Vine Grower and Vine

(5th Sunday of Easter, B)

I spent one of my summers when I was in formation in the Order living with the friars in our novitiate in Nueva Ocotepeque, Honduras. The novice master was a very wise friar and he said to the novices, “I can’t see your soul, so I need to see how you take care of a living thing.” So he assigned each of the young novice friars a little patch of ground outside the friary, maybe two or three square feet. Each one was to grow something in his little garden, and care for it.

I bring this up because it will help us to explore the image of the Blessed Trinity that we have in the gospel today, and especially because it will help us to understand what the Trinity means for us.

Jesus says, “I am true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.” We have God the Father and God the Son, the vine grower and the vine. And where is the third person of the Blessed Trinity, the Holy Spirit? The Spirit is the love and care that the Father puts into and transmits to the vine in the course of his care for it as vine grower. So here’s our image of the Trinity: Gardener or Vine Grower, Vine, and the Love and Care the Grower transmits to the Vine and which is reflected in its growth.

Now we ourselves imitate the Blessed Trinity whenever we too are involved in the care of a living thing, whether as the caregiver or the one cared for. This should not be too surprising; as know from Scripture, we are created in the “image and likeness of God.” Now if God is a Trinity then we are created in the image and likeness of that Blessed Trinity, and our likeness to the Trinity should be revealed in our best selves. And so it is. Whenever we are involved in a relationship in which caring and creative love is transmitted between two living things, we become an image of the Blessed Trinity who is Vine Grower, Vine, and Loving Care.

This is why a mutual relationship of tender, caring, creative love is the thing that makes us most happy as human beings, because it is how we both image and imitate the perfect mystery of dynamic Love that we call Father, Son, and Spirit. Like my brothers the novices in Honduras, when we care lovingly for a living thing we are at our best and most happy as images and likenesses of God.

Now, as if this weren’t enough, here’s the real good news: Jesus makes us into part of the vine that he is. We are the branches of the vine. When he allows his body to be broken on the Cross, his wounds open a path for us into his divine humanity. And so, in Christ, we have the opportunity to not only imitate the Blessed Trinity but to become part of him. This is what we really celebrate when we gather here for Mass; that we become the Body of Christ, and that our loving care for each other and for the world might be empowered to do everything that the Body of Christ does: announce peace, heal, and ultimately break itself open for the salvation of others.

We who are Christians are the branches on the vine that is the Son, receiving the tender care of the Father. We are the limbs of the Body of Christ. This is our dignity and our joy: that we are drawn up into the perfect, infinite, and dynamic love that is the Blessed Trinity of God.

(Comments are especially invited on the question of whether or not I have violated the filioque with this homily. ;-))

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Good Shepherd

(4th Sunday of Easter, B)

Each year on this middle Sunday of the seven Sundays of the Easter season, the gospel we proclaim invites us to reflect on Jesus the Good Shepherd. It is one of the most beloved and traditional images of our Lord, is it not? But comforting images of Jesus with his sheep and shepherd’s crook aside, in what does Jesus’ good shepherding consist? As we heard the Good Shepherd himself say, it is because “he lays down his life for the sheep.” Unlike the “hired man” who takes care of himself when danger comes, Jesus sacrifices himself to the danger that threatens the sheep in order to save them.

So we see that Jesus as the Good Shepherd is really a way to understand his Passion. Danger threatens the sheep; we all, to one degree or another, live in a world threatened by suffering and misery. This is the plain old ‘problem of evil.’ And Jesus the Good Shepherd—who lays down his life for the sheep—is God’s answer to the misery and danger human sin and stupidity have brought into the world.

You know the standard question: if God is so good; indeed, if there is a God at all, why does he permit such suffering and evil to thrive in the world? Well, first of all, is the suffering in the world God’s fault? No; it’s the fault of individual human sin, much of which has metastasized into structures of injustice in society. And as any parent knows, if you always magically fix the consequences that a child brings upon himself with bad choices, he gets to be spoiled and irresponsible, right? So—on the one hand—this is part of how it is between God and us. On the other hand, though, God has made a definitive and saving response to evil in the world. The trouble for some people is that this isn’t the overt intervention they think God should make; God’s answer to evil and suffering is not a magical fix, but solidarity.

God’s infinite love is moved by human suffering and the cry of the poor, and Jesus in his self-sacrifice becomes God’s response. In his Passion, Jesus unites God himself with the worst we bring upon ourselves and each other with our sins—even to the point of how we disregard, torture, and kill one another.

But here’s the thing: this also unites the infinitely creative power of the divinity of the Son of God—through whom all things were made—into the experience of human suffering. And that means that each of us, in our own pain, alienation, and suffering have access to the power of God. And this power can free us from the effects of sin that hold us down: as individuals, our selfishness, depression, and anxiety, and as a society, poverty and our addiction to violence. This is the mystery we call the Resurrection.

This is how Jesus is for us the Good Shepherd: by laying down his life and suffering with us so that we might find, with him, the path out of sin to new life. The effects of Jesus having shepherded us through the misery of sin to new life are revealed in the first two readings we hear today. The first letter of John proclaims that we are no “children of God.” This is to say that as Christians, we enjoy the same relationship to God the Father as Jesus does. We are caught up into that mystical dynamic of Father and Son, Source and Word—the one unified relationship from which all creation spills forth in superabundance. We become daughters and sons in the Son; our lives and souls gathered into the intimacy of the Blessed Trinity.

And just as Peter proclaims, this new life will give us the power to uncripple ourselves and the world around us, that all creation might be renewed and renovated by the power of the Good Shepherd revealed in the Passion and Resurrection of Christ.