Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Answer to Prayer

(17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, C; Last Mass at Sacred Heart)

In the gospel today we hear some of Jesus’ teaching on prayer. ‘Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you.’ Even more, by sheer persistence, Jesus says, we will receive a favorable answer to our prayer.

To hear this can be a little jarring; it can be an occasion of a ‘cognitive dissonance.’ Often it doesn’t seem like we get what we pray for simply by our trust in God and our faithful persistence in prayer. Look at poor Abraham; after all of his haggling for the city of Sodom, we know what happened to them. In the end only Lot and his two daughters survived that mess, if you don’t count Mrs. Lot who turned into a pillar of salt during the escape. Even more, if you keep reading in Genesis you will observe that Lot’s daughters weren’t exactly the most wholesome and righteous girls that ever lived.

So how are we to take what Jesus says, when he assures us that our prayers are answered, and that we will receive what we want from God, who is even more attentive than human parents who know well how to give good gifts to their children? I think we receive an answer when we read carefully.

Jesus says, “If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.” There it is. The Holy Spirit is the gift we receive from our trust and persistence in prayer, not anything else that we might think we need or want.

The Holy Spirit Whom we receive in prayer is the same Spirit Who stretches the divine life of the Blessed Trinity into the world to conceive Our Lord through the consent of our Blessed Mother. He is the same Spirit who gives birth to the Church when He comes to rest on the apostles gathered in prayer on Pentecost. Both of these mysteries are present when each of us receives the gift of the Holy Spirit through prayer. Just as with Mary, the Spirit desires to conceive the Word of God in us, that we may bear his presence to the world and the Word may become flesh through our words and actions. By our common prayer here in the liturgy, we are transformed anew into the Body of Christ, ready to be sent into the world as God’s own reconciliation, forgiveness, and sacrifice for the life of the world.

This gift of the Holy Spirit, given to all who ask with faith and persistence, is the perfect answer to prayer because it draws us into the infinite creativity, delight, and joy of the Blessed Trinity himself. This is the heart of the Christian mystery; that we might come to share, through the Holy Spirit, the same intimacy of Jesus’ relationship to the Father. In this sense, all of our prayers are answered because we receive the gift that is infinitely satisfying and delightful, God himself.

This is not an easy gift, however. To be conceived as the Body of Christ in the world also means accepting the Cross. To consent to become the Body of Christ here at Mass is also to consent to the Cross that the Body of Christ carries. The Cross is God’s answer to the suffering we have brought upon this world with our sins: not to magically fix the world, but to show us a way through its suffering to new life. Taking up our Cross means refusing to pass evil on, rejecting revenge and refusing to participate in this world’s cycles of violence. Jesus’ life and death assure us that those who accept the Cross in this way participate in God’s work of renovating the world through the divine life poured out into our humanity in Christ. The mystery of this renovation of our humanity is what we call the Resurrection.

Let us surrender today to the gift which God is (literally) dying to give us, the Holy Spirit. By this Gift we are drawn into the divine life of the Blessed Trinity, and are made sharers in the salvation that Jesus Christ has accomplished for the world.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Christian Freedom

(13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, C)

“For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery,” writes St. Paul in the second reading today. The spiritual freedom we have in Christ is worth our reflection from time to time. On the one hand, freedom is one of the great gifts that we have in Christ, and one of the most important ways we recover—in Christ—the image and likeness of God in which we were created, and thus find our happiness and fulfillment. God, after all, is infinitely free, and by being free ourselves we imitate Him and share in His freedom. That’s why human beings always strive for freedom and why it makes us happy, because our hearts and minds are always reaching out for the ultimate, divine Love and Freedom of God. On the other hand, we always have to be on guard against the shallow and erroneous understandings of freedom that come from the world and from that mystery of human selfishness and frustration that Paul calls “the flesh.”

Some people think freedom is just being able to do whatever we please. Thomas Merton has a great line on this: “The mere ability to choose between good and evil is the lowest limit of freedom, and the only thing that is free about it is the fact that we can still choose good.” (New Seeds of Contemplation, 27) Evil and sin make us unhappy by definition. So when I sin by deliberately choosing the bad, thereby making myself miserable—as well as all those who, by their immense charity, put up with me—I am exercising my unfreedom and my slavery to sin. The metaphor of exercise is pertinent, too, because our choices develop our habits and our habits determine what sort of person we become, whether better or worse each day. This is why it’s hard for the wisdom of this world to accept that real freedom is the ability to choose the good, not the false liberty of being able to do whatever we think we want.

This is also why, as St. Paul points out, spiritual freedom and love of neighbor go together. Forgetting about all of the nonsense fed to us by romantic comedies and the like, love is simply to desire the best for another, and to organize our behavior out of that desire. Love means making our life into a right effort for the good and flourishing of the people and earth around us. So, by loving our neighbor, we are seeking the good, and by learning to seek the good consistently we become free and happy. All of this we do in Christ; in fact, this is the very renovation of our humanity that we know as Christ’s Resurrection.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Recognizing the Christ

(12th Sunday in Ordinary Time, C)

In the gospel today we have Luke’s account of St. Peter’s great confession. When asked who he says Jesus is, he responds, “the Christ of God.” This confession is the heart of our faith. For each of us, our Christianity begins when we admit, come to believe, and are willing to say publicly that Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew of the first century, is the anointed Christ, Savior, and Messiah of God. For most of us, this confession was made on our behalf when we were baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ as infants. Those of us who were baptized as adults made our own confession of faith.

Nevertheless, however we came to be baptized, our confession of faith in Jesus as the Christ is not a ‘one time’ thing. This realization, this spiritual knowledge which is at the heart of God’s purpose as Creator, lives in us each day and should animate every thought and action of the Christian soul.

So how do we obtain, or how do we receive this knowledge that Jesus is the Christ, and with such certainty that we become willing to proclaim our faith publicly and begin to base our whole lives upon it? For this we turn to today’s first reading from the prophet Zechariah.

The prophet writes that God will pour out on his people “a spirit of grace and petition, and they will look on him whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him as one mourns for an only son.” These two go together; in fact, it is through looking on him whom we have pierced—that is to say the contemplation of Christ crucified—that we come to notice, appreciate, and perceive the Spirit of God poured out upon us, his people. This is because it is precisely the Passion that accomplishes the handing over of the Holy Spirit to us, which is God’s way of making a home in our hearts and lives. Recall the moment of Jesus’ death in St. John’s Gospel: “And bowing his head, he handed over the Spirit.”

Here we have the dynamic process of faith and prayer which is the heart and the basis of Christianity. By our contemplation of Christ crucified, we become aware of the Holy Spirit we have received through the sacrifice of his Passion. In turn, the Spirit enables us to recognize Jesus as the Christ of God. As this confession of faith wells up in our hearts and minds, we are pushed further into the contemplation of Christ crucified. Prayer and faith live in a mutually growing process and the result is that we become better Christians each day.

This contemplation is what we are about here at Mass, for holy Mass is Jesus’ extension of the sacrifice of his Passion through time such that we can share and receive his broken Body into our lives. Our Holy Communion, then, is the perfect contemplation of Christ crucified because in it we receive his Body into our bodies. It is by our Communion, then, that we also receive the Spirit that recognizes Him Whom we have received.

We come here to Sunday Mass in order to become Christians, to make again the confession of faith that the Spirit prays within us. We become the Body of Christ we receive, and so inherit the saving mission of Jesus. In this we ourselves are called to be the fulfillment of the last part of Zechariah’s prophecy we hear today; to become, as Church, a “fountain to purify from sin and uncleanness.” The Church is called to be the sign for the world of God’s salvation, and the source of the baptism that can save the world from its selfishness and misery. Let us recognize Jesus as the Christ, accept the mission God wills to embed within us by Holy Communion, and become this baptism for the world.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Corpus (et Sanguis) Christi

(Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, C)

Today we celebrate the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, a day set apart to reflect upon and celebrate in a special way the Most Blessed Sacrament we receive here at Mass, and which we adore here in this church, and in all the tabernacles throughout the world.

The Catechism reminds us that it is incomplete to say that the Church celebrates the Eucharist; it is the Eucharist that makes the Church. (§1396) Here, at this moment and in this place, by his own sacrifice extended into our lives, Christ makes us into his Body, the Church.

Our birth as the Church of Jesus Christ begins at the Last Supper. In First Corinthians, one of the earliest books of the New Testament, St. Paul reports on this tradition. At the Last Supper, on the night he was betrayed, Jesus blessed and broke bread, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “This is my body that is for you.” He then took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” By identifying that broken bread and that shared cup with his own body, soon to be broken on the Cross, and his own Blood, soon to be shed in his Passion, Jesus perpetuates through time the offering of his own one sacrifice. This is a tremendous gift for us; because Jesus has extended his one, perfect sacrifice to us in the Mass, we have an opportunity to share in it. We come here to offer our own sacrifice of praise, to offer our own joys and troubles on this altar, that we may be transformed into the Body of Christ in the world. This is what conscious and active participation in the Mass means: to come and offer ourselves as a spiritual sacrifice and consent to our own transformation in Christ.

At the Last Supper the apostles are given the gift and the command to continue to offer bread and wine—now identified with the Body and Blood of Christ. By the prayer and laying on of hands in ordination, the apostles handed over to their successors the office and power to offer this true memorial of Jesus’ sacrificial Passion. Thus, the Eucharist—the great ‘Thanksgiving’—has come down to us in the priesthood of our bishops, which they have also shared with their helper priests in the Order of Presbyter.

We see a picture of this process of Sacred Tradition in the gospel today: faced with the apostles’ anxiety for the hungry crowd, Jesus instructs the Twelve to “give them some food yourselves.” Jesus blesses and breaks the loaves, gives them to the Twelve, who in turn feed five thousand people. This is an image of Sacred Tradition; Jesus offers himself as the broken bread entrusted to the Twelve, the bread of life which multiplies in the hands of bishops and priests down through the ages until this very morning, when the holy Eucharist is celebrated all over the world.

Today, as every Sunday, we celebrate all these great mysteries. We give thanks to Jesus for giving us this memorial of his suffering and death. By his institution of the Eucharist, Jesus provides us with a way to join our own sacrifice to his here at Mass. By receiving his Body and Blood into our bodies and our lives, we become what we receive, and are built into the Church. In turn we are called to imitate the sacrifice we receive, to let our hearts be broken at the suffering of others, and to pour ourselves out for their salvation.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Most Holy Trinity

(Trinity Sunday, C)

Trinity Sunday is absolutely one of my favorite days to be a priest. Why? Because I don't have to listen to any Trinity Sunday homilies! In the fifteen Trinity Sundays from my baptism to my ordination, I heard a good homily pretty rarely.

It usually goes like this: 'O.k., it's Trinity Sunday. God is a Trinity. He's three, he's one, you can't really understand it, but that's how it is. Please stand for the Creed.' Maybe if you're lucky you at least get the amusement of some limping analogies, or the excitement of a little heresy, usually modalism or Arianism.

I always wanted to stand up and say no! Let us not pass over the central mystery of the Christian faith with mystifying arithmetic or the dullness of obnubilating analogies!

Here's the thing: We can have an understanding of the Blessed Trinity. Not a comprehension, mind you, but some understanding. This is so for two reasons. First, that we are made in the image and likeness of God, and second, God reveals himself as Trinity in the Scriptures.

Let’s start with ourselves. If we are created in the image and likeness of God, and this is what is distinctive about us human beings among all God’s creatures, and if God is a Trinity, then we are created in the image and likeness of the Blessed Trinity. Therefore, if we look at ourselves when we are most happy and most the creatures God made us to be, we should see in ourselves some vestige or reflection of the Blessed Trinity. And when are we happier than we are in love? Indeed, love makes us happy because God himself is Love, and our experiences of love are a taste of divine joy. But there is no such thing as a love that doesn’t love someone; love is always specific—we fall in love with this particular person, or place, or ideal. So for God to be Love itself, God must be at once Lover and Beloved. Indeed, this is what we are talking about when we reflect on the Blessed Trinity. From all eternity, the overflowing Love we call God self-expresses into a perfect and complete reflection of Himself. God is Lover and Beloved, Father and Son, Source and Eternal Word, or, as we hear in the first reading today, Lady Wisdom at play with the Creator at the beginning of time.

There you have it. God is not some static ‘supreme being’ sitting on a throne somewhere far away. God is a super-creative set of loving dynamisms. Lover, Beloved, and the Love they share, Father and Son with the Holy Spirit, this is who God is. But here’s the really good news: because God is a set of loving dynamics, “persons,” as we say in theology, it means that God is a reality that can be stepped into.

In fact, this is what we celebrate by our Christianity. In Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit has stretched the love of God the Father and God the Son into the world, that we might have the opportunity to be included in this original Love. This is what we mean in the Creed when we say that Jesus, the Word made flesh, was conceived ‘by the power of the Holy Spirit.’ The Spirit—the Love between Father and Son—has made a home for that love in our humanity through the mystery of the Incarnation. In Jesus, our humanity has the opportunity to be caught up into the eternally creative, utterly delightful, and perfectly happy divine Activity we call the Blessed Trinity. As St. Paul writes in the second reading today, Jesus is our “access” to the grace of God.

This is the joy of the Holy Communion we receive here at Holy Mass—we receive the sacrificed Body of Christ into our bodies, and so are caught up by the Spirit into the love of God the Father and God the Son. We begin to live in God. This is the good news Jesus announces in the gospel today: The Spirit will guide us “to all truth.” This Truth is God himself, the Blessed Trinity himself, in whose image we are created, and whose divine life is our destiny in heaven. As we are caught up anew into the Blessed Trinity through our Holy Communion today, let us give thanks for the chance to begin to live the life of heaven while we are still on the pilgrimage of this life.

Saturday, May 22, 2010


(Pentecost Sunday)

Jesus breathed on his disciples and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

Brothers and sisters, this is an act of creation. The breath of the Spirit which Jesus breathes on his disciples is the same wind that swept over the waters at the very beginning of time. That wind is the breath that carried the creating Word of God: “God said…and it came to be.” This same Spirit breathed in Mary and brought forth Jesus, the Word made flesh, the first fruits of the final harvest of love which is the destiny of all created being.

Creation is not just something from the past, as if God made the world and then stepped back when it was all set. God is not “set it and forget it.” God—because He is love—is a Creator by nature, and he is always creating and offering us a renovation of ourselves and the world, drawing all to a perfect fulfillment of love and joy.

The Holy Spirit, just as He is the breath by which the creation came to be through God’s Word, just as He conceived Our Lord in the womb of Mary to make an indestructible marriage between humanity and divinity, now breathes himself on us so that we may become re-created, renovated citizens of the fulfilled creation.

We see examples of this renovation in the scriptures today. In the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles the Holy Spirit reverses the prideful and arrogant divisions we bring upon humanity, represented by the confusion of languages that began at the Tower of Babel. In the second reading, St. Paul teaches us about the particular manifestations of the Holy Spirit that each of us will have. ‘Grace builds on nature,’ after all, and because each of us has a nature that is a unique and unrepeatable creation, the Christian each of us becomes through the Holy Spirit will be a unique, unrepeatable, and precious manifestation of God’s grace. From the larger contours of our life’s vocation to the smallest ways in which our personalities become redeemed for the sake of goodness and gentleness toward each other, all of these are the ways that the creating, Holy Spirit of God works to renovate the creation through us.

Let us rejoice today in this beginning. “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth…a mighty wind swept over the waters.” That wind is here now, calling us into the fulfilled, new creation. Let us accept anew the gifts of grace and love that the Spirit brings to birth in each of us, and take up our new citizenship with joy.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Spirit of Unity

(7th Sunday of Easter, C)

To celebrate this Seventh Sunday of Easter is a special privilege. In most of the world, the feast of the Ascension has been transferred to today, but not here in the stalwart ecclesiastical province of New York where we maintain the traditional celebration of Ascension on the biblical fortieth day of Easter. So it is our privilege to hear in the gospel today one of Jesus’ most beautiful and spiritually rich prayers. At the end of the Last Supper in St. John’s gospel, Jesus prays for unity. He prays for his disciples and for those who will come to believe through them—us—that we “may all be one.”

Now when we start to talk about the unity that Jesus desires for us, and the catholicity of the Church from which it is inseparable, sometimes the first thing we hear is how we have to be in unity with our pastors and obedient to our bishop in union with the Holy Father. That’s true, but if it’s all we talk about, we risk missing the original good news of the gospel from which it all derives. In fact, when we begin to speak of the unity and catholicity of who we are as the Church, we are talking about the Holy Spirit, Whose coming we celebrate in a special way in these days between the Ascension of the Lord last Thursday and Pentecost next Sunday.

After all—or better, before all—the Holy Spirit is the unity of the Father and the Son. In our collects or ‘opening prayers’ for Mass we typically pray in the classic manner of Christians: through the Son to the Father, who live and reign in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Hopefully this language will be clearer once again when we have the joy of the new and improved English translation of the prayers for Mass.

The Holy Spirit—Who is the unity of Father and Son in the Blessed Trinity—is also about the work of unity in creation. We see the dawn of this great work of unity in the mystery of the Incarnation, which we celebrate at Christmas. As we pray in the Creed, “by the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary.” By the consent of our Blessed Mother, the Holy Spirit conceives the Eternal Word of God in the human life of Jesus of Nazareth. By this conception the Holy Spirit accomplishes the work of unity that is our salvation: in Christ our human nature is united to the divine life of the Blessed Trinity. As the Spirit is the unity of Father and Son, so He also works to unite us to God.

During the Easter season, we celebrate the completion of this work of unity; the joining of humanity with God is fulfilled in Jesus’ death and resurrection, such that each of us who consent to be baptized into his death and resurrection becomes also a conceiver of the Holy Spirit within. We heard this in its simplest and most sublime form during the proclamation of St. John’s Passion on Good Friday. John describes Jesus’ death on the Cross: “And bowing his head, he handed over the Spirit.”

Jesus’ passing over—through the corruption of our human death into the new life of the Resurrection to a place at the right hand of the Father—makes the same Holy Spirit through which he was conceived available to us in our humanity.

This is the good news of the fulfillment of Jesus’ great prayer “that they may all be one.” The Holy Spirit, Who is the Loving Unity of Father and Son, stretches the divine unity into creation through the Incarnation of the Word of God, and makes that unity with God available to each of us. The Spirit then empowers each of us to take up our particularly Marian vocation: to conceive spiritually by the Holy Spirit and make a place within for the Word of God to grow, that we may bear the joy and new life and God’s own unity to the world.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Letter to Parishioners

Fr. Pastor asked me to write a letter to our parishioners to be included in this weekend's bulletin. Here it is:

Dear Parishioners,

Last fall the Order asked me to consider applying to Boston College to pursue the degree of Doctor of Sacred Theology. I made the application, have been accepted, and will begin studies there this fall. Over the course of the month of July I will be making the transition back to full-time study and my new home at St. Francis Friary in Boston. I hope that in my last couple of months with you I have the chance to thank each of you personally for your encouragement and support these past three years. It was a special privilege to be ordained priest in the course of my assignment here, and my priesthood will always belong to you in a special way. As I enter into this transition and a new set of challenges, I will take encouragement from the knowledge of the prayers and good example of the people of Sacred Heart who have been so good to me.

God's Dwelling

(5th Sunday of Easter, C)

In a very real way, brothers and sisters, the scriptures we hear today describe the joyful fulfillment of everything we have been celebrating and meditating upon since Christmas. At Christmas we rejoiced in the Word made flesh, in Emmanuel, ‘God with us.’ In the gospel today Jesus brings out for us the full implication of ‘God with us,’ that we should be able to love one another with the very love with which God has loved us first. That’s the privilege and joy, the mission and the challenge, of being a Christian after all: to be a little home, a little dwelling for the love of God in the world.

But before we get to all that, I think we as Christians always need to step back and remind ourselves what we really mean by ‘love.’ The world we live in is sometimes very confused about this. Greeting cards, sitcoms, those silly wedding shows, the increasing normalization of pornography; all of these things confuse our sense of love. To love someone is first of all not about our feelings, although it might include our passion. It does not necessarily depend on whether we like someone, or even appreciate them. To love someone in the spiritual sense simply means that we desire the best for that person, and organize our behavior toward them in light of that desire. It just means that I want the best happiness and flourishing for your soul, and I’m going to relate to you out of that desire.

This is exactly what the love of God is like. God is, after all, a dynamic, passionate Desire for the good, blessing, and flourishing of His creatures. The Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us so that we might not only know about this love, but that we might know it, as we say, in the ‘biblical sense,’ as something which has come to penetrate and dwell within us. After all, this is what we celebrate in Holy Communion; that the love of God in Jesus Christ should make a home in our bodies and our lives.

By our baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ, and our communion with his humanity here at Mass, the whole love of God comes to dwell in us and empowers us to love each other with God’s own love. Those who consent to this blessing and plan of God in Christ become that new heaven and new earth, the New Jerusalem that John the Seer sees coming out of heaven in the reading from Revelation today. We form that new city which is also, by the way, the Kingdom of God.

Now, perhaps it’s something we don’t always think about, that our Christian life consists in loving our neighbor with the love of God dwelling within us. But this too is important. God is a very humble character. God is happy to dwell within us as our love for each other, without having to make a big deal about his Presence. But He is there. He is the Spirit of desire for the good of one another that dwells in our hearts. “Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race.” This is the joyful good news that comes from the throne of God as the New Jerusalem appears. This is the payoff and the fulfillment of everything in our faith. God, in his sublime humility, decides that his home will be our little hearts. It is there that his Love dwells, reaching out in divine passion for the salvation of the world.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Lamb Who Is The Shepherd

(4th Sunday of Easter, C)

The fourth Sunday of Easter is traditionally called Good Shepherd Sunday. The readings speak to this image of Christ, and we are given a special opportunity to pray for our Holy Father, our bishops, and pastors who continue the ministry of Christ the Shepherd among us. In the same way today is also a special day of prayer for vocations. This emphasis on Christ the Good Shepherd fits into a larger movement in our meditation as we go through the Easter season. At the beginning of the Easter season we simply rejoice in the announcement, in the good news that Christ is risen. As we go through the fifty days of Easter, however, we begin to shift our reflection to how this risen Christ is present to us. This movement culminates on the last day of the Easter season when we celebrate Pentecost and the gift of the Holy Spirit, Who is the abiding Presence of Christ with His Church. Recall the words we heard on Good Friday when St. John’s passion was proclaimed: “bowing his head, he handed over the spirit.” (John 19:30) That’s the basic movement of Easter; the Lord’s Passion becomes the means by which His Spirit is handed over to us, and this is what we call the Resurrection.

Today, right in the middle of Easter, we are given the image of Christ the Good Shepherd; He is present among us as the shepherd of our lives. It’s a very beloved and sweet image; those of you on the left side of the church can look up and see him. But when we come to the readings today, we are given images that are much more challenging and stark than any nice picture of Jesus tending his little sheep. In fact, as we hear in the second reading from the book of Revelation, it is Christ who is the Lamb. The inhabitants of heaven stand before the throne of the Lamb who is also their Shepherd. Christ is both; He is Shepherd and Lamb. In this we see an illustration of the contrast or tension which is the spiritual heart of Christianity: A humble, young girl becomes the bearer of the Word of God to the world. A condemned criminal in the midst of brutal execution; this man is the King of the Universe. A little piece of bread becomes the food of eternal life, having all grace and sweetness within it. The slaughtered Lamb is the Shepherd.

This contrast has everything to do with the nature of our salvation in Christ. In heaven we will look upon and worship the Lamb whom we have followed in this life. It is precisely in his being led to the slaughter of his Passion that he becomes our Shepherd, the one whom we are called to follow. Brothers and sisters, it’s obvious to anyone that our faith in Christ does not shield us from the suffering, pain, and bodily breakdown and death we experience in this life. Our salvation does not consist in being magically relieved of these grieving and sufferings. God’s answer to the misery and death we have brought into this world with our sins is not to magically remove them from our lives, but to meet us in them. On the Cross the Lamb of God draws to himself all of who we are at our most miserable, so that we might, in our sufferings, find Christ crucified united to our pain and leading us through it to the new life of resurrection.

This is why he allows his Body to be broken on the Cross and his Blood poured out, so that we might find a way to step into the openings of his wounds with our own sufferings. On the Cross, Jesus makes our suffering his own, and in the Eucharist he gives his broken Body to us as our food. This is the work of the Good Shepherd, who shows us that the way through suffering to new life is by allowing our hearts to break at the sufferings of others, and pouring out our own lives in compassion. By giving his Life for us, the Lamb of God becomes the Good Shepherd, because he leads us into the way of compassion and offers us the salvation of giving ourselves for each other.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Lord's Breakfast

(3rd Sunday of Easter, C)

You have to love someone to cook breakfast for him. Growing up, my Mom made my Dad’s breakfast every single day. When she got a hip fracture a few years ago, Mom was convalescing for a while, and Dad had to cook his breakfast himself. When Mom got better, she presumed that she would be back cooking, but Dad declined and said that he would keep on doing it for himself. Mom was perplexed; what did this mean? So she spied a little on Dad and realized that when he made his own breakfast, he got twice as much bacon! It can be a tough contest between bacon and love. My pastor when I was a deacon used to make me breakfast every Sunday. Fr. John Gallagher made me breakfast once, on Christmas. Fr. Moe has made me breakfast once so far. So he should know that he has a couple of months to do it again if he wants to get into second place as loving pastor.

Today in the gospel we see the risen Jesus in this tender, loving act of cooking breakfast for his disciples. As we hear this image of Jesus preparing the bread and fish on the beach, we are, of course, reminded me of how Jesus had fed the multitude with the miraculous multiplication of loaves and fishes. This comparison brings out a larger and important teaching for us during this Easter season: The Risen Christ, from his place in God’s eternity, does the same things that the historical Jesus of Nazareth did in his earthly ministry. What’s more, the Resurrection reveals that these two categories are not entirely distinct, but are continuous with one another. This means, brothers and sisters, that when we hear about the preaching, reconciling, forgiving, and healing of Jesus in the gospels, we are not hearing about the past, but about the present. The gospels were, of course, written from the perspective of the fullness of the revelation of the meaning of Jesus that comes with his resurrection, and so illustrate for us what the Lord is up to in our lives right now. Jesus Christ, risen into the Presence living within each of us who are baptized into his death and resurrection, risen into our faith, and risen into the sacraments handed down to us by apostolic tradition, continues his work of healing, saving, and proclaiming the Kingdom of God among us.

But there is a slight difference between the ministry of the historical Jesus and that of the risen Lord. Jesus in his earthly ministry fed the multitude with the loaves and fishes. In the gospel today he only feeds those who recognize him standing on the beach. So it is with us who live in these last days inaugurated by Jesus’ resurrection. He offers his own Love as our nourishment here at the Sunday Eucharist, but only for those who accept the eyes to recognize him standing on the shore. That’s where our risen Lord Jesus is, brothers and sisters, standing on the shore of the eternity into which we shall all go one day, longing for us to look up from our busyness to recognize him, and preparing for us the meal that will nourish our spirits in this life, and carry us into the world to come. Here, at the Eucharist, the Holy Mass, Jesus is preparing for us the breakfast that is the first meal of our eternal life. That’s love.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Resurrection, Continued

(2 Easter, C)

Brothers and sisters, we arrive at “octave” of Easter, the eighth day of the Easter season. Having first celebrated the good news of Jesus’ resurrection last Sunday, the readings and prayers today invite us to drill a little deeper into the mystery. Who is this risen Jesus? What does He do? Where can He be found?

The answer to that last question is simple to say, but not so simple to understand and accept. For the risen Lord is right here. He is the eternal life living in each of us who are baptized into his death and resurrection. When each of us descended into the water on the day of our baptism, we went down into his death. When we came up again, we rose in the resurrection of Christ. We became newborn parts of the risen, human body of Christ. When we receive Holy Communion here at Sunday Mass, we receive Him whom we are, and the eternal life within us in nourished and fortified. When the minister of Holy Communion says to us, “The Body of Christ,” he is addressing us by name, calling us by our deepest identity.

If the presence of Christ risen from the dead lives and breathes in our humanity through our baptism and Holy Communion, then our ordinary behavior will resemble the historical, human life of Jesus. Simply put, we will do what Jesus did. This is what we hear in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles today. Peter and the apostles were at the Temple curing a great number of people who were sick or afflicted with unclean spirits. The healing ministry of Jesus not only continues in them, but is multiplied in them. This is the mission for which we are sent by the risen Lord in the gospel today, when he breathes the Spirit on the disciples. In his resurrection, Jesus hands over his mission to us, that we, in our lives, might continue and multiply his work of healing, reconciliation, and proclamation of the Kingdom of God to the world. This is what it means for us to be the Body of Christ we become at each Sunday Eucharist; in the simplest terms, we are to be Jesus for one another and the world. The mission of Jesus is risen into our faith and action; this is the fruit of resurrection.

Now, this sounds great, but maybe it’s all a little abstract. How do we get started on our vocation as the risen Body of Christ, the healing presence of Jesus in the world? How do we come to experience it, to really believe it? For this we have our dear friend Thomas in the gospel today. He comes to that perfect confession of faith, “My Lord and my God!” after he puts he puts his fingers and hand into the wounds of Jesus Christ. If we want to truly know the risen Lord, brothers and sisters, we must do the same thing. First, we must put our hands into Christ’s wounds by bringing our own hurts and betreyals, griefs and injuries into our prayer. Jesus has united these personal sufferings of ours to his own suffering on the Cross, and by embracing them we find Him. He has made our wounds His own. By offering our own pain, and allowing Jesus to unite it to His Passion, we come to know ourselves as people whom God is dying to save.

Through this kind of prayer, we get to know ourselves as people saved by our incorporation into the Body of Christ. We are then empowered to go out and get our hands dirty and blessed by putting them into the suffering of others, into the lives of all of the poor, sick, and lonely of our neighborhoods and our world. When we encounter the suffering Christ in others, we too will know the great confession of faith welling up from within: “My Lord and my God!” We will become the Presence of the risen Lord for each other, members of the risen Body of Christ.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

This Is The Night

(Easter Vigil, C)

“This is the night.” That’s the refrain and the slogan of our joy at this Vigil. “This is the night when Jesus Christ broke the chains of death and rose triumphant from the grave.” This is the night. Notice that we are in the present tense, and in this little bit of grammar, we see the good news for us, for the world, and especially for you, dear Elect and candidates.

When we think of the Resurrection of the Lord, of the fifty days of Easter we are about to celebrate with greater joy than ever, we are not recalling to ourselves some bit of history, some event from the past. The Resurrection, because it is a matter of God's eternity is not yesterday or tomorrow, but always right now. This is the night. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the invasion of eternity Itself, of eternity Himself into our lives and our world of space and time. For Jesus Christ, though he could die in the humanity he borrowed from us through our Most Blessed Mother, could not be held by death in his identity as the eternal Son of God. So, after resting in death through this greatest of Sabbaths, the Risen Lord bursts forth once again, destroying from the inside the bodily corruption and death we have brought into this world with our sins.

In Jesus Christ we have a marriage of heaven and earth, a fertile union of our humanity with God. The power of this union comes to be with us tonight. Through the Resurrection, which is the indestructibility and infinite creativity of God’s own Eternity, we are blessed and re-created. This is because for us Jesus Christ is risen into the faith of the sacraments handed down to us by apostolic Tradition. That is why, in the sacraments we celebrate at this Vigil, this is the night of the Resurrection. Does this surprise us to say that Jesus Christ is risen into the sacraments? If we were to offer Mass tomorrow night we would hear the beautiful passage from St. Luke in which the risen Jesus offers the Eucharist for his disciples: “He was made known to them in the breaking of bread.” By our Communion with Jesus Christ, his Risen and Eternal Life comes to make a home in our humble humanity.

This is the night. In these sacraments of initiation, we are witnesses to the Resurrection just as much as the women at the tomb on that first Easter morning. In the gospel we heard of the three women who were the first witnesses to the Empty Tomb: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James. Tonight those three women are Veronica, Sujeiry, and Nicole. It is you who draw near to the mystery of the Empty Tomb, and who are about to meet the transforming power of the Resurrection in your baptism. That is why you, Elect of God, are our greatest joy tonight; you are the women who stand in the tradition of the women at the tomb and who will become for us the first newborn witnesses of the Resurrection. This is the night.

In the sacramental initiation you receive tonight, the eternal and indestructible Life and Creativity of God come to make a home in you. It will grow as God’s own Blessed Delight through the rest of your pilgrimage in this world, and bear its greatest fruit in the eternal life of which you are now heirs. You candidates who will complete your initiation with the sacrament of Confirmation share in the same joy, as do we who renew tonight the promises of our own baptism.

Let us rejoice with these women who have traveled to the tomb to be transformed by their witness to the Resurrection. May the eternal life showered upon us in the Resurrection well up in every heart to God the Father’s everlasting delight. This is the night.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Set Free

(5th Sunday of Lent, C)

Brothers and sisters, on this last Sunday before Holy Week we hear on the most beloved of Jesus’ acts of forgiveness and salvation, the story of the woman caught in adultery. This passage is full of beautiful and challenging spiritual teaching, and I thought that one way we could approach it is through the various characters.

The scribes and Pharisees. These are the bad guys in the passage, but we shouldn’t let their dastardliness distract us from the ordinariness of their spiritual error. It’s one that people commit all the time. They are so into the woman’s sin that they forget to notice their own sins. We do the same thing whenever we engage in gossip and detraction, pointing out to each other all of the bad things other people do. If we do this habitually we can learn to absolve ourselves and blame everyone else for whatever is wrong in our lives and the world. The sorry state of my religious community, my friendship, my workplace or my marriage is everyone else’s fault and I don’t notice the contribution of my own sin and selfishness. I once saw a “motivational” poster I liked very much. It had a picture of chain breaking at the weakest link. The message said, “The only consistent feature in all of your dissatisfying relationships is you.” The devil is perfectly happy to have us as zealous as could be in our condemnation of sin, just as long as it’s somebody else’s sin and not our own.

The missing man. Personally, I don’t know much about adultery, but I know this: you can’t commit it by yourself. ‘It takes two to Tango,’ as is said. So where’s the adulterous man? He’s missing from the scene. This reminds us that we always have to be careful in handing out blame. Rarely is someone individually responsible for evil. In fact, when we ask the question of what’s wrong with the world there is only one rational answer me: “Me.” To take responsibility for our own sins rather than blaming each other is the beginning of conforming our lives to the Cross of Christ. One of my favorite of the Desert Fathers, Abba John the Dwarf, put it this way: “We have cast off the light burden, that is to say self-accusation, and taken up a heavy burden, that is to say self-justification.” Let’s throw off the heavy burden of blame and take up the light burden of humility.

The woman. We should notice how she teaches us that it doesn’t matter how we get to the presence of Jesus. It wasn’t her idea to end up at his feet! But once there, she recognizes him for Who He is. She calls him “sir,” but the word is kyrie, there being no distinction between ‘sir’ and ‘Lord’ in the Greek of the New Testament. This poor woman is dragged before Jesus, presumably against her will, but once there she receives his kindness and salvation. Therefore, if our own contrition for our sins is weak or imperfect, we shouldn’t worry. All that matters is that we get to the presence of Jesus and recognize him when we get there.

Jesus. What is Jesus’ concern as he receives the adulterous woman? He does not deny that she has sinned, but he is not interested in condemning her for what has happened in the past. Jesus only concern is to protect her from danger, condemnation, guilt, and shame and to set her free to fulfill his command, “do not sin anymore.” That’s the gift we each have in Christ, to let go of whatever has gone before, and be set free for a future of holiness. I once told a priest in confession that I really just needed a fresh start. He said, “Fresh starts are the Lord’s specialty.” As Oscar Wilde put it, “The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.”

Brothers and sisters, let us let go of blame, notice or own sins, and become that sinner with a future. It is Jesus who sets us free for a future of freedom and holiness.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Christian Trials

(1st Sunday of Lent, C)

Each year on this first Sunday of Lent, we hear one of the accounts of Jesus’ fast and temptation in the desert. Today we take courage from Jesus’ defeat of the devil; in our own journey through Lent we imitate his retreat and meditate on the meaning of the trials for us.

The temptations of Jesus in the desert are an argument over what it means to be the Son of God. In the first temptation the devil says, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” We know that Jesus is hungry, because he is fasting. We also know that Jesus is quite willing and able to care for the hungry by bringing forth bread in a miraculous way; think of the very familiar scene of Jesus multiplying the loaves to feed the multitude. He won’t, however, do something similar here. He uses his divine power to take care of the hunger of others, but not his own. “One does not live on bread alone,” Jesus says. His obedience to God is more important than his bodily needs, and he will not sacrifice his trust in his Father in order to satisfy them. This is a strong word for us who desire to become better Christians over the course of this Lent; how can we better put the needs of others before our own? How about the needs of the hungry of this world? If we’re not thinking about their needs, we’re not the Body of Christ we hope to become in Holy Communion.

In the second temptation, the devil offers Jesus all the “power and glory” of the “kingdoms of the world.” All Jesus has to do is worship the devil, to trade his heavenly Father for the ‘prince of this world.’ For Jesus to have power and authority the way this world imagines it, he would have to reject his Father. For the glory and power of the Son of God do not conform to the way this world imagines these things. Think of Jesus on the Cross with the capital charge hanging above him: ‘The King of the Jews.’ He’s not much of a king the way royal power is usually defined; he can’t even move his hands and feet, much less command or control anything. No; the power of the Son of God lies not in his lording it over, controlling, or pushing anybody around, but in the almighty humility by which he places himself below us as our Suffering Servant. So it must be with us, brothers and sisters, if we are to be Christians. From the larger systems of political oppression to the little tyrannies and coercions of ‘control freaks’ in our relationships, workplaces, and churches, the Christian rejects it all. True power lies instead in the courage to place ourselves below others, to become their servant and so make them free.

In the third temptation, the devil invites Jesus to put the Father’s faithfulness to him to the test. “Throw yourself down,” he says, for doesn’t the Bible say that God will protect you? Trust doesn’t work like that, and we all know it from our human relationships. If someone tests our trust or our faithfulness, we’re hurt, because we know that this means we were not really trusted in the first place. So it is with God, brothers and sisters. If we really trust in God’s presence to us, in his desire for our peace and happiness, we should never have to put Him to the test. We should never have to say in our hearts, ‘just do this for me’ or ‘just give me this sign and then I will really believe in You.’ To trust God is to abandon ourselves into his Care. If we can do this, we will also fulfill the calls that come to us in the first two temptations: to look to the needs of others before our own, and to let go of control. During this Lent, may we be about this work of becoming more Christ-like.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

In the Kingdom of God, the Poor Help YOU

(6th Sunday, C)

For the past few Sundays we have been hearing about the beginnings of Jesus’ ministry according to St. Luke. First we had two weeks of his inaugural sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth, Last Sunday was the calling of the first apostles. Today we begin to hear the preaching of Jesus in earnest with the beginning of his “Sermon on the Plain.” Jesus begins this great sermon with a set of four beatitudes—‘blessed are you’—matched with four corresponding woes—‘woe to you.’

These are good for us to hear because we are much more accustomed to St. Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes, which we hear every year on All Saints Day and is among the most popular choices for the gospel of funeral and wedding Masses. St. Luke’s version, however, is starker. There is no “Blessed are the poor in spirit” here, no chance to hedge or mystify the teaching. “Blessed are you who are poor…who are hungry…who are weeping,” proclaims St. Luke’s Jesus, and “Woe to you are rich…who are filled…who laugh now, for you will weep.” Worldly fortune has been reversed.

This is hard stuff, but we have to try to take it seriously. For God, in the birth of Jesus Christ, has accomplished this great reversal. At the beginning of Luke’s gospel, Elizabeth, our Blessed Mother’s cousin, becomes the first person to proclaim the prayer that will become for us the Hail Mary: “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Mary responds with her great Magnificat, which the Church sings as the gospel for Evening Prayer each day: God has “cast down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly/the hungry he has filled with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”

The very birth of Jesus Christ is itself this great reversal. In Jesus, God has given everything and even Himself away and become poor. We saw this all through the Christmas season when the Almighty God was revealed in poor and vulnerable child. As we go forward into Lent later this week, we will begin to contemplate the poverty and humility of God from the aspect of the Cross, wherein God is revealed as a condemned and tortured criminal. Both of these mysteries of the sublime humility of God are recapitulated and made present for us here at the Eucharist, as Jesus makes himself present to us, as St. Francis says, “under the little form of bread.”

What this means is that God, by revealing himself as a self-abandoning poverty and vulnerability, has identified himself with the poor and vulnerable of this world. So we have to ask ourselves what this might mean for us, especially any of us, who, like me, worry that they might be among the recipients of Jesus’ curse, being well provided for in this world, being “filled now.”

It seems to me that we can challenge ourselves in at least a couple of ways. First, we must adopt an attitude and spirituality that find their hope in God rather than in the things of this world. This is what we hear from Jeremiah the prophet in the first reading: “Cursed is the one who trusts in human beings,” but “Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord.” As many of us have learned the hard way in these times, the securities of this world are not reliable. Only in God do we have a true and lasting security. One of the documents of the Second Vatican Council that you never hear about, the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, describes the attitude of God’s people: “Following Jesus in His poverty, they are neither depressed by the lack of temporal goods nor inflated by their abundance; imitating Christ in His humility, they have no obsession for empty honors.” (§4)

Second, because God, in Jesus Christ, has identified himself with the poor and the vulnerable, we too should put ourselves on the side of the poor. Those who are poor, hungry, and weeping right now in this world should be at the heart of our prayer, at the front of our concern, and at the center of our debates on public policy. When we can do this, we have truly become the Body of Christ we proclaim ourselves to be here at Mass.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

A Danger of Religion

(4th Sunday in Ordinary Time, C)

In the Scriptures today we encounter some hard teachings, and they ought to be very challenging for us. To prepare him for his prophetic vocation, the word of the LORD comes to Jeremiah: God will make him a “fortified city,” a “pillar of iron,” and a “wall of brass” against kings and princes, against the priests and the people. But why should God have to do this for Jeremiah? If to be a prophet means to speak God’s Truth to the world, why should the prophet be in an adversarial relationship with the people and priests of God? In this we begin to see the hard truth at hand: sometimes it is devout folk—and the official and professional stewards of religion especially—who are exactly the people who don’t want to hear a prophet’s word.

We see this in the gospel today. After one sermon in his hometown synagogue, Jesus’ fellow Nazoreans drive him out of town and then try to throw him off a cliff. In interpreting this rejection of Jesus, we have to be careful. We’re accustomed to praying through the condemnation of Jesus; his Passion and Cross are at the center of our faith. Jesus is executed for his messianic claims—so the charge against him reads on his cross: “The King of the Jews.” We heard the beginning of Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah in the first part of the Nazareth sermon last Sunday, and today’s gospel repeats it: after reading from the prophet Isaiah, Jesus proclaims “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled your hearing.” The people don’t seem to have a problem with that. In fact, St. Luke reports, “all spoke highly of him.”

The people’s problem isn’t that Jesus claims to be the Messiah, but for whom he suggests he is savior. By recalling two scriptural incidents of God working for the salvation of people who were not part of Israel, Jesus suggests that he is to be savior also for those who are outside the in-group of God’s people. Neither the poor and humble widow helped by Elijah or the powerful Naaman cured by Elisha were Jews. Neither were members of God’s people, but it was to these outsiders that God also sent his good news.

It’s not that being a member of God’s people doesn’t matter; as we say in the third Eucharistic Prayer, “From age to age you gather a people to yourself.” Just as God chose his people Israel to be his special possession, he has built us into “a people set apart” as we pray in the first Preface for Sundays in Ordinary Time. But this never means that God doesn’t reserve the right to work, act, and save outside of the people of God as we are visibly constituted. Too many times religious people get this idea, and become jealous for God. They are the chosen ones, and outsiders do not have the same—if any—access to God. This is what is going on in the gospel today. The people in the synagogue were happy to hear that Jesus was the Messiah; they just couldn’t bear the idea that he might be savior for anyone but themselves. Otherwise devout religious people have made this error down through the ages, and have sometimes caused a lot of suffering.

Nevertheless, it’s a delicate distinction. We have been called into the people of God and should be glad to have the Truth. But we can’t limit God to what he has revealed to us. We can see this distinction, for example, in our own doctrine of the sacrament of baptism. God has revealed the necessity of baptism for salvation (e.g. Mark 16:16), but this doesn’t mean that God can’t save someone in another way. As the Catechism puts it, “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.” (§ 1257) Baptism is the way to salvation as far as God has revealed it, but this doesn’t mean that God can’t save in other ways as well. So we always proclaim the necessity of baptism for salvation—as Jesus has revealed—but we are careful to remain humble in this assertion, knowing that God’s work is not limited to what he has publicly revealed.

So let us rejoice today in the knowledge that God has revealed to us the way to salvation, but let’s not make the mistake of thinking that we know everything about what God is up to in the world.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Renovated and Missioned

(3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, C)

In the first reading today we hear from the book of Nehemiah, in which we meet Ezra the priest. Ezra and Nehemiah were two important figures in the return of the people of God from the Babylonian Exile. Towards the end of the sixth century BC, after two generations in exile, King Cyrus the Persian ended their Captivity and allowed the people to return to Jerusalem. The city, of course, had to be rebuilt, and Nehemiah is famous for some of this work. The faith had to be reestablished as well, and this is what is going on in the reading. Ezra is reading out the Law to the people and restoring familiarity with God’s word and commandments. Though the people are weeping—perhaps from having to stand there all morning or because the newly rediscovered demands of the Law seemed overwhelming—Ezra invites them to celebrate. Jerusalem is being rebuilt, the covenants are being renewed, and it’s time, as Ezra says, for “rich foods and sweet drinks.”

The good news for us today is that Jesus, in the announcement and inauguration of his mission which we hear in the gospel, is about the same work for us. Nehemiah rebuilding the walls and gates of Jerusalem can be an image for us of what we are about here at the Sunday Eucharist. As the Catechism teaches, “The Eucharist makes the Church.” (§1396) In Holy Communion we are addressed by the minister with our deepest name, our enduring and eternal identity—the Body of Christ. We gather here to be made together into the New Jerusalem, which, as we hear in the book of Revelation, is the new City which comes out of heaven and joins herself to earth as the ultimate destiny of creation. We, in our human lives united to the humanity of Christ in our baptism, are the living stones that provide for that joining of heaven and earth. Here at Mass we are built into that New Jerusalem. “The Eucharist makes the Church.”

As the Church we are the heirs and custodians of the mission of Jesus Christ. His mission is put into our hands and entrusted to us. This is part of what it means when Jesus says that the prophecy of Isaiah is “fulfilled in your hearing.” When we gather each Sunday to hear God’s Word, the mission of Jesus is handed over anew and fulfilled in our acceptance.

What is the mission of Jesus Christ? It is to be anointed to “bring glad tidings to the poor,” “liberty to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.” To offer our time, praise, personal sacrifices and indeed our whole selves on this altar each Sunday is to be willing to be transformed into the Body of Christ and become the bearers of this mission. As the Catechism also teaches, the “Eucharist commits us to the poor.” “To receive in truth the Body and Blood of Christ given up for us, we must recognize Christ in the poorest, his brethren.” (§1397)

In our Holy Communion today, may we know that we are fulfilling the command of Ezra to make our rejoicing in the Lord our strength as we eat the rich food of the Body of Christ and share in the sweet drink of his Precious Blood. Let us rejoice to be built into the New Jerusalem, and let us accept anew the mission of Jesus to bring good news to the poor.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Being Invited and Saving the Party

(2nd Sunday, C)

We arrive, brothers and sisters, at the start of another cycle of Sundays in Ordinary Time, and for this beginning we hear from St. John the beginning of Jesus’ “signs.” The account of the wedding at Cana is so full of spiritual truth and good news for us that a preacher might hardly know where to begin. The story speaks not only of the gospel of Jesus’ compassion and humility, but also of the exciting news of the possibility of transformation and new destiny that all creatures have in Christ. So for fear of preaching forever, I’ll limit myself to two points of good news for us today.

First, we shouldn’t miss the simple truth that Jesus accepts invitations. Jesus was invited to the wedding, and he showed up. That’s good news for all of us, because we can be confident that if we invite the presence of God in Christ into our lives, our prayer, and our troubles, we can be assured that Jesus will be there. Jesus accepts invitations. His disciples accept invitations too; they too were at the wedding. So if we wish to be disciples of the Lord we have to be ready to accept the invitations we receive to enter into the joys, griefs, and chaos of others. To be unmoved by the suffering of others or unable to rejoice in the joy of another is an almost certain sign of sin.

Second, Jesus saves the party. Why didn’t his hapless couple have enough wine? Poverty? Poor planning? Too many wedding crashers? We don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that Jesus (at the invitation of his mother we might add) saves the party by providing new wine. Jesus saves the party so that the newlyweds and their guests may rejoice on this most special occasion. Jesus makes up for their lack, whatever it was, so that their joy could be full.

So it is with us, brothers and sisters. We must never fear our own lacking in what we need to be faithful to God or to flourish in the vocations God has given us. The sign Jesus works today shows us that if we seek the presence of Jesus Christ and the intercession of his mother, whatever way we lack can be an opportunity for the revelation of the glory of God through Christ. So if we ever feel that we don’t have what we need, let us turn to Jesus through Mary and we will soon find that our lack is changed into the glorious and superabundant grace of God. The water not only became wine, but the best wine. If we invite Jesus into our lives we can be assured that our souls too will blush into the new wine that gives joy to the heart. May the same transforming grace come upon every place in our hearts and lives where we feel dull, tired, and plain, so that the joy and delight of God himself might shine through us, making each of us into revealers of the Father’s glory.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Grace of God

(Baptism of the Lord, C)

In the second reading from the letter of Paul to Titus we hear a simple proclamation of Christmas: “The grace of God has appeared.” This is also the second reading from the Mass of Christmas night, and so this announcement of grace brackets the whole Christmas season. Today’s feast of the Baptism of the Lord is a great revelation of this grace and the good news of how we can come to live in it.

First, let us remind ourselves what we mean by ‘grace.’ In our Christian life we talk about the grace of God all the time, so it’s good to review what we mean by the term. The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives this definition: “Grace is a participation in the life of God.” (§1997) Grace is our sharing in the divine life of God; grace is the name we give to the work and presence of God when it comes to dwell in us. Most simply, grace is God when God is with us and in us.

Jesus Christ is ‘God with us.’ As we sang all through Advent: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel—‘Emmanuel,’ ‘God with us.’ In the coming of Jesus this plaintive prayer has been answered. God is with us and the “grace of God has appeared.” Jesus is grace; he is God’s sharing of the divine life with us through the humanity of Christ; he is the participation of our human nature with the delight, joy, and creativity of the divine life of God himself. During the Christmas season we celebrate Christ as the wondrous means by which God has accomplished for us this participation in himself.

From the overshadowing of Mary by the Holy Spirit to the human birth of the Son of God to the revelation of the Father’s voice we hear at the Lord’s baptism today, the Christmas season is a feast of the Blessed Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity teaches us that God is not some static and unmoving reality sitting quietly on some throne in heaven, but a set of dynamic and creative relationships. Christmas celebrates our wonder at the great gift that the Holy Spirit has bent the mutual and creative love of God the Father and God the Son into our world through the motherhood of Mary. The perfect Love at the heart of the Blessed Trinity has been stretched into this world and into our human condition by the conception of Jesus. This opens up the life of the Blessed Trinity just enough so that you and I can step into Him. Jesus is God giving us the opportunity to be ourselves spiritually included in the eternal goodness, delight, and creativity which is the life of God.

In a particular way we celebrate today how it is that this grace, this “participation in the life of God” is accomplished and begun in each of us. It is through the sacrament of Baptism. By going down into the water we are joined to the death of Christ, the death which destroys the power of sin within us. By our rising from the water we are joined to the new life of Christ’s Resurrection. It is, in the words of the second reading, “the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.”

Jesus’ baptism gives this cleansing bath of rebirth to the humanity he shares with us. It’s not that the water cleanses him, but that he sanctifies the waters of baptism for all of us. Let us pray today that all of our catechumens might desire their coming baptism all the more, and for renewal of the grace of baptism for each of us who are baptized, that our lives may become ever more graced participations in the Life of the Blessed Trinity.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Lights and Ladders


“Rise up in splendor,” comes the call from the prophet Isaiah, “Your light has come…the glory of the Lord shines upon you.” Though our world may seem at times to be in darkness and gloom, we rejoice today in the revelation of Christ, the true Light.

The theme of light pervades the whole Christmas season. Lights are one of the primary ways we decorate in celebration of the Lord’s Nativity, as we see here in church and in our neighborhoods. This theme begins with the gospel proclamation of the Mass of Christmas Day, “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” (John 1:9) For us who live in the northern hemisphere, the cycle of the seasons reinforces our spiritual recollection; from now on the daylight will increase each day until we arrive at the Nativity of John the Baptist on the other side of the astronomical year when we celebrate the birth of him who “must decrease.”

On this feast of the Epiphany we are given the image of the magi following the star to the infant Jesus. They are models for our imitation. The magi show us that the created world of nature, properly interpreted, leads us to Jesus Christ. As they followed the star to the newborn Jesus, so we too can follow the beauty and light of creation to the presence of God among us. In some ways, this is something that we as modern people have forgotten. Sometimes our theism, in practical terms at least, is of the type that separates God from nature; God is in charge of spiritual stuff, while we have science to explain the natural world. This is the classic “God of the gaps” theology. As Christians, we must resist this kind of thinking. Why? Because we believe that God created the world through His Word: ‘God said…and so it happened’ goes the refrain of the first biblical account of the creation. What we celebrate at Christmas is that this same Word of God becomes flesh in the human person Jesus Christ. Putting these two articles of faith together we realize that the created world should speak of the Christ through Whom it was created, and that Jesus Christ Himself should be the interpretive key to understanding the created world.

The truth is that we are all aware of this in our day to day lives. When we encounter beauty or mystery in the natural world, whether in the creation around us or especially in our experience of ourselves through these wonderful and mysterious minds we have, we know that this speaks to the goodness, beauty, and immensity of our Creator. The great theologian of the Franciscan Order, St. Bonaventure, writes about this in his famous spiritual treatise, The Journey of the Soul into God. St. Bonaventure teaches that we can see the whole created universe as a scala ad ascendendum in Deum, a ladder or stairway by which we might ascend into the contemplation of God. (I:2)

This is the spiritual work, privilege, and joy that the magi put before us today. Let us notice and contemplate the natural light of creation, the beauty and mystery of everything God has made through his only-begotten Word. Let us follow these lights and contemplations to the Light Itself, Jesus Christ.