26 March 2018

Jesus is Alive!

Easter Vigil & Easter Sunday
The thought had crossed my mind, but apparently someone put up a billboard on 23 that says something like, “Jesus is dead.  April fools!”  I have to admit, it is a little weird that Easter falls on April Fools Day.  But as we assemble to celebrate our Lord’s Resurrection, we should ask ourselves if we truly believe that Jesus is alive.  And if we believe it, is that belief evident in our actions?
It’s very easy to treat Jesus like we treat any other deceased teacher or famous figure.  Someone recently told me that a lot of young people today see Jesus in the same light as Mahatma Ghandi, or Abraham Lincoln, or Socrates, that is, that they were good people, who taught and did good things, but now they’re gone, and relegated to history books and their writings.  Jesus is simply one of a long list of teachers and do-gooders who have graced the earth with their presence.  
But there is a major difference: Mahatma Ghandi, Abraham Lincoln, and Socrates, along with all the other teachers and good people, are all dead.  Jesus is alive, and we know it because His disciples, who, as our Gospel relates, were not looking for Him to be alive, saw the risen Jesus.  We can joke about “Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb?” (because Ulysses S. Grant is actually in a sarcophagus above ground), but the tomb of Jesus is empty.  I have seen it, and there’s no one there.
I think it can be easy at times to treat Jesus like a deceased relative that we loved dearly.  We like to remember that person; we probably have a nice picture of that person in our home.  Maybe we even talk to that person from time to time.  I know I have a picture of my deceased grandmother in my home, as well as the pictures of other friends who have died in my office.  And we do profess by faith in our funeral Masses that, for the faithful, life is changed, not ended.  But with Jesus it’s even more dramatic.  His Body and Soul and united and He is active in the world.  
And it’s not just that he’s alive in the people who believe in Him, in their hearts and in their minds.  He’s more alive than that.  People saw Him, touched Him, heard Him, and ate with Him.  And we can, too.  
I think about my friends who are alive, and the way I think of them, versus how I think of my deceased relatives.  There’s a difference.  I’m not sure I can quite explain it, but there is.  You probably know what I’m talking about.  But when we think of Jesus, in which category do we put Jesus: our alive friends, or our deceased relatives?
So what does it look like to actually believe and act as if Jesus is alive?  What are some of the ways that others can know that we believe Jesus is alive?  One way is by our actions.  St. Paul (in our second reading) encouraged us to put away the old yeast, “the yeast of malice and wickedness,” and to live with the new “bread of sincerity and truth.”  If Jesus is alive, then He encourages us and strengthens us by the power of the Holy Spirit to live in a new way, a way that patterns our life on the life of Jesus.  We reject hatred, we reject vengeance, we reject evil desires, and we live for honesty, for love, for forgiveness, and for virtue.  
I don’t know about you, but I also talk about my friends who are alive a lot more than I talk about my deceased relatives.  Yes, we talk about the deceased especially around holidays.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.  But we tend to tell stories about what we do with our friends, our communications with our friends, and how much we value our friendship especially when that friend is still alive.  I’m sure I bore people to death with some of my stories from ride alongs with my State Trooper friends.  There are things with other friends that seem funny to me that make no sense to people who don’t know my friends.  And I often will sing the praises of friends who help pick me up when I’m feeling down.  
Do we do the same with Jesus?  We might have to think about it, but we all have stories about times that we have spent with Jesus that are memorable.  Some of those stories may even sound crazy, but we know that it was Jesus and that He was there with us.  And how many times have we experienced the love of Jesus?  And yet, how often do we talk about that?  About ten chapters after our second reading, St. Paul also says to the people of Corinth, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is in vain; you are still in your sins.  …If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all.”  In other words, if Jesus is dead, if Jesus was just a good teacher who went the way of all the other good teachers, then redemption is not ours, and we are the most pathetic people.  

But Jesus is alive.  It’s not an April Fools joke.  Recommit yourselves this Easter to living like Jesus is alive: not only remembering Him on each Sunday as we come to Mass (that is important), but talking with Him, listening to Him, inviting Him to be a part of your life, talking about Him, and living a life like Jesus’ to the best of our ability.

The Power of the Cross

Good Friday of the Lord’s Passion
Baseball season is upon us.  Yesterday was supposed to be opening day for the Detroit Tigers, the 118th season, but it was rained out, so it was today.  Many baseball players, as they are walking up to Home Plate, do a quick sign of the cross before they bat.  On the one hand, it’s a nice witness to their Christian faith.  On the other hand, it’s often done so quickly, that it barely looks like a cross.  Sometimes we may fall into that same bad habit of quickly signing ourselves without recognizing the power that the cross has.
Often, when I’m thinking about Good Friday, I immediately think of the movie “The Passion of the Christ.”  And I vaguely remembered the crucifixion scene, so I watched it again.  I was overcome by emotions as I watched the very gruesome portrayal that was the horror of Jesus’ crucifixion.  After Jesus’ side had been pierced by the lance by the Roman soldier, the scene changes from Calvary to an unknown, dry ground, cracked from lack of water, with bones strewn about, and Satan in the middle, shrieking.  Satan, who had worked so hard to kill God, now realizes that by Jesus’ death on the cross, Satan himself had been defeated.
That is what happened on Good Friday, and that is why we call it “Good.”  The rule of the prince of this world, the devil, was defeated by the Prince of Peace, and the rule of unending sin was stopped.  And all of that happened by the cross.  
Later in the liturgy today we will kiss, genuflect, or bow before the cross.  As I come before the cross I will take off my chasuble and my boots as a sign of reverence.  When we pray the Stations of the Cross, we say, “We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.”  Probably at least some of us remember in Catholic schools writing a cross at the top of each paper.  
The cross has power because it is the instrument of the victory of Jesus.  Because we make the sign of the cross so often (at the beginning of our prayers, probably when we enter the church and bless ourselves with holy water), we may easily forget its power.  
The cross, as it did almost two thousand years ago, defeats Satan and all his fallen angels.  It protects us from all who want to do us harm.  St. John of Damascus writes in one prayer that he composed:

…let the demons perish before those who love God and sign themselves with the sign of the cross, saying with joy: Rejoice, most precious and life-giving cross of the Lord, who cast out demons by the might of Him Who was crucified upon you, our Lord Jesus Christ, Who descended into hades and trampled upon the power of the devil and gave you, His honorable cross to us, to banish all of our enemies.  O glorious and life-giving cross of the Lord, help me together with the holy Lady, Virgin Theotokos and all the saints unto all ages.  Amen.  

If you’re every feeling weighed down by sin, or feel like the devil is having his way with you, you can pray this prayer, and trusting in the power of the cross, know that you will be free.
The power of the cross of Christ also helps us to carry our daily crosses.  As I come before the cross, I not only bring my own crosses of my life, my struggles, my pain, my sin, but I also keep in mind your crosses, the struggles that people entrust to me, the sins that they confess to Christ through me, the pain that they ask me to ease by visits to their house or to the hospital and the prayers and I saw for them, especially when I anoint them.  This year I bring the pain of loss with the death of my grandmother.  I also bring all the parishioners whom I have buried since last Good Friday, and the family members who remain.  I bring the misunderstandings that I have caused, or of which I have been the object.  I bring the struggles to do more with less, and the difficult decisions that I am responsible for making as pastor, especially when they affect others more than they affect me.  I say all this not to gain your pity, but to proclaim to you that when I lay them at the foot of the cross of the Lord, the burden is lighter, and I am strengthened to carry my cross.
God can give you the same strength, too.  You have many crosses that I don’t know about, and I will never know the weight of some of the crosses you carry.  But I promise you that if they are united to the cross of Jesus, then you don’t carry them alone, but Jesus carries them with you so that whatever in your crosses is due to sin, to death, to Satan, may be defeated by Christ in you.  

So may our witness to the cross be strong, be purposeful, and be public.  May the power of the cross scatter any darkness in our lives, cast out any evil spirits who wish to harm us, and gain for us the grace of perseverance in the faith so that we may be made worthy of the gift of salvation that was won for us by Jesus’ death on the cross.

The Greatest Story Ever Told

Mass of the Lord’s Supper
One of my major complaints about movies today is that Hollywood no longer knows how to tell a new story.  Many of the movies that have come out recently are either telling a story that’s already been told (like in a comic book), or continuing with a story that was told earlier (like the new Star Wars movies).  I was recently chastised by an older friend who was appalled both that I liked the new “True Grit,” and that I had never seen the original “True Grit” with John Wayne.  
But the great things about the movies that stick with us is that they tell a timeless tale.  In any movie that works, there is a decisive event, which leads to a challenge, and that challenge must be overcome to find success.  As I understand literature, the comedies are the stories where the success involves the life of the hero; tragedies are the stories where the success involves the death of the hero.
Human redemption is not simply a story, but it is the basis for all good stories.  Salvation history, writ large, is about the decisive event (the Fall of Adam and Eve), and God reconciling humanity (quite a big challenge because of our stubbornness and our attraction to sin), and God overcoming our challenge by the Death of His Son, Jesus.  Of course, in Jesus, we find both tragedy and comedy, as Jesus both dies, but then lives again.  
In salvation history, redemption is always tied up with death, either literal or metaphorical.  In our first reading, we hear about the redemption of Israel from the slavery of Egypt by the death of the lamb, which also saves them from the death of the first born, the tenth and most drastic plague.  And as Jesus institutes the Eucharist (which St. Paul talks about in the second reading), He gives His apostles a way to connect, not only simply to remember, but to connect to His death, which He anticipates in His early celebration of the Passover.  Perhaps that is why God inspired the Psalmist to say: “Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones.”  Psalm 116 seems to see the necessary connection between death and redemption.
The Eucharist is precisely redemption given to us as food and drink.  In the Eucharist, Calvary is given to us under the appearance of bread and wine as Jesus gives His Body and Blood for us.  That is why the Church asks that a crucifix occupy a most central place in the sanctuary: so that we can see and be drawn to the love that we receive on our tongues and in our hands.  
Redemption involves death, but God turns death on its head so that death actually becomes an opportunity for life.  We will see this on Saturday night and Sunday, but we also see it in Jesus washing His apostles’ feet.  Jesus does not literally die when He washes the apostles’ feet, but He dies to elevating oneself and what should be.  He is the Lord, they are they servants, and yet He makes Himself their servant.  He is the Rabbi, they are the disciples, but His teaching involves elevating them, rather than Himself, and then He says that just as He has done, so they should do.
Bishop Boyea washes Fr. Anthony's foot at his
presbyteral ordination
It is easy to pass over (if you’ll pardon the pun) the depth of this event.  Every Holy Thursday we hear about Jesus’ washing His apostles’ feet, about Simon Peter resisting because it’s unbecoming, but then overcompensating by saying he wants his hands and head as well.  But remember this: Jesus would wash the feet of Peter, who would, that same night, deny even knowing Jesus.  Peter would not die to his fear, to his pride, and so death, which is what sin is, would enter his soul.  Judas also had his feet washed, the same Judas who that same night would find the temple guards and lead them to Jesus to betray Him.  Everything in Jesus’ human will must have screamed against treating Judas, the betrayer apostle, the same as John, the beloved apostle.  But He died to that temptation so that He could live in obedience to the Father.
It would be to facile to simply say, “serve others.”  What Jesus did on Holy Thursday, in the washing of the feet and the institution of the Eucharist and the ministerial priesthood, is much stronger than “do good for others.”  Jesus invites us to be a part of the grand story, the grand reality, of our redemption.  But as we are reminded, redemption, our own redemption, involves death.  Perhaps the death of our bodies (there continue to be armies of martyrs crowned with the palm of victory), but more likely the death of our wills, where we let go of what we want, where we let go of what the world says is right, and we hold on to dear life to the will of God, which is often not what we want and not what the world says is right.  

Tonight we have the opportunity not only to remember what Jesus did, not only to recall our redemption in Christ, but also to actually participate in our redemption.  As we receive the Eucharist, we receive Jesus’ death for us.  And if we allow the Eucharist to do the work that it is meant to do, we can participate in the great story of human redemption.

Alone

Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion
Our Gospels today relate a circumstance we know all too well: when things are going well and you’re on top of the world, your friends are happy to be with you.  But as soon as things go south, you are all alone.  It’s like when you’re young and you have friends over to your house: they’re happy to be with you to have a good time, but as soon as you hear your parents say your first name followed by your middle name, all the sudden your friends scatter and it’s just you having to face what you know will be at least a stern talking to by your parent.
Jesus enters Jerusalem, as we heard in the Gospel proclaimed at the blessing of palms, with lots of people, cheering Him on.  But when Jesus is arrested, and eventually led away to be crucified, it is only a few friends (by varying accounts the Blessed Mother, St. John the Apostle, St. Mary Magdalen, and a few others) who stand by Jesus.
Death is something that is a part of life which makes us feel alone.  Generally, no one else experiences it with us, even if there are people standing around us at the time of death.  We can never experience death for another person.  As much as we might sympathize, and as much as there are common factors, death will be a unique experience for each one of us.
So it makes sense, as Jesus dies on the cross, that He says, as we heard in today’s psalm, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Jesus, in His human nature, feels alone, abandoned by God, as He dies.  He experiences everything we do, except without sin, including the individuality of dying.  Of course, for Jesus, death is not part and parcel of His existence.  Jesus is God, the source of life, Life Incarnate, so death is not merely something which makes so little sense, it is the antithesis of who Jesus is.  Of course, God the Father does not truly abandon Jesus at the hour of His death, as Jesus truly takes up His cross, any more than God abandons us when we are faced with the cross.  But Jesus feels like He is alone, as He empties Himself and dies on the cross.
The cross is the other place where we feel alone.  When I say cross here, I’m talking about our suffering, our challenges, especially the ones that touch us at the deepest levels of our human nature.  Whether it’s a big cross or a small cross to outsiders, each cross is heavy to the person carrying it, to the person dying on it.  Carrying the cross, on the cross, is where the person feels alone, abandoned, perhaps even by God.  The cross is the way that we, too, like Jesus, are invited to empty ourselves.  Our pride tells us to hold on to ourselves, to puff up ourselves, but the cross is the great deflator.  
Of course, we don’t have to carry or die on our crosses.  We always have the choice to say no to the cross.  But in saying no to the cross, we say no to the Resurrection.  The cross empties us, as St. Paul talks about in the second reading.  The cross humbles us.  But in emptying us and humbling us, we finally have room for God, who will not leave us empty and debased, but will raise us up, just as He did for Jesus.
Because we are human, our tendency is to run away from the cross.  We are afraid of its weight, and that God will abandon us as we carry it and die on it.  The cross, which is also to say dying to ourselves, is painful.  But it is the only way that we can allow God to raise us up, to conquer our sin and death and give us holiness and life.  And God will not abandon us, even if it feels that way, when we suffer.  

So I invite you not to abandon Jesus, just as He didn’t abandon you.  All this week we have an opportunity to be with Jesus as He suffers, to tell Jesus with our actions that He is not alone.  Come to the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Thursday night at 7 p.m. as Jesus institutes the Eucharist and the ministerial priesthood, and is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Come to our Good Friday Liturgy at 2 p.m., as Jesus dies on the cross, and to Tenebrae at 8 p.m., as He is laid in the tomb.  Embrace Jesus’ Passion, Cross, and Death, so that you can share in His Resurrection.

12 March 2018

For Whom would we Give Up our Life?

Fourth Sunday of Lent
There are a few people, but probably only a few, for whom the average person would give up his or her life.  I think any parent (any good parent, anyway) would give up his or her life for the child.  Siblings sometimes would give up their life for each other.  But generally the list of people for whom another person would give up his or her life is pretty small.
That is what is so impressive about those who serve in the military, law enforcement, or fire departments: they have made a commitment to give up their lives for total strangers.  It is quite humbling for me riding along with our MSP Troopers and seeing them walk up to cars, many with guns in them, and even while they practice safe approaches to the vehicle to limit their chance of being attacked, it still has happened all too frequently that they are in a situation where they may have to lay down their life, not only for a family member or friend, but for the citizens who may not even know they exist.  
If we think about it, giving up our life for a stranger is maybe a little easier if that person is good, maybe what we consider a productive member of society.  But what our first and second reading remind us this weekend is that we weren’t good.  This is an important aspect of salvation history: God loved us and entered into covenants with us to give us life and happiness, but we never lived up to our end of the bargain.  In the Garden of Eden, before we even had sin, we disobeyed God.  God saved Noah and his family because they followed God, but not long after that, Noah’s sons messed things up again.  Abraham did pretty well, but he still had inherited the sin of Adam and Eve that we call original sin.  Moses received the Law, the Ten Commandments from God, and no sooner had God given the Law, then the people broke it.  Even Moses himself couldn’t enter the Promised Land because he had disobeyed God on their journey through the desert.  King Saul disobeyed God, so David was chosen, but even David committed murder to cover up his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba.  Solomon started worshipping foreign gods, even though he had built the temple in Jerusalem, because of the influence of his foreign wives, and most of the kings who followed him were just as evil.  And so on and so on.  No one, not even the prophets, were good enough to earn heaven.  We all were, as St. Paul said in the second reading, “dead in our transgressions.”
And that’s what makes the familiar line we hear in the Gospel so powerful.  It’s not simply a sign that people hold up at football games behind the goal posts.  “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.”  ‘Of course he did!’ we might say to ourselves.  We are so used to God dying for us, to save us from everlasting death and Hell, that we might be a little numb to the power that is in those words.  We might die for family or friends.  We may even die for a good person.  But Jesus died for those who were His enemies: those who worked against Him starting with Adam and Eve, those who clamored for His death in Jerusalem, and for us who have nailed Jesus to the cross each time we sin.  The power of what Jesus did comes from the fact that we were, before baptism, the enemies of God, working against God, happy to do our own thing, rather than follow God.  Even the most just man, because of original sin, was still an enemy of God who could not earn salvation.
How comfortable have so many of us become with the killing of God.  We take it as a matter of fact, and it is in the sense that it has happened.  But it should not have happened.  Jesus is the light of the world, and came not to condemn us but to save us, but we preferred darkness; and so we tried to snuff out the light.  But the light conquered our darkness, as light always does.  
Think of the person who troubles you the most; maybe you even hate that person.  That person has harmed you in a way you find unforgivable.  And now you have to die for that person tomorrow so that he or she can live.  Really think about it; what would be your reaction?  What would be your honest reaction?  Jesus’ reaction was love; not begrudgingly, not with caveats and conditions, not as one forced to do what is for the best, but not the best for Him.  Jesus died for us because He loved us.  He let us kill Him with our sins because He loved us.  We did not earn salvation, nor can we; “this is not from you; it is the gift of God.”  

The question is whether or not we will respond to God’s gift of salvation.  Will we choose the light, or do we prefer darkness?  Do we believe in Jesus, follow Him, and so find eternal life, or will we be condemned because we do not believe?  We are not worth dying for.  But Jesus died for us anyway.  Accept that love of God that died for you so that you may live.  

05 March 2018

Worldly vs. Catholic Wisdom

Third Sunday of Lent
Have you ever noticed that there is never a shortage of people who are willing to give you advice?  I suppose I might be cutting out my legs from under me, as most homilies are supposed to help people find practical way to apply the Gospel to their daily lives.  But, just think about it: how many TV shows or commercials are basically trying to give you advice on how to diet, how to learn, how to understand what’s happening in the world, in politics, in sports?  Maybe it’s “Dr. Oz,” maybe it’s “The View,” maybe it’s a commercial with your favorite celebrity on a political or social issue, maybe it’s a talk show on your preferred cable news station, or maybe it’s even the way the news is presented by individual networks.  But advice seems to be everywhere from people who want to tell you how to live your life.
This is, of course, nothing new.  Different groups have always been trying to influence the way people think, trying to get people to live their life based on a particular view of reality.  And with the advent of social media, that has only increased.  You can’t scroll Facebook or Twitter without seeing pithy quotes that are supposed to help you be a better person.  Sometimes the phrase sounds good, but in fact, isn’t really Catholic or Christian.  For example, I saw a post on Facebook the other day that said, “There is no turning your back on God.  There is only turning your back on yourself.”  Sounds profound, deep, insightful, right?  It’s rubbish!  Of course you can turn your back on God!  There are so many quotes like this that are from non-Christian or secular websites or pages that may sound amazing, but, in fact, are contrary to Scripture.  And we should be wary about giving our minds and our will to any wisdom that doesn’t come from God through the Scriptures or the Church’s teaching.  I’m not saying it’s all bad, but much of it is, and we don’t want to be poisoned by something that we think might be good.  Imagine picking mushrooms, not knowing which ones are good and which ones will kill you, and leaving behind the guidebook to which ones to consume.  That’s what it is to take wisdom from a non-Christian or secular source without running it past what God has revealed to us.
And what is the wisdom that God gives to us?  The wisdom of God is Christ crucified.  It seems like foolishness and maybe makes people stumble, but our crucified Christ is “wiser than human wisdom,” as St. Paul said in our second reading.  The life of Christ is not only a story, it is a pattern, a guide for all those who want to find happiness.  I know, it may not look like Jesus’ life had a lot of happiness: He was poor, wandered around, most of His best friends abandoned Him when He needed them the most, and He died mostly surrounded by His enemies in a most shameful way of dying.  Sign me up for that, right?
But God raised Jesus up, and, in fact, we have no evidence that Jesus ever seemed to want for anything, or lack any happiness.  He felt sorrow for those who couldn’t or wouldn’t follow Him, but I think it’s pretty safe to say that the Gospels paint Jesus as a happy Person.  He didn’t have money; He didn’t have power (in the way the world sees power); He didn’t have sex (do people really do that?!?).  But Jesus was happy; truly happy.  And He was happy because He lived by God’s Word, the words of everlasting life, as our Psalm response said this morning.  
The Ten Commandments that we heard in our first reading seem like a long list of nos that cramp our style: no idols, no taking God’s Name in vain; no work on the Sabbath; no murder, no adultery, not stealing, no lying, no coveting; the only really positive commandment is “Honor your father and your mother.”  And yet, that wisdom from God which seems so negative, opens us up to a larger ability to say yes.  By not doing menial work on Sunday, the Christian Sabbath, the day of the Resurrection, we are saying yes to enjoying time with our family, maybe even with a family dinner; to serving the poor; to worshipping God and being fed by God’s word and the Body and Blood of Jesus.  And all that because we take a break from work that will always be there.  Think about the people who say yes to taking whatever they want, even if they don’t have the money to pay for it: they may get away with stealing a candy bar or maybe something more, but eventually it catches up with them, and they end up being prosecuted, maybe even going to jail.  And I don’t know many, if any people, who are happy and in jail.  So by saying no to stealing, they are saying yes to freedom, to more opportunities, and to a happier life.

Sometimes living by the wisdom of the Word of God may seem like simply a lot of nos.  But in fact, the ways that God asks us to say no actually allows us to say yes: yes to God, yes to love, yes to peace, yes to happiness.  May our Lenten observances also encourage us to say no to all the things that bring us death and slavery, to our sins, and say yes to all the things that bring us life and freedom, to God’s grace.

23 February 2018

Transfiguring Society

Second Sunday of Lent
In the afternoon of Ash Wednesday the nation was alerted to what became the most-deadly school shooting in US history in Parkland, Florida.  There were so many tragic pictures and videos, many of them the result of almost everyone these days having a phone or tablet that can take pictures.  Last weekend we prayed for both the survivors and those who were murdered at our weekend Masses, and we certainly need to keep that entire community in our thoughts and prayers.
In the hours and the days after the shooting, there were many suggestions on how to stop such a tragedy from happening in the future.  Different suggestions included more gun control legislation and more help for the mentally ill, among others.  I’m not here to endorse or reject any suggestion that was offered on news sites and television programs.  But as we celebrate today the second Sunday of Lent, we are given a few reminders from God that are very poignant given what has happened in our country in the past couple of weeks.
In our first reading, we heard from Genesis about the well-known almost-sacrifice of Isaac.  While child sacrifice sounds so foreign to us, it was not so foreign to Abraham, as it was practiced in many of the local, near-Eastern religions that surrounded Abraham in the land of Canaan.  Abraham’s faith is tested by God, to see if Abraham is willing to give his most precious treasure up for God.  But before the sacrifice, God stays Abraham’s hand, and provides a sacrifice in Isaac’s place.  In God’s stopping Abraham, we see that God never wants any of His children to sacrifice their own children.  Child sacrifice is condemned (as God will condemn it again and again when the Israelites re-settle in the land of Canaan, the Promised Land), but it also looks forward to when God will allow what He would not require of Abraham, the death of His Son, His “only one,” whom God loved above all.  St. Paul reminds us in the second reading that God did not spare His own Son so that we could be raised from the dead and have our sins forgiven.
From the Church of the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor
In our Gospel, though, Jesus is not dying, but being transfigured, being transformed so that His body takes on the quality of a resurrected, not a crucified, body.  “His clothes became dazzling white,” and the prophets Elijah and Moses stood next to Jesus.  And the voice of the Father instructed Peter, James, and John, “‘This is my beloved Son.  Listen to him.’”  And in the transfiguration, we find the key to putting an end to the horrible destruction of life that so plagues our society.
So many of the suggestions to put an end to school shootings, no matter how good they are, treat only the symptoms, and not the disease that has infected the body of society.  The key to ending such horrors is to be transfigured by Christ.  We, individually, and, as more and more individuals are, collectively, have to be transformed by Christ.  Without this transformation, we will sadly see our past national carnage repeated again and again.
How can we be transfigured?  By being open to the work of the Holy Spirit to become more like Jesus.  That’s what the Sacraments are meant to do.  That’s what going to Mass is meant to do.  God wants to change us to be more like Jesus, and we need to be changed by God in order to find happiness and peace and wholeness, and therefore holiness.  Being transfigured by God is the medicine that wipes out the virus, rather than simply treating the symptoms.  
But to be transfigured a certain openness is required on our part.  God will not transform us without our permission.  St. Augustine of Hippo, one of the saints on our icons, said exactly that in Sermon 169: “God who created you without you, will not save you without you.”  If we come to Mass simply to put a butt in a pew, without any desire to hear God’s Word, to be formed and change our lives, no matter how long it may take us, then we will not be transfigured.  If we receive the Eucharist simply as something we were told to do since second grade, without first discerning if we should receive the Eucharist, then, as St. Paul says, we may be eating and drinking condemnation, not transformation, upon ourselves.  We should want to partake of the Body and Blood of Christ each Mass, because that very food transforms us, as St. Augustine also says in Sermon 227, “If we receive the Eucharist worthily, we become what we receive.”   But if we have committed a grave sin and have not gone to confession; if our marriage is not faithful to the teachings of Christ; if we’re chewing gum, reading the bulletin, checking email, or playing games during Mass, then we will not be transformed.  
And if we do not take the graces that we receive in the sacraments, especially baptism, penance, the Eucharist, and holy matrimony, and live them in our day-to-day lives, in the choices we make in our family life, in our jobs, in our driving, in as many aspects of life that we can think of, then we will continue to see horrendous images continue to plague us.  

How do we stop Parkland from happening again?  Formed by God, filled with His grace through the Sacraments, love your spouse more than yourself; love your children enough to be their parent, not their friend, and say no to them and love them even more when they want something destructive; reach out to the people who have just lost a loved one and remind them how much you and God care for them; live and model a life that is based on the Word of God, not the changing ideas and trends of a culture that is based solely on pleasure and opinion.  In short: be transfigured.

12 February 2018

Imitation

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
A picture of me in my
"dress code"
It could be said that while I was in college seminary, I had a certain dress code that was always associated with me.  It was basically khaki pants, a polo shirt (buttoned-up all the way), with a cross on a chain around my neck.  It was kind of my style.  But I didn’t realize it was so associated with me until Halloween in my junior year.  I was studying in Rome, both with seminarians and non-seminarians.  We all lived in the same house, and we tried to observe American holidays to keep us connected, even while we were abroad.  We couldn’t really go trick-or-treating, but we did have a costume party.  A friend of mine, not a seminarian, came down the party dressed in khaki pants, a polo shirt (buttoned-up all the way), with a cross on a chain around his neck.  I saw him and asked him what he was going as, and he said a seminarian.  I told him it was a great costume, not knowing that he was, in fact, going as me.  Dave and I remain friends to this day, even though he went as me for Halloween.
Dave Berthiaume, who
went as me for Halloween,
pictured with his then-girlfriend
(now-wife), Annie


St. Paul said in our second reading, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ,” but I’m quite sure he didn’t mean go trick-or-treating as St. Paul.  Yes, dressing up like someone is one form of imitation, but what is really meant is living a life through which Christ is reflected.  If we’re a husband or wife, it means loving our spouse and children with as close as we can muster to unconditional love.  If we’re a manager of people we treat our employees as Christ would have treated them.  If we’re a janitor it means that we clean to the best of our ability to honor God.  If we’re a student, it means we use and develop our God-given intellect to do our homework and prepare for college or a trade-school.  It is, as St. Paul also mentioned in the second reading, doing whatever we are doing for the glory of God.
When I pray with our student athletes, both from St. Pius X and from Powers, I always pray that they will use their talents for the greater glory of God and the honor of their schools.  But it certainly goes beyond sports.  Imagine if we did our jobs and lived our vocations with the glory of God and the honor of our company or family at the front of our mind!
As we prepare for Lent, with Ash Wednesday this upcoming Wednesday, that’s a great way to have a great Lent: keeping the glory of God at the front of our minds.  It can often get shoved to the back of our minds, and all the concerns of life clamor for more and more attention.  Think about illness (and we heard about it in our first reading and Gospel).  When someone is sick, it can be very easy to ostracize that person because the fear of contracting that illness moves to the front of our mind.  Last week when I was sick, I didn’t have leprosy, but I might as well have walked around shouting, “Unclean, unclean!”  And I don’t mind saying that the sick person, acting out of the love of God, probably shouldn’t want to infect others and so should take precautions to not spread the bacteria and viruses as much as possible.  While it was frustrating, it was good for me to keep myself away from my office, the school, and even limit my contact with the parish last weekend.  
But does the motivation come from what we think God would do, what would bring glory to God, or does it come from fear?  Again, I’m not saying we should ignore good hygiene practices and protect our public from preventable illnesses, but in our Gospel, Jesus is not scared by the leper, but treats the diseased person (and a very contagious disease at that) with respect and love.
There are always people that scare us that we can be tempted to not treat with the love of God, or not act in a way towards them with the glory of God at the front of our mind.  I remember in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s learning about AIDS and how, at that time, there was a lot of fear that even being remotely close to someone with AIDS could mean getting what was at that time a very scary and deadly disease.  But that didn’t stop John Cardinal O’Connor, the late Archbishop of New York, from opening clinics and even working with people who had AIDS to make sure that God’s children, no matter how scary AIDS seemed, received loving medical care.
There are probably people that scare us today, too.  I won’t hypothesize what situations or people scare you.  But I invite you, as I challenge myself, to truly consider in prayer if I treat the people or situations that scare me as an opportunity to imitate Christ and glorify God, or if I act out of my fear.  God does not call us to be na├»ve, but He doesn’t call us to be jaded, either.  

St. Paul invites us to be imitators of Christ.  No, that doesn’t mean we wear a tunic, grow a beard, and wear sandals.  But it does mean acting like Christ would in each of the situations that life presents to us each day.  If we all did things with the greater glory of God on our minds, I think our world would be a much better place.

05 February 2018

Last Week on Mass at St. Pius X...

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
One of the great things about being the only priest in a parish is that you always know what was preached the week before.  When I was in East Lansing, I was one of three priests, and we had 8 Masses each weekend at two sites during the school year (7 during the summer months).  So one week I might have the Saturday evening Mass at St. Thomas and the 8 & 10 a.m. Masses at St. John Student Center, and then the following week I might have the 9 & 11 a.m. Masses at St. Thomas, and the following week I might have the 12, 5, & 7 p.m. Masses at St. John.  It was hard to be consistent in preaching, as each priest would often pick up on a different aspect of the readings.
But you’re stuck with only me, and I know that, if you came to Mass here last week, you heard about obedience and how we need to be obedient to God in all things.  But that obedience applies to us in a special way about what we heard in the second reading and the Gospel (we’ll not dwell on the Debbie Downer first reading from Job this week).  And that obedience comes to each of us to preach the Gospel.
In the Gospel, Jesus takes a little time off to pray, to recharge His batteries, to have time with His Father so that His ministry might be fruitful.  But not long after, the disciples find Jesus and tell Him that everyone is looking for Him.  Jesus then says, “‘Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach there also.  For this purpose have I come.’”  Jesus’ mission is to preach the good news, the Gospel.  In obedience to the Father, He goes beyond His home village to preach that God is fulfilling His promise, and God is freeing the people from their oppressors, not so much the Romans, but the oppression of Satan and sin.
God also gives St. Paul the mission to preach, and St. Paul takes it very seriously.  He calls it an obligation imposed on him by God, “and woe…if I do not preach it!”  St. Paul does everything he can to spread the message.  To the weak he becomes weak to win them over.  He becomes all things to all so that at least some of them may be saved.  And his only recompense is having a share in the Gospel.  
We have also received this mandate to preach the Gospel.  You might not remember it, but it happened at your baptism.  And will happen tonight/happened last night at Jack’s baptism.  After the triple pouring of water, I anoint the child with Sacred Chrism, perfumed oil that has been consecrated by Bishop Boyea.  The second half of the prayer says: “As Christ was anointed Priest, Prophet, and King, so may you live always as a member of his body, sharing everlasting life.”  Being anointed as a Prophet means that we are specially chosen to proclaim God’s Word, just like the prophets in the Old Testament and St. John the Baptist (but you don’t have to wear camel hair and eat locusts and honey).  And at the end of the rite I touch the ears and the mouth of the newly baptized child and say, “The Lord Jesus made the deaf hear and the dumb speak.  May he soon touch your ears to receive his word, and your mouth to proclaim his faith, to the praise and glory of God the Father.”  In these two ways the Church clearly shows how we are mandated, like St. Paul, to preach the Gospel.
But what is the core of the Gospel?  Do we know what the good news is?  I can give you the basics right now in three points, and certainly there is more that can be fleshed out, but here it is: 1) We are sinners and were separated from God by sin; 2) Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man, and came to pay the penalty for sin for us by dying on the cross; 3) Jesus rose from the dead, destroying death and offering new life to those who believe in and follow Him.  Again, there is more to the Gospel than just those three points, but those three points are the heart of the Gospel.
So do we take our mandate seriously?  Are we obedient to God as being evangelizers, those who spread the good news?  Do we recognize, as St. Paul did, that an obligation to spread the Gospel has been imposed on us, and woe to us if we do not preach it?  And we can’t say that it all happens by our actions.  It was popular to quote St. Francis of Assisi with the saying, “Preach the Gospel always; use words if necessary.”  The problem is that he never said that.  And certainly St. Francis did not live that way, as he was constantly talking about Jesus, even to the Sultan in Egypt.  
Does this mean that we have to leave our jobs and do nothing but talk about Jesus?  No.  In fact, Vatican II reminded us that the laity, you, are called to sanctify, to make holy, the temporal order.  You’re supposed to talk about Jesus and live as a disciple of Jesus in your job.  You don’t have to be pushy (in fact, that tends to turn people off to the Gospel), but can still help others see by your life and your words what a difference being Catholic makes in your life.  Sometimes you’ll get asked questions you to which you have no answer.  That’s ok; it’s better to be honest and not have an answer than try to make one up and be fake.  The key is that we’re trying.

I certainly try to take my obligation to preach the Gospel seriously.  My eternal judgment will be partially based on how well I preached the Gospel, and if I watered it down to avoid conflict and thus betrayed the truth.  But we all were mandated in baptism to preach the Gospel in our daily lives.  Woe to all of us if we do not preach it!

29 January 2018

"No"

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
While children are cute and innocent, there comes a point in their lives where that cuteness gets clouded a little, and that innocence starts to wear off a little.  And that point in their lives, I think it’s safe to say, comes when they learn how to say a particular short word, and what that word means, and that word is “no.”  All of the sudden childhood changes and it can often become a battle of wills between child and parents.  And perhaps that word is so easily learned because parents are so often saying it to their child, more often than not to keep them safe.
Today our first reading and Gospel focus on the virtue of obedience.  That word is probably a difficult word for some, if not all, of us.  We are Americans!  We are independent!  We do what we want!  The very word obedience may swell within us the very desire to say the word “no!”
But Moses reminds the Israelites, who are near the Promised Land, that God will raise up a prophet like Moses from among them, and they need to listen to that prophet.  “Whoever will not listen to my words,” says the Lord, “which he speaks in my name, I myself will make him answer for it.”  This prophecy is fulfilled in Jesus, from the family of Israel, a prophet like Moses (Matthew makes this very clear in explaining Jesus as giving a new law, the beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount).  At first they think John the Baptist might be that prophet (the priests and Levites from Jerusalem ask him, ‘Are you the Prophet?’).  But then they think that Jesus is the Prophet.  In John 6 they say, “‘This is truly the Prophet…’”  But the people struggle with the obedience part.  Not long after they acknowledge Jesus as this Prophet that Moses prophesied, Jesus tells them that they have to eat His flesh and drink His blood in order to have life within them, and most of them walk away.  They do exactly the opposite of what Psalm 95 said today: “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”
Ironically, though, as our Gospel demonstrates, the demons are obedient to Jesus.  As soon as he comes by, without addressing the demon at all, the man with the demon cries out at Jesus.  Jesus then rebukes him, and commands him to come out of the man, and the demon leaves the man.  There was no arguing, no delaying, just simple obedience.  The creature, in the presence of its Creator, recognizes what it has to do and obeys.
Here’s the scary thought: the demons obey God better than we do, at times at least.  Those whose entire purpose in their existence is to work against God, can often times be more obedient to God than those whose entire purpose in their existence is to be with God.  St. Benedict, the Father of Western Monasticism, begins his rule for monks with obedience.  He writes, “Listen carefully, my child, to your master’s precepts, and incline the ear of your heart…that by the labor of obedience you may return to Him from whom you had departed by the sloth of disobedience.”  Even that first word, “Listen,” is connected to obedience, as the word obedience comes from the Latin ob and audire which means to listen to someone.  We obey when we listen to someone else and make their will our own.
Again, as Americans we pride ourselves on not listening to others, not obeying, but being independent.  And independence is sometimes a good thing (like the Declaration of Independence).  But when we decide not to listen to God, when we decide not to obey at all, independence becomes nothing more than the rule of my will over everyone else’s, and leads to anarchy, chaos, and violence.  
Recently the term Cafeteria Catholics has been coined for those who only obey when it suits them (which means it’s never true obedience).  Cafeteria Catholics pick and choose which teachings of the Church they want to follow.  These Catholics stopped listening, and therefore stopped obeying.  They argue, “But the Church is just made up of old men!”  But they forget the words of Jesus to the Apostles in the Scriptures, “‘Whoever listens to you listens to me.  Whoever rejects you rejects me.’” and “‘Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’”  Certainly we can wrestle with Church teachings, trying to understand, trying to listen for the voice of Jesus in them.  And some things (like celibacy and fasting rules) are Church disciplines which can change over time.  But other teachings (too many to mention here, and more than simply what is contained in the Nicene Creed) are given to us by Jesus through His Church, which we are bound by justice to obey since we are the creature and they come from our Creator.  If we truly believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to protect the Church from teaching anything contrary to what He wants (even though those who lead the Church are still sinful men), then we need not fear to listen to Jesus and conform our wills to His.  That is one of the great gifts of a Catholic education: we can teach children expressly how to listen to the voice of Jesus, and how to obey that voice when we hear it.  But, even if we ourselves generally agree with Church teachings and obey them to the best of our ability, everyone, because we are fallen and live in a fallen world, struggles to listen to God and obey God in the daily moments of our lives.  

So today let us recommit ourselves to obedience to God in all things, not saying “no” like a toddler to his or her parents, but saying with the Blessed Virgin Mary, “‘May it be done to me according to your word.’”