22 May 2017

Catholic Super Powers

Sixth Sunday of Easter
It is likely not a surprise to anyone who attends St. Pius X Catholic School, that the principal, Mr. Kaplan, has a favorite superhero, and that superhero is Batman.  That’s a fine superhero, though, as I believe the TV show “The Big Bang Theory” pointed out, he’s a rich guy who works out a lot and has a lot of cool tech-toys.  So, as superheroes go, he’s not number one in my book.
Probably my favorite superhero would be Captain America.  I probably like him the best because I’m Captain America before he received the Super-Serum which gave him amazing strength, stamina, and intelligence.  He also has that special shield that is bullet proof and always seems to spin back to him like a boomerang.  For me, I’m just too lazy to do the work to give me a chiseled body like Captain America. 

I think most kids dream about being a super hero.  We all want to have a special ability that sets us apart from the rest.  Whether it’s Batman, Captain America, Wonder Woman, Storm, or any one else, we want to have special gifts that allow us to do special things.
What we hear in our readings today is that those who are baptized have received a special gift.  This gift doesn’t give you superhuman strength, a magical lasso, or the ability to control the weather.  The special gift, the special power we might say, is the gift of the Holy Spirit.  
Philip, in our first reading, went down to Samaria.  Philip is likely the Deacon who was appointed by the apostles as one of the first seven deacons.  Filled with the Holy Spirit from his baptism and his ordination, he does great signs, including curing those who were paralyzed or crippled.  After Philip baptizes people in Samaria, Peter and John, the apostles, give them a full outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which is the precursor to our celebration of the Sacrament of Confirmation.  
In the Gospel, Jesus also promises to send the Holy Spirit to the Apostles.  He will be another Advocate, another Person to plead their cause.  The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth, who will remain with the Apostles even after Jesus leaves earth.  The Holy Spirit will teach the Apostles all that they need to know.
The Holy Spirit, the Sprit of truth, continues to remain with the successors of the apostles.  The Holy Spirit protects the pope, the prince of the apostles, and the college or group of bishops, the other successors of the apostles, from teaching the Church anything that is false when it comes to what we should believe, or how we should live.  That is one exercise of special powers from the reception of the Holy Spirit.
Another exercise of special powers from the Holy Spirit is given to priests and bishops, and allows them to act in Persona Christi capitis, in the Person of Christ the Head, and allows them to exercise Jesus’ authority and power when it comes to the sacraments.  It is not by my own holiness, but only by the power of the Holy Spirit that I am able to perform the miracle of changing bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus.
But the special power of the Holy Spirit is not limited to the ordained.  It is not only deacons, priests, and bishops who receive special powers from the Holy Spirit, but every person who is baptized and confirmed.  What are those powers that all the baptized and confirmed receive?
We all have the ability to offer our lives as a priestly people (as Deacon Joe preached last week) to God the Father through Christ the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit.  That is no small power.  All the baptized and confirmed have access to God and to give Him the acceptable sacrifice of their lives, united with the bread and wine at Mass, and throughout the week.  
All the baptized and confirmed have the ability to avoid mortal sins, and to continue an unbroken relationship with God.  Mortal sin destroys in us the theological virtue of charity, and severs us from a saving a relationship with God, which can only normally be repaired through sacramental confession.  But because of our reception of the Holy Spirit, we are not doomed to fall into mortal sins.  We can reject Satan and his lies and temptations, and be faithful to God throughout our lives.  Fidelity to God is possible by the power of the Holy Spirit, and we all have the ability.
And those are just two exercises of the power of the Holy Spirit.  Everyone who is confirmed has received the sevenfold gift of the Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.  Some have the gift of healing, the gift of prophecy, the gift of speaking in tongues, and others, which are all given for the building up of the Church.  

We don’t have to be Captain America or Storm to have superpowers and to fight evil.  If we are baptized and confirmed, we have the power of the Holy Spirit to help us to fight evil and live as God called us to live.  

08 May 2017

It's Not What We Know, It's Who We Know

Fourth Sunday of Easter
We’ve probably all heard the saying, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”  I experienced that saying firsthand when I studied in Rome for 5 months as an undergraduate.  During  my time I met a monsignor who worked for the Roman Rota, the Supreme Court, as it were for the Catholic Church (though that analogy is not 100% accurate, as the pope is really the supreme judge).  He was also a chaplain for the local chapter of the Sovereign Military Order of the Knights of Malta, a chivalrous religious order that provides medical help in the name of the Church.  He  took me to different churches that I would have never known about, and certainly would not have been able to enter.  To be honest, it was pretty cool.
Msgr. (now-Bishop) Giuseppe Sciacca, me, and some of
my classmates from my semester in Rome
It may sound surprising, but when it comes to eternal salvation, it is also not what you know, but who you know.  No, not in the sense that if you’re best friends with this priest, or this religious sister, or this bishop, then you can do anything you want.  But it is true when it comes to Jesus.  Salvation is intimately connected with knowing who Jesus is, and having a relationship with Him.  We can know all sorts of facts about Jesus, we can even be able to repeat the Catechism word for word.  But that knowledge does not equate to salvation.  Even Satan knows about Jesus; in fact, Satan probably knows more about Jesus than we do.  But Satan does not know Jesus as it pertains to having friendship with Jesus.
Jesus Himself asserts that it’s all about knowing Him.  In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks about Himself as the “gate for the sheep.”  He is the one by whom the sheep (that is, we) enter into the verdant pastures that Psalm 23 spoke of in today’s Responsorial Psalm.  No one else is the gate: not Moses, not Mohammed, not Buddha, no one else.  If we wish to enter into heaven, we have to go through Jesus.
Now, I know what some of you are thinking: what about all the people who didn’t or don’t believe in Jesus, who don’t truly know Jesus?  We can talk about people who came before Jesus, who had no way of knowing about Him, and those who have come after Jesus, who maybe do or maybe don’t have access to knowing about Jesus.  What Scripture makes clear, both in today’s Gospel, as well as in Peter’s speech in another place in the Acts of the Apostles, is that there is no other name on earth by when people are saved other than the Most Holy Name of Jesus.  So anyone who is in heaven, and only God decides who is in heaven, is there only because of the one saving act of Jesus’ Death and Resurrection.  Jews are not saved by the Law of Moses (St. Paul makes that very clear); Muslims are not saved by following the Qur’an; Buddhists are not saved because they followed the path of enlightenment.  If they are in heaven, it is only through Jesus.
The Church also taught in Lumen gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Vatican II, and I will quote the section: “Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace, strive by their deeds to do his will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.”  So the Church teaches that is possible that those who are ignorant of Christ through no fault of their own, and who are seeking God and following, to the best of the ability, their conscience, that they be saved.  We don’t know if they’re saved, because the only way we know to receive the gift of salvation is to know Jesus and be in a relationship with Him, begun in Baptism.  But the key is that if any person is in heaven, they are only there because of Jesus.
This should be a catalyst for us not simply to know about Jesus, but to truly know Him.  It should move us to say, ‘Do I really know Jesus?’  Simply being baptized, or even receiving other sacraments, does not necessarily mean that we know Jesus.  We might know about Jesus, but do we know Him as well as we know our friends or our spouse?
It should also be a catalyst to tell others about Jesus.  Your co-worker’s salvation could depend on how well you help them to understand who Jesus is.  Your spouse’s salvation could depend on how well you have made the life of Jesus your own and live it in your marriage.  Your classmate or friend’s salvation could be aided by the fact that you help them to know Jesus and reflect that relational knowledge through what you say and do.  Is that easy?  No.  The cost of discipleship, of knowing Jesus, is very expensive.  But God is pulling for us and giving us what we need to know Jesus and to share that knowledge with others through His divine grace, which is given to us through the Sacraments.
This weekend our First Communicants will receive Jesus, the Gate to Heaven, in the Eucharist.  In this new way, they are receiving the help to have union with Jesus, to truly know Him, and not simply to know about Him.  They asked for His mercy on Saturday, which He readily grants to those who are sorry and who seek to make the life of Jesus their own in their own way.  And on Sunday, having been purified of the obstacles to His life, they then/now receive that life and love in Jesus’ Body and Blood.  What a beautiful gift for Jesus to spread the table of the Eucharist, the altar of life, before us as we gather in the house of the Lord, which anticipates the eternal temple of God, the heavenly Jerusalem, where God wants us to dwell for years to come!  And each week we are invited back to Mass, to get to know Jesus better, and then to make His life our own by the power of His grace.  

When it comes to eternal salvation, to being welcomed into heaven, it’s not what we know, it’s who we know.  Do we know the Good Shepherd, the One who is the Gate for the sheep, who came that we “might have life and have it more abundantly”?

04 May 2017

Pope of Carman Hills

Third Sunday of Easter
Sometimes people don’t quite get it.  This past Thursday I decided to go to the Powers Boys Lacrosse game.  They were playing at Davison.  While the first half wasn’t so great, Powers managed to get their offense going, and really did well on defense, and ended up winning 12-6.  At the end of the game, we all lined up to shake hands and say good game.  As I passed one of the Davison players and shook his hand, I heard him say as they passed me, “Dude, they brought their pope!”  Now, to be clear, I have no aspirations of being anything other than a parish priest.  But maybe if Fr. Tom Firestone can be the Pope of Flint, then I could be the Pope of Carman Hills!
The disciples in today’s Gospel were the ones who didn’t quite get it.  We’ve heard this Gospel passage before, and we’re probably quite familiar with it.  On Easter Sunday, the very day Jesus rose from the dead, two disciples, one of who was named Cleopas are walking away from Jerusalem.  They had heard Mary Magdalen tell the apostles that Jesus was risen from the dead, but they don’t believe her.  They figure all their hope that Jesus truly was the Messiah is hopeless.  And then this guy comes up to walk beside them, though they don’t recognize Him.  
As they walk, this guy talks about how the suffering of the Messiah was prophesied by the entire Old Testament, and He gives them the different passages that refer to the Messiah and how they were fulfilled.  As the two approach Emmaus, the guy acts like He’s going farther.  But they invite Him to stay with them, because it’s dark, and there would likely be robbers along the road.  So the guy stays with them, and says the blessing of the bread, breaks it, and gives it to them.  At that, “their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight.”  They then run back to tell the others that they, too, have seen the risen Lord.
Even though these two disciples had been with Jesus for some time, maybe even all three years, spending days and nights with Jesus, only rarely leaving His side, they didn’t quite get it.  They didn’t understand why the Messiah had to suffer and die, and they didn’t believe He rose from the dead.  It takes Jesus being present with them, opening up the Word of God, and especially the breaking of bread for them to recognize Him.
Do we quite get it?  Or do we walk through this world downcast, as if our hope in Jesus wasn’t worth much?  Do we live as if Jesus has not been raised from the dead?
In essence, the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus is a paradigm for the Mass.  Think about it: there’s a walk, we might call it a procession; the Lord is with them; the Word of God is opened up by Jesus; and then Jesus blesses bread, breaks it, and gives it to the disciples.  This should sound familiar, because it’s what happens at every Mass.  The priest, acting in the Person of Christ the Head, processes into the sanctuary; he says, “The Lord be with you;”  the Word of God is proclaimed from the Old Testament, New Testament, and is applied in the homily; then the priest, still acting in the Person of Christ the Head, changes the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, and the Eucharist is then given to those who follow Jesus in the one Church He established.  The Second Vatican Council says it this way: 

“[Christ] is present in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of His minister, ‘the same now offering, through the ministry of priests, who formerly offered himself on the cross’, but especially under the Eucharistic species.  […] He is present in His word, since it is He Himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church.  He is presently, lastly, when the Church prays and sings, for He promised: ‘Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them’.”  

Each Mass, and especially on Sunday, the first day of the week, the very day of the Resurrection, we might say we relive the road to Emmaus.  
But there is another part to the story which I didn’t mention.  After the encounter with Jesus on the road to Emmaus, the disciples run back to tell the others about Jesus being risen from the dead.  This encounter with Jesus changes them and they can’t help but talk about seeing Jesus.  Do we relive this part of Emmaus?  Does our encounter with Jesus so affect us that we want to tell others about Jesus, risen from the dead?
There has been a lot of ink spilled recently about encountering Jesus.  There are many programs and retreats that encourage such an encounter with Jesus, and many of them are good!  But the Mass is the pre-eminent place to encounter Jesus.  It is the place where we, most often, get to spend time with Jesus.  Yes, it’s the same basic format every week.  But this unchanging format allows us the opportunity to enter more deeply into the Mass, rather than remaining at a superficial level at all the stuff that is different.  

If we’re not encountering Jesus in the Mass, then why are we not?  Is Jesus holding Himself back?  Certainly not.  It isn’t all about feelings; we can encounter Jesus without having a gushy, emotional response.  But we should have some sense that we have spent time with Jesus.  And if we don’t, then maybe we haven’t brought our full attention to the Mass, or having been holding something back from Jesus.  Today we have the opportunity, as we do every Sunday and every time we come to Mass, to encounter Jesus walking with us, opening the Word of God for us, and giving Himself to us in the Eucharist.  Hopefully we are open so that the Mass will transform us as it transformed the disciples on the road to Emmaus.

10 April 2017

Homeward Bound

Easter Sunday
When I was in 8th grade my parents had me move down to the basement, which they had just partially finished.  My dad put up a wall and added a door.  That room was so nice, as during the summer it stayed a cool 60 degrees (we didn’t have air conditioning in our house; it was too expensive), and during the winter it was around 75 degrees, due to the fact that it was right next to the furnace.  Another great feature was that my parents had replaced their stereo system upstairs, complete with 2 tape decks, radio tuning, two speakers, and a record player, with a CD/Radio player, so the stereo system made its way into my room, along with the records that my dad had kept.  One of those records was Simon and Garfunkel: Concert in Central Park, which was recorded in September 1981, two years before I was born.  It has all the classics: “Mrs. Robinson,” “America,” “Scarborough Fair,” “Still Crazy After All These Years,” “Slip Slidin’ Away,” “Kodachrome,” “Bridge over Troubled Water,” “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover,” “The Boxer,” “The Sound of Silence,” and “Homeward Bound.”

“Homeward Bound” starts with the little guitar lick which is immediately recognizable.  If you know the song, you can probably hear it playing in your head right now.  And the refrain, for those who don’t know it, goes (I’ll speak the words): “Homeward bound, / I wish I was, / Homeward bound, / Home where my thought’s escaping, / Home where my music’s playing, / Home where my love lies waiting / Silently for me.”  It’s a beautiful song, with nice, crisp harmonies.  Maybe on your way home, load it up on iTunes or YouTube and give it a listen.
Today we celebrate that we can be Homeward Bound.  The Good News, the Gospel, is that home is now open for us, and we have a surefire way to get there: by Jesus.  Now, today a lot of people believe that everybody goes to heaven; hell is only for Hitler or Stalin.  And while heaven is pledged to us in baptism, baptism is not our “Get Out of Hell Free” card.  I hope everyone’s in heaven, but Jesus talks about getting there by a narrow way, so we do have some sense that maybe it’s not necessarily the default.  Nevertheless, we probably also think of heaven as always being open to humanity.  But it wasn’t.  Heaven was opened by the Death and Resurrection of Jesus after Adam and Eve closed the way by their sin.  It is the long-standing tradition of the Church that even all the good people of the Old Testament–Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, Moses, the prophets–all had to wait for Jesus to free them from the abode of the dead, which He did when He descended there while His body lay buried.  In fact, there is an ancient homily that talks about this.  It’s too long to give in its entirety, but a few passages will suffice:
[Jesus] goes to free the prisoner Adam and his fellow-prisoner Eve from their pains, he who is God, and Adam’s Son.
The Lord goes in to them holding his victorious weapon, his cross.  When Adam, the first created man, sees him, he strikes his breast in terror and calls out to all: “My Lord be with you all.”  And Christ in reply says to Adam: “And with your spirit.”  And grasping his hand he raises him up, saying, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.
“I am your God, who for your sake became your son, who for you and your descendants now speak and command with authority those in prison: Come forth, and those in darkness: Have light, and those sleep: Rise.
“I command you: Awake, sleeper, I have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld.  Arise from the dead; I am the life of the dead.  Arise, O man, work of my hands, arise, you who were fashioned in my image.  Rise, let us go hence; for you in me and I in you, together we are one undivided person.”

Jesus takes Adam and Eve, and all the just, home to heaven.
And that is what Jesus offers us today, if we believe in Him, and follow Him, and seek what is above.  It is as if the Old Testament patriarchs and matriarchs were waiting at the door of their home, but they did not have the key.  Jesus Himself opened the door, and welcomed them to the place He had prepared for them, and they had accepted by their lives.  The door remains unlocked, and Jesus desires to open it to us, if we decide that heaven is the home we desire.
It was always good to be home after school, after track or soccer or play practice.  It is nice to be home after work; to take it easy, to eat home-cooked food, to be in a place of relaxation.  By His Resurrection, Jesus gave us the opportunity to be in our heavenly home after we die, if we live for Him.  Do not dally in preparing to go home; do not wait until the last minute.  Be like St. John, the beloved disciple, in living a life that hurries toward heaven, as John hurried toward the tomb.  Do not be distracted by the many passing joys that are along the side of the road and off the beaten path.  Live in a way that prepares you for the gift of heaven, our home.

Because heaven is the place where we can escape from this exile and have our thoughts on God; heaven is the place where angelic music plays as we worship God; heaven is the place where God, the ultimate love of our hearts is waiting silently to welcome us into His peace.  Be homeward bound.

Too Good To Be True...But It Is

Easter Vigil
There are more movies than I can count where the ending seems too good to be true: the awkward guy gets the gorgeous girl; the bomb is defused in the last second before it explodes; the lies of the villain are exposed and the persecuted hero is vindicated.  We’ve all seen it in movies, we’ve all read it in books.  But when it comes to real life, very rarely do those things happen.  Life, it seems is more tragic than fiction could ever create.
But tonight is not an example of tragedy.  Tonight, in fact, is when we celebrate something that is too good to be true, but is true, nonetheless.  No one, save perhaps the Blessed Mother, would have dared to hope that Jesus would rise from the dead.  Even the holy women who went to the tomb, weren’t going because they thought Jesus might rise.  They were going to complete the mourning rites which had to be suspended due to the celebration of Passover on the previous Friday night and Saturday.  In fact, none of the disciples can believe the news that Jesus rose from the dead until they see Him and recognize Him.
All of our Old Testament readings from Genesis, Exodus, Isaiah, and Ezekiel were all examples of stories that looked like they were going to have a happy ending, but didn’t.  Adam and Eve are created by God as the crowning of His creation; they are made in the image and likeness of God.  Yet, as the story continues, we know that they disobey God and put mankind on a trajectory of pain, suffering, and death.  
The Chosen People are doubting God as the Egyptians grow closer.  Then God, through Moses, splits the Red Sea in two and they pass through it, even as the water closes in on the Egyptians who follow and destroys Pharaoh’s army.  But, we all know that story.  Not long after they sing their song of freedom, which was sung by our choir after the reading from Exodus, they once again doubt God, and worship false gods.
Isaiah and Ezekiel both prophesy about a time when Israel will be restored to glory, when God will shower His love upon them and give them a new heart and new life.  God promises to take care of Israel, give them peace, and forgive them of their sins for the sake of His Name.  But even after the Israelites return to the Promised Land from their exile in Babylon, after they realize that they were sent away because of their infidelity to God, they still turn away from God, and eventually lose their land and their sovereignty to the pagan Romans.  All of those Old Testament stories have so much potential, so much build up, but never seem to come to the desired climax.
But not so tonight.  Not so with the Resurrection.  This is the night when the good ending finally happens.  This is the night when evil and darkness are conquered, once for all, and good and light win the day.  This is the night which “sets Christian believers apart from worldly vices and from the gloom of sin, leading them to grace and joining them to his holy ones.  This is the night, when Christ broke the prison-bars of death and rose victorious from the underworld.”  Tonight we celebrate that we are not relegated to tragic endings, to falling into sin and darkness.  Tonight we participate in and God renews in us the truth that in Him we can thrive and succeed.
And that new life in Christ, made possible by the Resurrection, will be imparted through the waters of Baptism, which Christ Himself makes holy, to Alexis, Brooklyn, and Camryn.  They will put on Christ and have the opportunity to live a life free of grave sin, free of separation from God, free from Satan.  
The new life of Christ will also be perfected in Christine as she makes her profession of faith and as she and Alexis are confirmed and receive the Eucharist for the first time.  They will be strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit not only to claim that new life for themselves, but also to share it with those they meet by word and example.  And for those of us who are baptized, for those of us who are confirmed, we, too, have that new life of Christ in us, and tonight we can start afresh in living that new life.  

Tonight, as we come to the empty tomb of Christ to worship Jesus and His Resurrection, leave at the tomb all that is not of God.  Do not be afraid to place all your sins, your worries, your fallenness at the place of death, and walk away tonight with the Risen Christ, who offers to us the best ending that we could ever imagine: the new life of the Resurrection.

What Makes Him Beautiful

Good Friday of the Lord’s Passion
In 2012 one of the newer boy bands, One Direction, came out with the song, “What Makes You Beautiful.”  The song talks about how this girl, who is loved by the author, doesn’t realize how beautiful she is.  My guess is there are still girls who would love to be serenaded by One Direction with his song.
When it comes to beauty, we so often translate beauty into taste.  “Oh, that’s beautiful!” tends to mean, “I like that!”  “That’s ugly!” often means, “I don’t like that!”  “Beauty,” so we hear, “is in the eye of the beholder.”
But not for Catholics.  As Catholics, we believe that there is an objective standard for beauty, even though it is diverse in its expressions.  For us as Catholics, beauty is rooted in God who is, we can say, the truly Beautiful One.  And since God who is Beauty also identifies Himself as God who is Truth, we know that there is a relationship between beauty and truth.  In fact, St. Thomas Aquinas states that a beautiful thing is that which shows the truth of that thing.  Beauty, we can say, is the shining forth, the splendor, or refulgence, of the truth.  A beautiful duck is a duck that has two legs, two wings, and quacks.  The only ugly duckling is one that lacks in some way from what it means to be a duck. 
Today Isaiah prophesies about the Suffering Servant of the Lord.  And while that servant “shall prosper, he shall be raised high and greatly exalted,” still that same servant shall be “marred…beyond human semblance.”  The Suffering Servant will startle many nations as one who has “no stately bearing to make us look at him, nor appearance that would attract us to him.”      He will bear our infirmities and endure our sufferings.  He will be pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins, chastised, and beaten.  That doesn’t sound like someone who is beautiful.  It does not sound like one of the beautiful people.  If you have ever seen a Spanish crucifix, you see the great lengths the Spanish would go to in order to show how much Jesus suffered.  Their crucifixes are covered in the red of Jesus’ blood, with dark bruises over Jesus’ body.  The way Jesus was portrayed in “The Passion” by Mel Gibson gives in movie form what Spanish crucifixes tend to look like in statue form.
So, given all these injuries, all this blood, the bruising, the agony in visual form, do we say that Jesus, on the cross, was ugly?  Do we say that Jesus lacks some truth as He hangs on the cross?  Was the marring beyond human semblance such that it made Jesus an ugly Person?
Of course not.  In fact, Jesus, even in His human nature, remains the Beautiful One, united as He is in substance, with God the Father.  Even in the one pierced for our offenses, Jesus is truly beautiful.  In one of the many paradoxes of our faith, there is no greater example of beauty than the Jesus who became disfigured for our sake.  And we can say that, because in His crucifixion, into which we enter today in this liturgy, Jesus most perfectly demonstrated the truth about God, and the truth about man.

The truth is that God will go to the farthest lengths to save us, and we see that in Jesus.  God will sacrifice Himself if it means there is a chance that we will respond to His love.  Jesus, on the cross, most perfectly demonstrates that God is pure gift, and will pour Himself out for His creatures, even though He has no need of them.  Jesus, on the cross, shows us the great truth that God loves us, even when it means His own death.  The crucifixion of Jesus is the most beautiful example of love that ever has existed, exists now, or will ever exist in the future.  In terms of the truth about God, the crucifix is the highest form of beauty.
The truth is that man is most himself when obedient to the will of the Father.  The crucifixion is the utmost example of obedience to God.  Obedience to God is easy when it means doing something we enjoy, doing something where we see the fruits of our labors, doing something where we see the difference we make.  In the crucifixion, we see obedience in the face of pain, only trusting that it will make a difference without seeing any immediate results.  Jesus entrusts Himself to the Father, and so shows what a beautiful human looks like: one who does the will of God the Father for the good of others.  

What makes us beautiful is being like Jesus: sacrificing our good for the good of the other in obedience to the will of the Father.  The crucifix may not be to our taste, or something that we like, but it is the most beautiful thing we can look upon and think of in this world, because the crucifixion of Jesus shows forth most fully and dramatically the truth about God and the truth about us.


Mass of the Lord’s Supper
What would you do if you knew you had 24 hours to live?  What person or persons would you want to see?  Where would you want to go?  What unfinished tasks would you try to complete?  Most people never have that foreknowledge.  Even when a person is older, and knows that death is soon coming, we never quite know when.  But what if you did?  What if you knew, right now, that at this time tomorrow you’d no longer be a part of this world?
Jesus was in that very boat; He knew that less than 24 hours from that first Holy Thursday, He would be buried in the tomb.  St. John reminds us of this fact: “Before the feast of Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father.”  With whom does Jesus spend His time?  Where does He go?  Does He try to finish any incomplete tasks?
Jesus spends His time with His Apostles.  He celebrates His Last Supper with those whom He had chosen to govern His Church, and to act in His Name.  And He begins, as we heard in tonight’s Gospel, by washing their feet.  He teaches them that, though they are called to act with Jesus’ own power and authority, that power and authority is given to them to serve the entire Church.  Jesus washed the feet of all twelve of His apostles, even Judas.  In one of the last acts of His earthly ministry, Jesus serves the one who will, that same night, betray Him with a kiss.
After washing their feet, and after Judas leaves to set in motion his betray, Jesus begins to celebrate the Passover with His apostles.  But He changes it radically.  He says those words that had been passed down to St. Paul, which he, in turn, passed down to us: “‘This is my body that is for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.’”  And “‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood.  Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’”  Already startled by Jesus announcing the betrayal of Judas, who leaves shortly thereafter; and by Jesus announcing that Peter, the leader of this small band, would deny Jesus, their senses are heightened, and they realize Jesus is doing something new.  And in the act of breaking the bread and saying the new words of this new rite, and in the act of passing the chalice and saying the new words of this new rite, both the sacramental priesthood and the most holy Sacrament of the Eucharist are instituted.  
Then begins a long, beautiful, poetic prayer of Jesus to the Father, even as He also speaks to His apostles.  We call those words the Last Supper Discourse, and they are an expression of Jesus’ love for His Apostles, His first priests, but more importantly, Jesus’ love and unity with the Father, which will sustain Him even as it seems to escape Him in His Passion.  Nothing seems forced in these words; nothing rushed.  Jesus knows what He wants to say, and how He wants to say it.  At this point in the night, there is no anxiety, no troubled soul, but only the intimacy of a Master and His chosen friends who will continue His work in His Name.  

In His last 24 hours on earth, Jesus does what He did for all the hours of His earthly ministry: He gave Himself, according to the will of the Father, for His people.  While we know how much His human nature shuddered at the thought of the price He would have to pay to redeem His people from sin, He gave of Himself nevertheless.  

Psalm 116 tonight asks, “How shall I make a return to the Lord for all the good he has done for me?”  How can we repay God, who has given us everything that we need, and even more beyond that.  No matter what we give God it would never be enough to repay our debt.  But there is one acceptable gift that God desires: all of who we are.  We are invited to do the same thing Jesus did: to give of ourselves out of love of God and love of neighbor.  Jesus gave us His all.  Can we give Him ours?

Running on Empty

Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion
While all generalities fall short in describing the reality of the world, we can say with decent accuracy, that there are two types of people in this world: those who fill up for gas when they’re around half a tank, and those who try to get that needle as close to E as possible before getting gas.  Being the cautious guy that I am, I usually try to fill up my Malibu when I have about half of a tank left.  But, when it comes to our life in Christ, we should mimic those who, more often than not, are running on empty.

There are so many messages that God wants to communicate to us as we enter Holy Week this year.  There are so many themes that I could preach on as we begin our pilgrimage from the triumphant entry, into which we entered at the beginning of Mass, to the Last Supper, which we enter into on Holy Thursday evening, to Calvary, in which we participate on Good Friday at the Celebration of the Lord’s Passion, to the empty tomb, proclaimed to the world at Easter.  But today, I want us to examine how God emptied Himself.
St. Paul uses that exact phrase, “emptied himself,” in our second reading today.  In this beautiful hymn which focuses on the divine kenosis, which is a Greek word which means “emptying,” St. Paul reminds us that, “Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.  Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,…[and] humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”  Jesus, the full revelation of the God the Father, runs on empty as He saves the world.  He leaves nothing in the tank, but abandons Himself fully to the will of God.  And in this emptying, in this kenosis, God the Father exalts Jesus and glorifies Him.  
If we were to read the chapters of the Gospels that cover the time of the triumphant entry into Jerusalem through the crucifixion, we would not find Jesus holding anything back.  He accepts the praise of the people, who acclaim Him as the Messiah; He cleanses the temple; he fights back every verbal tussle with the scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees; He washes His apostles’ feet as He calls them to serve; He gives His very Body and Blood for His Apostles at the Last Supper; He gives so much of His strength that He begins to sweat blood in the Garden of Gethsemane; He takes the mockery and cruelty of the trials before the chief priest and Pontius Pilate; He gives His last breath on the cross, and even the blood and water that filled His sacred Body are shed for our salvation.  And this is why God exalts Jesus: because He holds nothing back for the good of His people.  And this is why God will exalt us: if we hold nothing back from God.
This is one of the many paradoxes of Christianity.  It is only by giving ourselves away that we can gain what is most lasting.  It is only by emptying ourselves that we can truly be full.  Vatican II, in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, entitled Gaudium et spes, says it this way: “…man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”

In this life we can be scared of losing; we can be afraid of having nothing left, of running out of gas.  When we do it for God, however, we do not lose anything, but gain everything.  This week I invite you to participate in Jesus’ kenosis, His emptying.  After a long, hard day of work on Thursday, give God even the fatigue by participating in the Mass of the Last Supper; empty yourself, maybe even of some of your paid time off, by participating in the Celebration of the Lord’s Passion; empty yourself even of the time that you would normally sleep and participate in the new life of the Resurrection, the new life that will be given to the newly baptized at the Easter Vigil.  The Sacred Three Days, the Sacred Triduum, is our participation in Jesus’ kenosis, so that we can understand and live in our lives the paradoxical truth of Christianity that we learn from Christ: it is only by emptying ourselves that we can truly be full; it is only by giving ourselves away to God that we can find who we are truly meant to be.

03 April 2017

New Life in God's Time

Fifth Sunday of Lent
Sometimes we have heard these stories in the Gospel so often, that we miss the parts that would have shocked the first listeners, or would shock anyone who is unfamiliar with the story.  The part that should have made us at least scratch our heads in today’s Gospel was, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.  So when he heard that he was ill, he remained for two days in the place where he was.”  If you really love someone, why wouldn’t you go immediately to see them, hopefully getting to them before they die?!?  It’s not like they had stellar hospitals at the time of Jesus who could keep someone alive for a few more days in order for friends or family to visit.
Two things are clear from Scripture: the Lord desires life for His people; and sometimes the Lord delays (from our point of view) in giving that new life to His people.  
Our first reading, second reading, and Gospel all make clear that God desires life for His people.  Ezekiel prophesies that God will open the graves of His people and have them rise.  He will put His spirit in them so that they may have life, and settle them in their land.  This will be the proof that God is the Lord.  And St. Paul reminds us that, while the body is dead because of sin, the spirit is alive.  If we have the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, the one who raised Jesus from death to new life, then God will also give our mortal bodies new life, through the power of the Holy Spirit.  And our Gospel is, we can say, the fulfillment of Ezekiel, as Jesus proves He is God by raising Lazarus from the dead.  God, in the Person of Jesus, opens the grave of Lazarus, one of the People of God, and has him rise.  
The raising of Lazarus
From the Church of Sts. Martha, Mary, & Lazarus in Bethany
But those same readings, if we delve more deeply in them, also give us a less exciting piece of news: God sometimes waits to give new life to His people.  The prophet Ezekiel is writing to a people totally devoid of hope.  Because of their infidelity to the Lord, He has exiled them to Babylon, destroyed their temple, and they don’t know if they will ever return.  They are the living dead, zombies, we might say, as they live but without the love of their life: their land and their temple.  But Ezekiel reminds them that they will go back, and, after some years, they do, and they, metaphorically speaking, rise from their graves by returning to the land of Israel.  But they had to wait.
As St. Paul talks about the Holy Spirit raising us to life, he speaks about it in the present, as the Spirit gives us a new way of life in Christ, putting to death the works of the flesh.  But St. Paul also talks about how the Holy Spirit will raise up our mortal bodies.  This only happens after death, and not simply when we die, but at the end of time.  What the Church calls the general resurrection of the dead, will only come at the end of time (except for Mary, whose body was already raised up by a singular grace).  We have to wait.  
And in our Gospel, that odd paradox of Jesus hearing about one of His best friends being ill, one Jesus knows will be dead (though He uses the term “asleep,”), but Jesus waits two days.  And when Jesus arrives, Lazarus has already been dead four days.  As it turns out, even if Jesus would have left immediately, Lazarus would still have died two days before Jesus arrived.  But Jesus waits, though not without cause.  In fact, Jesus waits in order to prove beyond a doubt that He is God, and to work His greatest miracle during His earthly ministry.
Those two points are certainly true for us.  Jesus desires new life for us.  I am convinced that God has good things planned for St. Pius X, and I am happy to be a part of them, and to hopefully shepherd you as we find new life in Flint.  But, at least in some ways (and in those ways it goes without saying), we’re not there yet.  In some ways, we’re still in our graves, still in the tomb.  That’s a tough place to be.  But we cannot give ourselves life.  New life can only come from Christ, and on Christ’s terms and schedule.
Think about the Israelites.  They were so excited to leave Egypt!  No more slavery, no more Pharaoh!  But as soon as the first difficulty comes, they want to go back to Egypt.  At the Red Sea, as the Egyptians get closer and closer, they cry that they want to go back, until Moses splits the Red Sea and they pass to safety.  In the desert, the people start to complain that they don’t have meat or bread; they lack trust that God will provide; they don’t like waiting for new life in the Promised Land.  So they tell Moses it was better in Egypt, and that they’d rather go back.  They prefer the grave to new life, because they’re not convinced the new life is on the way.

God desires new life for us.  Of that I am sure.  But we’re not there yet.  We’re still in the desert, on our way to the Promised Land, on our way to new life.  The Lord invites us to have faith in Him, as Martha did, that we will rise.  To quote Jesus, “‘Do you believe this?’”

28 March 2017

Afraid of the Dark

Fourth Sunday of Lent
Part of moving into a new house, as I did last July, is getting used to it.  A foreign house, especially if you live in it alone, can be a little scary.  Probably a few of those first weeks, as I went to bed, my heart started to beat a little faster as I heard creaks and different noises in my house.  Of course, there was nothing there, but because it was a new house, I wasn’t used to the different noises it would make at night.  What didn’t help was that Flint does not have the reputation of being the safest place in Michigan (though I have to say I have not had any problems here).  The other big issue was that, especially immediately after going to bed, the house was dark, and the fact that I couldn’t see and wasn’t familiar with the different parts of the house and how the shadows fall probably kept me alert without any real cause for concern.
Not being able to see can often change the way we approach things.  To a child, those clothes hanging in the closet or the stuff underneath the bed can seem like monsters.  But even adults, in an unknown area might try to be more attentive as they walk to their car from a restaurant.  Law enforcement is always trying to keep their eyes open, especially these days, so that they are not taken by surprise by someone trying to harm them.
Our readings today remind us of the importance of seeing correctly.  In our first reading, even one of the great prophets, Samuel, does not see as God sees when trying to find the next king of Israel among the sons of Jesse.  Samuel was looking at outward appearances; God was looking at the heart.  
And St. Paul in the second reading reminded us to take advantage of the light of Christ, since we are children of the light, not of darkness.  We do not belong to the night or the darkness, no matter what Pat Benatar sings.  In baptism, we were given the light of Christ, and Christ always gives us the light of His grace to help us know right from wrong.  He does that through our conscience, but even our conscience has to be formed by the light that the Church gives us.  Especially living in an age which, in many ways, are contrary to the teachings of Jesus, our conscience is not always a sure guide for the choices we should make.  
The Gospel we heard, about the man born blind, is one we hear maybe every year, but definitely every three years.  Ironically, in this passage, the person who sees the best (besides Jesus) is the Blind Man.  Neither the Pharisees, nor even the disciples, see as Christ sees.  The disciples think the man is blind because of some sin.  Christ corrects them and says that it’s so that God may be glorified and His works be more visible.  The Pharisees cannot see that Jesus is displaying His divinity in healing the man.  They do not accept Jesus’ miracles, and therefore do not accept Jesus Himself.  Even the man, now formerly blind, exclaims, “‘This is what is so amazing, that you do not know where he is from, yet he opened my eyes.  […] It is unheard of that anyone ever opened the eyes of a person born blind.  If this man were not from God, he would not be able to do anything.”
But, if we are honest, sometimes we do not see as God sees.  We do not let the light of Christ illumine our lives.  We have a type of spiritual glaucoma, and no marijuana, medical or not, will cure our spiritual glaucoma.  Only Christ can heal us; only he can restore our sight.
Throughout the history of the Church we have examples of people who saw with the light of Christ.  They had 20/20 spiritual vision.  We call them saints, and we should strive to follow their example in our own lives.  I’ll mention just a few.
St. Martin of Tours, who lived in the fourth century, was a soldier, and later became a bishop.  But one of the stories about him mentions that, as a soldier, he was riding a horse in the cold.  He saw a poor man on the side of the road, with very little clothing.  St. Martin cut his cloak in half, and gave half to the man.  That night, Martin had a dream where Jesus was wearing his cloak.  St. Martin did not simply see a poor man, but saw Jesus, and tried to help him.

St. Francis of Assisi needs almost no introduction.  But how many of you have heard the story of how St. Francis, who had started to give up his father’s wealth, saw a leper, whose skin was rotting away from his body, but dismounted from his horse, gave him money to help, and even kissed his hand.  As hard as it was, Francis saw past his fear of contracting leprosy, and dared to touch, and even kiss, the lepers as a sign of his love for Jesus.

In our own more recent times, St. Teresa of Calcutta is someone who saw with the eyes of Jesus.  In the streets of Calcutta, Mother Teresa would see the “untouchables,” those whom society had rejected, literally rotting away in the streets as they died, flies likely laying their eggs in the putrid flesh, and Mother would care for them and show them the respect and love that she had for Jesus.  I worked in Rome with the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa’s order, not so much with the dying, but with the poor and neglected of the Eternal City.  I will admit: I struggled to see Jesus.  But for me I knew that my sight was not quite right, and that I need the healing of Jesus not to be blind to Him in the least of His brothers and sisters.  I’m sure I’m not there yet.  I still pray that I can see.  How is your spiritual sight?