10 April 2017
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.
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.
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.
Good Friday of the Lord’s Passion
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?
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.”
03 April 2017
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
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?
20 March 2017
Third Sunday of Lent
We are a month away from Easter Sunday. Those words might sound exciting and comforting to you, as your Lenten penances only have 4 more weeks, but as a priest, four weeks to Easter is the busiest time of the year. In addition to the usual busyness, I am one of the assistant Masters of Ceremonies for the Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday morning, so I’m assisting with a lot of the behind the scenes work. And, this is my first Easter here, so I’m learning how things have been done here before, and feeling my way through the liturgical celebrations as we enter into them. This is my favorite time of year in the Church calendar, but it’s also the most intense, and, if we let it be, the most powerful.
Today we hear our first long Gospel, prepping us for Holy Week. That’s not really why we have these long Gospels over the next three weeks, but it seems to work out that we have three long Gospels to prepare us for the Passion Narrative (a super long Gospel) that we will hear on Palm Sunday and Good Friday. Today’s Gospel and the next two weeks’ Gospels are passages which deal with conversion, our major theme during Lent.
Today’s conversion story is about a woman of Samaria. And in her conversion, she comes to know Jesus more and more as the story continues. She starts out by referring to Jesus simply as “a Jew.” There’s no personal interaction, only referencing his religion. But Jesus draws her in more closely, as he offers her living water.
That encounter with Jesus leads to a change in tone. No longer is Jesus simply “you, a Jew,” but is now “Sir.” Jesus offers her something, and she’s interested in this “living water” she is speaking about. She likes the idea of never having to draw water again, because she is drawing water, alone, at the hottest part of the day. We’ll learn why later in this story.
Then Jesus changes the subject. And it is probably not the subject that modern, polite people would talk about. Jesus says, “‘Go call your husband,’” knowing full well what her situation is. This woman at the well is an adulteress, which is why she’s drawing water alone at the hottest part of the day. She has been married five times before, and the man she is living with currently is not her husband. She, of course, doesn’t want to admit this (who would?), and coyly says, “‘I do not have a husband.’” But Jesus reveals to her a part of her life that is not in order. This leads her to acknowledge Jesus in a different way; she comes to know Him more. He is not, “you, a Jew,” and he is no longer just “Sir.” He is, she says, a prophet.
But feeling a little uneasy about the trajectory of this conversation about her love life, she changes it to something she knows will divert attention away from her personal life: how to worship. Not much has changed today: if you want to get someone in a heated conversation, talk about how you think Mass should be celebrated. But Jesus doesn’t rebuff her question. He answers by stating that true worshippers will worship God the Father in Spirit and truth.
After talking to her about worshipping well, she is drawn to talk about the Messiah. And Jesus says to her, “‘I am he, the one speaking with you.’” Jesus reveals Himself and His mission. When she first started, she did not recognize Him as anything but a foreigner. Now she is led to think of Him as the Messiah, which in Greek, is translated 𝛸𝜌𝜄𝜎𝜏𝜊𝜍, which we translate as Christ. From there she tells everybody about Jesus, and they come to believe as well.
This process of conversion is present in our own lives, as well. It is present in the life of our Elect, Alexis, who is preparing for the Sacraments of Initiation. It is present in Chris, our Candidate, preparing to be received into the Church and receive the Sacraments of Confirmation and the Eucharist. But it is, or should be, present in each one of us. All of us have opportunities to grow closer to Jesus.
Some of us, honestly, don’t know Jesus that well. He is, we might say, only “you, a Jew.” He is a stranger to us. Some of us know about Jesus. Maybe we come to Mass every week, we do our duty, or we come because that’s what we’ve always done on Sundays. But Jesus still isn’t known well to us. He is simply a respected person. But we keep him at arm’s length, because we like the way we live, and we don’t want to have to change.
Some of us recognize Jesus as a good guy, a religious leader, someone who speaks for God (in other words, a prophet). We feel that tug at our soul for God, and maybe we’ve even had some religious experiences in our lives when we felt really close to God. But we still don’t recognize who Jesus fully is. Some of us recognize Jesus as the Messiah. We’re very active in our faith, but there are still some areas of our life that we don’t want Jesus to see, and we’re not sure we want to tell others about Jesus. That seems a bit pushy to tell others about Jesus.
No matter where we are in our faith, Jesus calls us to a deeper relationship with Him. Sometimes, as we grow closer to Him, He reveals our need for Him, a need that only He can satisfy, no matter how much we try to fill that need with other, passing things. Sometimes Jesus even points out our sins to us, in order to reject our sins and choose Him. But Jesus always wants us to grow close to Him, especially through our worship of the Trinity in Mass. And then He wants us to tell others about Him. Where are we in our conversion? We are never done; we can always grow closer to God. Are we open to letting God change our lives?
15 March 2017
Second Sunday of Lent
“Are we there yet?” This common cry from someone on a long journey is as common as it is annoying. But it’s also understandable, especially if the long journey is towards a vacation or a nice destination. Often times we like to skip the travel part, and just arrive at the destination. The Star Trek idea of using a transporter has for a long time seemed to me an ideal way to travel, in as much as it requires very little time to get from point A to point B.
It can be difficult when we’re not at the destination. But think about Abram in our first reading. This is really the beginning of the story of Abram, who would be renamed Abraham. God calls Abram to leave Haran, where Abram’s father, Terah, had taken him. Terah had been called to go to the land of Canaan, but something happened and Terah never made it to his destination. So God calls Abram to go to Canaan. One website said that the distance between Haran and Canaan was around 500 miles. To put that in context, 500 miles south of us is the city of Nashville, Tennessee. And Abram was 75 years old when he started that journey. Abram did make it, and traveled around Canaan, also going to Egypt, and always seeming to struggle a little. But he never saw the fulfillment of God’s promise that God would make of Abram a great nation. In fact, Abram had only 2 sons, and only one of them, Isaac, was actually the son of the promise to be a great nation.
Jesus, for His part, also knew that the pilgrimage His apostles would be on would be difficult. He had told them that He would have to suffer and die, but assured them of the Resurrection. But still, they didn’t really understand. In their mind, the Messiah was not supposed to bring sorrow and die, but to bring a new Davidic kingdom, with nothing but good times for the Chosen People.
In our own faith life, we may ask from time to time, though maybe not in these words, “Are we there yet?” We want to be at our destination: heaven. And that’s good. But to get there, we have to press on. We cannot, like Terah, Abram’s father, stop and settle on the way, lest we give up and not reach our destination, the true Promised Land. In the midst of our sufferings and trials, we want to be done with it all and be in a place where there is no more suffering, no more confusion, no more “not yet.” That takes courage and perseverance to press on, even in the face of difficulties, when we know that God is calling us to keep going.
Some of you, maybe many of you, feel like this parish is at least in a time of suffering and pain. God invited you to a new pilgrimage, not so much by you moving, but by me moving here, which is a change from my venerable predecessor. We might say that we, like Abram, have left Haran, but we haven’t made it to the Promised Land yet, and we’re wondering when, or even if, we will get there. In many ways I feel your pain and insecurity. We look at the bulletin and see how far off we are in Sunday/Holyday collections and wonder how we can make it (but don’t worry; I’m cutting back on expenses as much as possible). Fr. Anthony is different than Fr. Robert, and different is sometimes scary. Some of our friends have left the parish to go to other parishes. These things are on my mind and heart as well. But, I am personally comforted by the words of Jesus we heard two weeks ago, when He told us not to worry and not to be anxious, because God cares for us. That is what helps to limit the sleepless nights that I sometimes have.
I wish I could suddenly appear in a brilliant, shining light to give you a sense that everything is going to be alright. There are definitely signs of hope: our school is strong and growing stronger, and it is my firm belief that by spending time with our youth and their families in their schools and in their activities, which I do my best to support and to which I frequently go, our parish will rebound and that through our youth and their families, especially through our wonderful schools, new families will be drawn into our parish. I’m not saying that everything is going to be easy and painless from here on out. I seem to find myself on the cross every week, and the words of Psalm 22, the words that Jesus said on the cross, come easily to my mind: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But my hope and my consolation is the Resurrection, which was prefigured in the Transfiguration that we heard about today. God is continuing to do great things in our parish, as he has since our foundation in 1955. But we’re not in the Promised Land yet. We, like Abram, must press on until we get there.
07 March 2017
First Sunday of Lent
Have you ever had a string or a chain that seemed to be tied up in knots, so much so that it feels like it’s impossible to untie? Of course, we always find those knots when we have the least amount of time, and need that chain or that string to be used without it being all bundled up in knots. Sometimes the knots can be the result of lots of jostling in the pocket or in a backpack, and what started out as two individual sides to the chain or string, suddenly appears to be inseparable without breaking it.
In our first reading today we hear about a familiar story. Adam and Eve tie themselves up in knots. We all know the story: God gives them every good thing on earth, but forbids them to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Of course, that’s the tree that Satan tries to get Eve to eat, which Eve then gives to Adam. That was the first knot. And then Cain murders Abel: the second knot. And the knots keep on getting more and more entangled with each other as human history unfolds. Sure, there are some Godly men and women who manage to untie a few, but the chain seems irrevocably tied up in such a way that it can never be returned to its original form.
Now, the story we heard, called The Fall, is usually presented as Eve’s fault. Maybe some of you ladies received a little elbow nudge from your husbands during that first reading. And certainly, Eve was the one who disobeyed God first. But did you hear what St. Paul said in our second reading from his letter to the Romans: “Through one man sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and thus death came to all men, inasmuch as all sinned…” St. Paul places the blame not on Eve, but on Adam (this is where you ladies can give a little elbow nudge back to your husbands). Adam was the head of the human race, and in Adam’s good choices or bad choices, all of humanity was to receive blessings or curses.
So what does Jesus do in our Gospel? He starts to untie all the knots. Jesus, the new Adam, the new head of the human race, who was also fully God, starts to untie the knots that sinful humanity, starting with our first parents, had created. And Jesus starts by taking it to the one who really caused the mess in the first place: Satan.
In one sense, Jesus begins at a disadvantage: he has a human nature, which is subject to temptation. Jesus had also been fasting for 40 days in the desert, so that human nature was weak. But Jesus was proving that, even in our weakness, united to God, humanity can defeat Satan. Satan, for his part, gives the three most common areas where humans fall: physical desires, not trusting in God, and worshipping false gods. How many times have each one of those (or even all of them together!) been the downfall in our lives?!? How many times has it taken far less tempting than Satan did to Eve to get us to fall?!? And yet, Jesus stands firm and rebuts Satan’s temptations with the Word of God.
Jesus unties the knots by resisting the dominion of Satan. The final knot is untied when Jesus offers Himself, the unblemished Lamb, who knew not sin but took sin upon Himself, and sacrifices even the good of life for the lives of all of humanity. And the gift of the new Adam, as St. Paul reminds us, far outweighs the punishment that the first Adam brought upon us. “For just as through the disobedience of the one man [Adam] the many were made sinners, so, through the obedience of the one [Jesus], the many will be made righteous.”
What knots have we tied ourselves in? How have we so entangled ourselves that we can’t seem to get things straight? How have we given in to the Tempter’s seductions? Whatever they are, they do not stand a chance against Jesus. Jesus knows how to untie each knot, but we have to ask Him to do so. It is evidence of the evil one to force himself upon us. God always invites us to accept His way, but never makes us do anything.
We are not condemned to a life where we constantly give in to the temptations which seek to tie us up, to bind us in the chains of slavery. If we are baptized, we have all the grace we need to say no to the major temptations of life: misuse of physical desires, mistrust in God, and giving more attention to lesser goods than to the One who is Goodness Himself: God.
It would be easy if temptations were really two little angels, one of which looked light and glowed, the other of which was red, surrounded by fire, and carrying a pitchfork. But that’s not the way life works. The knots we get tied up are often knots that look good, that appeal to our lower appetites, that seem to attractive.
But Jesus is always there to help us see temptations for what they are: empty, fleeting, and wholly unsatisfying. And the same way that Jesus fought temptation is a sure recipe for success for us: knowing the Word of God and allowing it to illumine the path we want to take to find out if it’s the path God wants us to take. Let Jesus untie your knots. Find freedom in obedience to God’s way and friendship with Him.