Sunday, June 3, 2018

The Lord's Living Memorial

This past week, the father of a childhood friend of mine passed away. He had been receiving treatment for an illness when he suffered some complications that brought his life to an end far sooner that his family had expected. In her grief, my friend sent an email to some in our friend group, beautifully reflecting on what her father had meant to her and what he had taught her. She closed the email stating that “we know his presence and values will endure through those of us who knew him”.

No doubt, we can all relate to those words, or will one day. It is part of the human experience to learn to let go of people whom we love and who loved us and who pass from this life, and to find a way to both move on with our life and also to not lose them entirely – to remember them in a way that is meaningful and lasting. We have all kinds of cultural ways of doing this – by telling and re-telling stories about them, by holding on to keepsakes and relics that were theirs or that remind us of them, by visiting their resting places to offer prayers or tributes. Perhaps most of us though also understand the limitations of those things. Stories and heirlooms and graveside visits ultimately don’t mean nearly enough. What we want is that person with us again; and short of that, we hope for what my friend hopes for – a sense of continued connection internally, a sense that the presence and values of our loved one somehow endure within us.

In the Gospel today, Jesus is preparing his disciples for his departure. Though his physical body suffered no illness or malady, he knew that his time with them was drawing to a close, and that soon he would accomplish his mission – to offer himself on the Cross as the eternal sacrifice of redemption for humanity’s sinfulness and thus to restore God’s creation to himself. This was the great and ultimate purpose for which he had come, and so he approaches that hour with resolution, with love, even with joy. And yet, our Lord also knew how difficult that departure would be for his disciples. His time with them was coming to a close – while he would be rise again after three days, he would soon ascend to his heavenly Father and so would no longer be physically present among them.

The Last Supper (c. 1562) by Joan de Joanes

With all of this in mind, Jesus gave his loved ones a wonderful gift: the sacred meal that we celebrate today and indeed every time that we gather together. The Eucharist is the living memorial of the love of Christ for us, a sign of the covenant that we have with God in Jesus. Much like the acts of remembrance that we do and say for loved ones who have passed on, the Eucharist helps us to keep the remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross alive in our memories, so that we never forget the mystery of salvation that he has won for us. We “do this in memory of him”, recalling that each time we eat this Bread and drink this Cup, we proclaim the death of the Lord, until he comes again.

But! As wonderful as all of that is, though, that is only the first part of the meaning of today’s feast. Nothing that I have so far described is particularly unique to us as Catholics. If you go into a Baptist church or a Lutheran church or an Anglican church, you will find that same sense of things: of communion being a memorial of the Lord’s love, a way of reminding ourselves of his sacrifice. But memory only goes so far – it can remind us, maybe console us, but it cannot give us what we most desire: the presence of the one we love.

And that is why when Christ instituted the Sacrament of his Body and Blood, what he commanded us to do was not only to remember something long ago, but to participate anew in a reality that is still very much present. The Lord’s love was not only shown for us on the Cross 2000 years ago – it becomes really present for us again at every Mass, when we are made present spiritually at the foot of the Cross, at the very moment of Jesus’s act of redemption. Through the sacrifice we offer in the Mass, Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross is not only remembered but made present again, offered anew to the heavenly Father so that the merits of our redemption long ago become present for us here and now.

Even greater, of course, it is our firm Catholic faith that the Sacrament of the Lord’s Body and Blood is not only a memorial, not only a sacrifice, but also his very Real Presence. By calling to mind the love he showed us, by becoming present anew at his sacrifice, he accomplishes what we cannot – he goes beyond mere memory to answer the deep desire of our hearts: to be present again to the one we love and the one who loves us. The Eucharist is the ultimate gift of Jesus to his Church, because it is the gift of his very Self, living and enduring with us.

The feast that we celebrate today – the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ – marks the conclusion of a series of feasts that we have been celebrating since Easter Sunday. For five weeks, we celebrate the central reality of our faith – that Christ has conquered sin and death and offers to us the redemption he has won. On the Feast of the Ascension, we celebrated that the Risen Jesus has gone ahead of us to his Father, where he intercedes for us at his right hand. The next week, on the Feast of Pentecost, we remembered that the Lord has sent us the gift of the Holy Spirit to help us live well our Christian identity in this life, directing us to the life to come. Last week, we celebrated that the Lord has revealed his own divine Being to be a Communion of Love, of three Persons in one God, a communion which he invites us to share. And finally, today, we recognize that the Lord, drawing us ever closer to our heavenly home, feeds and animates us with his own Body and Blood as our food for the journey.

Today then is an opportunity to appreciate anew the greatest treasure we have on this earth: the Holy Eucharist. To live the Christian life is not an easy thing; to be faithful to Jesus and to what he commanded us to do as his disciples is challenging. It was that way for the disciples long ago, and it is that way still for us now. We must endure challenge and even persecutions at times for what we believe, especially when the wise ones of this world do not agree. We must live charitably, not giving into the temptations to become petty and begrudging, but always taking the higher road of love. We have to persevere with faith and hope despite sufferings that sometimes are inexplicable, like the too-soon passing of a loved one.

These things are hard. If all we had to guide us and to help us was mere memory – a spiritual heirloom of something that happened long ago – then we would surely fail in our faithfulness. But what we have is so much greater than that. Jesus knows that what we need most to be his disciples – that what we want most to be confirmed and consoled in our journey – is Jesus himself, and so for that reason, he continually makes himself available, present, accessible to us in the Eucharist. Each time we come to Mass, we are not just reminded of the Lord’s love, we experience it anew – made present again at the foot of the Cross, we are nourished by our Lord’s very Self, as food for our journey and hope for eternal life.

Friends, we need not long for the presence of Jesus, as if he were a loved one who has passed beyond our midst. His physical, resurrected body may be in heaven, in glory with his Father, but he has not left us. At each Mass he displays his love and humility to become present in the Eucharist, to be received by each of us so that we may live out our identities as members of his Mystical Body with the love and presence of his Sacramental Body radiating through us. All heaven and earth is caught up in this sacramental mystery, so that in a very real way we are never closer to God – and never closer to those who have passed from this life – than when we are at Mass, receiving the Lord’s Body and Blood.

As we come forward again in a few moments to partake of that sacrament which is both “the Source and the Summit of our faith” (Lumen gentium 11, Vatican II) let us meet the Lord’s humility with our own, bowing low in our hearts to receive the One who loves us so ardently and who nourishes us so faithfully. O Sacrament most Holy, O Sacrament Divine, all praise and all thanksgiving, be every moment Thine.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

No Idols

The Trinity (c. 1562), Tintoretto

What would you say is the most terrible sin? Murder? Adultery? Theft? Certainly, those are all very bad. Perhaps some of us would say something more general, like: pride, or greed, or anger. Again, all very bad. 

However, none of those are the most terrible sin. If you look through the Scriptures, the most terrible consequences do not come from violence or lust or jealousy, but rather from the sin of idolatry. The sin that God becomes most frustrated with is the worship of other, false gods. That is why the very first commandment that God gives to Moses and the Israelites is, in a sense, the most important one: “I am the Lord your God, and you shall not have other gods besides me.” Before anything else, God wanted Israel not to fall into idolatry.

Unfortunately, it seems that Israel often did just that. The Old Testament is full of examples of times when God’s Chosen People abandoned him and began to worship the false gods of other nations. They did so for various reasons: because they felt God had abandoned him, because they felt they were safe and secure and didn’t need God’s help, because they became too friendly with those who held beliefs contrary to theirs. Each time, they turned their back on a relationship with the living God and worshipped idols made of wood and stone.

Today we celebrate the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity. Each year, after Easter and Pentecost, as we begin Ordinary Time again, this feast reminds us that like the Israelites before us, we are called to worship the one true God. Believe it or not, idolatry is still a major temptation even in our day. While most of us are not tempted these days to worship statues made out of wood and stone, but we are tempted by idols of different kinds.

Some of us are tempted especially by the idol of worldly things: we are dominated by a driving desire for money or possessions, by having a taste for the finer things, by rationalizing away why we cannot contribute to the poor or support our church. Others of us are inclined to the god of pleasure: we want to enjoy all of the wonderful things about life and none of the bad, and whatever makes us happy in the moment is what we set our sights on, even if it is superficial, fleeting, or even deadly. Many of us surely are attracted by the idol of prestige: we love to be popular and can’t bear to be thought poorly of by others, and we will compromise our values or tear down others in order for others to think well of us.

These are just a few of the many idols that are out there. If we look hard enough, each of us will probably find that there is something in our lives that we are making a god out of something that is not God. In that case, what do we do? Like the Israelites, we turn back to the true and living God. Fortunately, for us as Christians, we have the benefit of knowing something the Israelites did not know, something which Jesus revealed to us: that God is a Trinity of Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In ancient times, people had to develop stories about deities to explain natural world and how human beings came to be. But as Christians, we do not need to invent mythologies to tell us about what really is, because God has revealed himself to us. The most fundamental reality of all – something beyond the galaxies and the stars, beneath the atoms and molecules and quarks, before all else that is – there is a communion, a Trinity, of relationship. The eternal Son of the Father, Jesus Christ, has revealed to us the love of his heavenly Father, and through the Holy Spirit, he has won for us redemption from sin and death and given us the promise of eternal. Now, we too can share in the life of the Most Blessed Trinity – through the presence of divine grace, and the power of the sacraments, we too can become part of that communion of divine love that is the Holy Trinity.

In our Gospel today, Jesus tells the disciples that he has been given all power, all authority in heaven and on earth. He sends them forth, commanding them to go and preach and baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Jesus wants all people to come to know the relationship of love and communion that is the Holy Trinity, and even more than know it, to become part of it. He relies upon us to continue that work – to share with those who are worshiping false gods the experience and knowledge of the true and living God. This is not just the work of priests and bishops. It is the duty of every Christian to orient our lives in such a way that others see that what we value most is not possessions, or power, or prestige – not any idol, whether physical or spiritual – but a relationship of love with the true and living God.

Friends, as we celebrate this Trinity Sunday, we should examine our own lives to ensure have not abandoned the worship of the true God for the false idols of pleasure, prestige, or possessions, or any other thing. At times, we can be tempted to turn away from the Lord: because we feel he has abandoned us, because we feel secure and do not need him, because the views of others can influence our own. But those occasions of idolatry can be resisted, if we recognize when they happen and renew our act of faith we have made in the one true God. The Lord has revealed to us his own inner being – the communion of love that is the Trinity, which he invites us to share, and to which he calls us to invite others. May the true and living God – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – help us to always keep our hearts focused upon him, in true worship and praise, so that one day we may behold him face to face.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Language of the Spirit

“What language do you speak?” 

I was asked that question a few years ago when I was traveling abroad in a country known for its multilingual citizenry. The lady working in the café was a bit amused at my poor attempts to speak French, the only one of the languages spoken there that I knew a little bit of. She looked at me quizzically and then asked me that question in English. Clearly, she was asking me to say whatever I was saying again, just in a different language.

Language is a funny thing. On the one hand, it’s essential to how we live, how we relate to the world. By language, we learn, we express ourselves, we communicate with each other. Language unites us; but it also can separate us. Because language shapes how we understand culture and history and daily life, it can lead to differences and even division. Certainly, we are all familiar here how in Northwest Arkansas, especially in our Catholic community, the fact that people speak different languages or come from different cultures creates challenges and sometimes even resentments, unfortunate as that is.

Language plays a very important role in the feast of Pentecost which we celebrate today. Gathered together in the Upper Room after Jesus’s Ascension, the Apostles, and the Virgin Mary, receive the Third Person of the Holy Trinity. The Holy Spirit, whom Jesus had promised to send, descends upon them like tongues of fire and immediately they are empowered in a fascinating way. Filled with boldness, they begin preaching throughout Jerusalem, and though they are all from the same region of Galilee, people from all over the world – people who spoke many different languages – hear their words and understand.

The miracle of the gift of tongues, as it is called, would have had a special significance for the Jews of the time. Remember the Tower of Babel story from the Book of Genesis? The men and women of the time desired to build a great city, with a tower reaching into the heavens, to make a name for themselves. But because they did so apart from God, they were left confused and divided, separated from understanding each other because of language, their work unfinished. At Pentecost, the apostles’ gift of speaking in tongues understood by all peoples is a kind of reversal of the sin of Babel. The apostles spoke in strange tongues, and yet they were understood, they were united to those with whom they were different. The language of sin and division which had separated humanity is reversed by the language of the Spirit. 

William Congdon, Pentecost 4 (c. 1962)

Such is the meaning of Pentecost. Throughout the year, we celebrate the way in which God is revealed to us: through the Incarnation of Jesus, through his Passion and Death, through his Resurrection. Finally at Pentecost, we celebrate that God has not just been revealed to us but also given to us, individually and collectively. By means of our baptism, our confirmation, by means of all of the sacraments, the Holy Spirit has taken up a dwelling place within us: within the Church as a whole and within each of us by grace. Why? So that we can speak, in a sense, a new language, a language not of confusion and division but one of peace, forgiveness, and love that unites and speaks to all people.

In the Gospel today, the Risen Jesus appears to the disciples and tells them that he is sending them out into the world. Such is the life of every follower of Christ – to receive the Good News of Jesus’s victory over death, and then be sent forth to share it. To do so we rely not upon our own efforts and powers, like the people of Babel, but upon the grace of the inner gift given to each of us, upon the Spirit active within us. With his gifts – wisdom, understanding, right judgment, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord – we are sent forth as peacemakers, bridge-builders, healers, missionaries. We can converse in a language beyond mere human words and feelings and ideas; we communicate to each other the very presence of God.

So, my friends, what language do you speak? As we conclude this Easter season, take some time today to reflect upon the power of speech in your life. Think about how you use words at home, at work, to your spouse, to your coworkers, to your kids, to your friends. Try to look beyond the obvious. Ask yourself: “Am I someone who too often uses language for selfish, even sinful purposes?” – tearing down another, swearing, lying, complaining, participating in gossip? Think: “When others hear me, do they hear someone filled with the Holy Spirit?” – or do they hear negativity, fear and anxiety, bitterness? “Where can I be better in communicating the presence of God?” – by comforting another, by whispering a prayer, by teaching a child about Jesus, by gently correcting a friend who has started to gossip, by speaking words of kindness to someone who isn’t my favorite?

Jesus sends us out to share the Good News – just as the Father sent him, just as he sent his apostles. But we don’t have to travel to different lands and learn new languages to spread the Good News; we need only to begin speaking the language of love in daily life – the language of God’s love, the language of the Spirit who has been given to each of us and is active among us. Be a missionary for Christ – in what you say, what you do, how you live. “Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love.”

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Surprised by Joy

The Last Supper (1886) by Fritz von Uhde

One of the challenging things about becoming an adult is the diminished capacity for surprise. Spend a little time around a child and it is hard not to be impressed, and often amused, by the sense of wonder they have for all that is around them. They are amazed by the phenomena of the natural world; the simplest game or trick can entertain them for hours. It is a bit hard not to be jealous of the simple wonder of youth.

The good news is that, while they are a bit fewer and farther between, surprises do not disappear completely with adulthood. I often find that spending a little time in nature reawakens in me a sense of surprise. Spend a little time gazing at a tree or a flower and you can’t help but be amazed at all of the wondrous things around us. You may have to look for them for a little harder, but life still offers plenty of surprises.

In the Gospel today, Jesus surprises his disciples. He calls them “friends.” We might gloss over these words and miss their importance, because we would tend to think, “Of course, the disciples are his friends!” It is true that Jesus lived with his disciples, spent his time with them, and shared everything with them. But it is also true that they were not until this point friends in the way we typically think of them; he was the Teacher, the Master, the Rabbi, and they were the disciples. For Jesus then to call him his friends implies a change in relationship. Their following him is no longer about following commands – it is about understanding the mind of the Master, and as his friends, doing what he has done.

Jesus says to them, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you, and your joy might be complete.” We might think that Jesus has come to teach us obedience, or devotion, or piety. But instead he says that his true purpose is to fill us with joy, and to make our joy complete. Indeed, he wants to give us his joy – the joy that comes from knowing the Father, and from being loved by the Father as the eternal Son. When Jesus invites his friends into his joy, it is a joy that cannot be taken away by any sadness or pain or suffering. Jesus spoke these words at the Last Supper, when he himself was at the brink of his own suffering and death – aware that in just a few moments one of these men whom he had called a friend would betray him and the rest would abandon him – and yet he was filled with joy because of knowing the Father’s love.

A few weeks ago, Pope Francis wrote a letter to every Christian entitled “Gaudete et Exultate” – “Rejoice and Be Glad”. I have been reading through it a bit lately. It is a series of reflections about the way in which God wants to inspire each of us to love, about the call to holiness that he calls each of us to. Pope Francis notes that too often we tend to think of holiness as piety, devotion, an overly strict sense of religiosity, when in reality it is simply living in authentic joy and holding on to that joy so that we can love more deeply. “Keeping,” he says, “a heart free of all that tarnishes love: that is holiness.”

As we come to the end of a semester at the university, perhaps it is a good time for each of us to reflect upon where our joy comes from. Do we feel the authentic joy that comes from knowing God, knowing of his love for us, and keeping that love free from tarnish? Or are we searching for something lesser? The Christian writer C.S. Lewis once wrote that the joy which comes from love is not the same as pleasure or contentment; those things are much more commonplace and unremarkable. True joy, he said, doesn’t come from “security or prosperity” or the satisfaction of any desire. Rather it is a feeling of childlike delight: it “jumps under one's ribs and tickles down one's back and makes one forget meals and keeps one (delightedly) sleepless o' nights.” True joy cannot be duplicated or bought or faked; it is authentic.

Friends, we may struggle at times to experience surprise as we get older, but there is one thing that should never cease to surprise us: that Jesus has made us his friends. Jesus invites us to share in his joy, to make our joy complete by the knowledge of the Father’s love. More than obedience of piety or devotion, the Lord wants our relationship with him to be one of friendship, one that is rooted in the joy of love. God’s love is given to us freely without cost, so that we can respond freely to love him. When we know the mind of Jesus as our Friend, then we can act as he did, and love as he loved. The holiness he calls us to is nothing other than loving, joyful friendship, and who does not want that? May the Eucharist that we will celebrate in a few moments be a confirmation of the Lord’s great love for us, and a foretaste of the authentic joy of the heavenly kingdom.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Fruit of the Vine

In the spirit of our university semester drawing to a close, here's a pop quiz! 

What was the first commandment God gave to human beings? Any guesses? Maybe some of you thought of one of the Ten Commandments, the Law given to Moses for the Israelite people on Mount Sinai. But it is before that. Or you might have thought of the covenant God made with Abraham and his descendants, or God’s command to Noah to build an ark. But it is before that. Or maybe you even thought of God’s commandment to Adam and Eve not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Even then, you’d be wrong. 

The first commandment God gave to human beings was given to Adam and Eve, but it was not a warning about sin. Rather, he said, “Be fruitful and multiply.” I always tend to think of this fact about this time of year, when the weather has finally gotten nice, the flowers and trees are blooming, and all of nature seems to be singing. Springtime is an inherent reminder of God’s desire that all of his creation flourish.

Still, what about all of those commandments? Everyone knows that Christianity is a religion with commandments. “Honor your father and mother.” “Do not kill.” “Do not commit adultery.” Don’t eat meat on Fridays during Lent. No sex outside of marriage. Fast for an hour before receiving the Eucharist. And so on, and so on. If God’s desire for us is to flourish – not just to populate the earth, like Adam and Eve – but to prosper in every way, how do a bunch of commandments help us to do that?

We hear the answer in our second reading today. For the past several weeks, this reading has come from the First Letter of John. If you have never read is particular letter straight through, I would encourage you to do so. It is one of the more beautiful explanations of the Christian faith and a simple guide to how to live as a follower of Jesus. The author of the letter – who was most likely either the Apostle John or one of his close followers – speaks about how the apostles and disciples were privileged to follow Jesus in his earthly ministry: to hear him preach, to see him heal, etc. But it was only after his Passion, Death, and Resurrection that they came to understand there is an even more important way of relating to Jesus – through love. Love is the tie that binds every believer to God, whether we have seen Jesus or not. God is love, as St. John says, and we love God because we recognize that he first loved us in Christ. Jesus is the proof of God’s love and the one who has made us like himself, so that we are now called children of God.

Edward Burne-Jones, The Tree of Life (detail), c. 1888

How though do we love God? St. John tells us – by keeping his commandments. That is the heart of the message we have heard in this reading the last few weeks – that the proof of loving God is to do what he has told us. As we heard today, faithfulness is proven not merely in words and speech, through mere lip service. Rather faithfulness is shown by action – by what we do “in deed and in truth” as he says. At the heart of every commandment is the choice of whether to love God in that particular way, to acknowledge that he truly loves us and that apart from him we cannot flourish or prosper. Following the will of God, obeying his commandments – even the ones we don’t like! – are the way in which we remain in the love of God that sustains us.

In the Gospel today, Jesus tells us that apart from him we can do nothing. It sounds almost like an insult; but it is a reminder of how truly we depend upon God's goodness for everything. Think about what commandment of God you are having the most trouble following. Is there a rule of the Church that you don’t like? Is there a commandment that you constantly seem to break? Rather than dismiss that thing as unimportant, or resign yourself to it as something that you can’t overcome, think of it instead as precisely the place that God wants to lift you up and help you to flourish. The life of the Vine is extended to you precisely there, so that as a branch on the tree of God, you can be healed and made whole. Love is the tie that binds you to Jesus, but each of us must open ourselves to receiving the life-giving grace that he wants to communicate.

There is of course a flip side to the image of the vine and branches which is more challenging. As any gardener knows, there are some plants, and some parts of plants that do not flourish. They droop and sag; they do not use the nutrients given to them. They fail to truly bear the life of the Vine within them, and as such, they do not bear fruit. When we fail to keep the Lord’s commandments – when we say, “NO,” to what he asks, or ignore his commandments – then in doing so, we resist the very life that sustains us. The Lord’s command is for us to bear fruit; he wants our relationship with him to flourish so that our life grows and spreads beyond ourselves to touch the lives of others and to communicate to them the same life from the Vine that is within us.

Therefore, we must be pruned. The gardener knows that a plant only truly thrives when it has been formed in the correct way. At times, this means doing something which on the face is counter-intuitive – trimming it back, cutting away parts of its life that are easy and superficial but which prevent fuller and deeper growth. We are pruned as well. Whenever we encounter loss, challenge, grievance, disappointment, hardship, or insult, – in any wound that we suffer – there is a temptation to focus only upon it and upon the pain of that present moment. Instead, the Lord invites us to accept our pruning, to embrace the opportunity of letting go of something – even something good – so that we can cling more fully to him, and stay rooted in the divine life that comes from the Vine.

Friends, our faith does indeed have commandments, and commandments that we must follow, but Christianity is not ultimately a religion defined by rules. Instead, it is the full expression of what God first said to Adam and Eve: “Be fruitful and multiply.” How connected are you to Christ? Have you remained in him, so that he can remain in you? We are branches on the tree of God, but in order to bear fruit, we must be careful not to separate ourselves from the Vine. The fruit that Jesus expects us to bear is the fruit of faith, hope, and love, the fruit of charitable service, the fruit of self-denial, the fruit of Christian mission, the fruit of spreading the Gospel. May the Eucharist we will soon share – when we will partake of the fruit of the vine transformed into the Lord’s Heavenly Vintage to nourish us – help us to remain rooted in him, so that we can bear much fruit.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Jesus the Lawyer

A few years ago, a priest friend of mine sent me a few jokes. They were jokes about lawyers:

Q: How can a pregnant woman tell that she's carrying a future lawyer?
A: She has an uncontrollable craving for baloney.

Q: What do you call a smiling, courteous person at a bar association convention?
A: The caterer.

Q: What's the difference between a lawyer and a trampoline?
A: You take off your shoes before you jump on a trampoline.

Now that I’ve offended any lawyer or law student out there, let me explain why I mention these. I received these as I was heading to Washington DC to study canon law, the law of the Church. Much like regular lawyers, canon lawyers often get a bad rap among priests, and I guess my friend wanted to remind me not to let my studies go to my head.

There was one joke that he sent which especially caught my attention.

Q: What's the difference between a lawyer and God?
A: God doesn't think he's a lawyer.

Now, for any lawyers in the room, the fact that they are in church is probably a pretty good indication that they don’t think they’re God. But that punch line – “God doesn’t think he’s a lawyer” – is that true? You might think, "Of course, it’s true." But if you know your Bible, you might actually start to think it’s not. You might say that God – or more precisely, Jesus – is a kind of lawyer. Let me explain better what I mean.

Throughout the Scriptures, the Bible uses imagery to explain the relationship between God and humanity. A lot of these images we are familiar with, and a lot of them come from Jesus. There’s the vine and the branches, the Good Shepherd and the sheep, the Master of the House and the servants who await his return, the owner of the vineyard and the tenants who work it. You can go on and on.

But there’s another imagery often used in the Bible, and that is legal imagery. The images of the law – judge and trial and sentence – are used especially in the Old Testament to symbolize what it is like when humanity falls astray. As the people of God, we are in covenant with him – bound to him in a heavenly contract, if you will – and when we sin, we violate that covenant, and we are held accountable before the law. We stand before God, guilty of our sins, and we deserve the punishment that is our due. God is infinitely merciful – but he is also infinitely just, and so he must hand down the sentence that the law prescribes.

But today, in the second reading, we heard something very important. In his first letter, the apostle John says, “My children, I am writing this to you so that you may not commit sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous one.” The word “Advocate” there is deliberately chosen: it means “helper” and “intercessor,” but it also has a legal connotation. Jesus, it seems, is a kind of lawyer.

Now, we like to poke fun at lawyers, as I did at the start of the homily. But if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that lawyers are actually very important. They perform very important, very helpful tasks. For one, they interpret the law – judges and legal scholars tell us what the law means and how it applies in our lives. And other lawyers represent us when we run afoul of the law – these attorneys, or advocates, stand on our behalf to argue our case.

When St. John says that Jesus is our "Advocate", he means precisely that. Jesus stands before the Father on our behalf, arguing our case. As we will hear in the Preface of the Eucharistic Prayer today, Jesus “defends us and ever pleads our cause” before his heavenly Father. He does so because he himself is righteous – that is, in the eyes of the law, he is blameless, without sin. We are not – we have sinned – but because a Righteous One takes up our cause on our behalf, we are made righteous too. Once guilty, we are shown mercy because of the righteousness of Jesus. Though we deserve to receive a sentence, we are made innocent instead.

The analogy goes even deeper. Jesus the Lawyer not only has made us innocent; he has himself borne the weight of the Law’s penalty on our behalf. Imagine a legal counsel who willingly accepts the punishment his client rightfully deserves – even the best lawyer would never do that! But Jesus has freed us from the sentence of the old law of sin and death and has written a new law within our hearts: the law of charity, the law of sacrificial love – his Law.

What does God ask in return? Faithfulness, and to be a witness to his great love. In today's first reading, Peter invites the people of Jerusalem to recognize that by their own sins they were responsible for the death of Jesus; but God has shown them mercy by raising him to new life, and so now he calls them to be a witness to this transformation by turning away from sin, embracing the new life that comes from the Resurrection, and bearing witness to the love God has shown us in Jesus.

James Tissot, The Appearance of Christ at the Cenacle (c. 1894)

In the Gospel we heard, the Risen Jesus appears again to his disciples. They are frightened at his coming: unsure perhaps of how he can be alive again, unsure of whether he will hold their past abandonment against them. Instead, he wishes them "Peace." He reminds them that all has happened according to the will of God – of how all that the Scriptures once foretold has at last been accomplished through his rising from the dead. The disciples, he says, are “witnesses of these things.”

So, too, does the Risen Jesus call us to be his witnesses in the world. To do so, we need to stand apart from the sinfulness we see around us. With our Advocate with us, made righteous by his free gift, we must be holy to such a degree that others take notice and are inspired to make Jesus their Advocate as well. That is the mission he has given to us. We should never let the times that we fall short from this calling discourage us from turning back to him – to trust again in our Advocate, who restores us to righteousness so that we can be good witnesses once again. 

My friends, in this Easter season, we remember that we have the universe’s best Advocate in our corner. Even the greatest defense attorney in the world would never do what Jesus has done for us, for he has borne our sentence on our behalf, and restored us to righteousness in the sight of God. But Jesus’s assistance didn’t come to an end with his Passion, Death, and Resurrection. He continues to aid us each and every day – indeed, every moment – interceding for us with the Father, pouring out his Spirit to us, sending us heavenly gifts of grace to inspire us to holiness. The Risen Lord has changed the world; he has changed our hearts; and he continues to lead us – and we are witnesses to these things. And that, praise God, is not a joke.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Easter: The Silent Victory

The American author F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “Show me a hero, and I will write you a tragedy.” While only he knew his exact meaning, his words can be understood in at least two ways. An optimistic interpretation is that every hero has a backstory, some tragic difficulty or challenge that they have overcome in order to become who they are. A more pessimistic interpretation is that every hero is a figure waiting to fall, victorious at one moment but destined inevitably for later decline or defeat. 

According to the values of the world, the life of Jesus of Nazareth was heroic in many ways. He upended narrow ways of thinking, he preached the importance of mercy and compassion, he paid attention to the poor, the marginalized, and the outcast. But as heroic as his life may have been, when viewed through the lens of this world, one cannot help but conclude Jesus’s story ends in tragedy, because despite his goodness he was finally rejected, captured, abused, murdered.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, Two Disciples at the Tomb (c. 1906)

Of course, we are here today because as Christians we do not view things only through the lens of the world. We have because we believe in the Resurrection – that is, to make the claim in faith that after suffering a truly human death, this Jesus of Nazareth was then raised from the dead; not to live for a time and then suffer death again, like his friend Lazarus, but risen in such a way that death no longer has any power over him. For us he suffered the slings and arrows of human sinfulness, for us he shed his blood, but God has raised him to a new and eternal life.

Still, it might occur to us, “But where is Jesus?” In the Gospel from John that we just heard, we can feel this question implicitly in the story. Early in the morning, Mary Magdalene goes early in the morning to anoint the dead Jesus. But he is not there. Simon Peter and the other disciple come to see for themselves, and they too see that he is gone. The Easter account from Mark says that Jesus is not there, because “he has been raised.” How strange! We might expect that after his very public suffering and death, the Resurrection of Jesus would be an event that no one would possibly miss or mistake or fail to recognize. If we were writing the story, we would make certain that all would see that the Hero of God is not defeated, but victorious indeed! And yet the Resurrection of Christ happens silently, in secret. Just what is God up to?

We can summarize his purpose in one word: faith. Recently, I saw an interview with former President Jimmy Carter about a new book that he has written on faith. The interviewer asked him why faith was so important, and he said he thought faith was the key to existence. He referenced the eighteenth chapter of Luke, and Jesus’s words, “When the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on the earth?” The former president then went on talk about it’s important to have faith in ourselves, in other human beings, in our ability to make the world a more decent place.

With all due respect to Mr. Carter, that is not the faith that Jesus was talking about. If there is one thing that Jesus desired to do throughout his life, it was to move us to faith – not faith in some abstract, general sense, but faith personally in him, faith that he was sent by God for our salvation. All of those things that he did in his ministry – reaching out to the marginalized, preaching compassion and mercy – those things which even non-believers can admire: all of them were intended to bring us to believe in him. Even his death on the Cross was an invitation to faith. Why? Because faith ultimately is what saves, faith is what reconciles us to God, faith is what gives us eternal life. Without faith in the Son of God, we could see the Resurrection itself happen and it would profit us nothing. What Jesus wants, then and now, for us to have faith in one thing: that he is Risen from the dead, physically, in the flesh, and that having Ascended he sits at the right side of his Father in heaven and continues to intercede for us. It is an extraordinary claim – something so amazing that it is almost unbelievable. But it is believable, with faith, and we are the ones who believe it.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Three Marys (c. 1910)

At the Easter Vigil last night, our church rejoiced to welcome into full initiation in the Christian mysteries those men and women who through months of discernment and prayer have come to have faith in the Risen Jesus and who have found a new and fuller relationship with him in our Catholic communion. By the power of Christ, they were sealed with the gifts of the Holy Spirit so that the faith that has brought them here will now move them, and us, to give witness to the Lord in how we live.

Like them, our presence in this church today is a sign that we stand ready to give testimony to this faith we possess. We have come to believe in the Resurrection; now we strive to bring others to the same faith. So many today are looking for a reason to hope; so many want to believe in a good and merciful God, who will answer the evil we see so evident; so many feel within themselves a longing that is unfulfilled, a desire to find something in life that really is momentous. To them and to all, we are ready to answer, to respond in faith that: “Death is not the final word! The Grave is not our final resting place! Oblivion is not the fate that awaits us! For the Tomb is empty; he has been raised, as he said.” There is no work we can do that is more important, more essential than continuing to share that Good News, which we have come to believe. And share it we must until the Day we and indeed all the world see the Risen Christ return in his Glorious Body at the end of all things.

So, “where is Jesus?” Right here. With eyes of faith we can see him – present in our hearts through the power of the Holy Spirit, present in the midst of this assembly, and especially present in the sacramental signs which are instruments of his grace. We hear his voice in the prayers we offer through his Sonship; we see him in the works of charity we do in his Name, in the service we render to others out of love for him, in the daily living out of that vocation by which he has called each of us to holiness and newness of life. As we await his glorious Second Coming, we look for him not in some far-off place, but in faith, we recognize he is still here.

Friends, perhaps it is true like Scott Fitzgerald thought that every human story, even a heroic one, ends in tragedy. But in the divine story, announced by the mouth of God, and written anew upon our hearts in faith, there is no longer any tragedy. There is only the victory that our Hero has won. May the Risen Christ, truly here, present among us, strengthen us in our faith, that we may always announce his triumph to others, and by our manner of living point the way to his fullness of life.