Sunday, May 26, 2019

The Peace That Abides

Do you have a “happy place”? You may not describe it with those words, but you know the idea: some particular place that gives you rest and refreshment. Maybe a favorite park or restaurant, maybe an ideal vacation spot, maybe even a location within your own home that you’ve carved out as a place to reduce stress and center yourself.

A “happy place” can be great to have, but unfortunately none of us can stay there forever. Whatever its particular pleasures, we each have to eventually leave that beloved café, that secluded beach spot, that backyard garden, and venture out again into the real world, the world of trials and anxieties and stress. Whether it’s the grind of home and work responsibilities, personal or family sorrows, or various worries about societal and global and ecclesial concerns, the return to real life can easily consume whatever rest and relaxation we did experience. What we really desire is not just a longer period in our “happy place” but a true and lasting peace.

Over Eternal Peace (1894) by Isaac Levitan

Jesus’s words in today’s Gospel should be consoling for precisely that reason: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you.” Jesus’s peace is of a different kind than what passes as peace in this world. The best that this life can do is relaxation, the serenity of a “happy place”, pleasing in the moment but never lasting. Our world and our lives are proof enough that Jesus is not promising to make us carefree. This very Gospel scene occurs at a time of great anxiety – as Jesus is just mere hours from the agonizing experience of the Cross, as the disciples are filled with anxiety that he is leaving them. The peace of Jesus is somehow a peace that is deeper than mere peacefulness, a peace that can be experienced even in the midst of great trial and suffering.

The peace that Jesus gives is the same peace that he knew – the peace of abiding presence. Jesus underwent the suffering at Calvary with a peaceful heart because he knew of his Father’s love and because he was united with him at the very interior of his being. Likewise, the peace that Jesus promises his disciples is not freedom from worry or from suffering, but the peace of presence – of God’s love accompanying us, abiding with us even in the midst of suffering.

When we accompany another person in a difficult time, the best we can do is walk alongside of them, being a support for them. But God’s accompaniment is much deeper. It is an accompaniment not just with but within – the accompaniment of love and presence from the inside. For the one who loves God and keeps his word – well, just listen again to Jesus: “My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.” That is the peace of presence – that God is within us, animating us from within, strengthening us at a level deeper than any sorrow.

The teachings of our Catholic faith assure us that this idea is not metaphorical or just a cliché. We believe in what is called the doctrine of the Divine Indwelling: that when we are in communion with God by grace, the Holy Trinity truly dwells within us. What an awesome idea! And what peace that idea might give us, especially when we are confronted with a great sorrow or trial: to know that the infinite, almighty God, who holds all things in existence, who has a plan for all things in eternity, makes a home within our hearts. Surely, there is no suffering that cannot be endured, no challenge that cannot be confronted, no temptation that cannot be overcome when we realize that we face it not just by ourselves, but with the abiding presence of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who have made their dwelling within us. As long as we hold that friendship fast and secure, not losing it through mortal sin, then we have within us a peace that truly abides.

This idea that God makes his dwelling within us may seem very abstract until we remember that we profess the same idea in a different way in the Eucharist. At each Mass, following the Lord’s Prayer, just moments before we receive his Real Presence, we ask Jesus to look not upon our sins but upon our faith – our faith that he is really present there, under the appearance of bread and wine. And if we believe that Jesus is present there, then we believe that he is present also within us when we receive those Eucharistic elements. The Lord truly comes to make a home within our souls, nourishing us with his very Body and Blood. He comes to give us peace – the peace that abides, a peace the world cannot give.

Friends, the next time you visit your “happy place”, if you have one, enjoy that moment of rest and give thanks to God for it. But recognize too that its tranquility is superficial and fleeting. And, indeed, so it should be – for we have been created not for this world, but for another place whose happiness cannot be grasped in this life. It is only there, in the new and eternal Jerusalem, that our hearts will truly rest. In the meantime, in this life, the peace of Christ consoles us and abides within us to help us face the hardships that come our way, each of them a step along the journey toward that heavenly city. As we come forward in a few moments to share again in the Lord’s Paschal Banquet, let us ask the Lord with full and faithful hearts to renew us this day with his peace, the gift of his presence: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you.”

Sunday, May 19, 2019

The Hour of Glory

Every person needs to learn how to tell time. As much as we might not like it sometimes, our world is governed by time – learning how to be on time, learning how to make good use of time, and especially learning how to tell what time it actually is. Every person has to learn these things, and so we help children master that skill. I’m sure many of us have helped children look at an analog clock to understand how the two hands pointing at two different numbers tells us something important. Perhaps some of us even recall being children and doing the same with our parents or grandparents. 

In the Gospel today, Jesus is helping his disciples learn how to tell time. Not the kind of time I’ve been referring to, displayed on our clocks and watches and phones. He’s helping them learn how to tell time in a deeper, more supernatural way – to tell time spiritually. Time plays an important role in the Gospel of John. St. John the Evangelist often refers in his account to the time of day that different events happen, and Jesus continuously talks about his “hour” – “my hour has not yet come” (Jn 2:4, 7:8); “the hour is coming and is now here” (Jn 5:25, 16:32). Jesus is not referring to the hours that our clocks keep track of but rather the spiritual moment of when his divine mission will reach its fulfillment. Jesus wants his disciples to be attentive to the coming of his “hour,” the unveiling of God’s decisive action in the world.

Today’s Gospel is situated right as that hour is about to commence: “Now is the Son of Man glorified and God is glorified in him.” As we heard, Judas has left the Last Supper banquet and will soon return with guards and soldiers to betray and arrest Jesus. And thus, as Jesus says, the sequence of events has now been set in motion, all of the events of his Passion, Death, and Resurrection. The die has been cast, as they say. But it’s interesting, isn’t it, that Jesus refers to glory? We would understand if Jesus said, “Now will the Son of Man suffer and die, and in him God will show his love.” But Jesus says that this “hour,” long awaited and now finally arrived, is the hour of his glory. Can there be glory in betrayal and suffering? Can there be glory in death?

Who Among Us (2009) by Debra Hurd

The answer is yes. We know even in our human experience: if someone lays down their life for something worthy, for a noble cause, we see there is a kind of glory in that. All the more so when the one laying down his life is the Son of God! Jesus goes to the Cross not out of weakness or defeat but out of love for humanity, to effect our redemption. And because he does so, because God wants to reveal in Christ the true power of his love, he also raises him to new life. That is what the “hour” of Jesus is all about: to initiate a new time in the world, when all will come to see God’s redemptive love and the glory of his victory, even over the most terrible forces of our human experience. The love of Christ conquers all.

As Jesus faces his coming “hour” – an hour of both suffering and of glory – he turns his attention to his disciples. He gives them a new commandment: to love one another as he has loved them. As he enters into his redemptive work, Jesus gives his disciples a way of participating in that Cross, to suffer in a sense along with him in order to share in his triumph and glory. Love becomes for the followers of Jesus not just a nice sentiment or ideal but a means of participating in Christ’s redemption. When we love with the love of Christ – a love that in freedom does not shy away from being sacrificial, a love that is willing to deny ourselves for the good of the other – then we also share in the accomplishment of God’s plan to emancipate the world from slavery to sin and death. We can each become coworkers with Christ in unveiling the power and glory of God, helping to "make all things new" (Rev 21:5a).

To do this, we have to be able to tell time – that is, to read the times and understand them with the mind of Christ. We must look at our lives as governed not so much by the days and hours and minutes of the world, or even of our individual calendars and schedules, but above all by the love of Jesus. Each day we have opportunities offered to us here and now to share in the joys, the sufferings, the sacrifices, and the sanctifications that help to further the power and purpose of God in the world. Just like the early Christians, as we heard in the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we can be the messengers of God’s Good News and the instruments of his redemptive action. Sometimes, his plan calls for us to undergo “many hardships,” as Paul says, in order for the love of Christ to be made manifest. But if we stay rooted in Christ, if we obey the Lord’s commandment to love as he loved – especially when it is not convenient or easy or popular to do so, even if it is sacrificial and self-denying – then we contribute to the coming of the Lord's kingdom where we hope to share in his glory.

Friends, the “hour” of Jesus, the hour of glory, which began two millennia ago according to the world’s time, is just as spiritually new and present and urgent today. What the Lord began with his Passion, Death, and Resurrection continues still for us, if we learn from him what is of greatest importance. Just as we teach our young ones how to understand the things of this world, may his words teach us today how to understand the commandment of the world to come: “My children… this is how all will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Six Little Words

Historians say that we live in “The Information Age.” We all know how technology has made information accessible at a level previously unthinkable – with just a few taps of our fingers, we have the ability to call up data on just about any topic. But with an increase in access to information comes an increase in the number of voices competing for our attention – opinions, viewpoints, hot takes from all sorts of people on all sorts of topics.

I have become more deeply aware of this in my four years working on a college campus. In my four years working on a college campus. Universities today say they are all about helping young people to form their own ideas and draw their own conclusions. But often it seems they are more likely to be places that you are bombarded with viewpoints and perspectives: from magisterial lectures and keynote addresses, to debates and demonstrations, and even things like the ins and outs of campus culture and the pressures of peer groups, and much more. Now, this is not always a bad thing; it can be helpful to learn from another's perspective. After all, even this homily is itself an attempt to represent another perspective – the Church’s viewpoint! But, sometimes, with so many voices all wanting to have a say, it can be a bit overwhelming, and we may be tempted to tune out even the important voices speaking to us.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives us a reason for why his voice should stand out among all the rest, whether here on campus or anywhere else. At the end of the Gospel passage, he offered six little words tell us everything we need to know about him: “The Father and I are one.” If Jesus were a spiritual guru or moral exemplar, then his voice would just be one among many, wiser perhaps than most but with not inherently more authoritative than a number of others might be. But instead he says something no mere moral teacher would say: “The Father and I are one.” Those six little words tell us that Jesus claims an authority much higher than being one voice among many – indeed, he speaks with an authority higher than every other. He speaks as the Living Word, imparting the message of eternal life – he speaks with the voice of the Living God for he is one with the Father.

But not everyone hears this word, and not everyone accepts this message. The context for today’s Gospel, from the tenth chapter of John, makes this very clear. The religious authorities of Jesus’s day, the Pharisees and Temple authorities, heard Jesus’s message and resisted it because they did not believe him. Perhaps they were a bit like so many of us today – hardened into skepticism, overwhelmed by the number of viewpoints and the din of different voices. How often is the voice of Jesus speaking today simply lost in the mix? Certainly, we know our culture has in many ways grown hardened to hearing the Christian message and accepting it, but I’m talking also about its power and bearing in our own individual lives. Have we learned to distinguish the voice of Jesus speaking to us? Are we willing to act upon it? 

The Good Shepherd (c. 1800) by Vicente López Portaña

In order to hear the voice of the Lord more clearly, we first have to create room for it. If our attention is constantly being filled up by other voices, then it’s going to be hard for God to break into the mix. Each of us perhaps might do a little soul-searching this week about what kind of voices constantly occupy our attention. I can speak for myself in saying that often my ears are tuned in to rather ephemeral noise: entertainment, sports, politics, social media. These voices compete for our awareness, insisting that we stay up to date and in the loop, but often they can elbow out the voice of the Lord. Or perhaps the word of God is kept at bay by different voices: concerns about career and personal achievements; various anxieties of personal and family life; voices of doubt or discouragement, whether interior or exterior; voices that persuade us in some way or another not to strive for moral improvement, not to seek peace, not to forgive, not to be forgiven; and many more. In different ways, these voices can crowd out the voice of God speaking to us. We have to learn to lessen the degree to which these voices grab and hold on to our attention in order to be able to discern the Lord’s voice more clearly.

Once we have given him a greater opportunity to be heard, we then have to discern his voice speaking to us. There are certain fundamental ways we hear the voice of Jesus as Catholics: through the daily encounter with his Word in personal prayer, especially with the Scriptures; through the regular reception of the sacraments, hearing him speak to us especially in the words of the priest’s prayers; through the teachings of the Church, which carries Jesus’s authority as the Living Word into the present day; through the mutual love of one another, by which we help each other to grow in charity.

But still there are times when God’s word might feel absent. When that happens, I suggest if I may to return again to the six little words of today’s Gospel, so concise and yet so powerful: “the Father and I are one.” Jesus’s voice always speaks to us of the Father’s love, and it is always speaking to us of that love even when we don’t explicitly hear it or feel lit. The Lord’s voice can adopt different tones depending on what we need to hear in a given moment: hopeful and encouraging, urging us to change and conversion, speaking to us of peace. It can even be that the Lord speaks in a silent sort of way – by withholding from us the consolation or experience of presence. But even in this, he reveals always the same message of love: “you are loved, you have been created for love, and you will find the fulfillment of your desire for love only in relationship with Me and My Father and, ultimately, through eternal communion with us.” That is what Jesus, the Good Shepherd, means when he says, “The Father and I are one.” He reveals the Father to us, and makes known for us his love in this moment.

But finally, it’s not enough just to hear God’s word; we can’t just passively receive it or consider as just one voice among many. The Letter of James tells us to “be doers of the Word and not hearers only” (Jas 1:22). So how do we act upon God’s Word? Boldly. Of course, the substance of what we do depends upon what love compels us to do in the given moment and particular circumstance. But the voice of the Lord always asks us to be bold – not to be afraid to trust his voice, not to give in to doubt or skepticism that we really are hearing it – but to act decisively, directly, like sheep who recognize the shepherd’s voice and immediately move closer toward it.

Friends, our lives are full of lots of voices speaking to us – giving us information, opinions, perspectives, telling us what we should value, what we should believe. We can be tempted to discount all of them and just turn inward. But even if you tune them all out – heck, even if you take nothing else away from this homily – don’t disregard the voice of Jesus speaking to you today. “The Father and I are one,” he says. Let those six little words of the Lord speak to you, and penetrate your heart, and then boldly put his word into action. Don’t hesitate to do that which God is inviting you to do – don’t wait till next year, or next month, or even tomorrow, but trust in his love and act. Live out his “Word of Life” (1 Jn 1:4), so that others too may hear what you have heard and may come to know the sound of the Lord’s voice speaking to them. “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Trusting Anew

Some places in life have a special importance. A young girl might recall with great fondness the sights and smells of her grandmother’s kitchen. A married couple might revisit on special occasions the restaurant where they had their first date. For each of us, there are some places that are just imbued with spiritual significance, where the power of memory and meaning forever stay with us.

Take this sanctuary, for example. This church was built in 1960 – in fact, it was dedicated this very day, fifty nine years ago. And from that day until today, thousands of people have experienced something special in this space: a homily preached that made an impact on the life of a young person; a insight in prayer that brought clarity and perspective; a moment of refuge from the turbulence of the world outside. Untold numbers have received the sacraments here – the healing waters of baptism, the joyful graces of confirmation and marriage, the Holy Eucharist. The spiritual legacy of our church extends far beyond the confines of these four walls.

In the Gospel today, we hear about the very first church sanctuary: the Upper Room. As a physical space, it was probably fairly unremarkable, a room in the southwest part of Jerusalem’s Old City that was probably a meeting space or guesthouse in the first century. But for the apostles and other disciples, and for Christians ever since, it is a place imbued with spiritual significance because of the events that happened there. It is where Jesus washed the feet of his disciples on Holy Thursday. It is where he ate the Last Supper with his friends, giving them the Eucharist as the way of remaining connected to what he would do on Calvary. It is the place where the disciples, gathered together after Jesus’s Ascension, received the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. But arguably the most poignant events that happened in the Upper Room are what we hear about in today’s reading: the encounters of the Risen Lord with the disciples.

Jesus Appears to the Disciples (2009) by Imre Morocz

It is hard to underestimate the tension at the start of this Gospel. The disciples are hiding out behind locked doors, afraid that they too will be found and put to death as their Master had been. They are likely on edge because they have heard from Mary Magdalene and others that Jesus has been raised, but they don’t know what to make of those reports. If he has been raised, is he coming for them, to condemn and punish? After all, the last time they saw him, he was being arrested and they had fled in fear. Into this locked room, the Risen Jesus enters, not with condemnation but with words of mercy and forgiveness: “Peace be with you,” he says. He shows them the wounds of his Passion, the marks of his very real, very painful death, healed now and surpassed by the loving power of God.

Today is the Second Sunday of Easter, Divine Mercy Sunday, and a recapitulation of all that we have been celebrating since Easter morning. Jesus’s Resurrection is God’s crowning achievement – it is the pinnacle of his work of reconciliation between us and him, the means by which he heals us of sin and offers us the opportunity to eternal life. God’s infinite mercy was made real and personal for those disciples gathered in the Upper Room. And they were changed by it; that experience affected them – it stayed with them. Not only were they forgiven but they in turn were made ministers of mercy, entrusted with this godly power to forgive sins themselves. Having received mercy, they were sent to offer it as well. It is through that apostolic ministry that you and I receive also the grace of the Risen Jesus: God’s mercy made present and personal for us in the sacrament of reconciliation, where he reminds us that there is no sin too great for him to forgive.

But not every kind of brokenness is so easily healed. Today’s Gospel also presents us with the figure of the apostle Thomas, a person for whom healing and forgiveness is not so easily accepted. There is much about Thomas that is easy perhaps for us to relate to. He is clearly hurt. The suffering and death of Jesus was shocking for him – a scandal. Thomas must have trusted in Jesus deeply, and we can see just how deeply from his unwillingness to believe the claim that Jesus been raised from the dead. Having trusted so deeply, and with that trust seemingly broken, Thomas resists trusting again. He demands assurance.

How easy it is to relate to this mentality, especially in these days! Our trust in the Lord and in his Church is tested in seemingly endless ways. It can be tested through painful personal situations, when God seems to be absent or not listening to us. Our trust might be tested when the pastor makes an unpopular decision or when the bishop does something we disagree with. Our trust might be tested when the church hierarchy or even the pope himself chooses priorities that are different than the ones we think are most important. Certainly, there is a great test for all of us in the current crisis of abuse and of the scandalous uses of power and authority in our Church, when trust has been not just lost but betrayed. In these situations, or others like them, aren’t we sometimes a bit like Thomas, unwilling to trust again without assurances?

Guercino, The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1621)

Thomas received a pretty awesome assurance: he encountered the Risen Christ. He got to see with his own eyes and touch with his own hands the Body of the Lord that had been crucified, had died, but is alive again. Believe it or not, though, that same assurance is offered to us, just in a different form. Thomas encountered the Risen Christ in his physical Body; we encounter him in his ecclesial Body, in the Church, which is no less of a real encounter with him. We do not behold Jesus physically before us, but we feel his presence in prayer and we see his love and his Spirit active in the midst of the believing community. We may not be reconciled to him face to face, but we are reconciled in no less real of way every time we confess our sins and receive his sacramental forgiveness. We may not put our hands in the side of the Risen Lord, but we do truly hold out our hands receive him in the Eucharist, where his Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity is Really Present, saying with Thomas, “My Lord and My God!”. As Jesus himself says, those who see the Risen Christ with eyes of faith are even more blessed than those who saw him with physical sight!

When our trust is tested, we may be tempted to not trust anymore, to hide behind locked doors of fear and unbelief. But the Lord is always faithful and worthy of trust. He comes to meet us, especially here within these walls, unremarkable perhaps in themselves, but truly marvelous because of we encounter him here. Here we encounter the Lord’s healing presence; here we are made worthy to receive his grace. When we invest ourselves in the visible Church, when we are active and participating in the sacramental life of our parish – despite the challenges of doubt, despite the temptations to turn away – then we are like Thomas: touching the Risen Lord, tangibly in communion with his Body present on earth, the Church. That Body might bear at times the marks of wounds, inflicted by the sins and failings of her members, but it is always alive with the Lord’s Divine Presence. Let’s be frank – a given test may be very difficult. But every trial is also an opportunity to trust anew, to remember that faith is about believing even when we do not fully see.

Friends, when Bishop Fletcher and the community of St. Thomas Aquinas dedicated this building fifty nine years ago, they did so because they wanted to create a space where Christ can be encountered, an Upper Room right here on the campus of the University of Arkansas. And because they did, we are the beneficiaries of the spiritual legacy of this place; it is imbued with a spiritual significance that comes not from them, or us, but from the Risen Lord. He may not always appear in the way we desire, but that doesn’t mean that he isn’t Risen or that he isn’t present among us. If we are not locked in upon ourselves in the false securities of fear and unbelief, then we will meet him here, in his Church, despite its human flaws and failings. Like Thomas, let us see the reality of his presence here among us, not with physical sight but with eyes of faith. Like him, we can come to believe as firmly as he did – that the Risen Lord is worthy of our trust, that he really does know what he is doing, and that he can take even the most troubling situation – like the rift of broken friendships, like faith tested even by death – and transform it into an opportunity of grace, of blessing.

With continued Easter joy, may our celebration of this Eucharist give assurance to each of us of the Lord's personal love and presence.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Easter: Light for Our Darkness

Just about two years ago, a group of people from all around the world looked up into the heavens to try to do something thought to be impossible. Eight groups of scientists trained their telescopes on to a single spot in the night sky over the course of five days in order to see something they knew was there but which no one had ever seen: a black hole. Not only did they see it, they captured an image of it, the first ever picture of a black hole. As I’m sure you saw, that image was released to the public a few weeks back and it made headlines around the world.

That story got me thinking again about black holes. I have always been fascinated by them, and I know I’m not the only one. When I was in high school, I briefly considered the notion of becoming an astrophysicist just so I could learn more about them, but I quickly released I wasn’t nearly good enough in math. Black holes are captivating – to me and to many other people – because the idea of them is so alien to our experience: a cosmic space with such intense gravitational pull that nothing, not even light, can escape from inside it. They are inherently devastating – to experience it is to be overwhelmed by it. Black holes are unyielding, inexorable.

Perhaps one of the reasons people like me find black holes so mysterious is because they remind us of that other reality that can also be described as devastating, overwhelming, unyielding, inexorable – namely, the reality of Death. There is, I think, a deep and existential dread within each of us (sometimes more apparent to us, sometimes less) about the reality of our own mortality: that at the end of each of our lives – no matter how abundant and joyous, no matter how meaningful and well-lived – we will die. Death is like a spiritual and moral black hole, impossible to resist, drawing every one of our lives slowly and inevitably unto itself. No one can escape its grasp.

No one, that is, save One, the Risen One. Today, we join our voices to the voices of more than two billion Christians on the face of the earth, and untold myriads more in heaven, to proclaim anew the Good News, the greatest of announcements there ever was: Χριστός ἀνέστη, “Christ is Risen!” Today, we exclaim with loud and full faith that Jesus Christ, he who lived once and died now has been raised, and he lives again forever and ever. In him, the hold of Death has been broken; the grip of our spiritual black hole has been undone. A Light has come forth from the darkness of the grave and his Light will shine forevermore.

This is the Easter message. This is the ever new, everlasting message of the Church – the only message that in the end ultimately matters. As we heard in the Gospel, the tomb of Jesus has been found empty! The One who had been there – the One who by all human reason and experience should be there still – is there no longer, for he is Risen. Χριστός ἀνέστη, Ἀληθῶς ἀνέστη! “Christ is Risen, He is truly Risen.”

James Tissot, Mary Magdalene and the Holy Women at the Tomb (1894)

But that is not all. Because, while it could be enough perhaps to know that Death’s grasp has been undone at least for some one, this Risen One is Jesus Christ, who is God and Man, and so his death and rising means something for all of us as well. As we heard Saint Paul explain to the Colossians [vigil: Romans], what is true now for Jesus can be true for us: by baptism, we share in his death, and if we live by that grace, conforming our lives to his, then we will truly rise with him. 

We need not have merely a hazy dream, some vague hope for an afterlife. In Jesus, we can see that God has definitively done something new. The God who created the heavens and the earth, who created us in his image and likeness, who formed a covenant with Abraham, who by Moses led Israel through the waters of the Red Sea out of the slavery of Egypt, who through Isaiah promised to slake the thirst of those in mourning and exile – that God, in Jesus, has joined himself to us, has shared the very depths of our existential experience, even to the point of death, and now through him has given us new life, a life beyond the power of the grave.

Friends, just because the Light has come does not mean that the darkness is gone entirely. You might have heard about a number of bombings that occurred this morning in Sri Lanka, especially it seems in churches. Christians just like us – our brothers and sisters, gathered in joy for Easter services – have now been violently reminded of the reality of death. But as Saint Paul tells us, not even such reminders can stamp out our Easter joy, for in Jesus death no longer has power over us. We are gathered here this morning to proclaim just that idea; we believe it and know it to be true. But there are many who do not. There are many who do not know the Light that has come, the Light that dispels the darkness. There are many who cannot find reason to believe or who cling to only hazy dreams and vague hopes of some life beyond the grave but who have not yet found by faith in Christ the assurance of what they hope for. We who are present here must go and tell them what we have found. It is our calling now to carry his Light into every darkness, to proclaim that there is no reality – not even the most devastating, overwhelming, unyielding, inexorable thing known to human experience – that is beyond the love of Christ and the Light that he brings. We must tell others – by our voices, by our acts, by our lives – that the impossible has been done: that we have come to know a Risen Life, a Life not just after death but beyond death’s power.

The Tomb has been found empty. Christ is Risen, He is truly Risen, and we along with him!

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Holy Thursday: Love in the Extreme

Think, for a moment, about something daunting that you are facing. Maybe you are struggling right now in one of your courses. Maybe you have a tough decision to make about your major or about life after college. Maybe there is a relationship with a friend or a family member that is on the rocks. Maybe a loved one faces a serious illness. Whether it is one of these things or something else, life provides all of us with difficult situations, realities that occupy a lot of our mental and emotional energy. It can be very easy and very understandable to focus on those things rather than on the present moment and on the people that we encounter. We may become distracted, maybe even irritable to those around us. We understand that they don’t know or understand what we’re going through, but still we can’t help but have to become a bit self-focused, needing to conserve our emotional and spiritual energy for what we face. 

But while we all face daunting things, few if any of us have had to face our own imminent death. None of us have had to face death in a violent way at the hands of another. Imagine for a moment if you did face such a prospect. How terrible it would be! How helpless you would feel! How very understandable it would be if you were to just shut down, tune out, focus entirely on this horrific thing that awaited you.

Jesus, amazingly, did not do that. The mental and emotional anguish that he must have been going through in the days and hours leading up to his Passion must have been excruciating. We catch glimpses of it in the Gospel stories, when they tell us that his heart was troubled, or when we hear that he sweat blood in the garden of Gethsemane. Jesus was not only aware of his coming physical suffering. Perhaps even more painful to him was the knowledge of the treachery of his friends, the betrayal of Judas and the abandonment of the other disciples.

Bearing the Cross (2015) by Anatoly Shumkin

Faced with all of this, we might expect Jesus to be agitated, distracted, beginning to pull away from his disciples, conserving his emotional and spiritual energy for what he is about to do. And yet, the exact opposite is true. In his last days, as he draws close to the Cross, Jesus’s compassion for those who surround him and those whom he encounters is all the more evident. For example: mere hours before his arrest, Jesus shares an intimate meal with his disciples, sharing with them his knowledge of the Father and calling them “friends” for the first time; he shares with them the Bread that is his Body and the Cup that holds his Blood, and makes it clear that they are connected to him as branches are to a Vine; when Jesus’s arrest occurs, he speaks to Judas as a friend, even as he is betrayed; he heals the wound inflicted by Peter on the servant of Caiaphas the high priest; he consoles the women of Jerusalem who mourn for him; he literally asks his Father to forgive those who crucify him; he has mercy on the penitent thief and assures him he will be with him in Paradise; he ensures those whom he loves the most will be cared for, entrusting his Mother to his best friend John and John to his Mother.

These are just a few examples. No doubt there are more. But it is clear that in his Passion – despite his own intense suffering, physical, mental, spiritual – Jesus was still focused entirely not upon himself but upon others. Jesus was not just gritting his teeth and gutting it out, begrudgingly facing what had to be done. No, he went to the Cross as he did everything else, caring for those whom he encountered, sharing with them to the last his love and his mercy. The Passion of Jesus is his public ministry par excellence.

In today’s Gospel, we hear the explanation for all of these actions and more. Washing another person can be viewed as something servile, as Simon Peter clearly sees it. But it can also be something profoundly compassionate: think of a mother gently washing her child, or a person carefully washing an elderly adult. Jesus’s act is an act of compassion and it is an act of explanation: it is a symbolic sign of the love and service for others with which he went to the Cross. Jesus’s act is a kind of manifestation of his interior being at that moment. It shows what is on his mind and heart in the mere hours before he would be arrested, tortured, and executed. It shows his love in the extreme.

As always, though, Jesus is also teaching. He washes the disciples’ feet not merely to elucidate to them his compassion but also to encourage and inspire them to the same. As we heard, “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” What they should also do is not literally to wash others’ feet but to love to the extreme – to adopt the whole mindset and attitude of Christ that regards others always with care and compassion, no matter what difficulties we may be facing, no matter what we ourselves may be suffering, even if necessary to the point of death. That is the invitation Jesus shares with us, the model of love and service to which he calls all disciples, those at the Last Supper and us here present.

To love like Christ, though, we need the grace of Christ, and it is through the sacraments par excellence that we receive that grace. St. Thomas Aquinas taught that the sacraments draw their power from Jesus’s Passion: through them we share in the love of his suffering and dying. By receiving the sacraments, we “put on Christ” in the words of St. Paul (Gal 3:27). The Church’s sacraments are always Jesus’s sacraments and so they communicate to us the state of his mind and heart, the actual love and compassion with which he went to the Cross. Through them, not only are we sanctified by his grace, but we receive his power and strength to love others in a radical way, despite distractions, despite inconveniences, despite the tragedies and sufferings that may tempt us to turn inward and shut others out.

Leonid Grigorashenko, Jesus Washing the Feet of Simon Peter (c. 1990)

Friends, in the next three days, we enter into the celebration of Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection. In a profound way, we have the opportunity to receive anew the compassion that Christ showed for us then, that he continues to show for us now each time we receive his sacramental grace. Life provides us with difficult situations: momentous decisions, personal tragedies, crises of faith or of trust in the Church, and more. How desperately we need the grace of Jesus! We need it not just for ourselves, but to share with others, through acts of love and service. The grace of Jesus helps us resist the temptation to turn inwards and focus just on ourselves, and instead allows us to love those present to us right now, to love in and through the suffering perhaps known only to us. By drawing strength from the sacraments, we ourselves become a model of our Master: to love as he loved, to offer ourselves as he offered himself, to redeem our corner of the world as he has redeemed all of it.

May the Eucharistic Christ whom we will receive in a few moments impart to us his very love and compassion, that as we now share in his sufferings, we may one day share in his glory!

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Palm Sunday: Help for the Helpless

When something terrible happens, it is natural to think: “Is there something I could have done?” In a natural disaster, the first responders wonder how they could have saved more lives, and the government officials question whether they could have done more in prevention. In our family lives, when we are undergoing a great trial, we wonder sometimes what to do and whether we can do more. So often, we want to help but we are not sure exactly how.

The Master of the Aachen Altarpiece, Crucfixion (central panel, Aachen Altar Triptych, c. 1490)

We have just read an account of the Passion and Death of Jesus. If this account makes us solemn and sad to hear it, imagine the feelings of those who were present when it happened. Surely, there were many who were present during our Lord’s suffering who looked upon him and thought “What can I do?” They desperately wanted to help him in his hour of need, but his fate was beyond their control. All they could do was accompany him, walk with him as he went to his terrible death.

While Jesus’s suffering was terrible, it was not the most desperate situation present at that moment. Believe it or not, there was a situation even more dire, even more deserving of intervention. That situation was the reality of our human sinfulness. Jesus’s suffering shows us all of the nastiness of the human condition – the pain and sorrow, the brutality and injustice – all of our moral and spiritual dysfunction. God looked upon us in our brokenness and desired to intervene. While we may be limited to help those who are in need, God has no limits, especially none on his love and mercy, and so he desired to act. And he did act: through the Passion of Christ.

That Jesus suffered and died in the way he did is a dreadful thing. But it was not a senseless thing; it had a great purpose. The Lord’s Passion is God’s answer to our sinful dysfunction. It is the remedy by which he restored us to himself. In our second reading, Saint Paul tells us that Jesus is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, who humbled himself to take upon our human form and even went to his death like a slave, all to save us from sin. When we were helpless in our sinfulness, God himself became our help. When our fate seemed sealed, God himself rescued us from eternal death. That is what we see with the eyes of faith when we look upon the suffering of Christ.

Friends, with our celebration today of Palm Sunday, we enter into Holy Week. This is indeed the holiest week of our year as Christians; a chance to remember all that the Lord has done for us, especially in his greatest act, the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus. We are invited to accompany Jesus through this week and allow him to accompany us. The greatest act our King has accomplished for us is to lay down his life for us. His Passion is the remedy for our sin, and so he is help for the helpless, the one to whom we turn when we do not know to whom to turn. In Jesus, we are never beyond God's power to save. This week, let us honor his loving sacrifice, by recalling his presence in our lives, and by modeling our own lives upon his. Remembering what he has given to us, we can give something to him: our faith, our hope, and our love. Let us praise Christ our King!