Friday, December 26, 2014

The Lasting Joy of Christmas

The Adoration of the Shepherds (c. 1646) - Workshop of Rembrandt van Rijn

Perhaps like many of you, Christmas has always been my favorite holiday. It’s somewhat ubiquitous to say so, I know, but it’s true for me for all the reasons that it’s true for so many people – the memories of family celebrations, of the traditions associated with the season, of the general feelings of joy and warmth and good will toward men.

As a child, I especially remember the magic of Christmas morning. After all the anticipation and expectation, after so much waiting, it finally arrived. As children, of course, we were waiting for presents primarily, but that same idea – of the anxious waiting and the wondrous amazement – tends to resonate with us long after childhood has ended. And it’s something deeper than just a fond memory, something more than nostalgia – the arrival of Christmas morning speaks to us at the very core of who we are.

Nowadays, you hear a lot about keeping the “Christ” in Christmas, and I understand the point. In our ever more commercialized society – amid all the materialistic noise and celebratory hoopla – there are some who want to split off the holiday season from the identity of Christmas. But I think perhaps we sometimes give those forces a little too much credit. Because as much as we may at times get distracted by all the presents, and the parties, and the shopping, and everything else, we know deep down the real reason for our joy this Christmas morning, and it’s none of those things. We are joyous because a Savior has been born to us.

In the Gospel today, the shepherds make haste to Bethlehem to see “this thing that has taken place” as they say. Having received in the night this amazing message of the angels – “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to people of good will” – they are changed somehow, they feel the desire deep within them to go and visit the Christ child. They are wondrously amazed at the arrival of someone they had not even expected. When this joyous news of his birth reaches them, they abandon their flocks to go and meet this newborn king.

What is that the shepherds found there in the manger in Bethlehem? The Gospel tells us that too – Mary and Joseph and the child Jesus. Encountering this holy family, despite the humble circumstances surrounding them, the shepherds are transformed into something else – they become prophets, messengers, evangelizers – going to tell everyone about this Good News that had been made known to them.

What was it that changed them? Nothing other than a little child. And yet in that baby Jesus, the shepherds recognized something sublime – the face of the invisible God, the perfect image of the Father made visible, the Savior promised by God who is God himself. That is a joyous thing, a thing of wonder and amazement, a thing that we ourselves would do well to return to and contemplate today and every day. Because just as it is in our day, the world of the shepherds was a cold, chaotic, desperate place – and yet in the manger at Bethlehem, they found a cause for joy, and having found it, they wanted nothing other than to share that joy with others.

My friends, the challenge of Christmas is not just to be truly joyous – it’s to allow that joy to invade our cold and chaotic hearts in such a way that it never truly leaves us – to allow the joy of this morning to resonate within us in every morning, in every day, in every dark and terrible night that we will yet face, and in every person we encounter. Christmas means we can stay with our joy and it stays with us, because he has a name and a face and a message of love: Emmanuel, God-with-us.

This Christmas, let’s make a journey with the shepherds to the manger at Bethlehem to see again – to see anew – this thing that has taken place, this child that has been born for us. Let’s take a moment to remember that old feeling of the joy of Christmas morning – perhaps to look into the bright eyes and excited smile of a child – and recover there our own childlike expectation and excitement, not for what lies under the tree but for who has come to dwell among us. A light has dawned for us, a Savior has been born for us … come, let us adore him.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Journey of Advent

Traveling, undertaking a journey, always has at least two important aspects to it. First, you have to have a clear idea of where you’re headed – the whole point of a journey of course is to arrive at a final destination. Second, you have to know how to get there. Setting out for a destination without an idea of the way to get there isn’t a journey – it’s just wandering.

The season of Advent is a journey, one which we undertake as a Church beginning today. It’s important therefore that we understand those two aspects: where we’re going and how to get there. One might say that the destination we’re headed for is Christmas, and that’s certainly true to an extent. Advent is indeed the season preceding Christmas, and it’s a time to reflect upon the wondrousness of the Christ Child’s coming. But at a deeper level, Advent is also meant to prepare us for the final coming of Christ, when we will meet him in his glory and be judged for our lives.

In the Gospel today, Jesus tells us his disciples to be watchful, to be alert. The Master has gone away on a journey, but he is going to return, and we do not want to be found unaware, unready for him when he does. Advent offers us the opportunity to reflect on a broader scale how we are readying ourselves for the coming of Jesus – not just as the Christ child at Christmas, but as the Master who will return in judgment.

So that’s where we’re going. How do we get there? In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah cries out that the people of Israel have lost their way. It seems as if God has abandoned them, that he is angry with them. As he reflects, he realizes that it is not God who has rejected Israel, but Israel who has rejected God. By their sinfulness, they have drifted from the path that he laid for them, and so Isaiah cries out to God to return to them, to set them straight, to mold them again – like clay in the hands of the potter – according to his purpose.

We don’t like to admit it, but couldn’t the same be said for us? God has molded us after himself, and yet by our pride, often we end up rebelling against his fashioning. He has set us on a path for himself, and yet by our sinfulness, we often take off in our own direction and end up lost and isolated. As this Advent begins, maybe the best thing we can do is to acknowledge before God our sinfulness. Only then do we realize how much we need to be refashioned according to his purpose; only then, do we realize how much we need the redemption that Christ comes to bring.

Throughout time and history, whether to Israel in the time of Isaiah or to us here and now, God calls human beings to repentance. He does so not to make us feel bad but rather to return us to himself, to create us anew with his grace. If we begin this Advent season recognizing our own sinfulness and our need for repentance, I think all of us will come to realize individually how this season offers us the opportunity to draw closer to him. It will be different for each of us – maybe we need to open the Bible for a few minutes to start each day; or maybe we need to recommit ourselves to refraining from gossip or grousing; maybe we just need to make a thorough examination of conscience and a good confession because it has been too long. Whatever it is, it starts with recognizing that we have gone astray, and that we need to prepare for the Lord who will return.

My friends, as we begin this Advent season, “be watchful, be alert” are the words Jesus speaks to each of us. Let’s not wander through this season or let it slip by but rather let’s undertake the journey of Advent with a purpose, a direction determined not by ourselves but by God. “Lord, make us turn to you,” the psalmist says. We need his grace, we need his redemption. Make us turn to you, O Lord, and we shall be saved.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

RSVP'ing for the Heavenly Banquet

Jan & Hubert van Eyck, The Ghent Altarpiece, "The Adoration of the Lamb," c. 1432.

Jesus again in reply spoke to the chief priests and elders of the people
in parables, saying,
"The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king
who gave a wedding feast for his son.
He dispatched his servants
to summon the invited guests to the feast,
but they refused to come.
A second time he sent other servants, saying,
‘Tell those invited: “Behold, I have prepared my banquet,
my calves and fattened cattle are killed,
and everything is ready; come to the feast.”’
Some ignored the invitation and went away,
one to his farm, another to his business.
The rest laid hold of his servants,
mistreated them, and killed them.
The king was enraged and sent his troops,
destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.
Then he said to his servants, 'The feast is ready,
but those who were invited were not worthy to come.
Go out, therefore, into the main roads
and invite to the feast whomever you find.’
The servants went out into the streets
and gathered all they found, bad and good alike,
and the hall was filled with guests.
But when the king came in to meet the guests,
he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment.
The king said to him, 'My friend, how is it
that you came in here without a wedding garment?'
But he was reduced to silence.
Then the king said to his attendants, 'Bind his hands and feet,
and cast him into the darkness outside,
where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.’
Many are invited, but few are chosen."

- Mt 22:1-14

Recently, I’ve been engaged in witnessing a lot of marriages – that is, I’ve been doing a lot of weddings. For us priests, weddings are a part of our ministry that is at once both a challenge and a joy. They’re a challenge because in advance of the wedding, the Church asks that we spend significant time with the couple in forming them to understand what they’re undertaking, to make sure they know the rights and obligations that go along with marriage and ensure they are truly ready to accept them. That’s a fairly weighty responsibility to have. But weddings are also a joy because we priests are privileged to be there to witness the exact same thing – a couple who, through love and hard work, grow together and come before the altar of God to accept their vocation and to consecrate themselves to each other for life.

My favorite part of a wedding is the reception. That’s partly some of the pressures of the wedding ceremony itself are finished, and I can breathe a little easier. But it’s also because I really enjoy being there to witness the first few moments of the couple’s life together. I’ve found that there are few things as beautiful and happy as a wedding reception. The guests are ready to celebrate, the family and friends of the couple are jubilant, and the husband and wife are overjoyed – and very often, overwhelmed – at the blessing they have just received.

In the Gospel today, Jesus uses just such an occasion to give us an image of the great joy that has been prepared for us in the kingdom of God. The wedding feast which Jesus describes for us is the heavenly banquet, the feast which awaits us at the end of time in celebration of the union between heaven and earth that he, the Son of God, achieves. You know, so often as Christians – and often, I find, in the homilies of us priests – we talk about having to struggle through life’s dark moments, of bearing difficult circumstances well, of sacrificing and enduring hardship by means of our faith. Those things are important, but they’re also temporary. You and I have been invited to a greater reality, a joy that far surpasses any joy that this world knows, that far exceeds anything we could imagine. Too often, we lose sight of the fact that we’re asked to bear in faith the burdens of life now precisely in such a way that we can journey closer to the ultimate, eternal wedding feast.

Perhaps now we can understand a little better the parable for today that Jesus gives us. He describes for us a wedding feast, to which all of the king’s honored guests have been invited in celebration of his son’s wedding. And yet, as we hear, the people of the kingdom don’t heed the invitation. They fail to accept it, they ignore it, they reject it – why? Perhaps because they are too wrapped up in their own circumstances; perhaps they’re too weighed down by life’s burdens; perhaps they’re just too busy with the concerns of the present moment. Whatever the reason, when the invitation comes, they don’t respond; they fail to recognize and appreciate the amazing joy to which they have been invited. They’ve forgotten that life – at its foundation – is about joy.

I think at this point it’s important to ask ourselves a very serious question – do I feel joy in my life? If we took some time to think, we might say that we often feel contentment – satisfaction – perhaps gladness – perhaps happiness. The answer of course for each of us would vary according to our own demeanor, our own circumstances, our own ability to be in tune with the inner workings of our heart. But, if we are really honest with ourselves, I think we would say that true, real, lasting joy is probably something that most of us experience in this life only occasionally, only in passing. So often what we think will make us happy turns out to disappoint; so often what we take pleasure in at the moment fades with time.

And that is exactly the way God wants it to be; it’s the way he has created us to be. He’s created us ultimately for himself, and so if our hearts are only to find their full and lasting joy in encountering the one who has created and redeemed us, then necessarily every thing we might take for joy in this life will fall short. And if we bear that in mind, if we remember how what we sacrifice now in faith is bringing us closer to heaven, then we can endure it, we can get by. The problem comes in when we fail to remember that we’re being invited to that final, full, ultimate joy. When we look for things here, in this reality – even good things – to satisfy us, then we risk missing the opportunity to accept the invitation to the heavenly banquet.

At times, all of us need reminders, and that’s why what we’re doing here right now is so important. The obligation to attend Mass every week is something that perhaps we don’t too much about, but it’s ultimately helping us on our journey to heaven. Gathering together as the family of God, listening to his word, asking for his forgiveness – these are things that remind us of our final calling. I know sometimes we feel like the words we say, and the actions we do are repetitive – and perhaps we get disappointed when the homily, or who is giving the homily, isn’t what we want. But every Mass is important not so much for who is present there in the pews – or who is here behind the ambo – but for who becomes present there on the altar, who we receive on our hands or our tongues, who enters into us. The Eucharist is the foretaste of the heavenly banquet. It’s the Eucharist that is the tangible presence of the One who reminds us himself what he’s inviting us to.

This week, I came across a quote about the Eucharist that stopped me in my tracks. It’s from St. Josemaria Escrivá, a Spanish priest from the last century who emphasized finding the hand of God in our daily life, and I’d like to share it with you. He said, “Have you ever thought how you would prepare yourself to receive the Lord if you could go to Holy Communion only once in your life?” …. I for one had not thought about it, but I began to. Perhaps some of you are thinking about it now. I hope that most of us would want to do something different – do something more than how we often find ourselves prepared for communion. If we could receive Jesus only one time in Holy Communion, I hope that most of us could say that we would pay extra attention to how we had prepared ourselves, both outside – our clothes, our hands, our mindset before and after communion – and especially inside – the state of our hearts, our relationship with God, the condition of our soul.

My friends, I enjoy weddings for all the reasons I mentioned above – and for one other reason as well: because every wedding reminds me that all of us are being invited to a final, heavenly wedding banquet in the house of the Lord. Are we aware of that eternal joy to which we are called? Are we excitedly seeking to accept the invitation to it by the way we live, or do we settle for the passing pleasures of this world? Every Sunday we are called to come to this church to renew our faith in God and to receive the Lord himself in the Eucharist. Is it just another moment in our week, or do we look beyond with the eyes of faith to see, to taste, a preview of heaven? The Lord has prepared a banquet for us – are we prepared for him?

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Exaltation of the Holy Cross

"The Exaltation of the Holy Cross" (detail), Luigi Gregori, c. 1885,
ceiling of The Lady Chapel, Basilica of the Sacred Heart (Notre Dame, IN)

Jesus said to Nicodemus:
“No one has gone up to heaven
except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man.
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert,
so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him might not perish
but might have eternal life.
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,
but that the world might be saved through him.

-Jn 3:13-17

In the Gospel today, we hear maybe the most famous Scripture passage ever. Some folks memorize it as a summary of their faith – others write it on their stationery or on Christmas cards. You can find it printed on clothing, fast food containers, and other merchandise. And for several decades now, it’s famously been put on signs held up at sporting events.

The passage of course is John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” Why do we seem to like that passage so much? Maybe you’d agree that there is a positive feeling about it – it’s heartwarming in a way. And it gets to the heart of our faith – God wants to save us and to do so he sent his Son for us to believe in.

But while we know this passage pretty well, we may not always remember the context that it comes from. It follows a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, a prominent Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin. Nicodemus is intrigued by Jesus – what he says and especially the signs that he performs. He believes Jesus must be a man of God but he can’t quite understand Jesus’s message. There’s an aspect to what he says and does that Nicodemus can’t quite figure out.

So Nicodemus goes to find Jesus and Jesus is happy to speak to him. Nicodemus clearly is a man who loves God and is seeking holiness. But Jesus says something to him that must have been very troubling: “No one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down from heaven.” That’s a very interesting and very troubling statement. Jesus is in effect saying that, at that point, no one is in heaven with God – none of the ancient prophets or holy men and women, not even Adam and Eve who were the first friends of God and walked with him in the garden. Nicodemus realizes that Jesus is telling him that despite the fact that he is a good man, despite the fact that he loves God, despite the fact that he is seeking God – all of that is not enough to get to heaven. In fact, as Jesus says, no one has gone to heaven. There is some fundamental block, something terrible that is keeping the gates of heaven closed.

Is this not a little disconcerting to us as well? I think we often find ourselves thinking about heaven as something pretty certain for us. We think, “Well, if I’m a good person who lives a good life and I don’t commit any serious sins, then I can be certain of going to heaven.” Or perhaps we may not even really think about it – we just assume that to be true. But that kind of thinking ignores what Jesus is telling Nicodemus. Something in the world is seriously wrong; something is preventing even good people from getting to heaven; and, as you might guess, that something is our sin.

We can see now the context of that passage, John 3:16. As the passage says, God wants to save us – but he does so because we are desperately in need of salvation .. and we can’t do a thing about it. Jesus comes into the world because we are incapable of saving ourselves. It doesn’t matter how much we might love God or try to live good lives, the fact that we are weighed down by sin has condemned us to eternal separation from God. Only God can save us, and as Jesus explains to Nicodemus, God will do so through the Cross.

Today – here in the middle of September, in the middle of Ordinary Time – we celebrate the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. We’re celebrating the Cross as God’s triumph, which might seem a somewhat strange idea. After all, it was the instrument used to execute Jesus. But remember what Jesus tells Nicodemus – the reason he came from heaven was to be lifted up, so that he might draw all men to himself. Our sins had condemned us to an eternity of separation from God, but when Jesus goes to the Cross, he takes those upon himself and frees us from them. Just as when the Israelites looked upon the bronze serpent, they were cured of the snakebite that was killing them, so too do we – when we look to the cross of Christ – receive forgiveness for the very sins that otherwise would mean our damnation.

At the very heart of the Christian life, at the center of our faith, stands the Cross. We can’t avoid it. We can’t get around it. When we think about what Jesus suffered or when we accept the Cross in our own lives – it’s a painful, difficult reality. But without the Cross, we have no way to heaven. Without looking up to our Lord on the Cross, we remain trapped in our sins. It’s only when we look to the Cross – when we accept the Cross as it appears in our life – that we remember our own very great need for redemption. Getting to heaven ultimately isn’t about just being good people and trying to live good lives. It’s about recognizing that we are great sinners, that we are in great need of God’s salvation, and accepting that salvation daily as it comes to us through the Cross.

At the end of John’s Gospel, Nicodemus again meets Jesus – but this time, as he hangs from the Cross. I like to imagine that as he looked up to Jesus, and Jesus looked down to him, it became clear to him what Jesus’ purpose and mission had always been about. I like to think Nicodemus understood there that that was his way to heaven – that, there on the Cross, Jesus was taking upon himself his sins - Nicodemus's sins - and the sins of all the men and women of the Old Testament and the sins of all of us, if we believe, so as to open the gates of heaven for us.

My friends, may we, like Nicodemus, never run from the Cross, never shy away it, but always return there to the foot of Calvary, to the place of God’s great victory, to ponder what God has done for us, and so to understand in a new way that passage we know so well: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Silence of God's Love

Jean Colombe, "Miracle of the Canannite Woman", Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (c. 1485)

Homily for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A):

At that time, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David!  My daughter is tormented by a demon.” But Jesus did not say a word in answer to her. Jesus’ disciples came and asked him, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But the woman came and did Jesus homage, saying, “Lord, help me.” He said in reply, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” Then Jesus said to her in reply, “O woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish.” And the woman’s daughter was healed from that hour. 
- Mt 15:21-28

What is your favorite story of Jesus? The Gospels have many to choose from. There’s the one where he saves the woman caught in adultery from being stoned to death. Or the one where Jesus is asleep in the boat and the sea is becoming rough and the disciples are afraid, and they wake him and he calms the storm. Or the one where he meets the widow leaving the town to bury her only son and Jesus raises him from the dead. We could think of countless stories where Jesus is kind, or strong, or comforting, or merciful.

It’s safe to say that probably none of us would choose today’s story of Jesus as one of our favorites. This story seems strange to us, even disturbing, because we see it in a Jesus whom we don’t recognize. We struggle to understand and explain why Jesus acts the way he does. The Canaanite woman comes to him with a very real need – her daughter is in distress – and yet what does Jesus do? First, it says that he is silent – “he did not say a word in answer to her,” the Gospel says. When the disciples want to send her away – perhaps annoyed by her or disturbed that Jesus would not answer – he gives a dismissive response about this Gentile woman. Finally, when she addresses him again, he seems to outright insult her, implying that she and her people are “dogs”.

So what’s going on here? Was Jesus having a bad day? Was he just being a jerk? Well, no – Jesus is trying to teach us something very important. Let’s take a step back from the story for a moment and consider if there’s something in it that resonates in our own lives. We have things in our lives that concern us, real problems and challenges that worry us. Often these are things that are outside of our control – maybe a friend is suffering from a terrible illness, or someone we love is blind to the poor choices they are making or about to make. Maybe we have a troubling situation at work with a coworker, or maybe we’re having trouble finding adequate work. There are countless situations in our lives where we feel helpless.

What do we do? Like the Canaanite woman, we turn to the Lord. We go to God and ask him to help, to give what we or someone else need. And then what happens? Often … nothing. Nothing changes. God seems to be silent – it seems as if our prayers have gone unheard. Or maybe, things get even worse – the situation goes from bad to worse or some new crisis or difficulty arises, and we think “What is going on? What did I do wrong? Why is God punishing me?”

And here is the real danger, because if we feel as if our faith is not helping us, if we feel as if God is not listening to us, then we risk becoming bitter or cynical or unbelieving. We probably all know someone who has struggled in this way – who had some terrible situation and God seemed silent or absent or uncaring – and so what happened? They left the Church, they lost their faith, they stopped believing.

Notice though, how the woman from Canaan reacts in completely the opposite way. She is not discouraged but rather asks all the more insistently – “Lord, help me,” she says. She refuses to give up. She refuses to let her faith be diminished by the seeming lack of a response. From all external factors, it would seem as if she has nothing going for her – she was a foreigner, a non-Jew, and Jesus does not seem inclined to help her. And yet what she does have and what she refuses to give up is the persistence of her faith.

So, why does Jesus act as he does? To test her – not to toy with her, not to be mean to her – but to help her to move from merely asking for something to understanding in a deeper way her own very great faith. He wants to give her the gift of a deeper awareness of what is already present in her. The tests that God gives to us always have a specific purpose, a reason – a good reason. Maybe because we have asked for the wrong thing, or in the wrong way. Maybe because God wants us to realize better how completely we depend on him. Maybe because he is helping us to grow so that we can receive an even greater gift than what we asked for.

My friends, Jesus loved the Canaanite woman just as God loves each of us. And yet, at times our faith will be tested. When it is, we must not give in to doubt or discouragement – we must not give in to the easy way of thinking that God isn’t listening or is punishing us or doesn’t care. At times, we are asked to wait – to make our hearts grow, to make our souls expand – to receive not merely what we’ve asked for but the gifts that God really wishes to give to us – a deeper faith, a stronger hope, a greater love. They may not be exactly what we ask for, but God knows that those are the gifts that will really help us and sustain us and form us into the people that he calls us to be.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Corpus Christi

Every year, at the Feast of Corpus Christi, I find myself a little bit overwhelmed. Why? Not because of the grandiosity of the liturgical feast, which -- while great -- pales in comparison to the Ascension or Pentecost or Trinity Sunday, but because of the personal nature of what the priest celebrates. In a sense, the very essence of the priesthood of Jesus Christ is involved in the celebration of Corpus Christi. How? Because Christ humbled himself to become sustenance for us, in and through the Eucharist, so that we might communicate the grace and life of Jesus to others, in and through our Eucharistic communion.

Especially, I am always overwhelmed and humbled by the sequence which the liturgy of this Mass prescribes. It's long, yes, but it's very much worth our continued reflection. Here is the Latin hymn, with English translation. Take a few moments and ponder through the mystery (explicated by St. Thomas Aquinas) by which Our Lord comes to us each and every Sunday:


Laud, O Zion, your salvation,
Laud with hymns of exultation,
Christ, your king and shepherd true:

Bring him all the praise you know,
He is more than you bestow.
Never can you reach his due.

Special theme for glad thanksgiving
Is the quick’ning and the living
Bread today before you set:

From his hands of old partaken,
As we know, by faith unshaken,
Where the Twelve at supper met.

Full and clear ring out your chanting,
Joy nor sweetest grace be wanting,
From your heart let praises burst:

For today the feast is holden,
When the institution olden
Of that supper was rehearsed.

Here the new law’s new oblation,
By the new king’s revelation,
Ends the form of ancient rite:

Now the new the old effaces,
Truth away the shadow chases,
Light dispels the gloom of night.

What he did at supper seated,
Christ ordained to be repeated,
His memorial ne’er to cease:

And his rule for guidance taking,
Bread and wine we hallow, making
Thus our sacrifice of peace.

This the truth each Christian learns,
Bread into his flesh he turns,
To his precious blood the wine:

Sight has fail’d, nor thought conceives,
But a dauntless faith believes,
Resting on a pow’r divine.

Here beneath these signs are hidden
Priceless things to sense forbidden;
Signs, not things are all we see:

Blood is poured and flesh is broken,
Yet in either wondrous token
Christ entire we know to be.

Whoso of this food partakes,
Does not rend the Lord nor breaks;
Christ is whole to all that taste:

Thousands are, as one, receivers,
One, as thousands of believers,
Eats of him who cannot waste.

Bad and good the feast are sharing,
Of what divers dooms preparing,
Endless death, or endless life.

Life to these, to those damnation,
See how like participation
Is with unlike issues rife.

When the sacrament is broken,
Doubt not, but believe ‘tis spoken,
That each sever’d outward token
doth the very whole contain.

Nought the precious gift divides,
Breaking but the sign betides
Jesus still the same abides,
still unbroken does remain.

Lo! the angel’s food is given
To the pilgrim who has striven;
see the children’s bread from heaven,
which on dogs may not be spent.

Truth the ancient types fulfilling,
Isaac bound, a victim willing,
Paschal lamb, its lifeblood spilling,
manna to the fathers sent.

Very bread, good shepherd, tend us,
Jesu, of your love befriend us,
You refresh us, you defend us,
Your eternal goodness send us
In the land of life to see.

You who all things can and know,
Who on earth such food bestow,
Grant us with your saints, though lowest,
Where the heav’nly feast you show,
Fellow heirs and guests to be. Amen. Alleluia.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Joy of Pentecost

Pentecost (metalwork: enamel on copper gilt), unknown goldsmith of Meuse Valley, c. 1190.

Happy birthday, Church!

The solemnity of Pentecost draws to a close the Paschal (Easter) season and, in a sense, brings to completion the saving work of God. Christ -- having become man, having taught us by word and deed, having suffered and died for us to free us from sin, having risen for us to give us new life, having returned to his Father to give us hope of eternal life -- now at last sends forth his Spirit to us as his everlasting gift and advocate and guide. Through the Spirit, God continues to teach us, to animate us by grace and charity, to spur us on to new heights of holiness.

The readings for this feast, when reflected upon, always bring forth great fruit. In the first reading, the Holy Spirit, signified by tongues of fire, descends upon the apostles and grants them the miraculous power to proclaim the Gospel in the native tongues of the diverse crowd gathered in Jerusalem. In the second reading, Paul exhorts the Corinthians to understand that though they are, to external sensibilities, very different from each other -- marked by different backgrounds, different gifts, different responsibilities, different forms of service -- they are, in fact, not divided but rather united, like the various parts of a person, being animated by the Spirit's breath to form the Body of Christ. And in the Gospel, Jesus brings peace to the hearts of the apostles. They had abandoned him in the hour of his passion and now surely were afraid, not only of the power of this Resurrected One but at what just punishment might have been theirs. And yet, Jesus, looking upon them with great love, not only forgives them but gives them his power of forgiveness to share with the world.

In short, each reading evokes a central theme, one very important for our lives as Christians: the newness of the Spirit unites what had been divided. As mere humans, we suffer from division by language or nation, from difference in our forms of work and inequality in our social status, and especially by separation from God by sin -- but as members of the Church, endowed with and united by the Holy Spirit, these differences and separations no longer need to plague us. The Church is the faithful witness of and unique dispenser of the mysteries of Christ's grace, and as her sons and daughters, we are no longer isolated, separated, divided -- neither from God nor from each other -- because we share in the unity of the Spirit.

Like so many feasts of our liturgical year, Pentecost is a day of great joy, great peace, and great hope. In our lives, especially in our lives of faith and morality, at times we encounter great challenge and difficulty. Perhaps we feel in various moments as if we are alone or isolated, as if we have been divided from or even driven from our communities, and especially as if we are divorced from God by sin. On this birthday of the Church, we remember that, through the gifts of the Holy Spirit, given to the Church and to each Christian, we need not flounder in division or wallow in hopelessness. In the Spirit, there is communion for all, there is peace for all.

Let us turn our hearts again to God in thanksgiving for his gift of the Spirit which he gives to us through the Church. Let us work for unity in the Church and in all areas in our life. And let us seek to share, as the disciples were tasked to do, the Good News with all who do not yet know the peace and joy that comes from life in the Holy Spirit.

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As we know, many areas of the world lack unity and peace, often tragically so. Perhaps nowhere has this been more true in recent decades (or centuries, even) than in the Holy Land. Thus it is fitting that Pope Francis chose this day of Pentecost to welcome to the Vatican for a historic meeting and prayer for peace the presidents of Israel and Palestine, Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas. 

Every Christian should be concerned about and invested in the promotion of peace in the Holy Land. In that spirit, I invite us to join in prayer for that cause, especially today. May the Holy Spirit renew the face of all the earth, but especially the Holy Land. If you'd like to read the address of Pope Francis to Presidents Peres and Abbas, you can do so here.
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Finally, on a personal note, thanks to those of you who have sent kind words and wishes the past few weeks. I've settled in here in Washington, DC, for the summer as I pursue studies for a degree in canon law. This will be a long and probably arduous process but I'm already learning a lot and enjoying it as well. Please continue to keep me in your prayers. I'll try to update again soon with a little more about what the study of canon law contributes to the Church as well as some of the interesting sights here in DC.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Hearing the Voice of Love

The grandmother- and mother-to-be

(The following is the homily I preached for the Fourth Sunday of Easter)

First, let me wish everyone a very Happy Mother’s Day, especially to those of you privileged to be mothers. From the rest of us, we certainly hope you are happy. For one thing, you deserve it. And for another – well, you know that old saying – “If mom ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” That’s very true – and so I wish a very Happy Mother’s Day to each of you.

For me personally, this Mother’s Day has an additional significance because my sister, for the first time, is a mother-to-be. And that also means that my own mother, for the first time, is a grandmother-to-be. Our family is very excited, of course. Recently I was reading about what my little niece or nephew is like at this moment, so let me bore you with some details. He/she is about the size of a large eggplant. They can blink their eyes and are sensitive now to light. Their lungs and brains are continuing to develop, and most interestingly to me, they are beginning to recognize sounds.

Scientists tell us that one of the first sounds that a child learns to recognize is the sound of their mother’s voice. Tests have been done to show that within the first few minutes after birth, and indeed even while still in utero, babies respond differently to their mother’s voice. They recognize it and respond to it. They are able to distinguish it from other voices and hear in it, somehow, the love their mother has for them.

Do you know who else’s voice should be like that? The voice of God. In the Gospel today, we hear the voice of Jesus the Good Shepherd, who tells us that his sheep hear his voice, they recognize it, and they follow him. In the time of Jesus, shepherds often allowed their sheep to intersperse with the sheep of other shepherds – good pastureland was hard to come by and so often was shared rather than divided. Soon the sheep became a big mob, undistinguished, unmarked. We might wonder how the shepherd could retrieve the sheep that belonged to him? Easy. The sheep knew the shepherd’s voice. They recognized it; it resonated with them. It spoke to them lovingly in a way that was unlike anyone else’s.

Do you hear the voice of God in that way? Our lives are so often consumed in noise – voices, human or otherwise, that speak to us about what we ought to do or should be doing, voices from the outside and inside that demand something of us, make excuses for us, critique us, coddle us, shame us, scandalize us, lead us into confusion and error and sin. Amid the din, God desires his voice to ring out for us, clearly, like the voice of a shepherd, distinctively, like a mother’s voice, lovingly, like only his voice can be.

How do we hear that voice? It comes to us in various ways. It comes to us in the habit of daily prayer and in the living words of Scripture. It comes to us in the words of a spiritual friend who may console us or encourage us or challenge us depending on what we may need. It comes to us in our conscience, if we truly seek God’s will and not our own.

Perhaps the most important way that God’s voice calls to us in our lives is in our vocation. Our country today celebrates Mother’s Day, but our worldwide Church today celebrates the World Day of Prayer for Vocations. What is a vocation? Nothing more than the voice of God speaking to us, made individual for each of us, unique, asking us to follow him in some specific way. Just as a mother dreams of the future for her child, God has a wonderful plan for every one of his children, and it is only in finding that plan that we will happy.

The Church has traditionally identified three distinct vocations to which God might call us. For some of the young men of our parish, perhaps some of you sitting here today, God is calling you to be a shepherd after the heart of his Son, Jesus, to care for his people as a priest, like Fr. John and Fr. Pius and myself, loving them, laying down your life for them, helping them to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and to follow it. For others among us, God is asking you to consecrate yourself to him in the single life, to live a life of radical otherness marked by prayer, sacrifice, and service for the good of all of us and the universal Church. For most of you, like my sister and her husband, like my mother and father, God is calling you to the vocation of marriage and of parenthood, a vocation which while commonly undertaken is so rarely lived to its fullest potential. What is so exceptional about being a spouse or a parent? To you and to no one else does God give the gift of expressing the love that he himself bears for your spouse, and to receive from your spouse the love he has for you. To you and to no one else does he entrust the mission of raising a human life, of forming their heart and mind and conscience to know him, to love him, to be successful not only in this world but to live with him in the next.

Jesus the Good Shepherd (fresco), San Callisto catacomb, Rome, 3rd century

In a few months, my sister and her husband and our family will joyfully welcome a new child, a child whom they will love and nurture, and a child for whom God will have a special vocation, just as he has for each of us. The voice of the Good Shepherd, Jesus, calls each of us – whether we’re young or old, whether we’re searching for our vocation or found it long ago, and importantly, even if for whatever reason we are unable to fulfill the vocation God designed for us – Jesus calls to us, he calls to us with love, inviting us to a life of happiness and purpose which he himself has created for us. Are we listening for his voice – will we recognize his voice amid all the other noise of our life? Are we helping those we love, those we nurture to hear him and respond?

I invite us now to pray, for our mothers – but also for our fathers, for our wives and our husbands, for our priests, for our religious brothers and sisters, and especially for our young people, that all of us, whoever we are, wherever we are in life, might hear the voice of God speaking to us.

Let us pray. O God, who enlightens the minds and inflames the hearts of the faithful by the Holy Spirit, grant that through the same Spirit, we may know our true vocation in life and have the grace to follow it faithfully, that we may live with You in eternal life. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Mercy and the Saint: My JPII Story

Fr. Karol Wojtyła, with a First Communion class in Niegowić, Poland, 1948.

The first time that I visited Rome I came as a pilgrim. More exactly, I came as a backpacker. Nearing the first week of a month-long trip that would see us criss-cross Europe to eke every dollar out of our Eurorail passes, two buddies and I arrived there after a variety of mishaps and misadventures, very much looking forward to a shower and to sleeping in the same place for consecutive nights. Our time in the Eternal City was, in short, fantastic, and probably the most memorable and meaningful stop on a very memorable, meaningful trip.

On our last day in the city, having already made a 70-mile, $200-trek to the airport to retrieve some very stubbornly errant lugage, my friends and I debated how we wanted to spend the day. We thought briefly of trying to make a hurried trip to Assisi, to see the famous medieval town of Umbria and the birthplace of St. Francis. But perhaps out of a desire to capture a few more brief moments in the Caput Mundi, perhaps out of mere exhaustion, we decided merely to bum around the city for a few more hours, heading back especially to the Vatican. I am eternally grateful that we did. Emerging onto the Via Ottaviano from the metro stop of the same name, and making it past the Piazza Risorgimento onto the Via di Porta Angelica (I knew none of these names at the time), we ran smack into a mob of people. It just so happens that on that Sunday, May 18, 2003, we happened upon a Mass being celebrated in St. Peter's Square by Pope John Paul II. We had visited St. Peter's and the Vatican earlier in the week but had not known the Holy Father would be celebrating a public Mass that Sunday, let alone a Mass in which he was canonizing four saints (specifically. St. Virginia Centurione Bracelli, St. Maria de Mattias, St. Ursula Ledóchowska, and St. Józef Sebastian Pelczar).

The occasion was impressive, but I remember being more struck by the fact that I was actually seeing John Paul II. He was the only pope I'd ever known; he defined the papacy for my generation, not just as an office but as a personal ministry. He was, by this time, feeble and wracked by Parkinson's, but even as he struggled to lift his head enough to address the crowd, the power and sanctity of that man was visible to me from afar. We didn't linger at the Mass for long, but I remember feeling very grateful that luck (or, more likely Providence) had given us the fortune to be there for a moment, so that I could see John Paul II in the flesh.

Looking back now, my momentary connection to that great man was more lasting and meaningful for me than I realized at the time. A year or so later, I would begin to question my plans for graduation after college, thinking seriously again about the priesthood. Some two years later, I would watch as the world mourned the passing of that pope who embodied the meaning of suffering love, cheers of "Santo subito" echoing through the crowds. A few years after that, having entered seminary, I would have the privilege of visiting the pope's homeland, and I have visited it now three times, seeing among other things: his hometown of Wadowice, seeing the font where he was baptized in the local church; the image of Our Lady of Calvary at Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, to which Karol's father took him after the death of his mother, saying to him, "She is your mother now"; the Divine Mercy Shrine that he consecrated, just steps from the Solvay Soda Works where he worked, and the tomb of St. Faustina Kowalska, whom he canonized in 2000; and the palace of the archbishop of Krakow, where he lived and worked for years, including the chapel where he celebrated his first Mass as a priest, clandestinely during the Nazi occupation. Since his death, I had the great privilege of attending his beatification, and my personal chalice was used for the very first time at a Mass offered at the altar above his tomb in St. Peter's Basilica by Bishop Anthony Taylor, assisted by yours truly as deacon, a few months before I was ordained a priest.

Today, along with Pope John XXIII, in that same square where I first glimpsed him, John Paul II was declared to be among the canon of saints in heaven, who enjoy the beatific vision and see God face to face. I have no doubt that that is true, not only because the Church declares it to be so but because of personal conviction as well. The experts say that John Paul II was seen by more people than any other person in human history: some 500 million or so, due to his more than one hundred pastoral visits around the globe. And yet, what was his message at its heart? Know and love Christ. Jesus was always at the center of John Paul II -- his life, his spirituality, his theology, his public word.

As wonderful and holy as John Paul II was, he pales in comparison to Jesus Christ. All the saints do. Karol Wojtyla and Angelo Roncalli were men; men in need of mercy and forgiveness, men with shortcomings and faults and sins. We celebrate their lives and their holiness, not because they were perfect, but in a sense, because they were imperfect. They were not divine beings or angels or superheroes. They were human beings who opened themselves to the grace of Christ and were transformed by it. In no way does that diminish their greatness; rather, their greatness lies precisely in that.

In the Gospel for this Second Sunday of Easter, this Divine Mercy Sunday, Thomas touches the wounds of the Risen Jesus, putting his finger into the nail marks, and his hand into his side. Thomas touches and believes. But is it not true that, touching, Thomas is also touched? The Risen Lord touches Thomas at the core of his being, healing him of his incredulity, softening his heart of stone. At the essence of sanctity lies this personal encounter between each person and Christ. St. John Paul II and St. John XXIII knew that touch of Jesus -- they experienced his infinite Divine Mercy in a real, redeeming way, and they allowed the life of grace that they received from him to radiate through them, such that we saw not them, but Christ.

My friends, fellow pilgrims on this earth, none of us are perfect, not even the saints. All of us need the Divine Mercy of the Son who desires to give it to us. And yet, as we know from the lives of Karol and Angelo, holiness really is possible. Not just for them, but for you and me as well. Let us give thanks to God for the gift of his saints, who prove for us the reality of the possibility of holiness. And let us open our hearts to the Risen Christ, who desires to touch each of us with his divine hand, to share with us his Divine Mercy, to make us saints as well.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Resurrection of the Lord

 The Anastasis ("Resurrection") fresco, Parekklesion, Chora church/museum, Istanbul

For those who heard my homily on Good Friday, you may remember I began with a little Latin. Fr. John always likes it when I do that. I said, “pro nobis”. Jesus died, for us, in our place, and that is a truly wondrous thing.

On this Easter Sunday morning, allow me continue to impress you with my linguistic abilities, especially with Fr. John here, this time with a little Italian: “già ma non ancora.” That was a favorite expression of my classmates and myself when we were studying in Rome. It became a sort of catchphrase among us, because it seemed, in one way or another, that every Scripture passage that we studied, every aspect of theology we investigated, was ultimately summed up by our professors with that phrase: “già ma non ancora.” Everything about our faith was: “già ma non ancora.” Already but not yet.

Perhaps we seminarians should have guessed it, but this phrase – “already but not yet” – seemed to be at the center of our priestly studies for a good reason: it is at the heart of the Christian experience. It is, in fact, perhaps the best way of summing up what the Resurrection means for us today, and tomorrow, and all of our days in this life – the Resurrection is “già ma non ancora”. Already but not yet.

Now, don’t get me wrong! Jesus has truly risen. That’s the “already” part. In the Gospel, we hear how Mary Magdalene and then later Peter and John go to the tomb and find it empty. At first they do not understand what has happened – Mary seems to suspect theft, while Peter and John are clearly bewildered. Has the Resurrection happened? Yes! … “already.” Do they realize it? Well… no, not at first. In fact, the Gospel explicitly states that even when they enter the tomb, and see the burial cloth rolled up, and begin to believe, they still do not fully understand.

How much of the Christian life exists between those two poles – believing in things that are, without yet seeing them. We believe (now) in a God who is good and just and holy – even as we wait (yet) to see the end of violence and malice and suffering. We believe (now) that, for those with faith in Christ, all suffering and pain we endure can have meaning and that our parting from our loved ones is only temporary – even though one of us have (yet) seen that for ourselves. We gather (now) here this morning, every Easter, indeed every Sunday, proclaiming our faith in the Resurrection – even though none of us have (yet) ever seen the Risen Jesus. We even will come forward to receive that Risen One in his Body and Blood … and even though we believe in that Real Presence, none of us fully understand.

These things that we believe are not foolish – they are true, more true than we know. They exist now, they are “already”, and we believe in them… but we also wait for the part of them that is “not yet” – to fully understand them, to fully experience their true occurrence for ourselves, to fully witness their final unveiling. Even Mary Magdalene and Peter and John – who saw the Lord as Resurrected, and came to understand by the power of the Holy Spirit the reason for Jesus’s dying and his rising – even they, in a very real sense, are waiting for that final unveiling of the Resurrection. “Già ma non ancora.” Already but not yet.

All of us, all of us who live after the Resurrection and before the final Resurrection of the Dead, exist in this in-between time. Last night at the Easter Vigil, Fr. John solemnly announced the Paschal Proclamation, the Exsultet, that great and ancient hymn which declared among other things: that Jesus Christ, the one true Lamb, has wiped clean the record of our ancient sinfulness, has banished the darkness of sin, has broken the prison-bars of death and risen victorious from the underworld, has dispelled wickedness, has washed fault away, has restored innocence to the fallen and joy to mourners, has driven out hatred, has fostered concord, and has brought down the mighty.

And yet, this morning? Nothing seems out of the ordinary. The sun shines upon a world that seems just as broken as yesterday. What is different? Anything? Well, yes! Christ is Risen! And his Rising means that God’s victory has been achieved even as we wait to see it. The Resurrection is here, it has happened, it is present to us now, and has already changed the world. And … it is also a sign of things to come, a promise for us that the world will not remain as it is. Even more, in the Resurrected Christ we see reality as God sees it – changed, redeemed and glorified.

Let me offer an example of just one person who I think truly understood this meaning of the Resurrection, of “already, but not yet”. The great American writer, Flannery O’Connor, herself a devout Catholic, is most famous for her novels. Yet she also wrote many letters, and in one letter, addressed to a friend who did not believe in the Resurrection of Jesus because it defied the physical laws of nature. Listen to what Flannery wrote:

"For you, it may be a matter of not being able to accept what you call a suspension of the laws of the flesh and the physical, but for my part I think that when I know what the laws of the flesh and the physical really are, then I will know what God is. We know them as we see them, not as God sees them. For me it is the child born of a virgin, the Incarnation of God, the Resurrection of Christ which are the true laws of the flesh and the physical. Death, decay, destruction are the suspension of these laws."

What a beautiful statement of true faith – to say that the things of faith, the things we believe without yet seeing – that those are the truly real things. It is for that reason that, for the Christian who truly believes, sorrow and suffering, as terrible as they might sometimes be, will never lead us to hopelessness or despair. No matter what we face in this moment, we can find meaning in the promise of what awaits us.

Flannery O'Connor, at her home in Milledgeville, GA, with one of her pet peacocks.

Shortly after writing this letter, Flannery died at the young age of 39 of lupus, after having suffered for many years from that devastating illness. In many ways, her experience on this earth was much closer to a Good Friday than an Easter Sunday, and yet as she said, death, decay, destruction – these things are not real; it is the Resurrection of Jesus that is real.

My friends, our entire Christian life is defined by the Resurrection of Jesus, which was real, is real, and will be even more real for us in a future to come. We wait in hope for that day when the full unveiling of that eternal mystery we celebrate today is made real for us, and made real *to* us. In the meantime, may we strive, as St. Paul says, to cast out the old, to welcome in the new, to live – even amid the sufferings of this present time – always in the grace and the joy and the love that come from knowing the Risen Christ, that come from seeing the world and our lives and everything that is, not just as we see them now, but as Jesus in his Resurrection has truly made them to be.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Friday of the Passion of the Lord (Good Friday)

Stabat Mater (1873), Evgraf Semenovich Sorokin

“Pro nobis”.

The earliest Christians were very wise when they included these words in the Creed. When they wished to put down in definitive form what they believed about God and his Son Jesus, they added two little words – “pro nobis”. “Pro nobis”, the Son of God became man, and “pro nobis”, he was crucified, died, and was buried.

Today, perhaps above every other day of the year, those two little words should resonate with us – “pro nobis.” For us.

“Why did Jesus have to die?” I remember that was the very first question that I was asked when, as a newly admitted seminarian, I visited a 3rd grade classroom at the school of my home parish. What a simple question – and yet, how mysterious. If you begin to think about it, it is a question that bewilders the mind, that confounds reason and logic, a question that seems almost unanswerable. The saints in history have penned long and beautiful sermons, men and women throughout the ages have fled the civilized world to the silence of the desert to pray and meditate, entire books of the Bible have been composed – all in an attempt to answer it.

And yet, as the earliest Christians knew, the answer is succinct enough: “pro nobis.” Christ came to earth and suffered and died for us – that is, not simply “for our benefit”, to rescue us from the sin that had plagued us from ancient days, to defeat once and for all the power of the devil and the curse of death that sin had inflicted upon the world. He also died “pro nobis” – that is, “in our place”, submitting to the awful fate that would have been ours. Jesus died because, out of love for us, he took upon himself what was our due.

There is a tendency among us, even among us faithful Christians, to water down this idea. We tend to think, as the Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, that the Cross was just the terrible end to an otherwise happy and god-fearing life – that Jesus, out of humility and love, submitted to a cruel fate as a testament to non-violence and forgiveness. But, this idea – and it’s one that all of us at times fall victim to – misses the crucial point: God did not just cancel our debt: he paid the debt himself. He did it knowingly and willfully, “pro nobis.” For us. In our place.

The Cross reveals to us who God is and how God loves us, and this is very very important. Nowadays everyone talks about God, everyone has an idea of what God might be like, but isn’t it true that that “god” is so often a projection of ourselves? How often do we hear, “It doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you believe in God.” But what God? How God? What does God do? The answer to these questions is not in our conceptions or ideas but in the image of the Cross. “God is love,” we say, and he is, but not just warm, fuzzy love that makes us feel good – God is Love with pierced hands and feet and side, crowned with thorns, and dying in agony from the Cross. Pro nobis. For us. In our place.

If any of this is a bit unsettling, and it probably should be, then perhaps it’s a sign for us that we haven’t really incorporated the meaning of the Cross into our lives. It’s true that we are “an Easter people” as they say – and we never want to think about the Cross as if we didn’t also know about the Resurrection. But the reverse is also true – the Resurrection could not have occurred without the Cross. The Cross without the Resurrection is utter despair; if Jesus has not risen, as Paul says, we are the poorest of fools. But equally true is that the Resurrection has no meaning without the Cross – it is just superficial, empty, devoid of meaning. Easter Sunday and Good Friday are inextricably linked, and we cannot have the one without the other.

Perhaps we might think, "Well, I don’t like thinking about the Cross – it’s too painful, too dark, too sad." Exactly right. The Cross declares to us, “Evil is real! And you must admit it! You have to face it!” Things are not right. The world is not it should be. There is evil. There is the devil. There is sin. These things exist, they are real, and they are terrible. We can’t color over them. We know them all too well. People get sick. People suffer devastation from tornadoes and floods and mudslides. People die from airplane crashes and bombs and wars and crossing deserts to try to find better lives for their families. People die from hunger and hypothermia, sometimes on our very street corners, and people die out of desperation that their life has no meaning. People are thrown out of their countries and their homes, children are abused and enslaved, people are victimized by addiction and greed and despair and injustice, and all of us suffer in silent ways, hidden ways, ways that only we know about. And all of that is real. And all of that and more is what God faces on the Cross, it is what God on the Cross pronounces his judgment upon, and it is what God on the Cross forgives.

So, “why did Jesus have to die?” Remember the answer: “pro nobis.” The one who said “I AM WHO AM”, appearing to Moses on Mount Sinai, the one who said “I AM” to answer the call of Judas and the betrayers in the Garden of Gethsemane, the one who, at the end of all time, will say “I AM the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the One who is, who always was, and who is to come” – took upon himself all suffering, all sin, all death – for us, in our place, to declare judgment upon the sin and evil that separate us from him, and to take it away, to forgive it, to carry us – in himself – to the very depths of hell, and having utterly redeemed us, having made all things new, he rose to give us a share in his eternal life.

We gaze upon the Cross today with reverence and awe at such profound forgiveness. And we will venerate it in just a few moments, with love and worship. We do so all too aware that, for us, now, the Cross as a symbol of pain and suffering; and yet, we also must believe that contained there, in its meaning, it is also the sign of God’s power and victory, a glory which we will only understand once we also behold the Resurrection. And, yet, in the Eucharist, we will be drawn ever more closer to that final reality, as we receive the One who hung upon the wood of the Cross, now Resurrected and at the right hand of his Father. We taste there, in his Body and Blood, now glorified, a preview of the joy of the Resurrection.

So, my friends, “Ecce Crux Domini” -- Behold the Cross of the Lord. Behold in it the infinite power of a God who humbled himself for us; behold the ineffable majesty of a Lord who loved us and took our place, who suffered for us in order to forgive us, who died for us in order to redeem us. “Behold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the salvation of the world. Come, let us adore.”

(Grateful acknowledgement to Hans Urs von Balthasar, Robert Barron and Thomas J. Neal for some of the ideas and language herein..)

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion

Entry into Jerusalem (c. 1620), Pedro Orrente

“Hosanna to the Son of David… Hail Jesus, King of the Jews… Truly this was the Son of God…”

In a way, those three quotations from the various readings today capture the dramatic moments of today’s liturgy. Palm Sunday is such a fascinating liturgy because within it, from reading to reading, the drama intensifies, and where we end is a different place from where we began.

We began by gathering together, outside, not just recalling but reenacting the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. This was the moment that all of Israel had been waiting for for centuries – an event that every Jewish child knew by heart, because their parents and grandparents had described to them what it would be like. The king of Israel, the Messiah, fulfilling the words of Zechariah, at last would enter into his own kingly city to take possession of his throne, to overthrow Israel’s oppressors, gather together the lost tribe, and finally establish a kingdom of justice and peace. Imagine then the joy and exultation of not only the disciples but all of the people of Jerusalem as, at last, their dream became reality. “Hosanna to the Son of David!,” cried the young and old alike, as this Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth, arrived in the city prepared for him.

And then, how quickly things change. For the people of the time, it took just a few days, and for us, in the liturgy, just a few moments, to shift from the triumphal joy of the entrance into Jerusalem into the cruel humiliation and sorrow of the passion, the Cross, and the death of Christ. Whatever expectations had been present, whatever anticipations the disciples and others had established in their minds, quickly disappeared in the face of such brutality and bewilderment. The mouths that been full of praise and adulation for Jesus a few days before, now spat at him and cursed. “Hail, King of the Jews!”, they mocked. Behold the Christ, who came to bring liberty to those enslaved, now himself made captive; behold the Lord, who welcomed all, rejected and abandoned by all.

And so, as I said, in this liturgy, we bear this stark contrast in mind: that Christ has rejected what the world deemed as royal and noble so that he might more fully share in the weakness of our humanity. Jesus indeed came as our king, but not as a king who desires to rule and to dominate us. He entered into Jerusalem not to take possession of what was rightly his, but, as St. Paul says, to empty himself to the fullest degree. For our sake, he desired to experience the depth of every pain, every humiliation, every suffering that we ourselves might experience, even to the point of a criminal’s execution – so that everything in the human condition might also be the experience of God himself, and so also redeemed by God himself. Surely that was the realization of the centurions who, looking upon the face of the crucified Jesus, exclaimed, “Truly, this was the Son of God.”

My friends, as we enter into this most Holy Week, we know that we will end it in a far different place from where we begin it. We are called to walk this Passion journey with Christ, and so to be changed with him. Each day this week, let us take a moment to reflect upon this momentous love of God, upon this wondrous love of the King who desires only to reign in our hearts. As we walk the steps of our week, let us bear in a conscious way – in our minds, in our hearts, in all of our experiences – the certainty that we have a king who desires to exalt us in our lowest moments, who desires to lift from us our burdens, who desires to place upon us his kingly favor. May we look upon the humility of a God who humbled himself even to the point of death, so as to save us from eternal death, and find there the strength to say, with love and awe,

Hosanna to the Son of David… Hail Jesus, King of the Jews… truly, the Son of God!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ash Wednesday

It seems like Ash Wednesday is one of the most active days of the year for my Facebook wall. Have you noticed this? First, there are the numerous people who change their profile picture or their cover photo, announcing for the rest of us that Lent has begun. Then you have the more zealous folks who post articles and videos like “20 Creative Things to Do for Lent”, “5 Ways to Keep Your Lenten Penance,” “How to Explain Your Ashes at Work,” etc. Finally, you have the really radical ones among us who announce in some way – “BRB in 40 days – gone for Lent”,telling us heathens who remain that they will be doing holier things than Facebook for Lent.

If you've done one or more of these things, don’t feel too bad – some of the worst offenders on my wall are my priest friends, and I've even done some of them myself. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to declare to others that Lent has begun and that we’re taking it seriously. Just this afternoon, I read an online link about public people – business consultants, politicians, even ESPN television hosts – who receive their ashes today and then continue to wear them, in the workplace, on the senate floor, in front of the camera.

And is there anything wrong with all of this? No. Indeed, there’s something very right about being open and public with regard to our faith. But there is, nonetheless, an inherent danger, I think, that can creep into our attitude. And that is that we fall into the trap of showmanship, of hypocrisy, that once a year, today or even for the 40 days of Lent, we engage in the exteriors of Lent, but only the exteriors. But here’s the thing – the exteriors don’t matter at all if there’s no interior change.

This isn’t a new challenge – the people of the ancient world were subject to the same trap. For example, in Israel, in the days of the prophets and the kings, sinners would publicly cover themselves in ashes and dress in sackcloth, they’d even tear their clothes or tear out their hair, as a sign of the great distress they had at having offended God. But what does the prophet Joel say to them, and to us, “Rend your hearts, not your garments.” In other words, God doesn’t want us just to make a show for him, but to really return to him and ask him for his mercy. Clearly, back then, and probably now as well, far too many were getting their ashes without accepting the call to conversion. But, again – the exteriors don’t matter at all if there’s no interior change.

In the Gospel today, Jesus speaks to us about the three traditional penitential practices that are associated with this season – almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. But notice how he does it – he doesn’t say, “You know, disciples, you should give alms, or pray or fast like those people over there.” No, he says, “Don’t be like the hypocrites”. Don’t fall into the trap of doing good things, things which can bring us closer to God, without also having the interior sense of conversion that should go along with them. Giving money to the poor and the needy, trying to better orient ourselves by spending more time in prayer, even fasting from food and drink or whatever thing we might like – those are great things. But, again – the exteriors don’t matter at all if there’s no interior change.

So, what are we to do? Well, I suggest one thing that may sound easy but is far harder than any exterior penance we might adopt – and that is kindness. This Lent, in addition to giving up chocolate, or television after supper, or even *gasp* Facebook, take on as well kindness. Real kindness, exterior and interior. The kind of kindness that leads you to stop complaining at work about your boss, but that also prompts you to think well of him or her interiorly as well. The kind of kindness that leads you to stop nagging your husband or to be more appreciative of your wife, but that also leads you to go out of your way to serve him, or her, out of love. The kind of kindness that leads you to not just repent for having harmed that family member or that friend, but that spurs you on to reconnect with them and ask their forgiveness. All of us, young or old, with family or not, whatever our circumstances in life – all of us can find one person this Lent who really tests our kindness, and then we can go out of our way to love them.

My friends, so as we begin this season of Lent once again, at the end of Mass, we’ll come forward to receive our ashes. And we’ll exit the church with that sign of our faith on our foreheads. But remember, the exteriors won’t matter at all if there’s no interior change. So whatever we may be giving up for Lent – great, keep at it – but don’t forget about your hearts.Because no matter what we put on our heads, or in our mouths, or even on our Facebook pages, it’s what in our hearts that really matters to God.