Sunday, December 25, 2016

God Amid the Ruins: The "Wonder-full" Season of Christmas

A little more than fifty years ago, two American songwriters penned a lyric about the celebrations this time of year: hosting parties, visiting friends, roasting marshmallows, caroling in the snow. They later said that they wanted to capture in the song the spirit of festivity and frivolity that many feel around the holidays. The song was recorded a year later in 1963 by Andy Williams, and over the course of the last several decades, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” has become an enduring Christmas standard.

There certainly is much that’s wonderful about this time of year: visits with family and friends, holiday parties, gift-giving, special foods and traditions. But it should be said that Williams’ song takes a pretty optimistic view. Many people struggle to endure this time of year, whether it’s handling all of the hustle and bustle, or because of personal experiences and memories that are difficult for them. Even for those of us who enjoy Christmas generally may find ourselves struggling to be merry. Our lives are still complex and challenging, and while we value the chance to celebrate with loved ones, the problems that we face don’t simply disappear.

Even in our religious context, there is much about Christmas that is difficult to bear. The Nativity scene that we see in our churches and on our mantles seems peaceful… only if we forget that it is a depiction of a young couple forced to give birth to a son in squalid conditions and out amid the elements. The angels praise and the Magi come to pay respect to the newborn King… whose authority will be rejected by his own people and whose person will be tortured and executed by the worldly powers of the day. The feast of Christmas is quickly followed by those of St. Stephen and the Holy Innocents… reminders that the birth of Jesus led directly to the deaths of many others. 

  The Nativity (1892) by Gari Melchers

So what is the Good News of this day? If there is so much in ruins in the world in general and in our personal lives, where is the cause for joy that the Church tells us should be in our hearts this season? It’s not the consumerism and schmaltz that makes up so much of the modern “Christmas” mentality. It’s not the holiday parties and merrymaking and gift-giving that occupy our time. It’s not even the fact that we usually spend this time visiting with or at least communicating with the people important to us. Rather our Christmas joy is rooted in a sense in a recognition of our own faults and failings, in our brokenness and messiness as human beings, and that despite all of that, God entered into our reality – he desired to share it, despite our flaws, that he might transform us from within.

Vigil Mass:
The Gospel story we heard this evening is seemingly a strange one for the celebration of Christmas. We hear this long genealogy, with difficult names and even more obscure identities. But it is the testimony of the evangelist St. Matthew of how God’s covenant with his people – beginning with Abraham and continuing through the generations – is fulfilled in the coming of Christ. Despite the faithlessness of Israel, and the wickedness of many of the people whose names we heard, God did not rescind his promises. No, indeed, knowing well our need for salvation, he desired instead to become one with us, to reveal himself as God-with-us.

Mass During the Day: That plan, the scope of that divine design, is recounted in the beautiful words of the Gospel according to St. John. It is in many ways a summation of our entire faith – that the Word, the Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity, in and through whom God created all things, in the fullness of time took Flesh, not losing his divinity, but becoming fully man, so that he might be one with us, to reveal himself as God-with-us.

This is indeed Good News. Creation has been changed by the coming of Christ, and while the world often still seems dark and broken, we who believe can always point to this reality, the birth of Jesus, as a sign of God’s faithfulness, of his presence, of his continued love. If you find yourself happy this day, let it be for that reason, not for anything more superficial. If you find yourself unhappy, then let your heart find some comfort and hope in the love of a God who desires to enter into your unhappiness, to assure you of his love, and to deliver you from your sins and save you from all distress.

Friends, I propose that what Andy Williams first sang more than fifty years ago is true – it is the most wonderful time of the year, though not for the reasons he enumerated. Christmas is “wonder-full” – full of wonder – because it is a time when we recall again the deep love and abiding presence of a God who has come, and will come again, and who is with us at every moment in between. There is nothing in this life that is not made new by the birth of Jesus and through him, and with him, and in him, we are made new as well. 

May God grant you every grace in this season of joy!

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Conflict Resolution: The Immaculate Conception of Mary

Every good story has a conflict. Think of a bestselling book, or a hit movie, or just an account that you might tell your friends over coffee. A story doesn’t engage us, doesn’t capture our attention unless it contains tension: something valuable at stake, some fundamental problem to be resolved. It can be epic or mundane, but there must always be a conflict for a story to revolve around.

The same is true for the story of our salvation. The 20th century theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar titled his 5-part magnum opus the “Theo-Drama”, that is the story of the relationship between God and humanity throughout time. That story too has a conflict, a tension to be overcome. We heard the basics of it in the first reading from Genesis. Adam and Eve have done the one thing God had forbidden them to do, and having sinned their relationship with him has been changed. Not only must they leave Eden; nature itself, including our human nature, is changed by the introduction of sin into the world.

Traditionally, we say that the original sin of Adam and Eve had four effects on us: our intellects were darkened; our wills were weakened; and physical suffering and death – not originally a part of God’s plan – are made a part of our lives. These are not what God wished for us – they are rather the consequence of the choice of our first parents and indeed the choices we make through our own sinfulness. The tension of our story is that God created us for himself – we desire nothing so much as to be in eternal union with God – and yet our own sinful choices made that union impossible.

Or, at least, so it was thought. We’re just about at the midpoint of Advent, and in a few short weeks we will celebrate the day on which the answer to our conflict, the One who resolves our fundamental problem, was born into the world. Jesus is the protagonist in our Theo-Drama, the New Adam whose obedience to his Father undoes the sinful disobedience of our first parents and restores us to union with God. It is through him that God has chosen to bless us – in the words of the Letter to the Ephesians – before the foundation of the world, to be destined for adoption through Christ that we also might be made “sons and daughters” of God. Jesus doesn’t just restore what Adam and Eve took away, he gives us something far greater. He doesn’t open the gate back to Eden; he throws open the gates to heaven.

Gustave Moreau, Pietà (1854)

In every story, there is a moment when the protagonist takes decisive action, when he or she seeks to tackle the fundamental problem head on to resolve it. Today, on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, we celebrate the very first moment when God acted through Jesus in history. It is not the conception of Jesus that we celebrate (that’s in March) but rather the conception of Mary, when God foresaw in his eternal wisdom Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and through the grace that comes from his Son’s obedience preserved Mary from the original sin of our first parents. God acted decisively not only to create a perfect, fitting vessel for his Son. He did so also to remind us that, like Mary, our human nature has been created for perfection, which is nothing short of total union with God.

Friends, if I might offer a bit of advice in these last few weeks of Advent, don’t sell yourself short on your role in the Theo-Drama. The story of God and humanity began with Adam and Eve, and reached its climax in the person of Jesus, but each of us has an important role to play it in as well. What God did for Mary, he desires to do for each of us; we need only submit our wills to be in accord with His, just as she did. Prepare for the coming of our Savior with a heart that yearns for nothing but to be with him, where every conflict is resolved, where every tear is wiped away. The great story has been written, and you have a part in it. How will you play it?

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Awaiting "the Sun of Justice" in a Dark World

We’ve all seen him – if not in real life, then certainly in the movies. The man standing on a busy street corner proclaiming that the end is near. For the last few summers, when I’ve been in Washington DC to study to canon law, I’ve seen one particular guy who stands outside of Nationals Stadium with a sign, a megaphone, and plenty to stay to anyone who will listen. People have been proclaiming the end of civilization since before the word “civilization” was coined. And yet, despite many terrible events of our past, things have continued on – the world has not ended. 

Here’s the thing though – some day, it will. In the Gospel today, the role of Doomsday Predictor is played by someone perhaps surprising: Jesus himself. While in Jerusalem, near the Holy Temple, Jesus shocks those listening to him by foretelling the destruction of the most sacred place in the world. For Jews, the Temple was not only the dwelling place of God – it was representative of the world itself. It was a symbol of God’s authority, God’s power, and God’s covenant with humanity – and so for it to be destroyed, as it was only some 30 years after Jesus’s death and resurrection – would have been a shocking and disorienting occurrence for every Jew.

From there, Jesus doesn’t get any more cheerful. He goes on to speak about the End Times, the day coming, “blazing like an oven,” in the words of the prophet Malachi, when God’s judgment and justice will finally be delivered upon the world and upon those who do evil. Before that happens, Jesus promises that those who are faithful to him will be persecuted severely – betrayed by family and friends, thrown into prison, even put to death. Yes, this week’s Gospel is surely not for the faint of heart.

The Destruction and Sack of the Temple in Jerusalem (1637), Nicolas Poussin

However, I would maintain that the fundamental message of this Gospel is not one of fear but rather one of hope. Because while Jesus assures us that these terrible things are in the future, he also encourages us to not be “terrified” by them – instead we are to trust that He Himself will be there to give us the strength to persevere.

As Christians, fear should be alien to us – it should never be our default reaction. Indeed, the only fear we should have is fear of the Lord. Why? Because we recognize that, in the end, only God remains. No worldly reality – good or bad, beautiful or terrible – truly lasts. Thus the only thing we have to fear is being separated from the one who himself is Love, Goodness, Beauty, Truth, Peace. And for the one who draws his or her strength from God, no suffering or persecution is too great to endure. The Cross is the reality for every follower of Jesus, but the Resurrection is so much greater than the Cross.

One of the important jobs of a preacher and pastor is to take the temperature, so to speak, of his flock. In other words, I try to anticipate how you’re doing – what the realities of your life are from week to week and to try to find something in God’s Word that speaks to those realities. This week though, I confess to being a little bit at a loss. I can’t presume to know how the events of this momentous week have affected you – with the important election and its result and some of the aftermath we’ve seen around the country. The truth is we probably have not all responded in the same way. Our reactions will vary depending on our backgrounds, our ages, our political views, and the like. Nonetheless, we see that our society is deeply divided on issues of real importance and on what kind of future we envision for our country.

If you agree with that, then I think the words of Jesus today should hit home for us in a special way. Notice how he describes what will pass away: “All that you see here.” That is, not just the Temple of Jerusalem, but everything of this world – the stones of all that we see around us will be cast down. If this life is running out, then, we don’t really have time for division and discord. We must instead be about building unity, about becoming reconciled, not just with each other but with God and with what he has commanded. That’s the key to awaiting the day of judgment not with fear but with hope and expectation, when God himself will finally right all wrongs.

None of this means that we become disengaged or disinterested or discouraged by the events that affect our daily lives. Jesus would never want us to be complacent about the issues facing us, to not work at bettering our society and assuring peace and justice and prosperity. But he does warn us to never place our hopes in anything – or anyone – that is merely confined to this world. What we must adjust is not our efforts but our attitudes. Politics and parties and candidates and elected officials – and in a broader way, countries and cities and civilizations – all of them are necessary in the present moment. But make no mistake: our lasting, eternal hopes must be placed in something – Someone – who will outlast them. And it is that Someone who remains our true hope, the One who helps bear well the persecutions that we will necessarily encounter because of Him.

Regardless of how the elections had turned out, the past week has shown us that much work remains to be done – not just for our newly elected leaders, but for each of us. I know you’ve heard calls from various leaders and individuals to encourage unity. I would particularly draw your attention to the letter of our bishop, Anthony Taylor, which you can find on the diocesan website and which will also be up on our parish website later this week. Perhaps each of us can consider how we can begin the work of healing division in our own lives – seeking to understand those who differ from us, laboring to forgive those who have maligned us, promoting what is best not just for some of us but for all of us, what we call “the common good.” As those who claim to be disciples of Jesus, indeed baptized into His Body, this work is all the more important – it takes on an urgency because it stretches beyond merely righting wrongs in this world. It’s about preparing us for the next. As good as our intentions may be, our efforts will be fruitless if we do not seek first to see with the eyes of Christ, to labor with His hands, to speak with His voice – to be at every moment an instrument of peace and justice not as the world understands them but as God does.

Friends, someday the Lord will return and this world will pass away, and we do not know the day or the hour. But rather than cause us to stand on a street corner predicting doom, or worse, to be filled with fear and worry, this knowledge should instead inspire us to action, indeed even lead us to hope. In the end, nothing will remain except “the Sun of Justice with its healing rays” and those who have placed their hopes not in the world but in Him. Let us learn anew to shine with His warmth, that we might bring His light into the darkness of a world that is passing away.

Friday, November 4, 2016

A Retrospective on Why I'm a Cubs Fan

People ask me why I’m a Chicago Cubs fan. Here’s the story.

When I was a kid, baseball was pretty much life. Though I eventually became a priest, I used to tell people when I was little that I wanted to be a baseball player in the summertime and a priest in the wintertime. I'm still not entirely sure that isn't possible.

Anyway, while I wasn't the most talented player, I loved the chess match of the game: the way in which a variety of skill sets are valued and valuable; how smarts are needed in addition to talent; the fact that a player who wasn't the most naturally gifted could outplay or outwit his opponent; how so much of the game depends upon controlling the little things.

When I wasn’t playing in organized leagues in the summer evenings, I played in the backyard by myself in the afternoons. When it got too hot, I would come inside and what would I want to watch? Baseball, of course. Back then, only a few professional teams were on national broadcast, and the only one that was on every afternoon were the Cubs on WGN. What started as a love for baseball soon blossomed into a passion for the Cubs. The summer ivy, the Friendly Confines, Harry & Steve calling games, the Stretch, and especially the players: Andre "The Hawk" Dawson, Shawn Dunston, Greg "Mad Dog" Maddux, Mark Grace, and especially Ryne Sandberg. I was hooked.

Over the years, I followed them pretty closely, checking the box scores each morning when I couldn’t watch them on TV. Unlike many Cubs fans, I didn't have family from Chicago or friends who supported me in being a Cubs fan. Instead, my devotion grew through faithful following, to the point that my own family became Cubs fans, to greater or lesser degree.

I watched through Ryno’s retirement and un-retirement, the drought of the mid-90s, Sammy’s emergence and the ’98 home run race, "Kid K" (Kerry Wood's) epic 20 strikeout game, and the unexpected playoff push in ’01. That year, I started college in St. Louis, and for the first time, I found a group of baseball fans as passionate as I was – the problem was they rooted for the Cardinals, the Cubs’ chief rival.

I attended a lot of Cardinal games during my years at SLU. I enjoyed the baseball culture of the city and I followed the team closely. But I could never become a fan of the Redbirds. It just felt wrong. In 2003, the Cubs made a late and great push through the playoffs, at one point as close as five outs away from the World Series. The story doesn’t need recounting here, but they didn’t make it. 

I had always known that the Cubs were the "Lovable Losers" of baseball. And while I knew about 1969 and 1984 and 1989, the team had been usually middling during my fandom. It wasn't until 2003 that I think I really realized what the cost of being a fan of the Cubs could be. But rather than be dissuaded or disheartened, I came to value my fandom in a much deeper way. The heartbreak of the end of that season cemented my fandom into something closer to obsession. I began to follow prospects, read blogs, discuss trade rumors, and understand the strategy of how front offices did (or did not) craft a team for success. It was also during this time that I was able to first venture to Wrigley Field and to see the team live for the first time. The Cubs amassed great teams in the mid-2000’s, crowned by a couple of division titles in ’07 and ’08. But again, playoff hopes were dashed.

When the Cubs were sold in 2009 from the Tribune Company to the Ricketts family, hope dawned anew. After a couple years giving the old regime a last chance, they turned to Theo Epstein and his brain trust in 2011, who formulated “The Plan”. Since then, for those of us who followed the logic behind it, it was clear that this methodical approach toward building the system with young talent would be painful in the short term but pay off in the future.

This season has been amazing. The Cubs started the season as the clear World Series favorites, and despite hiccups along the way, they have been the best team in baseball wire to wire. Despite numerous chances to choke throughout the playoffs, they persevered and eventually prevailed. I got the chance to see them a couple of times over the summer, when they came to D.C. to face the Nationals and on a trip to Wrigley with my dad in June.

In the playoffs, I was tempted to count out the Cubs a few different times, especially during the latter part of Game 7 of the World Series. But like many other Cubs fans, I always had a different feeling about this team, even when the chips were down. And after a regrouping during “the greatest rain delay in history”, the Cubs at last came out on top. Following so many years of frustration and failure, it’s great to say the Chicago Cubs are the World Champions.

Today, Cubs fans around the country watch as the team bring the Commissioner’s Trophy to the city of Chicago for the first time in 108 years. If I dare to speak for all Cubs fans, this feels like vindication, redemption, the fulfillment of things hoped for. I have often reflected upon the religious overtones of waiting and hoping for a thing that seems far off, impossible, unlikely to ever come ... and then finally, on one glorious day, seeing that dream fulfilled in a way more glorious than one could imagine. It's trite, certainly, that it takes sports to show it, but truly "hope does not disappoint" (Romans 5:5). In that way, fandom is much like faith – a common belief with others to hope in something greater than ourselves.

I wish I could be along Addison Street or in Grant Park to watch the team go by today, as surely hundreds of thousands, maybe millions gather to greet and cheer the beloved team. I’ll be celebrating, however, in my own way, grateful for all that my fandom has meant for me and so many others over the years. Perhaps the best part of it all is to know how this could be the beginning of a great thing; the team is young, talented, and has much room to grow. You can’t predict baseball, but it’s tremendously exciting to see what the next few years will bring. A new horizon stretches out before us -- for us fans of the baseball Chicago Cubs, and indeed for anyone who dares to hope in a dream bigger than them.

Go Cubs Go!

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Lover of Souls

How often do you think about God’s love for you?

I ask that question somewhat rhetorically since I can imagine the answer for most of us is “not often”. We have a tendency to focus on the immediate things in front of us and so things that seem more abstract, like the love of God, don’t come to the forefront of our attention. And sometimes, surrounded by our problems or the suffering that we see in the world, we question – maybe even doubt – just how much God’s love really is there.

If that’s the case, then I think it’s good that we take a look back at the first reading, from the Book of Wisdom. It’s a reflection upon the mystery of our relationship with God and his love for us. Let’s do a little exegesis – or critical reading – of the text.

“Before the LORD the whole universe is as a grain from a balance
or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.”

That is, the entire universe – the myriad numbers of galaxies and solar systems, and the whole earth, with all of us upon it – is, compared to God, nothing more than a speck, a drop of dew on the grass. God is infinitely greater and grander than anything we could possibly imagine.

“But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things;
and you overlook people's sins that they may repent.
For you love all things that are
and loathe nothing that you have made;
for what you hated, you would not have fashioned.”

Though all of creation is almost as nothing compared to God, that doesn’t mean he treats us as nothing – in fact, just the opposite. Because God is so infinitely greater than us, his approach to us is always one of infinite love and mercy. His love for us is contingent upon nothing – because he doesn’t need us for anything, everything he gives to us is purely given out of love for us and for the desire of our own true good. He is a merciful Father, a loving Creator.

"And how could a thing remain, unless you willed it;
or be preserved, had it not been called forth by you?"

At every moment of our lives, God is willing us – indeed, the entire universe – into being. If he were to stop for even the briefest moment, we wouldn’t simply die – we and all of creation would simply cease to be. And yet, that doesn’t happen. So God continues to be focused on us completely, in pure love, though we are as small to him as a grain or a drop of dew is to us. One last part:

"But you spare all things, because they are yours,
O LORD and lover of souls,
for your imperishable spirit is in all things!
Therefore you rebuke offenders little by little,
warn them and remind them of the sins they are committing,
that they may abandon their wickedness and believe in you, O LORD!"

In other words, God does all of this – loving us, willing us into being – despite the fact that we are sinners. Though we so often reject him by our actions, he is patient and merciful with us. He gently reminds us of our sinfulness – especially by means of our conscience – and calls us to repentance, so that we might return to him.

So God does indeed love us, infinitely and mercifully, and yet the story doesn’t end there. The love by which God created us, the love with which he sustains us in being and calls us to repentance with gentleness – it is with that same love that God desired even to become one of us, to walk among us, to seek out and save we who were lost. The love that God has for us is none other than Jesus himself, who encountered Zacchaeus in Jericho, who encounters each of us every day, in various ways, especially here in the Eucharist.

Jesus Summoning Zacchaeus, William Brassey Hole (c. 1900)

If we view God’s love in that way, if we see that his love has a face – that of Jesus himself – then we will be changed as Zacchaeus was changed. We will begin to live always in the joy that God’s love for us indeed infinite, merciful, life-giving, but even more than that – it is relational, it is has a name and a face, it is a Person himself.

Friends, whether we think often of it or not, the love of God for us is real – it is creative, transformative, merciful, and personal. Like Zacchaeus, let us seek to encounter that love anew – to climb over any obstacles keeping us from it, and not to grow tired, or distracted, or discouraged by the opinion of others as we seek it. Instead, let us focus on Jesus, the love of God made incarnate, he who wishes to encounter us, who wishes to stay with us, who has come to seek out and to save what was lost.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

From Disciples to Saints: Following Mother Teresa

If you were to ask a person in the 1970s, ‘80s, or ‘90s to name a living saint, chances are good that person would have named Mother Teresa. If you’ve paid attention lately to the news, no doubt you’ve seen the stories and opinion pieces written about this little nun, all in anticipation of her canonization this morning in Rome. Today, Pope Francis declared definitively what many of us knew intuitively years ago – that that small, spunky, smiling sister – so famous for serving the poorest of the poor in the slums of Calcutta and spreading that work around the world through her Missionaries of Charity – was also a saint, a true disciple of Christ for the 20th century.

In the Gospel today, Jesus speaks about the costs of discipleship, and he puts those costs in plain language. The Gospel says “great crowds” were following him, and perhaps he felt as if many were not getting the message. To be his disciple, he says, we must “renounce all of our possessions”, we must “hate” our loved ones and even our own life, we must take up our cross and follow him. If this sounds daunting, it is – as Jesus warns, we must not take this discipleship lightly. Just as a builder considers his resources before beginning to build a tower, just as a king considers his coffers before considering raising an army, Jesus beseeches us to consider our own inner resolve to ensure that we will not fall short of our goal.

Today’s canonization of Mother Teresa should be a sign of hope for you and me – that discipleship is possible, that the lofty bar which Jesus sets is possible with his grace, that you and I too can reach sainthood. However, I think there’s a possibility that this particular saint – one with whom so many of us were familiar during her life – may feel too far beyond us. This was a woman who exemplified a life of poverty and service to the utmost degree, feeding the poor, nursing the diseased, embracing the orphan and addict and outcast. Even more, she changed the world around us, by founding houses of her sisters throughout the globe, by speaking truth to power by addressing world leaders, being an advocate for peace, justice, and respect for all peoples. All of this might make her become, in our own estimation, a saint outside of our own reach. In other words, how could you and I aspire to being like someone so holy?

That way of thinking, however, gets discipleship all wrong. Jesus calls us all of us to holiness, but he tailors each of our paths according to our own individual person. The Lord did amazing things through Mother Teresa, but her way to sainthood is not our way. Instead, each of us are called to finding the radical call to discipleship that is ours alone. How do we do that? Well, I think we can take a cue from the life of Mother Teresa, just as we could from any of the saints – while the individual path varies for each of us, the tools we use to walk that path are the same.

First, we must continually open ourselves to honest, prayerful dialogue with Jesus. We can’t hear him inviting us to the path toward sainthood if we’re letting his voice be drowned out by external noise, be it our own desires and ambitions, societal pressures, or even the expectations of family and friends. Jesus asks us to prefer him to all of those – even to “hate” them in comparison, so that we might love him completely. We do that first by hearing his voice, carving out a space each day for silence, for prayer, when we can be in his presence.

Second, we have to be ready to sacrifice what is easy. The road to sainthood is never a convenient one. While Jesus may not be calling us to serve the poor of Calcutta, he surely is going to ask us to embrace a cross – perhaps bearing a difficult relationship with dignity and humility, perhaps humbling ourselves by working without the recognition we desire, perhaps suffering internally in ways that only we know. No suffering is too small, no act of love is too minor to be a part of taking up our cross each day. But we must be intentional in offering it to God.

Third, we must be faithful. After her death, the diaries of Mother Teresa revealed that despite her immense labors of love, she had experienced a profound spiritual dryness for decades. Despite conveying God’s presence to others, she did not feel that presence in her own heart; instead she felt God’s silence. Sometimes, the heaviest cross we bear is the cross of perseverance, struggling onward to do what we know is right even when we are discouraged or feel distant from God. Even in those cases, though, we believe that God is not far away – indeed, that it is his grace that sustains us and keeps us going, through our prayer, in the sacraments, by virtue of the people that we encounter. Though we may not always feel it, Jesus never asks us to embrace a cross that he does not himself help us to shoulder.

Friends, the universal Church today celebrates Saint Teresa of Calcutta, a faithful disciple, a woman who loved Christ above all else, a woman whom many of us knew was a saint even in her lifetime. But even as we give thanks to God for her, we must not set on her too lofty a pedestal, as if her holiness is somehow beyond what we too can attain, as if sainthood is outside of our grasp. Her sanctity consists ultimately not in things beyond us, i.e. some extraordinary work, but in things that we too can reach in our own lives: namely, extraordinary love and extraordinary faith. Jesus calls each of us to be his true disciple, indeed to be his saint, but each according to our own path, each endowed with the particular grace that he gives us according to our own life. To be sure, the path he calls us to is always costly – it will involve suffering, it will involve renunciation, it will be an embrace of the Cross – and we must continually seek it through prayer, through humility, and through fidelity. But it is a path always paved by the Lord, and it is he who walks on it with us, ahead of us and behind us and beside us. May Mother Teresa, saint of God in heaven, pray for us, and may the words which she spoke on this earth years ago echo again from her to us today, this time from heaven: “My prayer for you is that you answer Jesus’s calling with the simple word: Yes.”

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Getting Low: the Humble Approach to Spiritual Growth

Paolo Veronese, Feast in the house of Levi (1573)

Learning how to parallel park. Balancing a checkbook. Fixing a flat tire. There are certain skills that all of us learn as we age, that we need to know in order to be an adult.

One of the most important of these is perhaps how to behave at a dinner party. I remember when I was in seminary that we even had a seminar one afternoon on the proper use of cutlery, how to make small talk, how to eat without being obnoxious – that sort of thing. I’m not sure all of the lessons completely took – in fact, I know they didn’t. But even though we forgot some of the particulars, it was helpful to be aware of how expectations and perceptions often vary in social situations.

In the Gospel today, Jesus is attending a dinner party, and as we are told, he is being observed carefully. No doubt the wealthy Pharisees not only wanted to see what this backwoods preacher had to say but also how he behaved in formal situations. His table etiquette was surely under scrutiny. But as he so often did, Jesus defied expectations – rather than talk clumsily about spiritual things directly, he instead conveys the message of the Gospel through the situation at hand.

The bit of wisdom that Jesus imparts is familiar sounding enough to us. Take the lower place; appeal to the poor rather than to the rich; the last shall be first and the first shall be last. At first mention, it sounds like a sort of sophisticated posturing – as if the sophisticated person, rather than boast or brag, should instead adopt a modest, even self-effacing attitude, thereby winning the esteem of one’s peers and the gratitude of one’s inferiors. There’s a kind of Machiavellian logic by which Jesus’s words can be interpreted.

But of course, Jesus is not giving a blueprint for how to impress others, certainly not to the Pharisees. Instead, he’s pointing out their deficiency in a particular virtue – a virtue which, if I may say, is often sorely lacking in our modern world today. That virtue? Humility. There is perhaps no virtue that is more completely misunderstood or even dismissed out of hand by our modern mindset than humility. While all of us understand the practical good that comes from the virtues of courage or patience or honesty, the virtue of humility is sometimes discounted as just not in keeping with the way the world works. If you want to get ahead, the thinking goes, you have to promote yourself, you have to speak to your strengths, and get your own voice above the fray, and humility won’t get you anywhere.

But humility properly understood is not about assuming a meek attitude in relation to others; instead, true humility is something much closer to authentic self-knowledge. It is understanding ourselves as we truly are, good and bad. The word “humility” has its roots in the Latin humus or that which is from the earth beneath us. Rather than grinding ourselves into the ground it's perhaps best to view humility as a virtue that allows us to see where we stand and which helps keep us grounded. Much like a golfer has to get low to the ground to see the landscape in front of him and get a good view of his putt, so too does humility help us to understand where we stand, in relation to God and to others.

Humility, at its core, is about keeping our own egos in check, about keeping ourselves within the bounds of love. Humility helps us to remember the big picture – that there is a God, and we are not him. But we are his creations, and each of us has value, we are lovable, because he loves us. We are humble if we embody this in our words and actions and our treatment of others – not using others to make ourselves feel better or climb the social ladder – but loving them for who they are.

I’d like to propose two basic ways that each of us can grow in the virtue of humility. First, I think we can be more humble the more we seek to curtail our judgments of other people. It’s so easy to form negative opinions about others – whether it’s someone we don’t know at all and just see walking around on campus or someone whom we know better and interact with, all of us have a tendency on times to focus on their weaknesses and faults rather than on them themselves. The humble person however first recognizes they are flawed themselves, that in the eyes of God, we have much room for growth as well. When we operate from humility, we recognize that none of us are in a place to judge and we’re able to open our hearts to patience and forgiveness

A second way I think we can be more humble is in deepening our trust in God, especially in prayer. Again it’s very easy, when we focus on our troubles and our worries, to question whether God is present and whether he’s trying to help us. But if you think about it, that attitude really displays a lack of humility, that somehow we might know better than God where we’re at or what we need. Instead, the humble person recognizes that God as our Father can never help but will the very best for us, and so even if we might not understand his purposes in a particular trial we are enduring, humility allows us to believe that he is present to us and aiding us in our difficulty. In many ways, humility is the beginning of a mature faith, because without it, we are too proud to approach God honestly.

Friends, just as we all have to learn certain skills as we move from childhood to adulthood, so too must we learn certain virtues if we are to advance in our relationship with God. Perhaps the most important of these is humility – but humility properly understood, seeking to see ourselves as God sees us. If you’re struggling with humility, look to Jesus – God become man, born in poverty and obscurity, who went to his own death to redeem us. You won’t find a better model of humility than Christ. And if we seek to make his humility our own, if we lower ourselves that we might better serve God and others, then it is Christ himself will call us to the higher place, to give us a seat of honor at his heavenly banquet.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Loving Beyond Tolerance

James Tissot, The Last Sermon of Our Lord (c. 1892)

“Love one another,” Jesus tells us in the Gospel today. And what a nice idea that is. It’s simple, clear, even logical.

And it’s famous! Along with the “Treat others as you would be treated,” there’s no saying of Jesus, or line from the Bible, or ethos of Christianity that is more well known. We see it on billboards and bumper stickers, everywhere from mission statements to tattoos. Often it is embraced by those who wouldn’t dare to call themselves Christians – and sometimes it’s even used against Christians, to challenge them as to whether some specific belief or practice is really in keeping with “loving one another.”

But as simple as this statement seems, as easy it might sound, I think the vast majority of us get it wrong. Of course, we certainly get it wrong in living it out – if only we truly did “love one another,” the world would be a much happier place. We’re sinners, unfortunately, and we need help from God and his grace in truly loving others.

And yet, I think we also fail at times to understand what Jesus really meant. Because when he said “Love one another,” he did not mean merely “be nice to one another,” or “do your best not to upset or offend one another." Often, this "new commandment" of Jesus is interpreted as a commandment of tolerance as the ultimate moral good, with our desire to not to offend, or disrupt or disturb coming before all else.

But that just isn’t consistent with what we know about Jesus – a man who challenged the presumptions of the Sadducees, condemned the hardness of heart of the Pharisees; a man who cleansed the Temple, who called the disciples to leave everything and to follow him, a man who brought healing of body and soul to so many who were suffering from deformity or illness or sin.

For Jesus, “love” can’t be equated with a basic tolerance, with a desire not to offend or disturb. His love rather is for something. It's intentional, it's directed at a goal – namely, the good of the other, and their true good at that, not what we believe their good to be, or even what they believe their good to be. In a sense, Jesus loved in a way that was precisely not tolerant: he came to offend our sinful way of thinking, to disturb our apathy and brokenness; in short, he came to wake us up and bring us back to God. And by his Passion, Death, and Resurrection, which we celebrate in this Easter season, Jesus proved just how much he meant it.

Notice how today’s Gospel comes in a key moment of Jesus’s life. Did you hear how it began? It said, “When Judas had left” – that is, “left” to go and betray him. And Jesus begins by saying “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him.” How exactly was Jesus going to be glorified, and God glorified through him? By being handed over to torturers, by being beaten and stripped, by being crucified on the Cross – all as a testament of what true love really is, of what God’s love for us is like.

For Jesus, and for us who follow him, love is not primarily a feeling, but an action, a witness, something that is tested, something that must be proven. And the true test of whether we really love is what we do in times of difficulty and rejection. Jesus’s commands us “to love one another”, not in a generic sense, not as the world understands love, but rather “as I have loved you.” That’s an important qualifier – loving as he loved means to love whole-heartedly, knowing that we will suffer for this love, that we will be inconvenienced and challenged and rejected and maybe even persecuted. If we are truly to love one another as he has loved us, then we must love each other in such a way that we lead others closer to God, challenging each other at times perhaps, and encouraging each other (and ourselves) to not be satisfied with tolerance or mediocrity, not settle not for what we like, but for what is truly right, for what is truly good.

Friends, Jesus continues to give us, just as he did his first disciples, that same commandment – to love one another as he did. And to do so, as Paul and Barnabas said, “it is necessary for us to endure many hardships, in order to enter the kingdom of God.” When you find yourself challenged in some way – because another has ignored you, or offended you, or betrayed you, or scorned you – remember that commandment of Jesus, and ask him for the strength to love as he did. And then do so, joyfully. As we prepare to receive the sacrament which, above all else in our lives, helps us to love as Jesus loved, may we renew our commitment to do just that, that he might continue through us “to make all things new.”

Sunday, April 3, 2016

A Mercy Greater than Fear

For some of us, they are tangible things – spiders, snakes, lions and tigers and bears. For others of us, they are less tangible – debt, illness, loneliness. All of us fear something, something that impacts how we act, the choices we make, the things we desire.

In the Gospel reading for today, fear plays a dramatic and important role. The disciples have gathered in the Upper Room and the doors, as we are told, are locked – even more than a week from the Resurrection, the disciples are still hiding behind closed doors as they struggle to understand the meaning of what has happened.. They are, on the one hand, fearful of the Jews, afraid of what those who put Jesus to death might do to them. But on the other, they also perhaps are fearful of Jesus, afraid of the one who has Risen from the dead because they had abandoned him in his hour of greatest need.

In our lives as well, we struggle at times with our fears. Whether it’s the creepy-crawly things when we are younger, or as we age things less tangible but just as real, our fears can sometimes come to define who we are and how we act. Fears can limit us; they can restrict us. The figure of Thomas is a good example of this. As we heard, Thomas is not present with the other apostles when Jesus first appears to them. He is somewhere else, somewhere separate. Perhaps, we can take this as a metaphor that he is not spiritually disposed to receive the news that the Master has risen from the dead. And as we heard, he does not initially believe. In fact, he is rather determined that unless he physically encounters Jesus – placing his finger in his hand, and his hand in his side – he will not believe.

The apostle Thomas has often been interpreted throughout history in a particular way. That is, he’s seen as the skeptic, the one who needs proof, the one who demands a sign in order to put forward his belief. But there is, I think, another way of interpreting him. That is, he’s a man who has been wounded, a man who had put his entire faith and trust in Jesus and for whom the death of Jesus was a deep trauma. He had put so much hope in Christ as the Messiah, hope that is seemingly dashed when he is crucified and put to death. Now, Thomas is … hesitant and afraid. He is afraid to trust again, to believe, afraid to put on the line again what was so deeply important to him, afraid of being disillusioned once again.

Into this fear and confusion, Jesus enters. He is not angry at the apostles’ fearfulness. He is not wrathful at Thomas’s hesitancy. Instead, he comes with a message of conciliation – “Peace be with you,” “do not be unbelieving but believe.” Jesus the Risen One is not worried about our shortcomings and our failings; instead, he desires earnestly to rescue us from them, to free us from what binds us and holds us back, what causes us fear and dismay. One might think he would have grown exasperated – these disciples who never understood him during his ministry, whose faith constantly comes up short, who even after his own death and resurrection still are hesitant to believe, demanding proof as Thomas did. But Jesus is never exasperated, not with them and not with us. He is patient with our weakness, merciful to our sinfulness, able to wait us out and break through what we fear so as to give us what we need.

The phrase “a Doubting Thomas” has entered our lexicon. But that phrase doesn’t really get to the heart of who Thomas was. For though Thomas doubted, he was convinced; though he wavered, he held firm. He is as much a Believing Thomas, as anything else, the first one to recognize among the Apostles Jesus as not just the Christ, the one sent by God. Encountering his pierced hands and feet, Thomas realizes who he stands in front of – as he says, “My Lord and My God.”

Caravaggio, The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1602)

You and I too often allow ourselves to be defined by our weaknesses. We look to our fears, to our failings, to our shortcomings and we judge ourselves according to those. I hear from people, “Father, I’m just having a really hard time trusting God right now,” because they can’t see an answer to their problem, a solution to their difficulty, a way forward. Amid our stark experiences, our dark days, our moments of struggle, it seems as if God is not there. But it is precisely in these challenging moments, if we persist in faith, that God enters in. Just as Jesus breaks through the locked doors, God will not leave us in dark or doubt but proves to us the depths of his faithfulness and love.

My friends, this Second Sunday of Easter is also Divine Mercy Sunday, and in this Year of Mercy, it is perhaps the the day above all others when we recall that the divine plan, the history of our salvation is one all-encompassing mission of mercy on the part of God toward us. As Pope Francis has said, “Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy.” Mercy is the way in which God’s love manifests itself to the sinner and it is to us as sinners that the manifestation of Jesus as the Savior has been made known to us.

So let us strive not to be defined by our sins, our failings, our fears, and our doubts. Instead, let us look to Jesus, opening the locked doors of our hearts to the power of his mercy. With Thomas, let us not be unbelieving but believe. As we prepare to receive the sacrament in which Jesus becomes present to us, let us look upon him and say with great love, “My Lord and my God.”