Monday, March 28, 2016

Encountering the Risen One

The Empty Tomb (1889), Mikhail Nesterov

Happy Easter, everyone! 

A very warm welcome to everyone who has joined us for this most sacred of celebrations. In a particular way, I would like to welcome those guests who are visiting from out of town and those who come from religious traditions other than the Catholic one. It’s an honor to have you here. I would especially like to extend a welcome to the nine men and women who will be receiving Catholic sacraments today, as well as to their family and friends; we rejoice that you are here to celebrate with us.

As some of you know, I recently returned from a pilgrimage to Rome, a place where I studied for four years while I was in seminary. It was my first time back as a priest, and despite several years of being away, I was surprised by how familiar everything felt. A few things were different since my last time there – Pope Francis for one, my own ability to celebrate Mass in some of the shrines and churches for another – but on the whole, I was amazed by how easily I felt right at home again amid all of the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of Rome. I guess that's why they call it the Eternal City!

There was one particular experience though that, while not unfamiliar, struck me again in a new way. Rome is full of a lot of tombs. A city with such history is of course full of churches and basilicas, and in every one, you find tombs of countless saints, men and women alike. It is an ancient Christian practice to honor the dead, and for those who believed to have lived particularly holy lives, to build churches over their tombs in those churches, construct altars over their graves, and even to display their mortal remains or fragments of their bones in cases for all to see.

For those unaccustomed to the practice, it can seem a bit grisly or morbid. But actually it is rooted in an amazing belief, a belief we celebrate tonight more than any other. The men and women who lie in those tombs, whether as saints or as the great unknown, are remembered, are honored, are even displayed because they had faith in a reality greater than this world, in something – in Someone – who has conquered even death itself.

On this Vigil in the Holy Night of Easter, our hearts and minds are focused not on death but on life, not on any occupied tomb but on the Empty Tomb, the one from which the Author of Life has risen. It is the tomb, as we heard in the Gospel reading, in front of which the angel declared to the women, “He is not here, but he has been raised.” What those women experienced nearly 2000 years ago, what the disciples experienced and came to believe, what you and I are doing here tonight is to make a very particular, very bold statement of faith: that the man Jesus of Nazareth is also the Christ of God, his own Son, who though put to death for our sins, is now Risen, the Lord of all things, alive for all eternity.

That is the heart of our Christian faith, and ever since it was first proclaimed two millennia ago, the world has tried to refute it, ignore it, and persecute it. You can find today those who will argue against faith in the Resurrection; the broader culture that we live in certainly seems increasingly contemptuous of it; and you just have to watch the news to know that throughout the world there are believers in Jesus who are literally shedding their blood rather than give up their faith.

We are privileged to have with us tonight nine men and women who are not afraid of all that. They will not let those things or more keep them from fully embracing the Risen Lord. Instead, they stand ready to declare their faith in him and so to take their place among us, and among the countless men and women who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith. Some of them will receive the sacrament of baptism, by which we are first given a share in the death and Resurrection of Christ and the new life of grace given to us. Some of them will receive the Holy Eucharist for the first time, taking into themselves the Risen Jesus himself as spiritual nourishment. All of them will be confirmed with the sacred chrism, receiving the gifts of the Holy Spirit so that they might in turn become witnesses to the Resurrection, ready to do or say all that they can to share the Good News of Jesus. How inspiring is their example to us, that the Spirit of God is still active in our midst and leading us to come to know Jesus.

The gift of faith, which they have received, which all of us pray to receive ever more fully, is not invulnerable however. It can be lost – if we allow ourselves to be burdened by distractions and discouragements, if we begin to let our spiritual lives be dictated by our experiences – how we feel rather than what we believe, if we start focusing on satisfying ourselves rather than serving others, then it is possible to lose the grace of new life. But because Jesus is Risen, it is always possible to get it back, to turn our lives back toward following the Risen One. The light of Jesus is never conquered by the darkness that we may find ourselves in; rather, all of our darkness – yes, even the darkness of death – is transformed by his light.   

Our nine catechumens and candidates have undergone months of learning, prayer, and preparation, and they are ready to make a definitive act of commitment for the Lord who committed himself to them on the Cross. What I hope they remember – indeed, what I hope all of us remember – is that the essence of Christianity is not an idea, or a system of thought; it’s not a philosophy or a social plan of action. At the heart of authentic Christianity is a realization that the tomb is empty, that the one who gave himself over to death for our sake, is now alive and invites us to share in his new life. To be a Christian means to know the Risen Jesus, to encounter him through the sacraments of his Church, and to learn from him how to live each day filled with his grace.

My friends, as I walked around Rome a few weeks ago, I was indeed surprised again at the number of tombs and graves and remains I encountered. But even more I found myself moved by their faith – that their love of Jesus and belief in his Resurrection led them to endure every suffering or malady or insult, even to the point of their own death, rather than lose the encounter with the One they had come to know. For those who hope in Christ, for our nine catechumens and candidates, for us, even death is just transitory, just a stopping-over point on the way to the final reality of heaven. For those with faith, the tomb is merely a pause in the drama of salvation.

May the the Risen Christ, whose glory brightens this night, be for us all a constant guide through the darkness so that one day we may rejoice to share in his eternal Light.

Friday, March 25, 2016

The "Goodness" of Good Friday

Crucifixion (1565), Tintoretto

Have you ever wondered why we call today “Good Friday”? It seems like an odd name, doesn’t it? People have suggested various explanations as to the reason. Some say it is a corruption of the original name of “God’s Friday.” Others say it’s because the word “good” used to mean something akin to “holy” or “sacred”. Because it is the day of Jesus’s sacrifice on the Cross, the way by which you and I are reconciled to God, we can call it “good.”

But even while we recognize the importance of today, it’s hard to really think of it as something that is truly good – something that that we should rejoice in. We’ve just finished the reading of the Passion according to St. John – an account of an innocent man being betrayed, wrongly accused, unjustly sentenced and brutally executed. At face-value, this appears to be the very defeat of goodness.

And yet, as people of faith, we believe there is something good happening here. Even amid the cruelty of Jesus’s passion and death, there is a reason to rejoice, because the divine plan is at work. Today happens to be the 25th of March, that is, exactly nine months away from Christmas. Normally, today the Church would be celebrating the Solemnity of the Annunciation, remembering when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to announce the Incarnation of Jesus. So while March 25th usually affords us the opportunity to remember the occasion when God indicated he would soon fulfill the promise of Israel’s Messiah by sending his own Son to free us from sin and death, today we recall the very passion by which he has done so.

Interestingly, the parallels between Good Friday and the Annunciation go much deeper than that. Early Christians were interested in the chronology of Jesus’s death and calculated that its date, the 14th of Nisan in the Jewish calendar, corresponded to March 25th in the Roman calendar. In other words, according to tradition, the Incarnation of Jesus and the death of Jesus occurred on the same day. Going even farther back, this same day held great importance in the Jewish faith since it was believed to be the date on which Abraham was prepared to sacrifice Isaac and, even farther back, the day that God finished the work of creation.

So what we recall today really is remarkable. And we do more than recall. We celebrate, we rejoice that what Christ accomplishes on the cross is the fulfillment of the “good work” of God – his work of creation, his work of redemption. The Christ who dies on the cross is the same Christ by whom the world was made, in whose image and likeness mankind was created, through whom the ancient fathers and prophets formed a covenant with God, the same Christ who became man at Mary’s “Yes”. It is the “Yes” of Christ to the Father’s will, through his passion and death, that we have been restored to harmony with God and given a share in his eternal victory.

My friends, as we contemplate the mystery of the cross, today and every day, every time we look at a crucifix – we acknowledge its terrible reality, the suffering that Jesus endured on account of our sins. But we also must look beyond it and see it as the reason for all of our joy and hope. The timeless love that God has for humanity, a love that through all history and creation has sought to redeem us, finds its perfect expression and fulfillment here, in the Cross of Christ. “Behold the wood of the cross, on which hung the salvation of the world. Come, let us adore.”

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Fulfilling the Commands of Christ

When you and I sit down at table, most of us normally have one thing on our minds – how quickly can this food in front of me get in my belly. That’s kind of a crude way to put it – but if you think about it, when you consider the fast food drive-thrus, the TV dinners, the way in which so much of our dining culture seems to be about getting the most while paying the least, that’s kind of the way that we operate.

But there is an element of human culture around food that is more sophisticated than mere gluttony. I don’t just mean the gastropubs and fancy restaurants – there is something about eating, something about dining together, that communicates an essential part of the human experience. Food has always been a social reality, something that gathers us, and around which we gather. In the taking of food, we find common ground to share experience, broker harmony, and learn friendship.

In the Christian context, there is no more important meal than when Jesus last broke bread with his disciples prior to his betrayal, trial, crucifixion, and death. The Last Supper is an iconic meal, one which has so many points of contact with our faith. We commemorate it every time we gather together for Mass, fulfilling the commandment that Jesus gave to his disciples: “Do this in memory of me.” When we share the Eucharist, we are put in contact again with that iconic event, nearly 2000 years ago in the Upper Room.

As Catholics, the Eucharist is at the heart of our faith. Perhaps more than anything else, it is what distinguishes us from other Christians – that by faith we believe that what we receive at communion is not merely a symbol of the sacrifice Jesus made for us, but that it really is his Body, Blood, Soul, Divinity, his Real Presence offered to the Father for the forgiveness of our sins. For us as Catholics, the Eucharist is, in the words of Vatican II, the source and summit of all that we do, both the fount of grace that stir us to be witnesses to Christ in the world and the most essential gift that we have to share with it.

Jesus Washing Peter's Feet (1858), Ford Madox Brown

In light of all of that, isn't it interesting that our Gospel for this evening mentions nothing about eating? At the Mass of the day on which the Eucharist was given to us, the Gospel says nothing about it. Instead, we have this story of the washing of the disciples’ feet. To outward appearance, it seems as if this is a separate thing – something that Jesus did separate from what he did at the meal. But in reality, the institution of the Eucharist and the washing of the feet are intimately connected.

As Jesus tells Peter, unless the apostles allow him to wash their feet, they will have no inheritance with him. What is this inheritance? Nothing other than a share in the sacrifice he will offer the next day on the Cross, as both High Priest and Victim, handing himself over to death in reparation for our sins. The Eucharist, which he gives to the Church at the Last Supper, is our point of contact with this sacrifice – it is what makes the Cross present throughout the ages and the centuries through the Church. But the Eucharist, as important as it is, does not consist merely in you and I receiving the Body and Blood of Christ.

Often, I think, that’s how we tend to operate as Catholics. We gather around this table, focused on what we are getting, on who we are receiving. But as important as receiving the Eucharist is, living from the Eucharist – putting the charity we have received into action – is more important. Jesus has given us the command of celebrating the Eucharist so that we might have the spiritual fortitude to continue his greater command of loving one another as he has loved us – that is, to the point of self-giving, sacrificial service. It is at this table that find harmony and friendship with God, and from this meal and sacrifice that we are invited to be instruments of the same in all that we do. As much as Jesus does indeed wish for us to receive his Real Presence under the appearance of bread and wine, he doesn’t want us to stop there. Having received the love of God in Christ, what are we called to do? To go and wash feet – that is, to serve with a heart focused on the good of the other, with a charity that seeks the lowest place. 

Immediately following this homily, I will remove my chasuble and wash the feet of twelve members of our community. I do so as a symbol that I too seek to serve, to serve you, in the person of Christ for our community. But I also do so as an encouragement for you, that you might seek to wash the feet of those you know, those you encounter, not physically but spiritually, with the heart of Christ.

My friends, we enter tonight into the holiest three days of our liturgical year. The mystery of the Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection are at the very heart of our faith, and each time we gather together at Mass, those events become present to us again. They are for us not memories or things of the distant past, but eternal realities that very much continue to animate and empower us to continue the charity of Christ in the world today, loving with his heart, speaking with his words, serving with his hands. Let us be reminded of all that we share here together, at this altar, all that Christ has given to us and still gives to us, and all that he invites us to do with him. May all that we do, here and throughout our lives, be a fulfillment of his command: “Do this in memory of me.”

Monday, March 21, 2016

Taking Up Again the Story

The Entry into Jerusalem (c. 1620), Pedro Orrente

A priest friend of mine is a great lover of books, as I am. A couple years ago, when we were comparing the great works of literature that we have read (and admitting to those that we have not), he told me, “You know, whenever I start a new book, I always read the last page first. That way, if Jesus comes back before I finish, I’ll know how the story ends.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I just couldn’t comprehend that line of thinking. To my mind, it robs one of the experience of seeing how the story develops. Part of the enjoyment of encountering a story comes from not knowing the ending!

I have to admit though that, at least for today, the Church seems to agree with my friend’s line of thinking. On Palm Sunday, at the start of Holy Week, we read the account of Jesus’s passion – the events, that is, of Holy Thursday and Good Friday, which we will celebrate more solemnly later in the week. Why do we do that? In our case, it’s not about skipping ahead to the end – rather, it’s about reminding ourselves of what we are advancing toward.

There is a great contrast in the liturgy of Palm Sunday. At the beginning, we commemorate Jesus’s triumphant entrance into Jerusalem, where the people sang "Hosanna"'s and called Jesus their king. And then, just a few moments later, we read the account of his passion, of how the crowd has now turned against him, ready to ridicule him and hand him over for crucifixion. Their fickleness and mob mentality is contrasted to Jesus’s quiet strength and resolve in carrying the burden of our sins to the point of their final annihilation.

Friends, as we enter into Holy Week, we take up again the story of our salvation, authored by Jesus himself. This work deserves our deeper, renewed reflection. I don’t suggest that we pretend as if we don’t know how the story ends. Indeed, it’s precisely by knowing of the Lord’s triumph, which we will celebrate next Sunday at Easer, that we can more deeply enter into the path that he takes to get there. Let’s allow our hearts to be moved to a deep compassion for the resolve that Jesus showed, despite all of the resistance and suffering that he encountered, to carry his cross until the end, to fulfill his divine mission. But let’s also allow the Lord to share that resolve with us, that despite our fickleness, at times, in following him, we might continue to accompany him through his passion and so share in the victory he has won.