Sunday, January 29, 2017

Apprentices in the School of Beatitude: the Feast of Saint Thomas Aquinas

About a year and a half ago, when Bishop Taylor called me to ask about coming to be the priest here at the U of A, I confess I was a little hesitant. I wasn’t very familiar with the university or the city, and I had no real training in campus ministry or working with college students. But there were also many aspects to the idea that attracted me. As silly as it may seem, one of the first of these that came to mind was being at a parish named for Thomas Aquinas.

Santi di Tito, Vision of Saint Thomas Aquinas (1593) 

Saint Thomas has always been one of my favorite saints, a man legendary – even in his own time – for his astonishing intellect and his profound holiness. He was a Renaissance man before the Renaissance: a philosopher, theologian, scientist, mystic – one of the greatest minds in the history of western civilization, let alone the Church. He understood well the human condition and the human person, and he knew we humans cannot find happiness apart from living in communion with God. He is also, to my mind and to the minds of many others, one of the most important saints for our time because the theological tradition he was a part of is so needed today – viz., that faith and reason are compatible, that science and theology are not mutually exclusive, that Truth with a capital T is real and rooted in God.

In the Gospel today, Jesus speaks about Truth, beginning his famous Sermon on the Mount. The imagery of the scene should not be too quickly passed over. Jesus goes to the top of a mountain where he then is seated, with the peoplle spread around him to listen. Quite intentionally, the Gospel writer is portraying him in the place of God, imparting to his creatures wisdom about how to live. And Jesus opens with the Beatitudes – the eight famous but paradoxical statements about how to find beatitudo, blessedness, happiness.

Thomas Aquinas wrote on the Beatitudes, as earlier Christian writers did. He saw in them not a series of platitudes about life as an ideal – as if a person should strive to live in such a way but without real hopes of doing so. Rather, he understood the Beatitudes as Jesus’s keys for true happiness, the acts by which we detach ourselves from the things of this world and hold fast to what truly will last. The blessed person – the person who embraces poverty in spirit, who is not enslaved to pleasure, who is humble, who is merciful, who is focused on God, who works for peace, who endures persecution for God’s sake – such a person becomes herself godly, becomes himself one who thinks with the mind of God and loves with the heart of God. That is true happiness, a happiness that anticipates the state of eternal happiness, beatitudo, of heaven.

So how do we grow in the Beatitudes? How do we become blessed in this way? One of the most important ways is what we’re doing right now – worshipping together in the Mass. The Mass is not just the service that we attend once a week out of habit or some vague sense of obligation. It is rather the school by which we are educated, the training ground by which we are formed in learning how to be happy. We are apprentices in the school of beatitudo – happiness, blessedness – and so we gather to hear God’s teaching and wisdom about how to live. We reflect upon our own lives to examine how we might be happier, according to God’s definition. And most importantly, in the Eucharist, we receive the Real Presence of Christ, literally taking him into ourselves so that his attitudes and virtues might become ours.

Saint Thomas had a deep love for the Eucharist. It was at the very heart of his spiritual life. In addition to his theological reflections, he wrote beautiful and mystical hymns about this greatest of the sacraments. In honor of his Eucharistic devotion, I would like to make some practical suggestions about how you and I can grow in our understanding of and love for the Blessed Sacrament. I wish to say in advance that I’m not trying to nitpick about behavior or to make any of us feel bad if we’re not doing something exactly the right way. Rather, I share these thoughts so that you and I can grow in our appreciation, as Thomas did, of the sacrament we receive each week.

· First, we need to understand well what it is we are receiving. It’s easy to get in the habit of getting in the communion line each week and letting our minds wander. But we remember we are preparing not just to do something symbolic or ritualistic. Rather, we are preparing to receive Jesus himself, his Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. It is our Catholic belief that while the appearance and characteristics of bread and wine remain, after the consecration it is Jesus himself who nourishes us.

· This act of communing with the Lord also means that we must be in communion with each other. We are always happy to welcome friends of other faith traditions to join us at Mass, but since our faith traditions are not fully united, we cannot extend to them the invitation to communion. If you invite a non-Catholic friend, to Mass, great! But it's also your responsibility to show them how they are to cross their arms in the communion line to receive a blessing. Similarly, those Catholics who are conscious of having committed serious sin should refrain from receiving the Eucharist without first making a confession, so that they can prepare a fitting place for the Lord to abide with them. They too are invited to receive a blessing.

· For those of us who do receive, we must make an effort to receive well. It is proper, for example, to make a slight bow of the head before communion (usually when the person directly in front of you is receiving). If one is receiving on the tongue, one should open one’s mouth sufficiently and let your tongue protrude slightly so that the minister can give you communion easily. It’s not proper to bite at the host with one’s teeth or lips. If one is receiving in the hands, make sure your hands are relatively clean, and that you hold them out flat in front of you and close to the minister, not way down low. It is not proper to grab at the host or try to take it with your own hands – remember you are receiving communion. Remember also that you should place the host in your mouth before you turn away from the minister; you are not to walk away with the host still in your hands. Finally, when the minister says, “The Body of Christ,” or “The Blood of Christ,” the proper (and only) response is “Amen,” not “Thank you” or no response at all.

· Having received the Eucharist, we should turn to prayer and reflect upon who we have just received. This may be in the prayers of the song that the congregation is singing or it may be in our own silent prayers. It is not proper to let our minds wander, or to start chatting with our neighbor, or to just watch as everyone else goes to communion. You and I have just received the Lord who has created all things, who formed us in our mother’s womb, who became man for us, who suffered on the Cross for us, who rose from the dead for us, who desires to bring us to his eternal happiness. Surely, we can offer a few moments of thanksgiving for all that he has done for us! Perhaps we might even consider staying after Mass a few moments for an extra prayer before we head out into the world, or consider coming a few minutes earlier the next week so that we prepare again with prayer.

Sassetta, St. Thomas Inspired by the Dove of the Holy Ghost (Arte della Lana Altarpiece), c. 1423

Friends, as we celebrate our patron today, Saint Thomas Aquinas, let us ask that God may instill in each of us a new and deeper devotion to the sacrament which is the source and summit of our faith. From the Eucharist, we receive strength to live the Beatitudes, to find happiness in the way that Jesus has given to us. Through the Eucharist, we are able to be disciples the rest of the week in all of the challenges that that presents – to love our neighbor as ourselves, to work for peace, we endure suffering, to find the courage to accept the invitation of Christ, even when it is the Bishop calling. In the Eucharist, we experience a foretaste of the eternal beatitudo, the blessedness, of heaven. May Saint Thomas Aquinas intercede for each of us this day that our faith may deepen, that our works may prosper, and that nourished by the Bread of Life each day sees us journeying closer to our heavenly homeland.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Finding Unity in Christ

Christ Calling His First Disciples (1839) by Adam Brenner

In the Gospel today, Jesus begins his public ministry. He preaches repentance like his predecessor, John the Baptist, but he also goes beyond John’s preaching. Unlike John, Jesus travels. He doesn't just have people come to him – he goes out to them. As he does so, he attracts followers. We hear the names of some of the first of those followers, men who become his disciples. Jesus is bringing people together, building unity around himself.

And yet, the history of Christianity is fraught with division and discord. We heard in the Second Reading how even just a few decades after Jesus’s death and Resurrection there were factions developing in the Christian community in Corinth. Saint Paul urges unity, encouraging the Corinthians to be devoted to Christ rather than anyone else. But sadly, despite such calls for unity, division continues. As we know from history, the Christian religion fragmented over the centuries, sometimes over important issues but more often than not over misunderstandings.

We even see this here at the U of A – one just has to walk around campus to see the number of different campus ministries and faith groups, claiming to have the authentic Christian message. But while we are familiar with these divisions, we should not be content with them. As Catholics, we say that it is the responsibility of every baptized person to work for Christian unity – to pray for that unity and do our part to work toward what Jesus himself prayed for: “May they be one, Father, as you and I are one” (Jn 17:21).

This week, Christians around the world, including the Catholic Church, are observing A Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It is a time for us to reflect upon and work toward Jesus’s desire that his followers be united. Much of the work of this effort happens at a level higher than our community – the Vatican, for example, has dialogues with international Christian groups; the US Conference of Catholic Bishops discusses with other American assemblies about how best to carry Jesus’s message forward to our world.

But Jesus’s desire for unity among his followers is not something that can be accomplished merely by conferences and committees. It also has to happen at a more fundamental level, at the level of each of us as individuals. I would like to propose, if I may, two concrete ways that each of us can work to building Christian unity, no matter what context we may be in:

First, all of us are called to a deeper sense of Christian forgiveness. There may be no more radical aspect of the Gospel message than, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” I am sure all of us recognize how great this idea is in theory – that love conquers hate, that prayer is the proper response to being treated badly. Living it out though is extremely difficult, but it’s precisely for this reason that it is so important. When someone insults or slights us, we Christians have at that moment a choice to love as Jesus loved ... or not, to be an instrument of his mercy to the other person ... or not. Forgiveness is not something we do merely by our own power or only once we feel like we are ready. Rather, it is a choice we make relying upon God’s grace, recognizing that just as he has forgiven us completely in Jesus's sacrifice on the Cross, so too we must seek to forgive completely in return. What a powerful witness we would be for others if we Catholics were as merciful as the Lord calls us to be!

In a broader sense, any work of charity that we do is also an act of mercy. Maybe it is volunteering for a service project, or helping a friend in need, or calling up a relative that lives alone. These things seem ordinary but they can be moments of great grace. When we make an effort to show kindness, to demonstrate mercy, we continue the work of Jesus, we undo division, we heal discord, we build unity. As Christians, our charitable works are not done merely for altruistic purposes, like any other person might do them. Rather, they are born out of our faith in Jesus and in our understanding that we are called to continue his mission of building the kingdom of heaven.

A second concrete way that I think we are called to work for Christian unity is to deepen our own knowledge of our Catholic faith. It may seem a little counterintuitive that we can grow closer to other Christians by deepening our own Catholic identity, but I think we can’t really seek to understand others until we first understand ourselves. Our Catholic tradition is so rich and comprehensive, stretching from our time all the way back to the time of Jesus and the apostles. Shouldn’t we want to learn more about who we are, where we come from, what we believe? Shouldn’t we wish to share that with others?

I’d like to encourage each of us to make an effort this year to deepen our Catholic identity in some way, maybe by joining one of our Bible studies here at St. Thomas, or by spending time with the Lord in Eucharistic adoration on Wednesday evenings, or by seeking out some spiritual or religious reading to learn more about some part of our faith that we find interesting or puzzling. The formation of our Catholic identity is a lifelong project, but the more we make an effort to begin now, the more we will come to know and love Jesus in a fuller way and be his witness to the world.

Friends, we hear many voices these days emphasizing the need for understanding, compassion, and unity in our society. As Christians, we echo these concerns; but we also know that these virtues are only fully realized in Jesus, since they are reflections of him and the Good News he has brought. The ministry that he started 2000 years ago continues today in us, and he calls us to follow him just as he did the first disciples. By our forgiveness, by our charity, by our faith, may God help us bear Jesus’s presence in a world which needs him now more than ever.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Best Version of Ourselves

This week’s Gospel may seem like we hit the rewind button. You may remember that about a month ago, in the middle of Advent, we heard a few Gospels about Jews going out to the desert to see John the Baptist. Then we moved on through the Christmas season, through Epiphany, and now this Sunday into Ordinary Time, and yet here we are, once again in the desert with John the Baptist showing up. So what’s going on?

Well, we’re seeing two sides of John the Baptist, but what the Gospel is really seeking to show us does not concern him but Jesus. In Advent, we looked at John the Baptist the prophet, the one who made straight the way of the Lord in advance of the Messiah’s coming. Now, he is the one pointing out the Lord – the one upon whom the Holy Spirit descended in the form of a dove, the one about whom the voice of the Father spoke, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” The coming of Jesus has changed John; he had foretold the Messiah but now he has seen him with his own eyes and he points him out to all of his followers so that they may become his followers: “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world.” John’s whole identity has been changed by his encounter with Christ.

It might not seem evident at first, but something similar is happening in the second reading for today. St. Paul is writing the introduction to his first letter to the Corinthians, which in the opinion of most scholars just so happens to be the first of any of his letters. What’s the very first thing he does? He introduces himself: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God”. This was a very standard way of beginning a letter in the first century, and so one might assume that Paul is just following convention. Except remember who he is! His given name is not “Paul” but “Saul” and he was one of the fiercest persecutors of Christianity – until he too encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus and like John the Baptist had a complete change of his identity, from Jew to Christian apostle, from one advocating violence to one sent by God to preach the Gospel.

There are times in life when an encounter with someone changes who we are: a young man who meets the woman of his dreams, a mother who sees the child she has been carrying for nine months, a teacher or coach who inspires and transforms, a friend or mentor who lifts us up when we are at our lowest point. We don’t think of these formative relationships as ones that change our identity but they do – we’re different from before, if not in name than at least in perspective, in sentiment, in purpose.

Take those experiences – and multiply them by a million – and that’s what happened to John the Baptist and to Paul when they encountered Jesus. Their identities were completely reshaped by encountering the God-who-became-Man. They became saints, men whose lives found their very purpose and meaning in Jesus and what he called them to. The Good News, brothers and sisters, for this week is that that very same encounter is available to us, indeed it has already occurred – we need only unlock its graces. By virtue of our baptism, we have all encountered Jesus in a radically new way and have become a part of the supernatural reality that bridges heaven and earth, the Church. When we go through each day, we are not at our deepest level only son or daughter, husband or wife, student or employee, man or woman – each of us is one who knows Jesus, who has met him, who loves him and *especially* one who is loved by him.

Lorenzo Lippi, The Baptism of Saint Paul (c. 1655)

Does this mean we live our lives differently? It should. It should mean that we regard ourselves as changed as John the Baptist and Paul did. It should mean that we look at ourselves not merely as concerned with our own schedules and plans and priorities – but as those “sent” by the Lord to do his will, as much as the apostles were. We must be followers of Jesus not in name only but in reality, not just for the hour on Sunday we’re in Mass but at every moment of every day.

You know, each of us wants to be the best version of ourselves – it’s the reason why so many make resolutions in the New Year to improve in some area or another. As we start a new academic semester at the university, those of us who are students, or faculty, or staff also wish to grow upon the successes we’ve made and reform the errors we’ve committed. But as Christians, we also profess that the best version of ourselves is the version that has encountered Jesus – and that keeps encountering him anew, with Jesus always as our aim and as our purpose. The successes we have are his graces; the errors we make are his opportunities, and the lives we live should be defined not by whatever limited identity we would wish to create for ourselves but by the new and triumphant identity we have in him.

Friends, as we move away from the Christmas season into Ordinary Time, let’s not hit the rewind button in who we are. Just like John the Baptist and Paul, we too have encountered and continue to encounter Jesus – in the sacraments, especially in the Eucharist; in our prayer and in the graces that God gives us to be faithful to him each day; and in the encounters we have with one another, bearing Christ within us. And this encounter will change us, it will redefine our identity in the best way possible – if only we keep our eyes on Jesus. In the words of St. Paul, may God’s “grace and peace” be with us so that we can help others encounter Jesus in us and so become the very best version of ourselves.