Saturday, April 15, 2017

Proclaiming the Easter Message

There are some announcements, some bits of news that must be given in person. We have so many diverse means of communication, especially in our modern era – from emails to text messages to all kinds of social media – but we also still understand that some important messages must be conveyed face to face. 

In the Gospel, we heard how this is true also for the most important message ever communicated. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to the tomb of Jesus, wishing to honor their dead friend by anointing his body, something they had not done the previous Friday because Passover was beginning. They come, in other words, in mourning, dismayed that the one in whom they had believed had been put to death but unable to let go of their love for him entirely. And as we hear, they are met with a bit of fairly important news – “He is not here, for he has been raised just as he said.”

The women receive this message not by observation but by the communication of God, from the very mouth of an angel. It is therefore something from heaven, something that by ourselves we are unable to conceive. After the betrayal and abandonment and accusation and violence of all that had come before, after Jesus submits to all of the evil that the world can inflict, the message from heaven is that death has been conquered by life. Evil gave it its best shot, but the goodness of God was stronger.

Three Marys at the Tomb (1876), William-Adolphe Bouguereau 

This message – this communication of a fact so stunning that it makes the women afraid even as they are filled with joy – this is the Good News of Easter. It is, in many ways, the only message that the Christian community has for the world, but the richness of its meaning is one that can never be exhausted. That the tomb is empty, that Jesus is risen, that the evils of this world are nothing in the face of God’s love must be a revelation that you and I encounter anew every day. “He has been raised just as he said.” We do not know yet know ourselves life beyond the power of the grave, but in Jesus we experience this Good News even now, and we rejoice in it.

Of course, like Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, we are called to do more than just receive the message. We also must share it anew. Just as the angel communicated their salvation to them, so too he called them to share it with Jesus’s disciples, hidden away in sorrow and bewilderment. The women believed, and having believed, they encounter Jesus himself. Having put their trust in the Good News that he had received, Jesus appears, showing that he is indeed risen and they have nothing to fear.

For some months now, our friends with us this evening – the catechumens and candidates of our community – have also been preparing to receive the presence of Jesus in a new way. They have sought to deepen their faith in the Lord, putting aside doubts or fears, and instead embracing the Good News that has brought them to our Catholic community. Tonight we are reminded that like Mary Magdalene and the other disciples on that first Easter morning, each of us who places our faith in the Resurrection of Christ receives the reassurance of our faith through his grace. Like them, you and I are called to bring the Easter message – that Christ the Lord has been raised, and we too with him – to those who need to hear it, those who are dismayed by the evil of the world. We who profess faith in Christ have a message to share with them, a gift to give to them. “He has been raised just as he said.”

It is this message which is our mission as Christian believers. In the sacrament of confirmation, which we will celebrate in a few moments, you and I are sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit, the one who raised Jesus from the dead, and who now fills us with his power to announce that message by our lives. Like the women at the tomb, like the disciples of Jesus, and the early Church, we are called to let go of our fearfulness and bewilderment and instead to rejoice in the power that the Risen Christ conveys to us to spread his Good News to the world. We are missionaries of the Easter message, sent forth to share personally what we ourselves have received.

Friends, the angel from heaven told the disciples that Jesus would meet them in Galilee. He meets us too in our daily lives, in the settings that are familiar to us and part of our routine; but gladdened by the message of his Resurrection, our lives are not the same as before – what is familiar has been made new. Through our daily prayers and works of service, let us announce anew – to ourselves and to those still plagued by sorrow and bewilderment – that eternal proclamation of Easter: that the goodness of God is more powerful than evil, that love is stronger than hate, that God has defeated death with the life of the Risen Christ.

May God grant you his joy in this holy season!

Friday, April 14, 2017

Good Friday: Testifying to the Truth

Paolo Veronese, Crucifixion (c. 1582)

We see its likeness everywhere – on billboards, bumper stickers, and jewelry. It comes in all shapes and sizes and made of just about any material. The cross is a ubiquitous symbol, all around us, and for that reason, one that has in many ways lost its meaning, even for many Christians. In the venerations of our Catholic tradition, we tend to use the crucifix – that is, the cross with the body of Jesus on it – but even that I think at times is a symbol we have become accustomed to, and thus overlook.

Today, we are reminded again of the terrible reality of what the cross stands for – of what a crucifixion actually is. Far from a status symbol or fashion piece, it was a brutal means of execution and something meant to inspire terror in those who saw it – in short, a warning not to oppose the powers of the world.

Judged according to worldly standards, the Cross of Christ is certainly a defeat. Jesus’s public life as a preacher and healer ends with his ignominious death, hanged on a tree for all to see. But as we heard in the Gospel narrative, Jesus is not helpless. He suffers and submits to what others have plotted for him, but he does so willingly. The purpose of his life – and his death – is, in his words, to testify to the truth.

A few weeks ago, I noticed something about our crucifix behind the altar that I had not noticed before. If you look closely, Jesus’s right hand – though nailed against the wood – is in the traditional position of blessing or teaching, the thumb, index finger, and middle finger extended with the other two fingers curled against the palm. What a beautiful if subtle way of teaching us that, when seen with eyes of faith, the Cross is not a defeat but a victory, not an end but a beginning. Jesus’s death is the final teaching to humanity about the love of God for us, that the Father would send his Son to suffer and die to save us from eternal death. The Cross is an eternal blessing that opens for us the way to eternal life.

When we come forward later in a few moments to venerate the Cross, we honor the particular way that Jesus showed us the depth of his love. Jesus came to testify to the truth, by his life and by his death. When we recall his sacrifice – indeed, when we unite our own sacrifices and sufferings to his – then we too testify to the truth of God’s love.

Friends, though it has now become something common, even ordinary to us, every crucifix should remind us of the saving of Jesus – that it was real and it was terrible. But the Cross is not the last word, for Jesus is no longer dead but lives forever. United to him, he will bring us to victory over death and every power of this world. May the Cross of Christ be our foundation in faith, our hope for eternal life, and our model for how to follow the Lord.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Holy Thursday: The Legacy of Christ

One of the more important things that a responsible adult needs to do is to write a will. I remember when my sister and her husband were preparing to welcome their first child, and my dad told them, “You know, guys, it’s time for you to get a will.” They were a bit taken aback by his suggestion – when you’re starting a family, after all, who wants to think about what life will be like when you’re dead? 

With some reflection, though, they could see what he meant. Making a will allows us to set our affairs in order, providing for our loved ones and stating clearly what we want to happen with our legacy. In the era of Jesus’s day, it was not uncommon for a patriarch to gather together his family and explain what inheritance he was giving to each of them and how they were to honor his legacy when he was gone.

The Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples has many facets by which it can be approached: it is an intimate meal among friends; it is a Passover meal, commemorating the time when God brought Israel out of slavery in Egypt; it is the setting of Jesus’s betrayal and the beginning of his Passion. But for the Christian community, this supper in the Upper Room is also when Jesus gathered us together as his family and shared with us his legacy, what he desired us to inherit from him, and how he wished us to honor him by it.

The Eucharist – our communion with Jesus’s Passion, death, and Resurrection by means of receiving his Body and Blood – is the preeminent gift of our Lord to his loved ones, both the disciples gathered in the Upper Room and us at every liturgy at which we gather. It his lasting legacy, the gift of Himself and even more the gift of a sharing in what he accomplished on Calvary. Like St. Paul said to the Corinthians, we receive this gift as something passed on from those before us, a truly spiritual inheritance given by Jesus from generation to generation. Each time we gather at this altar, we are not simply partaking in what looks like bread and wine – rather we are truly communing with the Lord, receiving anew as it were from Christ the identity and the legacy that he has given to us as his Church.

The Last Supper by Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret (1895)

Of course, like any inheritance, the Eucharist is given to us not only to be received but to be used in accord with the intention of the Lord who has given it. Like any family treasure, we can misuse it, devalue it, even defame it if we forget the reason Christ willed it to us. What is that reason? He shows us clearly in the Gospel. Washing the feet of the disciples, Jesus becomes the servant, humbling himself to show us how to serve him. At the heart of Christ’s gift of himself in the sacrament is his desire that we might become, by the graces of the Eucharist, visible signs and examples of Eucharistic love in our service to one another. Receiving the Lord from on high, we become sharers in his identity – our hearts opened so that our hands may work, washing the feet of the world.

The disciples were taken aback by the act of service that they were shown. But after his passion, death, and resurrection – after they had come to understand what that Holy Thursday night had meant, when they remembered Jesus’s command to remember him – they understood that they too had the mission to wash feet. We too remember the same each time we gather around this altar. Empowered by Christ himself in the Eucharist, we bring Christ to others by our service, by our love, by the very way we live our lives.

Each year, the Church in our diocese takes up a collection on this day to support the education of our seminarians, the men who believe God may be calling them to be priests in service to his Church. Perhaps God similarly is speaking to the heart of a man here today in that same way; or perhaps God is speaking to the heart of a young person considering the consecrated single life; or perhaps to two individuals in love – who feel an attraction to each other – but who are called to see in each other their way to holiness and to heaven through holy marriage; or to any of us in a particular way that only the Holy Spirit knows. Any vocation, any mission by which we define our lives – the way we work out our salvation, in the words of St. Paul, through fear and trembling – must have at its heart ... feet-washing, the service of God through humbled love for the ones around us.

Friends, on this Holy Thursday, the anniversary of Jesus’s institution of the new covenant of his love, our hearts are moved to “thanksgiving” (the word in Greek? Eucharistein), thanksgiving that our Lord has given us this spiritual inheritance, this gift to be embraced and shared and lived out each and every day. Every time we share in this sacred meal, we receive anew from Jesus our identity as members of his Body, sharers in the covenant of his Blood, sent forth by him to renew the world with our service and charity. May Jesus in this Eucharist strengthen us to always honor the inheritance he has given us and fulfill the mission to which he calls us.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Palm Sunday: The Suffering Servant

There is a natural instinct we have as humans to avoid pain – we recoil from a hot stove, we jump at a sudden loud noise, we flinch if it seems someone is about to strike us. In extreme situations, if we sense immediate danger, we even get an adrenaline rush to defend ourselves and fight back if necessary. In short, we don’t bear well insults and especially injuries without avoiding, complaining, or even fighting back in some way. 

And yet, the Passion narrative that we just read tells us that is just how Jesus responded during his own torture, crucifixion, and death. When accused, he remained silent; when flogged, he did not cry out; when given a crown of thorns and a scarlet robe to mock his claim to divine kingship, he did not weep. Instead, Jesus stands as the calm center within the chaotic storm of sin around him – seeing all, bearing all, enduring all. The only clear word that we hear him speak in the narrative are the words of the 22nd psalm: Eli, eli, lema sabacthani – “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

In this moment, perhaps more than any other in his life, Jesus is accomplishing the mission of mercy for which he came. He is the Suffering Servant, the one who bears the sins of Israel, accepting on their behalf (and ours) the weight of the consequence of sin. Though he is the rightful heir to his ancestor David, the triumphant king of Jerusalem, he nonetheless chooses to embody literally the words of the First Reading of Isaiah: “I have not rebelled, have not turned back. I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.” Though he possesses inwardly the eternal experience of the Father’s love, Jesus gives himself over to the experience exteriorly of being completely abandoned, forsaken, in union with what our own wicked humanity has chosen apart from God.

Jesus sets his face like flint, in the words of Isaiah, so that he may speak a word that will rouse the weary. By remaining silent, Jesus demonstrates that God accompanies every experience of human suffering. Jesus says this to us via his silence, through his acceptance in utter obedience of what his Father desires, not to subject his own Son to torment but to raise us – his adopted children – to the life of redemption. For all who are lost, downcast, abandoned, rejected, divorced from the abundant life of God – Jesus says to you in his passion, “I have entered into what you are experiencing and I am there with you; do not be afraid.” 

Honoré Daumier, Ecce Homo (1850)

Jesus accepts silently what you and I would have rightly suffered – and it is precisely for that reason that in the face of injustice you and I cannot remain silent. Christ suffered and died for the redemption of all, and in so doing he has given every human person a greater dignity and value than we had before. Thus every offense against human life is, in a sense, an offense against Christ. The examples, of course, are easy to call to mind: the continuing and, it seems, escalating violence in Syria; the constant assault against the unborn in our country and others, now numbering in the hundreds of millions; the continued legacy of retribution by means of the death penalty, including the eight individuals scheduled to be executed in our own state beginning next week; the ever-present injustices against the low-income, the marginalized, the minority, the immigrant. These issues and more must be seen by us not merely with our political lenses or judged by our individual moral compasses; we must also see them as matters to be approached via our faith. Through our prayer, our sacrifices, our efforts to support causes of justice and especially to work for justice in our own lives through mercy, patience, kindness, gentleness – we make that redemptive work of Jesus expand just a little farther, like the rays of a rising sun, to dispel the forces of darkness.

Friends, as we start this Holy Week, we are reminded that it is out of love for us that Jesus humbled himself, even to the point of death on the cross. Calling upon his powerful name, we in turn must speak out against those injustices which defame the dignity he has given to every person by his blood. Even more, we must ensure that our own lives are reflections of his mercy and peace and unity, even bearing patiently our own suffering at times, so that we can further give praise and honor – with every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth – to the name that is above every other name: Jesus Christ the Lord.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Life Beyond the Grave

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Raising of Lazarus (c. 1632)

Some things in life can’t be learned merely by reading something out of a book or by having someone explain it to you – have to learn them by experience. For example, when I was in college I took some classes in Spanish, studying various noun declensions and verb tenses, but I couldn’t really speak the language. It wasn’t until I spent five weeks in Mexico after being ordained, immersed in the Spanish culture and tongue, that I learned how to speak the language. I’m a big baseball fan, but while I can know how to grip the balls for various pitches, I don’t know like Deacon Norm how to actually throw them. Experience often helps us learn what theory alone cannot.

Jesus, I think, knew this well, which is why so often in the Gospels he teaches by showing rather than telling. Yes, there are the parables and the descriptions of the kingdom of God that he gives us; but often it’s through his miracles that Jesus really gets the attention of those around him. Multiplying the loaves and fishes to feed the crowd of thousands shows the abundant goodness of God in a way that words just can’t do. One can know theoretically that God takes care of us, but seeing Jesus calm the storm and still the seas gives that knowledge the firmness of experience. The miracles of Jesus, in short, show that what he claims is worthy of belief.

In the Gospel today, Jesus works what surely was one of his most dramatic miracles, the raising of his friend Lazarus from the dead. Each of the last three weeks, the reading from the Gospel of John has had Jesus encounter a particular person and change them in a fundamental way. Two weeks ago, if you remember, we heard of how he met the Samaritan woman at the well, giving her the gift of faith, and reconciling her to neighbors who had shunned her because of her sinfulness. Last week, we heard of how Jesus healed the blind man by the pool of Siloam, giving him status again among the Jewish community who before had taken no notice of him. These interactions show that Jesus is all about breaking down barriers, restoring the individuals he meets to fullness of life.

Today’s Gospel, though, shows a different kind of encounter, one with a person not lacking fullness of life, but life itself. We are told that Lazarus was Jesus’s friend, and that he wept when he was taken to Lazarus’s tomb. It’s strange, therefore, that Jesus behaves the way he does when first hearing that his friend had fallen ill. Did you notice that the Gospel says that upon receiving the news, Jesus stayed where he was for two days? This delay results in Lazarus’s death, something pointed out by both Martha and Mary: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Even the Jews wonder, “Couldn’t the one who healed the blind man, have done something?”

What exactly is Jesus doing? Is he being selfish, or lazy – or, worse, cruel? No, certainly not. Rather, some things are better learned by experience them than by explanation. The fundamental message of Jesus throughout his public ministry is that he has come to bring fullness of life – a life of abundance in God’s grace that extends even beyond this life. This message though can remain theoretical, hypothetical even, unless it is experienced in some way. And so Jesus chose to allow Lazarus to die – even, indeed, to permit his loved ones to grieve his death – in order to teach us a greater truth. Here he shows us that – even more than forgiving an individual’s sins or curing a sick person – Jesus possesses the power to reach even beyond the grave to grant us the fullness of life. By raising Lazarus, Jesus also in a sense raises Martha and Mary, raises all who saw, raises indeed all of us who believe in him so that we too can see – not just in theory, but in actuality – that even death has been conquered by Christ. If that is something that we believe, then we can’t help be changed by it, and encounter anew in a profound way God’s all-conquering love.

Friends, one week from now, we will enter into Holy Week and begin again our most solemn celebrations of the year. In them, we will recall how the mystery of suffering and death is something that God has dealt with finally and completely, not just theoretically but in the experience of his own Son. Jesus raised Lazarus from the death only to one day die again; but by his own death and resurrection, we who are members of his Body have also been raised to eternal life. No human suffering, no sorrow at our own mortality or the mortality of those we love, indeed no force on earth or in hell can separate us from the love of Christ if we remain in that love. May we prepare our hearts well for the high holy days to come, that He who is the Resurrection and the Life will help us to experience anew – now and in every moment – the victory over death that he gives.