Sunday, August 1, 2021

Stubborn Faith

One of the things about ministering to a community that has two language groups is that I’m constantly working to make myself better understood. To do that, I have to keep learning. Recently, I learned – or probably, relearned – the Spanish word for “stubborn”: “terco.” It’s an important word to know, if for not other reason than that I have been described as “terco” myself a time or two.

Stubbornness, “la terquedad,” is often a hindrance to growth in the spiritual life. Today’s readings give us good examples of this. In the reading from Exodus, the Israelites are journeying in the desert. Having been led out of slavery in Egypt, they are now undergoing a period of trial before they enter the Promised Land. However, rather than rely upon the God who rescued them from bondage so dramatically, they resort instead to grumbling. God is trying to test and deepen their faith, but out of stubbornness for what they knew before, the Israelites only complain.

Something similar is going on in the Gospel. Jesus has been performing miracles all around the region of Galilee, culminating in the one we heard about last week, the multiplication of the loaves and the fish. But despite all the signs that have been given to them, the people are stubborn. Despite just being fed miraculously by him, they ask Jesus again for a sign for why they should believe in him. He chides them for not looking beyond their physical hunger to see what God is doing right in front of their eyes.

Peter Paul Rubens, The Israelites Gathering Manna in the Desert (c. 1627)

What might these readings tell us about ourselves? We face trials, too – perhaps we feel we are being tested right now, in some way specific to ourselves, or just generally with all that is going on around us. When these arise, we can resort to being stubborn in the way that the Israelites and the people of Galilee were. We can grumble and complain, we can focus on what we don’t have or yearn for what we used to have, and we can even demand that God give us some sign for why we should believe in him.

But that’s not really the best response, is it? Not only does it not actually help meet our needs, but that kind of stubborn grumbling usually leads us even further away from God, perhaps forever. The Christian author C.S. Lewis once wrote: “Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others... In each of us there is something growing, which will BE hell unless it is nipped in the bud.” What Lewis recognizes is that we need to cut off at the root that temptation to grumble and be bitter or else it may very well lead to our own damnation.

A better response to any trial or testing is intentional perseverance in faith. In a sense, this is a kind of stubbornness, too, but not one that comes from grumbling or focusing on what we don’t have – or demanding that we be shown proof for why to believe – but rather a remembrance of and reliance upon the goodness of God. Recalling the blessings of God, present or past, can inspire in us a gratitude for what he has given and ward off temptation to abandon hope in a time of current need. Blessed Solanus Casey, a Franciscan priest from Detroit who lived in the first half of the 20th century and whose feast we celebrated this past week, used to give a simple bit of advice to those who were undergoing trials: “Thank God ahead of time.” When we give thanks to God for what we have received, or even (strange as it may seem) for what we have not yet received, we look beyond our present need and become open to what he is doing right in front of us. This sort of stubborn faith – refusing to give into discouragement, rejecting any temptation to complain or become ungrateful – is just the sort of faith that God wants to grow and deepen within us in order to lead us to something greater. In this way, our trials can become little periods in the desert, by which he teaches us to rely upon him as we journey ever closer to his Promised Land.

Friends, in this life, the Lord wants us always to keep learning – not new words of a foreign language, but new ways of trusting in him and seeing what he is doing right in front of our eyes. Let’s ask the Lord to make us all “terco,” stubborn – but stubborn not in our grumbling but in our faith in him. Whatever trial or difficulty we may be facing, let’s take the advice of Fr. Casey and “thank God ahead of time,” even as we keep asking him for what we need. As we prepare to receive the Bread of Life, our Daily Bread, may this Sacrament strengthen our faith and increase our gratitude so that we may never stray from God’s grace.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

See the Whole Story

Just about any event can be told from multiple perspectives. For example, the Olympics have just started. In any competition, the basic story of what happens is the same, but different perspectives will emphasize different things. The winning side will understand the event differently than the losing side; the view of the coach is going to be different from the view of the spectators. Perspective matters, and to see the whole story, you need to hear each perspective.

In today’s Gospel, we hear the miracle of Jesus’s multiplication of the loaves and the fish. It’s the only one of Jesus’s miracles that is attested to by all four Evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each relate this story. They do so in their own way, with slightly different emphases and details, but all relating the same central event: Jesus did something unexplainable in human terms, miraculously feeding thousands of people, and it affected them so greatly that they wanted to carry him off to make him king. While that is the basic story of what happened, to fully understand this Gospel perhaps we should consider it from different perspectives.

The first perspective we might consider is that of the crowd. They have been following Jesus around the Sea of Galilee, and we are told why: “because they saw the signs he was performing on the sick.” These thousands of people came out from their towns and villages to encounter healing, or better, a Healer – someone who could cure them of what ailed them. Often that was physical illness, but maybe in other cases it was something in their soul: a world-weariness, a tendency to despair, even forgiveness of their sins. They recognized in Jesus someone who could meet their deepest needs, so much so that they apparently were willing to risk staying out late in a deserted place with nothing to eat.

From this viewpoint of the crowd, we might ask: What are my needs right now? Where do I need healing? Can Jesus help me with that? Do I believe that he can?

Another perspective in the Gospel is that of the disciples. Jesus makes it clear to them that he is concerned about the crowd’s welfare; he wants to give them something to eat, and he invites the disciples to help him. Philip responds with skepticism; they have nowhere near enough money to be able to buy food for all the thousands of people. Andrew begins doing what he can, offering the meager resources of a few loaves and fish, but he also doesn’t see what good that will do. Importantly, though, once Jesus begins to act, they respond with faith. They trust that Jesus will be able to meet the need that is before them, even if they don’t understand precisely how. And Jesus uses that trust, just as he uses the loaves and the fish. The disciples help him to distribute the food and to gather up what is left over, and only then is the true extent of the miracle known.

Based on the disciples’ perspective, we might ask: Where is the Lord inviting me to help him to meet the needs of others? Will I respond with skepticism or reluctance? Or will I respond with trust, doing what I can and trusting him to provide the rest?

Anton von Perger, Multiplication of the Loaves (1838)

And, of course, there’s a third perspective from which we can look at this miracle: that of Jesus himself. While we can’t presume to know the mind of Christ, perhaps today’s psalm give us some insight into what he must have thought and felt as he performed this miracle: “The hand of the Lord feeds us, he answers all our needs.” As man, Jesus knew the Scriptures intimately; as God, he was their very author. In the miracle of the loaves and the fish, he makes the meaning of Psalm 145 come alive in a very tangible way. He is the Lord God in the flesh, feeding his people and providing for their needs. Of course, Jesus wanted to provide for the needs of his people in a way far beyond physical food; he wanted to give them himself, his own Body and Blood to meet their deepest spiritual need, his own Presence. It’s for that reason then that this Gospel is full of Eucharistic imagery, and over the next several weeks, we will continue to hear from the sixth chapter of John, as Jesus explains the teaching of the Eucharist, his Body as true Food and his Blood as true Drink.

Perhaps we might consider: is the Eucharist at the center of my faith? Can I look beyond outward appearance to see Jesus meeting my needs? Do I understand it to be Jesus himself, feeding me with himself?

Friends, there is one last perspective to consider, and that is ours. This Gospel gives us a way of looking at life, because it’s not just Gospel stories and miracles long ago that demand a deeper perspective. At every moment, in every situation, we should strive to see the whole story, to understand the spiritual meaning of what is happening. For any event, we can ask: Where is the Lord at work here? Whose need is he meeting, mine or someone else’s? What is he asking of me? How does his Presence, especially in the Eucharist, help me to do what he asks?

May the Eucharist that we will celebrate – in which Jesus himself will feed us as truly as he fed the crowds, not with loaves and fish, but with his Body and his Blood – may this Eucharist lead us in all things to a deeper trust and reliance upon him. “The hand of the Lord feeds us, he answers all our needs.”

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Resting in Jesus

The human body needs on average somewhere between seven to ten hours of rest each night, depending on one’s age and health. We know scientifically how important that rest is: it allows the body to be restored and rejuvenated, and it allows the mind to remember, process, and even learn from the experiences that happened that day. Rest is not just something we should do; it is something we must do to function well.

In the Gospel today, Jesus calls the disciples to come away with him for a while to rest. Remember how last week we heard that he had sent them out to evangelize: to go out to the towns and villages, to cast out demons, and to preach repentance. Apparently, they were successful! When they come back to tell Jesus what they had done, the people follow them and continue to appeal to them, to the point that the disciples don’t even have a chance to eat. If they were too busy to eat, they certainly were too busy to rest.

Jesus Commands the Apostles to Rest (c. 1894) by James Tissot

Taking time to rest is important; Jesus himself says so. But what kind of rest really benefits us? We need physical rest, obviously, but what about mental and emotional and spiritual rest? In reality, we often trade that kind of rest for relaxation: just zoning out, surfing the internet, scrolling social media, or binge watching TV. We may enjoy those things, but I think we also know at a deeper level that they’re not really restful. In fact, they can have the opposite effect, getting us worked up or stressed out, pushing us even farther away from being truly rested and restored. Other kinds of rest that we might think of – taking a day off, enjoying the company of friends, getting away for a vacation – those things are good, but even they don’t fully restore and rejuvenate us.

What we need is the kind of rest that Jesus calls the disciples to – a rest that is with him, in his company. Jesus commands this of every disciple, anyone who wishes to follow him, just as he commanded us last week to go out and bring his message to others. Both are necessary: to work and labor in his name, bearing his message to others, and to come away for a while and find rest and repose in him. This spiritual rest is what we call prayer. Sometimes we think of prayer only as something we *do*: words that we recite, or intentions that we speak to God. But prayer is also essentially a disposition, a way of being, a spiritual demeanor aimed at recognizing God’s presence and resting in him.

To do this, we have to eliminate distractions. Notice how Jesus invites the disciples to come away to a deserted place; that is because it is easiest to pray in quiet, in silence. When we try to pray in the same place that we spend most of our day, in the crowded, busy spaces – physical or spiritual - that we are accustomed to, we’re going to have difficulty. When we are unwilling to put down our phones, or put away our other devices, when we can’t pull ourselves away from the endless chatter that we listen to, it is going to be hard to rest in Jesus. That’s why he calls us to come away for a while – to leave those other things and even persons behind so as to spend time with him, resting in his presence. It is not always possible to do this. We may not be able to find that deserted place, physically or spiritually, that is most conducive for an encounter with the Lord. When that happens, try to pray anyway; it is better to have imperfect prayer than no prayer at all. But we should try to carve out each day some time – even if only 15 or 20 minutes – where we can put ourselves into silence and solitude, and rest in Jesus. It is not always easy or enjoyable, but it is what he asks of us as disciples.

Of course, the greatest prayer we have is the Mass, and for that reason the Mass should be the place of our greatest spiritual rest. Notice I said "spiritual" – Mass is not the place to catch up on sleep! But how important it is to see the Mass, the Sunday Mass especially, as more than just something we do out of habit, even more than just an obligation. It is an obligation; Jesus commands it, but he does so because he knows we need it. We should wish to come to Mass because we see it as the place of our deepest rest, our opportunity be spiritually restored and rejuvenated, to contemplate and understand better the experiences of that happen to us in the world. The Mass is our spiritual rest, because it is where we encounter God most nearly in this world. Jesus himself is our peace, as St. Paul tells the Ephesians, and so in the Mass we are most clearly in the care of our Good Shepherd. It is here in the Mass where we hear his words spoken to us and where his loving mercy is brought near. It is here in the Mass where he ministers to us, as he did to the people of the towns and villages of Galilee who came to him. It is here in the Mass that we – the Lord’s friends, his disciples – come away for a while from all that wearies and worries us, to step out of the world for a time to rest with him, so that refreshed and rejuvenated, we can go back to once again labor in his name.

Perhaps you heard that this past week Pope Francis issued some changes about how the Mass can be celebrated. Specifically, he restricted the celebration of the Mass in the way it was celebrated before the Second Vatican Council, the so-called Traditional Latin Mass. This form of the Mass isn’t very common in our diocese, and it won’t affect us here; but still, the pope’s decision has been controversial and is very painful for many Catholics who prefer that way of worship. While the particulars of the decision might be debated, I think what is important for us is that clearly the Holy Father desires that there be greater unity in how we worship at Mass: a deeper reverence, a fuller conscious participation, and a more loving appreciation for how the Mass puts us in communion with the Lord who is our spiritual rest. Perhaps we each can reflect upon how we approach the Mass, as individuals and as a community. Do we prepare well each week for the chance to meet Jesus, our Good Shepherd? Do we pray each day in preparation for the Mass, striving to make this the sum of all of our prayer? Do we come to find rest here – not relaxation, not entertainment – but rest, rejuvenation, communion with the Lord?

Friends, the Lord who calls us to rest and to pray will also help us to do that if we ask him. Like St. Paul tells the Ephesians, just as Jesus broke down the dividing wall between mankind and God by his Cross, let’s ask him now to break through all that keeps us from resting in him: our daily cares and responsibilities, our distractions and drudgery, even the disunity that sometimes appears here in his house. May the Eucharist that we will celebrate strengthen and unify us in body and in soul so that together we may find in him, especially in his Presence here, our peace and our rest.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Open or Closed

You might remember that in May our diocese ordained five men to the priesthood, and within the last few weeks, those new priests all have begun their parish assignments. They are doing so in parishes different from the ones they are from. Some people find this strange; they think it makes better sense to have a new priest begin his ministry in his home parish, where he already is known and has a base of support. But in reality, the opposite is true: it is usually much better for a priest, especially a new priest, to serve in a community where he is not well known.

We see the reason why in today’s Gospel. Jesus goes to his native place, his hometown, where the people have heard that he has become famous for his preaching and miracles. When he preaches in their synagogue, however, rather than be impressed with him, they become contemptuous. We are told “they took offense at him,” either because they don’t see the practicality of his preaching mission, or perhaps because they think he’s become too high and mighty. They know his background, the members of his extended family. Just who does he think he is, pretending to be a man of God?

The irony, of course, is that the people of his hometown *don’t* know who Jesus really is. Their very familiarity with him is an obstacle to seeing his true identity, which comes not from his earthly family from his heavenly Father. Because they prejudge Jesus, they are not able to hear in his voice the voice of God speaking to them, and so they are closed off from seeing his power. We are told Jesus only worked a few miracles among them because their faith was so greatly lacking.

Christ in the Synagogue at Nazareth (1658) by Gerbrand van de Eeckhout

This Gospel should prompt within us a certain cautiousness about our own openness to hearing God’s voice and how that openness relates to our faith. Most of us think, “I’d be glad to hear what God has to say, if only I knew!” That’s surely true when what he has to say is pleasing to us, but what about when it isn’t? When the Lord wants to speak something more challenging to us – forgiving that person that we don’t want to, or turning away from that sin that we like and have become accustomed to, or trusting him in a way that seems scary – it’s then that we might be tempted to think, “No, God couldn’t possibly be speaking to me in that way.” We end up thwarting the voice of God, and thus limiting what he can do with us, precisely because we think we know better. 

I find this often happens in relation to how we listen to the Church. As Catholics, we believe that the Church is not just the collection of believers; it is the community of faith, the Mystical Body of Christ guided by the Holy Spirit, in and through whom God really does speak to us. The question is whether we are always open to believing that. When our pope or our bishop teaches on a topic that we don’t want to hear about, we might be tempted to think: “That’s just the man talking, not God!” Or when the pastor preaches a challenging sermon, we might be tempted to say, “Oh Father, it’s so nice that you actually believe that, but that’s just not very realistic to how life really is.” Or if a friend or fellow parishioner invites us to reform our life, and embrace what the Church teaches rather than the culture, we might tempted to respond, “No, I just don’t think God would ask me to do that.” In all of those situations, and more, we have the choice either to open ourselves to what the power of God can do simply via our faith in him, or else to close ourselves off by believing that we know better.

I remember a particular encounter that I had shortly after I was ordained with a man who had fallen on rocky times. He was having trouble seeing God’s will for his life, and frankly, was doubting that God really cared much about him at all. I gave him some counsel that I knew would be difficult for him to hear but which was in accord with Church teaching and what I knew God wanted him to hear. A few months later he came back to me, and he said, “Father, thank you so much. You know, I didn’t believe you at first – I thought, ‘What does this young priest know about it?’ But then I did what you said, and you were exactly right.” God worked a miracle for that man, precisely because he was humble enough not to close himself to what was difficult to hear.

Friends, may we always have that same openness – to hear what we need to, even when it is hard. Like the people of Jesus’s hometown, foolishness and hardheartedness can be obstacles of our own making that prevent us from hearing how the Lord speaks to us. The truth is that he often does so in surprising ways, through unexpected voices, and even in that which may be difficult to hear. But if we trust in him, if as members of the Mystical Body of Christ we humbly open ourselves to what he is saying and not close ourselves in on our own presumptions, we can be sure that he will make his power known to us. Perhaps he may even do that which is miraculous – “What mighty deeds are wrought by his hands!”

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Brushes with Life

Last week, I received some very sad news. I learned that a family I knew from a previous parish had passed away very suddenly. The parents and the daughter had gone on a family vacation when they were involved in a car accident just a few miles from home. It was the kind of news that first felt unbelievable and then just left me feeling helplessly sad. As I was praying for them, I realized that I’m sure I have driven on the same stretch of road many times myself. I began to recall the various occasions when I’ve been driving in which, if things had happened just a little differently, I would not be standing here speaking to you today.

I mention all of this not to depress you, but because I imagine we each could share a similar story. From time to time we have experiences that we might call a brush with death – whether driving, or in other ways, via illness or accident – a moment when we realize that things could have turned out very differently. And such experiences remind us, sometimes jarringly so, that our lives are fragile, and that tomorrow is not guaranteed for any of us.

Our readings today also address the topic of life and death. In the first reading of the Book of Wisdom, we are assured that death was not a part of God’s plan for human life. It entered our reality instead through sin, through the temptations of the devil and the weakness of human beings. What God wants for his human creatures is what he has always wanted for us: to have life! But why does then does he still permit death? He could, if he chose, simply take it away — he could give all of us immortality. But is merely taking away death a solution to the problem? Is that really dealing with the deeper issue of sin and evil that afflicts the world? If God just made it so that everyone lived forever, would we even want that? What would prevent us from sinning again, from falling back into spiritual death over and over again, forever?

What God needed was a solution to death much deeper than just taking it away. And he found it in sending us his Son, Jesus. Through Him, he created all things and brought them to life, and through him he also shows us his power over death, as we see very clearly in today’s Gospel. Through Jesus, the daughter of Jairus is raised from the dead; through Jesus, the woman in the crowd is healed of her hemorrhage and restored to the fullness of life. To encounter Jesus is to have a brush not with death but with life, with the very Author of Life. And, finally, in his own Death, Jesus achieved what all the other miracles in his life had been leading up toward: he undid the power of death, and opened the way for all persons into new and eternal life. In the Resurrection of Christ, God has at last provided a solution to the sorrow and sin of the world in such a way that life is no longer bound by death or any other earthly power.

George Henry Harlow, The Virtue of Faith (1817)

If God has done all this heavy lifting for us, what does he ask of us? To encounter his Son – to have a brush with his eternal life. Sometimes this might come in prayer, through the powerful consolation of God’s presence when we are feeling weak or of his love when we are feeling wounded. Perhaps it comes to us through the charity of others, a kind word or a helpful hand when we need it most, and our charity toward others when they do. It especially comes in the sacraments: those moments of encounter which are very truly a brush with the Lord’s life. Today’s Gospel reminds us of the importance of approaching every sacrament with faith. When we come forward to receive Holy Communion, we must each time reaffirm our faith in who is actually present; like Jairus, we must receive with great humility and reverence the One who enters under our roof. When we seek the grace of confession (which we should do before receiving Holy Communion if we are conscious of serious sin) then we must recognize in faith that it is truly Christ who is forgiving us – it is he who restores us to life, just as he did the woman in the crowd. We must make sure that we are never like the other members of the crowd, who despite their own needs and desires, failed to truly recognize the power of the One who was in their midst.

Friends, what God wants us for us is what he has always wanted: to have life. In Jesus, he has given us a way to have it to the full – not just earthly life as we know it, but the new and everlasting life of his Son’s Resurrection. It is that life toward which he is drawing us, and for which he permits even the sorrows and tragedies that we face. By faith, we learn to see beyond life’s fragility to recognize … not death, but the Risen Life of Christ, especially our brushes with it in the sacraments. Those sacred encounters are what empower us, sustaining us in the tragic and jarring moments of life, and renewing within us the hope we have for eternal life through his Son. May the gift of faith, renewed each day, bring us one day to full and final union with him.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Hold Fast

Most of us like to be the boss – of ourselves, anyway. We like to think of ourselves as the master of our own domain and captain of our own ship; and, perhaps even more, we don’t like it when we can’t be those things. Whether it is other people telling us what to do, or events and circumstances that constrain our freedom and limit our happiness, we don’t like it when we don’t feel in control about the course of our own lives.

Of course, if we take a step back, we realize how little it is that we do control. Our plans and priorities, our health and our well-being – most aspects of our lives are usually not nearly as assured as we believe them to be. This realization can lead us to great gratitude, if we come to see how all that we have been given is a gift. At other times, though, if some sudden storm appears on the horizon, or we comprehend the smallness of our little ship in the vast ocean of life, the realization that we not in control can lead to angst, and especially fear.

But if we are not in control, who is? God, of course, as our first reading tells us today. The Lord speaks to Job from the midst of the storm cloud, assuring him that he is the one who has set the limits of the earth and sea. If those forces of nature that appear chaotic to us – the storm and the sea – are actually within God’s grasp, controlled by him, then surely the events of our own lives are too. While this may offer some assurance, it also leads to the question of why God allows us the storms of life at all. Surely, if he loved us, he would save us from what is harmful? Yes – unless the storms themselves are not the greatest harm that might befall us. In that case, God might allow the storms to prevent something even more harmful.

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633)

Today’s Gospel seems to indicate this. Jesus chides the disciples for their fear in the storm not because they have no reason to be afraid, but because they have an even greater reason not to be: his own presence with them in the boat. What really threatens us, it seems, is not the upheaval and turbulence of the storms of life, but our own illusion of self-reliance. When we think we are completely in control of our own selves, we leave no space for God. Therefore, as painful and frightening as they can be, the storms of life can also be a gift because they can help us realize anew that God is in control and not us. In the end, everything is in his hands, and whether we happen to be in tranquil waters or stormy seas at a given moment is less important than ensuring his presence is with us, in our boat, that we are holding fast to him and not anything else.

Friends, we all like the idea of being our own master, the captain of our own ship. But in reality, it is far better to let the Lord take charge: to learn, as St. Paul says, to live not for ourselves but for him who died and rose for us. May the love of Christ be what we hold fast to in all things, so that whatever the course of our journey in this life, he may guide us into the safe harbor of the life to come.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Courage for the Moment

One of the basic teachings of our Christian faith is that God can use bad for good. God is all good, and so he never wills bad things or evil occurrences directly or principally. But sometimes he does permit them for a greater purpose – for a greater good that he brings forth from the bad.

Even if that makes sense theoretically, it can be hard to see it in the real world. This week, though, we saw an example of it here in Stuttgart. The torrential rain caused flooding, damaging homes and businesses and ruining crops. That’s really bad, obviously, and we might wonder why God permitted this bad thing to happen. While only he knows the answer in full, we can understand in part by looking at the good he has brought out in people responding to the bad. Various groups and individuals in the Stuttgart community mobilized to help those who were stranded, to shore up homes and businesses and churches that were in danger, to buy and deliver food and other essential items to those who were in need, to begin repair and assistance efforts of those that were affected, and more. Now, you might say, “Well, Father, that’s just the right thing to do,” to which I would respond, “You’re right!” Those efforts that I described are examples of courage and charity, two virtues that have the tendency to unite people and which would not be present in the world unless good people had to respond to bad things. I have no doubt that in the coming weeks, those good efforts will be extended, and with courage and charity our community will continue to respond to the bad with the good.

Stuttgart residents help a person in need. (Photo credit: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Thomas Metthes)

It is too simplistic to say that God allowed the flooding for the purpose of making us better: more courageous, more charitable, etc. But when we face adversity – a flood or whatever else – he does offer us an opportunity to become those things – to become holier, to receive his grace needed for that moment and grow in the virtues that will help us to respond well. In today’s second reading, St. Paul describes his own courage in a time of trial. He has been laboring with the Corinthian community for some time, and his spirit is tired. In a very real sense, he is ready to die: he wants “to leave the body and go home to the Lord.” But he also knows that this is not for him to decide, and so he strives to be courageous, to receive the grace needed for the present moment to do what he must do. Paul knows that one day he will be judged, called to account by God for what he did or did not do with the grace and time given to him.

Isn’t this helpful also for us? We also need courage to meet the trials that come our way, to do what is necessary in the moment. True courage is not being unafraid, having no fear at all, like one might see in a comic or an action movie. True courage is doing what is necessary and right even in the midst of fear. Christian courage finds its strength ultimately in God, in a hope rooted in the Lord. Both the prophet Ezekiel and Jesus himself tell us today that God is at work in building a kingdom; his action guides the course of things and so also guides the purpose of our lives too.

This week, along with the other priests of our diocese, I was on retreat at Subiaco Abbey in western Arkansas. Each afternoon, we had some free time, and I went for several long walks in and around the monastic grounds. As I did, I observed the different activities that the monks do as part of their labors. Some were tending gardens, others were caring for the cattle, others were working in the shop fixing equipment of different kinds. It occurred to me that they probably do not always know what everyone else does, or why, or how it is important to the life of the community. Maybe only the abbot knows how all of their different activities fit together – how the good of the community is being built up through the activity of each one. But rather than worrying about the fact that they don’t understand everything, the monks just focus on their work in the present moment, trusting that it is part of a larger plan of everything working toward the good of all.

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

Friends, that is a wise approach for us to take in our lives, too. We may not always understand why a certain or trial adversity is allowed to happen; we may not always be able to see how each event fits into the broader whole. But God sees, and knows, and is guiding all of those things toward a greater end: the building up of his kingdom. What he asks of us is to attend to what is needed in this moment, to be courageous in what he has given us to do right now. Like St. Paul, or like the monks of Subiaco, may we use well the time and grace that he gives to us so that, with an eye toward our own judgment one day, we may aspire to please God in all that we do.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Cleansed by Blood

Hand sanitizer, cleaning wipes, face masks. For the last 15 months or so, we have become accustomed to seeing these things everywhere, and using them in order to protect ourselves during the pandemic. Even now, although restrictions are loosening and many people are vaccinated against the virus, many of us still find ourselves continuing to use these things – putting on a mask when you go into a store, using hand sanitizer frequently. Whether it’s a desire to practice good hygiene, or just mere habit, these things aren’t going to disappear any time soon.

Today’s readings speak of something else that cleanses and protects: blood. That sounds strange to us, but in the Bible and in the ancient world generally, blood was a kind of spiritual sanitizer, a cleansing agent that restored the soul. In the first reading, Moses orders the sacrifice of young bulls and then sprinkles the blood on the people, as a sign of their acceptance of the covenant with God. In the second reading, we hear the connection between this act– which was ritually repeated each year by the high priest as a sign of the Jewish people’s sorrow for their sin and the renewal of their devotion to God – and the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews makes the point that, while the offering of bulls and the sprinkling of blood was merely symbolic, the blood of Christ really saves. “How much more,” he says, “will the blood of Christ… cleanse our consciences from dead works to worship the living God.” Human beings now have been made clean not by the blood of bulls but by the blood of Jesus. In the Cross, we now have, as Jesus said in his own words at the Supper on the night before, a new and eternal covenant with God.

This is basic Christian doctrine, a belief that we share with all of our brothers and sisters in Christ. As Catholics, however, this belief has also a deeper and more immediate meaning for us: the blood of Christ, and the covenant we have with God by his blood, is a reality that we recognize and receive every time we gather in worship. Today we celebrate the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, our belief as Catholics that should be in the forefront of our minds every time we come to church: that in every Eucharist, what appears to us as merely bread and wine is in fact, the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ. Why is that the case? Why do we believe that? Because it is the Lord’s Blood which restores us to right relationship with God. At every Mass, the one eternal sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross is made present anew through sacramental signs. When we partake in this new covenant, we receive not the blood of bulls on our heads but the Lord’s own Blood on our lips, into our bodies, like the disciples did at the Last Supper. And like them, we are cleansed, and made to participate anew in the true worship of the living God.

Strasbourg Cathedral, 12th-13th cent.

A few years ago, a survey was published that found that most Catholics in the United States don’t actually hold this belief. According to this study, only about 3 out of 10 Catholics in the US know and believe the Catholic teaching about the Eucharist: that the bread and wine at Mass are truly and completely changed into Jesus’s Body and Blood. The rest – the other 7 out of 10 Catholics – either were confused about what Catholic teaching is, or didn’t believe it. If those statistics are true, they are deeply disturbing, and deeply saddening. The Church’s doctrine of the Eucharist is *the* doctrine that makes us who we are as Catholics. It is not just an optional theory, a belief that we can take or leave as we wish; it is the very heart of our faith identity.

What’s more, it is a belief that can form who we are – that, if we really believe it, can change everything about our understanding of ourselves and our relationship with God. Each Sunday, every time we come to Mass, if we truly hold in our minds and believe in our hearts that we are participating in the re-presenting of Jesus’s sacrifice on the Cross – that what we are receiving his very Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity – then it can’t help but strengthen and form how we live our faith in a deeper way. By the Eucharist, we can come to see our struggles as not just challenges that we face alone, but crosses that we endure through the power of Christ. Each time we come to Mass, the challenges and situations that weigh upon us can become offerings that we raise together with the Son to the Father. Everything about our life will be transformed as we begin to live out of the Eucharistic belief that the very life of Jesus is flowing sacramentally through us.

Friends, on this great solemnity, I pray that we never become so accustomed to the Eucharist that we approach it out of mere habit. Let’s make sure that, in our community at least, each of us individually and all of us collectively always recognize Who is truly and Really Present here in sacramental signs. What we do at Mass, Who we receive, is no mere symbol; it is the very Reality of Christ’s work of salvation, what he did long ago and still does now: the offering of his Blood to cleanse and protect us, his Body to renew and strengthen us. As we prepare to celebrate this Mystery anew in a few moments, may we always realize the truth of the Sacrament of the Altar and approach to receive him only with great humility, great faith, and great love.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Breath of Life

We do it so often we don’t even think about it – about 16 times per minute, 1000 times per hour, 23,000 times per day. Over the course of a lifetime, the average human being breathes in and breathes out some 600 million times, only a small fraction of which are we actually aware of. Breathing is fundamental to being alive, so fundamental that we must be able to do it unconsciously, without having to think about it first.

Because breathing is fundamental to being alive, it is not a coincidence that we often use breath as a metaphor for life. For example, in the Book of Genesis, we are told that God breathed life into the first man (Gen 2:7). To be a living creature at all was to have this breath of life (Gen 7:22), a power connected to his own Spirit, which before all of creation moved like a wind over the waters of the deep (Gen 1:2). At other times in the Scriptures, we hear how the Spirit of God comes upon particular individuals at particular times – most notably, the prophets – moving them to accomplish what he has planned. All of these images are connected; breath, and spirit, and wind are all different ways of translating the same Hebrew word: ruah. Throughout the Old Testament, we see how the ruah of God is his Spirit, breathing life, and moving like a powerful wind to accomplish what he wills. And finally, of course, in the New Testament, God’s Spirit comes upon Jesus himself, visibly in his baptism, and then animating him throughout his earthly ministry.

Vigil Mass: But here’s a question: with all of these Scriptural references to the Spirit, why did we just hear in the Gospel that “There was, of course, no Spirit yet, because Jesus had not yet been glorified.”? The answer is found in our first reading. The prophet Joel says that there will come a day when God will pour his Spirit “upon all flesh.” This isn’t just the general state of being alive, the breath of life that living beings have. This is the Spirit coming upon all persons in the way that the prophets had it, in the way that Jesus had it. God wishes, Joel says, to send out his Spirit so that all persons are endowed not just with the earthly breath of life, but the very Breath, the very Spirit that is God himself.

Mass of the Day: But here’s a question: why did we just hear in the Gospel that Jesus “will send” the Spirit (Jn 15:26-27; 16:12-15)? Isn’t the Spirit already present in the world – in all of those Scriptural references that I mentioned, and in the very person of Jesus himself? What Jesus refers to must be something different than the general state of being alive, the breath of life that all living beings have, and it must be something different than the Spirit acting in one particular person. What Jesus means is that God will send his Spirit to all persons – to everyone who knows and is connected to his Son, so that the Spirit comes upon them in the same way that the prophets had it, in the same way that Jesus himself had it. This new gift of the Spirit will endow human beings not just with the earthly breath of life, but with the very Breath, the very Spirit that is God himself.

Today we mark the great Solemnity of Pentecost, the final feast of the Easter season and the celebration of how the Holy Spirit has indeed come upon humanity in a new way. In the first Pentecost, as the Acts of the Apostles relates, the disciples were gathered together when the room in which they were was filled with the noise of a driving wind – a ruah – and the Holy Spirit descended upon them like tongues of fire. The Spirit came forth to teach them, to fill them with zeal, to motivate them to continue what God had been doing by his Spirit in the world, and now would continue to do in a new way, present in human beings.

Pentecost (c. 1846) by Fidelis Schabat

That Pentecost event is repeated, not just symbolically but really, in every sacrament, most notably the sacraments of baptism and confirmation. All Christians, every one of the baptized, has been filled with the Holy Spirit in as real a way as the disciples were in that Upper Room. By God’s grace, by the very presence of God himself, we are alive in a new way – not just with the earthly breath of life, but with the eternal life of God’s very Spirit. Within our very selves, we have the presence of God teaching us, filling us with zeal, motivating us to accomplish his will.

How do we accomplish God’s will? The first step is to seek it consciously. We can breathe naturally on our own, without thinking, as I mentioned before. But breathing with God’s Spirit is different – it can’t be done unconsciously, unthinkingly, but must be engaged with our intellect and our will, for it is in those faculties of the human soul that the Holy Spirit operates. So, if you want to be holier, if you want a deeper relationship with God, if you want to know more fully what God wants for your life, if you want to know how God is asking you to serve him – then there is no substitute for asking the Holy Spirit to show you. The Holy Spirit, breathing within your soul, can show you what he alone knows, if you seek him in prayer. As those who have been given the Spirit, we must be continually asking him – consciously, intentionally – to show us what God desires for us.

Once we have done that, and learned to continue to do that in a habitual way, then the hard part is over – God will act, he will show us, and we only have to trust him enough to be carried along for the ride. The Spirit, the mighty breath of God, will carry us like the wind if we are humble enough to let him do so, to be moved by him in that way. He will teach us his truth, console us with his presence, fill us with us fruits – unless we frustrate his action, unless we turn away from his grace, resist his movement, reject his prompting. That is why the greatest prayer we can offer to the Holy Spirit is to ask him to show us his will and make us docile in accepting it.

Friends, we breathe in and out hundreds of millions of times over the course of our lives, but in the end, the fullness of life comes not from our own powers but from the breath of God, the Holy Spirit. He breathes life not only into our bodies but into our eternal souls, but we will not receive the fullness of that life if we are not aware of it, engaging with him and seeking his will in prayer. May this time of Pentecost renew within us the conscious purpose to seek God’s will each day, so that as we celebrate the gift of him who dwells within us, we may learn to be docile to the Spirit wherever he may lead.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

What the Future Holds

Of all the kinds of fear we can have, perhaps the most common is fear of the unknown. Whether in work or family life, we tend to not like it when things are outside of our control. Just consider our experience of the pandemic; so much of our discomfort and fear was because we didn’t know who was sick and who wasn’t, we didn’t know how bad it would get or when it would improve. Recently, as things have gotten better for us locally – thanks be to God! – we feel more secure because we feel we have a better sense of what the future holds.

In today’s first reading, the apostles ask Jesus what the future holds: “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” They want some sense of certitude about what is going to happen next. But Jesus doesn’t given them that; he says it is not for them to know “the times or the seasons” for those things which God alone can know. Instead, what he tells them is that they will be given the gift of the Holy Spirit to help them in what they must do here and now. The task at hand, the task that he gives them right before he ascends to heaven, is to be his witnesses “to the ends of the earth.”

The Ascension (c. 1530) by Dosso Dossi

There is an important truth to be understood here. When we look to the future, to things unknown, we can sometimes spend too much time and energy focusing on things that are outside of our control – things that may happen or may not – and not enough on the present tasks right in front of us. There is nothing wrong, of course, in planning for the future and trying to be responsible and prepared for what may come. But when we allow the unknowns to become our primary consideration – emotionally, if nothing else – then we miss out on doing is what to be done right now, in the present moment.

What is more, sometimes without even knowing it, we can give ourselves over to fear rather than to trust in God. Jesus assured the disciples that they will be given heavenly assistance in carrying out the work that he has given them to do. That divine help is not something abstract or impersonal but is the presence the Holy Spirit. In the trials of our daily lives, in the ups and downs of family, work, relationships, taking care also of ourselves and our own wellbeing, God himself, God the Holy Spirit, assists us in those things and gives us the consolation of his presence. It’s so important to always remember: we are not alone! That may seem counterintuitive to say when today’s feast is about Jesus no longer being physically present on earth. But the Lord ascended to heaven not to leave us alone but precisely to send us his presence in a wholly new way, through the power of his Spirit.

The Holy Spirit himself is invisible, but that he is active and present in our lives should be something visible for others to see. That’s what Jesus means when he calls his disciples to be his “witnesses” – witnesses not in the sense of passive onlookers, but in the sense of those who give witness, who testify to others about the truth and love of God. In all those situations of daily life that I mentioned, we have the ability not just to get through them, to make do in the best way we can – we have the opportunity to really make them moments of showing others the strength we find in the Good News. This doesn’t mean we have to be loud or showy; we can give witness to Jesus in simple yet profound ways. If those around us are filled with worry, perhaps we suggest the value of turning to God in prayer, and then offer to lead them in praying. If uncertainties abound, or there is the temptation to despair, maybe we remind ourselves and others that our hope lies not in anything in this world but in the life to come. Perhaps it means choosing in love to have mercy and seek the good of someone who has wronged us, when others would prefer to be outraged or seek vengeance. Often, doing what is right precisely when and because it is hard is just the way to be a witness to the world of the love of Christ.

Friends, while there are many unknowns we deal with each day, ultimately, we are moving always toward something we do know – that the Lord who ascended to heaven will one day return again. Until that day, let’s not let our fears hold us back from the present task he has given us – to be his witnesses, in all that we do. We may not always know what the future holds, but we know the one who holds it, for he himself is the future joy for all who trust in him. May this Eucharist provide us renewed confidence in the presence of his Spirit among us so that in all things we may bear his name to the ends of the earth.