Saturday, June 30, 2012

God Did Not Make Death

Homily for the 13th Sunday of Ordinary Time, 2012

God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.  These are the opening lines from our first reading from the book of Wisdom today.

I don’t know how much more clear about this God could be. 
He is the God of the living, not the dead.  He did not make death, he does not like death, death is his enemy.  God wants us to live.
And yet, how many people, how many Christians, have struggled with this teaching!  Even today many, many people, maybe some of you, carry this tormenting thought, a tremendous weight upon your shoulders: the thought that the death or suffering of a loved one was or is a punishment willed by God.  That God wanted it. 

What a tormenting thought.  On top of the pain of watching someone close to us go through the pain of suffering and death, the thought that their suffering, their death, was caused by something that they did or that we did to anger God, to incur his wrath and condemnation.

Not only is it a tormenting thought, it is a thoroughly anti-Christian thought.  It is, if I may say so, straight from hell.

So today might we ask the question: well, where does this idea come from, the idea that God would want or approve of suffering and death?  We know that God is a loving God.  He created us in love.  He has told us again and again that he wants us to live with him in his love.  So why do we have such a hard time believing that he doesn’t want suffering and death for us?

I think there are two reasons:
1. We know that God is all powerful.  If he were not, death and suffering would not be a problem.  God could just shrug his shoulders and say, “I don’t know what happened here.  I was trying to save her, but things just happened, and next thing I knew, I couldn’t.  That might work if things just happened without God knowing about it.  But he knows everything, he keeps everything in existence at every moment.  So if God is in charge and people suffer and die, then it seems like we are put into a position where we have to say that God must have somehow approved?  Who can he blame?  He’s the one who is all powerful and who could save us, right?

2.  A second reason for this mistaken idea is perhaps a bit more subtle, but pervasive.  Often it seems that bad things happen to bad people and it seems that good things often happen to good people.  You treat people miserably and hatefully, they tend to despise you.  You are generous and loving, and others tend to treat you well in return.  And God himself tells us that he rewards those who do what is right, and that the way of sin leads to death.  This is true, but it is a teaching that can easily be twisted, resulting in a very mistaken notion: that when bad things happen, it must be because someone did something wrong, and that when good things happen, it must be because God loves us.  How easy it is to fall into that one, a subtle twisting of the truth that can make us begin to think that suffering and death are a punishment from God for those who do not please him.

And that is why we hear the Lord loud and clear in the scriptures today.  God tells us, he insists: he does not want anyone to die.  He is the God of the living.  He wills that we be healed, he wills that we live.  And of all the mistaken notions that Jesus came to correct, this is one of the greatest: that suffering and death are a sign of God’s anger and punishment.

Christ's whole life radically and completely corrects this mistaken notion, in his ministry, in his teaching, and finally in his passion and death.

Jesus spent his whole ministry healing the sick and suffering and even resuscitating those, like Jairus’ daughter, who had died.  He did not heal them based on their holiness, he did not heal them because they deserved it.  He healed them because they asked, or because they had faith, or just because: he showed that God loves us and wants us to live not because of what we do, but because of who we are, his beloved sons and daughters in Christ, made in his image and likeness.

And Jesus explicitly taught us something new about those who are truly blessed – he gave his disciples the teaching of the beatitudes.  Who are the blessed ones, he asked?  Those who are happy?  No, those who mourn.  Those who are free of pain?  No, those who suffer.  Those who are approved of by all?  No, those who are persecuted.  He taught his disciples and he teaches all of us very clearly that suffering and death do not mean that you are distant from God.  That actually it is when we take up our crosses and follow him that we are most closely united to him and surrounded by his love.

But then, finally, because he knew, I think that we would still not really comprehend, Jesus proved the depth of God’s love, he proved that God would never want to harm us or see us suffer. 
How?  He submitted to suffering and death himself.  The sinless Word of God, perfect in holiness, who had never offended God and who walked in his ways, suffered and died the worst of deaths imaginable.  And so Jesus showed us in his passion and crucifixion that suffering and death cannot possibly be the sign of God’s anger or wrath or distance from us.  God cannot be distant from himself, so he was not distant from the cross, and so he is not distant from suffering and death.
And so as followers of Christ, our understanding of the mystery of suffering and death must be completely transformed.  It is no longer to be feared, because rather than being a punishment, it is a sharing in God’s very life, the life of Christ who suffered and died for us.

His suffering and death on the cross show us that even though God has allowed death to enter into his creation through the devil’s cunning and Adam’s sin, those who suffer or die are never distant from God or unloved. 

No, in fact the Lord shows us that he is often closest to those who suffer and die, and that the greatest saints are often those who were intimately united with him in the suffering and in death.
So what is death?  What is suffering, if it is not punishment, if it is not a sign of God’s distance from us?  I’ve only been ordained 5 years, and it’s hot. 

But we can at least say this: our tradition teaches us that it is first and foremost a mystery, a part of this world that cannot be entirely understood in this life.  A reality of life in this fallen world that God allows for reasons that we often cannot understand.  But Jesus has shown us this: that in entering into suffering and death with him, they are transformed: they no longer are a sign of God’s wrath or anger or condemnation. 

Death’s sting has been lifted.  Christ entered into death and suffering so that they could become, like the rest of life, an opportunity for us to encounter God and his great love for us, and to respond to his love in faith and trust. Talitha koum.  Jesus told them and tells us.  Do not be afraid.  Do not be afraid of suffering, do not be afraid of death.  Suffering and death are not the worst of evils.  They can't be.  Because through and in the midst of them God gives us eternal life.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Preparing a Path to Christ in Our World

Homily for the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, 2012

Today we celebrate how God prepared a people, prepared a nation, sent prophets and a law into the world to receive the gift of his Son.  Might we ask, well why didn’t he just surprise us?

A question: if we had not been prepared, would  we have noticed the life and death of a simple, solitary man?  One who, in the estimation of this world was not of any note?  How many people who lived more than 2000 years ago could most of us list off the top of our heads?  I imagine the list would not have more than 20 names for most of us, maybe  even fewer than 10. 

Well, we might ask, why didn’t God become man as one of those people whose names are listed in the history books?  Why didn’t he become a great king and mighty ruler?

But we know the answer to that question, don’t we?  In Christ God wanted to reveal to us his saving power in the midst of weakness and darkness, which is where we need his salvation.  And so he needed to prepare us, needed to prepare a people to recognize in the humble frame of his Son Jesus, who was crucified like a common criminal, not just another tragic story of the suffering of this world, but the very image of God himself.

Today we celebrate the final stage of that preparation: with the Nativity, or the birth, of St. John the Baptist, and we celebrate that time of preparation that God spent getting the world ready for his Son.
Now, this is a very important feast for all of us, because think of how many people we run into each day – former Catholics or others, who are distant from the Church or who do not see any need for the Church.  How many who live in our families – our own children and grandchildren.  We cannot simply spring the faith on them.  Surprise, you get to come to Mass with us!  Here’s a Bible!  But what do we do? I think this is a question that really gets to many of us.  We pray for those we love who have left the practice of the faith, and that is certainly important and needed. 

But today we can also learn from the way that God prepared his people before Christ’s birth, we can learn from the feast that we celebrate today how we too can help prepare the way for Christ to enter the lives of our brothers and sisters who have either fallen away from the faith or who never had faith.
So how did God prepare his people to receive his Son?  I think we can see three stages:

First he impressed upon them that life is a gift that he gives to us because he loves us.  This truth of God’s goodness and of the goodness of life is something that most people recognize – that each day we are alive not by our own power, but by the power of another.  And this is really the first foundation stone of faith.  To recognize that we are dependent on God, and that God is good to us.  The first 3 of the 10 commandments focus on this teaching, Genesis focuses on this teaching.  God worked to help the Hebrew people recognize their reliance on him, and to become more and more grateful for his goodness.  We can see in the Psalms that they responded to his revelation with praise and thanksgiving.  Even in hardship, they took to heart God’s goodness.  They were grateful for what they were given.

And I think that more than many things, this is one of the most important preparations for Christ that we can make in our culture.  If you are not grateful for your life and for what you have, then you will not want to love God or love Jesus Christ.  If we are able to live a spirit of gratitude and to point out to those around us that we have no right to what we have.  To avoid any sense of entitlement, and instead to recognize our complete reliance on God.  Without gratitude, without a sense of thankfulness to God, there can be no love of God.  How do we live gratefully?  How do we help our families to be grateful?

Gratitude to God is the most fitting motivation to go to Mass.  To thank him for what he has given us during the rest of the week.  Not seeking what we can get out of Mass, but seeking instead to give God what we can of our lives in order to thank him for his generosity.

In a second stage, From this gratitude for everything, also comes the sense of duty or obligation to respond.  When someone gives you a gift, even the most basic of human cultures have understood that it is only right to say thank you.  That is what we do here at Mass – we do what we ought, as receivers of such great gifts: we say thank you to God.  And we can see that in the law, God showed his people how to respond to his gifts: to respect and honor life, ones parents, the truth, the material things of this world.  And we too, prepare the way for Christ when we show others through our actions and words that we know that the gifts we have received deserve to be honored and respected.   Gratitude should mature into respect and honor.

In the third and final stage of preparation, God revealed to his people how weak and incapable they were at adequately respecting and honoring his gifts.  He showed them their sins. He showed them their infidelity – how they had turned to other gods instead of him.  How they had wasted the gifts he had given them, trampled the lives of the innocent he entrusted to their care.  He showed them that they needed forgiveness and repentance.  That final stage culminated in John the Baptist, who preached repentance.  Repentance for a people who were incapable of loving God and honoring God as they should.  A grateful but sinful people are the only people who need a savior, someone to help them offer God fitting praise and thanksgiving.  And when they recognized that, when they recognized their need for God, their need for a savior, they were ready for Jesus Christ. 

Of all St. John the Baptist’s virtues, perhaps the greatest was his humility.  He was grateful to God for what he had been given and for his work of announcing Christ.  He had a profound sense of responsibility and of his duty to respond to the God who had given him his life by serving him.  And so he went into the desert and preached repentance, proclaiming that he was not worthy to even untie the sandal straps of the God he served.  May we follow his example of humble and grateful service, and may we be that voice in the wilderness that proclaims God’s praise and our need for his mercy and forgiveness.



God is in Control. Yes, It's Going to Be Alright.

Homily for the 11th Sunday of Ordinary Time, 2012

The themes of growing and planting are strong in our scripture readings this week, and they come at the perfect time of year.  Many of you, I’m sure, have been getting gardens in during recent weeks and with only a few months of favorable weather here in Maine, the landscaping efforts in our community are in full swing.

Jesus clearly understood and loved the natural world.  He may have been a carpenter by trade, but when it came time to tell a parable about the kingdom of God more often than not he used an example from farming or nature, not carpentry.

And I think our Gospel passage today gives us a bit of an insight as to why.  Jesus points to the mystery of God’s work in the growth and life that we find in the natural world, a growth and life that is beyond our understanding and our ability to control.  You can take a piece of wood and form it with tools, determining exactly what it will look like.  A seed, the weather, gravity, these realities are something altogether different.  While we can have an idea of what has happened, and is happening and what will happen in the natural world, we cannot control it in the same way that we can control ourselves.

It’s fun to watch a baby figure out the difference, to figure out, for example, that it’s fingers are distinct from the rest of the world.  It is an early stage of the natural psychological development of a human being – the recognition of the difference between myself and everything else.  Slowly a child discovers that the world is not a blank slate that he or she can simply write on – that there are certain natural forces at work in the world that are mysterious and powerful and must be respected.  How many of you have worked so hard to help your children to figure out how to live in a world that is alive with the forces of hot and cold, gravity and momentum, light and darkness, viscosity and density, growth and decay, hunger and thirst, life and death.  The world teaches quickly teaches us that we are not in control of everything that happens around us.

This is the lesson of nature, if you will, the less of the natural kingdom. 
Now if this lesson is learned in a context in which we don’t know God or of his goodness and that the world is made for us in love, these forces can be viewed as antagonistic.  Laws of nature are an imposition and they threaten us.  And the natural response to nature when it is perceived as a threat is to do everything in our power to control nature and natural forces and to subdue them.  To bring the world into conformity with what we want because we don’t trust the world to care for us.  Instead, the world must be tamed and conquered – in our quest for survival against hostile forces we become slaves to the fear of survival.

But Jesus shows us the perspective of faith.  When we understand God’s goodness and that when he created the world he created it to be good, rather than our lack of control seeming to be a threat and liability, we understand that a world in God’s hands is in far better hands than our own.  And so rather than try to subdue the world and make it conform to what we want, we seek to understand the world around us and with trust we work to cooperate with the forces that are at work in the world.  You can only do that if you trust the maker, if you trust that God has created this world in love.  And that is why genuine Christian faith should always tend us toward good environmental stewardship. 
In recent years some have tried to argue that the Christian emphasis on human dignity and unique role tends to our domination of the natural world, but that is a horrible distortion of the message of Christianity.
In reality, our faith allows us not to be afraid to cooperate with the world because we know that it is good.  And this understanding of the natural world as good and as governed by forces that are good and come from God also encourages us to explore the world and learn about it.  To seek to understand more about God by seeing his handiwork.  To marvel at his creation, to thank him for his providential care, to praise him for the wonders that he works around us.

But there is also a more profound and important teaching in the parables that Jesus offers us today, a teaching that doesn’t have so much to do with the natural kingdom, but with the Kingdom of God. 
What he teaches us is that just as the natural kingdom is beyond our control and yet should not frighten us because it is in God’s hands and his control, so it is for the kingdom of Heaven.

In other words, God has put just as much care and effort into the project of our salvation, the work of God to save us and give us eternal life.  To the natural laws he has added divine commands –and similarly, they are not to threaten or to control or restrict us, but to give us happiness and freedom. 

Just as God has designed the earth to provide us with food and water and what we need to nourish and sustain our earthly bodies, so he also has given us the sacraments and the scriptures in order to nourish and sustain our souls. 

And so, just as we should not fear the mysterious forces and natural laws at work around us, so neither should we fear the work of the Holy Spirit in our midst.  Like the natural world, God’s grace cannot be controlled or tamed.  And so the response that gives us freedom and peace is cooperation, not fear or antagonism.   Jesus teaches us in the Gospel today: the seed sprouts and grows, we know not how.  Of its own accord the land yields fruit, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.  Do we see our lack of control as a threat?  Or as an opportunity to turn to God with trust, asking him to help us to cooperate with his grace so that he can give us freedom and peace and happiness, not only in this natural kingdom, but one day too in the kingdom of heaven.

Sons and Daughters of the True and Living Sacrifice

Homily for the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, 2012

Sacrifice.  As we celebrate the Feast of Corpus Christi this weekend, all of our scriptural readings center very directly on the religious practice sacrificing for God.

For most of us, I imagine the idea might seem very foreign and strange.  Sprinkling people with the blood of bulls?  Where did Moses come up with that idea?

If we look at ancient religions, and at the Jewish religion in particular, we can see that sacrifices were offered to God for at least three reasons. 

The first was as expiation, or in an effort to restore justice when the community had sinned against God.  We can see many examples of this throughout the Old Testament, that a scapegoat is offered to God to appease him for the sins of the many.  And in our own day we embrace a certain sense of this in our judicial system – the idea that in order to restore justice, something must be taken away from the guilty party – in minor cases it is money, in more serious cases their freedom when we imprison them, and in some cases that Catholic teaching condemns, our government even seeks to restore justice by taking the life of the guilty party.

A second occasion when sacrifice was offered to God was to ratify a solemn agreement or covenant.  This is the kind of sacrifice that we see Moses offering in our first reading today,
a sacrifice that confirms the seriousness of a commitment being made to God.  In offering the sacrifice, the people are saying: if I break the commitment that I am making today, may what happened to those bulls happen to me.  It is a sacrifice made to seal a bond.  We might think of this same form of sacrifice in, for example, the practice of blood brothers, or think of the case of when bond is collected in order to hold someone to a court date.

And a third occasion was in praise of God – a sacrifice of praise.  The Old Testament is full of accounts of massive displays of ritual sacrifice made after great military victories or other triumphs. 
In gratitude for God’s favor, the desire was to show God their thankfulness by offering him the best of what they had.  It is a natural impulse that we all have toward someone who has been good to us, we want to repay them, to show our gratitude by offering them something that is dear to us in return.

Each of these themes of sacrifice, or occasions of sacrifice to God were a part of the Jewish faith, and they prefigured the sacrifice of Christ that we celebrate at Mass.  If you think of it, we hear all three sacrificial themes outlined in the prayers of the Mass each week, don’t we?  That the Mass is a sacrifice of expiation, offered for the forgiveness of sins.  That the Mass is a sacrifice that establishes a covenant and binds us into a communion with God and with one another.  And that the Mass is a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving that is offered to God on behalf of the whole Church.

But is something entirely new and different about the sacrifice of Christ that we offer at Mass compared to the sacrifices that prefigured his in the Old Testament.  And this is because the sacrifices of the Old Covenant were incomplete and unfulfilled, they were meant to lead to Christ and were not adequate in themselves.  The problem was this: everything that we might try to offer to God in sacrifice is already his.  This problem gradually came to the attention of the Hebrew people.

The prophets, like Isaiah, began to make the dilemma clear: thus says the Lord: “What do I care for the multitude of your sacrifices?  I have had enough of whole-burnt rams and fat of fatlings; In the blood of calves, lambs, and goats I find no pleasure.  When you come to appear before me, who asks these things of you?”  And we hear in Psalm 50 “For every animal of the forest is mine, beasts by the thousands on my mountains.  I know every bird in the heights; whatever moves in the wild is mine.  Were I hungry, I would not tell you, for mine is the world and all that fills it.  Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of he-goats?”

We have nothing of our own to offer.  Everything that we have has been given to us by God.  Even our most precious possession, our very life, is a gift from God.  And so the sacrifices that we are capable of making to God on our own, without his aid, are incomplete and lacking.  They are the equivalent of giving someone a gift that they have given to you in an attempt to thank them.  You can imagine how that might work at home: after an argument you wish to make amends: here, please take this gift back that you gave me at Christmas – really I mean it, I want you to have it.

Without Christ, our sacrifices for God are empty gestures striving toward completion, longing to be joined to a real sacrifice, to a real gift that can be authentically given to God, a gift that is perfect.  And the prophets realized that.  They saw that they needed a Messiah, they were in search a true high priest who could offer a true and authentic sacrifice to God, one that would truly, and not symbolically, gain expiation for our sins, that would truly, and not symbolically, ratify a new covenant, and that would fittingly praise and thank God for his gifts.

And the high priest who offers the perfect sacrifice is Christ.  Perfect because as God he can authentically offer the sacrifice of his life: because it is his in a way that our lives are not our own.  And so Jesus tells us in the Gospel that the Father does not take his life from him, he gives his life freely and completely on the cross in a way that none of us could because we are not the origin of our own life, we are not God incarnate.  But Jesus is the perfect sacrifice for us because he is not only God also human.  As he offered his life on behalf of all humanity, he gave all of us the ability to participate in his one eternal offering of his life, in his one, eternal offering of expiation, communion, and praise. 

That’s what happens at Mass – we are given the ability to participate in the one, eternal, offering of Christ that is the fulfillment and perfection of every sacrifice ever offered to God.  As members of Christ’s body through baptism, we are joined in his sacrifice, and we are given the work of uniting our sacrifices to his sacrifice, insofar as we take up our crosses with him, dying to ourselves with Christ and offering everything we have to the Father with him. 

So sacrifice is not an archaic or outmoded idea, a strange and foreign practice of ancient religions.  It is at the heart of who we are and what we do as Christians.  But the good news is that in Christ, we no longer bumble around struggling to offer things or animals or people in sacrifice to God that we hope will appease him and make him happy.  No, we are sons and daughters of the true sacrifice, the one, true, authentic sacrifice offered by the our high priest, Jesus Christ, a sacrifice of expiation, of communion, and of praise and thanksgiving.

Catholic Spirituality

Homily for Pentecost Sunday, 2012

Today as we celebrate the great feast of Pentecost, we have an opportunity to reflect a bit on the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church, and on what that means for you and I who are members of the body of Christ that is animated by the Spirit.  In other words, we have the opportunity to reflect on the Church as a Spiritual reality, to speak of Catholic Spirituality. 

For a number of reasons, it seems that we don’t hear about Catholic spirituality or the Catholic spiritual life all that often.  I think that part of the reason is that we’ve been influenced by a culture that promotes a concept of the spiritual that is opposed to the religious or to the institutional.  How many times we hear people use that kind of reasoning when they attempt to rationalize not going to Mass: “Well, I don’t need to go to Mass to be a spiritual person.”  “Mass doesn’t do anything for my spiritual life.”

When we hear this kind of idea expressed, we might have a tendency to just react: “Well heck, if that’s what it means to be spiritual, then we had better not encourage that in our kids.  No spirituality for you.  You are going to church.  None of that pie in the sky spirit mumbo jumbo.  Next thing we know you’ll be smelling like patchouli and wearing crystals and getting piercings. 

But what a horrible loss for the Church, to lose the sense that who we are, at our most profound depths, is a spiritual reality, a spiritual body.  That what ties us together is not so much that we do the same things or believe the same things, although those are important expressions of our unity, but that we have the same life dwelling within us. 

So we must address this opposition of the religious to the spiritual: this common impression that the spiritual is opposed to a church, to an organization.  How can we, on this great feast of the Holy Spirit, articulate Catholic Spirituality, explain what it means to be both a religious and a spiritual people?

The first way, I think, is to make sure that we understand all of the sacraments and religious experience of the Church as profoundly spiritual in nature.  In other words, celebrating Mass on Sunday is the most spiritual thing that we do.  It can be easy to lose the deeper awareness that here as we come together, the Holy Spirit moves within us and around us with great power and freedom.  The Holy Spirit allows the word of God to enter into our hearts and minds, calling us to deeper conversion.  The Holy Spirit dwells is at work during the celebration of the Eucharistic prayer to consecrate the bread and wine so that they become for us Jesus’ body and blood and to consecrate us so that we become his body alive in the world.  The Holy Spirit is at work within us, helping us to receive and to respond to the gift of Jesus’ very life in the Eucharist. 

Now, all of this working of the Holy Spirit happens in mystery, invisibly and we have to work to become more perceptive and responsive to the life of the Spirit.  And so I think that it is important that we prepare for Mass well.  The Church asks us to fast for an hour, but I think it is also important to set aside for a time before Mass the concerns and distractions of daily life – to prepare ourselves mentally so that we can enter into what it is that we are doing.  It’s hard to make a shift from crazy life into Mass mode in 2 seconds flat – you end up sitting in the pew or up here, and maybe your body is still, but your mind is going 100 miles an hour.  Well we are not going to be as receptive to the Holy Spirit at work if we haven’t prepared a bit.  That is what Vatican II meant when it spoke of the active participation of the people – first and foremost it means an interior participation or openness to what the Holy Spirit is doing here: a receptivity.  That means that in general it is incredibly important that we nurture a tone of the sacred here – a tone that helps us remember that God is at work among us, that his Spirit is alive in this time that we spend together in a particular and unique way.  We have been brought here for a purpose – we are here to be fed and strengthened and given the grace that we need to be able to live holy, virtuous lives in the world. The challenge for each of us is to really take with due seriousness what is happening here at Mass or when we celebrate any sacrament.  That doesn’t mean being overly nervous or stiff or stern, but to be reflective and attentive to the deeper, spiritual movements and realities that are unfolding around us, trying to let go of distractions and worldly concerns.

But I think the greater challenge, for most of us, is figuring out how to retain an authentic Catholic spirituality for the rest of the week so that when we show up here we don’t feel like we’re landing on Mars.  To be alive in the spirit, truly alive in the Spirit, means that the relationship must endure beyond these walls.  Love is not true love if it is only alive when we are with the beloved.  No, true love persists, it is faithful, it pines for the beloved, is always reflecting on the beloved, remembering, scheming, meditating. 

How do we bring the life of the Holy Spirit with us from this place into the rest of our lives so that when we come here, to this upper room, we are drawing upon a relationship with the Holy Spirit that is ongoing and alive during the rest of the week?  Mass is meant to build and strengthen a people who are alive in the spirit – it is not meant to resurrect us from the dead.  That is confession.

And so on a feast like Pentecost it is a good opportunity to look at our interior lives, look at our prayer.  To recommit ourselves as we enter ordinary time to maintaining a daily prayer life, to going to confession on a regular basis, so that Mass can be the source and summit of our spiritual life, but not the totality of it.  Yes, without a daily spiritual regiment we can find some benefit at Mass, we can enjoy certain elements of the community and prayer, but the deep spiritual intimacy that the Lord wants to strengthen and grow within us is not be possible if we are not spending a substantial amount of time with him throughout the week.  Mass can only be a spiritual experience for spiritual people, and the way that you become a spiritual person is by spending time and effort learning to listen and cooperate with the promptings of the Holy Spirit during the rest of the week.

Our celebration of the Eucharist is meant to be an intensified encounter that happens in an existing and committed relationship of love between God and his son or daughter.  We are meant to come to Mass as spiritual people, men and women with active and flourishing spiritual lives.  St. Bernard of Clairveau spoke of a sacrament as a kiss from God.  But in order for a kiss to be authentic, in order for it to be beautiful, it must occur in a relationship where faithful love exists well before lips meet and well after they part.  And that means for us that we must strive each day to carve out and nurture a real and genuine spiritual life.  Because it is this life of the Spirit that gives meaning to everything else: that must be at the heart of every Catholic endeavor.  Religion is not true religion, is not authentic, unless it is rooted in spiritual lives: and that means men and women, you and me, each day in our homes and workplaces and community faithfully working to live with and in the Holy Spirit we have received in baptism.

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth.

In Christ We Can Be In Heaven by Love

Homily for Ascension Thursday, 2012

The sense that many of us might have in listening to the end of the reading today is one of departure, of goodbye, of loss.  Jesus rises up into the clouds after giving parting instructions to his disciples. 
And yet the Church teaches us on this day not to see the mystery of the Ascension so much as that of a departure as that of an arrival.  An arrival of the body of Christ, the humanity of Christ, in heaven.  And therefore an opportunity to reflect on our heavenly identity, the identity that we share as members of his body.

St. Augustine began his Ascension homily with these words: “Today our Lord Jesus Christ ascended into heaven; let our hearts ascend with him.”
“For,” he said, “just as he remained with us even after his ascension, so we too are already in heaven with him, even though what is promised us has not yet been fulfilled in our bodies.”

We already are in heaven?
I think of some of our parishioners who are suffering with various illnesses, or those who are out straight juggling a million things, or are working constantly – more than they want to – worried about finances.  All of the challenges of life in this world.  And yet St. Augustine says that we are already in heaven. 

But his explanation on this day, I think, can be an inspiration to us.  Listen to what he says:
“Christ is now exalted above the heavens, but he still suffers on earth all the pain that we, the members of his body, have to bear.  He showed this when he cried out from above: Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? and when he said: I was hungry and you gave me food.  Why do we on earth not strive to find rest with him in heaven even now, through the faith, hope and love that unites us to him?  While in heaven he is also with us; and we, while on earth are with him.  He is here with us by his divinity, his power and his love.  We cannot be in heaven, as he is on earth, by divinity, but in him, we can be there by love.”

“In him, we can be in heaven by love.”
Jesus ascended into heaven today by the power that he has as God, St. Augustine tells us.
But we, with God’s grace, are given the mysterious and beautiful ability to ascend to heaven through our love.

That’s something to get your mind around – to think of your life as an ascension – a gradual attainment of heaven, a journey toward final union with God.  But that is God’s hope for each of us – that we, who are members of Jesus’ body, are a part of the ascension that we celebrate today.  That we are joined with countless others to Christ, our head, as he goes home to meet the Father.  That each day, through lives of generous service to God and neighbor, we ascend a little more, rise a little more to the full stature of our calling.

St. Paul encourages us in our work, as he encouraged the first Christians so many centuries ago:  “Brothers and sisters, I urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received,
with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace: one body and one Spirit, as you were also called to the one hope of your call.”

“In Christ, we can be in heaven by love.”  We all seek heaven – seek intimacy with God.  We seek peace and joy and fulfillment.  St. Augustine also said “Our souls are restless until they rest in you.”  That restlessness can be overpowering sometimes when we feel so limited or overwhelmed by the circumstances of daily life.  And so today is a day to celebrate because Christ has revealed to us that this life need not be merely a restless wait for the return of our savior.  That we can already join him as he ascends to the Father.  When we embrace the pathway of the cross, the pathway of sacrificial love, we are drawn nearer to him and so heaven draws nearer to us.

Can You Be A Good Christian and Not Be Religious?

Homily for the 7th Week of Easter, 2012

Yesterday you may have seen the article about religious practice in Maine in the Bangor daily news.  Religious practice and affiliation in New England is lower than anywhere else in the country, the article reported, and by quite a bit.  Among so many people, it seems that religion is seen as an imposition, a structure and even an obstacle to true and authentic spirituality. The attractiveness of religion, the blessing of religion, seems to be lost on the majority of people in Maine.  And even among those who claim some religious affiliation, I wonder how many of them would speak of their religion is something that they tolerate.  The less religion the better. 

Now this loss of the religious in our culture is especially problematic for us Catholics.  Because of all of the various religions that dot our theological landscape, the Catholic Church epitomizes, for better or for worse, religion.  When someone is worried about demons in the basement, they call the priest.  Even non-Catholics call the priest.  They want an exorcism, not a meditation session.  There is a reason that Dan Brown wrote his novels about mysterious and secret organizations within the Catholic Church, not the Unitarians.  And there is a reason why the social teaching of our Church, and not some huge mega church, sets off such harsh response and condemnation.  Our Catholic faith, our heritage, thoroughly and undeniably looks, smells, and sounds religious. 

So in response to the rejection of religion what do we do?  I suppose we could try to run away from our religious identity, trying to emphasize the ways that you can get away with being Catholic without being too religious, playing down the history of the Church, playing down the role of the magisterium, playing down the importance of the sacraments.  But once gutted of its religious aspects, what remains?  Just another human institution, another ideology, another form of entertainment.  And not a very good one at that.  The Catholic Church is only beautiful, only makes sense, as a religion.

And so at what point do we have to just come to terms with that:
yes, I am a part of a very old, very mysterious religion that is run by a bunch of old men who wear strange hats and who symbolically wash my feet each year as a sign of how they are to lead us.  And yes, we do believe very odd things, ancient mysteries about God and about angels and saints that have been handed on to us for generations.  And we don’t just have services, we come to Mass where we do all these ritual movements together, we sing strange songs and memorize and chant all of these rather cryptic prayers (especially after the new translation).  I mean, if we take a step back and look at ourselves for a moment, look at what we are doing – even without the Latin, without the incense, it is very clear what we are doing here: we are being religious.

And that is not a liability, it is a gift.  Because what is not always understood is that human beings are inherently religious.  Watch a baseball game or a concert – look at the common ritual.  Why all the movies with religious themes and symbols?  We are made to do things together, and particularly, we are made to worship God together.  And young people, even though they may have been told that they don’t need religion and that it is bad for them, are still attracted to it.  To be a part of something bigger than yourself.  To be united to others in meaningful activity. 

And so in response to our current religious crisis, the Church, rather than denying its religious identity, needs to begin once more to show the beauty and blessing of being a part of this religion, of being a religious person, an active member of the Church.  For decades now, the secular has been romanticized, it is time that we started to romanticize the religious.

To say things like “Why pray to God by yourself when you can do it with a bunch of other people in a beautiful place with beautiful music and using beautiful prayers that you didn’t even have to make up?”

Why settle for trite poems and country music songs at the funeral home, when your loved one could be prayed for and treated with the honor of a son or daughter of the living God at a funeral Mass? 

Why the stress of wedding planners who want to make the perfect picture on some remote beach where you get sand in everything and no one can hear what you’re saying, when you can come to a church that was built by your ancestors to shelter you from the elements so that you can focus on the love that God is blessing between you on that day?

And furthermore, when did a walk in the woods ever help a poor person in need?  When did being a good person ever build hospitals and schools and homeless shelters?  And when did Jesus say that that’s what he wanted for us: to just be good people?  No, he never said that.  He said he wanted us to be one, one with each other and one with him, just as he is with the Father.  Not one in some vague spiritual sensation of good feelings, but one in truth.  That means one in action, one in thought, one in word, one in deed.  United to the vine as branches, members of the flock he shepherds, stones in the building that he raises, sons and daughters in the family of believers.  A religion, a beautiful religion – so human, and yet so yearning for the divine.  Marked by the grittiness and earthiness of a lived tradition handed on by countless millions of real, human hands over two thousand years. 

"Holy Father, keep them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one just as we are one.”  Jesus wants us to be together – and not just as a penance.  He wants us to find joy and meaning in worshiping him together, in praying together.  He wants us to be able to share in the excitement of learning more about our faith, to encourage one another in deepening our knowledge of the divine.   He wants us to reach out to help the suffering and the needy with others by our side, sharing in the blessings that come from caring from those who are less fortunate.  To use the gifts that he has given us together, building upon one another as we are being built up into his body, the Church. 

Can you be a good person and not be religious?  I don’t know, perhaps.  Can you be a good Christian and not be religious?  No.  You can’t baptize yourself.  You can’t give yourself communion.  You can’t write your own Bible.  You can’t bury yourself.  And thank God.  We can do it together with him. 

Courage and Peace, Dialogue and Conviction

Homily for the 6th Sunday of Easter, 2012

This is my commandment: love one another, as I love you.
No one has greater love than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

In recent months the culture wars just have been heating up, and that shows no real signs of abating as we look ahead to such a controversial presidential election and referendums.  And our Church, we as Catholics, have been kind of thrust right into the middle of things.  I’m amazed at how many politicians are making references to their faith in justifying their support of certain policies, on both sides of the isle.  Not the constitution, or some other civil document, but the bible, or even the teachings of the saints. And I think that’s because politicians know, as we all know, that faith is an important motivator for so many of us.  That it gets right to the heart of who we are and the choices that we make.

But this whole trend is worrisome for the Church, I think. 
The teachings of the Church are being interpreted increasingly as political statements.  So if you emphasize one set of teachings, you are assumed to be with one party, if you emphasize another, you are thought to be with the other party.  And it’s dividing our church, it’s dividing the people from one another, the bishops from their people, women religious from their bishops, priests from everyone – just lots of division.  We’re right in the middle of a giant game of tug of war, and the Church is getting pulled in every direction.  Heck, even moms are controversial topic just in time for mother’s day!

What does Jesus tell us in the Gospel today: remain in my love. 
And you know, it would be nice if we could just pretend that his words to us mean that we can just flee from this troubled time.  Hole up in the house or with people who are easy to be around.  Get more pets – sometimes they are easier to talk to than people.

But we are called to more than that.  We have the duty to live out our faith even in the midst of these polarized and trying times.  We have the responsibility to live as men and women of courage and peace, of dialogue and conviction. 

Maybe we don’t hear those words together too often: courage and peace, dialogue and conviction.  But that’s what it is to be Catholic, I think.  To be rooted in the truth, but rooted at the same time in love of others.

You and I cannot pretend that there is no right and wrong, that there is no such thing as good and evil.  Jesus tells us in the gospel, we must follow his commandments if we are to remain in his love.  It  is a task of the utmost seriousness, to do what is right and good and holy. 

But chief among those commandments is the command to love.  And so that means we must be willing to lay down our lives.  Not just willing, but perhaps we might say that we have the responsibility to practice each day in little ways that effort of dying to ourselves for the sake of others.  To work on living the virtues.

We have, at this unique time, the opportunity to show this unique form of courageous love to our culture:  not to be silent when people are saying things that are not true or are misleading or wrong, but at the same time not to resort to power tactics, to sink into the muck of political rhetoric and name calling.  And to speak more with our actions than with our words.  To let others tweet and twitter, to focus more on concrete acts of service and charity.  To recognize that in our cynical culture, words are increasingly of little value.  In order to be authentic witnesses, we must speak first with our choices, with our actions.  And our primary witness, as men and women of faith, must be through lives of faithful and generous service.  To be known for our kindness to others, particularly within our families and with those who are suffering or alone.  To be sure that we are reaching out to those in need,  taking care of the stranger.  In short, we must be willing to embrace a sacrificial way of life, to love others in the way that Christ has shown us.

You can’t love people you don’t know.  So I hope as you look at this summer, you and your family will work to get out of the house more.  To reverse the trend that seems toward greater and greater isolation and division from one another.  Turn off the television, step away from the computer.  Make the extra effort to go out, to leave the comfort and security of your home and to enter into the world that God places before us, a world that is in need of our Christian witness.

St. John encourages us in our second reading today:
Beloved, let us love one another,
because love is of God.

A Jesus Follower. Period.

Homily for the 5th Sunday of Easter, 2012

I recently came across an article about an accomplished protestant preacher who was diagnosed with Lou Gerigh’s disease a number of years ago.  The prognosis, that he had 3 to 5 years to live, sent him into a profound crisis. 

“I went from 100 miles an hour to zero miles an hour overnight,” he said. “That was a shock to my system.”

His response to the disease surprised him.  “I thought that if I knew I was going to die, I would really read the Bible and if I really was going to die, I would really pray,” he said. “I found the opposite to be true. I could barely read the Bible and I had great difficulty praying. You get so overwhelmed with your circumstances, you lose perspective.”

He spent months floundering.  Without realizing it, he had built his identity, his life, on his work, on his ministry.  And so losing the ability to minister meant that he felt that he was losing himself.  Living a hundred mile an hour life he had rooted his life in activities that would not endure, he had set up idols that came crashing down around him when his health failed.

Fortunately, with much prayer and interior work, he has come through his identity crisis.  And he made a comment that struck me and I think resonates with our scriptures today.  “I am no longer a preacher,” he said. “Today, I would say I am a Jesus follower. Period.  Having a terminal illness forced me into a situation where I grew in understanding of what it means to obey Jesus.”

A Jesus follower.  Period.  “Children,” St. John tells us in our second reading, “let us love not in word or speech, but in deed and truth.”

In truth.  What does it mean to be a Jesus follower in truth, not just in word and speech? 
St. John tells us: to really live with and in Christ, actively working to love him and follow his example so that his Spirit will be alive in us.  To be branches thoroughly attached to the vine.  To have the life of the vine flowing through us.  That’s what makes us Christians and makes us  into a Church: that we are united to Christ.

If preachers and priests like myself are always at risk of losing sight of this profound truth of our identity, must it not certainly be the case that we must all be on guard? 

Why do you think the Church insists that we come to Mass on Sunday?  In order to fill the pews?  In order to build institutional strength?  To prop up the offertory? 

No, no, no.  Because the Eucharist is the primary way that Christ unites us with himself, that he gives his life to us.  They way that he feeds us with his body and blood is exactly like the way that the sap flows through a vine into branches.  And as his life flows into us, it is meant to transform us and to help us to reflect the image of his son in the unique way that we are made to be Christ-like.  We are not called to believe in Christ so much as we are called to live in him – with our whole mind, body, and soul.  All of us are made to be transformed by his life and to be more and more each day animated by a new life – to die to ourselves and to rise to new life in Christ. 

Christ is to be our life – inside out, top to bottom.  He is the pattern in which we are made, and he is the measure by which we are measured. 

And so we cannot say “If you do this and this and this and this – if you follow these rules, if you live like this person, if you belong to this group, if you accept these teachings, then you will be a bonified Jesus follower.”

The definition of the true Christian, of the true Catholic, is one in whom the life of Christ dwells deeply and fully and beautifully and freely – one who is truly himself or herself because he or she is truly one with Christ, body and blood, soul and divinity.

Discernment is Not a Personality Quiz

Homily on the 4th Sunday of Easter, 2012

I’m not sure if you’ve ever filled out one of those online personality quizzes before?  They have a million of them now on facebook, or whatever.  You answer a series of questions – “I like to be in charge” Strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree.  “I generally try to be helpful to the people around me” Strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree…. 
And then, after finishing twenty or thirty or so questions you are told that you are particular personality type.  And you can put that personality type on your wall in facebook so that everyone.  Sometimes it does that automatically, as I found out a few years ago.  Your personality type: hell on wheels.  What?!  And of course: “If you are unhappy with the result, click here to take the quiz again.”  Click!  Quick, answer the questions – this time trying to think happy thoughts.  “Your personality type: Mr. whine and complain.”  Well what kind of personality options do they have on this thing anyway?  “Life of the Party” “Computer Geek” “Mad Max” “Codependent Copycat.” 
Here I was, hoping for insight to the question of my being, who I am, who God made me to be, how I fit into the world – and that desire was ruthlessly twisted by this manipulative online game in order to entertain my virtual friends.  If it weren’t for the fact that most of them succumbed to the same quiz and now are sporting similar epitaphs on their walls, it would be truly humiliating.

I remember back when I was in high school, at a youth ministry camp we spent all kinds of time on a more sophisticated personality quiz, the Myers Briggs Type Indicator.  I imagine many of you are familiar with it.  I remember when I was getting ready to leave for the seminary and a close friend of the family who was not Catholic found out.  He was quite disturbed: “But you are an INFP!  You will be miserable in a world dominated by ESTJs!” 

It is a profound human desire: the desire to know who we are and where we stack up in this world.  To know our vocation in life.  This weekend is the World Day of Prayer for Vocations.  And one of the things that we talk about all the time is the importance of promoting a culture of vocations, a culture of discernment in our Catholic parishes, in our community.  I think that part of the way that we can work to do that, is by contrasting a healthy discernment culture with this kind of unhealthy labeling and personality typing that is so common in our culture today.
The personality typing, or the other forms of personality labeling that we see so often today prey on the natural desire in the human person to know who he or she is.  Unfortunately, we are many times too quick to give to some stupid test or some seemingly objective source the power to suggest to us who we are based on incredibly superficial characteristics or answers to superficial questions.  And when we do so, we allow our desire to know ourselves and our destiny, to be in control of our lives, to drive us to place in the hands of another a power that only God should have, the power to judge us and to give us a vocation.  Probably each of us has met someone who has gotten caught up in this mess.  They have given over to a person or a seemingly objective test the ability to categorize them.  “Well I can only do this because I am an _________ sort of person.”  Fill in the blank. 

But  the reality is that no man made category, no personality type, can ever describe a human person.  Sometimes categories and types can be helpful, sometimes… but very rarely, I think.  Far too often they instead become obstacles, limiting factors that close us off from the freedom that God wants us to have in discerning his will, discerning our vocation, who he made us to be.  We end up becoming far too preoccupied with ourselves, with our own strengths and limitations – with naval gazing.  And we lose our grasp on the complexity and the mystery of the truth about who we are.  We lose touch with the freedom that we are given in Christ to work out our vocation with God.

Discerning a vocation is an entirely different process from filling out a personality quiz.  First of all, it never ends.  You don’t come up with some neat answer.  You are a __________.  God always leaves us with a certain mystery about who we are and about who he is and about his will for us.  It is always somewhat disconcerting.  But that makes sense.  Because a vocation is not a role or a job or a category that we are to choose or accept.  It is a pathway that we are invited to walk as we seek to live out our baptismal call to holiness.  It is the way that we are made to reflect God, the way that God’s life is meant to unfold within us.  And so it is mysterious and beyond our ability to comprehend or control.  And we never cease that discernment.

And the way that we grow in our understanding of our vocation is rather counter intuitive.  It is precisely not by spending our days looking at the intricacies of our own personalities and gifts and talents.  We risk becoming completely self absorbed and deluded when going down that path.  Most of us tend to be horrible judges of ourselves and our needs and our strengths and weaknesses.  We tend to try to live someone else’s lives, to live the life we want rather than the life we’ve been given.
 
No, to grow in the understanding of our vocation, we must grow in our understanding of Jesus Christ.  He is the one who reveals us to ourselves.  His life acts like a mirror – a perfectly clear mirror.  When we pray, when we come to know him and speak with him, he reveals to us who we are.  He is our good shepherd, he knows his sheep better than they know themselves.  He made us, we are made in his image and likeness.  He knows us authentically, from the inside out, and it is only in knowing him that we can know ourselves authentically. 

And so to discern a vocation is not a process of isolated self awareness, nor is it a matter of following your dreams.  It is a matter of a mysterious dialogue, a discussion with the good shepherd.  Of rooting our lives on the stone that was rejected by the builders but that must become the cornerstone of our lives. 

We are made to build our lives on that rock of Christ’s life in us, even in a world that tries to pretend that fulfillment and happiness come from some sort of individual self-awareness and ego driven pursuit of your dreams. That is a true culture of vocations – a culture that speaks to Christ, that asks him to show us who we are and what we are made to be.




You are Witnesses of These Things

Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Easter

You are witnesses of these things. 
A witness: it is one of the most important titles that was given to the first Christians and which continues to be given to us.  Witnesses testify to what they have seen and what they have heard.  They give testimony.

John’s Gospel and letters speak often of the testimony of both Christ himself and of his followers.  Jesus tells his followers that he testifies to the truth, that he testifies to the will of the Father, to what he has seen and heard.  And those who follow him, Jesus taught, continue this same activity – they are witnesses, they testify to what they have seen and heard, they testify to the truth.

It is interesting that in Greek the word for testimony and for witness are the same in origin: martyrion.  Martyr has now come to mean one who gives the life for the faith, but the origin of the word was not so bloody – one who gives testimony, one who is a witness to the faith. 

And after the empty tomb, after the road to Emmaus, Jesus begins to make clear to his disciples, and therefore to us, that we are to be these martyrs, these witnesses.  Most of us are not martyrs by blood – our witness need not cost so much.  But we are all called to the same faithfulness in our witness.

It is a testimony that must continue in every age, in every place until the Lord comes again – we continue the very testimony of Christ himself about God’s loving plan of salvation.  We are called to be witnesses to his love, to embody in our lives, in our choices, a clear testimony to God’s life within us.  A clear testimony to the risen Christ whose salvation has transformed and redeemed and continues to redeem. 

How easy it is to forget, I think – that we are on the stand.  That others look to us.  Being Christian is a public stance, a public position.  The world looks at us, we are – all of us – in the court of public opinion.  It might be harder for someone who wears a collar around his neck to forget that, but the truth is no less real for any of us.  In fact, I wish every Christian had the opportunity to be so aware of their public witness.  You know, it makes you think twice before you start speeding around or cut someone off.  Or when someone asks you for money.  Or if you’re tempted to get some expensive thing you don’t need.  It’s a bit of a check: “Wait - I’m a priest, I better think about the witness I’m giving here.”  But that should be something we all say to ourselves on a regular basis: “Wait, I’m a Christian, I’m a Catholic, I better think about the witness I’m giving here.”

Because whether we want to acknowledge it or not, we represent Christ in our world.  We are his witnesses.  We testify to the truth of his teaching by the way that we live our lives. 

And so when we do good, it is not only for our own salvation, our own benefit.  It is testimony, it is a witness to our faith and to the life of Christ that dwells within us.  And when we fail, we not only damage our relationship with God, we become false witnesses and compromise the credibility of the Gospel in our world.

It is humbling and sobering to realize that much of the credibility of Christ’s teaching rests on our witness, our testimony.  He has chosen us, he has sent us here, to Bangor Maine, to be his witnesses.  To testify through our choices to the truth of God’s redemption and salvation at work in the world.

May God help us to be good and faithful witnesses. Not so much within these walls where it is fairly easy, but in our homes, in our workplaces, in our community.  In a world that hungers and thirsts for Christ’s redemption, that wants to believe it is possible, but that needs faithful witnesses in order to be convinced of the truth.

The Witness of Risen Wounds

Homily for the 2nd Sunday of Easter, 2012

Thomas – doubting Thomas.
Many have said that we live in a disillusioned age.
We have seen so many of those who have been held up in the public eye come crashing down – from politicians to sports figures to religious figures – so many highly publicized failures and deceptions have perhaps made us a little on the jaded side of things.  And so the encounter of St. Thomas is important for us.

We forget that before the resurrection, when the Lord lay in the tomb, his body beaten and broken, it not only felt like defeat to the disciples, but it probably also felt like they had been horribly misled.  The Lord Jesus had told them that he would usher in a new age.  He had told them that he was going to make all things new.  He told them that God’s kingdom would prevail.

And then all of that came crashing down – and not in a spectacular final finale – but in the most humiliating and miserable way imaginable.  He was crucified like a common criminal. 
He did not even put up a strong defense.  He did not respond to his accusers.  He was beaten, heckled, led by a mob to a hill and crucified between two thieves.  And even there – no eloquent speech from the cross, no long, drawn out battle – he asked for something to drink and gave up his life quickly, dying before the other two criminals. 

It cannot be overstated how much the disciples must have felt abandoned, misled, and disillusioned. 
And we might imagine St. Thomas’ response: “Well I am done with all of that.  I was taken.  I don’t know what I was thinking – how was I so na├»ve as to think that Jesus would usher in a new kingdom?  To spend three years wandering around with this carpenter from Nazareth who claimed to be God’s son?  He deluded us all.  I’m going to just go back to my life as it was before – from now on I will trust the things that I know.  And what are those things?  Well, you’ve got to just be concerned with the here and now – not fairytales.  Take care of your own.  Try to live a good life.  Work hard.  Make something of yourself.  Be a good neighbor.”

Maybe that’s why Thomas was not with the 12 on that day that the Lord first appeared.  Maybe he thought he was getting busy living, moving on, trying to put the past behind him. 

In fact, when he saw the disciples show up at his door, I wonder if he was happy to see them.  And I wonder if he was all that happy to hear their news. “We have seen the Lord!  He has been raised!”  More delusion.  Couldn’t they just let it go? 
They had been misled; it was time to move on.  Enough of this nonsense.  Unless they could show him that Jesus was going to help with putting daily bread on the table, forget about it.  He was not going to give them the benefit of the doubt.  He had been down that road before.  He did not need a messiah that desperately.  "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hand and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe."  A disillusioned man, a man who felt he’d been burned.

There are many of them in our world today.  We know many of them, some of us may even put ourselves in that category from time to time.  People who have given up on the big ideals, on promises of salvation, on miraculous endings.  People who would rather not believe and be proven wrong, than believe and be disappointed.  People too proud to risk being thought gullible.  Who will never bank on an unproven conviction, never step out on a limb, never hazard an opinion, lest it come back to bite them.

But the irony of Thomas, the irony of the disillusioned man is this:  that even as he may have accused the others of escaping from the real world in their thoughts of the Risen Christ, it very well may have been Thomas who was the one escaping.  And escaping into a dead end: disillusioned with the spiritual life, how easy it is to turn to a life consumed with the things of this world: work, financial security, hobbies, and recreation.

When our hopes for heaven were dashed, we take the second best option and embarked upon the task of building our own proxy heaven on earth.  That’s what happens.  When all that remains is the mundane, we are quickly consumed by earthly concerns.  Soon, we are headed down the path of spiritual disillusionment that our culture knows all too well: the path of isolation, workaholism, anxiety, bitterness, fatigue, and ultimately despair.

That is inevitably what happens when we try to create heaven, when we try to raise ourselves from the dead.  That’s what happens when we lose the faith and hope and trust that God loves us and has the power to raise us up and give us eternal life.  Spiritual disillusionment leads to complete disillusionment.  When we lose faith in God’s power to save us and bring us new life, we necessarily begin to embrace a culture of death.

So what does Christ tell Thomas and tell us?
"Put your finger here and see my hands,
 and bring your hand and put it into my side,
 and do not be unbelieving, but believe."

Christ cures Thomas’ disillusioned heart, and he wants to cure every disillusioned heart by showing our hearts his wounds.
They are the proof of his resurrection from the dead.
Proof that light can come from the darkness.
Proof that pain and suffering can find healing.
Proof that sins can be forgiven.
Proof of the reality of eternal life and the source of our hope to one day be able to find that life with Christ in heaven.

He shows Thomas, and he shows each of us, that Christians cannot be a disillusioned people, that we who are the Body of Christ are called to continue the witness of his body, the witness of his risen wounds, the witness of the resurrection, when new life conquered the darkness of sin and death.

We Christians must refuse to escape down the path of worldly self-indulgence and anxieties, but instead embrace the work of the Christian disciple: to show another path, the life giving path of faith in Christ, risen from the dead.

Alleluia!

Homily for Easter Sunday, 2012

Alleluia!  We have finished our Lenten observance and we can speak this great word of praise once more.  Alleluia!  My goal in this homily is to see how many times I can say it.  Set the world record.  Because there is no word that more adequately describes or sums up Easter, what we are doing today, than Alleluia.

It’s one of the few words that we can say and hear knowing that Christ himself spoke and heard the exact same word. Not a translation – but the very sound of the word – maybe there was a bit more of a ha to it, but Alleluia is a Hebrew word that has come down to us untranslated for 3000 years. 
Actually, alleluia is a word made up of two Hebrew words:  Hallel and Yah.  Yah, is short, an abbreviated form of God’s holy name, Yahweh, a name so holy that the Hebrew people did not dare to speak it fully.  And Hallel – Hallel is often translated into the English word “to praise.” 
But Hallel has a more complex meaning.  It really has more of the sense of a joyous song or shout of praise, a glorious boasting in God.  It speaks of a joyful frenzie, almost – in fact, it was a word sometimes used to describe someone who acted madly and foolishly.  A sense of glee, a sense reckless abandon. 

That’s the Hallel – the state of one overtaken by a joy so full, so overpowering, that he or she cannot remain silent, cannot remain still, cannot remain alone – a joy that must reach out to others, that must be expressed as loudly and fully and exuberantly as the human body is capable. 
We get a sense of the Hallel when watching the scene of a sports team that has just won a great championship, or an army that has just won a great battle, or a whole people when a despot has been overthrown.  It is the cry of a victorious people, a profoundly moving and unifying experience – it is what celebration is meant to be.

And that is why we, who bear the name of Christ, who are his disciples and followers sing the hallel today.  Because it is not some distant savior who has risen from the grave, it is not an unknown or uncaring God who now lives and reigns forever. 

It is the Lord Jesus Christ!  He has revealed himself as our brother, taken on our flesh and blood, called us his own, making us his brothers and sisters.  He is our healer and defender -  who gave his life over for us, who battled the powers of hell for us and faithfully loved us to the end.  Our God – not just any God – no, our God, the one who we are rooting for and who roots for us - who has come into our world and done battle with the powers of hell in order to free us from our sins.  And today he has won the victory.  Today his plan is accomplished.  He rises, victorious from the dead – the gates of hell, the chains of death, the stain of sin – obliterated.  The tyrant of this world has been overthrown – our savior has freed us. 

And because his flesh is our flesh, his blood our blood, His victory is our victory.  His resurrection is the promise of our resurrection, his glory the pledge of our future glory. 

Alleluia.  Today we celebrate the greatness of our God, the genius and beauty of his loving plan of redemption.  We set aside the turmoil, the strife and struggle of this world, our eyes lifting heaven-ward in praise and thanksgiving.  Not fleeing from the darkness or escaping the trials of our time, but remembering for a moment the bigger picture – the eternal truth revealed to us in Christ.  That today good triumphs over evil – our good, our hope, our salvation.

And so it is not only our duty, it is not only our salvation, it is not only right or just – it is our joy to give God thanks and praise for the wonders that he has done for us.  Alleluia.

Faced with the Cross We Pray

Homily on Good Friday, 2012

Fight or flight – the two natural responses to evil, to pain, to sin, to suffering.  We see so many of those around Christ respond in one of these two ways as he endures his passion and death.  Most of his disciples simply flee.  Peter at first draws his sword and strikes a servant, but then flees as well.
It seems that they were pretty clear on the fact that Christ did not want them to revolt, that his was not a kingdom of earthly power and might.  That  violence was not the response to evil for those who would follow in his footsteps.

So rather than fight, they fled.  But that was not Jesus’ desire either.  Beginning at table with them at the last supper, and then intensely in the garden, he told them and showed them by his example the way to respond to the assaults of the evil one: to pray.  At table with them he prayed.  In the garden, he prayed.  In the cell we can only imagine that he spent the night in prayer.  And on the cross he prayed.  His dying breath was a prayer.

Neither to fight or to flee.  But to fix one’s whole being, to the extent possible, on God and on his will.  To place one’s whole heart and mind and will in the hands of our Lord. 
There is no other adequate response to evil, to sin.  In a pitched battle against evil and suffering we will lose.  And death and suffering will follow us no matter how much we might try to flee from them.  Jesus shows us that our fallen world can only find redemption, can only be freed from sin and death one way: united to God and his will.  And the way that we are united to God is in prayer.

In a few moments we will turn to God in prayer, in the Universal Prayer that takes on particular importance on Good Friday each year.  We turn our hearts to him in solemn prayer, and in doing so we follow his command and his example of what to do when we are faced with the cross.  We pray.  In fact, I think we could say that we venerate the cross twice tonight.  First in our prayer, and second as we, in procession, in action.

In our prayer, we are most closely united to Christ at this moment, at the moment of his death.  In fact Christ continues to pray through us to the Father from the Cross of this altar each time we celebrate the Eucharist – that God’s will may be done.  In our communion in the prayer of Christ we are united to Mary and the women at the foot of the cross, and those disciples who, throughout the centuries have faced the cross of evil and suffering in our world in prayer.

Facing the cross we neither fight nor flee, we pray.  May God give us the grace to be faithful, to keep watch, united to his Son in prayer on behalf of our world this day. 

We are Entering the Holy of Holies.

Homily on Passion Sunday, 2012

The Hebrew people traveled from far and wide to come to Jerusalem on the days leading up to Passover.  There, among thousands of other religious pilgrims, they were aided by the temple priests in offering sacrifice to God, in paying him homage.  They believed that Jerusalem was Holy, the place where God had chosen to dwell with his people.  Guarded deep within the temple was the holy of holies, God’s sanctuary where only the just, only the upright of heart, those who had been purified, could enter.  The temple was a place set apart: a sacred space, a holy space – a place where the prophet Isaiah had promised all people would one day come to worship the living God and find new life.

Yet, for all its vastness and treasures, for all its priests and incense, the temple was in need of cleansing. During the third Sunday of lent we heard of Christ’s first entry into Jerusalem,
into the temple area.  On that day he came with ominous words, overturning tables and speaking of destruction.  “Destroy this temple,” he had said, “and I will rebuild it in three days.” 
The temple needed to be reconstructed, renewed, reformed in order for Isaiah’s prophecy to be fulfilled.  It needed to be built on a new foundation, a foundation free of rivalry and greed, arrogance and hatred, the weaknesses of every foundation built with human hands.

Today, as he enters its gates, the shouts of Hosanna that ring from Jerusalem’s streets signify the beginning of Jesus great and final work: the complete rebuilding of God’s temple. 
Today he begins the final cleansing of the temple, the final sacrifice that will wipe away all stains and weakness and allow all of humanity to freely worship God without fear.  He establishes a new a new temple: the temple, St. John tells us in the Gospel, of his body.  A temple not made with human hands, but with the hands of God himself.  And in the midst of that temple, in the heart of that temple he establishes a new Holy of Holies: no longer a place, but an action, his saving passion, death, and resurrection.  This sacrifice of God who gives his life for us is the presence of God that dwells within the temple of his body, the Church, that is the source of her unity and strength.  Our Eucharist: the Passion, death, and resurrection of Christ truly present among us, his life offered for us.

And so as we cross the threshold of Holy Week, we enter into the new Holy of Holies, the passion, death, and resurrection of our Lord.  We no longer journey to Jerusalem, to a place.  It is the time that Christ asks us to consecrate, to lay down before him just as cloaks and branches were laid before him in Jerusalem.  The Holy of Holies, the passion of our Lord continues to unfold in our midst, here and now our God comes to save us.  We stand on holy ground, in a holy time, a holy week.

What should we lay at his feet this week?  Will we just allow this week to pass us by like any other? 
Will we watch him ride by and say afterward “Well, that was nice.”  Or will we truly stop for a moment and place his work, his life that he pours out for us in its rightful place in our lives: dead center.

What does that mean this week?  Follow his passion tomorrow in  the Way of the Cross procession – reflect on the depth of his love for us and his example for you of how to love others. 
Will you let your life, your time, this week be governed by your work, your errands, your favorite television programs or games, or will you place your time at the feet of the Lord, placing him first?  For at least one week of the year will we place him first and make the rest of our lives fit around his time, his schedule.  Begin and end each day in prayer with him – not a hurried, memorized prayer, but a prayer from the heart, a conversation with him. 

Come to Mass this week, especially to Mass on Holy Thursday and to the liturgy on Good Friday.  Go to confession.  Spend time reading through one of the Gospel accounts of our Lord’s passion.  Take some time to spend with your children or others about our faith, about what this week means to us.  Go and help a family member, friend or neighbor in need, seek out opportunities to perform acts of kindness.  Allow this to be a Holy Week, not just in name, but in fact, in the way that you spend your time, the way that you prioritize your live in these days. 

We enter the Holy of Holies, holy ground, holy week.  Our Lord gave everything for us – was faithful to the end because he loved us.  He calls us to follow his example: to lay our lives, and that means our time, at the feet of our loving God, who comes to save us. 

God is Glorified in the Converted Heart

Homily for the 5th Sunday of Lent, 2005

Glory: We hear that a number of times in our gospel today – the glory of God.  Jesus keeps talking about how God will be glorified through him. 

How is God glorified – or what does it mean to give God glory?  The Greek word for glory, doxa, was always associated with light, with splendor, with transcendence.  God’s glory doesn’t  just hide in some mysterious way here or there, no it shines, his glory has a brilliance and splendor that is uncontainable, a majesty and beauty that is beyond our ability to describe.  All we need to think of is the experience that Moses had – he who looked upon God’s glory and was forever changed – his hair as white as the snow. 

In the Gospel, Christ tells his disciples, tells all of us that his mission is to glorify God, to manifest this awesome glory of our creator.  Yet, if we look at our gospel today, something should strike us.  This is not transfiguration Sunday – Jesus is not in dazzling white.  There is very little in the way of splendor and glory.  A few Greeks show up and wish to see him.  We might imagine the soundtrack: a few flies buzz around, some market noise on the street, sounds of people going about their normal lives, disciples talking about the weather. 

Jesus speaks about a seed falling to the ground and dying, about his upcoming passion and death.
Today we see a clear preparation, a clear sign given by Christ about the way in which he will glorify God.  Increasingly his disciples must have realized that he was not going to ascend a throne of light, that he was not going to call on myriads of heavenly angels in splendid array to launch a new heavenly kingdom on earth, that he was not going to walk over the seas and govern the skies and have authority over all people and nations. 

No, Jesus reveals a different plan.  A plan in which God will be glorified in and by his people, and particularly by those who are weakest and most downtrodden.  This plan was hinted at from the beginning, as we heard in our first reading from Jeremiah:
I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  No longer will they have need to teach their friends and relatives how to know the LORD.  All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the LORD, for I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more.

Jesus will bring God glory as he walks among his people in their humble need, among all of us.  And not in some great big rally or show – not in a new powerful kingdom – not in some emotional high or other…  But in the secret recesses of our hearts – in the soil of the soul where he plants the baptismal seed of Grace and nurtures it, helping us to know him and follow his example of faithfulness to the will of his heavenly Father.  In essence, Christ reveals that God is first and foremost glorified in the human heart that is transformed into his image and likeness.  And that is his work, that is the work of his redemption – to bring God’s glory here (the heart).  Christ, the seed, the life of God, the glory of God, has died so that he can be planted within our hearts and manifest the glory of God’s life within us.

Jesus is the Glory of the Father.  And his Spirit, the Holy Spirit, is the refulgence of his Glory, the splendor.  That glory is given to us, hidden, covert, within Baptism, in the Eucharist, in the sacraments. 

So we must resist the temptation that every Christian disciple has faced from the beginning:  to think that God’s glory only dwells up in heaven, and if on earth, somewhere else – that Christ’s life is something foreign, that is meant to save us, to redeem us from the outside. 

No – the seed has died, it has fallen into the ground of our humanity - yours and mine – not some generic humanity, for there is no such thing.  But your flesh and blood and soul, my flesh and blood and soul.  In the Eucharist the Church tells us that we receive what we are and are meant to become what we receive. 

And so we must take with the utmost seriousness the reality of the Incarnation: that God has truly come to earth, that he has taken upon our flesh and walks with us so that his Glory is now often manifest even in the most simple and mundane tasks.  St. Therese, the little flower, knew this well:  that even the simplest of things, united to the love of Christ, are glorified and bring glory to God.  That is where his glory shines: in hearts that are made new and are rooted in him through little acts of love.

What are the little areas that we can ask God’s glory to enter.  Is there a corner of the home that needs a Christian symbol, a sign, to remind you that where you dwell Christ dwells, to designate a place where you can go to pray and remember who you are and what your life is all about?  Are there accommodations that you have made that you know are not in keeping with your Christian dignity, that you know are not appropriate to the life of a walking tabernacle ?  Are there moments of the day that you know are squandered in useless entertainment and can instead be given to simple yet profound acts of humble service to our family, friend, and neighbor?  The Spirit of Christ, dwelling in you, longs to bring glory to the Father through you, longs to glorify God by your life, by your love, by your faithfulness and courage and discipline in the small tasks of each day. 

Christ teaches us: if you are seeking the Glory of God – do not attempt to flee to heaven, do not try to find sanctuaries glistening and pure, nor to some kind of impressive show or rally or emotionally charged event.  No – if you want to see God glorified, ask him to help you find conversion and redemption this lent in the trials and joys, sacrifices and hurdles, of everyday life. 

The Light of Christ: a Light of Truth and Love

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, 2012

I don’t like having the lights on in my office.  Fr. Nadeau used to flip them on, figuring I had forgotten, until I explained.  They are the fluorescent kind that make you feel like you are in a terrarium – some kind of exotic species on display.  And no, that is not appropriate.

Today Jesus teaches us that he is the light that has been sent into the world – the light of truth.  But some, he says, prefer to stay in darkness.  They do not like the light. 

I was thinking to myself, well, maybe they think that his life, his truth is a fluorescent kind of light. The kind of light that you just use to display things that are pretty, like holiness and virtue. 
A light for those who have everything together and are ready for everyone else to stand around and view them.  And they perceive his light to be that same harsh and hygienic blue-white light –
a light that reveals every flaw, that is merciless – almost hunting for defects to show the world. 
Now, the truth can feel like that.  There is a certain merciless quality to the truth.  It searches the heart, it probes the mind – it reveals our flaws and weaknesses.  It unmasks us and sometimes can leave us feeling weak and vulnerable. 

But the light of Christ, the truth that is revealed in Christ, is not harsh and humiliating, it does not degrade us or make us less human, like an interrogation light in a cold cell. 
The light of Christ, his truth, is given to us in love, Jesus tells us.  It is because God so loved the world that he sent the light, his truth, among us – to set us free and to give us new life.  And so the proper metaphor for the light of Christ is the candle, or in the case of the Easter Vigil, the fire, the flame.
And so Church insists that we use candles to light the altar, not light bulbs.  And that’s not just out of a sense of nostalgia that we use candles – it is because they are a more full and rich sign and symbol of the light of Christ.  I will just point out to you a few ways today.

1. First notice how the candle produces light: by sacrificing its life.  The candle does not give us light without burning up its own body, it’s flesh.  And so it is a sign to us Christ, who spent himself in order to give us the light of his truth.  The candle becomes a sign to us all that the truth, the light of Christ, is found and sustained in sacrifice, by taking up our crosses, as Christ did, and following his example of selfless love. 

2. Secondly, notice how the light of the candle is not harsh, but soft and inviting.  In fact, it is one of the warmest and most inviting of lights.  Rather than revealing every flaw, candlelight hides flaws – that’s why they are favored for dates and for other romantic settings.  Everyone looks better by candlelight.  In just the same way, the light of Christ, his truth, enlightens our world gently and with dignity and respect – showing us, not so much our flaws as the beauty of the calling that we have received in Christ to become the adopted sons and daughters of God.  St. Paul tells us in our second reading today that God is rich in mercy, and that in Christ he showers us with immeasurable riches and kindness.  Christ, the light of the nations, has come to earth not as an enemy, but a friend.

3. Lastly, candles give off heat when they burn; unlike fluorescent fixtures, they cannot do otherwise.  Plenty a server has figured that out the hard way – hopefully not losing any hair in the process. 
And I think that this points us to our bishop’s motto: Live the truth in love.  Just as for a candle there can be no light without heat, so for a Christian there can be no truth without love. Jesus shows us that love and truth are not opposed, but follow from one another.  It is not that love is irrational and that truth doesn’t have a heart.  No, instead, just as light and heat are united in the candle, so God’s love and truth are united in Christ. 

How?  In that Jesus shows us that the greatest truth is his love for us, and the greatest love is the truth about him.  In essence, Jesus shows us is that the truth is biased, horribly biased, in our favor.  He is the truth, and he is unabashedly rooting for us, favoring us, loving us.  And he calls us to be men and women of the truth in the same way, rooted in love for others.

I think that this final lesson is so important to all of us, who on the day of our baptisms were given a candle and told to keep the flame of faith alive in our hearts, to be a light to the nations.  We were not given fluorescent lights,  or glow sticks, for that matter.  We were given a candle.  And the candle is a rich symbol of the way that we are called to enlighten the world:  Speaking the truth, not being afraid to speak and live what is true and right and holy – but always doing so in love and with deep concern for others - never use honesty as an excuse to be cruel.

In just a few short weeks we will gather around the Easter fire at the vigil – the Easter candle will be lit from its flames – and then slowly, that light will travel to all corners of the Church as hundreds of candles light up and fill the church with a warm glow.  As we journey through lent, working to be open to the Grace of Christ at work in us during this season, let us pray that on that day the warm glow will be more than a nice feeling for a few moments – but that it will be a true sign and symbol of who we are and the way that we embody the light of Christ, the light of his truth and love, that has come into our world.