Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Am I Lovable?

Many times, when we are trying to figure out if someone loves us, our reasoning is strange. We might look at our economic success, popularity, exercise of power, or health, and if those are not what they should be, conclude that we are not lovable. Saint Paul points out that the values of the present world are not proper for understanding God’s love. God loves us. Nothing can happen that can stop God from loving. We might fail to return the love to the Lord, but nothing we can do can make Him not love us. (see Rom 8:35, 37-39)

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Price is Right

1. As I drove around town this week, I noticed many of the churches had signs attesting to the belief that the return of Jesus will be very soon. Accompanied with this belief is the urgency to get one’s life in order, so that we will be prepared when our Lord shows up.
2. In our own Church, we are coming to the part of the Liturgical Calendar when each year the readings from the Gospel begin to take on an urgency to prepare for the end of the world. His basic message is be prepared, for the end is indeed coming. Jesus does not tell us when. He does not tell us how (exactly anyway). He just tells that it will happen. Jesus is not trying to terrify us, or put us into a high state of alert. Rather, He wants us to live the kind of life that will not require fear.
3. And at the end there will be a judgement based on what we have done in this life. Simply being baptized or choosing Christ at one moment will not really be enough. The way we live and the things we choose and think and do will be the criteria for the judgement which we will receive. And it will be simple and just. The good will be retained in the kingdom of heaven, and the bad will be burned up. One way we can look at it is that everyone will be subjected to the fire of God’s love- God loves everyone. But the fire will burn away everything which is not like Him. For those who have willfully rejected God and His law, the fire may burn everything they have. But those who love God with their whole heart and who live the law of Christ and His Church will have nothing to fear. The more Christ lives in us, the more beautiful and happy we will be when the fire of God’s love consumes us.
4. So there should be some urgency on our part with regard to the end of the world. Just judgement is coming. Therefore, we need to examine ourselves and ask God to changes us, so that we will be more and more like Him.
5. Now the Lord is not telling us about this because He looks forward to condemning anyone. The good news is that the Son of God has come to save us. And He constantly desires to encourage us to look forward to the end as a time of hope and fulfillment of those who love Him.
6. And so in the first two parables today, Jesus reiterates that the Kingdom of Heaven is worth everything that we possess. In another place, Jesus said wherever your treasure is, there is your heart. So the question is, what is heaven worth to us? What are we willing to pay to obtain it? Oh we say that it is the most important thing, but do we act like it? Do we value being right more than the kingdom? Do we value getting our way? Do we value controlling things? Do we want to exact the form of justice known as revenge? Do we withhold our treasure instead of tithing? Do we withhold our forgiveness instead of reconciling? Do we withhold the power of fertility rather than being fruitful and multiplying as we have been commanded?
7. When Jesus talks about the kingdom being a treasure that is worth selling all we have to obtain, He does not just talk. Although we rightly declare Jesus to be our Lord and King, Jesus was willing to pay the price for our entry into the kingdom. Although God, He humbled Himself to be born a Man, to obey His parents, to work, to suffer, to be scourged and crowned with thorns, to die on the Cross. What could be a bigger price than that?
8. In the face of realizing the sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf, we might be tempted to say that since He has already paid, there is no reason for us to do anything. Others may even say that our attempts to do good works are in fact the result of sin and distrust, that nothing we could say or do would ever be actually good. It is true that our actions, even our best actions, will never gain for us salvation- that is only possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But at the same time, good works are indeed possible and desirable. Only those who serve Jesus in others and serve Him in humility will obtain joy in the kingdom of heaven. He said unless your holiness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. He also said Come, blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you. For I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me to drink... Doing good is not meaningless. Doing good and avoiding evil is essential.
9. It helps if we were to get the correct image in our minds of the situation. For many, God is only a judge. And all they hope for is to be pardoned of their crimes. But God is more than a judge, He is our Father. He is not looking for criminals on parole- or evildoers officially acquitted of crimes which deep down they are still guilty of. Rather, God is our Father who wants us to be like Him. He wants us to be free from sin, not simply pardoned. He wants us to be members of His household, being Holy as He is Holy. And since He is God after all, it is possible.
10. The question is not really what would we be willing to do to avoid going to Hell and suffering for all eternity? The real question is what are we willing to do to be with the One who is our true Beloved?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Mary Magdalene

Today is the feast of Saint Mary Magdalene. There are various discussions about which Mary she was. And there are many who would like to make Mary Magdalene someone to support their particular views of Christianity and Jesus Christ Himself. According to Scripture, she is the one from whom Jesus expelled seven demons. The focus on the feast, however, in not on exorcism, but on love and mission. In the Gospel for today's Mass, it is (Easter) Sunday morning and Mary is weeping at the tomb of her friend and Rabbi Jesus. She is upset, not only because Jesus has died, but also because His body is not in the tomb and she believes that someone has stolen it.

When Mary does recognize Jesus as being alive, she apparently reached out to hug Him and hold Him tight, which seems perfectly normal. Jesus said do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father. I used to be taken aback by Jesus' statement. Why tell Mary not to cling to Him? Isn't that what a Christian should do- hold on to Jesus? And then I realized that Jesus meant something different. He had not yet ascended to God the Father yet. That is how we are to cling to Him.

Saint Peter, on Mount Tabor during the Transfiguration, wanted to erect three tents, but Jesus would not let him do it. Jesus' mission was not yet complete. At the tomb on Easter Sunday Morning, Jesus' mission was still not yet complete. He had to ascend to the Father, so that everyone would be able to cling to Him.

But the mission is still really not yet complete. For one thing, the Last Day has not arrived, when Jesus Christ will return in glory to judge the living and the dead. On that Day, the mission will be complete. In the meantime, we are called to participate in the mission of Jesus. When she encountered the Risen Lord Jesus, Mary Magdalene was given a mission- to go to Jesus' brothers (that is, His disciples) and announce that He had Risen from the dead and was going to God the Father. Mary had not been chosen as an apostle, but Our Lord gave her this task. It helps us understand that the proclamation of the Good News of our salvation is not reserved to bishops, priests and deacons. It is the task of every Christian to proclaim the Resurrection of Jesus.

Today, Mary Magdalene's part of the mission is over. She made her announcement through words and actions. and through her prayers, many are drawn into Christ's mercy and love. It was only her love for our Lord which made it possible for her to complete her part of that mission and cling to Jesus.

We could love Jesus too.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Utopia - No

Salvation we have not achieved from the earth (Isaiah 26:18b). In spite of this Scriptural passage, we are usually striving to achieve some sort of salvation with the things of the earth. There are people who believe if you only have the right economic system, then everything will work out wonderfully and people with have what they need. (Some of those who believe this are socialists and others are capitalists.) Likewise, there are many who trust in political systems – if you have the correct one, then everything will be just fine for all. (Again, some of those who believe this way prefer communism, others democracy, others theocracy.) There are those who believe all will be well if everyone is disarmed. But there are others who believe that it is better if everyone is armed. Some believe in giving in to their enemies, others in destroying them.

One could go on and on. There are many different proposals for how to reach utopia. Although not everyone looks at these fixes as a form of salvation, many times we do look at them as a way of saving the planet or saving the human race or the universe. But although all of these systems or plans or proposals have been tried, all of them have failed to produce the desired paradise on earth which we have come to expect or at least hope for.

These plans for saving the planet or human race or whatever are doomed to failure because as human beings we simply lack the ability to achieve our own salvation. Only God can save us. Furthermore, we already have a Savior- Jesus Christ, so we do not need to go looking for another.

I am not denouncing any plans to care for the earth, or to develop a more just society. With God’s help, we should strive for these and many other goods. It is just that without God, and without reference to God, these utopian visions are useless. We will never achieve complete peace and contentment in this life because we have to die and rise again on the Last Day to gain it.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Word Comes Down Upon Us.

1. We are endowed with a natural desire that goodness be rewarded and evil punished. But the environment we grow up in can shape our opinion and knowledge as to what exactly is good and what is not good. In other words, we may be ordered toward the good, but we must learn what the good is. For example, we must learn to say please and thank you as children. As young people we must learn how to control our desires so that they do not control us. We must study to gain knowledge and wisdom so that we can be productive citizens contributing to the common good of society.

2. It is similar in the spiritual life. The knowledge that God exists is rational and reasonable and normal. Such knowledge can only be removed with effort and only then when there is something else which we can put as a false god in place of the real one.

3. But even though our natural and normal inclination is to acknowledge God’s existence, knowing about God is a bit different. We must learn if we are to grow and develop and make good decisions instead of sinning. How great God is, in that He has revealed Himself to us given us the knowledge of what we can do to be like Him. The Good News is that God does indeed love us, and yearns for us to be like Him and to be with Him forever. But if we do not learn what is pleasing to God, an eternity in His presence will not be joyful for us, but rather a trial.

4. But Jesus lists three things that impede us from receiving the Gospel in a way which will prove fruitful. These are the demons, the lack of roots, and worldly allurements.

5. The basic attitudes that modern people have regarding demons are denial, joking, and terror. Some deny the existence or effects of demons. Some think that they are cartoon characters to take lightly. Others are so afraid of them that they see them everywhere or as equal to God. Demons are a real threat to everyone. We should not take them lightly. So for example we should make every effort to avoid inviting them into our lives. A person does that by NOT getting involved in the occult - reading horoscopes, attending séances, going to psychic, playing with the o-board. Although demons try to harm us and can be very dangerous, they are not more powerful than Jesus. Our best response is to avoid them, but respect the danger they present.

6. The third impediment listed in the Gospel is worldly allurements- essentially the comforts of life. We are plagued by these, and so we do not produce the fruit which we should. We live in a society where most of our physical needs appear to be met. And if we work hard, we can reasonably expect to live in a degree of comfort that much of the rest of the world does not. We set our hearts on new shoes or new phones or new houses or new cars or new spouses or whatever. And many times these things are actually available to us. Material things are for the most part good. But they do not last. But even if they do not fall apart, we still want something else anyway. Saint Augustine said that he was so in love with the beautiful things of creation that he failed to look at the Creator, who is much better.

7. The way to escape being choked by things is to practice almsgiving and fasting. Almsgiving is what we give to the poor after we have already met our obligation to tithe (that is, to give a tenth to God). Almsgiving is meant to hurt just a little. Fasting- withholding from ourselves something good, will discipline the body and the passions which affect it. Saint Peter Chrysologous once preached “Prayer knocks, fasting obtains, mercy receives”.

8. Another impediment might seem to be tribulation or persecution, that is, problems. Certainly, there are people in the world who are being threatened today with death if they do not reject Jesus and the Catholic Church. There is the problem of our own failure. And sometimes we meet someone who professes Christianity but acts so bad that some people say if that is the way Christians act, why bother to go to Church. But these problems are not impediments to producing the fruit of the Good News. The true impediment is lack of roots.

9. Lack of roots is probably the biggest problem in our country right now. You may know that the largest religious group in America are Catholics. But you may not know that the second largest religious group is Non-Practicing Catholics. Then there is the huge number of those Catholics who leave to join other churches for whatever reason, but usually for the reason of lack of roots in the faith.

10. Maybe the rootless-ness is not their fault. Maybe the parents did not take someone to Mass or teach them how to pray when they were young. Or someone told them that all religions are the same so it does not really matter. (Careful study will reveal that religions are NOT all the same).

11. Maybe the lack of roots was self imposed, like when someone says that they do not get anything out of Mass so they are not going to attend anymore. Some even believe that once they make first Communion or are Confirmed, then their studies in the faith are over. But tell me, could you make a decent living as an engineer with an 8th grade knowledge of Math? If your reading level is still at second grade, will you be as successful as you could be? If you are as mature as you were when you were 14, will your marriage be happy and your children receive the parenting they deserve? NO! In all these areas, we expect to study and grow and mature.

12. The same is true in the faith and practice of our holy religion. We should grow and mature. Unfortunately, many people go through life with the faith of a seven year old. The faith of a seven year old is fine for someone who is seven, but what about a 17 year old, or a 27 year old or a 57 year old? Human beings are naturally religious, but we must grow in an environment of faith so the roots can sink deeply. Consider the Pecan Tree- once you have one, it is very difficult to get rid of. You can mow over it, chop it down or try poison on it when it is very young and it will keep coming back. Why? Because Pecan trees sink very deep roots, so it can hold on through a lot of problems.

13. How do we sink deep roots? We do that through prayer and study. A professor of mine in the seminary told us if you do not study you are going to Hell!- because we were studying to be priests and if we do not know the answers for our people they will go somewhere else to find them. So we must read Scriptures and study the teachings of the Church. Of course, the Word of God is not just a book or collection of writings. The Word is also a person, whom we need to get to know through prayer.

14. once the roots are developed, then we have to water them with more prayer and more study. With strong roots, we can weather the storms of life and produce the abundant fruit of the Gospel. But without them, we will wither.

15. Now it looks as if it is all up to us. Or maybe we might like to complain to God because we are not in the rich soil which Jesus describes. But good for us that our Lord is not one to stand by idly while we are attacked by demons, choked by worldly goods, or wither from lack of roots. Jesus is the one who constantly seeks to help us. He died for us. He has made us the children of the Father. If we just open up a little bit, His word can come in and make such a big difference.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Harvest is Plenty

Today I was reading Zenit.org and there was an article about some television ads produced by Catholics Come Home . I decided to look at the website and the television ads. Both the ads and the website appear very good and have been reported to be effective in bringing people back into active participation in the faith. It seems that many people yearn to return to the Catholic Church, or would like to know more about it, but are a little unsure. Many feel that they have fallen too far and cannot come back. Some may even despair a bit from receiving God's mercy. But to all of these, we would say, "come back, we want you."

The Catholic Church is supposed to be the family of God. (Of course, every Baptized person is already an adopted son or daughter of God the Father). Because we are God's children, our attitude toward those who have strayed for whatever reason is to pray for them and desire their return. Each Mass carries with it the intention that God's mercy would fall upon each and every person. We priests pray several times a day for the whole world, and it is part of our special ministry to be the instruments of God's mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation. Although we do not like sin, we are called to love sinners. Although we are pleased to bring someone back, we are not interested in rubbing their noses in their past sins. After all, we are all sinners in need of God's mercy.

Previously, when I was assigned to the smaller country parish, I calculated that if everyone who had been baptized there came back to Mass, there would need to be no fewer than 7 Masses every Sunday (there was one on Saturday and two on Sunday). In some of our larger parishes, the churches are bursting at the seams and the priests are having to celebrate sometimes 4, 5, or even 6 Masses already. If all those whom God is calling came back, what would we do in those places? Jesus indicated in today's Gospel. He said “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest.” Indeed the harvest is abundant. The numbers who participate are abundant. The numbers whom God is calling back to experience His mercy and love are even more abundant. But God knows that the laborers are few. So we need to pray for them. (I have always thought that if all those came back who have fallen away, then the numbers of vocations to the priesthood would increase also). We know that God is always at work to provide for His people. But one of the ways which God works is to use us as His instruments. We have to pray. We have to say yes to His calls to serve. God will send us priests, but we must offer the sons of our families and form them to say yes to God. Or else God could call loudly and they might never hear it.

If you know a man who would make a good priest, let him know. If you do not know anyone, pray for the Lord to inspire someone to the ministry. If you are interested in the priesthood (or the religious life for that matter), do not think about it. Rather pray about it and practice saying yes to God. You might even go out on a limb and talk to the vocation director. Until you have some closer firsthand information, it will be difficult to make a reasonable decision. I know that when I realized that people were praying to the Master of the Harvest for more priests, I began to experience God's call. At first, it was very small, then it began to irritate me. Then the call began to consume my waking hours. I began to take little steps toward the ministry, just to see if it was really my calling. Finally I said yes with a free heart. And I have never regretted it.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Meek and Humble

See Zecharia 9:9-10; Romans 8:9, 11-12; Matthew 11:25-30

1. For I am meek and humble of heart. Most of the time, we do not regard meekness as a quality which we would like to have. We might say, if we are meek, who will watch out for us? How will we get what we need? Surely the strong will overcome us if we are not ambitious and proactive in our dealings. Isn’t "meek" just another word for “loser”? But here it is, Jesus is calling Himself meek. It could be that He is doing that to remind us of the prophecy which we heard through Zechariah- that our king would come meek and riding on a colt. But we ought to realize that the prophecy is about Jesus and who and what He is. Jesus is not just saying things to fulfill the prophet.

2. It may not seem that Jesus was very meek. Look at the way He argued with the Pharisees and the Scribes. And He showed powerful authority with the demons- with only a word He expelled them. It is true, when confronted with sin or with the demons that desire to ruin people, Jesus was not meek at all. But in the most important way, Jesus was indeed meek. Although He is the eternal Son of God, Jesus humbled Himself completely for our sake. God took human form and nature. I read somewhere this week that our Lord did not simply become a man, He became Man with all our human weaknesses, sufferings, and sorrows, except for sin.

3. Jesus’ humility did not end with His humanity, rather He became obedient to the Father in all things all the way to His death on the Cross. Jesus did not prefer to do things His way, for His own benefit. Rather, Jesus said that His work was to do the will of the Father.

4. Jesus’ meekness was not something forced upon Him due to the circumstances of His birth in poverty, in a country under foreign domination. For He is completely God. Jesus Himself said in the garden of Gethsemane Do you think that I cannot call upon my Father and he will not provide me at this moment with more than twelve legions of angels? In Eucharistic Prayer number II we say before He was given up to death, a death which He freely accepted. So there was no weakness in that regard for Jesus. His meekness was the conforming of His will with the will of the Father. In this meekness, Jesus undid the sin of Adam and Eve and made it possible for us to obey God.

5. In His meekness, Jesus opens His heart to receive all of us, regardless of how far we have fallen. Jesus said Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. We might be burdened by our efforts to be holy, we might be burdened by suffering or loneliness or sorrow. We might even be burdened by our sin. Regardless of what burdens us, Jesus can provide the rest which we need.

6. A particular burden is the burden of living as Saint Paul says in the flesh as opposed to the Spirit. Saint Paul is not claiming that the body is a prison from which one must escape. If that was so, then Jesus would have never come in the flesh to save us. He would have never risen from the dead. What Saint Paul is taking about is living in such a way that is opposed to the Spirit of God. In other words, not being meek before God the Father. Some examples of living in the flesh opposed to the spirit are more obvious, for example having sexual relations outside of the sacrament of marriage. Or treating another ourselves or another person as an object of pleasure or use. Another example is the life of pleasure- not just sex, but food and drink, the buying of things, the amassing of property beyond what we really need, the pursuits of entertainments. Other examples are less obvious- namely being prideful or selfish, refusing to forgive, using foul speech, disobedience (disobedience is very insidious, since we can do it in secret), powergrabbing, being lazy, not worshiping God as we are obligated to do. Saint Paul would regard all of these things as living in the flesh. And that kind of life is deadly. Some of these actions or thoughts may kill us now. But all of them could lead to a death far more horrible- that is, eternal death in the fires of hell.

7. But can we live the life of the Spirit on our own power? Can we, like Jesus be meek with our own strength? No, we cannot. That is why Jesus calls out come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. Only in Jesus Christ will we have the strength and the power to live in the Spirit. And how do we do it? Jesus tells us take my yoke upon your shoulders and learn from me. That is, we humbly and obediently carry the cross that we each have.

8. But Jesus says something strange at the end: for my yoke is easy and my burden light. Our burdens do not always seem very light do they? When we gaze upon the Cross of Jesus Christ, does it appear to be easy? It does not. But that is where we need understanding of what is actually happening. It is true that Jesus suffered for our sake, but suffering was not His motivation. Think, is there anyone whom you really love? Is there someone for whom you would do anything to protect them, to make them better, to serve them, even if you had to carry a great burden to do it? Even if you had to suffer? Even if you had to give your last drop of blood? If you do, then you can begin to have an inkling of the lesson that Jesus wants us to learn by taking up His yoke. Jesus' yoke is His cross, and it is easy because it is love who is bearing it.