Sunday, November 30, 2008

Joyful Hope

1. Those who had known Jesus when He walked on the earth, those who had ate and drank with Him after He rose from the dead felt the desire to see Jesus once more, this time in Glory and Power. So in the early days of the Church, the whole Christian community strained each day looking forward to the return of Jesus, begging Jesus to come back.
2. Their feelings echoed the words of the prophets, like Isaiah, who longed for the Lord to come down and rescue His people from their sins. They looked at their lives and could see the same mistakes over and over again. Although Chosen by God and constantly shown His care and mercy, they nevertheless sinned and imitated the pagan nations around them. To break out of the cycle of sin, they wanted God to intervene.
3. Through the Prophets, God taught them to hope for His coming and to prepare themselves to meet Him. Still, most of the people failed to recognize Jesus when He did arrive, in spite of the many signs which He performed for their benefit. We do not have to wait for Jesus’ first coming. But like the earliest Christians, we are awaiting His return in Glory. Jesus tells us in the Gospel to be watchful and alert, ready for His coming. But what should be our attitude, and what should we be doing, if anything, to prepare ourselves for Jesus’ glorious return.?
4. As with any question, there are various opinions on how to answer it. And not all answers are equally correct. But as I learned from Father Gallagher in the seminary, even studying erroneous opinions is useful for discovering the truth. One of these errors is to think that we must do most of the work. After all, Saint Paul says in his letter to the Phillipians work out your salvation in fear and trembling (Phil 2:12).
5. This erroneous opinion more or less states that God has given us everything we need, and with it we can lift ourselves up to heaven. And many people suffer from a form of this error, even if not completely. For example, many are tempted to put off going to confession until they have conquered their own sins. But if we were able to save ourselves, why would Jesus have come in the first place?
6. Instead, our salvation is a gift of grace given to us by the Good God. He looked with pity on us and saved us because we could not do it ourselves. Yes, God gives us everything we need, but He does not leave us on our own. We do not pull ourselves up to heaven. Rather, as Hosea the prophet said: I drew them with human cords, with bands of love; I fostered them like one who raises an infant to his cheeks (Hosea 11:4). It is the Lord who raises us up to the heavens. It is His love that has given us Salvation, the Redemption of our Souls.
7. On the other extreme, there are those whose idea of preparation for the return of the Lord borders on fervent complacency. This kind of doing nothing is not the result of laziness, but rather the conviction that nothing we could do matters anyway, that human beings are so ruined by the Original Sin of Adam and Eve that it is impossible to do good. This particular error is very popular, and it is used to convince many Catholics to abandon their faith, although thanks God few people actually act as if it is true.
8. Those who propose that human beings are totally depraved it will sometimes quote today’s first reading all our good deeds are like polluted rags (Isaiah 64:6b) Taken by itself, one might begin to think that good deeds are useless. But the author is not speaking of actual good deeds, but on the so-called good deeds of unclean people. Although Isaiah has a longing that God would find His people doing right when He comes down to the earth, the prophet realizes that they are in fact sinners. They were like the unclean, that is, those who do not know God and do not know what pleases Him. The so called “good deeds” they valued were in fact useless before the Lord. They were selfish in their pursuit of worldly goods. They were unconcerned about the plight of those with insufficient work to support their families. They ignored the cries of abandoned or rejected children. They did not care for the widows. The virtues of the day were the piling up of wealth, the experience of pleasures, and the desire for power and control.
9. It was not because people were incapable of good deeds that the prophet wrote this, it was because they could do good, but only if they turned to God.
10. The prophet does not leave us without hope. He concludes his admission of the sinfulness of his own people by recalling that God is Father, that we are His creatures. He is the potter and we are the clay (see Isaiah 64:7). If God has made us for Himself, surely He will bestow mercy on those whom He has chosen.
11. And so it is. Jesus the Son has become the means of God’s mercy for us, if only we would cling to Him. We are the clay in His hands, and He has formed us to be the beloved children of the Father. The words of Hosea describing God as one who lifts an infant up, are not just words describing the blessings that God has bestowed on us in this life, they describe what the Lord intends to do with each one of us- to lift us up to spend an eternity with Him.
12. My brothers and sisters, we cannot save ourselves, only Jesus is our Savior. Yet we cannot stand by idly, wrongly believing that our actions are meaningless in our relationship with the Living God. If we are His people, if we are His family, then we must live as His true children. Even if we must dig down and offer ourselves in the process. We must be watchful, alert, but not afraid. Rather we must wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior Jesus Christ (priest's prayer after the Our Father in the Mass).

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Jesus Christ the King

1. Come you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world... (Matthew 25:34). Generally when most people consider the end of the world, they tend to focus on the images contained in the book of Revelation. They observe the disasters befalling people, whether they are natural or the result of violent sin and then try to interpret them in light of the apocalyptic language of the last book of the Bible. There are others, when they read these visions, become somewhat frightened and do not wish to think about them. Still others are worried about concepts which are not found in the Bible and are not part of traditional Christianity, for example the so-called rapture and possibility of being left behind when such an event is supposed to occur.
2. Focusing on the book of Revelations, however, for clues to the end of the world is not always useful. Apocalyptic literature is highly symbolic and difficult to interpret. Besides, many of the events depicted are not in the future but have already happened. On the other hand, today’s Gospel is pretty clear about what is going to happen at the end- there will be judgement. As we say in the Profession of Faith, we believe that Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead.
3. The purpose of judgement is to set things right, to be fair. Although judgement can be a fearful thing, Jesus insisted that He did not come to condemn the world but to save it (see John 12:47). Note that when the Son of Man returns to judge, He says to those He deems good come blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world. That is, it has always been God’s intention that we would inherit His kingdom as His beloved sons and daughters. That is the plan of God. Jesus does not say to those condemned that their place of punishment was prepared for them since the foundation of the world. That is because God did not intend to punish anyone when He created them. In truth, we are in a sense predestined for the kingdom but we are not predestined for hell. God did not make anyone to punish, but He made all of us out of the goodness of His love to share His presence forever.
4. Still, it is a judgement, and since God gave us the gift of free will, He is not going to force us to spend and eternity in the house of the Father if we really do not want to be there. As Jesus indicates the possibility for eternal life as the result of our actions, He also indicates the possibility of eternal damnation based on our actions.
5. Of course, someone may question what does judgement have to do with the Kingship of Christ? There may even be discomfort in hearing about the fires of Hell. I must admit, this reading always makes me a little nervous. But it is indeed all about the kingship of Jesus.
6. When God called Abraham and his children to faith, it was to be that God would be their king. They would not bow down to earthly power or strive to impose their own wills upon one another. Rather God was to be King. Although they failed time and time again to put the Lord first, nevertheless through the prophets there was a longing for God to be King. Isaiah expresses that longing, hoping that God Himself would come down and lead them into justice and peace. It came to pass that God Himself did come down and took upon Himself our human nature. Jesus the Christ is indeed our king. But He is not the kind of king that many people had been used to. Although He is the Lord, Jesus did not “lord” it over His disciples. It is true, that Jesus sought to conform us to the will of the Father. He wanted to spread the kingdom to everywhere (see Matthew 28:19-20). He greatly desired to destroy the enemies of sin and death. But He did so by humbling Himself and offering Himself on the cross. In His passion and death and resurrection, Jesus conquered sin and death and in His own body conformed our nature to the will of the Father.
7. To enter into the eternal life, willed by the Father and won by Jesus Christ, it is necessary to recognize Christ as our King and to serve Him. In spite of the many beautiful things the earth has to offer, we were not made for the earth, we were made for heaven.
8. For that reason, the judgement depicted in the parable is all about our relationship with Jesus, which is expressed by our relationship with one another. Eternal happiness is the consequence of serving Christ our King in every action. Eternal damnation is the consequence of failing to serve Christ our King in every action. There really is not any middle way. Jesus takes our behavior toward each other personally. And it is completely practical. If we contribute to feeding the hungry (such as in our food pantry or in another way), we are feeding Jesus. If we neglect hungry, then we neglect Jesus (and He does not like it). If we protect the vulnerable from attack, we protect Jesus. That is why the Church does not condemn membership in the military, for many have sacrificed to protect others. On the other hand, if we attack the vulnerable, or even if we simply neglect them, we do the same to Jesus. (If we neglect the elderly or the sick, or the unborn child for our own political or economic benefit, then we do so at the peril of our souls). But whatever we do for them we can be assured by the words of Jesus that He accepts our kindness as personal.
9. This reading might fill us with fear and trepidation. But although fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, fear is not going to be sufficient to motivate us to do right. There is a story of Mother Theresa who was comforting a dying man on the streets of Calcutta India. The man was very sick, very thin, covered with sores and dirt. And he had the smell of death. Some businessmen passed by and one of them remarked, "I would not do that for a million dollars." Mother Theresa looked up at him and said "Neither would I." Why did she do it? Was it fear? No. It was love of Jesus. If we love Jesus, if He is truly our King, then we can truly serve Him with all our hearts. Come you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world...

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Come, share your Master’s joy.

1. A familiar characteristic of the scripture readings at this time of year is that they focus on the end of the world. Every week, the Gospel presents us another instance of Jesus telling His followers what to expect and what is important. For example, we can expect to be judged based on our actions. In the parable Jesus proposes today, God is like a Master wishing to settle His accounts with His servants (that is, with us). Those who have been fruitful in their labors will enter into the joy of the Master. Those who have not, will be cast out into the darkness.
2. Light and darkness are common threads that run through these stories. The wise virgins who had extra oil will go into the wedding feast. And the foolish one who did not will stay outside in the dark (see Matthew 25:1-12). The wedding guests who are properly dressed will enjoy the feast, while those who are not will be cast into the dark (see Matthew 22:2-14). The ones who obey the will of the Father will enter the fullness of the kingdom and those who do not will be left out in the darkness to wail and gnash their teeth (see for example Matthew 7:21).
3. In his letter to the Thessalonians, Saint Paul reminds us that we are children of the light, children of the day (see 1 Thessalonians 5:5). We do not belong to the darkness of sin, but rather we have been illuminated by Christ to live in His light forever.
4. Another commonality of these readings we will notice is that Jesus is asking us to be prepared. Saint Paul reiterates this warning, saying : let us not sleep as the rest do, but let us stay alert and sober (1 Thess 5:6). We do not know when the end will come. Maybe today, maybe a thousand years from now. (But whenever we die, that will be it for us with regard to our actions in this life.)
5. The best way of dealing with the end of the world is to always be prepared. If you do not want to get caught lying, never lie. If you do not want to get caught cheating, never cheat. If you want to make sure that you tell your parents or someone that you love before they die, then do it every day and you will have nothing to fear. If you are always ready, then you cannot be caught off guard.
6. What may be notable in this parable is the talents given to each servant to invest and use. In the ancient world, a talent was a monetary amount that was very valuable. A talent of silver was worth about $11k. A talent of gold was worth about $800k. That is a lot of money to be given. Generally, the word “talent” has changed from a sum of money to mean a skill or gift that someone is born with or comes by easily.
7. Why was more money given to one than another? That is a mystery. Just like it is a mystery that some of us have certain talents and others do not. I can speak in public and I do not get afraid. But I am not good at any sports. I enjoy them. I play hard, but I do not have much talent in that area. Each of you has some kind of talent or skill. Maybe you can cook, maybe you are fast. Maybe you can sing of play and instrument. Maybe you are good at science, or languages, or telling jokes, or drawing pictures. It is considered part of our Christian vocation to discover what God has given us in the way of talent. And it is not bragging or prideful to admit what you have been given. In fact, to fail to acknowledge what you have received is impolite and ungrateful.
8. What is not a mystery is that in addition to giving the talent, the Master expects it to be developed. It is not simply ours to use as we want, but rather we are the stewards of something given to us. The wicked servant knew that he had received a gift, and that the Master would expect something. Indeed, the Master’s expectations were not unusually high. Even if the servant had invested the talents in a minimal way, it would have been acceptable. But as it was, he buried them out of fear. Instead of being welcomed into the Master’s joy, he was cast out into the darkness.
9. So it is with us. Although we have to be prepared for judgement, it is not like the Lord has left us to our own devices. He has provided the means for our success. And not in any miserly way, but generously. The judgement that will come upon is not intended to be an opportunity for condemnation, rather, the Father desires that it be a moment of joy. What will ruin it for us is fear, or rather, lack of trust. The wicked lazy servant did not trust in the Master, or in the gift so generously shared. Instead he judged the Master and made no attempt to fulfill the Master’s will. He did not even beg for mercy, he just handed back unused the talent which he had received. Therefore the condemnation he experienced came from within himself.
10. What did God entrust to you? What is your talent? What blessings have you received? They might be very grand. Or they might appear very small. But our assessment of their size is not important. What we do with them is important. We have received everything from the hands of the generous and loving God. Everything in turn ought to be used for His greater honor and glory and to produce fruit for the kingdom.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Feast of Saint John Lateran

1. Today we celebrate the dedication of the Cathedral of Saint John Lateran in Rome. It is the cathedral for the diocese of Rome (Saint Peter’s Basilica is the church in the Vatican and the location of the tomb of Saint Peter). The Church of Saint John is built on the Lateran Hill. It is reputed to be on the site of the house of the family of Saint Clement, the third pope. His family was wealthy and in those days of persecution used their home as the church. Later, the property was donated for the building of a proper church sometime after the legalization of Christianity in 313AD.
2. If you have ever been to a dedication of a church it is a wonderful ceremony in which to participate. The building is anointed with holy oils, most especially the altar. And the fragrance from the Sacred Chrism used to anoint the altar and walls lasts for a long time. It is the same oil used at the ordination of a priest to anoint his hands for sacrifice. It is the same oil used to seal those receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation. It is also used at Baptism to recall that we are all anointed to be a priestly people of God, offering our whole selves in His service. Whenever I smell the Sacred Chrism, it brings me back to my ordination and the intense desire I had on that day to offer myself as a sacrifice in the person of Jesus Christ.
3. As I said, today we celebrate the dedication of a building. But not really. The Church of Saint John Lateran is beautiful, I am sure (although I have never been there). The Church building, however beautiful, is not really the thing that we are celebrating today. For the Church is not a building in the material sense of the word. As Saint Paul reminds us, you are God’s building. We, that is, all of us, you, me, the bishop, the Pope, everyone, we are the Church. It is true that the building stands a reminder to us of God’s presence. The beauty of the church building can draw our minds and hearts to God. The church can be a place of refuge from the storms of life. But the Catholic Church existed and flourished for more than three hundred years before they ever built Saint John’s. Just as the Catholic church existed before we ever built Saint Michael’s. And if something terrible happened and the Cathedral of Saint John Lateran were to burn down or fall apart, the Catholic Church would still stand. For the Body of Christ is not a collection of stone and steel, wood and marble. It is the family of God, redeemed by the Blood of the Lamb, united in the Eucharist: One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.
4. That is what we are really celebrating today. In the first reading, Ezekial had a vision of the Temple of God, in which water flowed from the Sanctuary and became a great flood. This water is symbolic of Baptism. The Temple is Jesus. And as it goes forth, the gift of Baptism spreads through the whole world. And so it has happened. Look around. We have people of many different countries and cultures in our parish. And in fact, there are Catholics in almost every part of the world. We celebrate the same Mass. We hear the same scripture readings. We say the same rosary. We receive the same Precious Body and Blood of Jesus Christ our Lord. Although Jesus commanded His disciples to go forth and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, the success of that work is due to the power of God. God has generously given us the gift of faith, and has made us one in Jesus Christ.
5. The Gospel reading, however, does present some difficulties. How do we interpret it in the light of today’s feast? Certainly we are not used to seeing Jesus get angry and push people around. Most of the time we might be tempted to think of Jesus as being a sort of soft quiet man- maybe even a pushover. Or maybe like a statue of Buddha- smiling but silent. But Jesus was probably powerfully built- carpenters had to be muscular. He was an electrifying preacher. He exuded authority in His teaching and healing. And today He got angry and drove the money changers out of the Temple. This action was a symbolic act meant to teach His disciples something about the Temple.
6. For one thing, the money changers were there because you could not use just any money to pay your Temple tax or buy an animal for sacrifice. They did not want any pagan coins being used for that purpose. And the animals were for sale because not everyone could raise the kinds of animals necessary for the sacrifice. Surely corruption had entered into the situation and one reason that Jesus drove them out was because they were not acting in a Holy Manner, befitting the Temple of God. In a like manner, our behavior in Church ought to be of a holy manner- and not focused on worldly things.
7. But another reason this reading is included today is that in knocking over the money changers, Jesus is also in a way knocking over that which separated the peoples of the world. All the gold belongs to Him. Any coin, regardless of whose image is on it, can be used to do good in the sight of God (just like any coin or talent can be used to do evil). In other words, all people are welcome in the Temple of God.
8. At the same time, Holiness is paramount. The welcome that Jesus gives is somewhat extreme. I read this week that Jesus does what He does with us because He loves us. His love is a consuming fire, it is passionate, it is intense, it demands response. He loves us the way we are but He is not content that we should turn away from Him and look for happiness anywhere else.
9. Today’s feast recalls that Jesus’ love is for all, and that in fact it has spread all over the world. And for our part, we rejoice and we look to one another to build each other up as the building of God.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Day of the Dead

This is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life, and I shall raise him on the last day (John 6:40). We have been wonderfully and gloriously made to live life eternally. Death, although it is part of the universal human experience, was really not part of the divine plan for the human race. Rather death entered through sin- through alienation from God who is Life and who gives Life. And it is through the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus that we have received the eternal life willed by the Father in heaven.

Today we remember those who have died to this world. Most of them we do not know their names. Others are very close to us and their passing has caused us a lot of sorrow. It is true, we say that these loved ones are in a better place, and that we are glad that they are no longer suffering (which all may be true). But often times we say these things as we fight back the tears and try to come to terms with the pain of our loss. Once at a funeral of an older fellow his granddaughter wanted to sing All is well with my soul, which she did, while weeping copiously the whole time- all was not well with her soul- nor should it have been. But even if it causes a bit of pain, today is a day which we rightly should recall all those who have died and consider their plight in light of our Christian faith.

One of the stages of grief that everyone who has a loss goes through has been identified as denial. You know what I am talking about. When someone dies, we say I cannot believe it has really happened. Or noooooooo! (Remember how the Apostles did not want to think about the illness or death of Lazarus, because they were a afraid.) The reaction of denial is perfectly normal. It helps us to confront the reality of loss and change at a rate which we can more easily handle. Denial of death only becomes a problem when a person gets stuck in it (like when someone has the clocks in their house set at the time of death of their beloved).

Unfortunately, our world is largely stuck in a denial of the reality of death. For example, most of us will do almost anything to hide our age. Some people dye their hair, or use special wrinkle removing creams, or have treatments to appear younger. One of my friends loved to celebrate his birthday, but he was always deaf when someone asked his age (he lived to be 101). We use slang to avoid saying the word “death” : kick the bucket, buy the farm, shuffle off, cross the river, punch the ticket, push up daisies, etc...

In some instances, the denial is deeply entrenched and to expose it is risky. For example, when a person begins to talk about the death of the unborn in abortion, many people immediately shut their ears and hearts. (A few weeks ago I even received some negative email, although most was supportive.) Some will say it is a political issue that should not be discussed at church. Others will say it is a moral issue that should not be discussed in the political realm. They say that because they do not want to discuss the deaths of others at all. A terrible consequence of this widespread denial is that when a person loses their child to miscarriage, or when they realize that they child they aborted was in fact their own son or daughter, they often do not know how to express their grief. If anyone responding appropriately runs the risk of ending their own denial, if they have it.

In the circumstance of almost any death, not just of a child, the mourners are interiorly conflicted. Not just because of the normal tumult of emotion, but also because of the feeling of isolation even in the midst of others. People sometimes tell others not to cry. Or the mourner wonders why they still feel sorrowful after several weeks. Grieving takes years. That does not mean that we are supposed to be incapacitated for years, but rather that we should acknowledge that the grieving process can take a long time. And we cannot go through the process until we acknowledge that death has indeed happened. Then we can go forward, even though it is into darkness and unknowing.

Remembering the dead helps us through this process. Even though we might remember things that we would like to forget, by recalling the passing of those whom we love, our fear of abandonment can be lessened. Our Christian faith is particularly helpful in these times of testing and pain. We believe that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, completely God, suffered and died for us. Though God did not make death, He freely embraced it for our sake. The death of Jesus on the Cross gave our death and the deaths of our loved ones a new meaning. In the book of Wisdom it says: They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead; and their passing away was thought an affliction and their going forth from us, utter destruction. Although death appears to be the end, although it seems to be alienation from the living, in fact death now is the means to entering into a new kind of life with God.

Another aspect of our remembering that can be painful is to recall the defects of the one who has passed. How did they stand before God? We do not know. But one thing that we can do is pray for them. I have heard from so many people that funerals are for the living. But I disagree. And when I die, I want all of you to pray for me. Don’t go around saying, Oh, he must be in heaven because he is a priest. No! Get on your knees and ask God to have mercy on me! That is one of the beauties of the Catholic faith. Even though someone has died, we can still pray for them, and God will listen. God’s power to convert and to heal us is not limited to this world and this life. He can do all things and He can make all things right even after our death.

If we were to read the 12th chapter of Second Maccabees, Judas Macabbeus arranged for the soldiers who had died to be remembered in prayer, that God would forgive them their sins. The author praises this action as being proof of his faith in the resurrection (see 2 Maccabees 12: 43-44). If there were no mercy available after death, why would Jesus have raised Lazarus or the son of the widow of Nain? Why would He have stayed in the tomb three days? Why would Jesus have descended to the dead as we profess in the Apostles Creed? For what purpose except to free those in the bounds of death. And if He could free them way back then, why not now?

In remembering the dead and lifting them up in prayer, we acknowledge that in God, all are alive. In meditating on the Passion of our Lord, we profess that God understands and that we are not alone. In praying for the dead, we show our faith that God’s love endures forever and His mercy is from age to age. In seeking God’s mercy for others, we expand our capacity to receive it ourselves.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

All Saints

Although I am a fan of baseball, I did not get to see the end of the last game of the World Series. But I know exactly what happened at the end. The winning team was jumping up and down in joy. They were opening up bottles of champagne. The fans of the winning team were likewise celebrating their victory, slapping each other on the back. In the other locker room, there was silence, possibly tears, as their season was brought to an end with a loss.

But how long will the celebration last? A week? A month? We all know that eventually a new season will arrive with all its changes. The rejoicing will be forgotten as many will ask themselves "What have you done for me lately?" That is the way of worldly glory. One will raise his arms in victory today. But on another day those same arms will be tired. The bright promises will be replaced by the daily grind which will wear away the shine. It is true whether it be sport or politics or any other thing. Worldly glory is a fading glory.

But there is a glory to be achieved that will not wear out or fade. There is a glory that everyone may obtain. It is not a victory that is won by trodding on the heads of enemies, engaging in character assassination or the spreading of rumors. It is not a championship in which there are 31 losers and only 1 winner. The ones who do not receive this glory will only be those who reject it. That is the glory of sainthood.

Every person who lives is called to be a saint. And it is possible, not because of our own skill or goodness, but because of the power of the One whose Love is everlasting- Jesus Christ our Lord.