Apr 20, 2014

Easter Sunday: World Without End

There is the story told of a preacher, who had the reputation of going on a bit.  He was once preaching at a funeral and after 20 minutes, one of the ushers plucked up the courage to discreetly get his attention, and pointed to his watch a few times.  The preacher, who finally got the hint, snapped back, “But I'm preaching about the most important jewel of our faith – the Resurrection from the Dead”. To which the usher responded pointing to the casket, “Well, if you don't hurry up and get to the point, he’s going to miss it!”

So straight to the point. The Point of Easter is that Christ, who was crucified until he was dead and then buried in a tomb – on the third day afterwards, he rose from the dead in a glorified body. He showed himself to his disciples. He spoke to them, they touched him, he ate in their presence, he assured them he was no spirit or ghost, but had in all truth and in fact, he had risen from the grave. Christ did not cheat death. He defeated death.

The power to do likewise, and in the same manner, has been given to us.  Use it to get to heaven.  But unfortunately, many Christians forget that they are indeed destined to rise from the dead to be with God in heaven forever.  Some of us, by our actions, demonstrate that we don't really believe or want eternal life with God after death.  And he won't force us to enjoy his presence forever in heaven. So here is an illustration. 

Where was the first place you found yourself in and really did not want to leave?  It was in our mother’s womb.  Regardless of the circumstances of our conception, when our human life and existence began in that dark and secret place, think briefly about, not only where we were in that first instance of our existence.  Think about “how” we were!

My mother’s womb was the first world I found myself in – I did not want to leave it – I was content to be hidden, secret and protected in a most natural setting.  I had little eyes - did I know that they were designed to see clouds in the sky, sunsets and all things beautiful – no! I had no idea. I had little hands and fingers. Did I know that they were designed to hold tenderly onto someone else’s hand, to play an instrument, to catch a football or paint a masterpiece? – no. I had no idea.  Did I know that my little arms were designed to hug and embrace. Or my little legs – did I know that they were being formed to one day to run and leap, jump and dance.  No. I have no idea. I was being made, to one day to live a life in another world, a bigger world – this world. I had no idea. And look! Here we are.

Remember that funeral I talked about?  One of the most precious and most sacred moments in the life of a Catholic priest is when he is called out to give a dying man or women, or even at times a child – to give them what we commonly call the Last Rites of the Church.  (When we say Last Rites, it is “r. i. t. e. s.”, meaning the Last Rituals the Church will perform over them. 

And the Ritual involves anointing the body of the one who is dying. Anointing their body with sacred oil while praying for their soul. Oil is used, not water. The body is waterproof. But oil is absorbed.  What point does this make?  Blessing and anointing a body with the sacred oil reminds us that a body, born again in baptism, is sacred and holy - a temple of the Holy Spirit. Our bodies, even though they will eventually die, they will, on the final day, rise from the dust of the earth. We will experience Resurrection in the same manner and likeness of Christ with a body that will never die again.

From the first moment of our human existence, it took around nine months for each one of us to grow and develop.  When the time was up, whether we expected it or not, we were born into this world and given an allotment of time – time to place our faith in Christ, in the healing power and nourishment of the sacraments which flow from his Risen Body to ours. 

Yes, there is another world that waits for each of us. When we rise to our own Easter glory, to stand before the throne of God and see him face to face, let us hope now that on that day, we will stand upright in body and soul with Christ in paradise forever.  This is the meaning and promise of Easter.

Apr 18, 2014

Good Friday – Veneration of the Cross

Soon we shall slowly unveil the cross that we are used to seeing on the altar.  The invitation is given for each of us to approach it and make a sign of reverence, such as genuflecting before it, or a simple bow, maybe just touching it with your hand or even kissing the cross.
Consider now its shape.  The shape of a cross in itself is rather simple. We can see its shape replicated repeatedly, not so much in nature, but more so in construction.  It is very much a man-made shape.  Thought is often given to calculating its properties.  When we use the shape of the cross, we do likewise. But we do so, not thinking of geometry and its mathematical properties.  For the Christian, a cross can never simply be two lines crossing over each other at right angles.  Instead, we reflect on its proportions, from a deeper “science” – a science (if we can even call it such) that existed before the cosmos came into being. 

Let us first consider the physical dimensions of the Christian cross, its breadth, its length and its height. Consider also how deep it must be inserted into the ground and balanced correctly, to hold in place the outstretched body of Our Lord.

Consider the crossbeam, upon which the hands of Christ are nailed. It shows us the breadth, the vastness of His love extended outwards to everyone – the whole world, all of creation.

Consider the thickness of the cross upon which Christ’s back is pressed against and upon which his feet are nailed. This shows us Christ’s strength, not simply his physical strength and endurance, but the strength of His soul to carry upon His shoulders the pressing and unspeakable weight of all the sins of the world.

Consider now the height of the Cross reaching upwards, pointing towards the heavens. It is to our heavenly Father that Christ pleads for us – he begs God in heaven to forgive us our sins.

The cross was plunged into the ground, where it is partly concealed and hidden. For it is by God’s grace that from the hidden depths within us, goodness and mercy must flow, as from a hidden spring. The hand of God must reach deep into the depth of our heart and soul and rescue us from the darkness of our hidden sins.

How does Christ, to cleanse our souls, how does He pour out His love and mercy? Paradoxically, it has been our own sins that have opened up the great treasury of divine goodness.  Our own sins thrust the lance into His side. Illogically, this act of violence on our part was met by an even greater and generous response – the outpouring of Christ’s saving blood and the cleansing waters of His mercy. Under the shadow of the cross, we shall always be bathed and made new again in the suffering death of Christ our Savior.

Apr 17, 2014

Holy Thursday of the Lord's Last Supper

Our Blessed Lord invited to His Last Supper, the night before He would die, a select group of individuals.  It was not an open invitation. Instead Jesus invited them to a secret rendezvous place. Unlike previous meals where everyone could be present, this was a uniquely personal, intimate, and intense nighttime gathering. It had the air of mystery about it – even danger.

What Christ did at the Last Supper, his ritual actions, He told the twelve men to repeat. First with bread and then with wine: take, bless, break and pour out, and then give.  He told them, “Do this in memory of me”.

But this “memory” is not simply a mere mental recall “for old times sake”. It is a form of “remembrance”. Remembrance is personal and intimate; it is more than a historical or the retelling of a story. This type of making a memory present, evokes a real life presence – it brings to the here and now and unlocks an event from the past, making it present, come alive, shows itself again and allows it to release all its power.   

This is what we do.  Not only does Christ’s presence become real and substantial through the consecration of the bread and wine into his Body and Blood - His total giving of Himself  - from the moment of the Last Supper, through His passion and Death, to His Resurrection from the dead and ascension into heaven, Christ offering of Himself to His heavenly Father on our behalf is also made present.  The Christ, whom we encounter in this Eucharist, is the Christ who still offers Himself on our behalf. How? Through priesthood!

A priest is one who offers sacrifice to the Almighty on behalf of others. This is what Christ does. He is the one eternal priest offering His body and blood in sacrifice for His one and only Bride whom He loves. His one sacrifice, which spills over into every age, keeps the Church holy through the grace of the sacraments.  

At the Last Supper, the apostles, by their own intimate association with Christ, became priests of the New Testament. For nearly 2000 years, countless other men have also shared in Christ’s priesthood, becoming stand-ins for the Bridegroom who continually offers his life to His Bride, the Church.

I stand here, unworthy, but with God’s grace, ordained into Christ’s eternal priesthood.  Here at this altar every day I take upon myself the actions of Christ the bridegroom who offers sacrifice for the Church his Bride, by taking the bread and wine and saying the words, “This is my body given up for you”, “This is my blood, poured out for you and for all”.

Such is the awesome responsibility of every man ordained who stands before this altar, not only representing Christ, but allowing Christ the Good Shepherd to be present in the midst of His flock so that Christ might feed them with His very life-giving body and blood.

Tonight we let us pray that more young men, or even a few, will dare allow themselves to be moved closer to this altar, to become stand-ins for the Bridegroom and to give their lives in the manner of Christ the High Priest for the salvation of the many.

But in order to do so, if he is to give his life completely for His Bride, he must first do so, not with the finery of positions or the glory of achievements, but with unassuming humility, gentle kindness and unseen patience. Before He laid down His life and offered us his body and blood, Christ first laid aside his royal robe for a simple towel and on his hands and knees, washed the feet of his disciples.

Apr 13, 2014

Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion

From this Sunday to next, we will have journeyed through the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Matthew's Gospel account of the Lord's final twenty four hours has allowed is to reflect on Christ’s journey, the depths of his love and how far he went in order to secure a place for us in the Kingdom of God. Today we contemplate on the themes which will be drawn out in much clearer fashion during this Holy Week in the context of the liturgies of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Christ went into his Last Supper knowing that a traitor sat before him. But Judas ultimately condemned himself for he could only call Jesus “teacher” and not “Lord” or “Savior”. We are not told by Matthew’s account how long Judas stayed at the table – a reminder to us that the premise of receiving Holy Communion is the acknowledgment first of our sins and the determination to avoid future sins. Failure to do so is a betrayal of the trust Christ has placed on us while we are seated here around his table.

Can we use the example of the apostles who, in the garden of Gethsemane, abandoned the Lord? No. Then, they had not received the gift of the Holy Spirit. But we, who have, through baptism and through confirmation, have a soul and a conscience enlightened by the gift of faith. Christ’s sorrow in the garden was not out of fear of death, but out of a love that fears that we would no longer believe in him when the Cross becomes apparent.

As Christ’s enemies close in, it is apparent that even his disciples are also armed and even foolishly. The Good Lord will not allow himself to be a trophy or a prize to anyone. His love is not forced nor is it held back. He freely allows himself to be taken so that he can be faithful to the truth he is to declare about what he can offer for the salvation of the whole world. The Jewish High Priest Caiaphas accuses Jesus of blasphemy. If Christ were simply a holy man or a teacher then that charge would be accurate. Caiaphas represents all those who refuse to believe that God did in fact take on human form in Jesus Christ. Even Judas, when his eyes were finally opened, after Satan had got him to betray the Lord – Judas attempted to repent of his sin, but because it overwhelmed him so much, he despaired to the point of his own condemnation. He gambled away the gift of time. If only he would have waited three days.

It is often in silence that suffering speaks the loudest. Even Christ’s silence before his accusers was more painful for them than for him, for without a word the corruption of human justice was easily highlighted. It only takes one innocent man to make this point. The Roman governor Pontius Pilate instinctively knew this, hence his nervousness trying “to pass the buck” onto the Jewish people. Little did he know that for two thousand years his name would be publicly acknowledged every Sunday, not the Jews, as the one who condemned Jesus. Even in the mocking of Christ by the Roman soldiers, paradoxically Christ is given adoration, although contemptuously. And by the same measure as Adam had tasted the sweetness of the apple which brought forth death, Christ would taste the bitterness of death to restore life. Like Simon of Cyrene forced help Christ carry his cross, not being able to see the big picture is often where we find ourselves.

But strangely when we are often blind to God before our very eyes, nature herself, creation knows its creator intimately. Hence at the death of Christ the earth shock, the Sun eclipsed and dead bodies shuddered in their graves. And even at the cross where Christ died, a sign of a new order of creation stood waiting. In a culture where the men were reckoned brave and strong, it was the noble courage of the women who stood by the cross of Christ that is now worthy of imitation. And even when the bloodied body of Christ is sealed in a virgin tomb, one may meditate on the sacred womb of Mary which in the darkness of time and mystery embraced the body of Christ intimately. This Holy Week is given to us to instill, refresh and to awaken within us the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our savior.

Apr 6, 2014

Fifth Sunday of Lent - Passiontide

 “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”.  If seems like the ultimate guilt trip.  Was Christ responsible for the death of Lazarus?  We know, intellectually the answer. But when someone is stricken with grief, shock, disappointment and even anger, we have often heard people say things like, “If there is a God, why does he allow suffering.  Why did God allow such and such a person to die?  Where is God when you need him most?” The greater one’s love for someone, the greater is one’s suffering when they suffer.

This indeed reveals the vulnerability of the heart. Here we are all vulnerable – when we are confronted with suffering and pain.  So back to that question, “where is God when you need him?”  Why is He sometimes silent when there are tragedies?

Consider reflecting on just a few lines from the Gospel we have just heard. Hearing that his friend Lazarus had died, we read –

He became perturbed and deeply troubled and said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Sir, come and see.”  And Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him.” 

Where was God? God was standing at the grave weeping.  God suffered the pain of grief.   

If you think of God as sitting on a cloud in heaven, far removed from our world – think again.  Our God weeps. This is not only one little incident for his close and dear friend Lazarus.  He weeps also you and for me, when we die.  And I’m not talking about a funeral.

And we can die many times, even before our time. When we fall into despair, we die. When we are selfish – we die. When we sin and turn our back on God and others and think only of ourselves – we die. We die a thousand deaths before our time. And with every death God’s heart is crushed with pain and sorrow for you and me.  That’s where God is.

God is intimately, in the midst of our often-messy lives.  God is with us, not necessarily trying to answer all our intellectual questions, important as they are. First and foremost, Christ joins his heart to yours, to mine. Christ experiences the depth of our soul, our longings, our anguish, our hopes, joys and fears. He is often with us without words as intimate friends do not often need to speak. It is often enough to be assured that one is there to share the burden of the other.

Here’s a thought I think is worth reflecting upon.  Lazarus was dead for four days. Christ wants to roll back the stone from the tomb. Martha says no, because logically there will be a stench. Christ orders it to be moved. Here’s the question? When it was rolled back, was there the smell of death that was expected? No. The love of Christ for his friends will ensure that even though we die a thousand deaths, the lingering stench of death will not claim us if we remain in his friendship.

Here’s the final picture.  After Christ’s prayer Lazarus is called forth from the tomb, he is still shrouded with his feet and hand still bound. St. Augustine provides us with a powerful image here of the journey to full repentance and conversion. Christ calls us, caught in the death of sin, to come forth from the hiding place of darkness and show ourselves. And as we step out into his light we do so aware of what still binds our hands and feet. Christ calls out to the Church to untie the sinner so that freed from the entanglement of sin and despair, the sinner might live again a new life.

Is this not the Sacrament of Confession and the absolution of sins, whereby the repentant sinner who dares respond to the command of Christ is assured of a new beginning, a new awakening? Many came to believe in Jesus because he raised the dead Lazarus to life. Let us pray likewise, that we will never be obstacles to the salvation of others, but witnesses who, with our lives, point towards the kingdom of God, where freed from the corruption of sin and death, we shall reflect God’s glory with every creature through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Mar 30, 2014

Fourth Sunday of Lent

There are so many layers to any portion of the Scriptures.  We have to be prepared to slowly uncover them.  This demands patience. A virtue not many are willing to exercise. For example, we hear that because someone is born with a disability, it’s somehow a punishment from God.  It’s very ironic. God doesn’t punish anyone with disabilities.  However, in our present society an unborn baby, for example, is often punished, has to pay the ultimate price, if found with a disability, deformity or even because the unborn child is a girl and not a boy.  Humanity’s inhumanity often punishes the vulnerable when one plays God with the lives of the innocent. It is ironic that perfection is often demanded from the not-so-perfect.  

Christ stepped into an imperfect world. But he did not go round the world fixing things and mending broken people like some sort of repair man.  His miracles are best described as “signs”.  When we see a sign - any sort of sign, we naturally reflect on its meaning - what it is pointing us to.  Jesus gives sight to the blind.  He could have snapped his fingers (and he didn’t even need to do that!) But no. Instead Christ uses his saliva, mixes it with soil to make clay and smears it on the darkened eyes of the blind man. Than has him run away to a pool of water to wash it off. Only then, does the man see. And when he does, Jesus is not even around for him to identify.  So what do we make of this? Christ’s miracles, remember, are not feats of showmanship.  They are signs we must interpret, pointing us to a bigger, more wonderful appreciation of what God is doing.  

We are all blind beggars, living in our own darkness. ‘Even though I should walk in the shadow of darkness….” Yet, Christ the Good Shepherd enters the chaos and confusion of the darkness we can so easily become captured in. “Let there be light” God said.  “I am the light of the world”, says Christ. Christ comes to make all things new - a new creation, a new world. Consider how God made man in Genesis. He took clay and breathed His Spirit into it.  Does not Jesus do likewise, taking clay, making it moist with the substance of His own spit, and smearing it on eyes of the blind beggar - that’s you and me. He wants us to see Him in a new light, not a blinding light - but a light what slowly warms a cold and hardened heart.  

It is understandable that someone can be afraid of the dark.  It is also understandable that someone who lives in the darkness for a long time can be so used to living in shadows and shades of gray. But is it, however, sad when one is afraid of the light. For that reason, Christ comes as the soft dawn of a new day - He is a gentle, patient and a kind shepherd. Christ wants us to see that through Him we can become a new creation. He can transform lives. He heals lives. Through His touch, and at times it is messy, Christ allows us to see ourselves as a new creation.  If you want a concrete example of the blind seeing and the old becoming a new creation, go to confession. Go regularly and let the gentle light of God’s grace help you to one day see God face to face in all His glory.


Extra Notes

Although it is lengthy, today’s Gospel selection (Jn. 9:1-41) has depth. For example, we should note that it was Christ who sought out the blind beggar, as he likewise seeks out all of us to bring us out of darkness, in its many forms, into his light. This journey can never be instant. If one literally lived a life, never exposed to light, a sudden burst of sunlight could blind a person. God, in the wonder of creation has given us the gift of the dawn which gradually breaks upon us. In the same way, our good Lord does not instantly bring sight to the beggar. Why does Christ go through this whole drama of spitting onto the soil and then, with his finger, mixing it into a paste, smearing it on the beggars eyes and sending him off to a pool renowned for healing properties? Why not simply restore his sight in an instant?

Through his ritual, Christ reminds us of Genesis and the creation of Adam, the first man, made from the clay of the earth into which God breathed his Spirit. Even though there is holy water nearby in a pool, Christ uses his own saliva, to make the point that the healing comes from him directly, from the properties of his own self, not from the water from a spa.

St. Caesarius , a French bishop writing in the fifth century evoking the image of the incarnation, gives us a beautiful mediation on this, “Let the saliva of Christ go down to the ground and gather the earth. Let he who made the earth, remake it and he who created it, reform it and recreate it.” (Sermon 172.3)

The Lord told the blind beggar to wash off the muddy paste from his eyes, so that we would not think there were any actual healing ingredients in this mixture. Again, we are reminded that it is Christ alone who restores sight to the blind, nothing else.

Note that the beggar regains his sight, not within sight of the Lord, but at the location of the pool of water. This way, Christ ensures that hundreds will witness the miracle and hear the testimony of the beggar, who becomes like a missionary without even knowing or seeing Christ at this stage. When it becomes time for the beggar to see Christ, note that it is again Christ who initiates this encounter of a lamb trying to find its way home (cf. CCC 588). And it is only when the beggar is able to see and then look upon the face of God in Christ, does the Lord ask him to make a profession of faith.

In the same manner that Christ initiates and makes use of a drawn out pattern of ritual to allow the blind beggar to approach him for healing, to recognize him as Lord and to make a profession of faith, to worship him giving thanks and praise (cf. CCC 1151, 1504), we too make use of ritual in our Sunday Mass to bring us into a deeper communion with Christ, so that when we say, “Yes Lord I believe”, it is not because we have benefited from a miracle, but that we have been granted the privilege of everlasting life.

(“The faith that was to speak in that answer received not sight, but life” St. Hilary of Pointers)

We come before the altar of the Lord, blinded by sin and searching for the light of faith to guide us. In God’s presence we are all beggars in need of healing. We cry out “Lord have mercy”.

May our journey through the darkness and shadows cast by this world be always guided by the voice of the Good Shepherd. He leads us towards the light of heaven. The closer and closer we get to heaven, it’s light purifies our bodies and souls so that one day me might look upon the very face of God and not be afraid.

Dante captures beautifully these themes in the Comedia

And as the water splashed over the edge
Of my eyelids, at once it seemed to me
That that long river became circular.
Then, as people who have been masked
Appear other than they have been before
If they took off the looks they disappeared into,
So were the flowers and sparks changed before me
Into the greater ceremony, so that I saw
Both of the courts of heaven made manifest.
Paradiso 30:88-94)

Mar 23, 2014

Third Sunday of Lent

During the Liturgy of the Eucharist the priest will mix a little bit of water into the wine. Water points to the weakness of humanity and wine to the richness of divinity. When God became man, God restored humanity to its fullness, breathed once again his Spirit into mere flesh and blood. The priest prays quietly while pouring a few drops of water into the wine, “by the mixing of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”

Whereas the Church’s liturgy will speak this mystery in signs and symbols, the Holy Scriptures will likewise with words. Today’s Gospel in particular demonstrates that everything in our human nature is reflected beautifully in Christ himself and is brought to salvation through him (CCC 2560).

St. Ambrose explains that in this portion of Scripture. Jesus is tired from a long journey in order that he might refresh us as we tire easily on our own journey through life (cf. Mat 11:28). Christ comes to the well thirsty while speaking of himself as the only one who can satisfy our deepest thirst to be filled with God’s saving grace (c.f. CCC 2652).

Who is this woman at the well? It is all those who find themselves wounded by sin and scarred by the sins of others. She represents all of us, but especially the vulnerable, the weak and desperate. Christ the Good Shepherd is also prudent. By sending his disciples away lest they become an distraction, he himself to be alone with this woman, risks his own reputation to save her, reaches out to this wounded and frightened lamb patiently and with gentleness.

In her dialogue with Christ, the Good Shepherd is not afraid or embarrassed to point out her sins. She is challenged to look at them face to face. But the woman at the well is cleansed and washed clean from her sinful past only as she enters deeper and deeper into conversation with Christ to the point where she not only recognizes him as a holy prophet, but also the Messiah. She concludes at the end that Jesus Christ is the savior of the whole world.

The Gospel demonstrates that Our Lord continuously and constantly invites us into a dialogue that never ends, one we would never tire of - we thirst for God. This dialogue with the Lord is called prayer. It is not our gift to God, but it is his gift to us.

(CCC 2560)

"If you knew the gift of God!" (Jn. 4:10). The wonder of prayer is revealed beside the well where we come seeking water: there, Christ comes to meet every human being. It is he who first seeks us and asks us for a drink. Jesus thirsts; his asking arises from the depths of God's desire for us. God thirsts so that we may thirst for him (Cf. St. Augustine, De diversis quaestionibus octoginta tribus 64, 4: PL 40, 56).

The journey of Lent brings us to the Cross of Christ. Lifted high on that Cross Our Lord calls out once again, "I thirst". ‘If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” Psalm 95