May 16, 2015

The Ascension of the Lord

We call the event we have heard announced in the Gospel, the Ascension of Christ into heaven. When he died on Calvary, he descended into the hell of death. On the third day he rose from the dead. And forty days later, he entered into heaven. From heaven, he will come again.  In the meantime, now that he is no longer before our eyes, and heaven, we often presume is beyond us, can Christ still walk with us, share in our celebrations, joys, our struggles, or does he, from heaven, kind of just tune into what we are doing here on earth?

Never think that Jesus is far away - in another universe or in a distant unreachable place far away. Take comfort that he is now closer to us, more intimate with us in a way that he could never have been with any of his disciples two thousand years ago. We are reminded of this truth in various ways.

For starters, he told us that when two or three have gathered in his name, he would be in our midst. Every time we pray together calling upon him, not just at church, but at home, in fact anywhere, he is there in our company. Think of it - even when you say the grace before meals, he is the unseen guest at every table.

So if he is present once again when two or three gather in his name, this is also a reminder to us that it is never simply enough to pray “for” others when we have the opportunity to with “with” others. Prayer is not an intellectual pursuit of solitaire. How said it is when we become private practitioners of prayer. Prayer always leads us to praying “with” others so that “through him” our relationships are “dignified” by heaven itself.

The reality of the Christ who ascended into heaven still being with us is, when we listen to the Gospel being proclaimed out loud for the whole world to listen, especially when an ordained minister does so, it’s not a public reading of a portion of the world’s best selling book. Anyone can do that.  Instead, a priest or a deacon allows his hands and his feet, his tongue and his mouth to be the presence and voice of Christ still announcing the Good News of the Kingdom of God. And we respond,  “praise to you, Lord jesus Christ”, (not praise to you deacon or praise to you reverend father, pastor!”) - Christ is the one who teaches and who preaches.  And if I should get in the way, then he will put his foot in my mouth!!

And, of course, the Christ of heaven, enters into our company most intimately by way of the Holy Eucharist - in what we call his Real Presence - in other words - a presence that is substantial, localized, where, if we could see with the eyes of angels, we would point and say “Look, behold the Lamb of God, heaven has opened up before us and we see the risen and glorified Christ before us.”  The Mass is not a ladder that reaches through the clouds. Instead, it is more of a bridge, a pathway to heaven that is opened, a veil pushed aside and with the eyes of faith we can gaze upon Christ, as did the shepherds and kings in Bethlehem - as did Mary, in the quiet moments of adoration and thanksgiving.  

Today, even though he is beyond our sight, let us never forget that Christ name is forever “Emmanuel” - which, of course means, “God with us.”

As one of the great saints of past days said, “Today we are not only established as the rightful owners of paradise, but in Christ, we have entered into the heights of heaven itself.” ( St. Leo the Great, Sermon 73.)

May 9, 2015

Sixth Sunday of Easter

It's the one word which, after the word "God", is probably the most used and abused word in our shrunken English vocabulary - the word “love”. It is used to describe so many different relationships in so many ways. We use it to describe the intensity of a feeling of desire, the determination to do something that brings joy, and even the excuse to justify certain actions.

In the first part of Dante’s Divine Comedy, the Inferno, the poet imagines himself walking through hell and interviewing particular characters. He speaks to a young woman overcome with traumatic grief, she is heart-broken, and as she tells her story as to how she ended up in hell, even Dante himself faints when she tells of her tragedy. But remember, she’s in hell, and nobody ends up there by accident! Francesca tells of how, while her husband was gone, she and her husband's brother, just happened to be in the library - just happened to be wanting the same book to read, just happened to sit down together to read it, just happened to read a romantic part of the book, just happened to ever so gently sit close together and their cheeks touch!  And the husband just happens to walk into the room, who just happens to have a knife and in an instant beings both of them to a very quick end.  Even in hell she is entangled with her brother in law.  And when Dante asks why she is in Hell, with her big sad eyes, that could melt your heart, she declares “It was love that brought me here!” Really?

Dare tell anyone that the way they love is wrong, misguided or not healthy, and you risk evoking its opposite - anger, rage and even violence.  So how do we judge our own way of loving, the manner in which we dare love, or how do we define it, and keep ourselves accountable?  

0813156.jpgThe Christian always goes back to Christ himself, not just His words, but His actions.  “As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love”.  We can not remain in our own love. Why? We are lousy lovers. We mess things up. We exaggerate love, we ignore it, we go from one extreme to another. A Christian has to be instead grounded in Christ’s love, His manner and His example of loving. He tells us to “remain in HIS love”, he tells to to “learn from him”, to “keep his commandments”. And we must because faith in Christ is also trust in His way of loving.  We are obedient to Christ because we trust Him over ourselves, better than ourselves - because all of us have been loved poorly in life. Many of us bear the wounds of cheap love and the scars of its many imitations - through broken promises, control, dependency, and even slavery in all its forms.  

Christ is here to show us a love that will set us free - that brings joy and a peace that no other can. I may not think myself worthy of His loving me, and no doubt, I am not. But we have to be reminded, again and again, of His words, “ It was not you who choose me,” He says but I who choose you.”  He loves me to death. He loves you to death. You are worthy of Christ dying for you, regardless if you wish Him to or not. The fact is He did, not only does it show us how much He thinks of us in His heart, God respects us, give us our dignity, even if all we can see and experience is our wounds. 

Maybe, this is why Christ, to save us from our often times crude and confusing experiences of love, does not call us His lovers - He calls us His friends.  Friendship we understand a bit better than love. Friendship goes beyond feelings, emotions - it is natural as well as born from a duty of the heart - it comes to the rescue and yet it is respectful. It can be as tender as it can be forthright.  Because it concerns itself with our human dignity, it is willing to tell us our faults and suffer loss to help make us what God intends us to be - to be truly and fully human - life to the full, fruit in abundance.  

 “What a friend we have in Jesus”.

May 3, 2015

Fifth Sunday of Easter

As you enter the enter the church piazza, you may have noticed a new bed of roses. I am grateful to the family who donated them, to our young scouting group that planted them, and to a few parishioners who are now looking after them.  When they reach full maturity, I'm hoping, even though California has now watering restrictions that they will provide the church with an ongoing supply of roses for the sanctuary.

I have, admittedly, only come to appreciate of late, the delicacy needed in cultivating roses.  My understanding is that the same principles and practices also apply to cultivating vines to produce good grapes.  And California, of course, has some of the best vineyards producing an abundance of various wines. Whether the bouquet comes from the rose or the rose', this is what I have learnt about cultivating. It's not so much how to do it.  It's also, why.  The challenge is to apply this to our souls.

The reason why roses, like vines, need attention, is, if we simply leave them to grow on their own, they become tangled in on themselves. They might produce roses or grapes, but they will not be very beautiful and the grapes would tend to be bitter. When a vine grows into itself it crowds out the light from the center. It needs to be literally trained to branch out away from the center, to maximize its exposure to the sunlight and the air. And branches that want to grow inwards where it can become all tangled up, need to be pruned. If you don't, it not only looks a mess, it's ugly - it does not show forth it's beauty as God intends of it.  There are also other branches, that if untended, will grow fast in every direction, sometimes suffocating other plants, getting tangled up in fences and anything along their path.  

A better word used by other English versions of this passage in Scripture (Father John Knox's translation), instead of using the word "prune", they render it "to trim clean". Now let us apply Christ's analogy to ourselves.  Read again and mediate on our Lord's words, allowing him to access the state of the garden of your soul. The spiritual life needs discipline, nurturing, training. If we are to be rooted in Christ, not just planted in a flower pot, but deeply rooted in Him as the roots of a vine which go deep into the rich soil, we must allow ourselves to be, periodically, trimmed clean.

Nobody likes going under the knife. But the secret of trimming clean a part of a vine or a rose bush that is either going out of control or getting itself tied up in a knot, the secret is the type of blade that is used.  It's not  a kitchen knife or a pair of scissors from the drawer. The blade has to be carefully crafted, particularly sharp and immaculately clean, and not everyone is gifted as to how to use it with precision and to full effect.  

And so for the disciple - we have to trust this particular blade in His hands.  We even have to be willing to suffer a bit for the sake of heavenward growth and not be afraid of the gardener of our souls. Being trimmed clean by our Lord is always so that we might become stronger in our attachment to Him and more appreciative of His mercy in our lives.  And even though at times we might feel spiritually dead or dormant, and at times have to weather sickness or disease or find ourselves all tied up or totally confused at times, if we remain planted in His vineyard and allow our souls to be trimmed clean by the Sacrament of His mercy and nourished by his Eucharistic Body and Blood, at the proper time, we will rejoice in producing a bounty of a rich harvest and bear much fruit.

Apr 25, 2015

Good Shepherd Sunday

The image of Christ the Good Shepherd is truly endearing. In a certain sense it provides a level of comfort, protection and belonging.  These are noble sentiments and this enduring picture of Christ can evoke, on the surface, much of these associations.

Yet, on a deeper level, when we listen to, reflect and meditate on Our Lord’s words in this portion of Scripture, there is something deeper. He identifies himself, not as any shepherd, but as “the” Good Shepherd. When you hire someone to do the job of looking after a flock they are paid to do good. If they don't, they are fired! Yet with Jesus, “His goodness is His own nature and not some added extra gift.” (St. Gregory the Great).   In other words, Christ is not being good, He is Goodness itself. It is not conduct that makes Him good - His nature is Goodness itself.

And there here a sense of irony.  He was accused of being 'bad". He was put on trial for having a "bad" influence on others. He was crucified on the cross - a warning "you follow his 'bad' example, this is what will happen to you!"  A crucified Good Shepherd does not make sense, unless there is something wrong with our perceptions, unless we are so used to making judgements based on appearances.

And that's what we all do. Not just to each other and those we meet. But we also make judgements on ourselves.  When you see sickness, weakness and poverty. When you see sadness, suffering and death.  When you see what was once beautiful turned ugly, can you also see a goodness underneath all that rubble, a goodness behind the static, a goodness hiding in the depth of a soul.

When Christ the Good Shepherd looks at you and me - yes, He may see on the surface a lost sheep, weak and vulnerable and wet, fearful and nervous. He may see you and me tangled in the mud and in the mess of our own sins.  We may appear as ugly as sin itself, but the Good Shepherd sees (and maybe He alone can see it), a goodness worth saving even in the most hardened heart, the most grievous sinner - it's a goodness that, deep, deep down is part of our nature, as we are made in the image and likeness of God himself regardless if we know it or not. It is that 'goodness" that Christ claims, that He sees, and that He seeks. He will go to the depths of hell itself to save us and shepherd us home.

And when we heed the voice of the Good Shepherd calling us home, to be washed clean through His sacrament of mercy and strengthened in the Sacrament of His Body and Blood, it will never be enough to be "do-gooders".  We have to be goodness itself.  How?  Because it is the nature of God, goodness is also holiness.  Be holy - listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd and be a saint!

Apr 20, 2015

Third Sunday of Easter

A New Body of Evidence

With the crucifixion of Jesus, the disciples had been witnesses to great violence. Whether or not they actually were close enough to see the nails driven through our Blessed Lord’s hands and feet and his bloodied and punctured body, hoisted up on the cross, the curse of violence and the trauma of death were very much part of the their lives. How many times would they have to pass by the hanging corpses of victims of “Roman justice”?  

Growing up, living and constantly exposed to violence and death has an effect on the mind, the body and the soul. Think today of abused children, the families caught in war zones, the refugees, the Christian martyrs of Syria, for example. Executions, be they barbaric, ritualized or behind closed doors - whether they be rubber stamped by the halls of justice or carried out in a back alley, they corrode the beauty and dignity of at least two people - the one we presume innocent, and the one we presume guilty. 

It is into this culture of death, our Lord steps. He does so with a new body of evidence that can finally bring an end to conflicts, violence, wars and needless deaths.  This body of evidence he brings is his own body - his resurrected body, a transformed body. He is not a ghost of a past memory when all was peaceful and pleasant. Nor is he a dreamt up image of wishful thinking.  He gives his disciples solid food evidence that who they see before them is real, not a vision, or apparition nor the mind playing games.  Christ stands before them as God’s plan of victory for every conflict resolution not only throughout the world, but first within our lives (cf. “beginning in Jerusalem”) 

Standing before his disciples, our Lord now reaches into their troubled and wounded minds, with divine and brotherly compassion and gentleness. And deeper still, to touch His disciples in the depth of their lives, the Prince of Peace bestows upon them the gift of peace, a profound peace, a peace that this world can not give.

This gift of peace, given to the Church by our Lord is not simply for us to be strengthened and secured in our faith. We are duty bound to offer this gift of peace to the world, a world that still picks at its own wounds and often resists the gentle grace of God at work in so many unassuming ways. How?
Our Lord gives us clear instructions. “That repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all the nations”. We preach to the world by our words and our actions, by how we live our lives, and even how we meet our death (as beautifully captured in the closing lines of the responsorial Psalm, “As soon as I lie down, I fall peacefully asleep, for you alone, O LORD, bring security to my dwelling”).

Let us ask for the prayers of our mother Mary. She witnessed, yes, the barbarity of her son’s violent death. But she witnessed the repentance of the good thief and Christ’s appeal to his heavenly Father for the forgiveness of those who crucified him. We must allow her openness to the grace of God’s words and her obedience to God’s commandments (cf. Second Reading), not simply to inspire us, but embolden us to continue and accomplish Christ’s vocation -  reconciling the world to His heavenly Father. His work is never done. As His witnesses, neither is ours!

Apr 12, 2015

Divine Mercy

The Gentle Gaze of Mercy

It is no accident that this Sunday we call Divine Mercy Sunday. The actual picture of Divine Mercy is Christ himself.  Even after we betrayed our Lord and savior by our cowardly faults and sins, and in our guilt find ourselves, like the apostles, locked up in a dark room of our choice, he enters into our prison to release us.

We can get so used to darkness. God’s mercy, his love is a tender light, for he never want to scare us. He finds us often tired and vulnerable, hurting and even closed up in ourselves.  Even though we do not see him. He sees us, looks at us. And if only we could see how he gazes at us - not with pity. No. Something much deeper and heartfelt - Christ gazes upon us with a deep, deep tenderness.  The gentle light he bathes us in is an embrace of peace.  “Peace be with you”, “Do not be afraid”.

Having won his victory over the devil, over death, over sin, Christ enters into the place where his disciples have gathered - many of them are afraid and tired. There is probably embarrassment that they had abandoned him to the cross, that they ran away and hid.  This is the same Christ who never received mercy.  But he returns, not to scold or to teach his disciples a lesson. Christ does not break down the door and shine a flashlight into our faces. No. He enters without disturbance. His presence, communicates gentleness, mercy - the tenderness of God love even to the most hardened criminal or to the most shamefaced sinner.   

And as if to make this point through an example, we are told about Thomas, who was called “the doubter”. It seems that he was determined to keep his heart securely closed. Even the talk of Christ’s resurrection could not unhinge him. It took Christ himself to do so. Before Thomas could experience the full effects of the resurrection of his Lord, he first had to reach out and touch the Lord’s wounds – he had to join his suffering, his hurt, his pain to Christ’s.

All of us must do so. If we don’t, then we are only forensic scientists looking at Christ's wounds and taking notes.  No. Christ’s wounds are the tell-tale signs of a love and sacrifice for you and me.  Christ's wounds, communicate not the horror of crucifixion, but beauty of the resurrection - the depths of his love that knows no limit.  Christ is no martyr for love.  In fact, he has defeated death itself and risen from the grave. He stands before you and me assuring us that we are sacred to him, precious in his sight. His only suffering now, is that we do not, at times, realize how wonderfully loved we are, even when we lock ourselves away in our own darkness.

Thomas was beckoned to reach out and join his own ugly wounds to the beautiful wounds of Christ. And maybe that’s why an image of divine love we often see is a heart radiating fire - It takes courage to put ones hand into a divine fire, but it takes faith to do so knowing that you will not be burnt. Courage and faith.  Christ beckons us to have faith and be courageous.

For this reason, the image the Church has adopted of Christ’s Divine Mercy shows a light that, while coming from the sacred open side of Christ, it also allows us to be drawn, beckoned by that same light into its very source. Here we can grasp the secret of divine mercy, the understanding that in Christ’s light, our own woundedness is not erased from our bodies, but purified, healed, given a new meaning. No more fighting, shouting - no more anger - peace at last - Christ has fought all our battles, and won.

Apr 11, 2015

Easter Sunday

It is always a delight so see the church full on Sunday. Not just at Christmas and Easter but anytime we welcome so many visitors and guests. 

Especially welcome to the Sunday Mass if you are far from home, perhaps visiting family in the area or maybe they have brought you here this morning. Or maybe you are on vacation, spring break, or even on business for a few days, and you are continuing to do what you do every Sunday wherever you are, you have sought out where Sunday Mass is offered and you have kept the Catholic family promise, regardless where you find yourself.

But it is also a joy to have so many friends and neighbors who might be here for the first time, or who may be here after a long time away from Church and especially the sacraments.  We went through the local neighborhoods, knocking on doors and leaving cards and information on the doorsteps. (up and down streets!) Maybe you’re here because of a calling card left on your door.  One way or another, welcome home.  It’s a big church. There’s room for everyone. That’s why the word that best describes the Church is “catholic”, an ancient adjective that simply means “universal, belonging to all things”.

Whether you are here Sunday after Sunday, whether you arrive late or out of breath, have your favorite seat or find yourself hiding behind a pillar, nor chasing your kids behind the glass doors in the children’s area, regardless where you have come from or where you find yourself in life, here and now you, in this place, around this altar, you are home.

And when we are at home, it’s the only place where our lives are real.  It is here that we remember that God knows you by name. It is here where I can finally reflect on my life outside of the noise and craziness of the world. It is where sacred music and graceful movement, where the flickering of beeswax candles and the sweet smell of incense can raise our minds towards the heavens.  This is where we are assured that God listens to our prayers, our worries, our hopes and even our fears.  This is where our souls can be fed, not with food for thought, but with food from heaven.  Here is where saints and sinners sit on the same bench.  And even though any one of us might have a thousand reasons not to be here, it only takes one reason to come home.

I am not going to preach at length on what the day of Easter truly means.  If you are even a nominal Christian, you know, at least intellectually, that today marks, in a way, the anniversary of Jesus Christ, who was killed on the cross and buried in a tomb on Friday, on the third day, He rose again. That’s the resurrection.

I would, instead of preaching on the resurrection of Christ, prefer to offer you and invitation, particularly if you have been away from Church and the sacraments for a while and simply need an excuse, not to come home (because you are home right now) but, stay home.

I’m not going to ask you to sign up, or hand you a free tee shirt or promise you success and riches. Instead, just keep coming back.  Find in here, a place that is not like what it is like out there!  Why the Catholic ritual of prayer works so well, is that we have been doing it for two thousand years. Open up your senses, and allow your sight, your hearing, touch, smell, taste and posture to be purified by the sacred. Open up your heart, and allow gentle Spirit of God to slowly calm your fears and anxieties.  Open up your soul, to recognize your deepest longing for God, not in a brief moment – but for all eternity.  That is the invitation.

But here is my appeal, especially to those who have been away from the Church and the Sacraments, for whatever reason. Build upon this moment. Build upon this day. Build upon this Sunday Mass and return again next week. Because it will become more and more difficult to keep the door of our hearts and souls open, the longer we stay away from the one who loves us and offers us a place at his table.  Even if you do not receive Holy Communion, keep coming back. 

Begin to build up, slowly by slowly, the strength that it takes to get to heaven, or even just the courage to talk to God heart to heart. I know it is not easy.  Maybe it will take some time to slowly turn the big ship around.  But now that you are here and have begun this momentum, continue to come about.

And maybe this is what Easter is all about. Finding life again, when we thought all was dead.