Aug 21, 2016

21st Sunday In Ordinary Time

Luke 13:22-30

“How many will be saved?” the Lord is asked. What is more important is not how many, but how. Listening carefully to the voice of the Lord in today’s Gospel, we can note that there is a sense of sadness in his voice that many who presume their own salvation is assured, will unfortunately be denied the very salvation they believe they will receive. (cf. St. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Luke, Homily 9) Although the Holy Scriptures do promise salvation to those who have faith in Christ, nowhere does the Bible promise that we will be protected from self-deception. There is a great difference between making a commitment to Christ and fulfilling that commitment faithfully.

Luke’s Gospel for today makes this point very clear and summarizes Matthew’s Gospel which tells us that "Not every one who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does the will of my Father who is in heaven. “(Mat. 7: 21.) The Lords also warns us about deceivers who will presume to speak with Christ’s authority. We are reminded that how we respond to the needs of others will also affect our salvation. (cf. Mat. 25 and 26).

To help us, unlike the angels and saints in heaven who have constant, unwavering and unchangeable faith in Christ, we can easily change our mind, decide otherwise, rebel against God or ignore his help. Because we can commit ourselves to Christ one day and ignore him the next, God has given us the gift of time. We do not wait to the last moment or waste time in the present. The gift of time provides us the opportunity to test the strength and durability of our faith against the circumstances of our lives (c.f. Second Reading. Heb 12:5-7, 11-13). This way, we are able to discern what we are truly made of, if we are in fact cooperating with God’s grace and have what it takes to enter into heaven (through the narrow gate) when our lives are spent. (cf. CCC 1344)

Writing towards the end of his life which he knew was near, St. Paul wrote to Timothy, “For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:6-7). But St. Paul could not have said this earlier, even in those early days after the dramatic event of his accepting the Lord as his savior. Writing to the Church in Corinth in his early days, looking at the state of his soul he would say, “For I know nothing against myself, yet I am not justified by this; but He who judges me is the Lord. Therefore [friends] judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes," (1 Cor. 4:4ff).

Can a Christian who makes a commitment of faith in Christ as their savior, one day be assured of their salvation and the next day loose that assurance? Yes. Even St. Paul tells us so in the Bible saying that, “I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.” Even though we may have the will to be saved, remember the words of the prayer that the Lord taught us, “Thy will be done be done”, not “my will”.

In a day and in an age when so many individuals will claim that they are saved and have the personal assurance of heaven, how do we as Catholic Christians respond?

“Am I saved?” It is my hope that I am, and it is that hope that keeps me pressing on towards the goal (Phil. 3:13) with Christ’s Church pointing me in the right direction and strengthening me, as she and no other can, with the sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood. (Luke 22:19, John 6:52ff, Acts 2:42, 2 Peter 3:13-18). It is my prayer, that now and on that eternal day, it will be not me who lives, but Christ who lives in me. (Gal:2:20)

Aug 13, 2016

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Fire can be as dangerous as it is beautiful and useful as it is mysterious. From the burning bush to the tongues of fire on the day of Pentecost, throughout the Scriptures, its language is rich and often used to reflect the nature of God (CCC 696). (c.f the Seraphim) Our own experience of the summer California wildfires touches us in a particular way. Many of us still have vivid memories of the fires of 2008 that surrounded us on three sides, provoking mass evacuations, destroying many homes and livelihoods.

It, therefore, does not seem to come as much of a consolation, when we hear Our Blessed Lord saying in the gospel today, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing” and the cause of households divided against themselves, family members betraying each other's trust.  

it is easier to blame, for example, the unintended tensions unleashed within a family to events such as funerals, weddings and even who gets invited and who doesn't to a family thanksgiving dinner. But the fuse of this particular stick of dynamite has been lit by the Lord himself. How do we understand this apparent “violence” with the image we must also have of Christ as the Good Shepherd and the Prince of Peace?

We must first consider when St. Luke wrote his Gospel message. It was probably written not long after the great fire of Rome in 64 A.D. The rumor was that the Emperor Nero had himself lit the match that destroyed much of the city so that he could begin a new massive building project. This is how a pagan historian, who survived the fire, described the aftermath.

"Consequently, to get rid of the report [that he started the fire], Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most creative tortures on a class of people hated for their abominations, called Christians by the common people. … Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths...they were torn to death by dogs, or they were crucified on crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as human torches when nighttime illumination was needed." Tacitus, Annals XV.44

The early Christians, in the light of those “current events” would have, no doubt, listened to today’s Gospel and found in it an assurance that Our Lord himself experienced the fire of hell and transformed it into the fire of heaven. Abandoned by his own disciples, betrayed by the very ones he considered family, Christ shared in the anguish of persecuted Christians as non-believers betrayed friends and family when Roman soldiers came knocking on the door.

As case in point, St. Peter. He provides us with the example of a reluctant follower who was scared of being burnt, but finally gave himself completely to the Lord. On the night of the Last Supper when Christ was arrested, he was first content to anonymously warm his hands from the fire in the courtyard while the Lord was being beaten up by the temple guards inside. But a day would eventually arrive when he would allow himself to be consumed completely and forever by the fire of Christ’s love.

During Nero’s attack on the Christians after the fire of Rome, St. Peter, as the city’s first bishop, was arrested, tortured and crucified to death on a cross, upside down. He was body was buried near in a cemetery on a Roman hillside called “Vatican Hill”.

Yes, often times we will get burnt, and we will scream and call out in anger and in anguish. But as painful as if often times is, abandoning ourselves to the grace that comes from the cross of Christ, let us pray that we may we never mistake the purifying fire of heaven with the destructive fires of hell. There lies the virtue of Christian hope in the face of every dark and menacing cloud of smoke.

Aug 6, 2016

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

“Do not be afraid any longer, little flock…” Christ's words help to remind us of the tenderness of the Good Shepherd. He is one who shields, protects and ultimately lays down his life for his flock. At the same time, the Good Shepherd ushers this little flock into a big world. Even though we may feel vulnerable, uneasy or nervous to sometimes stand alone in our faith amidst a demanding and often time cruel world, not only is the Good Shepherd protective of us, we are assured that our heavenly Father is preparing to give us the Kingdom, not the kingdoms of this world, but the Kingdom of God. (cf. CCC 764)

But almost like a child learning to walk for the first time, we must not be afraid of entering into uncharted territories, unpredictable circumstances. If Abraham had played it safe, trusting in his own resourcefulness and securities, he might never have put his trust in the Lord. God provides for us with a sure investment should we choose to embrace it, the gift of faith - “the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.”

So, how do we look forward to what can not be seen? If we define ourselves by our assets on earth, then like treasure hidden in the dark and locked up in a vault, we too will become. But if we define ourselves by the treasure that waits for us in heaven, then we should have no reluctance of letting go of all that belongs to this world.

A Christian is counter-cultural. The Church is also counter-cultural. A Christian does not live their life according to the standards of the world any more that the Church should order its household based on the model of a business corporation. The test of what we are made of is provided by Christ when he tells us in no uncertain terms to “sell your belongings and give alms”. St. Augustine remarks that a strong and true Christian “should neither be overjoyed at acquiring [wealth] nor saddened when it is gone.”

Christ talks of the servants waiting on their master's return. Of course, we are the servants of the Lord. As his servants, we are privileged to know his mind, what he expects of us, how we are to run the Lord’s household. St. Augustine, reflecting on the relationship between grace and free will, noticing that the servant in the gospel parable is beaten when the master returns to a house in disarray, makes this observation. “We must not on this account take refuge in the darkness of ignorance so as to find there an excuse for our conduct. Not to know is one thing; unwillingness to know is another”.

The early Church, when it was younger and somewhat tender was often drastically attacked, beaten and bruised. The Roman Emperor Valerian began his reign in the third century somewhat tolerant of Christianity. But with military defeats abroad and political disorder at home, he quickly turned against the Church. The Emperor needed finances and political scapegoats. He ordered that the Roman Church hand over all its treasures. When the deacon St. Lawrence asked for a couple of days to reply to this demand, he later returned and presented to the imperial court all the treasures of the Church – the poor, the outcasts, the widows and the orphans. Not at all amused with his reporting of the Church’s assets, St. Lawrence was tortured to death, slowly roasted alive over a charcoal fire. A sudden wave of vicious attacks upon the clergy followed. Even the pope, St. Sixtus II, like many others, was arrested and beheaded, simply because he dared say “no” to a pagan culture. Unfortunately, many disciples fearing persecution and the demands of Christian witness gave in to the pagan culture. This was a source of great disappointment and discouragement to many who had tried to keep the faith despite the odds.

When Christians undergo persecution, we might look at the assault upon the household of the Lord as an attack waged upon us by the forces of darkness and evil itself. I am sure there is some truth to this. Soon after the deacon Lawrence and Pope Sixtus were martyred for their faith, St. Cyprian, Bishop of the Roman colony of Carthage reflected on today’s gospel shortly before he too was publically executed. Mediating on the sufferings of Christians, regardless of its cause, he instead saw it as an opportunity to be purified. These are his words: “We must see and admit that this very disturbing devastation of the affliction that has destroyed and is destroying our flock in great part has come about because of our sins. Eager for our inheritance and advantage… neglecting simplicity and faith, renouncing the world only in words and not in deeds… we are beaten up as we deserve.” (Letter 11.1)

The whole history of the Church belongs to us and so does her future. May today’s Gospel awaken in us a greater appreciation for what Christ has given, and the courage to imitate him in doing the will of our heavenly Father. Only by joining our own sacrifices to his can we truly appreciate the gift of faith which we now celebrate in this Holy Eucharist - the source of the Church’s unity and the strength of every believer in the Body of Christ, wounded on the cross but now gloriously resurrected and in our midst. The Good Shepherd will never abandon his “little flock”.

Jul 30, 2016

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.” Whoever he was, he was afraid. His attention was focused, not on the Lord, but on someone else, something else. In fact, by attempting to bring God into this dispute concerning an inheritance, he reveals how fear is often a distraction to faith and how charity and love can be poisoned by greed and selfishness.

In this incident we read in the Gospel, what could the man’s brother give him as an inheritance that was more important than what Christ could give? Who can provide an inheritance that lasts for eternity? St. Ambrose says, “You must not consider what you seek. More important is who you are asking”. The voice from the crowd did not recognize Christ as Lord, but only as teacher. He was soon taught a lesson!

In doing so, Christ provides us with a caution by offering us an example of greed and to compare our lives against the image he paints of the rich man who feels the need to build for himself huge storage units for all his things. One has only of think of the great pyramids and treasures once stored within those great ancient structures. Tomb raiders, thieves and archeologists have carried away all their treasures. And for many of the pharaohs themselves, we find their bodies now on display behind glass – objects of curiosity for school children and tourists!

If we fail to learn the discipline of detachment and resist poverty of spirit as called for by Christ, then the kingdom of heaven cannot be ours. If the concerns that preoccupy us do not raise our minds to Christ in order to seek the face of God, then we will ultimately and inevitability feel sadness and inadequacy when we look out at the things of this world comparing ourselves with it. But “Whoever sees God has obtained all the goods of which he can conceive.” (St. Gregory of Nyssa) (Cf. Comp.CCC 531-533)

The mistake made by the rich man spoken of by Christ in the Gospel was not simply having wealth. Rather, he did not understand what his wealth was given to him for. Instead of his plans to hoard it and ultimately do nothing with it, had he been resolved to share his blessings with those who genuinely needed a helping hand then he would not have been afraid to die, not afraid of letting go of everything, even his own life in order to embrace heaven. “Those who know that they are mortal should not come to an unprepared end” (St. Leo the Great)

The Scriptures this Sunday help us to appreciate that Christ comes to help us to see beyond the “goods” of this world and to help us purify our earthly attachments that would otherwise weigh us down. It is for this reason Christ has given us the Holy Eucharist that points us in the direction of the heavens.

When the priest says: “Pray brothers and sisters that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God our almighty Father”, the implication is that there are in fact two sacrifices intertwined, united together. The first is that of Christ the eternal priest, who as divine, has everything – but choose to let go of all of it - he emptied out everything, surrendered every bit of his life, to be stripped naked, to be tortured to death. This he willingly choose in order to win our eternal freedom. But we can only inherit this if, likewise, we too make our own sacrifice personal and let go of what we hold onto in our own efforts to keep ourselves alive. We should not be afraid of detachment, dying to this world, to the things of this world, dying even to ourselves.

To put this into context in the Eucharist, allow me to dare put words into the mouth of Christ. In the Mass Christ says, "It's not your time I want to free, it's not your talents, I don't want your treasures. I want you. I want to free you. I have not come to inconvenience your life, nor to become a burden, nor to make you feel guilty that you have so many things. I have come instead to empty you of your whole life. But do not be afraid. I will give you a new life - I give you my life, my life, the life of God, shall become yours", says the Lord. (cf. CCC 549)

So, let us now prepare for an exchange of gifts - the bread and wine of this world in exchange for the heavenly body and blood of Christ. Strictly speaking, it is not a fair exchange. Christ made the greater sacrifice. Accepting this heavenly inheritance, the gift of the everlasting body and blood of Christ in exchange for our own, may the gift of the Holy Eucharist always keep us humble, continually grateful and forever generous.

Jul 25, 2016

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Watching him pray, his disciples could see that Our Blessed Lord was intimately in touch with heaven. In a way it was “written all over his face”, but this was more noticeable when the Lord would go to "certain places" to be alone in prayer. 

For example, this is what you do when you come in early and sit in the church, when you look around and gaze at the sacred images wondering how they might reflect a little glimpse of heaven in our direction. Prayer is when we light a candle, and our focus becomes, not inward, put a reaching out through the darkness of this world to the beyond.  Prayer is following the trail of incense as it drifts upward to heaven. It is the words of scripture, which are presented in the selected passages from the bible, or have been weaved together into conversations with God, which we have come to know by heart, or try to make our own.  Prayer is the raising of the heart and soul, reaching out to heaven.

The first place for prayer is actually not here in the church building. It’s at home in your own house.  We come to the church to give thanks to God for all the blessings we have received during this past week, and we offer our prayers and sacrifices to him God for our own good and the good of all his holy Church as we begin another week.

But, every day, our homes are sacred places.  It is there we are to find a place to pray every day. But increasingly our homes can become noisy places, cluttered places, and busy places.  This is why it is always good that there be a sacred space in your home, a place you can withdraw to, to bring the family around, to pray especially the familiar sacred words that have been passed down to us from generation to generation, and where our minds can focus on the sights and sounds of heaven. And even to ask,  “Lord, teach us to pray”.

Christ does teach us how to pray. In fact, he gives us a formula, a template, words to say. “Our Father, who art in heaven…” - Listen to them as if the Lord himself where teaching you these words, asking you to ponder on the deep meaning that each verse has for all of us and every time we bring these divine words to our mind and lips, to allow them to sink deeper and deeper into our soul.

As we ask Christ to teach us to pray, consider who taught him! As he grew up, Mary would have helped him to say his first words, how to read the scriptures, how to pray according to the tradition of the Chosen People.  In her teenage years her own words to the angel, “Be it done unto me, according to thy will”, seem to echo through the verse of the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. And when Christ was alone in the garden of Gethsemane, hours, I’m sure he though of his mother and her words to the angel message thirty years ago he himself prayed to his Father, “Not my will, but Thine be done.”

Prayer is not a nicety of Christian life; it is allowing Christ to pray through us, so that his words become our own.  In this Holy Mass, let our prayer be united with Calvary in the greatest prayer that ever reached heaven.   

Jul 15, 2016

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

The image that comes to mind after reading the Gospel which speaks of the two sisters Martha and Mary is that of one who is concerned with the needs of guests and the other who sits at the feet of the Lord listening to his voice. When the Lord told Martha that she was anxious about too many things and her sister Mary had chosen the better part by listening, the Gospel does not share with us how she reacted. If we presumed by the tone of Martha’s complaint to the Lord that there was tension between the two sisters over the demands of catering for visitors we would miss the point.

Instead, to offer us a greater insight into a bigger picture to contemplate, the Church has given us an appetizer, so to speak, in the form of the First Reading – the visitation of the three mysterious guests to the tent of Abraham (Gn. 18:1-10a). On the surface one can easily recognize the demands of hospitality and generosity evident as a theme to this Old Testament event. This may also provide us with a reflection on the corporal works of mercy demonstrated by feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty. 

But for the Christian when we look back to these events through the lens of faith, we can see in Abraham’s remarkable hospitality and Sarah’s listening attentively behind the scenes, a “dress rehearsal” for the Annunciation when the Virgin Mary was told by the angel she would bear a son whose name would be Jesus. (CCC 489, CCC 2571, Comp. CCC 536)

When the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus, God was “enfleshed” (i.e. incarnated) in humanity in every way except sin. God experienced human hunger and thirst. We saw this spelt out clearly when Christ was in the desert fasting. We are told that he was hungry. Now, we find him being fed by the love and generosity of family and friends. 

Imitating her, Martha provides a valuable service to God. It is by her sacrifice and acts of charity that she nourishes the Lord’s body, providing him with the necessary sustenance so that he might continue his journey. This gives Christ the strength of mind and body in order to accomplish his mission. He will need this strength in order to carry the cross. But when Martha complains that she finds herself alone in her work, Christ reminds her, as he does us, in more words than one, that a time will come when there will be no need to feed the physical body – a time will come when it will be transformed feed by the very presence of God. 

Remember Christ’s words while he was being tempted by Satan in the desert, “Man does not live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God”. However, Mary the sister of Martha also provided us with a glimpse of hunger, not of a body for food, but of a soul hungry for God. In the words of St. Augustine, Martha’s sister “was eating the one she was listening to…because he was the one who said ‘I am the Bread come down from heaven’. This is the bread which nourishes and never diminishes”.

After the consecration, what we perceive with our natural eyes as bread and wine, the heavenly angels from their perspective see the glorious body of the living Christ. It is for this reason that this Blessed Sacrament is called the “Bread of Angels”. Today’s Gospel allows us to imitate Martha’s generosity in preparing the table and the offerings needed to celebrate this holy banquet and accomplish works of charity. Martha’s sister, Mary, will then show us how our attention must be drawn, not to our own kindness or anything that we can do or accomplish, but to Christ’s who, out of his eternal sacrifice and generosity, gives us himself as the true Bread that has come down from Heaven. And there is enough food for everyone to feast on!

Jul 9, 2016

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Who actually is the Good Samaritan?

The parable of the Good Samaritan is well known. Its language, images and the story itself can appeal to so many people. It can cut across cultures and even religions, so powerful the moral of the story is. Often it is cited as an example of accepting the stranger, loving our enemies and caring for those society leaves behind. In an obvious way, its meaning can be easily appreciated by all.

Yet, for the Christian, this parable has a deeper level. It must also move us towards developing within our Christian character particular virtues. What we traditionally call the seven corporal works of mercy, are examples of “a concrete witness to the preferential love for the poor which characterizes the disciples of Jesus.” (The seven corporal works of mercy: 1. Feed the hungry. 2. Give drink to the thirsty. 3. Clothe the naked. 4. Shelter the homeless. 5. Visit the sick. 6. Visit the imprisoned. 7. Bury the dead.)

So often, we have tried to be the Good Samaritan and have tended to see Christ in the victim, reminded by his words, "Whatever you did for the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it to me".

However, so that our doing good does not distract us from our own need for healing, we should never be afraid to also see ourselves in the one who is lying in the middle of the road. Think of it like this.

The man on the journey is you and me. We have left Jerusalem. In other words, we are far from where God lives.

In this way of retelling the parable (allow me to use the second person to better illustrate the reflection), the road takes you to Jericho, a symbolic place of being far from heaven.

On this lonely road, hostile forces easily prey upon and overpower you, robbing you of your dignity and your treasure. You might as well be dead.

The Jewish priest and Levite might represent religious ritual and legalism. In itself, it has no power to bring us to our feet.

The Good Samaritan is Christ himself who leaves the heavenly Jerusalem and travels the road searching us out.

We are far from home. Christ sees our wounds, our sins.

He is not repulsed by them, regardless of how deep the wound is in our soul.

Instead, he reaches out and touches them, bandages them with the sacraments of healing, which are confession and the anointing of the sick.

Oil poured upon wounds can comfort, as Christ’s presence ultimately does. But Christ, the Good Samaritan, also pours wine over the wounds. That can hurt and even sting for a while as does Christ’s words when spoken in judgment even to a Christian, so as to draw out into the open a poisonous infection which if left untreated can kill even the soul itself.

Christ then reaches down to lift you up, to carry you to a safe place. The refuge of the inn, we should look upon as the Church and the innkeeper is a shepherd of the soul. In other words, within the security of Christ’s Church the wounded can be brought to full health, always under the watchful eye of the a pastor who has received treasures from Christ (the two silver coins) and the responsibility to spend it towards salvation. (cf. John 21:15, “Christ’s words to Peter, “Feed my lambs”)

The Samaritan tells the innkeeper that he will return. Christ has told us that he too will return and we must be ready to give a full account of the gifts he has given us.

Too often we do not realize that we are on a dangerous road that can take us further and further away from God.

Weakened in body and wounded in soul by sins along the way, it is sometimes good fortune to collapse halfway on the journey rather than arriving at some point of no return.

Christ’s Church is like the Good Samaritan’s inn. It is a unique place where God’s mercy, through the sacrament of reconciliation, is celebrated and full recovery is sought.

Within its walls, the innkeeper will also provide, when the traveler is strong enough, a meal – this is, of course, the Holy Eucharist, Christ’s resurrected Body and Blood, the divine remedy for the tired body and wounded soul, the strength we need to continue the journey - this time not down hill picking up speed, but on to the road that leads us up the hill towards the heavenly city. For all of us, it demands vigilance, a helping hand, and a sure and steady companion and guide along the way.