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. 

Mar 29, 2015

Holy Week begins

The Gospel of the Passion of Our Lord as recounted by St. Mark begins with a nameless woman who literally breaks open an alabaster jar of precious perfumed oil and pours it over the head of Jesus. Alabaster is an expensive translucent Egyptian marble. This jar the woman held must have, not only been costly, but beautiful.  And the perfumed oil, called spikenard - also very expensive - a delicate extraction of the oils of particular flowers - the aroma must have been out of this world!

This one event sets the scene for  Holy Week. What is precious, beautiful, what has value, is then broken, cracked open and its contents poured out and smeared, almost recklessly. It seems such a waste. Christ will be broken, his precious blood spelt, sprayed and smeared over all those in close proximity to the cross.  

But note what someone cries out, “No. Don’t waste is expensive jar and perfume.  We can make money out of it!”   Only someone like Judas can put a price on salvation – thirty pieces of silver.

But for Jesus, he gives us his life as a free gift, without complaint nor conditions.  We do not earn his love, we do not pay for it. He has reminded us that we can never be calculating in our discipleship, gambling with our salvation, trying to put our money on being on the right side, “Without cost you have received, give without cost.” (Matthew 10:8).  “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? (Mark 8:36).

This is why this Holy Week is so important.  But we are not to be passive containers into which Christ’s life is poured.  Christ shows us how to give without cost, without looking for anything in return, without even looking to win. Christ entered into his Holy Week with humble obedience to his Father’s will, “Not my will, but thine be done”, Stripped of everything on the cross, his body broken and his life poured out, he breathes his last and there is silence.

Dare follow him into that silence?  

If we do, then two things I recommend especially this Holy Week

1. We renew our trust that our lives have meaning and purpose already determined by God himself, and not defined by the powers of this world.

2. Ask for the grace and the opportunities to be strengthened with simple and uncomplicated faith.

But be warned, we will be tested and challenged. The victory will not be ours. It will be Christ’s. To him be glory both now and for all ages. And we will trust him with our lives.

Mar 21, 2015

Fifth Sunday of Lent

Today's Sunday Mass allows us to contemplate on how our Blessed Lord gradually prepared himself to forfeit his life for us on the Cross. Christ’s immediate preparation for His death is put into context in this Sunday Gospel with the arrival of certain Greeks who approach Him.  We are not told exactly what they said to Him, but one thing's for sure - Our Lord seemed, from our perspective, agitated and then starts talking about a seed having to die in the depths of the earth in order to come to life, grow and bear fruit.

Some have speculated about what the Greeks could have said to Our Lord. Maybe, because of the mounting political opposition to Christ and with His arrest imminent, maybe the Greeks offered Him asylum.  Maybe they asked Him to return to Greece with them - that He would have crowds listening to him in Athens - He could dialogue with their great philosophers and wise men!  He’d be safe in Athens.  And even if He felt compelled to die for His beliefs, the Greeks would have reminded Our Blessed Lord that He could have a death like the great philosopher and wise man Socrates who, arrested for spreading new ideas and refusing to worship the Greek gods, he willingly accepted, even welcomed his execution and death.

And that Socrates was not put to death in a long, drawn out excruciatingly painful and barbaric execution, but instead was given the opportunity to die with dignity and respect. He was given a cup of poison to drink, then allowed to walk around until he felt drowsy. He was then given a comfortable couch to lay down and put his feet up, until he quietly slipped away in the gentle embrace of the sleep of death - beautiful and dignified!

How did Christ respond?  He couldn't respond quoting Scripture. The Greeks didn't have the Jewish Bible.  So instead, Our Lord used images from the language of nature. “unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.”

Our Blessed Lord was not trying to be a philosopher. The prospect of the Cross does disturb Him greatly. He calls His approaching death by crucifixion, He calls it His “hour”. He says “I am troubled now. Yet what should I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour.”

But what was that final purpose.  His final purpose was not to influence our minds, our to give us a new teaching or philosophy of life - or a school of thought, or a manner in which we can become all better people.  As important as all that is - Christ’s final purpose is to save our souls and to help us to reach heaven.  Because of His love for us, He will take upon Himself the price of human sinfulness and pay that price Himself.  

Christ could have avoided it. He had the divine power to even prevent his body experiencing any pain whatsoever.  But no.  Because of His intense love for you and me so that we would not die in sin and lose the opportunity to reach heaven, He willingly, freely, He desired with every fiber of His being to save us, even though in justice we do not deserve it.

The horrific truth of Christ’s crucifixion, is that you and me are fully responsible for it. If we truly believed that, it would provoke us to look into the face of our sins, confess them with true sorrow and amend our lives.  But often, we try to be like the Greeks in the Gospel today and offer Him a “more comfortable” solution.  We so often resist soul searching - so uncomfortable it is - it’s so much easier to read books, think positive thoughts and distract ourselves with this and that.  Christ will not allow us to try to save Him from the Cross.     

This year, we have 25-30 men and women who will be coming into the Church at Easter, to be fully initiated into the life of the Church, through the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist. Easter will be their sacred hour, as it is ours, as it is for us every Sunday. Their journey, our journey, is not one that takes us to Athens where we can philosophize and admire the museums and look around at the pretty pictures.  Instead, the journey always takes them, takes us to Jerusalem, into the very Heart of Christ opened up for us in the Holy Mass, where we know ourselves to be forgiven, freed of our sins, strengthened by His love most pure, and fed by His Body and Blood.

Let us pray, brothers and sisters, that we will have the strength and the humility to accept the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross for our sins and respond by confessing our sins, professing our faith and living lives worthy of Christian discipleship.

Mar 17, 2015

St. Patrick, Apostle to the Irish

In the month of September in the year 1866, an English gentleman, Edwin Wall, was traveling through the north of Ireland and wrote home to his family:

“I was at Ballymena station the other day when I saw a distressing scene. A company of stark young peasants were leaving by the train for Derry from whence they were to take shipping for America. The whole platform was crowded with their friends and relatives, all simple rustic folk. From the hoary headed aged leaning upon its staff to the unconscious infant crowing in its mothers arms - that parting scene was painfully touching.

"Every eye was drowned in tears. And the wild unrestrained cries of affection as they embraced each other again and again moved even the porters to whom such scenes were familiar.

"As the train began to move slowly away two or three of those on the platform clung, screaming to the carriage doors until dragged away. And amongst the wild outcry from those left behind one poor woman fell back upon a seat against the wall wailing, 'oh my darling, my darling'. Whilst an old white haired man, hard by, dropped down upon his knees and with uplifted eyes cried 'Oh may the hand of the blessed God be about thee, my own son.'"

In days past theses were very much the telling scenes of Irish men, women and children, who boarding those great ships packed, with immigrants left home, knowing that they would never see their families again. Whereas today a vacation or business trip could take us half way around the globe without much thought, for the Irish of yesterday and generations past, like many of the immigrants from all over the globe who built up this great county, the Atlantic Ocean was a great expanse so vast that beyond it there was no distant land - it was a new world and a rapidly changing one.

Saint Patrick himself was no stranger to separation from family and his own native land. At the age of fifteen, then a nominal Christian, he was abducted from his father’s villa in Britain and sold into slavery across the sea in Ireland. He was, at heart, a lonely young man and even later in his grown up years as a priest and bishop, his writings reveal that he never really was able to shake off that feeling of being isolated and unwanted. As a teenage prisoner on an island not of his choosing, of course he had no friends or advisors even to guide his journey through the difficult years of adolescence, while condemned to forced labor, watching over livestock, on a hillside my own local tradition of County Antrim identifies as the Hill of Slemish. For six years, practically alone and exposed to the elements and the rapidly changing seasons of a rugged Irish landscape, the young Patrick communed with nature in all her changing moods. His personal sense of isolation also helped awaken him to the peace and beauty of his own Christian faith, which had until them, remained dormant. This way, he was able to always avoid despair and disillusionment.

His six years of forced exile from his own homeland, had made matured him. For suffering is, like the blows of a chisel bringing character to hardened rock can define us beautifully if we are open to grace . Little did he know that God was preparing him to be a loving, patient, tolerant as well as a skillful Good Shepherd, which would one day be required of him through every season of every year. And it was, within his isolation that he gradually yielded to the promptings of his soul which awaked the Holy Spirit within him. It was this Spirit which highlighted the twenty one year old's opportunity to escape his captors, to flee Ireland and return home to Britain, but no doubt, now as a changed man. And it would also be the Holy Spirit who would direct the young Patrick to rediscover his faith, not something born from a fertile imagination or a faith peculiar to his own personality. When he found his way home to his father’s house, he re-discovered the faith of the larger Church, fittingly called even in those early days “catholic”.

Patrick did not return to his former captors to teach them a lesson, or to impose a religion upon them, instead through his love of the Scriptures, and reflecting on the life of Christ, instead of anger and resentment for his imprisonment, he learnt to forgive his enemies. In his soul now purified by prayer, he could hear the “Glor na Gael”, the voices of the Irish calling out, not for him, but for Christ. Patrick would later return to the pagan Irish as the first missionary bishop since the days of the apostles.

What was the reason for his success in bringing Christianity to the Irish? It was his honesty. His writings reveal a man who was not afraid to speak the truth and he did this without fear. His whole life was an open book and his vocation, as was his ministry was always in response to something bigger than himself. Because of this he was listened to, respected and even feared. Probably evoking memories of his own enslavement as a boy, it was Patrick’s influence that saw Ireland as the first nation in the world to legally outlaw slavery, one thousand four-hundred years before the American Civil war defined that question throughout these lands.

Many times in the face of opposition and jealously, he was tempted against his mission, and even tempted against his faith. But he persevered, praying constantly, working relentlessly for the salvation of the Irish, explaining and teaching the Christian faith in a language they could understand, using nature herself to explain the true God, the creator of the heavens and the earth. Despite the pain of exile he always felt, in thirty years he transformed a whole nation, and within one generation all of the Irish from kings to peasants accepted the Christian faith and were baptized into the Church.

(Only one other county in the history of Christianity would witness a mass conversion of its indigenous people to the faith without force or coercion – Mexico after the appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe, who likewise spoke to the people of the land in a language they understood, using imagery taken from a culture likewise rich in symbols from nature describing the world of the heavens and who it spilled over into all creation.)

The Church looks to Patrick as a saint. In doing so she places before us someone whose life is worthy of imitation - a life that pointed to Christ and salvation through him alone. We are not followers of St. Patrick, but the One whom he followed faithfully through every season, Jesus Christ. St. Patrick did not simply share himself with others. Because his life was intimately configured to Christ’s, he could not offer his own life without offering Christ’s.

Patrick was Christ-like through and through. The Son of God became an exile far from home taking the place of a slave, carrying the heavy burden of humanity’s suffering to a hill called Calvary where as a shepherd, he not only watched over his flock, but gave his life for as a ransom for many. And even after death, he returned, resurrected from the grave to bring light to those in darkness and to show us the true path that leads to salvation. 

Through this Holy Eucharist what nature has given us will be touched by the breath of God. Bread and wine of the old order is transformed into the first fruits of the new order creation who is Christ himself, through whom all things were made and remade. For the wayward traveler , the holy pilgrim and even the passer by, the Holy Sacraments are beacons of the Light of Christ pointing the disciple along the right way, no longer as exiles far from home, but brothers and sisters. 

Let us support and encourage each other on our journey to the hill of Calvary and the empty tomb of Easter and beyond it still, to the land of promise – which is everlasting life through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Mar 14, 2015

Fourth Sunday of Lent

This Fourth Sunday of Lent, traditionally known as "Laetare Sunday," is flavored with a sense of joy. Although this season is marked by the sobering disciplines of penance, today we hear the words from Holy Scripture "Rejoice Jerusalem!" as we sang for our introit, that is our entrance hymn, which sets the pace of our journey. Halfway through Lent, we can say, we have the Holy city of Jerusalem in sight with an expectation of Easter ahead of us.

And this is good news! It assures me that there is a goal to which we are striving for, and it is in sight. Today, we get a hint of it.  The penances we do and the sacrifices we make are not an end in themselves. That would be sheer cruelty - even a hell!  Instead, our penances and sacrifices help up reach a happy goal.  Yes, they can take much effort and endurance to do, like rowing a boat at times through rough waters and then through various storms.  But then we hear someone cry out “land ahoy!”, we don’t stop. Our rowing instead becomes animated with a joy that what has been sometimes like a dream is now becoming a reality. Christian hope and joy are inseparable.

This is why, I want to assure you and encourage you, that the sacrifices you make out of love of God and your neighbor, are well spent.  And that has to be the motivation - love of God and our neighbor. If the motivation of my sacrifices is to make me feel good about myself - then the focus is not God, nor God’s beloved sons and daughters - the focus easily becomes selfish. When I depend on others to make me happy, when they don’t, then how easy it is to be filled with the opposite of joy. The opposite of joy, is not sorrow.  It is despair.

And that does not please God. What does?  “God loves the cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:7), the one who can rejoice, even when burdened, who has an inner strength even when weak, who can disarm the strong even when injured, who can heal even when weak, and can give life abundantly even when dying.

Of course, this is Christ - Christ on the Cross, lifted high and shown to the world by God. A terrorist would flaunt a crucified man on a pole in front of us to to frighten us, to scare us into submission or provoke us to destructive anger.  But our Heavenly Father lifts high the Cross of His beloved Son, not to bring fear - but freedom, healing, strength and - even joy!

Now, you may say that this does not make sense. You are right! It does not make sense if we do not believe in the Easter event, the resurrection of Christ from the dead.  (“Whoever does not believe has already been condemned”) To see the Cross in the light of the Resurrection, allows us to rejoice, to have hope that what we are asked to endure, the sacrifices we willing make for the sake of love God - do in fact bring us to a new life. “So that everyone who believes in him might not perish  but might have eternal life.”

I will therefore encourage you by making a point with a visual reminder.  Look at this portrayal of Christ on the Cross.  Unlike other crucifixes you might see that might show Christ in all his agony and unimaginable pain - look again at Cimabue's cross above the rood screen in this church. Does it not hint of his resurrection - as if Our Lord was gracefully being lifted up from death itself in the powerful but gentle dance of the resurrection? The cross is never the final word. 

Let us ask God for the grace of a new motivation to carry whatever cross we may find ourselves with  and do so joyfully, knowing that, if we do so out of love of God and neighbor, then we too will share in the joy of our own resurrection from the dead.