137. The homily has special importance due to its eucharistic context: it surpasses all forms of catechesis as the supreme moment in the dialogue between God and his people which lead up to sacramental communion. The homily takes up once more the dialogue which the Lord has already established with his people. EVANGELII GAUDIUM
Tonight sees us making the necessary preparations in anticipation of tomorrow's great feast day of Pentecost - the celebration of the Holy Spirit's arrival to visibly shape upon this earth, from the building blocks of the disciples, God's Church, for the salvation of the world.
To first demonstrate that we can not do this by ourselves, taken from the selection of readings from Scriptures, Genesis provides us great insight to what happens when we try to design and build, shape and form our own destiny without the Spirit of God.
We commonly call this story the one about the Tower of Babel. In fact, the tower is only one component of a much bigger picture. It has to do with the building of a city, within which there would be designed a tower. Its height would attempt to scrape the sky - a "skyscraper", to grab at heaven. What can we learn from this "Jack and the Beanstalk" story?
When we attempt to take into our own hands the power to build ourselves up - to, in a way, steal the power of the heavens, we will never be able to complete the project, no matter how hard we try. Adam and Eve made this foolish attempt. So did their offspring, the citizens of Babel. It's when we try to capture God, put Him in a bottle and manipulate His will, for the sake of our own glory, not His.
God ultimately intervenes and topples our fortress. That's what happens to our little sandcastle when the predictable tide comes in. God allows our house of cards to topple. Why? To injure and frustrate us? No. He does so for our own protection. We can not fulfill our God-given destiny from within lives shaped and molded by the world around us, like castles molded from a bucket and spade from a day at the beach.
The event of Babel reminds us that even with the progress of science, technology, our understanding of psychology, the pursuit of prosperity and economic security, there will always be boundaries. Why? Too often, our soul's thirst to reach the heavens is confused with our own sense of insignificance, small, before the immensity of an incredible complex world and enormous mystifying universe. Often, out of fear, there is the temptation to insulate ourselves.
Since the fall of humanity, this has been our disease. But so that we might not become crushed under the weight of our own armor, God comes to our rescue in Christ. He does so to get us back on our feet as workers to build His Church, according to His own design, not ours.
Whereas if we might want to undertake our own project, and need to find all our own strength, and endurance, we might fall back, as we sometimes do, to some sort of energy drink, from strong coffee to red bull! Christ instead calls out and says, "Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink." The only way we can fulfill our God-given destiny and reach our heavenly Father is through Him, with Him, in Him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit".
Let us pray for the strength that comes from the strong breath of God the Holy Spirit, the strength of Christ who alone can rebuild our toppled egos, strengthen our fragile bodies, and fortify our wounded hearts and desperate souls. This is our prayer on the eve of Pentecost so that we can be a Church made in the image and likeness of Christ's Body, which rose from the dead gloriously and reached the heavens. May the Holy Spirit find now in you and me, not someone exhausted trying to reach the sky, but a humble dwelling ready to receive heaven as its guest here on earth with a willing heart to work for the salvation of the world.
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 return again. However, although He is no longer before our eyes, and heaven, which we often presume is beyond us, the question might be asked, "How can Christ still walk with us, share in our celebrations, joys, our struggles, or does he, from heaven?' How does He, in a manner of speaking, just tune into what we are doing here on earth? Or is this all simply poetical talk, in the same way as we might say we would wish to keep someone close to our hearts?
Never think that Christ's presence is simply sentimental, or He is in fact far away - in another universe or in some distant unreachable place above the clouds. Take comfort that He is now close to us. In fact, the reality of His presence is now greater than it was with any of His disciples two thousand years ago when He walked among them. 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. The reality of the Christ who entered into heaven still being with us is here can be illustrated by how we listen and respond 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 consumed by the presence and voice of Christ still announcing the Good News of the Kingdom of God. And how do we respond after hearing the Gospel? We do not reply, "praise to you deacon or praise to you pastor!” We instead respond "Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ”. It is Christ 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.” And that is indeed our prayer of our soul. Therefore Mass is not a ladder that reaches through the clouds. Instead, it is more like a bridge, a pathway to heaven that is opened, a veil or curtain pushed aside and with the eyes of faith we can gaze upon Christ face to face, as did the shepherds and kings in Bethlehem - as did Mary, in the quiet moments of adoration and thanksgiving, as did the disciples in the Upper Room at the Last Supper and after His resurrection from the dead. And let's not forget that Christ was with St. Paul all along the road to Damascus. When the Lord allowed him to see Him, it was too much for Paul's eyes to behold and they "exploded" blinding him for three days until his sight was restored back to normal when he was baptized. Today, even though we, who are baptized into the life, death, resurrection and glorious ascension of Christ into heaven, can not see Him as He truly is in all His glory, let us never ourselves be blind to the reality of Christ accompanying us on our journey - that heaven itself is always before us in some form or another. Maybe all it takes is to close our eyes and make just one leap of faith in the right direction and we will see before our eyes, the substantial reality of heaven itself - Christ true God and True Man. May our Blessed Mother Mary share with us the privileged of her insight along the way.
“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.)
6th Sunday of Easter: What if you went up to a mother holding with her adorable baby in her arms and told her, “Ma’am, you’re loving your baby the wrong way!” Imagine telling a father that the way he loves his daughter, his little princess, isn’t right. Or, what would happen if you told a married couple, celebrating their 25th anniversary, “Excuse me, but your love for each other seems inadequate.” What would be the reaction if I told two close friends that their relationship was not based on love. Or telling a priest, it doesn’t seem that he really loves his flock!
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? The 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 oftentimes 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”.
5th Sunday of Easter: As you enter the enter the church piazza, you pass through the rose garden. 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.
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. 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.
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.
Not to be mistaken as a gathering of nuns on a day out, or a group of young gentlemen wearing tuxedos, I want you to think of penguins! Read penguins - those affable, wobbly flightless birds, who dive into the arctic waters and jump out of holes in the ice with mouthfuls of fish.
But I’ve often wondered when I’ve seen images of thousands of penguins all huddled together on some Antarctic background, how do you tell them apart? But more particular, after the breeding season and there are equally thousands of young chicks who have not ventured into the waters to feed themselves, how do the parent penguins, returning to a penguin colony of thousands, be able to tell who’s who. Not only that, a returning parent with a mouthful of fish must be able to recognise their own chick and ignore all the thousands of other youngsters who are all indiscriminately crying out for food.
It seems, that, soon after birth, the parents have bonded so intimately with their young, that even when they leave them to search for food and later return to the thousands who are assembled on the edge of the icy water, the parent is able to distinguish, not by sight (that would be impossible), but by careful listening, the unique pitch and tone of their own offspring amid all the thousands of hungry squeals of chicks nervous and afraid that they have been abandoned. No so.
By way of a similar image, our Lord assures us that, not only has He his eye on up, but that even if we should be lost in the valley of darkness, He can always find us. We will never be lost. He knows us personally, intimately. We are not just a huge mass of a flock. He knows each of us by name, what is hidden in our hearts, our hopes, fears and dreams and anxieties of life. He is a shepherd, Who not only knows His flock. He knows, cares for, loves and is protective of each and every one of us Whom He knows, not by number, but by name.
Usually we call this Sunday after Easter, Good Shepherd Sunday. Indeed, Christ is the Good Shepherd. And that image of Him as such has inspired the most beautiful images and songs, poems and painting. But we should be careful not to stop there. Just because someone appears good, or brings us comfort and calms our fears, does not necessarily mean that we open our mouths and allow ourselves to be fed. Could one not deceive a vulnerable lamb that they are indeed a good Shepherd, and gently lure them away from the protection of the family by the sweetness of tender words, with promises of comfort and security? Might we not take a liking to a shepherd who showed himself as strong and mighty, chasing off the enemy with a show of strength and we would remark with relief that he was indeed a “good shepherd”?
Even throughout the political history of Israel, many individuals, from kings to politicians, from military commanders to revolutionaries, had at various times proclaimed themselves as good shepherds who were to lead their people to freedom. Christ calls them thieves and robbers! Instead of feeding the flock with true food, they themselves feed off the fears and vulnerabilities of others. They are quickly unmasked and abandoned when we see their true colors and agenda.
Instead, He puts Himself forward, not simply as the Good Shepherd. He goes further. He presents Himself as the “True Shepherd”. Anyone can present themselves as a “good shepherd”. But Christ is only the Good Shepherd because He alone is the True Shepherd. How can you tell? Listen to His voice. Christ’s voice not only speaks the truth, but His voice, even if we do not fully understand it without minds, His voice reaches into the heart and soul. And we know, in our heart of hearts that we must follow Him, trust Him and love Him, even when we are still hungry and afraid. The True Shepherd will always keep His promises, and will even lay down His life, because He is a man of His Word.
And what is His Promise and His Word to us? “I have come that you may have life, and life abundantly”. Here in this Eucharist, we call out to God who hears us, hears you and me crying out from the depth of our hearts and souls, “Feed me with everlasting life”. He responds to us most intimately through the Sacrament of the Eucharist, not only as a Good Shepherd who feeds us, but the True Shepherd who dares to nourish us with His own sacrificial Body and Blood. Because the Lord alone is my shepherd, there is nothing else I shall want, no-one else who hears me when I call, knows where I am, what I need, where I belong." Call to Him and you will be saved!
Third Sunday of Easter: 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, be it real or imagined (on the case of violent video games) has an effect on the mind, the body and the soul. Think today of abused children, the families caught in war zones, refugees, or Christian martyrs in the Middle East, for example. Killings and executions, be they barbaric, ritualized or behind closed doors - whether they are 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!
The Sunday after Easter we call Divine Mercy Sunday. The actual picture of Divine Mercy is Christ himself. But this is not the simple theme for today's Sunday. Our Lord has always, is always and will always be merciful to us to approach him. Merciful love is at the "heart" of the nature of God's "personality". 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 wounds are 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.
Today's Gospel simply re-enforces this truth about God. 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 choosing, He takes the initiative and enters into our prison wanting to release us.
We can get so used to darkness. But God’s mercy, His love is a tender light, for He never wants to scare us. He finds us often tired and vulnerable, hurting and even closed up inside ourselves. Even though we do not see Him, He sees us, gently 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. They are probably embarrassment they had abandoned Him to the cross, that they ran away and hid. This is the same Christ who never received mercy when He needed it most. But now 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’s 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 the door of his heart securely closed. Even the talk of Christ’s resurrection could not unhinge him. It took Christ himself to do so. But before Thomas could experience the full effects of the resurrection of His Lord, he first had to reach out and touch the Christ’s wounds – he had to join his suffering, his hurt, his pain to Christ’s - not to experience the agony of crucifixion, but the tenderness of reconciliation and peace.
All of us must do likewise. 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. This is why Christ is no martyr for love. 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 hiding places.
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 one's 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. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will encourage us to be courageous and faithful.