Fr. Bryce McProud

Jul 172017
 

Matthew 13:1-9

On that day, Jesus went out of the house and sat down by the sea. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat down, and the whole crowd stood along the shore. And he spoke to them at length in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep, and when the sun rose it was scorched, and it withered for lack of roots. Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it. But some seed fell on rich soil and produced fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold. Whoever has ears ought to hear.”

In the Gospel lesson for today we have the familiar story of The Sower.  As we just heard, Jesus says that a sower casts seed on four different kinds of ground: first the packed ground of the footpath, second the ground that is full of rocks, then the ground that is thick with thorns, and finally good fertile, well-tilled ground. Depending on where they land, the seeds are eaten by birds or spring up quickly and then wither away and die or they get choked out by the thorns. However, some of them, roughly a quarter, take root in good soil.

In the longer reading, Jesus explains the parable, explaining why some folks are faithful and others are not. Those of us who have reflected on this parable over the years worry about what kind of ground we are. We get concerned about how many birds are in our field, how many rocks, how many thorns. We have firm talks with ourselves and prayerfully try to figure out how to turn ourselves into well-tilled, well weeded, well fertilized fields for the full reception of the sowing of God’s word.

It’s awfully easy to see this as a story that informs us that the odds of being faithful are 3 to 1 against us. We may start stewing about what we need to do to beat those odds.

This parable is often heard as a challenge, a challenge to be different, a difference that comes about by doing a good and thorough personal inventory which leads to repentance and amendment of life. I’ve often prayed that my heart would be fertile ground for the word of the Lord so that I would be open to fully receive and ultimately bear a good yield for the furtherance of the Kingdom.

In reflecting on this parable, we note that there are times when we are like the well-trampled pathway. We’ve become hardened. We don’t want to hear God’s word and we certainly don’t want it to sink in; we are just not interested, we are not available for God the Holy Spirit to speak to us, even to bless us and empower us.

We don’t want to be bothered— thank you very much— and you can almost hear the devil chuckle, “This is too easy” as we putter or lurch around in our disobedience. Sometimes we do it with our feet up watching TV or sitting in front of a computer screen.

Sometimes we are like the shallow soil of the rocky ground. We get enthusiastic and determined to be faithful. But it’s all based on feeling good, so that when things don’t feel so good, we dry up, we wither. There’s no root system, we haven’t built on our sacramental foundation which in part is meant to sustain us during the dry spells; there’s no discipline of daily prayer nor works of mercy; there’s little or no financial generosity. We are shallow. Jesus is explicit: such a person has no root, but endures only for awhile, and when trouble or persecution arises…that person immediately falls away.

Sometimes we are like the thorny ground. Our intentions are good, we start off right, we get involved, we even try to be steady in our weekly Mass attendance and other acts of faithfulness that the Church prescribes. But pressures with the job, with the family, with recreation, with life in general just get to be too much and we literally get choked out. This is a dangerous time, too. For thorns and thistles and weeds in our life not only rob us of spiritual nutrition, they also make us feel guilty and resentful and we tend to pull away even more.

I don’t think I can count the number of people I know who have excommunicated themselves because they were being choked out by the cares and pressures of the world: all too often the lure of money and power and feeling good, of succumbing to the oppression of an all consuming “busyness,” or maybe just by abiding by our own selfish agendas and not God’s.

A choice is made and the choice is to stop being fed by the Body and Blood of our Lord, the one antidote to the world, the flesh and the devil. Sadly what is given up is nourishment from the Eucharist, true food of life and for life and along with the abandonment of the other sacraments and regular daily prayer, generous stewardship, and the love and comfort of the Christian community. When this happens something within shrivels and sometimes even dies.

But sometimes we are like the well-tilled fertile soil. We are open, we are receptive and we are prepared to accept all that God has for us. We are useful for the kingdom and our bountiful harvest blesses God and others who receive what God has produced in us to offer to them.  We have been empowered for discipleship. It is a wonderful experience of what it means to be faithful and fruitful.

Showing how we may be at times the beaten path, the rocky soil or the thorn-filled field and even the good fertile field is basically the standard interpretation of this parable.

But there is another dimension to this parable. Remember that for centuries it has been known as the parable of the Sower which means that we may have it backwards when we focus only on ourselves and our response to the word of God. This parable is primarily about the sower and not just about the various kinds of soils, or the birds and rocks and thorns and even the devil. We need to ask, “Is there another point that Jesus is making?  What else could he be saying?”

I suggest this: what if this parable is also about the incredible extravagance of the sower who does not seem to be fazed by the hard path and the birds and the rocks and the thorns? What if the sower intentionally flings seed everywhere with a kind of reckless abandon, a holy abandon, what if he delights in feeding birds and whistles at the rocks and nimbly picks his way through the blackberries, what if he sings hymns of joy, beaming and brimming with good will as he just keeps on sowing, confident that there is enough seed to go around, that there is plenty and at harvest time the produce will fill every barn in the community to the rafters?

If this parable is also about the largess of the sower as well as the different kinds of ground, then we have something really important here. How do we respond to such incredible generosity? What happens when our hearts are so full of gratitude that tears start to well up? Perhaps we will be motivated to express our gratitude by praying more, by being more faithful in Mass attendance, by choosing to extend ourselves more in our acts of charity, by digging deeper for the financial needs of the Church and of the poor?

If this interpretation is applicable, and the focus is not just on us and our shortcomings but more on the great and kind and incredible, even mind-blowing, generosity of God, the prolific sower who is not stingy with his grace, who casts the seed of his word everywhere, upon good soil and bad, who is more joyous and generous than he is judgmental or even practical, who seems to keep reaching into a bottomless seed bag, and flinging out the seed, covering the whole of creation with the fertile kernels of the word of truth.

You and I would not do it that way of course.  If we were in charge, we would devise a more efficient operation, a neater and cleaner and more productive one that does not waste good seed on birds and rocks and thistles. We’d concentrate only on the good soil and what we could do to make it that way.

But if this is the parable of the sower, then Jesus seems to be suggesting that God has another way of doing things, a way less concerned about our productivity and more about loving us.  In response maybe we could even trust Him to take care of us and the terrible state of affairs this old world is in. Now that is really Good News!

 

 

 

 

Jul 092017
 

Matthew 11:25-30

At that time Jesus exclaimed: “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to little ones. Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.” “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.

As I prayed and pondered the Gospel lesson for today, I got to reflecting on this statement that is so very dear to our hearts: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. This phrase in all its various translations has given immeasurable comfort to people in distress. It can be found engraved on tombstones or designed in stained glass windows or even stitched in needlepoint and framed to hang in church halls.

This is a wonderful promise, a comforting promise to which many of us turn when burdens are seemingly impossible to bear, when our best efforts to cope are inadequate and we are close to collapse. This is the promise of a loving Redeemer who will lift the sweaty loads off our backs and replace them with something that is greater than we are, and yet with this supernatural help we can shoulder any burden.

Let’s reflect on the situation in which Jesus spoke these words.

Here we are in the beginning stages of Jesus’ ministry. He had just called his inner core of disciples, the ones whose names we know: Peter, James, John and so on. Many others had decided to follow Jesus as well, perhaps as many as 200 or so. So here was this itinerant preacher and miracle worker wandering about the country preaching and teaching about the coming Kingdom of God. And he was accompanied by a whole slew of other folks.

Jesus had just finished the portion of his ministry that is generally known as the “Galilean Mission.” He had been preaching, teaching, healing and exorcising in various cities in Galilee, a region of what is now Northwestern Israel, but his reception had been less than warm. First, you can imagine the sight of a couple of hundred people descending on your village or town. That in itself would make you somewhere on the scale between curious and anxious, maybe even fearful. But itinerant Rabbis and their entourages weren’t that uncommon, so most folks took it in stride.

It also must be noted that the people in these communities were smart, resourceful, capable and most were prospering despite the Roman occupation. The vast majority were not looking for help from Jesus, nor from anyone else for that matter. Sure they hoped the Romans would be kicked out, but they knew this wasn’t likely, so they did the best they could. And like so many today in our own country, those folks may have found Jesus and his message interesting, but they were far more fascinated by the miracles than in the call to repent and amend their lives. They soon grew tired of this itinerant rabbi and his motley band of followers.

We can see how that group of newly minted disciples of Jesus would be discouraged. They hadn’t been at this very long and they were far from seasoned. It was all new to them and it was probably tougher than they expected.

The setting for today’s Gospel lesson depicts Jesus and the disciples sitting down to rest. Right before our reading, Jesus had been heaping some powerful reproaches on those who did not receive him and his Gospel message. In our text, Jesus is starting to pray. He thanked God for revealing his message to those so called “little ones” who took his words to heart over against those so-called wise and understanding who could not/would not be receptive. We read: “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to little ones. (By the way, if you are among the “little ones” to whom God has revealed the fullness of the Gospel, consider yourself blessed.)

And then Jesus addresses his burdened disciples by saying: Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

My word, what does he mean? First of all, I think he was addressing the immediate situation. It wasn’t easy following an itinerant rabbi. You were always scrounging for food and a place to stay. Frequently you weren’t particularly welcomed and often, in the dust and fatigue, it would be easy to be discouraged. We do know that some joined and then left. We note this especially in the 6th chapter of St. John’s Gospel where Jesus made the great pronouncement that unless you eat his body and drink his blood, you have no life in you. We are told in verse 66 that after he said this, many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him. But that’s later. Now we are in the beginning stages of his earthly ministry and Jesus is teaching his disciples about the importance of sharing burdens. That’s something we need to be reminded of as well.

Second, it’s important to note that Christ gave this message of helping with our burdens shortly after his first pronouncement about taking up our crosses. Both are critical for faithfulness; the cross shows our willingness to sacrifice for the greater good. Taking on the yoke of Christ shows that we desire to be useful for the Kingdom.

Much has been written and said about the yoke of Christ. It is almost always thought of in the singular, that there is a unique, distinctive personally made yoke for each one of us. I wouldn’t refute that, but there is another dimension here as well. Starting with a basic tenet of Catholicism that drew me to the faith, I want to affirm once again that Catholics “think ‘we’ instead of just ‘me.’” I’ve said it many times and I believe it applies here. We are communitarians. We are people who function in community with a heavy emphasis on collective responsibility and blessing.

With that as a premise, I want to do a bit of reflecting on yokes. If you’ve traveled around the world or just read National Geographic on occasion, you know that there are two basic kinds of yokes that are used to bear burdens, single ones and shared ones.

The single ones are very efficient. By placing a yoke across the shoulders and fitting buckets that are hung from poles on each side, a human being can carry almost as much as a donkey. However, a single person will tire easily and have to sit down and rest frequently. Their shoulders will ache all the time and backs will eventually give out. But it is possible to move great loads from one place to the next using a single person under a single yoke.

A shared yoke works quite differently. It requires two creatures for one task, but if they are well matched, they can work all day, because under a shared yoke there is a greater distribution of the load. They can take turns bearing the brunt of the weight; they can cover for each other without having to lay their burden down so frequently. They have company all day long and when the day is done both are tired but neither is exhausted because they are a team and the burden has been shared.

Plenty of us labor under the illusion that the yoke Christ has for each of us is a single one, that we have to go it alone, that the only way to please God is to load ourselves down with heavy requirements: good deeds, pure thoughts, blameless lives, perfect obedience while not receiving any help. And yet, as I like to remind folks, we Catholics have so much help available to us.

We start with Christ and the other two members of the Holy Trinity. We have the Angels and Saints, especially the Blessed Virgin, we have patron saints and saints who are focused on specific needs. As an example I’ve been calling upon St. Alban lately. He’s the patron of immigrants and prisoners and those being persecuted. I invoke him in my daily prayers to watch over and tend those millions of people who flee for their lives from the incredible violence and persecution that is out there. We also must believe that we are yoked with these folks in peril and distress, especially with the Christian minorities who are blatantly being persecuted. We are yoked with so many others, those who have incredible burdens and those who help carry them.

We must believe that the mysterious yoke that Christ lays upon us and upon so many others is the same yoke that he bears himself. We are called to be “yokefellows” if you will. Jesus is right here, half of the yoke on his own shoulders, the other half wide open and waiting for each of us, a yoke that requires no more than that we step into it and become part of a team. “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. It’s not just for select individuals. It’s for all of us who get weary and teeter on despondency and despair. And it’s also for those of us who are willing to help shoulder the burdens of others, both physically and with our prayers and by means of other support. No wonder these words have weathered the centuries so well; no wonder these words are still music to our ears.

They assure us that those who please God are not those who can carry the heaviest loads alone, rather they are the ones who are willing to share their loads and to be with Christ as he hefts the burdens of so many.

In closing, it must be said that we who are willing to share burdens are blessed by entering into relationship with the one whose invitation is a standing one. Once again we hear: Take my yoke upon you and learn from me… for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.

 

July 2, 2017 Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Jul 022017
 

 Matthew 10:37-42

Jesus said to his apostles: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me. Whoever receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward. And whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink because the little one is a disciple— amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward.”

 

If you’d like to see my shoulders slump, then tell me what I should or should not do, particularly if I’m not inclined to do what needs to be done or if I want to keep on doing what I shouldn’t be doing. I think this is a part of the Catholic ethos I’ve picked up that I wasn’t anticipating. I’m pretty sure you know what I’m talking about; it’s what’s called in the vernacular Catholic Guilt. I’m going to change the name, but a Catholic woman once told me that she’s thought about introducing herself this way to strangers: “Hi, I’m Betty and I’m sorry.” I suspect some of you can identify with this.

The primary reason for this is that there are many “shalls” and “shall nots” in our faith. We can start with the 10 Commandments and go from there. I don’t need to tell you this; it is part of our ethos. It’s particularly true if we really, truly want to be faithful above all else. So let’s look more closely. It’s about discipleship.

The Gospel readings this time of year focus on what could be called The Cost of Discipleship. You may have noted that with the Church’s emphasis on Evangelization, the term disciple is being used more and more. The Catechism tells us that:  The disciple of Christ must not only keep the faith and live on it, but also profess it, confidently bear witness to it, and spread it: “All however must be prepared to confess Christ before[others] and to follow him along the way of the Cross, amidst the persecutions which the Church never lacks.” Service of and witness to the faith are necessary for salvation…(CCC#1816)

I like to define discipleship as actually following Jesus over against just admiring him, usually from a passive perspective. Disciples get up and move; they actually follow him both literally and figuratively. They do what needs to be done and they refrain from doing those things that are not in accord with faithfulness. Discipleship is the manifestation of an active faith, not a passive one. Disciples are willing to be inconvenienced and even suffer for the cause of Christ. They are willing to take on the guilt as well as the glory.

In contrast, admirers tend to remain inert or to find something else to do. I remember a former parishioner once telling me that “Church is what you do in your spare time.” This is not an expression of discipleship.

But this former parishioner was on to something. There are many people who want all the benefits of the faith without the rather rigorous requirements and especially they don’t want the guilt. There are many reasons, but I have noticed that people tend to be natural minimalists, particularly when it comes to matters of faith. Frequently questions like: “What must I do to be saved?” or “How much should I give away?” or “What is required of me to forgive that “so and so” who cheated me?”  These are almost always implying: “what is the very least I have to do to be saved, to give away or even to be forgiving? What are the minimum requirements to be obedient? What is the least I have to do to quit feeling guilty?”

In other words, “what are the minimum requirements to be a true Disciple of Jesus?” Now we do that with a lot of things, but it’s particularly prevalent among those who want to identify as being part of the faithful without having it cost too much.

Lutheran Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called this “Cheap Grace,” which he defined as the “grace we bestow on ourselves… Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, receiving Holy Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

Cheap grace is concerned about social approval and risks nothing.

Over against cheap grace is costly grace. The term costly grace may seem like a contradiction in terms. However, let’s just think about Jesus’ parable of the treasure hidden in a field (Mt. 13:44ff). If you remember, this is the story of the man who discovers this hidden treasure in a field and happily cashes in everything he owns so he can to procure it.

Costly grace is not simply a lucky door prize. This grace takes the form of a call to follow Jesus to the cross. This was a teaching that the first disciples found very hard to take. How could the coming kingdom of God really mean that they might have to follow Jesus even to his death? Was there no short cut that did not involve this path?

There is no short cut. Grace costs nothing, but it demands everything. Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. Grace is costly because it compels us to submit to the yoke of Christ and to follow him.

True grace comes only from God. It is free, but it is ever so costly. It took the crucifixion for it to be always available to us, the recipients. And disciples are aware of that cost and consequently they—we—are charged to offer our very lives as the only appropriate response. And when we don’t want to do that, when something else is more important or even more interesting, the guilt kicks in. The Catechism tells us that: In union with his Savior, the disciple attains the perfection of charity which is holiness. Having matured in grace, the moral life blossoms into eternal life in the glory of heaven. (CCC #1709)

But it is not an easy journey to get there. We hear this in today’s Gospel lesson:

Jesus said …: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his [or her] cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 

We must be careful with this. This is not the case, as some have claimed, that what matters is following Christ in your own way. Jesus is saying loud and clear, that what matters is allegiance to Him and the Gospel and on his terms, not ours. This is not some kind of hobby that we do in our spare time when it fits our schedules. It is not grace that we bestow on ourselves. Following Christ on his terms and not ours must supersede everything else.

But we can see as this story unwinds, how difficult this was even for people who were His disciples back then. Eventually Peter denied Him three times, Judas betrayed Him, and the rest ran away and hid. But His call and challenge remain: embracing everything, demanding everything, offering everything, promising everything.

So how do we respond? There may come a time when the hassle and even the persecution can and will be almost unbearable. But never forget that the challenge of Jesus’ sayings is always matched by the remarkable promises He makes to those who accept and live by them. We will never be abandoned. Ours is a God of love, and love will prevail.

So let’s remember this when our shoulders slump and the guilt kicks in. This is what keeps us on the straight and narrow; it leads us to repentance and reconciliation and puts us back on the path of true discipleship.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

June 25, 2017 Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Jun 252017
 

Matthew 10:26-33

Jesus said to the Twelve: “Fear no one. Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known. What I say to you in the darkness, speak in the light; what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna. Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge. Even all the hairs of your head are counted. So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. Everyone who acknowledges me before others I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father. But whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father.”

 

A basic theme of today’s Gospel lesson is martyrdom. We note that Jesus presents a key component to martyrdom as he instructs the disciples to go out and share the Good News. He tells them twice: “Do not be afraid.” I’ve reflected several times with you on the martyrdom that is occurring today. More Christians have been slaughtered in the last hundred years for the cause of Christ and his Church than all the previous 19 plus centuries combined. This aptly-named red martyrdom is ongoing.

So let’s get some historical perspective. I would remind you that the word “martyr” means “witness.” The first centuries of the Church were spattered red with the blood of these heroic martyrs. Finally peace of a sort came to the Church in the 4th century when the Emperor Constantine became Christian and officially protected the Church. This was the age of councils and sophisticated theological development. It was principally the Councils of Nicea in 325 and Constantinople in 381 that brought about the establishment of the Church’s official teaching on the doctrine of the Trinity. We proclaim the result each time we recite the Creed. But all did not stay rosy and there was still a need for heroic witness.

Very soon the concept of “white martyrdom” developed; a martyrdom without death, but still bearing the brunt of scorn and ridicule and sometimes violent hatred of the faith and the faithful. These white martyrs were those who gave total offering to God while dying to self, the world, and its allurements.

There is much “white martyrdom” today, some with bloodshed. I recently read about some young Catholics in China who belonged to the Legion of Mary. They were forbidden by their government to practice the faith. But that didn’t stop them. They eventually were arrested and their rosaries confiscated. While in jail they continued to pray using their fingers to count the decades. The government swiftly chopped off those fingers.

Hopefully none of us will ever have to endure such a trial for our faith, but many ordinary Catholics do suffer rather minor but persistent persecution, especially if they—we— are committed to following Jesus for more than an hour on Sunday. Do you know anyone who is suffering a quiet white martyrdom for the faith? There are quite a few out there.

Let me offer some examples with corresponding Scriptures. To start, I read of a woman who announced, through heart-wrenching sobs, that her husband wanted a divorce and was moving out. After six kids and 19 years of marriage, you can bet they had their ups and downs. There finally was an issue of faithfulness that caused the break. You see, all throughout their marriage they had practiced Natural Family Planning. But now with age and unpredictable cycles, the husband did not want any more children, his solution was contraceptives. Her solution was continued Natural Family Planning and faith in the wisdom of God. After seeking counsel from several priests, family therapy, and prayer, he moved out. I believe she is a “white martyr” for the faith, a true witness for Christ and his Church.

The Prophet Sirach declares: When you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for trials. Be sincere of heart and steadfast, undisturbed in times of adversity. Cling to Him, forsake Him not; thus will your future be great. Accept what befalls you; in crushing misfortune be patient. For, in fire gold is tested, and worthy men [and women] in the crucible of humiliation. Trust God and He will help you. Make straight your ways and hope in Him. You who fear the Lord, wait for His mercy. Turn not away, lest you fall. (Sirach 2:1-7)

Here’s another account of “white martyrdom.” A Jewish convert to Catholicism was abandoned by his family upon his conversion. He took refuge in his new-found faith. He even turned away from a lucrative business career in order to shoulder the wheel of evangelization. The people in his church-related workplace proved more secular and profane than those on the outside. He continues to struggle with disillusionment as he tries his best to share the faith with cynical, condescending cradle Catholics.

St. Peter wrote…you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:6-7)

Another convert is a lector and Eucharistic minister who brings Holy Communion to the sick at hospitals and to the homebound. His fellow very secular colleagues think it is hilarious to send pornographic images to his computer because of the “shock value” it evokes.

Jesus tells us in the Gospel of John: Remember the word I spoke to you. No slave is greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. (John 15:20)

A young woman college student, the eldest of seven children, is walking in the way laid out by her holy parents, the way of Truth. She suffers from several chronic diseases, and has been accosted by inexplicable satanic malevolence. Yet she continues to be cheerful, faithful and unafraid. She is a hero of the Church and a good example to young people all around her. Her witness comes at great cost, but it is a scourge to the nemesis, and a scandal to worldlings at her college.

St. Timothy tells us: In fact, all who want to live religiously in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. (2 Tim 3:12)

In today’s society faithful Catholics are regularly held in contempt. They are the “spoilers” of deviant lifestyles, polluted entertainment and sinful pastimes. They are the moral compass in the office, in politics and in the world. These are the faithful voices that make so many angry and sometimes even violent.

Should we be surprised? Jesus tells us in the 15th chapter of St. John’s Gospel:  If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own; but because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you. (John 15:18-19)

But take courage! St. Peter exhorts us to cast all our worries upon Jesus because he loves us so very much. In the Epistle of First Peter we are told to be steadfast in faith, knowing that our fellow believers throughout the world undergo the same sufferings.  Peter tells us that the God of all grace who called you to his eternal glory through Christ will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you after you have suffered a little. (cf. 1 Peter 5:10)

We take solace in Our Lord’s promise: Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you (falsely) because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. (Mat 5:11)

We are told in the book of Hebrews that God… will never forsake you or abandon you. Thus we may say with confidence: “The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me? (Heb 13:5)

God’s love for us is so deep and intense. Someone once said that he has a picture of you on his refrigerator. But there is a bit of carrot and stick here. Let me say that God would rather coax than coerce us to be faithful, but there are consequences for unfaithfulness. That is something of which we all need to be aware. We are loved without reservation, but it is not a sloppy agape. There is order and there are requirements. This is what we hear in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus says to his disciples: Fear not:

Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge. Even all the hairs of your head are counted. So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. Everyone who acknowledges me before others I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father. But whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father.”

This is the stuff of martyrdom, both red and white. It’s worthy of our reflection.

 

 


 

June 18, 2017 Corpus Christi

 18 June 2017  Comments Off on June 18, 2017 Corpus Christi
Jun 182017
 

 

Abbot Jeremy Driscoll of Mt. Angel Abby wrote a wonderful little book entitled What Happens at Mass. He tells us that “The Mass is about love. It is not an idea about love, but the supreme encounter with love. A Christian is defined entirely by this encounter. And so, I am not in the [world] of Descartes [who said] “I think therefore I am.” Rather because of what happens at Mass, I know what that makes me [who I am]: I am loved, therefore I am…”

Abbot Jeremy continues: “To say that the Mass is about love is to say that it is…an encounter with God, but not as God vaguely contrived. It is an encounter with God through Jesus…who was crucified under Pontius Pilate and who’s death is [manifested] during the course of the Mass…[and it must be said that] Christ is not only the victim—he is also the Great High Priest who presides at the sacrifice.” (pp vii-viii)

These are basic, simple words that speak of the most incredible mystery. From early on the Church incorporated the word “mystery” when describing the sacraments, especially the sacrament of the Eucharist. The roots of this lie in the theology of St. Paul; for him the word ‘mystery’ is key to his understanding of what happens in Christ. The central mystery is the cross; he calls it a mystery because something was hidden in the cross that we cannot understand without it being revealed. For example, he explains in the 2nd chapter of I Corinthians that when the ‘rulers of this age’ crucified Christ, they didn’t have a clue who he was for his true identity was hidden. But in fact these rulers crucified “the Lord of Glory.” St. Paul wrote, “None of the rulers of this age knew the mystery. If they had known it, they would never have crucified the Lord of Glory.” (I Cor. 2:8) Ironically it’s all part of the great mystery of the Mass.

Abbot Jeremy defines the mystery of divine activity at the Eucharist this way. He writes: “a mystery is a concrete something that when you bump into it, it puts you in contact with divine reality…The bread and the wine of the Eucharist are concrete things, in them are hidden the very body and blood of Christ…” (p. 3)

The Greek word “mysterion” means something that is hidden and secret. The Latin word “sacramentum” refers to something that is made holy. In the Eucharist things are made mysteriously holy, things that we can touch, consume, the sacrament of Christ’s blessed Body and Blood. This mysterious sacramental presence is concrete but the mystery is that it occurs in the bread and the wine which are available to us by means of the words and movements of the Mass.

Abbot Jeremy also reminds us that the “Mass begins long before it begins…There is deep theological significance hidden in the arrival of many people coming from many places into one place to celebrate the Eucharist…[it is] the mystery of the assembly… people just coming to the Church building is already a mystery. A divine reality is hidden in… [our] concrete [act of gathering.]” (pp. 7-8)

Each of us brings a personal story: our struggles, our pains, our joy, our experiences in prayer. Are you going through some kind of faith crisis? Are the kids acting up? Is there trouble in your marriage? Did you just get a wonderful letter from a grandchild? Is someone you love close to death? Have you been away from the Eucharist for a long time?  Have you just made your confession and have you received the rejuvenating absolution by a priest and all things are sweet and new again? Is work a burden that borders on being unbearable and you aren’t sure what to do? Have you found new joy in a new job? Are you dealing with some chronic health issue? We bring so many things with us to Mass. These all are gathered into a common offering of this concrete assembly.

And hidden in this mystery of the concrete assembly is a much higher assembly, the whole Church of Christ has gathered, the Church in heaven and on earth, down through the centuries with the Blessed Virgin and all the saints and angels and archangels—cherubim and seraphim—chanting words beyond our hearing, giving voice to song that silently echoes through the centuries: “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God Sabaoth, Heaven and Earth are Full of Your Glory, Hosanna in the highest.” This is the Church.

St. Paul tells us at the end of the 1st chapter of Ephesians that Christ is the Head of His Body, the Church and therefore we must always keep in mind that Christ is the only priest and ultimately there is only one Mass and Christ presides, always.  It is also important to remember that Christ shares his priesthood with all the Faithful. The presider at the head of the Eucharistic assembly is a sign of the one priesthood of Christ; all his words, all his actions during the rite are geared toward uniting the people of God with him;  in this sense we all participate in Christ’s priesthood because we are united with him in this priestly act.

So, when in obedience to Our Lord’s command at the Last Supper, we “do this” with the bread and wine, we are united in Fellowship with the Father, in the love of his Son, who is present in the Eucharist by and through the power of the Holy Spirit. United in and through the Blessed Triune God, together with so many we cannot see, we comprise the Church which transcends time and space. At every Mass we are present in both the Upper Room gathered with Jesus and the disciples and at Calvary, beholding him who is spiked to that cross. However, there is one obvious impairment, we can’t see Jesus with physical, human eyes but we can with the eyes of faith. Whenever this Holy Sacrifice is celebrated, all the benefits of Christ’s one, unrepeatable sacrifice is re-lived and all these benefits become available to us as we are united in the great and wondrous mystery called the Mass.

In closing I want to relate a story told by Dr. Peter Kreeft, professor of Philosophy at Boston College and a former Presbyterian. One day he took one of his students, a Muslim, to Mass, something the student had never witnessed before. Afterwards they discussed what they had experienced. The Muslim student asked Dr. Kreeft “Do you really believe that the bread [and wine] become, through consecration, the body and blood of the crucified and risen Christ?” “Certainly,” Dr. Kreeft responded, “That’s exactly what we believe.”

“If I believed that,” the Muslim student told him, “I would never get off my knees.” Here is a non-believer who intuitively understands the phrase, “The Eucharist is the Source and Summit of the Faith.”

 

June 11, 2017 Trinity Sunday

 11 June 2017  Comments Off on June 11, 2017 Trinity Sunday
Jun 112017
 

John 3:16-18

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

Theologians have long held that love is the cohesive bond of the three persons of the Trinity. This is pure love as described by St. Paul in the 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians: this is love that is patient and kind, love that is neither jealous nor boastful, love that is neither arrogant nor rude, love that does not insist on its own way, love that is neither irritable nor resentful, love that does not rejoice in the wrong but rejoices in the right, love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, this love never ends, this love is holy.

This love permeates all three persons of the Triune God to the extent that the Apostle John can say that “God is love.” (I John 4:16) This is that wonderful self-giving kindness and affirmation that unconditional positive regard that we know from the Greek as agape.

And if the bond of the Trinity is this agape love, then I would like to reflect on one aspect of this holy love and that is vulnerability. And if one is vulnerable then one is subject to be hurt and to experience loss, even great loss, and the loving response to loss is grief. It is the grief of the Father when beholding his Son suffer and die on the cross, it is the grief of the Son upon noting the great sinfulness of our human condition, it is the grief of the Holy Spirit when violence and hatred become all too common in our interactions. The collective heart of the Blessed Trinity grieves and breaks especially when we humans submit to our lower natures, when we succumb to temptations, when there is the whiff of sulfur that wafts up from Hell and the enemy rejoices. And the great remedy for all this grief is love, an irony because it makes the all powerful, all knowing God vulnerable in a holy way. It is the love that is spoken of by St. John in our Gospel lesson when we read that:  God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.

With love there is always risk. The risk of being hurt, and yet if love does not reign supreme, then we are in a wretched place. In God’s call to us to love him in return and to love our neighbor as ourselves, we often fall short. Sometimes our vulnerability makes us so very weary. We fall victim to disease, distress, dryness, depression, abandonment, despair. We can easily feel overwhelmed. And when we are overwhelmed, we often have something other than love at the forefront of our lives.

The prophet Jeremiah spoke to this in the 12th chapter of the book that bears his name. He asks: “If you have raced with men on foot, and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses? And if in a safe land you fall down, how will you do in the swelling of the Jordan?” (Jer. 12:5)

Jeremiah is talking about being hunted, about giving your all in escaping, by being exhausted by the ordeal. Imagine that your enemies, in this case the foot soldiers of Babylon, have been tracking you down, trying to kill you and you’re “done in” after outrunning them to safety only to look up and find that they have called in the cavalry and they are now hunting you down on horses.

They have found you and they are about to capture and kill you, so you flee once more and in your great fatigue you keep stumbling, and finally you’ve made it to the river’s edge, the boundary to home and safety. But once you get there, you see that the Jordan is in flood stage. The roaring waters are deep and swift and treacherous. What do you do? Jeremiah asks how will you fare if you have to cross the roaring river on foot when you can’t even keep your balance on dry ground? Panic overcomes you and you fall into despair.

Jeremiah has been experiencing some of this as the Children of Israel are being taken into captivity as slaves by the Babylonians. Some have escaped, trying to return home across the Jordon but they are being captured and killed. In this passage the prophet is railing at God, bewailing how unfair life can be. He is crying out: “Lord it is too much, I cannot go on!”  And then his heart becomes still and he is chagrined because he realizes that this is something that is so very common in our human condition. And God is there grieving with him, with us, because God’s love has made him vulnerable. It’s akin to the love of the Blessed Virgin as she watches her son being hammered to the cross. The Holy ones know what it is like to be vulnerable and aching.

We get upset because God doesn’t do what we want; he isn’t delivering us as we demand. But he is here with us, always. We must remember that the day of redemption, salvation, is nigh but it is not here yet.  We get frustrated as things are often overwhelming in their unfairness. But there it is, a product of our broken and sinful world, today’s world.

In today’s world, I ask you, what would you do if you were a citizen of Syria and you were hit by a ceaseless bombardment of mortar rounds and no one is there to help and worse, the attackers are preventing anyone from coming to your aid. Filth and disease and death are everywhere. There is no relief. And then more shells start landing again and again and again, and you can’t find your children, and your sobbing prayers seem to go unheeded. This is true vulnerability. This is what it is like to be a bombing victim in London or a stabbing victim on a Portland Light Rail train. This is what it is like to be a family member of the victims of such atrocities.

I am no chirpy optimist, horrible things happen all the time in this broken and fallen world. The task before us is to be realistic without being cynical. Sometimes that is a real challenge for me and yet I confess that the older I get and the more I see, the more I am amazed at the tenderness and kindness of the love of God.

Embracing this is the great conviction of the faith, that our time here on earth is transitory and that our hope and home is in heaven. You may think you believe in that, but wait until a loved one dies violently, and that belief is sorely tried. Lower your dear one into an open grave and you will learn what true believing means.

But never forget that we have wonderful hope and help. Not only do we have the Triune God who conveys love in so many ways. We also have the angels and saints who are constantly intervening for us; and of course our sisters and brothers in Christ here on earth.

In closing I want to remind you that each of us can get so self-preoccupied that we become absorbed with our own agendas and we lose the big picture, the call to love God and others. For perspective, have you noticed in your readings of the lives of the saints that there is almost never mention of the folks back home who grieve for a martyred family member? But there is a great deal written about the saints in glory.  Even Dante, who focused on the terrors of hell, went up on a hill. And suddenly he is confronted with a strange sound. “What’s that?” he asked.  And his guide smiled. “Some happy soul,” he said, “has burst through into victory, and all the heavenly host is singing praises to God with great jubilation.” It’s tough to keep this in mind when the blow falls. But we are in this together and like the three  persons of the Trinity, love is what binds us together, whether in sharing the Eucharist or chatting over coffee and donuts or bringing comfort and offering prayer when the there is so much hurt and desperation. We experience our Trinitarian God who is love; it’s what keeps Christians together; it’s what keeps us together and keeping this in mind puts everything else in its proper place.

 

 

 

June 4, 2017 Pentecost Sunday

 Pentecost 2017  Comments Off on June 4, 2017 Pentecost Sunday
Jun 042017
 

At Pentecost the Holy Spirit transformed fearful, cowering disciples into courageous, insightful witnesses for Christ. In a very short period of time, thousands upon thousands were baptized and were dramatically imbued with the Holy Spirit. The scriptures speak of the drama of tongues of fire and people falling over backward and offering up ecstatic prophetic utterances of praise and thanksgiving.

But the Spirit generally works with more nuance. St. Augustine referred to the Holy Spirit as “The quiet guest of our soul.” Usually this guest speaks softly within us, most frequently through our consciences. St. Paul tells us in the 6th chapter of I Corinthians that we are “temples of the Holy Spirit.” Drawing on the proclamation of the Prophet Isaiah (Is. 11:2-4,) the Church teaches that we receive seven specific gifts of the Holy Spirit at our baptism and these gifts are strengthened by the sacrament of confirmation. They are gifts and like other gifts they can be put to practical use by us or they can be relegated to the back of the closet along with that tie your mother-in-law gave you last Christmas.

Let take a closer look at these Gifts we are called to embrace and cultivate.

Wisdom: Wisdom is the ability to see things as God sees them. For the wise, the wonders of nature, the importance of historical events, and the more mundane ups and downs of everyday life are put into perspective. Wisdom prompts in us the ability to see God as our loving Father and all people, Catholic or not, as our brothers and sisters.

Wisdom also helps us to discern right from wrong and to make good choices, especially on how to be charitable in the most difficult circumstances and to the most difficult people. Wisdom empowers us to see and evaluate joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, success or failure, from God’s point of view. St. Bernard called Wisdom the “supernatural Gift of the Holy Spirit which enables us to know God and to rejoice in perfect love.” Wisdom helps us to see, embrace and extend love.

Understanding: The Gift of Understanding enables us to know and accept the mysteries and doctrines of our holy Catholic faith.  God desires to sanctify our souls and draw us closer so, he grants the interior light of understanding to deepen our acceptance of the Divine mysteries and animate us to serve Him more perfectly. Through understanding we are more able to grasp the meaning of revealed truths and to be stirred into a more active faith. In this way, our faith ceases to be sterile, but inspires in us a mode of life that bears testimony to the faith.

The old cartoon of a light bulb going on when something becomes evident is an illustration of understanding. Understanding often comes to us as an “aha” moment, a moment of clarity and enlightenment, a moment of revelation.

Counsel or Right Judgment: This gift helps us to make right decisions. This is the gift of clarity about conflicting issues in our lives so that we will know how to act appropriately. The exercise of right judgment or counsel avoids the near occasions of sin. There is an awareness of which acts are good and ought to be done, over against those that are evil and ought to be avoided. This gift shows us what are good and wise choices. Through this Gift, we learn how we can best please God and in so doing we are granted interior peace and spiritual consolation. Counsel or right judgment is especially necessary for those who are in positions of leadership, since at such levels of responsibility, natural prudence sometimes does not suffice. We need Supernatural Counsel in our roles as parents, teachers, political leaders, and even simply as citizens. Counsel endows the Soul with Prudence, empowering it to judge promptly and rightly what must be done, especially in challenging circumstances.

Fortitude or Courage: This gift empowers us to overcome our fears and anxieties. Fortitude or courage, in the theological sense, emboldens us to stand firm for the faith and to take appropriate risks for the cause of Christ and his Church. A person with divinely inspired courage is willing to stand up for what is right in the sight of God, even if it means experiencing rejection, ridicule, abuse, harm or even death. The gift of courage or fortitude sets firm our thoughts and will  which is required in doing good and in enduring and combating evil.

Fortitude is the stuff of martyrs.

Knowledge: With the gift of knowledge we are able to absorb and retain the teachings of Christ and his Church, principally and practically through the Catechism and Holy Scriptures. Other readings are helpful, but we need these basics. With these basics, we are able to see the roadblocks to faithfulness and so we can discern how to use things rightly, even in a holy way. The gift of knowledge reveals to us the loving providential care of God even in adversity, and directs us to glorify Him without impediment by our circumstances. Guided by the light of knowledge, we put first-things-first, and we know to value our relationship with God above and beyond everything else.

Piety or Reverence: This gift enables us to have an innate devotion to Christ and his Church. A person exercising the gift of piety or reverence recognizes the need for total reliance on God and therefore he or she comes before our Triune God with humility, trust, awe and wonder and above all, love and gratitude. Piety or reverence prompts us eagerly seek to worship God, to study His ways and to serve him and others as faithful Disciples of Christ. The Gift of Piety infuses into our souls a reverence for God and Divine things and gives us joy in prayer. Through Piety, the Holy Spirit inclines us to love God as our perfect and loving Father, to love more deeply His dearly beloved Son and Our Blessed Mother, knowing how much we are loved by them. Piety moves us not only to love these Holy Ones, but also to love other people, as the images and children of God. It causes us to feel the sweetest pleasure in conversing with God, in listening to spiritual reading and in hearing his holy word, of receiving with deep gratitude the sacraments of the Church, especially our Lord’s most precious Body and Blood.

Wonder or Awe or Fear of the Lord: This is the doorway to wisdom. I think this is the most misunderstood of all the spiritual gifts, so I’m going to spend a little more time exploring this one, specifically the phrase “Fear of the Lord.” If you remember, I started this homily by saying that on Pentecost the Holy Spirit transformed fearful, cowering disciples into courageous, insightful witnesses for Christ. This is something that I think every member of the Faithful needs to experience. One can ask, what does this mean?

Many of us live with worldly fear: fear of failure, fear of being harmed, fear of financial instability, fear of so many things. As a reaction to this, there is rejection of any notion that God is to be feared. This position maintains that He is only loving and affirming. When we say the words “Fear of the Lord” that means that we are to view him with awe and wonder.  I think that is only partly right. When we have this view only, that there is nothing about God that we must fear, then we fail to take into account fully the power of sin and evil.

So, when we look more closely, we see that this gift of the “Fear of the Lord” is based on irony. To understand this gift, we have to keep in mind that God is both the God of Love and total acceptance and the God of fierce and final judgment. This gift gives us an awareness of Cosmic order and our place in it.

The best illustration for me is the story of our first parents, Adam and Eve. After they had eaten the apple, they became aware of their sin and the result was self-consciousness and the desire to cover themselves in order to hide from God. Fear of the Lord stems from our awareness of our sinfulness and the resultant total vulnerability, of standing stripped bare before the presence of pure holiness and experiencing complete and overwhelming helplessness and embarrassment, even humiliation and shame as we grow increasingly aware of our sin and guilt and other shortcomings in the presence of God Almighty. There is neither pretense nor posturing, just quaking. We want to hide but there is no place to go.

There is a soul-level awareness that God is: omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, present everywhere, at all time, all knowing, all powerful.

There is also an awareness that God is the perfection of all we desire: perfect goodness, perfect knowledge, perfect power and perfect love. And our longing for him is deep.

This gift is described by St. Thomas Aquinas as “filial fear,” the fear of a small child being separated from her parent. It is the fear of alienation, of being lost and abandoned and rejected.  It is the fear of permanent separation which is Hell.

When we are told in Prov. 1:7 that the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” we need to have this explained. And we have the perfect explanation of this in Luke 12:4-7, Jesus says, “I tell you my friends, do not fear those who kill the body and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear, fear him after he has killed, has power to cast into hell, yes I tell you, fear him.” Jesus is talking about God.

And then Jesus immediately makes the most incredible transition.  He says, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, you are of more value than many sparrows.”

This is the irony. When we have that awareness in the middle of our bones of God’s holiness and that we are not holy, we are self-centered and sinful. When we become truly aware of this, then we know that ‘filial fear’ of which St. Thomas Aquinas spoke, that ultimate separation anxiety, when we know that, really know that, then and only then can we fully appreciate the intensity of God’s love for us. I don’t think we can really know God’s love fully until we have that bone level dread. It is then that we can deeply accept the love God has for us on the Cross of Christ.

So in closing, I’ll briefly review the 7 Gifts of the Holy Spirit.

  • Wisdom is the ability to see things as God sees them.
  • Understanding enables us to know and accept the mysteries and doctrines of our holy Catholic faith more clearly.
  • Counsel or Right Judgment helps us to make correct decisions.
  • Fortitude or Courage emboldens us to stand firm for the faith and to take appropriate risks for the cause of Christ and his Church.
  • Knowledge enables us to absorb and retain the teachings of Christ and his Church, principally and practically through the Catechism and Holy Scripture.
  • Piety or Reverence enables us to have an innate devotion to Christ and his Church.
  • Wonder and Awe, The Fear of the Lord, is the doorway to wisdom and pure love.

Note we have come full circle. It becomes apparent that Wisdom leads to understanding and understanding helps us to know and embrace the teachings of the Church which requires Counsel or right judgment to make good decisions which in turn requires Fortitude or Courage which requires Knowledge which is the retention of Church Teaching and to apply it in our piety or reverence which is based on Wonder or Awe, the Fear of the Lord, which is the beginning of Wisdom and profound love. And we continue around again and again.

You will note that one builds upon the other. It is combining them together that makes them so important. These 7 Spiritual Gifts are for all of us. They are gifts, we can embrace and cultivate or we can relegate them to the back of the closet, out of sight and out of mind. It is our call.

 

 

May 28, 2017 Ascension Day

 28 May  Comments Off on May 28, 2017 Ascension Day
May 282017
 

In a culture where it is quite popular for folks to say that they are “spiritual” but not “religious,” we Catholics are proud to proclaim that we are intentionally religious. This is a very important term for us. The word religious is from the same root as the word ‘ligament,’ that which binds the body together, the Catholic religion holds together the Body of Christ. That’s why we refer to nuns and monks as ‘religious,’ they are bound together in community. We can and should be referred to as religious. We are connected. We have self descriptive phrases like: “the people of God,” a ‘royal priesthood,’ ‘a  pilgrim people,’ the “Body of Christ.”

A primary event that binds us together is the Ascension of Jesus. We read in the pertinent passage from “The Acts of the Apostles” that Jesus says… you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight. While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going, suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”

Some literalists who refute the faith would argue that this is preposterous. As someone once said: “anyone with a contemporary, scientific understanding of the atmosphere and the cosmos knows that it would take Jesus several billion years, traveling at the speed of light to reach the edge of the known universe and enter a transcendent realm beyond. It would take him another several billion years to return.”

Jesus’ Ascension into heaven it is not so much a matter of astrophysics as it is a matter of theology. Jesus went to heaven to finish what he had begun to do for us here on Earth. It was not enough that Christ came to Earth as the Incarnate God, born as human flesh from the Blessed Virgin Mary, His Mother; it was the most wonderful Christmas gift of all time. Ironically, this departure was a gift as well. By his Ascension, Christ imported the fullness of humanity into heaven for the very first time. As an aside, some of you would refer to Enoch and Elijah in the OT as having gone into heaven before Christ, but neither of them died first. It was the entirety of the human experience, including death and rising from the dead that Christ pioneered.

He paved the way for us so that when we eventually do get there, all the Angels and Archangels won’t be completely shocked to see us. By ascending bodily into heaven, Jesus showed us that God who created us flesh and blood, also redeemed us through flesh and blood and flesh and blood is the medium that God likes when he is dealing with us humans. By putting on flesh and blood at his conception, Jesus brought God to us and it is by flesh and blood that Christ has brought us to God.

And now we wait and anticipate.

In so doing, let us affirm something as I toss out a double negative: absence isn’t nothing. It is something. It’s the stuff of promise and yearning, a heightened awareness, a sharpened appetite. When someone I love is absent, I become closer to what that person means to me. Details that get lost in our togetherness are recalled in our separation and the awareness of them at that intimate level has the power to pry my heart wide open. Absence does make the heart grow fonder. I see the virtues in those absent loved ones that I overlooked, the opportunities that I have missed. The quirks that were crazy making at close range become endearing at a distance. This is the stuff of love. There is something else that happens during an absence. If the relationship is strong and true, the absent one has a way of becoming present, if not in body, then in mind and spirit. I have listened to countless widows and widowers who have spoken of having a strong sense of the presence of their departed spouses. A myriad of parents have shared stories of having an intense awareness of the presence of a child who has died. When a spouse is serving in harm’s way overseas, when children and grandchildren have moved a long way away, we who miss them dearly know the ache and the heightened awareness that comes about because of their absence.

One thing is sure; there is no sense of absence where there has been no sense of presence. What makes absence hurt, what makes it ache, is the memory of what used to be there but is no longer. Absence is the arm flung in the middle of the night, the empty space, the hole in the bed. Absence is the overgrown lot where the old house once stood, the home in which people loved and laughed and fussed and thought that this family bond would last forever.

You cannot miss what you have never known. And if you think about it, it makes sense of absence and especially our sense of longing for Christ’s return, for it is the very best proof that we love him and know him and hope one day to know him more fully. There is loss in absence, but there is also hope. You see the absence hones our need.

And God does tend that need. After Christ’s Ascension, the Holy Spirit came and empowered the Apostles to become bishops, the elders to become priests, the servants and administrators to become deacons, and listeners became preachers, converts became evangelists, the wounded became healers.

And once the Holy Spirit descended on them they were empowered to do surprising things. They began to say things that sounded like Jesus and they began to heal the sick and cast out demons and proclaim the Good News. They became brave and competent and wise. Whenever two or three of them came together the sense of Christ’s presence was very telling. And soon those baptized were called his Body and they saw him in one another and the Body of Christ soon came together regularly, sometimes daily and certainly weekly, miraculously and mysteriously to receive Christ fully, his Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity in the Bread and Wine, the Body and precious Blood of Christ in the Eucharist. And their eyes were opened to see Christ not only at the Mass, but in one another and especially in the poor and neglected and outcast. They became truly religious.

Did they miss him? Of course, but they soon learned that it was not helpful to stand around looking up into heaven, awaiting his return. All they had to do was to look around, to look around and there he was, and is. We wait for Christ to return in glory. In the meantime, like the early disciples we can look around and discern him right here, right here in the midst of us. As we look around we see that we are connected by the great ligaments of the Church holding together the Body of Christ and upon his return, we will be fully religious.

May 21, 2017 Sixth Sunday of Easter

 21 May  Comments Off on May 21, 2017 Sixth Sunday of Easter
May 222017
 

Our readings today depict the establishment of basic Church teachings. Underlying all this is the place and importance of prayer.

It’s good to start with a definition. The Catechism tells us that prayer is The elevation of the mind and heart to God in praise of his glory; a petition made to God for some desired good, or in thanksgiving for a good received, or in intercession for others before God. Through prayer the Christian experiences a communion with God through Christ in the Church. (p. 895)

It must be said that we Catholics never pray alone. Somewhere, some Catholic group or individual is praying at the exact same time as we are, especially if we are engaged in offering the formal prayer of the Church. In addition, we are always surrounded by what the author of the Book of Hebrews calls “the great cloud of witnesses.” (Heb.12:1) All the angels and saints in heaven are praying with us and for us 24/7. We never pray all by ourselves, no matter how desolate we may feel at times. We know this. That’s why we offer so many prayers to the Saints, especially the Virgin Mary to intercede for us. We just trust that they are there and that they will respond faithfully and generously.

For the sake of ease and convenience for this presentation, I put prayer into two general categories: formal prayer and informal prayer.

Formal prayers are the prayers of the Church. The most powerful prayer that we offer is the Sacrifice of the Mass. It is the source and summit of our faith. Then comes other formal prayers that are usually familiar, and therefore they are the most common and comfortable for most Catholics. These formal prayers often consist of time-honored, well-honed phrases. They may be a “Hail Mary,” or an “Our Father,” or other written and usually memorized prayers that express clearly particular perspectives, petitions or adoration. We have Novenas and other disciplines that enhance our prayers. We pray them by ourselves or in groups.

If we are looking for folks to pray with us, all we have to do is to say something like: “Bless us O Lord, and these thy gifts…” and every Catholic present will join in because it’s commonly understood that we are about to eat a meal and this is the blessing. We have common prayer that binds us as the faithful of God.

Prayer also includes silence—whether meditating or contemplating on something such as a crucifix or an icon. Prayer covers a lot of areas.

Prayer posture is also important. Traditionally, the Church advocates that when praying we clasp our hands as we stand or kneel. Sometimes we prostrate ourselves. Sometimes we sit, especially if we are alone.

I like the joke about 3 old priests who were having coffee and they started talking about the best prayer posture.

The first says, “For me, the only proper position is down on my knees, with hands clasped, offering prayer in a state of true humility.”

The second disagreed, saying, “I believe the way to pray most effectively is with outstretched arms, palms up and with an upturned face. This shows my joy at being in the presence of the Blessed Triune God.”

The third priest said, “When I’m praying by myself, I find a comfortable place in which to sit and then my prayers are ever so much more intimate.”

Just then a power company lineman descended from a utility pole nearby and walked up to the priests.

He said, “Pardon me, but I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation. About a year ago, I fell from one of these poles and on the way down managed to get one leg wrapped around a single utility line.

The thing I want to tell you is that I did my best praying ever, dangling by one leg, upside down, 40 feet above the asphalt.”

It’s akin to that old line from a sermon given by an army chaplain after the battle of Bataan during World War II. He said: “there are no atheists in foxholes.”

There are things in life that sharpen the mind and intensify the will. These regularly are times of intense and profound prayer. But most prayer is regular and rhythmic. For the faithful, it’s part of a daily routine. Let me now share with you a bit of my routine.

I want to talk especially about prayers of intercession.

In addition to praying The Liturgy of the Hours, the Rosary and so forth, I have a rather lengthy, categorized list of intercessions. For your convenience and reference, you will note that the outline for my intercessions have been placed in the bulletin.

After I’ve finished my formal prayer in the morning, this is the list that I offer of specific intercessions.

1.The Church–Her Members and Mission

This includes for:

  • The Holy Father, Pope Francis, Archbishop Sample, Bp. Peter his auxiliary, area parishes and their staff, etc.
  • Specific Clergy, both priests and deacons
  • O’Hara school, the faculty and staff and especially the first grade. I’m the first grade priest and these little ones are especially dear to my heart.
  • The Carmelites—as you know they are on the cusp of something significant happening to their community, and along with petitions for their well being, I pray for new members for their monastery.
  • Especially at the request of Archbishop Sample, I pray for those considering vocations to the priesthood and other consecrated life. I get a little pushy on this one when asking people if they might have a vocation, and if they think they do, I add their names to my list of daily intercessions.
  1. Our Nation and All in Authority—I pray for the US House and the Senate and for President Trump. I specifically ask that they will be endowed with wisdom and humility.
  2. The Welfare of the World-There is so much hatred and violence. I pray for refugees, immigrants and migrants. I pray especially for families with little ones. And I pray for all women considering abortions. I pray that the Holy Spirit will gently turn their hearts.
  3. The Concerns of Our Local Community—I specifically pray for agencies such as Catholic Community Services, St. Vincent De Paul, First Way—our pregnancy resource center and other pro-life organizations such as Rachel’s Vineyard and Project Aurora. And I pray for the unemployed and destitute.
  4. Those in Particular Need—this is my longest list. I have great concern for those who have chronic health issues. We’re pretty good about praying for acute needs—people with the flu or a broken bone. But if someone has a long term problem such as Diabetes, Multiple Sclerosis or a severe mental illness, we tend to stop praying for them after awhile. I would urge you not to stop. Long term prayer support is critical for their well being. I also pray for those in prison and those battling addiction.
  5. Those Who Have Died
  6. Family
  7. Personal Requests.  This is when I offer my personal petitions for insight into homilies, issues affecting my health and well being and so on. I pray for strength and wisdom to lovingly deal with people who really annoy me. The general rule is to pray for yourself last. I think it’s just basically good manners.

This is how I organize my intercessions. You are welcome to use this pattern or devise one for yourself. Whatever you do, I encourage you to make a categorized list for your intercessions.

At the end of my intercessions, I close with this prayer from St. Thomas More, martyr of the English Reformation:

Grant me , O Lord good digestion and also something to digest. Grant me a healthy body, and the necessary good humor to maintain it. Grant me a simple soul that knows to treasure all that is good and that doesn’t frighten easily at the sight of evil, but rather finds the means to put things back in their place. Give me a soul that knows not boredom, grumbling, sighs and laments, nor excess of stress, because of this obstructing thing called “I.” Grant me, O Lord the grace to be able to take a joke and to discover in life a bit of joy and to be able to share it with others.

Amen.

May 14, 2017 Fifth Sunday of Easter Mother’s Day

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May 142017
 

There is an inexplicable connection between love and self-sacrifice. The ultimate example is the cross: Christ laying down His life so that we might have life, true life in Him. Parents offer self-sacrifice by design. In his book “In the Grip of Grace,” Brian Chappell tells of one mother’s self sacrificing love. He writes:

“On Sunday, August 16, 1987, Northwest Airlines flight 225 crashed just after taking off from Detroit airport. One hundred fifty-five people were killed. One survived: a 4-year-old from Tempe, Arizona named Cecilia.”

“News accounts say when rescuers found Cecilia they did not believe she had been on the plane. Investigators assumed [she] had been a passenger in one of the cars on the highway onto which the airliner crashed. But when the passenger register for the flight was checked, there was Cecilia’s name.”

“Cecilia survived because, as the plane was falling, [her] mother, Paula Chicon, unbuckled her own belt, got on her knees in front of her daughter, wrapped her arms around her, and would not let her go.”

Heroic measures like this touch us deeply. In John 15:13 Jesus says, “No one has greater love than to lay down your life…” whether for a child, or a friend, or perhaps even a stranger. Self sacrifice.

I’ve also been thinking of a more humdrum understanding of self-sacrifice. I’ve been thinking of self-sacrifice on a daily basis. It’s the series of good natured self-sacrifices of accommodation, the willingness to change to help someone else. It’s a mom cheerfully giving up her career to tend her kids; it’s a dad who willingly does the same thing, willing to be the home-schooler while his wife is employed. Either way it is parents putting their kids first; it is love manifested as self-sacrifice. It’s the willingness to change for the betterment of others.

Here’s some perspective on this. Psychologist Stephen Gilligan says that people don’t want to be changed, they want to be blessed. One of the main reasons people resist change is because they don’t perceive it as blessing. He defines blessing as “an outcome state that is of greater value than is currently present.”

In many cases people resist change because they perceive the outcome to be of lesser value. In Luke 18:18 and following, we have the story of the rich ruler who asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. When Jesus informed him that he needed to get rid of his money and give it to the poor and then follow him, this member of the ruling class could not perceive that following Jesus was more valuable than his current wealth and position. How could following Jesus be more of a blessing than his financial assets and his political and social status?

One of the reasons we revere our mothers so much is that in almost all circumstances they were—and are— willing to change to accommodate us. They take on stretch marks and heartburn and heartache for our benefit. We also revere our dads for depriving themselves for us, sometimes taking on two jobs to make sure there is food and clothing and shelter— and then there are all the duties of both parents: of diapers and laundry and dinners and dishes, of dispensing wisdom and discipline, and trips to “Mickey D’s” or Taco Bell, of kissing booboos and teaching a toddler the difference between a dandelion and a daffodil, of coaching Kids’ Sports Soccer, of sitting in the drizzle to watch the game as your kid’s team gets clobbered, of waiting up way past bed time to hear all about the prom, and so much more.

Dr. Gilligan goes on to say that true self-sacrifice must be based on the awareness that there is a greater reward for the person offering the sacrifice than not offering it. Almost all parents say and believe that the sacrifices they make for their kids are worth it. The blessings are there, even when kids are aged two and then later as teens.

Gilligan offers a warning, however: “Any blessing that comes to us at the unwilling expense of someone else is not a blessing, it is theft — and it will be [resented and] resisted and it will not be sustainable.”

After four plus decades of ordained ministry, I have come to realize that love has many enemies: hate, disdain, ignorance, brutality, contempt, apathy, the quest for dominance and so on, but I think perhaps the greatest enemy of love is resentment. Resentment is feeling that you always get the short end of the stick, of always being passed over for promotion, that no one appreciates your gifts and skills and efforts and abilities, of being consumed by jealousy and envy, of believing that you are under-appreciated and that you are surrounded by a federation of dunces, that you are a princess who had been kidnapped by Troglodytes and were reared beneath your natural station.

For most of us, our resentments aren’t that intense but for some they are quite strong; you see them, they’re generally scowling, expressing chronic disapproval. I see it all too often in moms and dads who resent their kids because they, the parents, feel deprived of something; they feel that their kids have somehow stolen something from them: a career, a social life, money. By the way, any parent who resents his or her children is going to help make a very nice living for a psychotherapist when they, the kids, get older. Resentment permeates, particularly in little ones. It’s the kind of thing that doesn’t go away and it scars for life. Resentment is an insidious form of abuse.

Resentment is the basis of Satan’s hatred for us as God’s children; he thought he was the special one—not us—and that’s why he led the rebellion in heaven that St. Michael and the loyal angels thwarted. The message the devil sends to each of us: “You’re no good, you never were any good, you never will be any good,” is the message of one who resents our existence. Satan wants to shame us, to have us believe that we are not worthy of being loved. A parent who resents his or her children shames them, and in so doing presents the same basic message: you are not worthy of being loved—you never were worthy of love—you never will be worthy of love.

Love is not just for brief, intense moments like airline crashes. Love is for the long term. Love is in the humdrum and the boring as well as the times of adrenaline rushes and fear and joy and extreme bravery. Love hangs in there—with good humor and warmth— when the ego says to bail out.

How do we get this self-sacrificing love? For many it’s hardwired—especially in mothers. It’s part of natural moral law; you find it in all sorts of critters, but unfortunately some humans, for whatever reason, don’t naturally seem to have it, but any and all of us can receive it supernaturally by the power of the God who loved us first, who teaches and compels us to accept this love, and then to share it with others, especially our children. Sometimes circumstances and feelings seem to tell us that God’s love is not present. When we give into that falsity, we give into something that is terrible, that may lead us to pull back, or skulk off, or even just to wonder off, to separate from God and that is the manifestation of sin and the definition of Hell—the ultimate, permanent, eternal separation from all that is loving and holy.

Sin is usually the result of our tendency to be self-absorbed (remember the bumper sticker: “It really is all about me.”) Sin always interferes with our attempts at love, we need Grace to counter the sin and to strengthen our resolve. And it is important to note that the word grace is from the same root as gratitude.

I believe firmly that the central ingredient of love is gratitude. If I am not grateful, then I don’t think I can be loving. If either parent is not grateful for her or his kids, then the kids will most probably be ignored, abused, abandoned, ridiculed and, above all, resented. They will be perceived as a burden; thieves who have stolen the blessing from the parents. But when parents are grateful for their children, no matter how difficult they may be at times, then the parent will love them with a fierceness and gentleness that no other can emulate.

And here is a word of hope. Just as sin is “all about me,” so is love “all about me…being forgiven and accepted and empowered to love others through the self-sacrifice of Christ.” It’s realizing that no matter how resentful I’ve been of others, especially my children, God loves me, no matter how abused or resented I was as a child, I am loved. All of us can know that God frees us from sin through Christ’s atoning death on the cross, and then he empowers us to love even the most obnoxious selfish person, it’s because he’s forgiven us for being so obnoxiously selfish.

St. John put it this way: “This is love…that God loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for sin.” (I John 4:10)

As we ponder this, I want to share with you two stories about parental love. The first one is set in the Olympic Stadium in Barcelona, site of the 1992 Summer Games.

Derek Redmond, a British runner, was lined up for the 400-meter semifinals. He was probably thinking about the long, hard road he’d taken to get there. Four years earlier, at the ’88 Olympics, Derek had to withdraw because of an injured Achilles tendon, just 90 seconds before the race was to begin. He was incredibly disappointed. But in Barcelona, four years and five surgeries later, Derek was ready to roll. The starting gun went off, and so did Derek. A hundred meters into the race, Derek crumpled to the track with a torn hamstring.

Paramedics rushed out to help him, but he refused their help, waving them aside. He struggled to his feet, and started hopping and then falling and crawling, determined to finish the race. And then, a big guy wearing a cap that says “Just Do It” came charging out of the stands. He pushed a security guard aside, ran to Derek’s side and picked him up—and hugged him. It was Derek’s dad.

With his arm around his son’s waist, Derek’s dad helped his son limp the rest of the way around the track. The crowd at first was silent, and then they were on their feet, stomping and clapping and whistling and cheering and weeping. Millions of TV viewers around the world did the same. Finally, Derek and his dad crossed the finish line together, arm in arm, long after the other runners had finished the race …

And the second story: Solomon Rosenburg and his wife and two sons, and his father and mother were in a Nazi labor camp. The rules were simple: “As long as you could work, you would live. When you were too weak to work, you were exterminated.” Rosenburg watched his mother and father be marched off to their deaths and he knew that his younger son David was next, because he was a frail child. Every evening Rosenburg rushed back to the barracks after hours of backbreaking labor to search for his wife and children. When he found them they would cling together, giving thanks to God for another day of life.

One day he came back and could not find his family. Finally he found his older son Joshua huddled in a corner weeping and praying. “What happened?” his father demanded frantically. “Papa, David was not strong enough to work, so they came for him.” “But where is your mother?” “Oh papa,” Joshua said, “When they came for David he was so afraid.” Mama said, ‘there is nothing to be afraid of David.’ And she took his hand and went with him.”

Two stories of parental love—two stories illustrating the love God has for us. The fierce love of a protective parent who charges out to tend his child who is in great need—and the tender, gentle, self-sacrificing love of the one who takes our hand and accompanies us through the portals of death into life eternal.