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

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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

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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.