Friday, June 24, 2016

All You Need is Love

THIRTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (C)
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St. Augustine of Hippo
St. Augustine once said of the moral life, "Love, and do what you will."  He preached this in a sermon on love. The point St. Augustine was making is that anything we do ought to be rooted in charity.  He says, "let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good."

His sermon has been paraphrased by others as, "Love God and do whatever you please: for the soul trained in love to God will do nothing to offend the One who is Beloved."

Sadly, many have latched on to the first part of that statement without understanding the second part.  "Love God and do whatever you please" sounds to some like a license for moral relativism.

Moral relativism holds that there is no such thing as objective morality.  Acts are neither "good" nor "evil" but are made good or evil by some other consideration, such as our intentions.  There are those who argue that anything we do with a loving intention is good.  Sex outside of marriage is good as long as you love each other.  Killing another person is good if your intention is to end their suffering.  Lying to someone is good if it is done to spare their feelings.

But St. Augustine did not say, "Do whatever you want, as long as you have good intentions."  He would argue vehemently against moral relativism, just as he argued against the heresies of his day.  In the moral life, St. Augustine puts love first.  Love - then do as you will.  Because true love desires only the good of the beloved.  If you love God first and love Him truly, then you will only desire that which is pleasing to Him.  If you love God, you will desire to follow His commandments.  If you love God, you will want to conform your will to His.  St. Augustine doesn't give us a license to do as we want, but a reason to do what God wants -- that reason is love.

St. Paul's statement in this Sunday's second reading can be similarly misunderstood.  "For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'" (Gal 5:14).  Some may read this out of context, just as they do with Augustine, and take it as permission to ignore all the rest of God's teachings, as long as they "love" their neighbors.  And by "love" they mean "generally have good feelings about."

But love is so much more than good feelings.  Love is an act of the will.  Love means desiring the good of the beloved.  To desire the good of others and then actively work for that good is no easy task.  The Ten Commandments tell us specific things that are totally incompatible with love of neighbor, and therefore simply must not be done.  Don't murder.  Don't commit adultery.  Don't lie.  Don't steal.  Don't covet, and so forth.  These are sins against love.

But love goes so much farther than simply not hurting anyone.  Love seeks their good.  Jesus doesn't do away with the Ten Commandments, but takes us beyond them.  He teaches us to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, heal the sick, visit the prisoner.  He teaches us to forgive those who wrong us, and pray for those who persecute us.  All of this is wrapped up in the simple command to love your neighbor.  This is why St. Paul says the whole law is fulfilled in this statement.  Not because it is the only commandment, but because it lies at the heart of every commandment.

Christ has freed us from the bonds of sin and death.  But that freedom is not a license to do as we please.  We can freely choose to enslave ourselves once more to sin.  St. Paul warns us, "Do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love" (Gal 5:13).

In the end, loving service of our neighbor is loving service of God.  Jesus personally identifies with those in need; the sick, the suffering and the poor.  "Whatsoever you do to the least of my brethren, you do unto me" (Mt 25:40).  For each of us is made in the image of God and is beloved by God.

It can be a hard to serve our neighbors.  It can be a challenge to love some people.  But we can love the image of God in them.  We can love them because God loves them, we love God, and therefore we love what God what God loves.  We can desire and work for their good because God desires their good.  We can help our neighbors draw closer to Christ, and in so doing become more Christ-like ourselves.

Love, and do what you will.  The whole law is fulfilled in this statement.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Following Jesus

TWELFTH SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME (C)
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Christ on the Way to Calvary by Giovanni di Paolo
This Sunday's readings are all about following Jesus.  Which seems like a pretty straightforward topic.  That's what Christians do, right?  We are followers of Jesus.  But that's easier said than done.

This week's psalm is a perfect place to begin, for it reminds us of why we seek to follow Christ. "O God, you are my God whom I seek: for you my flesh pines and my soul thirsts, like the earth, parched, lifeless and without water" (Ps 63:2).  I love the vivid imagery of this verse, expressing perfectly the longing of the soul for its God -- even when we don't know yet who that God is.

But we do know who God is.  We have found Him in Christ and so we follow Him.  Our Alleluia verse is John 10:27, where Jesus says, "My sheep hear my voice; I know them and they follow me."  Our second reading tells us what happens when we follow Christ.  We become children of God, heirs according to the promise (Gal 3:26-29).  Amen! So far so good.

Then comes the gospel reading.  "If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me" (Lk 9:23).  Whoa.  Now it's getting real.  Take up our cross?  Daily?

It's all well and good to say you are a follower of Christ.  But look where Christ is going.  "The Son of Man must suffer greatly... and be killed and on the third day be raised" (Lk 9:22).  Or as the prophet Zechariah foretold, "they shall look on him whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him as one mourns for an only son, and they shall grieve over him as one grieves over a firstborn" (Zec 12:10).

Anyone who has seen The Passion of the Christ or paid attention to the readings on Palm Sunday or Good Friday knows what the passion entailed.  We know that Jesus suffered greatly.  Crucifixion is without a doubt the most horrible means of execution ever to spring forth from the fallen mind of man.  But Jesus wasn't just crucified.  He had to carry the instrument of His own torture and execution.  And He had to do it after undergoing a beating that would have killed a lesser person.  It was horrific.  This should all be in our minds when we think of Jesus carrying the cross.  This should be in our minds when we hear Jesus asking us to do the same.  Daily.

Why does Jesus so willingly carry His cross?  It is because he does not suffer for Himself.  He suffers for the good of others.  He suffers for you and for me.  As Zechariah foretold, Christ's suffering becomes "a fountain to purify from sin and uncleanness" (Zec 13:1).  For us to take up our cross and follow Christ, means that we must also be willing to suffer for the good of others. Daily.

What does this practically mean?  In 21st century America, probably not actual crucifixion (thanks be to God).  But we all suffer in lesser ways.  It means having patience with those who annoy us.  It means forgiving those who wrong us.  It means going out of our comfort zones to help those in need.  It means putting others' good ahead of our own.  It means following God's will instead of our own will.  It means casting off our own selfish inclinations so that we may put on Christ.  It means judging our own actions and not judging our neighbors.  It means loving our enemies.  And it means doing it all humbly, without complaining, grumbling, or calling attention to ourselves.

These are things each and every one of us is called to do.  These are ways we can each take up our cross daily as we follow Christ.  For some, their daily cross may include more profound suffering; chronic pain, grief, depression, hunger, illness, or oppression.  At some time or another, profound suffering enters into all of our lives.  For some it is the status quo.

Yet here, too, Jesus says, "follow me."  We must remember that no one has suffered more than our Lord, and yet He came through it.  There was a passion and death, but there was also a resurrection.  There was that third day when Christ rose from the tomb in triumph.  This glory is also part of the road Christ asks us to follow Him along.  It is a glory that does not belong to this world, but to the world to come.

For those who suffer greatly, there is great hope.  Jesus offers each suffering soul a share in His own Passion, if we would but bear our cross, as He did, patiently, for the love of God, and for the love of others.

"For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”
Lk 9:24


Monday, June 13, 2016

What Can We Do?

WHAT CAN WE DO AS CATHOLICS IN THE WAKE OF TRAGEDY?

I'm not one to watch the 24 hour news networks, so I was shocked to return home from Mass this Sunday to hear of the tragic shooting in Orlando, FL, at a dance club frequented by the LGBTQ community.  As of this writing, it looks fairly certain that the assailant is what the media calls a "home grown terrorist;" an American citizen who had become radicalized by Muslim extremism and pledged his allegiance to ISIS.

When we hear of senseless violence such as this, we often feel moved to do something, but we don't know what.  Changing our Facebook profile picture, wearing a ribbon, or tweeting that we "stand in support of" the victims isn't really effective.  So what can we do?

Here are a few things, in no particular order, that I would advise my students to keep in mind.


HAVE PERSPECTIVE
It seems like every time we turn on the TV, another tragedy is unfolding before our eyes.  It can feel like the world is falling apart.  But consider for a moment what a unique historical situation we are in.  We are getting news from around the world beamed into our computers, phones and televisions 24/7.  The world is a violent place, and we get reminded of this fact on a nearly daily basis.  One hundred years ago, it may have taken us weeks to hear of a tragic crime such as this.  A hundred years before that, we may have never heard of it.

What is my point here?  Only that the world has always been a violent place.  It may feel like it is getting worse than ever, but it's always been bad.  Look back in Genesis.  Only eight verses after the Fall we read of the first murder.  We still live with that same fallen human nature.  I'm not saying the shooting in Orlando is not horribly, horribly evil.  I'm only pointing out that we've been living with this capacity for evil for a long, long time.


BE POLITICAL, BUT DON'T POLITICIZE
It wasn't long after the shooting that I started seeing opposing political sides casting barbs at each other in my news feed.  This is not helpful.  This shooting was not caused by liberal politicians advocating for transgender bathroom access and same-sex marriage.  This shooting was not caused by conservative politicians advocating for 2nd Amendment rights or immigration reform.  This shooting was caused by a man who allowed hate to make a home in his heart.  Let's place the blame where it lies and not make scapegoats.

Advocate for stronger gun control laws if you believe that will help to make our country a safer place.  Advocate for respect of the human dignity of all people, regardless of race, sexual orientation, religion, or nationality.  Do those things.  Write to your congressman.  Write letters to the editor.  Be political.  But don't politicize.  Using an event such as this to tell someone on the opposite end of the political spectrum, "See, I told you so!" only cheapens the loss of these lives.


DON'T BLAME RELIGION
Not that I think any of my students would do this, but you likely have friends who will claim that this is just another example of why religion is bad.  Be prepared for this.  Know that when someone does something evil in the name of his or her religion, it is not a condemnation of all religion.  Not all religions are equal.  There is good religion and bad religion.  There is true religion and false religion.  Without getting too into it, true religion values justice, virtue, and love.  What happened in Orlando this weekend is the result of false religion.  The remedy for false religion is not to eliminate religion altogether, but to bring about an increase of true religion.


PRAY
I'm sure you've seen many Facebook posts and tweets saying, "Our thoughts are with the victims."  That's all very well.  But just thinking about this tragedy doesn't do any good.  We need to pray.  This is a great gift we have as Catholic Christians -- the ability to pray.  Pray for the surviving family members.  Pray for the police officers, medics and other first responders.  Pray for the grief counselors, clergy members, and others dealing with the aftermath.  Pray for the perpetrator, that he may have a conversion of heart and repent of this great evil he has done.  And, most importantly, pray for the victims.  Pray for the dead.  We have a wonderful and holy tradition in our church of praying for the souls of the departed.  This is precisely where your prayers can do some very real good.  Pray.


FOSTER PEACE
As I said at the beginning of this article, the world has been a violent place since our first parents were evicted from the garden.  This is nothing new.  But even though we still live with the consequences of original sin, we no longer dwell entirely in the darkness.  Christ, the light, has come into the world.  And Christ, the light, says, "Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful" (Jn 14:27).

Work for peace.  This may mean advocating for policies that make it more difficult for this type of violent act to be carried out.  But that's the kind of peace the world can offer.  Christ offers us something more profound.  Christ offers us the ability to have peace even in the midst of violence and tragedy.  We need to work for this peace, as well.

This is done first and foremost by fostering peace in our own hearts.  Cling close to Christ.  Live a life of virtue.  Remain steadfast in prayer.  Be at ease.  Know peace in your heart, then foster peace in your family, and in your community.  Bear no ill will toward your neighbor.  Offer forgiveness to others; and ask forgiveness of any you have wronged.  Judge no one but yourself. See in each person the image of God.  The peace of Christ in you can be like ripples spreading out across the water from a single stone dropped into a pond.  You would be amazed at how many people a single Christian living at peace can positively affect.

Tragedies like this make us want to change the world.  That's a noble goal, but it seems impossible. We can't see how to do that. So we never try.  But we can change ourselves. We can be a light in the world of our families and friends.  We can know and spread peace, like ripples on a pond.  If enough of us did just that, the world would be a changed place indeed.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Does Jesus Put Conditions on Forgiveness?

ELEVENTH SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME (C)
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Mary Magdalene by Hugues Merle
Does Jesus put conditions on forgiveness?  We know in our minds that Jesus offers forgiveness to all.  Perhaps we were taught that by our parents, pastors, or teachers as a child.

But dig into your heart a little.  Have you always felt forgiven when you stepped out the confessional?  Especially when you confess the same sin you've confessed a hundred times before?  And when you commit that sin for the 101st time, do you think: that's it! I've maxed out my credit with Jesus! There is no way He's going to forgive someone as bad as me.

I know that's how some do feel.  They want to believe in Christ's forgiveness, but they don't feel worthy of it.  Our own personal sins can feel so crushing, so horrible, and just so evil that we start to feel that we are beyond Christ's mercy.

If you ever feel that way, consider David.  This ancient king of Israel commits adultery with Bathsheba, and then has her husband Uriah killed to avoid scandal.  Not only does David commit the very grave sins of adultery and murder, but he is also guilty of covetousness and pride.  When's the last time you did something that bad?

Yet here we have David in our first reading confessing to the prophet Nathan, "I have sinned against the Lord."  Nathan assures him, "The Lord on His part has forgiven your sin" (2 Sm 12:13).  If God can forgive a murderer and adulterer, why would He not forgive you?

Or just look at a crucifix.  I don't care what your sins are, the execution of Jesus was worse.  Not only was Jesus entirely innocent and undeserving of any punishment; He is also the Divine Son of God, the Creator, being put to death by His own creation.  The crucifixion is the ultimate act of injustice.  There can be no greater sin. Yet from that very cross, Jesus cries out, "Father, forgive them!" (Lk 23:34).

David and Nathan

There are no limits on who God can forgive.  So let's go back to our original question -- does Jesus put conditions on forgiveness?  The answer is both yes and no.

First, the NO.  It doesn't matter who you are.  It doesn't matter how rich or poor you are.  It doesn't matter whether you are male or female, young or old, what language you speak, what culture you are from, whether you are gay or straight, married or single -- none of it matters.  Christ's offer of forgiveness is universal.

Nor does it matter what sins you have committed, or how many times you have committed them.  There is simply no sin more powerful than God's love.  Nothing is beyond His ability to forgive.

Nor do you have to be perfect before you ask for forgiveness.  This is a mistake many make.  They believe that they have to conquer their sin all on their own before they bring it to the confessional.  No.  This is backward.  You take that sin to confession so that you might receive Christ's help in overcoming it.  You cannot do it on your own.  It's true: Jesus tells the woman caught in adultery, "Go and sin no more" (Jn 8:11).  That's the goal.  That's the attitude we should have, of striving to sin no more.  But Christ's forgiveness is not a one-time offer.  If we fall back into our sin after repenting of it, Christ wants us to repent again -- and again, and again, as often as it takes.  There is no "limit 10 per customer" sign outside the confessional.  Come back as often as you need to.

Nor do you have to be worthy of Christ's forgiveness.  This is another common mistake.  Many times, when we come to realize the gravity of our sin, we can feel unworthy.  That's OK.  But we cannot let that feeling keep us from accepting Christ's mercy.  Because the truth is no one is worthy of God's mercy.  If we were, it wouldn't be mercy.  The fact that we don't deserve God's forgiveness but He offers it anyway is what makes it an act of mercy.

So what's the "yes" part?  Are there any conditions on Jesus' forgiveness?  YES. There is one.  We have to accept it.  

That's it.  It's simple.  And yet, it's the difference between the sinful woman and the Pharisee in this Sunday's gospel reading (Lk 7:36-8:3).  The woman, traditionally identified as Mary Magdalene, anoints Jesus' feet with costly oil, and washes them with her own hair and tears.  She pours herself out in love and service to the Lord, because she is so grateful of the forgiveness He has offered her.

The Pharisee cannot see past the woman's sinful past.  He is so focused on condemning her that he cannot not see his own sins.  Like some of the other Pharisees we meet in the gospels, he likely thought himself righteous and so not in need of forgiveness.  Therein lies his demise.  For the one who doesn't believe he needs to be forgiven is incapable of receiving forgiveness.

That is the only condition to receive Christ's forgiveness: that we know and admit (to God, to ourselves) that we are sinners in need of God's mercy, and then openly receive that mercy.  The only sin God cannot forgive is the one we don't repent of.  This is because God never forces Himself on anyone.  He offers, He invites, but we have to accept Him freely.

Jesus does not forgive the sinful woman because she was more pious than the Pharisee.  He forgave her because she desired mercy.  Her piety is not the cause of her forgiveness, but the response to it.  Jesus does not forgive her because she kisses His feet.  She kisses His feet because she is deeply thankful for the mercy Christ has bestowed upon her; the only proper response to such a gift is love.

Let us repent today of any sins we are keeping locked away from God's mercy, so that Christ may reach into those hidden places in our hearts and bring His healing forgiveness; and let us respond that that forgiveness like St. Mary Magdalene, with overflowing gratitude and love for our Savior.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Praying Without Ceasing with the Master Beadsman

My beautiful new chotki made by Phillip Rolfes.
It lives in the dash of my car to remind me to
pray on the go.
Some time back I wrote a blog post about the Eastern prayer rope called the chotki, upon which is said the Jesus Prayer.  This simple prayer, taken from the words of the tax collector in Lk 18:13, is one of the most powerful tools in our prayer arsenal.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

In these few words one can find the most essential elements of our faith.  Who is the prayer directed to?  Jesus Christ, whom we acknowledge as Lord and God.  Who are we before God?  We are humble sinners.  What do we ask of our Lord?  Loving mercy.  In this one short sentence we are reminded of these fundamentals of our faith.  There is no better prayer to keep in the forefront of your thoughts as you go about your day.

Keeping a chotki or prayer rope close at hand and using it frequently is one very effective way to stay mindful of the need to pray without ceasing (1 Thes 5:17).

In my previous blog post I recommended a few places I had found online to order a chotki of your very own.  I already owned chotkis from some of these resources; others I did not, but liked the look of the ones featured on their web site.  The important thing is not where you buy your prayer rope, however -- it's that you use it!

Since that time I have continued to pray with the chotki frequently, and have developed definite preferences for what I like to use.  My go-to chotkis are 3 or 4 ply wool with large wooden bead spacers from St. Paisius Monaserty.  I love the feel of wool in my hands (perhaps that comes from my raising sheep or my love for textile arts) and I love the feel of the large knots the 3 or 4 ply wool affords (perhaps that comes from my having large fingers).  In fact, I have given away any chotkis I owned that were smaller than 3-ply.

One chotki maker I did not have direct experience with was Phillip Rolfes, "the Master Beadsman."  Even though I did not own one of his creations, what I wrote was:
One site I find especially interesting is The Master Beadsman, who is apparently simply a Christian man living in Ohio who really likes making prayer ropes and selling them via his blog site. He makes Greek and Russian styles, in various lengths, to order. So if you are looking for something custom, he may be a good person to reach out to.
I was pleased when Phillip contacted me shortly after I published that post with the offer to make me a free chotki if I would review his product on this blog.

This is not really a product review blog -- however, how could I pass up the opportunity to own a hand-made custom prayer rope from someone as talented as the Master Beadsman?!  I had to say yes!

As you will see if you browse his web site, Philip makes his prayer ropes from a variety of materials and in a variety of styles.  Rather than pick one, what I did was to describe for Philip the prayer ropes I already had and ask him to make me something a bit different.  A couple of weeks later, his work of art arrived in the mail.  It is absolutely stunning.

It is a Russian style prayer rope (with tassel), made from gold colored satin cord, with 100 knots and a decorative metal bead every ten knots.  He uses two different knot styles, one with no space between the knots (which was taught to him by a Ukrainian nun) and one that allows a little spacing.  I chose the latter, thinking that the spacing would make the knots easier to feel as I was praying.  I'm glad I did.

I thanked Phillip immediately when it arrived and told him I wanted to pray with it a bit before writing a blog post.  That was about 6 months ago!  I owe Phillip a huge apology for taking so long.  Christmas led into the Spring Semester which led to the general busyness of the school year -- the while "the Master Beadsman" business card remained by my computer as a reminder to write this blog post.  Now that summer is upon us and the semester is over, I finally have time to make good on my promise!

As I said previously, I have definitely developed a personal preference for wool prayer ropes made with large knots, with big wooden beads.  I just like the way these feel between my fingers when praying.  This prayer rope is neither of those things, so to be honest, I wasn't sure how much I would use it.  Turns out, I use it quite a lot.

Another important aid to remembering to pray frequently is location, location, location.  You are not going to remember to use your prayer rope if you have to hunt it down every time.  Keeping it close at hand is a reminder to prayer throughout the day.  This is why it is good to keep a prayer rope in your pocket (they even make them to wear around your wrist).  By the way, this is good advice for the rosary, as well!!!

I have several chotkis, so I decided I would keep the one Phillip made for me in my car.

I was surprised when I got my new (to me) 2012 Subaru Outback that it came
equipped with a convenient chotki-holder in the dash!
There is a cubby in my dash that seems tailor-made for holding a rosary or chotki, so I decided to make use of it.  This is where my new chotki lives.  And it turns out that 100 knots is just the perfect amount for praying between home and the parish, and between home and campus.  Because of where I decided to keep it, I've probably gotten more use out of this chotki in the last six months than any other I own.

You can see how beautiful it is in the photos.  The craftmanship and attention to detail is impeccable.  It truly elevates my prayer experience to be able to pray with something so beautiful.  So thank you, Philip!

In our correspondence, Phillip shared a little about his background.  He writes:
Just a little background on me, my wife suffers from an auto-immune disease, and we recently found out that she may have arthritus in her back. Our eldest daughter (6) is fairly physically and mentally handicapped, and has a number of behavioral issues to boot. Our other two children are "normal" healthy children, and are rather rambunctious! So prayers are always greatly appreciated.
The very first time I used his chotki was on a walk down my street, and I prayed for Phillip's intentions.

Regarding my preference for a wool prayer rope, I want to reiterate that this is just my personal preference.  Not everyone likes the feel of wool, including Philip.  He writes:
You are correct, the ropes I make definitely have a different feel from wool ropes. That's actually rather deliberate. I've yet to use a wool rope that's really appealed to me. I wanted to make a prayer rope that had a great feel and looked beautiful. I like to think of them as "functional art." That's one of the reasons I'm always playing around with different materials, beads, designs, knots, etc. I've been making these for nearly a decade now, and have learned a thing or two by trial and error, talking with others, watching videos, experimentation, etc. I'm always open to suggestions and new ideas if you want to throw some my way!
If you, like Philip, prefer something different from the traditional wool chotki, definitely give his creations a try.  You won't regret it.

To reach Phillip Rolfes and to see photos of other prayer ropes he has made, or to commission him to make one special just for you, please visit his web site:

Should Christians Weep at Death?

TENTH SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME (C)
click here for readings


The shortest verse in the Bible is John 11:35 -- "Jesus wept."

The occasion for our Lord's sadness was the death of His friend Lazarus.  Even though Jesus would soon call Lazarus forth from the tomb, his death was still reason enough to cause our Lord to grieve.  The message is profound.  God Himself is saddened by death.

Christians who have suffered the death of a loved one know the schizophrenia that can accompany such loss.  On the one hand you are deeply saddened by their passing.  On the other, your faith tells you that they are now in the hands of God, hopefully rejoicing with the saints in heaven (or perhaps enduring that final purification in Purgatory that will lead them to that reward).  People may tell you to be happy that your loved one is now with the Lord.  You may even feel guilt over your sadness.

This is the result of well-meaning, but ill-thought-out theology around death.  Christians needn't feel that they are lacking faith in Christ if they mourn the loss of a loved one.  Even Jesus wept.

Lazarus was not the only person Jesus raised from the dead.  In our gospel reading for this Sunday (Lk 7:11-17) Jesus raises the dead son of an unnamed widow from Nain.  In this instance, Jesus comforts the grieving mother by telling her, "Do not weep."  Then our Lord shows His power over life and death by bringing her son back to life even as he was being carried on his funeral bier.

Death is unnatural.  It is not part of God's plan for us, and so Jesus rightfully is grieved by it.  So it's OK if death grieves you, as well.  It should.

God is God of the living (Lk 20:38), the Lord of life.  When He made man, He breathed life into him, just as he breathed life into the child raised by Elijah's prayer in our first reading (1 Kgs 17:17-24).  Life is God's gift to us.  It is a gift our first parents rejected by original sin.  And so death has been with us from the beginning, but it is not part of our original nature.  God made mankind a composite creature -- we are body and soul, flesh and spirit, material and immaterial.  These two parts of us are meant to be together. Death occurs when the soul and the body are separated.  God's creation is torn asunder.

A body without a soul is a corpse.  A soul without a body is a ghost. Ghosts and corpses disturb us not because of what they are, but because of what they are not.  Neither is complete.  Both represent the loss of the whole.  Death is imperfect.

This is why even before Christ, most Jews (except for the Sadducees) believed that there would be a physical resurrection at the end of time.  The souls of the dead would be reunited with their physical bodies.  This is why one of the signs of the coming of the Messiah was the rising of the dead.  Just after this episode in Luke's gospel, Jesus tells the disciples of John the Baptist, "Go and tell John what you have seen... the dead are raised up."  John would know that meant one thing: the Messiah has come.

But if Jesus, the Messiah, has come to conquer death, why do people still die?  Lazarus died again.  The widow's son died again.  All those disciples who saw these miracles and believed in Jesus died.  How, then, can we say that Jesus conquered death?

Our God is a God of surprises.  The Son of God did not conquer death by making it so that no one ever dies again.  That might be how you or I would do it.  But God overcame death in a surprising way-- by embracing it.  Jesus came not to take the pain of death away from us, but to suffer it Himself and come out the other side.  He transformed what was the result of our sin into the means of our salvation.  Christians, then, no longer run away from death in fear and trembling.  We approach it with hope and courage, arm in arm with Christ our Lord, who will lead us through death into life.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that Jesus "has transformed the curse of death into a blessing" (CCC 1009).
Because of Christ, Christian death has a positive meaning... What is essentially new about Christian death is this: through Baptism, the Christian has already "died with Christ" sacramentally, in order to live a new life; and if we die in Christ's grace, physical death completes this "dying with Christ" and so completes our incorporation into Him in His redeeming act... In death, God calls man to Himself.  Therefore the Christian... can transform his own death into an act of obedience and love toward the Father, after the example of Christ (CCC 1010-11).
Death is unnatural.  It is a consequence of sin.  It is not what God wants for His children.  Therefore it is right that we should be grieved by it.  "Jesus wept."

Yet death is not the victor.  God's Son died for us and rose from the dead so that we may not only live, but live forever in His blessed friendship.   Therefore the Christian can approach death with the sure hope of faith in Christ.  "Do not weep."

What should we do when death enters our lives?  We should follow the example of Jesus by comforting those who mourn.  We should share their sorrow and weep with them.  We should pray for those who have died, that they may enter peacefully into God's mercy.  And we should pray, also, that we may hold fast to the faith, remain in God's friendship, and always be prepared for that day when we will be called to cross over that threshold and enter into eternity with Christ our Lord.

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Eucharistic Faith of the Early Christians

SOLEMNITY OF THE MOST HOLY BODY & BLOOD OF CHRIST (C)
(CORPUS CHRISTI)
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Every year on the Sunday following the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, the Church celebrates another solemnity, that of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, popularly called Corpus Christi (Latin for "Body of Christ").  Even though every Mass by its very nature is supremely Eucharistic, on this feast we pay special attention to the great gift of the Eucharist; that continuation in time of the Incarnation of Christ, God's gift of His very self to us so that we may become partakers of that Divine Triune nature that we celebrated last week.

The Second Vatican Council famously called the Eucharist "the source and summit of the Christian life" (LG 11).  In a very real way, the Church flows from the Eucharist and it's purpose is to make the Eucharist present.  The centrality of the Eucharist to the life of the Church is not some modern development of doctrine; nor is it some optional Catholic devotion that the faithful may take or leave.  It has been at the core of our faith from the very beginning of the Church.  In the weeks during the Easter season, you may recall the many gospel readings that relate how the disciples recognized the risen Lord "in the breaking of the bread."  From the earliest days of the Church, Christ has made Himself present in the Eucharistic meal.

We have only to look to the early Church Fathers to find testimony to this Eucharistic faith.  There is not a one who does not make mention of the Eucharist, so central it is to the life and mission of the Church.  Here are a few major examples.


ST. IGNATIUS OF ANTIOCH
St. Ignatius was bishop of Antioch after St. Peter left to establish the Church in Rome with St. Paul. It is said that Ignatius was taught the faith by St. John the evangelist.  He was martyred in 110 AD in Rome.  Before his martyrdom, he wrote letters to many Churches.  Those letters are some of the earliest post-New Testament Christian writings.
[Heretics] abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, the flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in His graciousness, raised from the dead (Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 6).

ST. JUSTIN MARTYR
St. Justin lived in the second century and was one of the first major apologists for the Christian faith against the pagan Roman empire.  His writings are some of the earliest we have that describe the ritual of the Mass.
There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at his hands... And this food is called among us the Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake but the one who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined.  For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in the like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh (First Apology, 65).

ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM
St. John Chrysostom lived during the fourth century and was the Archbishop of Constantinople.  He was known for his eloquent preaching (his name means "golden tongued") and his staunch defense of the faith.
He [St. Paul] called it a cup of blessing [1 Cor 10:16], because holding it in our hands, we so exalt Him in our hymn, wondering, astonished at His unspeakable gift, blessing Him, among other things, for the pouring it out, but also for the imparting thereof to us all.  'Wherefore if you desire blood,' says He, 'redden not the altar of idols with the slaughter of brute beasts, but My altar with My blood.' Tell me, what can be more tremendous than this? What more tenderly kind? (Homilies on 1 Corinthians, 24:1)
This [the Eucharist] is even that Body, the bloodstained, the pierced, and that out of which gushed the saving fountains, the one of blood, the other of water, for all the world... This Body has He given to us both to hold and to eat; a thing appropriate to intense love (Homilies on 1 Corinthians, 24:4). 

ST. AUGUSTINE
St. Augustine is one of the best known of the Church Fathers, living from 354 to 430 AD.  He was bishop of Hippo, a prolific writer, and stalwart defender of the faith against many heresies, including Pelagianism and Arianism.
You ought to know what you have received, what you are going to receive, and what you ought to receive daily.  That Bread which you see on the altar, consecrated by the word of God, is the Body of Christ.  That chalice, or rather, what the chalice holds, consecrated by the word of God, is the Blood of Christ.  Through those accidents the Lord wished to entrust to us His Body and the Blood which He poured out for the remission of sins.  If you have received worthily, you are what you have received... (Sermons 227).

If you are like me, you will take comfort in knowing that our faith today is a participation in the same faith professed by these great saints.  Their words from the past still give expression to our continuing belief, the living faith of the Church in the saving power of Christ's life given freely for us, made present today in humble form of bread and wine.  The only response we can rightly offer to such a gift is one of humble thanksgiving, which is what the Church has always expressed in her word Eucharist - "to give thanks."

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Trinity: Lover, Beloved, and the Love between them.

SOLEMNITY OF THE MOST HOLY TRINITY (C)
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There is perhaps no doctrine as essential to the Christian religion than the Holy Trinity.  The belief in one God in three Persons makes Christianity unique in all the world. In the words of the Athanasian Creed:
Now the Catholic faith is that we worship One God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons nor dividing the substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, another of the Holy Spirit. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, is One, the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal.
If you don't quite grasp that on first reading, don't feel bad.  The Trinity is, fundamentally, a mystery.  It is something beyond our reason, beyond our ability to comprehend.  The Trinity involves the very essence of God, and to comprehend that, you'd have to be greater than God Himself.

But just because it is a mystery does not mean we shouldn't spend time thinking about the Trinity. Rather it means we can spend our entire lives thinking about it and never come to the end of it.  This is, in fact, the Christian vocation -- to spend all eternity pondering the great mystery of the Holy Trinity.

During the first several centuries of the Church, nearly all of the great heresies were Trinitarian.  They all involved some error about how Christ or the Holy Spirit were related to God the Father.  Is Jesus really God?  Is the Holy Spirit really God?  In each case, the Church held fast to the faith in one God existing as three Persons.  These three Persons share all things in common -- even the very same being -- differing only in their relationship to one another.

This idea of God having relationship within His being makes the doctrine of the Trinity so vital to our lives as Christians.  We are made in the image of God, which means there is something Trinitarian about us, as well.  No, we don't exist as three persons in one being.  But we are made to be in relationship.  As John Donne said, "No man is an island."  This is why Christ commands us to love God and our neighbors (Mk 12:31), and why He teaches that we will be judged according to how we treat our neighbors (Mt 25:31-46).  We are made for community.  We are made for communion.

The human relationship par excellence is marriage.  This is why God's relationship to the Church is described in terms of a marriage (Eph 5:32).  And this is why the Church takes Christ's teachings about marriage so seriously.  In his recent exhortation Amoris Laetitia (the Joy of Love), Pope Francis writes:
Marriage is the icon of God's love for us.  Indeed, God is also communion: the three Persons of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit live eternally in perfect unity.  And this is precisely the mystery of marriage: God makes of the two spouses one single existence... This has concrete daily consequence, because the spouses... can make visible the love which Christ loves His Church and continues to give His life for her (AL 121).
Being made in the image of God means that we are made to be in relationship.  The fact that God has within Himself relationship, while being a mystery above our reason, nevertheless is compatible with reason. God, after all, is love (1 Jn 4:8).  And love requires both a lover and a beloved.  Love requires relationship.  You and I must look outside of ourselves for this; but God, perfect in every way, has this within His very being.  This is why instead of saying "God is loving," we say "God is love."  God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is both the Lover and Beloved and the Love between them.

When we Christians worship the Trinity, we are worshiping Love.  When we defend the doctrine of the Trinity, we defend Love.  When we meditate on the Trinity, we learn the ways of Love.  And insofar as we love, we become like God.  Because "the love of God has been poured into our hearts, through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us" (Rom 5:5).