Sunday, May 25, 2014

Gospel for Today: 6th Sunday of Easter


Jesus said to His disciples: "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (Jn 14:15).  This is a fairly simple statement, but it describes an essential aspect of the Christian life.  A Christian is one who loves Jesus.  But this love ought to be more than a general affinity.  It is not enough for us to simply have fond feelings toward Jesus and not do too much else about it.  Jesus says, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments."  In other words, if we love Jesus, we need to listen to Him, and do what He tells us to do.  A Christian is more than just someone who has a general affinity for Jesus.  A Christian is one who believes that Jesus is Christ, the Son of God, and who loves Him with all his heart, all his soul, and all his mind (Mt 22:37).  And that person seeks sincerely to put the teachings of Jesus into practice in his own life.  

This should be obvious to us.  After all, how sincere would we think someone was if they said they loved their mother dearly and were greatly devoted to her, but then never did anything she asked of them?  How sincere would we think a student who said she greatly respected a professor but never completed any assignment he gave her?  How sincere would we think a husband who claimed to honor his wife, but who never did any of the things she asked him to do around the house?

We know it is not enough to give lip service to one's love.  Love has to be put into action, or it is not love at all.  Keeping the commandments of God is how we put our love of Him into action.  And this refers to the entirety of Christ's teachings as preserved by the Church, in both written (Sacred Scripture) and unwritten form (Sacred Tradition).  This includes the Ten Commandments and the whole moral tradition of the Church.  This includes the teachings that sound easy, but are sometimes hard (love your neighbor as yourself), as well as those that sound hard, but should be easy (making disciples of all nations).  

We will soon celebrate the Solemnity of the Ascension of our Lord.  Immediately before His Ascension, Jesus gave the Church a final command:  "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Mt 28:19).  Our readings in recent weeks from the book of Acts have recounted how the early Church did just that.  Last week, for example, our reading from Acts told how seven deacons were ordained to minister to the Greek speaking members of the community.  This week we read how one of those men, Philip, brought the faith to Samaria, and how the Samaritans were later confirmed in the faith by the Apostles Peter and John.  The whole book of Acts is the story of how the Apostles spread the faith "in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8).  The Church continues to live out this commandment to this very day.  It is an ongoing story, and it is an ongoing responsibility of each and every baptized Christian to help the Church fulfill this mission.  

In our second reading today, St. Peter gives us an important lesson in how to go about obeying this command of Christ to spread the gospel.  "Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence" (1 Pt. 3:15).  This instruction from our first Pope reminds us that truth must always be accompanied by love.  After all, as St. Paul puts it, even if we speak with the tongues of angels, if there is no love in our hearts we are like clanging cymbals or a noisy gong (1 Cor 13:1).

Several years ago there was a group of neo-pagans wanting to establish a pagan temple in our area.  As they did not have a permanent meeting site, they were holding their meetings at a public park, and they advertised those meetings in the local paper.  Members from one of the area Protestant churches decided to "spread the gospel" to these neo-pagans by crashing their meetings and shouting Bible verses at them through a bull-horn.  I sincerely doubt a single one of them converted to Christ through this tactic.

Even though I wanted to be sympathetic toward my Christian brethren, I just could not in this case, because there was neither gentleness nor reverence in their approach.  There was no love.  Was there excitement and enthusiasm about the gospel?  Certainly.  Was there great energy and devotion for what they were doing?  I am sure of it.  But ultimately their zealousness did more harm than good, because they did not heed the words of Peter.  There was no gentleness there.  I sincerely doubt that when Philip brought the faith to the Samaritans, a people with centuries of hatred and distrust toward the Jewish people, he won them over by yelling at them.  I rather think he introduced Christ to them with a spirit of gentleness and reverence, loving them because Jesus loves them, and inviting them to love Jesus in return.  

Each of us is called to evangelize, but that does not mean megaphones or browbeating someone with the Bible.  I think all too often we shy away from this command of Christ to spread the good news because we think it means being "in your face" or "confrontational."  It need not be that way, and I would say it ought not to be that way.  Evangelization is one of those commands of Christ that sound hard, but shouldn't be.  It should come naturally to us.  After all, if you really do believe that your relationship with Christ is good news (which is what "gospel" means), then you'll want to tell others about it.  When you fall in love with someone, you desire to introduce that person to others in your life.  This is where evangelization starts.  It becomes more than something you do.  It becomes part of who you are.

There is a saying attributed to St. Francis: "Preach the gospel at all times: when necessary use words."  I like this saying, but too often I fear people use it as an excuse to not talk about their faith.  It is not that. It certainly was not to St. Francis who founded an order of mendicant friars help spread the gospel.  But it is a reminder that our words are ineffective if they are not reflected in our lives.  Why should someone listen to you talk about your faith if they don't see you putting your faith into action?  What message does it send when you talk about your love for Jesus, while at the same time ignoring His teachings?

"If you love me, you will keep my commandments," says the Lord.  Live a life of Christian integrity.  Put your faith into action.  You say you love Christ?  Then follow through.  It's worth the effort.  "Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me.  And whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and reveal myself to him" (Jn 14:21).

WCU Catholic Campus Ministry
Matthew Newsome, MTh, campus minister
(828)293-9374  |   POB 2766, Cullowhee NC 28723

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Gospel For Today: 5th Sunday of Easter


Last week we read about Jesus, the good shepherd.  We noted that in the same passage Jesus also referred to Himself as the gate through which the sheep must pass to enter the pasture.  We spoke about this curious juxtaposition of Jesus as both the shepherd leading the sheep and the gate through which they must pass.

In today's gospel (Jn 14:1-12) we have a similar combination of metaphors used by Jesus to describe Himself.  "I am the way and the truth and the life," our Lord tells the disciples.  Jesus tells us that He is the truth and the life.  But not only that, He is also the way to obtain these things.  He is simultaneously the destination and the journey.  

You can be forgiven if this all sounds a bit confusing to you.  And truly, if it were anyone other than Jesus speaking, this would make no sense.  "To find me, you must follow me.  To obtain me, you must have me."  If you or I were to speak like this, people would worry about us.  But these words of Jesus begin to make sense when one discovers who this Jesus truly is.  

In the same passage, Jesus tells Thomas, "No one comes to the Father except through me," while telling Philip, "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father."  Jesus is the way to the Father because He and the Father are one.  Christ can say that he who sees Him sees the Father because Christ is the living icon of the Father.  He is the visible sign on earth of the invisible reality of God.  A visible sign of an invisible grace.  This should sound familiar to anyone who has spent time in faith formation classes growing up.  It's the short definition of a sacrament.

The sacramentality of Christ is important to anyone who asks the question, "how do I find the way?"  Jesus says "I am the way and the truth and the life," and the sincere Christian replies, "My Lord, I want this truth and this life.  I desire to follow the way.  Where do I find this way?"  

Those in Jesus' time had it easy in one sense.  Recall the rich young man who asked Jesus what he must do to gain eternal life.  Jesus tells him to obey the commandments, sell all that he owned to give to the poor and then "come, follow me" (Mt 19:16-21).  Okay, so maybe "easy" is not the right word to use, but at least those in Jesus' day had a clear goal.  To follow the way meant to literally follow Jesus.  If you wanted to be a disciple you sought out the Master, so you could be near Him and learn from Him.

But here is the wonderful news.  We still live in Jesus' day.  This is His time.  Even though Christ does not walk the earth on two feet, He remains with us still in His Church.  Just as Jesus is the ultimate sacrament of God, the Church is the sacrament of Christ, the visible sign of His invisible presence.  That Church was founded by Christ to continue His ministry across time and space so that He might be present to all the faithful, in all times.  

We spoke last week of baptism as the gate through which we enter the pasture of the Church.  It is the gateway to the sacramental life.  This includes confession, the sacrament of reconciliation between the repentant sinner and God.  This includes the Eucharist, the ultimate sacrament of Christ's presence, where we commune with Him most intimately by receiving Him into our very bodies.  In short, when we today ask, "Where do I find the way?" the answer is in the Church.

In today's second reading (1 Pt 2:4-9), St. Peter, our first pope, and the one to whom Jesus charged with feeding His sheep (Jn 21:17), describes the Church as the temple of God.  Members of the Church are like the building blocks, with Christ Himself as the cornerstone.  The temple was not only the dwelling place of God, but the proper place to worship and make sacrifices to Him.  Likewise the Church today is the both where we find God's presence and the place where we worship Him.

Our first reading today from Acts 6:1-7 tells the story of the first seven men to be ordained deacons in the Catholic Church.  These men were presented before the Apostles "who prayed and laid hands on them."  This laying on of hands is a sign of conveying the apostolic authority of Christ, of ordaining men to carry on the ministerial work of the Church.  Elsewhere in the New Testament, St. Paul speaks of laying hands on Timothy (1 Tim 4:14) to establish him in his ecclesial role.  Through the ordination of bishops, priests and deacons the sacramental ministry of Christ continues to be present to us today, through this unbroken line of succession running back to the very Apostles who received their commission and authority from Christ.

Jesus says, "I am the way and the truth and the life."  Where do those who strive to follow Jesus find this way?  They find it in the Church.  It is telling that one of the very earliest names for the Christian movement was "the Way," as we read in Acts 9:2.  According to Acts, the followers of the Way were first called "Christians" in Antioch (Acts 11:26).  St. Peter established the church in Antioch.  History tells us he ordained a man named Ignatius as bishop to lead the church there before he left to establish the church in Rome with St. Paul.

This same St. Ignatius of Antioch would later write of the unity between Christ and His Church.

See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the priests as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God.  Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop.  Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist which is administered either by the bishop or by one to whom he has entrusted it.  Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude of the people also be; even as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.  -- Letter to the Smyrnaeans ch 8

St. Ignatius is said to have learned the Christian faith from the Apostle John.  Here in the words of this saint, successor of the Apostles, and member of that first generation of Christians, we find reference to the bishops, priests and deacons of the Church, the importance of a valid Eucharist, and that name by which we still know the Church of Christ today -- Catholic (which means "universal").  What was true of the Church in his day is no less true in ours.  To follow Christ is to be in union with His Church, the sacrament of His presence in our time, for all time.  

"Wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church," St. Ignatius assures us.  Wherever Jesus Christ is, that is where I also desire to be. 

WCU Catholic Campus Ministry
Matthew Newsome, MTh, campus minister
(828)293-9374  |   POB 2766, Cullowhee NC 28723

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Gospel For Today - 4th Sunday of Easter


"Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber.  But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.  The gatekeeper opens it for him, and the sheep hear his voice, as the shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.  When he has driven out all his own, he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice.  But they will not follow a stranger; they will run away from him, because they do not recognize the voice of strangers."

Those who know me know that my family and I keep a small flock of sheep on our property.  That makes me a shepherd, not in the figurative sense the way we refer to our pastors as shepherds, but in the literal sense.  And so the scene that Jesus paints for us with his metaphor in today's gospel is familiar to me, as it would have been for so many shepherds in the Holy Land in Jesus' day.

The sheep that we keep are called Soay.  They are a primitive domestic breed; in fact they are the most primitive breed of sheep still in existence.  They come from the small and wind-swept St. Kilda islands, far off the northwest coast of Scotland, where they have been isolated since at least the Bronze Age.  They are considered representative of the earliest attempts of man to domesticate the wild mouflon sheep of the Mediterranean and Middle East.  So it is likely that our Soay sheep have much more in common with the sheep that those hearing Jesus' words would have been familiar with 2000 years ago than the large, white, fluffy animals we see in mattress commercials today.

Among the characteristics of these more primitive sheep are their smaller size and darker coats.  They shed their wool so they don't need shearing.  And they are also very cautious and wary animals.  

Despite their general skittishness, when I walk out into our pasture, our sheep all gather to me.  If I start walking towards the sheepfold, which is the small shelter that we house them in at night to protect them from nocturnal predators, they line up dutifully and follow me in.  They know me.   By contrast, if you or anyone else were to walk through our pasture gate, our flock would likely run to the farthest corner of the pasture and watch you suspiciously from a distance.   You are an unknown, a stranger to them.  If you started walking toward them, they would flee.  As Jesus says, "they will not follow a stranger; they will run away from him, because they do not recognize the voice of strangers."  While our primitive sheep wouldn't be a lot of fun at a petting zoo, their cautiousness does make them excellent survivors.

The reason why my sheep will follow me and run away from you is because they have come to trust me.  They know I will not harm them; they know I will feed them and care for them.  So they trust me, and follow me.  It is easy to see why this is an apt metaphor for our relationship with Jesus.  As Jesus says in the gospel antiphon for today, "I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep, and mine know me" (Jn 10:14).  Knowing, in this case, means trusting.  My sheep do not follow me obediently into the sheepfold simply because they know me.  They follow me because they trust me.

Jesus says in today's gospel that, "all who come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them."  You can know someone, and know him to be a thief.  You do not follow such a person, even though you may know him, because he is not worthy of your trust.  So when Jesus says "mine know me," He means that His sheep not only know Him, but that they trust Him as their shepherd.  Like a shepherd, He feeds us and cares for us.  In the psalm today (Ps 23) we are told that our shepherd will give us repose, refresh our soul, guide us and lead us, give us courage and anoint us.  

It is interesting that Jesus not only refers to Himself as the good shepherd, but as the gate through which His sheep pass.  This calls to mind another passage of John's gospel where Jesus claims not only to be the truth and the life, but also the "way" (Jn 14:6).  Jesus is not only the truth, but the way to the truth.  Jesus is not only the life, but the way to the life.  Likewise Jesus is not only the shepherd, but the gate through which we must pass to reach the shepherd.  If this sounds like an unfathomable mystery, it is because it is!  But it tells us one thing: the only way to unite ourselves to Christ in the next world is to unite ourselves to Christ in this world.  He is the gate, but He also walks ahead of us through the gate.  He is the way, and we must follow Him.  Psalm 100 tells us, "We are His people, the sheep of His pasture.  Enter His gates with thanksgiving" (Ps 100:3b-4a).

How do we enter through His gate?  Our first Pope, St. Peter, tells us in today's readings.  "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins" (Acts 2:38).  Baptism is the sacramental gate through which we first enter the sheepfold of the Church.  Once in that pasture, we must remain there by imitating Christ in holiness.  We must be good, not just when it is convenient, but when it is inconvenient, being "patient when [we] suffer for doing what is good" (1 Pt 2:20).  And if we go astray, we repent and so "return to the shepherd and guardian of [our] souls" (1 Pt 2:25).  How do we know this is true?  Because our Shepherd has revealed this to us.  We hear His voice, and we trust Him.

Two weeks ago we celebrated Divine Mercy Sunday.  As I wrote then, the Divine Mercy devotion comes from the dairy kept by St. Maria Faustina Kowalska in the 1930s.  She wrote much in her diary about Christ's mercy, as one would expect, but also about the great need for us to trust in Christ.  In her writings, she says Jesus appeared and told her, "Let the greatest sinners place their trust in My mercy" (1146), and "When a soul approaches Me with trust, I fill it with such an abundance of graces that it cannot contain them within itself, but radiates them to other souls" (1074), and "The soul that trusts in My mercy is most fortunate, because I Myself take care of it" (1273).

It is no wonder that the prayers of the Divine Mercy chaplet have us saying to Jesus, "I trust in You!"  This is what it means to have faith; it means that we must be willing to trust in Christ.  It is only by trusting in our Shepherd that our faith gives us life.

Jesus, the good shepherd, says of bread and wine, "This is my body" (Lk 22:19; 1 Cor 11:24).  And we believe it is so, because we trust Him.

Jesus, the good shepherd, says of Peter, "On this rock I will build my Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it" (Mt 16:18).  And we believe it is so, because we trust Him.

Jesus, the good shepherd, breathes on the Apostles and says, "Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, whose sins you retain are retained" (Jn 20:23).  And we believe the Apostolic Church can grant His forgiveness, because we trust Him.

Jesus, the good shepherd, tells us, "If you would be my disciple you must take up your cross and follow Me" (Mt 16:24; Lk 9:23).  And we follow Him, because we trust Him.

In other words, we trust in the authority of the Church, the healing power of the Sacraments, and the salvific effects of suffering with Christ, because we trust Jesus.  There is no other reason to believe these things.

There are other voices speaking to us.  There are thieves and robbers at the gate.  Jesus says these come only to steal, slaughter and destroy.  He is speaking of what happens to our souls when we choose to follow these false shepherds.  Our choice is simple.  Do we trust these strangers?  Or, like my sheep when an unfamiliar person approaches their pasture, do we keep our distance and eye them with caution?  Later in this same gospel passage, Jesus speaks of having many sheep, but of there being only "one flock and one shepherd" (Jn 10:16).  We, like the sheep, need to learn to recognize our Shepherd's voice and to develop a deep and abiding trust in Him.  Only then will we be able to follow wherever He leads us (even though it may seem difficult), because we know He loves us.  Only in this way will we be assured of eternal life.

I am the gate.  Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.  A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy; I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.

WCU Catholic Campus Ministry
Matthew Newsome, MTh, campus minister
(828)293-9374  |   POB 2766, Cullowhee NC 28723

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Gospel For Today - 3rd Sunday of Easter

NOTE:  Today at 4:00pm we will celebrate the last Mass on campus of the semester.  Our campus Mass will resume on Sunday, August 17.

click here for readings

Today's gospel reading from Luke 24:13-35 recounts the encounter with the Risen Christ that two disciples, Cleopas and Simon, had on their journey to the village of Emmaus.  Cleopas (or Clopas) was the brother of St. Joseph, and Simon was his son (and later the second bishop of Jerusalem after the Apostle John).  When they meet Jesus, they do not recognize our Lord at first, which indicates Jesus appears to them in a form that is not immediately recognizable.  But through a series of events they come to recognize that Christ is truly present with them.

We are told that this encounter takes place on "the first day of the week," which is Sunday. The two disciples are distraught over the death of Christ, and the mysterious fact that now His tomb seems to be empty.  In consolation, Jesus begins to speak to them about the Sacred Scripture, and all the things written therein which reveal the Christ.  Finally, when they reach Emmaus, they sit down at table for a meal.  There we are told that "He took break, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them.  With that their eyes were opened and they recognized Him... He was made known to them in the breaking of bread."

This sequence of events should sound familiar to any Catholic.  On Sundays we come together as disciples of Christ.  We gather in a place where Christ is present with us, though not in a form that is immediately recognizable.  We read and are taught from the Scriptures.  And then our priest takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to us.  We receive this, not as bread (which it would appear to be to our senses), but as the very Body of Christ.  He has been made known to us in the breaking of the bread.

I speak, of course, of the Mass, which has been the central aspect of Christian life from the very beginning of the Church.  Even the Risen Christ celebrated the Mass with His followers, as we see in today's reading.  And the reason why the Mass is so essential to our lives as Christians is that it is in the Mass that we, like those travelling to Emmaus, encounter Jesus Christ.

So why don't people get excited about Mass attendance?  I think one reason is that they (we) speak of "attending" Mass, like we would attend a sporting event, a play, or a movie.  This suggests that we are going as spectators there to be entertained.  I expect that a spectator witnessing what happened on the road to Emmaus would not have seen anything all that interesting; three men walking together and talking, and then sharing a simple meal.  Nothing exiting about that.

It used to be that people did not speak of "attending" Mass, but rather of "assisting" at Mass.  I suggest we make an effort to bring this practice back.  By saying we assist at Mass, it suggests an active participation.  All of us there at Mass are assisting in the celebration of the liturgy through our prayers.  This prayerful participation is what makes us truly present, and so we become more aware of Christ present to us.  Rather than spectators watching the encounter of the disciples with Jesus, we become one of the disciples whose hearts are burning as we hear the words of Christ.

The Second Vatican Council calls the Eucharist "the source and summit of the Christian life" (Lumen Gentium 11).  This means that the Eucharist is both the beginning and the end of what we are about as Christians.  It plumbs the depths of theology and ascends to the greatest heights of holiness.  The Eucharist is the beginning and the end, -- like Christ, for it is Christ.  "By the Eucharistic celebration we already unite ourselves with the heavenly liturgy and anticipate eternal life, when God will be all in all... the Eucharist is the sum and summary of our faith" (CCC 1326-7).  

When we think of everything that we do, or desire to do, as Christians, it all flows from our participation in the Eucharist.  Our charitable deeds, helping those in need, our kindnesses and mercies; our prayers and petitions, our supplications; our evangelization and outreach; these are not things we do in addition to the Mass, but things we do because of what (and Who) we receive in the Mass.  The Mass is not something that developed as part of the life of the Church.  The life of the Church developed because of the Mass.

The very first Christians, we read in the New Testament, "devoted themselves to the apostles's teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:42).  In the year 155 AD, St. Justin wrote to the pagan emperor of Rome, Antoninus, explaining what Christians do.

On the day called Sunday, all who dwell in the city or country gather in the same place.  The memoirs of the apostles [New Testament] and the writings of the prophets [Old Testament] are read, as much as time permits.  When the reader has finished, he who presides over these gathered [the priest] admonishes and challenges them to imitate these beautiful things [the homily]...

...then someone brings bread and a cup of water and wine mixed together to him who presides over the brethren.  He takes them and offers praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and for a considerable time he gives thanks [in Greek: eucharistian] that we have been judged worthy of these gifts.

[From earlier in the same letter.]  This food we call the Eucharist, and no one is allowed to partake but the one who believes that our doctrines are true, who has been washed with he bath for the remission of sins and rebirth [baptism], and who is living as Christ has commanded [in a state of grace; not guilty of mortal sin].  We do not receive these as common bread and drink.  For Jesus Christ our Savior, made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation.  Likewise we have been taught that the food blessed by the prayer of His word -- and from which our own blood and flesh are nourished and changed -- is the flesh and blood of Jesus who was made flesh.  [qtd. from CCC 1345 and The Mass of the Early Christians by Mike Aquilina]

This liturgy that St. Justin describes in the middle of the second century is the same liturgy described by St. Ignatius of Antioch in his letters around 107 AD; it is the same as that described in the Didache, a document sometimes called The Teachings of the Apostles, written in the late first century.  It is the same as described by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 10-11.  It is the same as Christ demonstrates Himself in today's gospel.  And it is the same as the Mass we are blessed to be able to celebrate today, what the Catechism calls "the Mass of all ages."  

This is the good news.  Just like the disciples in today's gospel, we are still today able to walk with Christ.  He may not be immediately recognizable to us, but He is here nonetheless.  We can recognize Him in the breaking of the bread.  So don't walk, but run to Mass.  And may we always approach the great gift Christ has given us, of His own flesh and blood, with a thankful heart -- which is to say, a Eucharistic heart.

WCU Catholic Campus Ministry
Matthew Newsome, MTh, campus minister
(828)293-9374  |   POB 2766, Cullowhee NC 28723