Thursday, June 26, 2014

Gospel For Today (Early Edition) - St. Peter & St. Paul

NOTE:  As I will be away on retreat all weekend and without internet access, I am sending this week's Sunday reflection out early.  Please enjoy!

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A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of being invited to speak to a group of young adults at a Theology on Tap session.  The topic of the series they were currently running was "Why Catholic?" and I was invited to give my response to that topic.  There are certainly many answers to the question, "Why Catholic?"  G. K. Chesterton famously answered, "To have my sins forgiven."   St. Peter, as I mentioned last week, said, "To whom would we go?  We have come to know and believe that you have the words of eternal life."  Though he gave his answer in a different context, I think it's a good and honest reply to the "Why Catholic" question, as well.

While Chesterton often has his short, quippy remarks quoted (as I just did above), he also wrote more extensively on the question, "Why I Am a Catholic," in an essay which you can read online.  He begins that essay by saying there are ten thousand reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true.

I answered my question in a similar manner.  In my talk I addressed the fact that Catholicism is real.  What do I mean by "real"?  You can take that to mean any number of things, all of which are true when it comes to the Catholic Church.  In my talk I focused on the moral teachings of the Catholic Church and how they are based on our human nature.  This means that the code of conduct which the Church expects us to live by is ontologically based on who we are as human beings, rather than being an arbitrary code of rules enforced from the outside which have nothing to do with who we are as persons.  In other words, in her moral teachings, the Catholic Church looks at reality as it truly is, looks at us as we truly are.  It's "real" in that way.

But there are many other ways in which the Catholic Church can be said to be "real."  You could take that to mean that her teachings are true, as Chesteron did.  You could take that as applying to the sacraments, that they are really and truly efficacious.  The Eucharist is the Real Presence of Christ.  Baptism really does wash away our sins.  Confession & Penance really does convey God's forgiveness.  They are real.

But the other way to speak of the reality of the Catholic Church is her historical reality.  This is a vitally important point.  Rather than being a devised body of teachings, an invented philosophy, or a made-up moral code, the Catholic religion is founded upon a real historic person.  I speak, of course, of Jesus Christ.  

Jesus of Nazareth was a real man, born in a specific place at a specific time.  He did specific things.  He walked the roads of Palestine, he spoke with people, ate with people, and at the end of His earthly life He was arrested, tried, executed, buried, and rose again from the dead.  These are real historic events we speak of, not fairy tales.  The historical events of our faith are supported not only in the New Testament writings but by the entire historic record, including Jewish and Roman accounts from the time.  

Jesus is not a made up figure.  If He were, our faith would be based on nothing.  But we know He is a real Person because of the testimony of other real people.  I speak of the saints.  The people that Jesus Christ encountered, taught, healed, ate with, and loved are real people, too.  We celebrate two of them today.  

St. Peter was a fisherman from Galilee.  He was at one point married (the scriptures speak of his mother-in-law).  So he had a family, and a trade.  By all accounts he was not an exceptional man, but he was a real man.  St. Paul was a Pharisee and a zealot.  He was a Roman citizen, born in Tarsus and descended from the tribe of Benjamin.  He was a major persecutor of the Christian faith until a powerful and personal encounter with the Risen Christ led to a radical conversion, after which he became the Apostles to the Gentiles and author of most of the New Testament.  

Both of these figures we celebrate today were real flesh and blood human beings.  They had failings, like you and I.  Peter denied Christ three times on the night of the crucifixion.  Paul stood by as St. Stephen, the first martyr, was stoned to death.  Both of them came to faith in Christ but through very different experiences, just like we today each come to faith in different ways.  You can read about their actions in the gospels and in the book of Acts.  You can read them express themselves in their own words in the letters they wrote and which are preserved for us in the New Testament.   And you can even go and venerate their tombs in Rome, where they both are buried.  

The Catholic practice of venerating relics may seem a bit morbid to some, but relics are reminders that our faith is a real historic faith.  The saints that we revere, the heroes of our past that helped to build the Church, are real historic figures.  They are more like George Washington and John Adams than Hercules and Perseus.  Our faith is not based on mythology, but on history.  And venerating the physical remains of the saints reminds us of this important fact.

These two real men were also martyrs for the faith, each joyfully meeting death for their belief in another real man, Jesus Christ.  We read some of their persecution in our first reading from Acts this morning.  We hear St. Paul speak of his impending death in his own words in the second reading.  Paul says that even though the time of his departure is at hand, that he "has competed well," and now "the crown of righteousness awaits" him.  He is confident of these things because of his faith in Christ.  No sane person is willing to die for a myth.  But people are willing to die for a friend.  These men were true friends of Christ.  

Our gospel reading today recounts the scene at Cesarea Philipi when Christ asks the Apostles who they say He is.  Cesarea Philipi is a real geographical location.  There is a giant stone cliff there with a temple to the pagan god Pan built atop it.  You can go visit this place today.  It was to this location that Christ brought the Apostles.  It was with this in the background that Christ said, "You are Peter (Rock) and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it."  

Imagine the scene, with Jesus, Peter and the other Apostles gathered in the shadow of this giant stone outcropping.  Here is a giant rock with a false church to a false god built upon it.  By contrast, Jesus, the true God, will build His true Church upon the Rock of Peter.  And the gates of hell still have not prevailed against it.  It's still here.  It is the Catholic Church.  And it's for real.

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

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Gospel For Today - Corpus Christi


"Whoever eats my flash and drinks my blood
has eternal life,
and I will raise him on the last day.
For my flesh is true food,
and my blood is true drink.
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood
remains in me and I in him" (Jn 6:54-56)

Who would believe such a thing?  It sounds absurd, and more than a little grotesque.  Everyone can nod in agreement when Jesus instructs us to "love thy neighbor" and "consider the lilies," but eating His flesh and drinking His blood?  This sounds more like a horror film than the gospel.  It is no wonder the Jews were quarreling about this.  It is no wonder so many of them stopped following Jesus at this point in the gospel narrative.  
After so many left Jesus that day, because they either could not comprehend or could not stomach His command to eat His flesh and drink His blood, our Lord looked upon the Apostles and asked if they, too, would leave Him.  Peter simply said, "To whom would we go?  You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God" (Jn 6:68-69).  I love Peter in this moment, because by his answer he admits his own lack of understanding; but his faith in Christ allowed him to trust that the understanding would one day come.  

"Faith seeking understanding" was the motto of the great St. Anselm and it certainly applies to our approach to the Eucharist.  For there is only one reason to believe the Catholic Church's teaching about the Eucharist, and that is trust in Jesus Christ.  For when Christ says, "My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink" we believe He meant it, and has the power to make it so.  When Christ said at His last supper, "This is my body," and "This is my blood," we believe He meant it, and has the power to make it so.  We do not understand how this happens, any more than Peter did.  But like Peter, we have come to know Jesus is God Incarnate.  And so we believe.  And we stand in awe at the God who not only would put on flesh and dwell among us, but would make that flesh into a form we could consume.  For this God is not content to dwell among us.  He desires to dwell within us.  What a gift our God gives in the Eucharist.  It is no wonder the word eucharist means "to give thanks."  What other response would be appropriate?

It is no surprise then that Catholics throughout the ages have had a great devotion to the Eucharist.  St. Paul said that, "The bread we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?" (1 Cor. 10:16).  St. Ignatius of Antioch called the Eucharist, "the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, in His goodness, raised up again" (Letter to the Smyrneans, c. 110 AD).   St. Justin Martyr, writing in the year 155 AD, says, "This food we call the Eucharist... 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" (First Apology, c. 155 AD).

St. Augustine, in the fourth century, preached, "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, having been sanctified by the word of God, is the Body of Christ.  The chalice, or rather, what is in that chalice, having been sanctified by the word of God, is the Blood of Christ" (Sermons 227, 21).  

These holy Fathers of the Church had such faith in the Eucharist because they had faith in the Christ who said, "This is my body."  St. Juliana also had a great devotion to the Eucharist.  She lived during the first half of the thirteenth century and was superioress of the convent at Mont Cornilln in Belgium.  She longed for the Church to have a feast dedicated to the Body and Blood of Christ.   The Church has always commemorated the institution of the Eucharist on Holy Thursday, but as a part of Holy Week, anticipating as it does the death of Jesus on Good Friday, it is a season of sadness for the faithful.  St. Juliana desired a feast to celebrate joyfully the gift of the Eucharist.  She is said to have had a vision of the Church under a full moon.  In her vision, there was a single dark spot on the moon, signifying the absence of a solemnity to commemorate the Eucharist.  She mentioned the idea to several prominent figures in the Church, including Bishop Robert de Thorete of Liege and Pope Urban IV.

At that time bishops had the privilege of ordering feasts celebrated in their diocese of their own authority, and so Bishop Robert ordered such a celebration to be held.  Pope Urban IV admired the feast and on September 8, 1264, issued a papal bull called "Transiturus" that extended the celebration to the entire world.  St. Thomas Aquinas, known as the Angelic Doctor, was asked to compose the Mass and Office for the new solemnity.  His prayers written for this occasion are still to this day some of the most beautiful ever written.

The celebration of Corpus Christi quickly spread and many local customs grew up around this great feast. One that has stayed with us to today is the Corpus Christi procession.  Very early in the fourteenth century, not long after the feast was instituted, the custom developed of carrying the Eucharist in a procession through the town after the Corpus Christi day Mass.  Bishops and Popes encouraged this devotional practice, some even granting special indulgences to those who participated.  In the sixteenth century, the Council of Trent recommend Corpus Christi processions as way of publicly professing Catholic faith in the Real Presence of the Eucharist, which was being challenged by many Protestant sects, including the followers of Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin, who believed the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence to be "derogatory to the heavenly glory of Christ" (Institutes book IV, ch xvii, 10 sqq). 

Just as in John 6, there continue to be those scandalized by the Eucharist.  How can the infinite God of heaven become bread?  But one just as well may ask how that infinite and eternal God could become man?  Man or bread, both are finite and so equally distant from the infinite.  For God all things are possible.  The wonder is that God would love us to much that He would desire to so humble Himself for the sake of His creatures.  Thus are the Incarnation and the Eucharist intimately linked.  Both are essential to the Christian faith.  In our own age, the Second Vatican Council has called the Eucharist, "the source and summit of the Christian life" (Lumen Gentium 11).  Our Catechism teaches that "in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ Himself" (CCC 1324).  

The Eucharist is the starting point of our faith, humbly receiving Jesus.  And it is the greatest height our faith can reach, union with our Creator.  It is the beginning and the end for it is Jesus Christ, who is Alpha and Omega.  It can be a cause for division, as history has shown.  But it can also be, and should be for us, the cause of great unity.  For it is through the Eucharist that we are united with Christ.  And when you and I are united with Christ we are also united with one another in Christ.  "Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many,are one body, for we all partake in the one loaf" (1 Cor. 10:17).

I will leave you with the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, writing of the wonder of the Eucharist.

Desirous that we be made partakers of His divinity, the only-begotten Son of God has taken to Himself our nature so that having become man, He would be enabled to make men gods.  Whatever He assumed of our nature He wrought unto our salvation.  For on the altar of the Cross He immolated to the Father His own Body as victim for our reconciliation and shed His blood both for our ransom and for our regeneration.  Moreover, in order that a resemblance of so great benefits may always be with us, He has left us His Body as food and His Blood as drink under appearances of bread and wine.

O banquet most precious!  O banquet most admirable!  O banquet overflowing with every spiritual delicacy!  Can anything be more excellent than this repast, in which not the flesh of goats and heifers, as of old, but Christ the true God is given us for nourishment?  What more wondrous than this holy sacrament!  In it bread and wine are changed substantially, and under the appearance of a little bread and wine is had Christ Jesus, God and perfect Man.  In this sacrament sins are purged away, virtues are increased, the soul is satiated with an abundance of every spiritual gift.  No other sacrament is so beneficial.  Since it was instituted unto the salvation of all, it is offered by Holy Church for the living and the dead, that all may share in its treasures.  

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

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Gospel For Today: Holy Trinity


I was not raised Christian.  I was first introduced to the Catholic faith my senior year in college.  Growing up, no one in my family ever went to church.  Sunday was just the last day of the weekend, and I certainly never read the Bible.  But I had the great fortune of growing up in the south, in what many would call the "Bible belt," and so there is one Bible verse that I was certainly familiar with: John 3:16.  You couldn't escape it.  You'd see it painted on homemade signs nailed to telephone poles.  You'd see it on decals on the backs of pick up trucks.  You'd see it scrawled across the bare chests of sports fans at football games.  John 3:16 was (and is) ubiquitous.  

"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 perhaps most Christians today, if you only have one scripture verse memorized, this is the one.  And it is an awesome verse.  God does love the world that much, which is an amazing fact of our faith.  But it's not the only fact of our faith.  

I was having a conversation with a student recently and we were discussing how most Christian heresies start by taking a truth and emphasizing it to the point where it becomes isolated from other truths.  At that point the truth becomes distorted, and that leads to heretical ideas.  It's easy to see that dynamic plaid out in the "John 3:16" phenomenon.  If you just look at this single verse in isolation, it all seems so clear and simple.  Believe in Jesus, and you'll have eternal life.  That's all you have to do.  No need for a Church.  No need for pesky Commandments to follow.  Just believe in Jesus.  Sign me up!  It all sounds so easy.  And so we have the rather wide-spread belief among many Christians today that if one recites "the sinner's prayer" accepting Jesus as Lord and savior, you are from that moment on forever "saved."  Nothing else is required of you, really.  You've made it!

Now, in practice, it's not expected that you pray one little prayer and go about your merry way.  It is expected that a sinner who really is sincere about accepting Christ's forgiveness will amend his ways, repent of his sinful past, attend church services, try to live a better life, and all of that.  But those things are not generally stipulated as requirements for salvation.  Rather, they are expected to happen as fruits of salvation and signs of the sincerity of your conversion.  As a matter of theological doctrine, many of these evangelical or fundamentalist Christian groups will assert that "belief in Christ" is by itself sufficient.  Ever since Martin Luther, sola fide has been the motto of the Reformation.  That Latin phrase means "faith alone" and expresses Luther's teaching that we are saved only and sufficiently by our faith in Christ.  Another common phrase among Luther's theological descendants is "once saved always saved," which expresses the belief that once we have made that profession of faith in Christ, no action on our part can ever jeopardize our salvation.  

John 3:16, read on its own, seems to support all of this.  But this view of salvation is repudiated by the Catholic Church.  What's the problem?  The problem is that John 3:16, as true as it is, is not the only verse in the Bible.  The Bible also speaks of faith without works as being dead (James 2:17), of St. Paul working out his salvation "with fear and trembling" (Phil 2:12), and of Christ judging us according to our deeds of service -- or lack thereof (Mt 25).  The teachings of the scriptures, taken as a whole, paint a somewhat different picture than the zealous fan with "3:16" painted on his chest.

Our other readings from today's Mass also indicate that how we live is as important as what we believe.  In our second reading, St. Paul speaks of the importance of mending our ways and living in peace with our neighbors (2 Cor 13:11-13).  Our first reading has Moses climbing Mt. Sinai with two stone tablets (Ex 34:4b-6).  One does not have to be a Charlton Heston fan to know what those tablets were for.  Mt. Sinai is where Moses received the Ten Commandments.

Jesus, as He Himself states, did not come to do away with the old law (Mt 5:17).  In fact, if you have been following along with the gospel readings from the daily Masses this week, the Church has been working her way through Matthew chapter 5, where Christ basically is saying, "I have not come to abolish the commandments, but to make them more strict!"  He points out that divorce and remarriage was allowed under Moses, but no more.  Now, anyone who divorces and remarries commits adultery. Not only that, if anyone even looks at another with lust, they commit adultery.  Murder is likewise forbidden under the old law, but now Jesus says not to even hate another person.  Many of the old religious observances of the Jewish people are no longer binding on Christians because the purpose they served has come to a completion in Christ.  But when it comes to the moral law, if anything Christians are now held to a higher standard.

So where does John 3:16 fit into all of this?  Well, when John says everyone who believes in Christ might have eternal life, we believe that is 100% true.  But we also believe that when James says "even the demons believe -- and shudder" (Jas 2:19), that is also 100% true.  It all comes down to different levels of belief.  The demons James speaks of believe in Jesus.  That is, they understand that He exists, and who He is.  They have an intellectual belief.  But they lack faith.

We can also have an intellectual belief, yet lack faith in Christ.  The belief that John speaks of is a deeper belief, one that leads to the supernatural gift of faith.  For when one believes in Christ and has faith that He is the Son of God, the divine Second Person of the Holy Trinity, and that He has redeemed mankind out of generous and perfect love, well then that belief demands action.  One does not stand in the face of that belief and not do something about it.

That belief dictates that one pay attention to this Jesus and what He did and said.  Things like establishing a Church (Mt 16:18), and giving that Church the authority to administer certain sacraments, for our spiritual benefit.  That belief ought to spur one to want to be united with that Church, which is the Body of Christ (1 Cor 12:27).  That belief ought to make one seek out the Apostolic faith given by Christ and the Holy Spirit to the Church.  That belief ought to make one strive to grow closer to Christ by being obedient to His word; after all, that same Christ said, "he who loves keeps my commandments" (Jn 14:15).  And Christ commanded us, among other things, to love God with all our hearts, and love our neighbors as ourselves (Mk 12:30), and to "be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt 5:48).  

God did not send His only begotten Son into the world to tell us, "I know you are all abject sinners but I've decided to let you into heaven anyway if you just believe in me."  God sent His Son into the world for our good, because He loves us and wants what is best for us -- and that means becoming holy men and women.  A tall order?  Perhaps?  But striving for holiness, challenging as it is, becomes a joy for one who is in love with Christ.  That's the kind of belief John 3:16 references.  That's the way to eternal life.

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

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Gospel For Today: Pentecost


Today we celebrate the great solemnity of Pentecost, the day on which the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles with "a mighty wind" and "tongues of fire."  This day is often celebrated as a new beginning, the "birthday of the Church," marking the start of a new age, the age of the Spirit.  While all of this is true, in many ways the day of Pentecost is also a completion or fulfillment of so much that came before.

The feast of Pentecost itself dates back long before the birth of the Church.  After all, as it says in our reading this morning from Acts, the very reason the Apostles and so many other Jewish people from all over the Mediterranean world were gathered in Jerusalem at this time was to celebrate the feast of Pentecost.   It was a spring harvest festival celebrated by the Jews fifty days (hence the name pentecost) after the Passover.  During the festival, bread made from the first spring harvest of grain was offered as first fruits to the Lord.  But more than this, the Jewish feast of Pentecost marked the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai (Ex 19-20).  So on this great feast when Jewish people from all over the world were gathered together to celebrate God's gift of the Law to His people, God once again gives His Law, the Law of the Spirit, to His new people, the Church.  It is a completion and fulfillment of what came before.

And what were the effects of this gift of the Holy Spirit?  Many things, but one of which was the gift of speaking in tongues.  Our reading from Acts this morning says that when the Apostles began preaching to the gathered crowds, who came from many different countries and spoke many different languages, each person heard them preaching in their own native tongue.  This gift of the Holy Spirit is also a completion, this time in the sense of being a remedy.  It recalls the episode of the tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9).  This account describes how mankind, united in one language, built a great tower which reached to the heavens.  To keep them from accomplishing too much too fast, God destroyed the tower and confused their language, scattering them to the different corners of the earth. 

This is how the Jewish people understood the reason for there being so many different languages spoken by man.  But in Pentecost we see the undoing of this.  Instead of confusion, what we see with the coming of the Holy Spirit is the gift of understanding.  In the Genesis account of the tower of Babel, God says there is nothing the people could not accomplish with the understanding that comes from a common tongue (Gen 11:6).  Truly, under the common language of the Spirit, there is now nothing we cannot achieve with God's help -- including our own salvation.

And finally we have in our gospel reading today another example of how Pentecost marks a completion.  Pentecost is regarded as the arrival of the Holy Spirit, but our gospel reading reminds us that the Spirit was active in the world long before that day.  This reading from John takes place on the evening of Easter Sunday, just after the Apostles have first seen the risen Christ.  Jesus breathes on them (spirit means "breath) and says, "Receive the Holy Spirit.  Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them; whose sins you retain are retained."  This power to forgive sins, realized in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, is made possible through the Holy Spirit.  This reading appears here in our liturgical celebration to show us how Pentecost is a completion of Easter Sunday, which is why today marks the end of the Easter Season.

In considering the various ways that Pentecost represents a fulfillment or completion, I cannot help but consider what many call the Sacrament of the Spirit, confirmation.  The Holy Spirit is often called the mysterious Person of of the Holy Trinity, and not without reason.  The Spirit is hard for us to imagine.  For God the Father, we have the image of earthly fathers, with which we all are familiar, to assist our imagination.  For God the Son we have the human face of Jesus Christ to envision.  But for God the Spirit we have metaphors.  We have fire, a dove, or a mighty wind.  These are all symbols of the Spirit, but hard for us to imagine as a Person.  And so the Spirit is mysterious, which seems fitting.

At the same time, though, it is somewhat of a shame that the Spirit is considered so shrouded in mystery by most Christians, because of the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, the Spirit ought to be most active in our lives.  It is the Spirit that is the animating soul of the Body of Christ, the Church -- a Body of which all the baptized are members.  It is the Spirit that makes our lives as Christians possible, uniting us to the Father, through the Son.  So the Spirit, while being mysterious, ought not be unfamiliar.  If He is, perhaps we are not paying attention.

Likewise, because the sacrament of confirmation is called the "Sacrament of the Spirit," we consider is the "mysterious sacrament."  I have heard many catechists struggle to explain to those preparing for the confirmation just what the sacrament is for, and what it achieves in us.  "You receive the Holy Spirit," they are taught.  But didn't I receive the Holy Spirit when I was baptized?  "Confirmation completes baptism," they are taught.  Do you mean to say my baptism was incomplete?  Was it lacking in some way?  Any confusion in people's minds is understandable.

Those who are confirmed do receive the Spirit, and this does complete and seal the graces received at baptism.  But this does not mean the previous baptism was ineffective any more than Jesus' gift of the Spirit to the Apostles on Easter Sunday, from today's gospel reading, was ineffective.  The Apostles had the authority to forgive sins.  But the descent of the Spirit upon them at Pentecost gave them the tools needed to put that gift into action.  And this is what we see immediately after the Spirit comes to them -- a Church in action, with the Apostles preaching the gospel fearlessly and receiving people into the Church.

Likewise, confirmation gives us the tools we need to put the graces of baptism into action.  The Catechism teaches us that confirmation completes baptismal grace and obligates us to spread and defend the faith by both word and deed (CCC 1285).  What's more, the sacrament gives us the strength to fulfill that obligation.  Confirmation "gives us a special strength of the Holy Spirit to spread and defend the faith by word and action as true witnesses of Christ, to confess the name of Christ boldly, and never to be ashamed of the Cross" (CCC 1303, quoting the Council of Florence, 1439 AD).  

The Apostles received this power in a very radical and particular way on the day of Pentecost, at the very beginning of the Church.  But you who are confirmed share in this same power.  However, we must be mindful that gift does not take away free will.  The Apostles had to choose to put that power into action, and you and I have the same choice today.  The gifts we are given do not bear fruit automatically.  We have to cultivate them and put them into action.

As we complete the season of Easter today, we recall how Easter Sunday and Pentecost are bound together, one flowing into another.  Just as our baptism unites us to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Paschal mysteries of Easter, we can think of our confirmation as uniting us to the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the divine gift that completed the Easter miracle.  Those of you who have been confirmed possess this gift already.  Those preparing for confirmation live in the hope of receiving it.  It belongs to you to put this gift into action.  Spread the good news of Jesus Christ.  Defend the faith, giving a reason for the sure hope that is within you (1 Pt 3:15).  Do this by word and by deed.  You have this power.  God has given it to you in the Spirit.  Go put this power into action and set the world on fire.

Recall then that you have received the spiritual seal, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of right judgment and courage, the spirit of knowledge and reverence, the spirit of holy fear in God's presence.  Guard what you have received.  God the Father has marked you with His sign; Christ the Lord has confirmed you and has placed His pledge, the Spirit, in your hearts.   -- St. Ambrose (340-397 AD)

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

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Gospel For Today: The Ascension


One of the many metaphors used to describe the Catholic Church is the "Body of Christ."  I particularly like this because it reminds us of the very human element of the Church.  The Church, like us, has both a visible and an invisible aspect.  Just like a human body is incomplete without a soul, the Body of Christ is not complete without a spirit - the Holy Spirit that would descend upon the Apostles at Pentecost, the "birthday" of the Church, which we will celebrate next week.

So the Church, like us, has both a spiritual and a material aspect to her.  And that material component is made up of bishops, priests, deacons and most of all of lay people - people like me and you, saints and sinners alike.  And just as we often say of ourselves, "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak" (Mt 26:41), the Spirit of the Church is unfailing and ever-pure, while the "flesh" of the Church -- you and I -- struggles and stumbles along the way.  We see this even in the Scriptures.  Today we hear the conclusion of Matthew's gospel.  The scene opens with Jesus and the Apostles ascending Mt. Olivet in Galilee, where they worship Him.  The gospel says, "they worshiped, but they doubted."  

These are the men who had spent the last three years travelling with Jesus, ministering to and with Him, witnessing His miracles, learning from His teachings.  These are the men who saw their Lord arrested, condemned, tortured and crucified.  They buried Him.  They mourned.  And then they rejoiced as they became witnesses to the Resurrection.  Some, like Thomas, refused to believe it at first.  But as the Resurrection of Christ proved to be true, you know their hearts must have nearly burst with thanksgiving and excitement.  But despite all they had been through with Christ, they doubted.  Isn't this just like us?  Despite our desire for faith, despite our desire to trust God, does not doubt sometimes find its way into our hearts?  How could it not, if even the apostles who saw Christ face to face and witnessed personally the Resurrection were subject to doubt?

If our faith were in a purely human Church, that doubt would be warranted.  If our faith were in a religion crafted by men then we would be justified in our doubt.  But Jesus reminds us in His words to the apostles that the Church is more than that; that our faith is warranted, and so our doubts can be put to rest.

"All power in heaven and on earth has been given to Me," Christ assured them.  Some translations say, "all authority" (RSV:CE).  The concept of authority is essential in understanding the continuing role of the Church in the world.  The Jewish people recognized rightly that God has ultimate authority over the universe.  He is the author of all creation and so all authority is rightly His.  

We see many times throughout the Gospels Jesus claiming and demonstrating that He shares in this authority of the Father.  His many healing miracles, His forgiveness of sins, His raising Lazarus from the dead -- all these things are demonstrations of Christ's divine authority.  And we see many times Jesus passing this authority on to the Apostles.  For example, when He gives Peter the keys to the kingdom (Mt. 16:19), a symbol of authority of the steward's office; or when Jesus breathes on the apostles and tells them, "whose sins you forgive are forgiven them" (Jn 20:23), a transmission of Christ's authority to forgive sins which is expressed in Mt 9:6 (and parallel passages in Mark and Luke).  

Here in today's gospel, Christ again grants this divine authority to the Church.  This time, we find in Christ's words a summation of the entire work of the Church -- a mission statement, if you like.  He tells them, "All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go, therefore, 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."

This is known as the Great Commission.  It outlines the threefold mission of the Church.
  1. To evangelize all nations. This means more than winning individual souls for Christ (though it does mean that).  It also means winning over entire cultures.  Every area of our lives - social, economic, political, etc. - should be brought into conformity with the Gospel.  Our faith refuses to be compartmentalized into something we just do on Sundays, or practice in the privacy of our own homes.
  2. To administer the sacraments.  Baptism is the gateway to the sacramental life.  It is the first step along the path of sanctification (being made holy) that we undergo by participating in the sacramental life of the Church.  Christ established seven sacraments for the purpose of transmitting His grace in a very concrete way to the faithful for all time.  The Church is charged with carrying out this sacramental mission and sanctifying the faithful.
  3. Teaching what Christ taught.  It is not the mission of the Church to create new teaching, or change old teachings.  It is the mission of the Church to teach what Christ taught.  In this way the Church is like a curator, preserving and passing on the truths of the faith to each new generation.  
This threefold mission of the Church is impossible without divine assistance.  As I stated above, the visible Church on earth is made up of human beings who are weak and fallible.  But God knows this.  He wills to use our weakness to show us His strength.  This is why Christ reminds us today that the Church carries out her mission not on her own corruptible human authority, but on His omnipotent divine authority.  

Moreover, Christ assures us that He continues to be with and to guide the Church.  It is no accident that today, when we celebrate the Ascension of Christ into heaven, that we also recall His promise "to be with [us] always, to the end of the age."   In His human form He was present to the Apostles and those disciples physically present to them, in that particular place and time.  Now, seated in glory at the right hand of the Father in eternity, He is made present to all peoples, in all places and times, through the ongoing ministry of the Church.  He is present through the workings of the Spirit which continues to guide and animate the Church, as He has done since that first Pentecost.  And Just as God descended to earth to share in our humanity, we hope to rise with Him into heaven so that we may share His divinity.  Where He goes, we hope to follow.  

All of us, I am sure, can at times in our lives identify with the disciples at the beginning of today's gospel, who worshiped yet doubted.  In those moments we only need to remind ourselves that our faith is not in mere men, but in the Christ who continues to be with His Church to this day.  It is within the bosom of the Catholic Church that we find the fulfillment of the great commission.  It is within the bosom of the Catholic Church that find the graces of Christ's divine authority and life.  And it is within the bosom of the Catholic Church that we find the real hope of our own glorification and resurrection. 

So let us pray today that we may always remain faithful to Christ and to His Church, established for our good, so that we may one day follow Him into glory.

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