Friday, March 25, 2016

O death, where is your sting?

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The following is taken from the homily for Holy Pascha by St. John Chrysostum, early Church Father and Doctor of the Church who lived during the last half of the fourth century. 


Let all Pious men and all lovers of God rejoice in the splendor of this feast; let the wise servants blissfully enter into the joy of their Lord; let those who have borne the burden of Lent now receive their pay, and those who have toiled since the first hour, let them now receive their due reward; let any who came after the third hour be grateful to join in the feast, and those who may have come after the sixth, let them not be afraid of being too late, for the Lord is gracious and He receives the last even as the first. He gives rest to him who comes on the eleventh hour as well as to him who has toiled since the first: yes, He has pity on the last and He serves the first; He rewards the one and is generous to the other; he repays the deed and praises the effort.

Come you all: enter into the joy of your Lord. You the first and you the last, receive alike your reward; you rich and you poor, dance together; you sober and you weaklings, celebrate the day; you who have kept the fast and you who have not, rejoice today. The table is richly loaded: enjoy its royal banquet. The calf is a fatted one: let no one go away hungry. All of you enjoy the banquet of faith; all of you receive the riches of his goodness.

Let no one grieve over his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed; let no one weep over his sins, for pardon has shone from the grave; let no one fear death, for the death of our Savior has set us free: He has destroyed it by enduring it, He has despoiled Hades by going down into its kingdom, He has angered it by allowing it to taste of his flesh.

When Isaiah foresaw all this, he cried out: “O Hades, you have been angered by encourntering Him in the nether world.” Hades is angered because frustrated, it is angered because it has been mocked, it is angered because it has been destroyed, it is angered because it has been reduced to naught, it is angered because it is now captive. It seized a body, and lo! it discovered God; it seized earth, and, behold! it encountered heaven; it seized the visible, and was overcome by the invisible.

O death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory? Christ is risen and life is freed, Christ is risen and the tomb is emptied of the dead: for Christ, being risen from the dead, has become the Leader and Reviver of those who had fallen asleep. To Him be glory and power for ever and ever. Amen.

Friday, March 18, 2016

The Joy of the Cross

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Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday: these two names reflect two very different aspects of the liturgy, unique in that two different gospel readings are proclaimed. In churches all over the world people will gather outside the church proper to begin the liturgical celebration in joy and triumph. We will read from Luke 19:28-40, of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, riding on an ass. As he rides along people spread their cloaks out on the road for him, and "the whole multitude of his disciples" praises God with joy and sings, "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord."

After the gospel reading we are given blessed palms and asked to lend our voices to the praising crowd, as we sing, "Hosanna to the Son of David, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, the King of Israel!"

Inside the church, though, is another matter. Turn a page or two in Luke's gospel. Now we hear of the Last Supper, Jesus's arrest and trial, his passion and his death. In the gospel reading, the words of the gathered crowd cry, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" We choose Barabbas over Jesus. The same crowd that moments ago sang His praises now condemn Him.

Isn't this exactly like the human heart? Aren't we all too often like Peter, swearing that we would never deny our Lord, but then before the cock crows find we have done it not once, but multiple times?

I know some people who break down into tears at the words, "Crucify Him!"  It breaks their hearts. It hurts because we are the ones who crucified Christ. We are the ones who are responsible for His suffering and His death -- you and me, and every other person who has ever sinned, which is to say everyone. We need to be reminded of this not simply so we can express gratitude (though we should), but so that we can feel true sorrow for our part in Christ's passion. It should break your heart. It should hurt.

But Jesus doesn't just suffer because of us; he suffers for us. Christ is not only crucified for us; he asks us to join him on the cross. "If you would be my disciples, you must take up your cross and follow me." Being a Christian means we must suffer on the cross as well. Jesus did not come to end all suffering; He came to transform suffering into salvation. The way this is achieved is to join our suffering to His.

When we are baptized, we are sacramentally joined to Christ's death and resurrection. From that moment on, each occasion of suffering in our life can draw us closer in communion with our Lord's passion. This all sounds rather grim, I know. But the Passion is not the end of the story. Palm Sunday is followed by Easter. When we join our suffering to the Lord's, we join with the One who conquered death. The more we die with Christ, the more we will rise with Him. This is the great joy of the cross.

Hanging from the cross, beaten and bruised, thirsty, humiliated, and in excruciating pain, our Lord uses one of His last breaths to exclaim, "My God, my god, why have you abandoned me?" Our Lord quotes Psalm 22. The psalm is prophetic. Composed by divine inspiration hundreds of years before the Crucifixion, the psalmist speaks of being mocked, having his hands and feet pierced, surrounded by evil doers, and having lots cast for his garments -- all things that describe the suffering of the Christ. But then the psalmist proclaims, "But you, O Lord, be not far from me; O my help, hasten to aid me. I will proclaim your name to my brethren; in the midst of the assembly I will praise you..."

Jesus was never and could never be separated from God. And God is never far from those who suffer with His Son. The closer you come to the cross, the closer you draw to God. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, the King of Israel, and the Suffering Servant.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Who Am I to Judge?

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Christ and the Adulteress
Are Christians judgmental?  Certainly.  Christians are sinners like everyone else.  But the sin of being judgmental stands out precisely because Christians are sinners.  Who are we to tell others what they should or should not be doing?  Who are we to say what is right and wrong?  Or -- to borrow a line from our Holy Father Pope Francis -- who are we to judge?

One of the most quoted verses in the Bible is, "Judge not, lest you be judged" (Mt 7:1).  The context of that verse is the lesson about pointing out the mote in your brother's eye while ignoring the beam in your own.  In other words, we all have our failings, so it is hypocritical of us to judge others.

Something similar is going on in our gospel reading for this Sunday.  A woman has been caught in adultery and the punishment is execution by stoning.  Jesus challenges the crowd, "Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her" (Jn 8:7).  No one comes forward.

Our faith forbids us to judge other people.  But our faith commands us to judge actions -- chiefly our own.  These commands are not contradictory; they are complementary.  We see how if we consider the question of mortal sin.  The Church teaches that to be guilty of mortal sin, three conditions must be met (CCC 1857-1859):
1. The act must be "grave matter" (a serious sin).
2. It must be performed with "full knowledge" (you know it is a sin).
3. It must be performed with "deliberate consent" (you want to do it; you are not being forced).

We can objectively judge the first condition.  Is this action sinful or not?   In the case of the woman caught in adultery, we can truthfully say that adultery is a sin.  It violates the Sixth Commandment.  We must make this kind of judgment, otherwise we would be unable to judge the morality of our own actions.

But when it comes to the other conditions mentioned above, how can we know whether someone had full knowledge of what they were doing, or free use of their will?  We cannot climb into another person's head.  We cannot know the depths of their heart. Moreover, someone may have committed a grave sin yesterday, but may have repented of it this morning.  We cannot see into another's soul. So while we can rightly judge actions, it is presumptuous in the extreme for us to judge people.  God has given all judgment to Christ (Jn 5:22).  We cannot usurp Jesus' rightful role.

It is important to note that Jesus does not tell the woman that her actions were not sinful.  In fact Jesus has some very strict things to say about adultery.  He teaches that anyone who divorces their spouse and marries another commits adultery; and in fact to even look at another with lust is an act of adultery (Mt 5:27-32).

Given those high standards, how many in the crowd that would have condemned the woman were also guilty of the same sin?  This is the lesson here -- not that the woman's sin was not great, but that we all fall short of the holiness to which we are called.

In this Year of Mercy it is good to remember that "admonishing the sinner" is one of the spiritual works of mercy.  We are commanded to love our neighbor.  If you saw your neighbor about to drink poison, the loving thing would be to stop him!  Sin is poison for the soul.  In love, we should attempt to direct others away from sinful actions.  We admonish the sinner to save them, not condemn them.

Jesus forgave the adulterous woman, but He also admonished her.  He said, "Go, and from now on do not sin anymore" (Jn 8:11).  When we admonish our neighbor, we speak not as their judge, but as a fellow sinner.  It is crucial, then, that we also admonish ourselves.  Then, having turned from sin, we can together with our neighbor "forget what lies behind, and strain forward to what lies ahead" (Phil 3:13), the great glories of the friendship of Jesus Christ, our gracious and merciful Lord.

Friday, March 4, 2016

A Merciful Father

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The story of the Prodigal Son is one of the most beloved of our Christian tradition.  The son, through selfish and foolish behavior, squanders his inheritance and impoverishes himself.  Living in squalor, he decides to return to his father and ask to be hired as a servant, so at least he would be well fed and cared for.  The father welcomes him back not as a servant, but as a son, rejoicing with much celebration.

We are to identify with the son.  We have sinned against our heavenly Father, and like the prodigal son, we need to repent of our misguided ways and turn back to God.  It's not a complicated parable to understand.

Why, then, do so few heed its advice?  Why are we often so hesitant to "rise and return to the Father"?  Why are the lines for Confession so short?  Perhaps we doubt the reality of God's forgiveness.  Perhaps we doubt that we are worthy of His mercy.  Perhaps we wonder whether God really cares about us at all.

Though this story is most often called "The Parable of the Prodigal Son," Pope Francis chooses to refer to it as "The Parable of the Merciful Father."  By doing so, the pope invites us to reexamine the story from the father's point of view.

The father has given the son everything he asked for.  Yet the son misuses these gifts.  He wastes them, and uses them for ill.  This must have broken the father's heart.  Yet, the father stands ready to welcome his son back.  Look at how the scene is described in the gospel:
While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.
Reconciliation did not happen when the son knelt before his father and kissed his ring.  It did not happen when the son knocked on his father's door.  It did not happen when the son was entering at the gate.  Reconciliation happened "while [the son] was still a long way off."  This is amazing.

The father is actively looking for his son's return.  He desires the reunion so much that when he sees his son returning at a distance he runs to his son, embraces him and kisses him. The father cannot wait to welcome back his lost son, and so runs to meet him where he is.  Before the son even utters a word, he is embraced and kissed by his loving father.

When the son does speak, he says, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son."  He plans to ask to be hired on as a mere servant, but the father has already heard enough.  Before the son can finish his request...
...his father ordered his servants, ‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.’
The father is an image of God; as much as the father desires the return of his lost son, even more does God desire the return of us sinners.  His eye is always seeking for signs of our repentance.  And when He sees us, He will run out to meet us, wherever we are, embrace us, kiss us, and welcome us back as His sons and daughters.

The joy expressed by the father in the parable is an illustration of God's joy every time a sinner returns to Him.  If we fear the sacrament of Reconciliation or hesitate to seek it out, perhaps it is because we fail to recognize this important truth.  We focus on the sins we have committed and dread the thought of asking for God's forgiveness.  We'd rather ignore them.  But repentance is not about focusing on our sins. Repentance is about turning away from sin and back to God.  We identify our sins only to reject them, so that we may return to our Father's house.

What happens in the confessional is not a condemnation of our sinfulness.  It's a celebration of God's mercy.  The parable of the Prodigal Son (or the Merciful Father) shows us what our repentance looks like from God's point of view.  "Let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found."