Friday, April 29, 2016

The Key to Overcoming Sin

click here for readings

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Whoever loves me will keep my word,
and my Father will love him,
and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.
Whoever does not love me does not keep my words;
yet the word you hear is not mine
but that of the Father who sent me."

-John 14:23-24

This Sunday's gospel reading is taken from the section in John's gospel where Jesus tells the disciples that He will be leaving them.  But He promises to send another, the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth.  Moreover, Jesus promises that even though we will not be able to see Him, He will still be with us "because I live and you live," and "I am in my Father and you are in me and I am in you" (Jn 14:19-20).  

What Jesus is describing is a great mystery.  He speaks of the mutual indwelling of the Holy Trinity.  Jesus Christ, the Divine Son of God, lives within the Father and the Holy Spirit.  The Father lives within the Son and the Spirit.  And the Spirit dwells within the Father and the Son.  Three Divine Persons, loving one another so intimately as to exist within one another.  This unfathomable intimacy is what Christ promises us a share in when He says that "you are in me and I am in you."  

All the mystery and magic of the inner life of God -- the life of divine love -- exists within the very hearts of the Christian who lives in a state of grace.  We can become part of that divine life.  This intimate experience of the Trinity is what awaits us in heaven, but we can also begin to experience it to a lesser degree right now.   The Maker of the Universe wants to make His home within you.  Wow. 

What must we do to gain entry into this most mysterious and intimate relationships of love?  Jesus begins this section of the gospel by saying, "If you love me, keep my commands" (Jn 14:15).  

We mustn't presume that Jesus is asking us to prove our love for Him with this statement.  He is not like the frustrated paramour who says, "If you really love me, you will do this for me."  He is not asking for demonstrations of affection.  

Jesus is stating a truth, which restates in our current reading: "Whoever loves me will keep my word" (Jn 14:23).  Note the order.  If you love me, then you will keep my word.  Not if you keep my word, then you will truly love me.  I suggest that if we struggle with serious sin -- and all of us have at some point in our lives -- it is because we try to do things in the wrong order.  

Sin can seem inescapable at times, especially sin which has become habitual or even addictive.  We can know that sin is evil.  We can hate the sin.  We can be filled with a hatred of the evil that we do.  And we can still commit that same sin.  Why?  (And if you think this is a problem that the saints don't struggle with, read Rom 7:19).

Anyone who has struggled with overcoming serious sin will tell you that hatred for sin is not enough.  Every sin has something attractive about it -- if it did not, then it would not tempt us.  But as we grow in our moral understanding and realize how wrong our sin is, our love for sin diminishes and we can -- rightly -- learn to hate our sin.  We hate our sin because of the harm that it does to us, and to our relationship with God.  We hate it for the control it seems to have over us.  We hate it because we cannot stop.  And we cannot stop because hating our sin is not enough.

Whoever loves me will keep my word.  Jesus tells us precisely what we must do to exit our life of sin and begin living a life of grace.  We must love Him.  Only then will we be able to keep His commands.  

Jesus' commands are hard.  He commands us to love not only our friends, but our enemies.  That's hard.  He commands us to forgive those who persecute us.  That's hard.  He commands us to keep the commandments not only in letter, but in spirit, not even allowing lust or hatred, envy or greed into our hears.  That's hard.  He commands us to be perfect, as the Father is perfect.  That's not just hard, that's impossible -- unless we love Jesus Christ with everything we've got.

You can live your whole life trying to follow all the moral commandments and it would never be enough.  Jesus told the rich young man who had kept the commandments for his entire life that he still lacked one thing -- to sell all that he had and to follow Christ (Mt 19:21).  If we are truly in love with Jesus, there is nothing we would not gladly leave behind to follow Him, whether it be our personal wealth, or our personal sins.  

Ultimately it is not hatred of our sins nor the fear of going to hell that will get us into heaven.  Only true love for Jesus Christ will get us there.  When we fall into sin it is because part of us loves the sin more than Christ - part of us desires the pleasure of the sin more than the joy and peace Christ offers. 

When we love someone, it becomes a joy for us to do what that person desires.  We want nothing more than to please our beloved.  This is why small children bring flowers to their mothers.  This is why husbands and wives are "subject to one another" (Eph 5:21).  This is why we honor our parents.  All of these things are done for love. 

If we love Christ -- not just give Him lip service, or say we "believe in" Him, but truly are in love with Him -- then we will begin to want only what He wants, and desire only what He calls good.  The more we fall in love with Christ, the less attractive will sin be to us.  The more we love Christ, the easier the commandments are to follow.  The more we love Christ, the more we will know peace.

This is one of this aspects of the Christian life that is easy to say and hard to do.  Very few of us love Jesus perfectly.  This is why the saints are so important, as examples to us of that perfect love of God.  This is also why it is important for us to pray every day for the grace to love Him more.
Dear Jesus, I don’t know how to love you as I ought. I beg you to show me how to love you. I want to be free from the shackles of my sin. I know that you have great plans for me. I desire to live the freedom of chastity and to fulfill my vocation to love in whatever capacity you are calling me to. Show me how to love you. Help me to make every decision not out of fear of hell but out of love for you. Please help me to be free of the oppression of sin. Protect me in times of trial and temptation, and in these moments, lead me ever closer to your Sacred Heart. Jesus, I trust in you. Amen.

Friday, April 22, 2016

As I have loved you...

click here for readings

"I give you a new commandment.  As I have loved you, so you also should love one another" (Jn 13:34-35).  Jesus, as usual, has a way of cutting to the heart of the matter.

Love one another -- this is the essence of the moral life.  All of the commandments of God have love as their core.  The Ten Commandments are all about love.  The first three tell us how to love God while the rest tell us how to love our neighbors.  Jesus summarizes the Ten Commandments when He tells us to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Lk 10:27).  Of course Jesus, being the divine Son of God, loves perfectly. And so He summarizes the commandments even further with, "love one another as I have loved you."

To love as Jesus loves is to become a saint.  This is because to love as Jesus loves is to love truly -- to love as love really is, and not mimic some false idea of love.  This is because Jesus is God, and God is Love (1 Jn 4:8).

So it is important to know how Jesus loves.  Saying we should love one another is easy.  Everyone agrees that's a good idea.  But yet we fail at it.  That's what sin is -- a failure to love as we ought.  Each time we sin it's because we are not loving God as we should, not loving our neighbor as we should, or not loving ourselves as we should.  If we all agree that we should love one another, then why do we get it so wrong, so often?  It's because we are not loving as Christ loves.

Jesus does not say, "Think good thoughts about each other," or "Have fond feelings towards each other," or even, "Be kind and accepting toward one another," though these are all good things.  Jesus instead says, "As I have loved you, so you also should love one another."  As I have loved you.

How does Jesus love us?

1. Jesus cares for our bodies.
Jesus does not simply say, "Keep warm and well fed," without providing assistance (Jas 2:16).  Jesus feeds the hungry.  Jesus heals the lepers.  Jesus gives sight to the blind.   And He tells us that we will be judged according to how we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned (Mt 25:31-46).

2. Jesus cares for our souls.
As much as He cares for our bodies, Jesus is always mindful that the needs of the soul are primary.  The body will die.  The soul is eternal.  Christ's physical healings are always a sign of a deeper spiritual healing.  Jesus cured the lame man as a sign that his sins were forgiven (Mt 9:5).  Jesus gives sight to the blind so that they may see the truth of God's kingdom.  Jesus loves us by directing us to repent from our sins so that our souls may be pure.  He tells us to "sin no more" (Jn 8:11).

3. Jesus is compassionate.
The word "compassion" literally means "to suffer with."  Jesus suffers with us.  The shortest verse in the Bible is John 11:35: "Jesus wept."  Jesus shed tears over the death of Lazarus, even though He was about to raise him from the dead.  This is because death -- even if temporary -- is still an occasion of sadness.  Jesus understands that the way to love someone who is grieving is not to "fix" their problem, but simply to grieve with them.

4. Jesus is merciful.
Can anyone imagine Jesus holding a grudge?  Jesus tells the woman caught in adultery, "Your sins are forgiven" (Lk 7:48).  Jesus prays, "Father, forgive them," for those who are nailing His hands and feet to the cross (Lk 23:34).  He is anointed to proclaim liberty to captives and to free prisoners (Is 61:1-2).  He hears the cry of those who say, "Lord, have mercy on us," (Mt 20:30-34), and He teaches us to forgive those who have transgressed against us (Mt 6:12).

5. Jesus witnesses to the truth.
Jesus doesn't love people by telling them what they want to hear.  He loves people by shaking them out of the darkness of their comfort zone and bringing them into the light of truth.  Regarding marriage, He tells us that Moses may have allowed divorce but "from the beginning this was not so" (Mt 19:8).  He teaches that to be angry is to be guilty of murder and to look with lust is to be guilty of adultery (Mt 5:21-28).  And He doesn't change His teaching when people decide to abandon Him because they don't understand or approve of His message (Jn 6:66).

6. Jesus gives Himself to us.
Jesus gives us a lot.  He gives us wisdom.  He gives us knowledge.  He gives us clarity.  He gives us a path to follow.  So do many other religious leaders.  But what makes Jesus unique is that none of these things are primarily what He came to give.  Jesus came to give us the best thing He could possibly give us, and to give it in the most full way possible.  He gives us His very self.  Jesus was willing to give His life for us on the cross.  And He established the Church so that He may continue to give Himself to us for all generations through the Holy Eucharist.

When Jesus instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper, He took the bread, which was to become His Body, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to His disciples (Mt 26:26).  If we are part of the Body of Christ, that means we need to be blessed, broken, and given away.  This is what it means to love as Jesus loves.

There is a Greek word that describes the way in which Jesus loves -- kenosis.  Literally, it means "self-emptying."  It is the word used in Phillipians 2:7, when St. Paul says Jesus "emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave."  We must empty ourselves.  And I don't mean emptying ourselves in love and service to others.  If that's all we did, our well would soon run dry.  You and I are finite, broken beings.  We can give and give of ourselves until we burn out and fall apart.  That does no one any good.

We must rather empty ourselves in order to be filled with Christ.  Then it will not be our imperfect love alone that we offer, but Christ's perfect love flowing through us.  This is why Jesus commands that we first love God and then love neighbor.  Because if we are not filled with the love of God, we cannot offer our neighbor authentic love.

Our love apart from Christ is but a shadow of true love.  But, as the second reading from Revelation reminds us, Christ makes all things new (Rev 21:5).  United in Him, we become a new creation capable of loving as He loves -- capable of loving truly.

Friday, April 15, 2016

I Know Them and They Follow Me

click here for readings

Many of my students know that I keep a small flock of Soay sheep; a rare breed of primitive domestic sheep from the St. Kilda islands in the north Atlantic.  Once a student asked me if being a shepherd made me feel like Jesus. Not really, but keeping sheep does give me an appreciation of the meaning behind Jesus' words in this Sunday's gospel.  "My sheep hear my voice: I know them, and they follow me" (Jn 10:27).

Most sheep are timid beasts, and mine are no exception.  When a group of people comes to see them, the flock usually gathers in the far corner of the pasture, eyeing the strange crowd suspiciously. But if I walk out in the pasture alone, the sheep line up and walk toward me. Why the difference? The answer is simple. My sheep know me. They know I am the one who cares for them. They trust me. And because of that, they follow me.
As members of Christ's flock, we are to follow our Shepherd. But sheep will only follow one that they trust. Do you trust Jesus enough to follow Him? 

I find in my experience that lack of faith usually boils down to a lack of trust in Jesus.  

Why believe in the Real Presence in the Eucharist?  Because we trust Jesus who said, "This is my body, which is given up for you" (Lk 22:19).  

Why believe in the power of forgiveness offered in the Confessional? Because we trust Jesus, who told the Apostles, "Whose sins you forgive are forgiven" (Jn 20:23).  

How can we know peace in a troublesome and chaotic world?  Because we trust Jesus, who said, "Do not be anxious about your life" (Mt 6:25).

How can we have hope in the face of suffering?  Because we trust Jesus who said, "Take up your cross daily and follow me" (Lk 9:23).

Trust the Good Shepherd.  He will lead us to where we need to go. We simply need to learn to recognize His voice and trust Him enough to follow Him. We can hear our Shepherd's voice through the Church, as Christ has given us shepherds in His name, as He told Peter after the Resurrection, "Feed my sheep" (Jn 21:17). We can hear our Shepherd's voice in the scriptures. We can hear His voice in our prayer. Once we come to know and love Christ, we will follow when we hear His voice -- not cautiously or hesitantly, but with trust and love.

Christ is the Good Shepherd. He knows us, His sheep. May we always strive to hear His voice and trust in His loving care for us, so that we may follow Him to springs of life-giving waters where God will wipe away every tear from our eyes (Rev 7:17).

Friday, April 8, 2016

Do You Love Me More Than These?

click here for readings

Last week we read the gospel of Doubting Thomas (Jn 20:19-31).  I ran across a cartoon shortly after that depicted a frustrated St. Thomas complaining to a few of the other disciples.  "All I'm saying is that we don't call Peter 'Denying Peter' or Mark 'Ran Away Naked Mark.'  Why should I be saddled with this title?!"

The cartoon Thomas had a point.  After Jesus' arrest, all of the disciples were in turmoil.  Mark's gospel tells us, "They all left Him and fled" (Mk 14:50), including Mark, who left behind his clothing to escape.  Peter, the leader of the Apostles, did the worst thing any Christian could do.  He denied being a follower of Jesus -- not once, but three times.

Yet at the end of last Sunday's gospel, "Doubting" Thomas proclaims the Risen Jesus as "My Lord and my God" (Jn 20:28).  And in this Sunday's gospel, Jesus gives Peter the opportunity to counter his three-fold denial with a three-fold expression of love.

"Do you love me more than these?" Jesus asks him three times.  Three times Peter replies, "Yes, Lord, You know that I love You."

As faithful Christians, it is all too easy to imagine that we would never deny our Savior.  We see the courageous martyrs in the Middle East being put to death by terrorists for their profession of Christ, and wonder whether we would have the same courage.  Or might we, like Peter, deny even knowing Christ?

I once left a magazine laying out on the coffee table at the Catholic Student Center, the front of which had a prominent headline: "Would you die for your faith?"  A while later I noticed an anonymous student had taken a marker and written the answer "NO" beneath the headline.  That was an honest student.

How can we be certain that we would never publicly deny Christ, when we privately deny Him in so many ways?  Every time we sin, it is a denial of Christ.  Every time we sin, we say "no" to Christ and "yes" to something less.  Every time we sin, we say "no" to He who made us, and "yes" to what will destroy us.  Every time we sin, we say, "I do not know Him."

But there stands Jesus, where we least expect Him; having breakfast by the side of the sea.  Despite our sin, He calls us over, and invites us to eat.  And then He asks us, "Do you love me more than these?"

Do you love me more than these?  Do you love me more than your sin?  Do you love me more than your collection of pornography?  Do you love me more than the alcohol you abuse?  Do you love me more than the pride that won't allow you to say, "I'm sorry," to a friend?  Do you love me more than your selfish ambition?  Do you love me more than these?

If we can say, with Peter, "Yes, Lord, You know that I love you," then there is hope.  Peter denied Christ, but Christ welcomes him back with open arms.  Each time Peter affirms his love for Jesus, Jesus commands him to "feed my sheep."  Thus Peter -- weak, denying Peter -- is transformed by the love of Christ into the first Pope, leader of the Apostles, visible head of the Church on earth, who will strengthen his brethren to the point where they would willingly die a martyr's death out of love for their Lord.

If Jesus can do that for the man who denied Him three times, imagine what He might have in mind for you...

Friday, April 1, 2016

Go to Confession. Seriously. Just Go.

click here for readings

If we had to summarize the Christian faith in one sentence, we'd say, "Christ died for our sins so that we may be reconciled with God the Father." But what next?  How does this apply in our lives?

After death comes resurrection.  After Good Friday comes Easter Sunday.  And this Sunday's gospel reading (Jn 20:19-31) tells what happens to the apostles when they encounter the Risen Christ on that first Easter Sunday.  They were hiding behind locked doors when Jesus appears, and in the midst of their fear, offers them peace.  "Peace be with you," He tells them, and then after showing them His wounds, suffered for our sake, He does a marvelous thing.  He breathes on them, and says, "Receive the Holy Spirit.  Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained" (Jn 20:22-23).

The Son of God grants authority to forgive sins to the apostles. He tells them, "As the Father has sent me, so I send you."  Christ passes on His ministry of reconciliation to the Church (2 Cor 5:18), and the Church continues that ministry today through the sacrament of Reconciliation, Confession or Penance.  These three names for the same sacrament each reflect one aspect of what happens in this encounter between the sinner and Christ.  We confess our sins.  We perform our penance.  And we are reconciled to God.  This is a marvelous and beautiful mystery that most of us fail to appreciate.

And why is that?  Why do so many Catholics shy away from this healing sacrament of mercy?  I get it.  It's no fun to go into a cramped little room and tell someone all the bad things you have done.  No one likes to admit to themselves, let alone to someone else, all of their faults and misdeeds.  But consider this: God already knows all of your sins -- better than you do.  By not confessing them, you are not hiding them from God.  You are hiding God from yourself.  By sealing those sins up within yourself, you seal out God.  God wants to dwell within you, but He will not come in uninvited.  You have to let Him in.

Yet the thought of going to confession after a long absence can still seem daunting.  I hate doing the dishes.  Well, that's an overstatement.  In truth I don't mind washing dishes. What I hate is when there is a huge pile of them to be done; then it becomes a chore.  If I wash the dishes immediately after each meal, it's not a hard task.  But the longer I wait, the more dishes pile up, and the more daunting the task seems.  I look at the sink overflowing with dirty plates and pots and pans and think, "Ugh, what a mess!  I can't deal with all that right now."  And so I put it off, more dishes pile up, and it only makes the job harder when I finally get around it it.  I may even avoid walking through the kitchen so I don't have to look at the mess.  I pretend it's not there, but my pretending doesn't make the pile of dishes go away.

When our souls get dirty through sin, they need washing, too.  And, just like with the dishes, if you take care of it right away, it's no big deal.  But the longer you wait, the more the sins pile up, and the more daunting confession seems.  So we avoid it altogether.  We don't want to confront the reality of how dirty our souls have become.  But what we are avoiding is God's mercy, the very thing we need!

This is why it is such a good idea to set a regular schedule for confession -- and keep to it.  The Church requires us to confess our sins at least once a year, during the Lenten season, but this is the bare minimum.  Pope Francis goes to confession every two weeks.  Some go weekly, which can be helpful especially if you are struggling with an addictive sin.  For most Catholics going once per month or two will be sufficient.  I find that any less often than this, however, and it becomes very easy to forget about and put off until another time -- and then, like the dirty dishes, the next thing you know a big pile of sins has built up and separated you from God.

If your first Reconciliation was your last Reconciliation, know you are not alone.  Plenty of college students I speak to have not been to confession since they made their first Holy Communion.  Sadly, many Catholic families have not made reception of this sacrament part of their spiritual lives.  But you can change that.  You can start the practice of regular confession now.

Begin by examining your conscience. Reflect back on your life since your last confession and try to call to mind any time you did something you knew was not right, or that you later realized was wrong. You may find it helpful to use an examination of conscience that provides questions meant to help call to mind your sins (there is a short one in the back of the worship aid and prayer booklet in the pews in our chapel, or you can find many online, including this one for college students). One great thing about keeping the time between confessions to a minimum is that examining your conscience is much easier when it's been a short time since your last confession.

And then go to Confession. Just do it. Walk in there, kneel or sit down. Make the sign of the cross and then say, "Bless me, Father, I have sinned. It has been [X amount of time] since my last confession." Then say your sins. If it's been so long that you don't remember what to do, just ask Father to lead you through it.  Sometimes we may fear that the priest will be upset with us if we tell him that it has been years since we last confessed, but in fact the exact opposite is true.  He will rejoice to have you back to the sacrament.

Each confession, in fact, is an occasion of rejoicing.  While the act of recognizing and admitting our sins is a humbling thing, it's only the necessary prerequisite for the purpose of the sacrament, which is repenting from those sins and being reconciled to God through Christ.  Our reconciliation is so important to Christ that He died in order to make it possible, and then came back from the dead to announce it!  

So, tell me again... why are you putting off going to confession?  

"Confession is an act of honesty and courage - an act of entrusting ourselves, beyond sin, to the mercy of a loving and forgiving God." - Pope St. John Paul II