Thursday, May 25, 2017

Why Did Jesus Leave?

The Ascension of the Lord 

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I've always been inquisitive. Like a small child, first discovering the ways of the world around him, I frequently find myself asking the question, why? A child might wonder why the sky is blue, or why we have to eat vegetables. I tend to ask the question more in the context of our faith.

Religion often deals with the mysterious. God and the supernatural are, by definition, above the limits of our human understanding. But that does not make them irrational. Far from it. Faith is a window into great truth. God is the author of reason, and so above all else, any true religion should make sense. It is always a good thing, therefore, to ask why we do what we do and believe what we believe.

The world God created should make sense. Our place in the world should make sense. God's action in the world should make sense. Thinking about the question why often leads us to greater truths about the nature of reality.

One of my big why questions as I first learned about the Catholic faith had to do with the Ascension of the Lord. Why did Jesus leave?

Think about it. The whole Christian religion hinges on the fact that Jesus is the divine Son of God. His resurrection from the dead is the miracle that proves it. The Apostles are witnesses to this miraculous event, and the faith quickly spread throughout the world through their testimony. The Resurrection is the core event of our faith. This is why St. Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians that if Jesus has not been raised, then our whole faith is in vain and we are the most pitiable of all creatures (1 Cor 15:14). Everything hinges on this fact: Jesus has risen from the dead -- not like Lazarus, who was brought back to life only to die a second time -- but risen forever. Jesus has conquered death.

So why can't you or I take a plane to Jerusalem to go and see Him? Why isn't He still walking the earth today? If Christ has risen from the dead, never to die again, why can't you or I be witnesses to the Resurrection? It's because Jesus ascended into heaven forty days after He rose from the dead. Forty days. That is all the time the world had to be in the presence of the Risen Christ. 

What I wanted to know was why? Why did Jesus leave? Why not stay, so that Christians in future generations could see Him, learn from Him, and more deeply believe in Him?

Having been a Christian now for almost two decades, I have come to understand there are many answers to that question.

The Virtue of Faith

One has to do with the virtue of faith. In the letter to the Hebrews, we are told that "faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Heb 11:1). When I'm having dinner with my wife, I don't need to have faith in her presence. I can see her sitting across the table. Unless I have some reason to suspect my eyes are playing tricks on me, I know she is there. 

The truth of the Resurrection is not like that. I cannot see the Risen Christ. Believing in Him requires faith, which is a virtue. This is why Jesus told Thomas, the last Apostle to witness the Resurrection, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed" (Jn 20:29). They will be blessed because they have the virtue of faith. So perhaps Jesus ascended to heaven so that we might grow in this virtue, and so be more blessed.

The Promise of the Spirit

Jesus Himself offers the Apostles a reason for why He must leave them. In the days leading up to the Ascension, Jesus warns the disciples that He must soon depart, but assures them that it is good and necessary. In John's gospel, Jesus says, "It is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you. But if I go, I will send Him to you" (Jn 16:7).

Jesus is speaking of the Holy Spirit. In that same passage, Jesus says, "when He comes, the Spirit of truth, He will guide you to all truth" (Jn 16:13). 

Jesus did send the Holy Spirit down upon the Church ten days after His ascension, on Pentecost. If the Church is the Body of Christ, then the Holy Spirit is the soul of that body. Just as the soul gives life to the body, the Spirit gives Divine Life to the Church. So Pentecost is rightly considered the "birthday" of the Church.

Why did Jesus have to ascend to the Father in order to send the Holy Spirit to us? Why couldn't both the Second and Third Persons of the Trinity occupy the world at the time? I don't know. These things are great mysteries. Nevertheless, the Lord Himself clearly states that He ascended to heaven in order to send us the great gift of the Holy Spirit.

Christ Was a Pilgrim

In the final analysis, however, I believe there is one very fundamental reason why Jesus ascended into heaven, and it is this: the world is not His home. He doesn't belong here.

That the infinite and eternal Creator God would humble Himself to become man, and enter into His own creation, is a wonder. It only shows that there is nothing our God would not do to be with us. But He doesn't belong here. He is God. The world cannot contain Him. And so when the work He came to accomplish was completed, it is only fitting that Christ would ascend back into heaven, to His proper place.

And here is the ultimate good news of the Ascension. When the Son of God returned to heaven, He did not leave His humanity behind. Jesus, true God and true man, ascended into heaven as true God and true man. Human nature is now a part of the divine Godhead in heaven.

What this means for us, brothers and sisters, is that this world is not our home, either. Not any more. Like Christ, we are pilgrims in this world, on our way to a better place. 

Before He left them, Christ assured the Apostles that there are many rooms in His Father's house, and that He was going to prepare a place for them. "And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be" (Jn 14:3). 

An old Christian adage says that God became man so that man might become like God. And the more we become like God, the less we will feel at home in this world. This is why Christians claim to be "in the world, but not of the world." This is why we expect persecution. This is why we no longer seek solace in worldly pleasures. We cannot get too comfortable here, because like Jesus, this is not where we belong. 

Our Lord has gone before us. Here we stand, like the men of Galilee, looking up into the sky, our eyes fixed on heaven, our eternal home. We long to be there with Jesus, and we have faith that He will one day return, to bring us home with Him to share in His glory.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Are You an Evangelist?

6th Sunday of Easter (A)

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Are you an evangelist? If you asked most Catholics that question, they'd probably hesitate before answering. Many would say "no." It's not a word most of us are comfortable with (perhaps because it has become associated in our minds with a certain sub-set of Protestantism). But that's a shame. Because if you are a baptized Christian, you are supposed to be an evangelist. 

The word evangel comes from the Greek for "good news." It's the same word that we translate as "gospel." So an evangelist is one who shares good news -- specifically the good news of Jesus Christ. Who doesn't like to share good news?

The task of spreading the good news of Christ is not reserved for the bishops and clergy, or for monks and nuns. It's primarily the job of lay people. The Catechism reminds us that lay people have "the right and duty... to work so that the divine message of salvation may be known and accepted by all men throughout the earth" (CCC 900). The Second Vatican Council proclaimed that for lay people, "evangelization... acquires a specific property and peculiar efficacy because it is accomplished in the ordinary circumstances of the world" (Lumen Gentium 35). 

"Ordinary circumstances of the world" would included places where clergy and consecrated religious often cannot go: places like the workplace, the marketplace, neighborhoods, and in the case of college campuses, classrooms and dorms. In other words, in most places in the world, the task of sharing Jesus' good news falls to lay Catholics. 

For you, maybe that doesn't feel like good news. Maybe you don't feel comfortable talking with others about your faith. Maybe you don't feel smart enough. Maybe you don't feel holy enough. That's OK. You don't have to be a theologian or a saint to share with someone why Jesus is important in your life. 

Our readings for this Sunday give us a "game plan" for how to evangelize. The first reading from Acts tells us about the deacon Philip traveling to Samaria and proclaiming Christ to the people who lived there. They are converted, but that's not the end of the story. Peter and John come to them from Jerusalem to lay hands on them so that they might receive the Holy Spirit. We still do that today. We call it the sacrament of Confirmation.

What this episode tells us is important. Evangelization is about introducing someone to Jesus. So it's not enough to just tell them about Jesus. You want them to actually meet Him. And you find Jesus in His Church. So the new Christians in Samaria were introduced to the person of Jesus through His Apostles, Peter and John. They had already been initiated into the Church by baptism, but the Apostles confirmed that initiation through the laying on of hands. When someone puts on Christ in baptism, they become members of His Body, the Church. Evangelization starts outside the Church, but it should always end inside the Church.

The second reading from 1 Peter reads like a check-list for evangelization! We can take it line by line.

1. Sanctify Christ as Lord in your heart. This has to come first. You can't introduce someone to Jesus if you don't know Him yourself. You can't give someone a gift that you don't have. 

2. Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope. There is something different about Christians. People can tell. We have peace. We have joy. We have hope. We can expect people to ask about it. Whether they are asking a question about the doctrines and practices of the faith, or just want to know why are you so happy? we should be ready to tell them about it. This doesn't mean we have to have the Catechism memorized. But we should know the basics. We should know why we do what we do and believe what we believe. Most importantly, we should be comfortable just sharing honestly about how our relationship with Christ makes our lives better. 

3. But do it with gentleness and reverence. You can call this the "don't be a jerk" principle. Evangelization is about winning souls, not winning arguments. This is all about having a loving and charitable attitude. We can be right in what we say, but wrong in how we say it. A combative attitude can close someone'e heart to the truths of the faith. We don't want that. So when you "give a reason for your hope," always be respectful of the other person. After all, you want them to be your brother or sister in Christ. So treat them lovingly.

4. Keeping your conscience clear. This means living an upright moral life, and striving for virtue. Why is this important? It ties into #1 above. If you haven't made Christ Lord of your heart, you can't ask others to do so. If you aren't living virtuously, you offer at best a hypocritical witness. Your credibility is diminished. But most importantly, you won't be ready for what comes next.

5. Expect to be persecuted. St. Peter says that we need to keep our conscience clear so that we'll be ready when people malign us for the sake of the gospel -- which they will do. They did it to Christ, and there has never been a better evangelizer than our Lord. We can expect no better for ourselves.

And finally, the best news of all about evangelization comes in our gospel passage. Jesus tells us, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth." By keeping the commandments of God, we keep a clear conscience, as St. Peter instructs us. But we also remain united with Christ, who promises to send us the Holy Spirit as our advocate and guide. This is essential, because it is not we who are the true agents of evangelization, but the Holy Spirit working through us. Neither you nor I can convert a single person's heart to Christ, but the Holy Spirit can convert thousands through our witness, if we cooperate with Him by keeping Christ's commands.

The Church received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, which we will soon celebrate once more at the end of the Easter Season. We as individuals receive the Holy Spirit at our Confirmation, like the Samaritans in our first reading from Acts. The sacrament of Confirmation is our personal Pentecost, where we receive the power to live lives of holiness, and the power to witness to world about the good news of Christ.

If you have the Holy Spirit, then you have this power. What you don't have are excuses.

So I ask again: are you an evangelist?

Friday, May 12, 2017

A Royal Priesthood

5th Sunday of Easter (A)

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Someone asked me a question recently about why the Catholic Church has ordained priests. This person, who was a Protestant, cited 1 Pt 2:4-9 wherein St. Peter talks about the priesthood of all believers. This same reading is given to us in the lectionary for this Sunday. As Catholics, we certainly believe in the priesthood of all believers. But sometimes we forget just how important this teaching is.

Let's think for a moment about what it means to be a priest. In the Old Testament, priests had a particular duty. They offered sacrifices to God, on behalf of themselves and of the Jewish people. They were the only ones who could enter the Temple. And only the High Priest could enter into the Holy of Holies (called the tabernacle in Hebrew) where the presence of God dwelt.

St. Peter teaches that God has made us into "a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ." What does Peter mean by "spiritual sacrifices?" Under the old covenant, priests would offer animal sacrifices as a gesture of atonement for sin; an offering back to God of the good things of His creation. But these sacrifices were not sufficient. How could the finite offering of a mere goat or a lamb suffice for the innumerable sins of man?

This is why our loving God became Incarnate. He entered into His own creation as a Man who could be for us both priest and victim. Only God could bear the weight of all our sins. Only man could die on the cross. In Jesus we have both. In Jesus we have an everlasting and infinitely effective sacrifice. In Jesus the old priesthood comes to an end. We now have a new High Priest, whose single sacrifice is enough to save us all.

So when the Church speaks of the priesthood of the baptized she does not mean that we are priests in addition to Christ, but that we share in Christ's one priesthood. This priesthood is rooted in our baptism, because through our baptism we are reborn in Christ. We became part of the Body of Christ. And as members of Christ's Body, we are members of His priesthood, as well.

As priests, we can offer sacrifices. But we do not offer sacrifices of cattle or sheep. Instead we offer the sacrifice of ourselves, which is what Christ did for us. We may not be called to die as martyrs (although some Christians are), but we are called to die to self each and every day, and live for Christ. Just as Christ's suffering redeemed us, as participants in Christ's priesthood our suffering can also be redemptive, because we no longer suffer alone. Instead we offer our suffering as a sacrifice to God in union with Christ's suffering on the cross. We could not do this if we did not share in Jesus' priesthood.

As priests, we can also enter into the presence of God. In the Old Testament, only priests could enter the Temple. Only the High Priest could enter into the Holy of Holies. But as New Testament priests, the Holy of Holies enters into us! We become the Temple of God! This would not be possible if we were not true priests. So the priesthood of the baptized is very important to our lives as Christians. This is why baptism is received before any of the other sacraments. Baptism is the first sacrament of initiation which leads to the final sacrament of initiation, the Eucharist, when we receive God Himself into our bodies. We become Temples of the Holy Spirit.

So let us not devalue the priesthood of the baptized. But where does this leave the ordained priesthood? This is also something vital to our Christian faith, which cannot be ignored. The Catechism teaches us that the common priesthood and the ordained priesthood are ordered toward one another.  The priesthood of the faithful is exercised by living out one's baptismal graces in a life of faith, hope and charity; the ministerial priesthood is there to help the faithful do that. In other words, "the ministerial priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood" (CCC 1547).

We see this dynamic already in the New Testament. Jesus had many disciples, but He selected twelve men to whom He imparted certain responsibilities, and the authority to carry out those responsibilities. They could bind and loose in His name. They could forgive sins. They could offer the bread and wine that would become His Body and Blood. They do all of this at the service of the Church.

The ministry of the Apostles is the ministry of Christ carried forward in time, and out into the world. It is through the Apostles and their ordained ministry that Christ's sacramental graces continue to flow. This is why the graces Jesus gave to the Apostles could not remain just with them, but must be transmitted to others selected to serve the Church.

We also see this happening already in the New Testament. In the Acts of the Apostles we read of the Twelve choosing many others to share in their responsibility and authority. This Sunday's first reading is Acts 6:1-7, where the Apostles choose "seven reputable men" whom they prayed over and laid hands on (an act of ordination), to give them a share in their ministry. These sacred ministers helped in the distribution of the Church's charity, preached the gospel, baptized new believers, and instructed the faithful.

These men are considered the first deacons of the Church. The word deacon means "servant," and is the first degree of holy orders. Still today, before any man is ordained a priest, he is first ordained a deacon, underscoring the fact that the ministerial priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood of the faithful.

If the purpose of the ministerial priesthood is to serve the laity by helping them grow in holiness, then the purpose of the baptismal priesthood is to serve the world, by helping it to grow in holiness. For it is the lay faithful who are out in the world, and who are meant to act as leaven. The laity are the primary evangelizers who are meant to spread the faith and add to the number of the Church . The clergy exist to give the laity the spiritual tools needed to accomplish that task.

In the end we all have one goal: union with God the Father through Jesus Christ. Jesus says in this Sunday's gospel that He is in the Father and the Father is in Him (Jn 14:11). Our baptism makes us one with Christ, and so one with the Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. We are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, and a holy nation. Let us never forget how precious a gift this royal priesthood is. Let us never neglect to carry out our priestly duties, offering ourselves as living sacrifices to God, offering Him praise, and carrying the message of Christ's mercy out into the world.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Whose Voice are You Following?

4th Sunday of Easter (A)

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Jesus and I have something in common. And no, I don't just mean the awesome beard. We are both shepherds! My family and I raise Soay Sheep, which is a rare breed from the tiny St. Kilda islands off the northwest coast of Scotland. They are a primitive breed, and so very much like the sheep Jesus may have been familiar with two thousand years ago.

Part of their being a primitive breed means they have not been bred to be docile and trusting like most modern commercial sheep. In fact, our sheep are quite skittish. When we take visitors out, the sheep typically run to the far corner of the pasture and huddle together, glaring suspiciously in our direction. They don't trust new people.

On the other hand, when I go out there by myself, the sheep run toward me, not away from me. They are comfortable coming near to me because they know me. I'm the one who makes sure they have food and water. I'm the one who cares for them. They trust me. And so they follow me. 

Jesus says in this Sunday's gospel, "he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him,because they recognize his voice." The sight of a shepherd walking ahead of his sheep, with his flock obediently following behind, is common enough to those in agrarian cultures. But Jesus is using this image as a figure of speech. "I am the Good Shepherd," he later says. "I know my sheep and mine know me" (Jn 10:14). 

Jesus is the Good Shepherd. We are His flock. What does it mean to be a sheep in the flock of Christ? Undoubtedly it means many things, but let us focus now on the one thing Jesus mentions here. His sheep know Him. They recognize His voice.

What does it mean to recognize the voice of Jesus? One common frustration of Christians that I hear is I never hear God speaking to me. We long for some direction or some sign from God that we are on the right path, or to help us know what lies ahead. Do I go to grad school? Do I accept this job? Do I marry this person? Do I drop out of school? Should I be friends with this group? Lord, what do I do!? We ask these questions and when we don't hear the Voice of God whispered in our ear, we may begin to doubt whether God is listening.

But God speaks to us all the time, in normal and ordinary ways. He does not hide from us. We must remember that He sent His Son into the world in order to be with us and make Himself known to us. So perhaps we just are not seeing all the plain, ordinary opportunities we have to hear the voice of our shepherd. 

We hear God's voice in the scriptures--not as a word that was spoken in the long ago past to long-dead people, but as a living word, spoken to us now. The Church teaches that "In the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven comes lovingly to meet His children, and talks with them" (Dei Verbum 21). As sheep who recognize the Shepherd's voice, we should read the scriptures daily, especially those scriptures that the Church presents to us in the liturgy. We should hear it as God's word spoken to us today.

We hear God's voice in the Church. The Church is not called "the Body of Christ" for nothing. She is the continuation of the Incarnation in time. She is the fulfillment of Christ's promise to be with us always. "As the Father has sent me, so I send you," Jesus told the Apostles (Jn 20:21), and, "Whoever hears you, hears me" (Lk 10:16). We hear the voice of the Shepherd in the magisterial teachings of the Church. We should pay attention to them. We should be familiar with the Catechism and make an effort to integrate the Church's teachings into our lives. 

And yes, we do hear God's voice when we pray. We may not hear it audibly, spoken in our ears as if God was sitting right next to us. Because God is closer than that. He's not content to sit next to us, He wants to dwell within us. If we pray as one united to Christ, then we can hear the voice of Jesus in our very prayers. St. Augustine speaks of this: "He prays for us as our priest, prays in us as our Head, and is prayed to by us as our God. Therefore let us acknowledge our voice in Him and His in us" (qtd. in CCC 2616). 

If we don't hear the Shepherd's voice in these ordinary ways, we should ask: are we really listening? Are we reading the scriptures prayerfully? Are we listening to what the Church teaches and taking it seriously? Are we praying on a daily basis? 

There are other voices out there. There is no shortage of other voices shouting for our attention -- and some of them can shout rather loudly. What other voices are we not just hearing, but listening to, allowing to influence our lives? What music do we listen to? What books do we read? What movies and tv shows do we watch? What friends do we surround ourselves with? Do we follow the teachings of politicians more than priests? Do we pace the authority of pop-stars over that of popes? Perhaps we don't hear the Voice of the Shepherd because we are paying too much attention to these other voices.

Jesus says of His sheep, "they will not follow a stranger; they will run away from him, because they do not recognize the voice of strangers." There is a reason why my sheep run to the far end of the pasture when someone they don't know approaches. They don't recognize that person. They know that's not their shepherd. They don't trust them. This instinct keeps them alive.

We should develop the same instinct to avoid those voices that compete with the Voice of the Good Shepherd. This doesn't mean closing our ears and burying our heads in the ground. We should hear these voices of the world. We should be aware of them. But we shouldn't recognize them. That is to say, we should not listen to them as if they were authoritative. Because -- if we are truly members of Jesus' flock -- we know that we have but one Shepherd, and His voice is the One that we trust. His voice is the voice that leads us to verdant pastures and flowing streams. His voice is the only one that will lead us home.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Everything is Different

Third Sunday of Easter (A)

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Jesus and the disciples on the road to Emmaus
There is a Greek word that is largely unfamiliar to most Christians today but very important to the life of the Church: kerygma. It means "preaching." Specifically in a Christian context it means preaching the core message of the gospel. 

This is what St. Peter preaches in this Sunday's first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Jesus is the Son of God. You condemned Him and killed Him. But God raised Him from the dead. We are witnesses to this. Repent and believe and you, too, will share in eternal life. Persist in your unbelief and you will be lost. It's the gospel in a nutshell.

It's a story that is so familiar to Christians that we can take it for granted. We can forget how radical a story it is. It's a game changer of eternal proportions. Here's why.

If Jesus Christ truly rose from the dead, then everything is different.

It changes everything. It means that miracles are real. It means that there exists something outside of the natural world, and that "something" has broken through into the natural world. It means that Jesus is not just a good man. It means that Jesus is not just some crazy person with a God complex. It means that He is more than a teacher or a guru. It means that he is genuinely of God, with God, and is God. It means we have to take Jesus seriously.

We have to take Him seriously when He says, "I am the way, the truth and the life."

We have to take Him seriously when He says, "No one can come to the Father except through me."

We have to take Him seriously when He says, "Love God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself."

We have to take Him seriously when He says, "This is my body, which will be given up for you," and "Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life within you."

We have to take Jesus, and the whole idea of God, the Church, heaven and hell seriously. And that makes everything different.

We are at the end of an academic year at WCU. Many of you stand at the cusp of great change. We just had our final fellowship dinner of the semester, at which we honored our graduating seniors. Leaving college means transitioning from one stage in life to another; from life as a student to life in the professional world; from someone living under your parents' care to an independent adult. I remember when I was a senior in college. It was scary, knowing that I was entering into a new stage in my life without knowing what that would involve. A year after I graduated I was married. A year after that I became a father and bought my first house. Almost nothing in my life was the same as it was a few short years before. I couldn't have imagined then what my life now would be like.

If graduating from college is a big and scary transition for us, imagine what Jesus' disciples felt after that first Easter. We get a glimpse in this week's gospel account of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, a village a few miles outside of Jerusalem. They are distressed and confused. Jesus, whom they believed to be the Messiah, had died on the cross and was buried. They thought it was the end. But now people are saying He has risen from the dead. They have seen Him! Can this be true? What does this mean?

A man joins them. It is Jesus, but they do not recognize Him. He hides His identity from them. Instead He speaks to them of the scriptures and shows how everything in the Old Testament indicates that the Messiah should suffer and die and rise again from the dead. The gospel says that their "hearts were burning" within them as they listened to His words. Then He ate with them. He took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them. It is only then that they recognized Christ, "in the breaking of the bread."

Having encountered the Risen Jesus, the gospel tells us that they "set out at once" to "tell what they had seen." They preached the kerygma; they shared their good news. Because Jesus is truly Risen! And they knew that makes everything different.

Jesus is Risen. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we encounter Him today in the breaking of the bread, in the Eucharistic feast of the Mass. Have we allowed that fact -- the most important fact in the history of mankind -- to make a difference in our lives? Jesus is Risen. He is the Christ. He is God. Do we take Him seriously? If not, why not? 

This Easter season, I invite you to return to basics. Return to the kerygmatic core of the Christian faith. Meditate upon the Resurrection of Christ and allow it to change your life. Jesus is Risen. Everything is different.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Mission of Mercy

2nd Sunday of Easter (A) - Divine Mercy Sunday

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The second Sunday of Easter is celebrated in the Catholic Church as a feast of Divine Mercy. The particular devotion to the Divine Mercy has its inspiration in the writings of St. Faustina Kowalska, an early 20th century Polish nun and visionary. But of course St. Faustina was not inventing anything new. She was simply reminding us of something the Church has always stressed, and that is the necessity of relying upon the mercy of God.

One of my favorite prayers is the simple one called the "Jesus Prayer" which is taken from the tax collector's prayer in Lk 18:13. All it says is, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. It doesn't say much, but it says all that needs to be said. It acknowledges Jesus as God. It acknowledges us as sinners. And it asks for the one thing all sinners need from God - mercy.

The gospel reading for the 2nd Sunday of Easter is always John 20:19-31. This reading tells of the first time the disciples saw the resurrected Christ. They were hiding (all except for Thomas), in a locked room, afraid. Suddenly Jesus appears in the middle of them and says, "Peace be with you." He then does something very special.

He tells the Apostles, "As the Father has sent me, so I send you." This is what the word apostle means -- "one sent on a mission." The Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, became Incarnate, took on a human nature, suffered, died, and rose from the dead because He was sent on a mission from the Father. What is that mission? Simply put, it is to reconcile sinners to God. It is rescue mission. It is a mission of mercy. And now Christ sends the Apostles on that same mission.

Jesus then gives them to tools they need to carry out that mission. 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). Jesus Christ, the Son of God, gives His Apostles and His Church a share in His ministry of forgiveness, and the authority to exercise that ministry. This is why we confess our sins to a priest, who share in this Apostolic ministry. This is what happens every time we enter the confessional and say, "Father, forgive me for I have sinned." We become recipients of God's limitless mercy. And as if that were not good news enough, we don't just receive God's mercy one or two times. There is no "three strikes you're out" rule in Catholicism. No, we are able to receive God's mercy time and time again, as many times as we need it, as many times as we are willing to ask for it.

This great gift of God's mercy is why the Church sings Alleluia! It is why the psalmist proclaims, "His mercy endures forever" (Ps. 118). It is why the Apostles went out into the world to preach the good news. Because it is good news. It needs to be shouted from the rooftops. God has come to free us from the slavery of our sins. We have sinned against God, but God forgives us in Christ!

And it is why the Church reminds us, on this second Sunday of Easter, of the importance of relying upon God's mercy. All during the penitential season of Lent we hear messages of repentance. We hear calls to conversion. Our churches may offer extra opportunities for reconciliation. But we don't leave all that behind now that Lent is over. God's mercy endures forever. It is timeless. It knows no season. It is ever present. 

The time to receive God's mercy is now. In the diary of St. Faustina Kowalska, she records a vision of Jesus saying, "He who refuses to pass through the door of My mercy must pass through the door of My justice" (Diary 1146). God leaves that choice in our hands.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Crucifying the King

Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion (A)

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Palm Sunday is unusual, not just because we have two gospel readings (one before Mass begins outside the church), but because of the contrast between the two. Some Sundays are given special names, such as Laetare (Rejoice) Sunday a couple of weeks ago. I like to call Palm Sunday the "Well That Escalated Quickly" Sunday.

We begin our celebration outside the church with a reading from Matthew 21, welcoming Christ into Jerusalem as a triumphant king. We shout, "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!"

Moments later we have the very long gospel reading of the Lord's Passion, recalling how Jesus was betrayed, arrested, tortured, executed and buried. We shout out, "Let Him be crucified!" The reading ends with a cold stone being rolled over the entrance to Jesus' tomb.

What a stark contrast.

We might leave Mass on Palm Sunday with our heads spinning, wondering how the people of Jerusalem could go from welcoming Jesus as a King to crucifying Him as a criminal in so short a time. But don't we do the same?

During our initial conversion, when we first come to embrace Christ as our Lord and Savior, we welcome Him into our hearts. We rejoice and hail Him as our King, with shouts of "Hosanna" (an ancient Jewish acclamation of praise). Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, who frees us from our sins! Hosanna!

But then what? Eventually we sin again. And by sinning, we once more join the crowds shouting "Crucify Him!" For this is the reason why Christ, who was innocent of all sin, had to die on the cross -- for our sins, yours and mine. Each time we sin we should think about the crucifixion and know that it is our sins that drove the nails into his hands and feet.

So what should we do? 

First of all, we don't give up. Because beyond the cross there is the empty tomb. Beyond death there is resurrection. Beyond sin there is forgiveness. Beyond condemnation there is mercy. 

Christ died on the cross for our sins, and if we have a compassionate heart at all, that should fill us with sorrow. Deep down we know that we are the ones who deserve to be punished for our sins, not Jesus. But it should also make us rejoice. It is a great mystery that sorrow and joy can coexist in Christianity. Jesus died for our sins on the cross, and this is good news. Because by so doing He has won our redemption and freed us from our sin. This is why it is a betrayal of Christ any time we choose to sin, because it is a rejection of that freedom He won for us, a freedom from sin.

So  we must learn to hate sin and avoid it at all cost - especially mortal sin. All sin is a failure to love as we should. We all fail in love in small ways throughout our lives, because even though we are redeemed we are not yet perfected. We are works in progress. God is still training us in holiness and that takes time. But some sins are so grievous as to be incompatible with love. These are mortal sins, and by committing these sins we cut ourselves off from God's divine life, which is love itself. So having accepted Christ as our King and welcomed Him into our hearts with shouts of "Hosanna," we should detest nothing more than the thought of evicting Jesus from our hearts by mortal sin.

But when we realize that we have turned away from God by falling into sin, we should immediately turn back. To repent literally means to "turn around." We turn away from our sin and turn back to God, seeking His forgiveness in the sacrament of Reconciliation. Yes, your sin is why Christ died on the cross. Yes, this should cause you sorrow. But yes, it should also cause you to rejoice, because Christ died for all of your sins. Not just one. Not just a few. All of them. Even and especially the ones that you feel guilty about right now. Give them to Christ. He's already paid the price for them. Give them over to Him in the confessional and let Him take their burden off of your shoulders. This is, quite literally, what He came into the world to do. Let Him do it. 

It's really that simple. Strive to be faithful. But when you are not, repent and seek forgiveness. Then strive to be faithful once more. Do that, over and over.  As often as you fall, get back up again. As often as you sin, repent and seek forgiveness. Keep moving forward, following Jesus into Jerusalem, all the way to the cross. Because on the other side of that cross is eternal life and the joy of heaven. Let us follow together our Crucified King.


Friday, March 24, 2017

Visible Signs of Grace

4th Sunday of Lent (A)

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Just like last week's gospel of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well, this week's gospel gives us a rich and detailed story of a life-changing personal encounter with Christ. The story of the man born blind is full of meaning for our faith, but I just want to touch on one aspect of it: why did Jesus use clay?

It is an interesting question. Think about it. If all Jesus wanted to do was to heal this blind man, He did not need to smear clay on his eyes to do so. The Divine Son of God could have simply willed it and the man would have been healed. Indeed, we see in other places in the gospels Jesus doing just that, even raising people from the dead simply by willing it to happen. So why, then, does our Lord spit on the ground, make clay from his saliva, smear it on this man's eyes, and then instruct him to wash in the pool of Siloam? Doesn't it all seem a bit elaborate, when all Jesus had to do was will that the man be able to see?

In our Credo discussions after Mass recently we have been talking about the sacraments. It strikes me that what we see Jesus doing here is very sacramental. Sacraments are visible signs of an invisible reality. The bread and wine used in the Eucharist become the visible signs of Jesus' Body and Blood, given up for us. The water poured over our heads at baptism is a visible sign that God has cleansed us of our sins. Whether we are talking about confirmation, matrimony, confession or any of the other sacraments, they all work in this way. They are all visible signs of grace given by God.

Jesus Himself is the fundamental sacrament. What is the Incarnation but the invisible reality of God made visible to us in human flesh? The Church can also be considered a sacrament, as she is the visible sign of Christ's redeeming mission continuing in space and time.

In all of these examples of sacrament, we can ask the same question as we asked about Jesus healing the blind man with clay. Why? Could not God have accomplished all of these things in a way that was less involved, less elaborate? In a way that was less physical? In a way that was less messy?

Yes, He could. Yet God chose to come to us in ways that we can see and touch and He did so for our benefit.

We are creatures of both body and spirit. When we think of religious things, we tend to focus almost exclusively on spiritual realities. This is understandable. God is spirit. Grace and mercy, sin and forgiveness are all spiritual things. But we are not only spirit. God made us as bodily creatures, and as bodily creatures, we experience the world through our senses. We gain information through our sight, hearing, and by our sense of touch, taste and smell. This is how we learn. God made us this way, and so it only follows that He would come to us in ways that we can understand; ways that we can see, touch, taste, hear and smell. This doesn't mean that God does not also come to us in spiritual ways, but rather the spiritual ways that God touches our lives will be indicated through physical signs. 

God comes to us in ways that we can physically sense for our benefit. Fr. Leo Trese, in his book, The Faith Explained, shares these thoughts about administering the sacrament of baptism.
I am sure that I have poured the water of baptism on the heads of many adults whose souls were in the state of sanctifying grace. They had already made acts of perfect love for God; they had already received the baptism of desire. And yet in every such case, the convert has expressed his relief and joy at receiving, actually, the sacrament of Baptism. Because, up to that moment he could not be sure that his sins were gone. No matter how hard he might try to make an act of perfect love, he never could be sure that he had succeeded. But when the saving water had flowed upon his head, he knew then with certainty that God had come to him.
The feel of the cool water flowing over his head made the reality of God's forgiveness present to this man's senses. Likewise the taste of the Eucharist signals to our mind that we are consuming the Body and Blood of Christ. The sound of the priest's voice saying, "I absolve you of your sins," brings the joy of God's mercy to our ears. God doesn't need the sacraments. We do. The sacraments are made by God for our benefit, so that we might know He has truly come to us.

God desires greatly to be with us; every part of us. That means in body as well as in spirit. This is why God will restore to us glorified bodies after the resurrection. This is why God desires to dwell within our bodies when we receive the Eucharist even now in this life. Remember that this same God Himself took on a body in the Incarnation. He was born of a woman, and nursed at her breasts. Christianity is founded upon the belief that God has come to us in physical form. It is a sacramental faith.

The way that Jesus chose to heal the man born blind, is a foreshadowing of the sacraments. Just like the Church uses water, oil, bread and wine, Jesus uses spit and dirt to form clay. Just like we have sacramental liturgies, Jesus instructs the man to perform a ritual action by washing in the pool. Why?

For two reasons. The first is that this man needed it. He needed to feel the warmth and firmness of Jesus' hands on his blind eyes. He needed to hear our Savior's words, telling him to go and wash. He needed to go through the actions of the ritual, feeling the cool water cleansing his face. Jesus healed him in this way for his benefit, so that he might know God's healing presence.

The second reason is because we need it, too. Jesus tells us at the beginning of this gospel reading exactly why He was healing this man: so that the works of God might be made visible through him (Jn 9:3). The works of God made visible - that sounds like a good definition of a sacrament to me.

May each of us who participate in the sacramental life of the Church live the graces given in those sacraments in such a way that we, too, may become sacraments, making God's glory visible through our lives.

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Unexpected Encounter

3rd Sunday of Lent (A)

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Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well is rich with meaning. It is a gospel reading that can be meditated upon endlessly. Today, I want to focus on three things that the Samaritan woman's experience tells us about what we can expect when we encounter Jesus.

1. It's Personal

There are only two players in this drama - Jesus and the woman. She has come out to the well by herself. Jesus' disciples have gone into the town to buy food. It is just the two of them, speaking directly to one another.

As Christians, we are part of a larger community. We are all part of the Church, the Body of Christ. Even desert hermits are still joined to a community that they check in with from time to time. You cannot be a Christian in isolation.

But we come into this body of believers as individuals. Jesus comes to us as individual people and invites us to be a part of something much larger than ourselves. This is because He loves us individually, not as some nameless and faceless member of an amorphous group. Each of us must, at some point in our lives, make that personal decision to engage in a relationship with Christ. No one else can make that decision for you.

2. Jesus is Direct

Jesus does not mince words with the Samaritan woman. She has made bad decisions in life. She is not living as she ought to be. And Jesus calls her out. He does not do so in a demeaning or harsh way. But He doesn't gloss over the issue, either, pretending everything is OK. Everything is not OK. She knows it. He knows it. Jesus simply tells it like it is. "You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband."

Jesus knows you are a sinner. He knows each one of your sins, more clearly than you do. So there is no need to hide your sins from Him, or pretend that you are OK when you are not OK. If you want to have an honest and meaningful encounter with Christ, expect Him to be direct with you (even if it stings a little -- or a lot). This kind of direct and open honesty is key to true repentance and healing. Jesus offers spiritual healing, but we cannot be healed unless we are willing to acknowledge the disease that is our sin.

3. It is Transformative

The Samaritan woman does not end up where she began in this encounter. She leaves with a totally different perspective about Christ and about herself. We see this clearly by just looking at how she addresses Jesus. 

She begins by calling Him simply "a Jew." For her, as a Samaritan, being a Jew makes Jesus an "other" -- someone on the outside. Then she calls Him "Sir," a more formal title of respect. She later calls Jesus "a prophet," after He reveals the truth of her marital situation. Finally, she recognizes Jesus as "Messiah" the chosen one of God. After only a brief exchange, she begins to see more clearly who Jesus really is, and is herself transformed as a result.

She begins this gospel story as a woman isolated from her community, coming alone to draw water at the hottest time of day (ostracized perhaps because of her scandalous past). She ends the story by running back to the community, proclaiming the good news that she has met the long awaited Messiah who offers healing and hope.


This is what we can expect to happen to us when we encounter Jesus. It will be personal. He will be direct with us. (There is no need to hide our sins from Him, so we can and should be open about them, especially in the confessional). And it will transform us. Once we encounter Christ, we will not be the same person as we were before. 

There is one final characteristic of the Samaritan woman's encounter with Christ that we should consider. It is unexpected. I imagine that she began her day like any other. When we first see her, she is doing just one of many mundane tasks of the day; drawing water from the well. Little did she expect that she was about to meet One who would tell her "everything [she] had done" and offer her "living water" so that she "will never thirst again." We should likewise be open to our own encounter with Christ in the midst of our day-to-day lives, even when we least expect it. 

We must be open to that unexpected encounter. Things could have gone differently with the Samaritan woman. She could have refused to speak with Jesus. She could have turned and walked away. But she didn't. She was open to the words Christ spoke to her. She recognized Jesus as the Messiah because she was open to finding Him. 

This Lent especially, and every day throughout our lives, may we, too, be open to an unexpected encounter with Jesus; one that will transform us, if we allow it to. And having found Him, let us, like the Samaritan woman, not hesitate to bring the good news of our joy to all those whom we meet. 

Friday, March 10, 2017

Good Enough For God?

2nd Sunday of Lent (A)

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The Transfiguration of Christ
During Lent we are encouraged to take on additional spiritual practices and disciplines such as fasting, prayer and almsgiving. Why do we do these things?

Do we do them as part of a divine self-improvement plan? Do we fast from dessert in order to shed a few pounds? Do we say an extra rosary during the week because we think it will make us a better person? Do we spend a few hours volunteering at the soup kitchen because we think it will gain us some divine favor?

We need to be careful. There can be a danger any time we set out to increase the practice of our Christian devotion, in thinking that by so doing we can make ourselves "good enough" for God.

This is the heresy of Pelagianism, condemned long ago by the Church. Pelagius was a fourth century monk who denied the existence of original sin. That meant that, at least in theory, it was possible for a person to live his or her entire life without committing any personal sin, and therefore be in no need of a savior. The Church has always taught that Adam's fall from grace affects all men and therefore Christ died to save all men.

We practice a form of Pelagianism when we act as though our prayers and charitable acts will earn us a place in heaven. We are wrong if we think God will let us in if only we spend enough hours helping the poor or pray enough Hail Marys. The truth is that there is nothing you or I can do that will ever "earn" us anything from God.

We simply can't. We are not on God's level. You and I are able to merit favor from one another because we share in equal human dignity. If you do a certain amount of work for me, I owe you a certain amount of money. This is a matter of justice. We can enter into contracts and hold one another accountable. We are equals. 

This is not the case between a human and an ant. No matter how good an ant may be at digging tunnels and whatever else it is that ants do, no ant will ever put me in a position of owing it anything. It is incapable of earning anything from me, because it is not my equal.

As far above the ant as we are, even further above us is the Almighty God. We are simply incapable of earning our way to heaven. There is nothing we can do that will make God owe us anything. We will never be "good enough" for heaven. Not on our own.

The only one who can merit God's favor is one who is of equal dignity to God. I'm talking about Jesus Christ, revealed in the Transfiguration as God's divine Son. He and only He is the one of whom God said, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."

We are saved not by our own efforts but by the efforts of Christ. St. Paul tells us that, "He saved us and called us to a holy life, not according to our works but according to His own design" (2 Tim 1:9). 

Does this mean we should not bother with prayer, fasting or almsgiving? Does this mean we should not strive to grow in virtue? Does this mean we do not have to repent of our sins and follow the moral commandments? No, we must do all of these things. As St. Paul said, we are called to "a holy life." The question becomes why? Not because we think that by doing these things we are meriting heaven, but for other good reasons. 

First, because by doing good and charitable works as baptized Christians, we do them not on our own efforts but with the strength provided by Christ, as a member of His mystical body. We grow in conformity to God's only Son, in whom He is well pleased. God is pleased by Christ's work in us.

Second, because we cannot get to heaven on our own. I don't care how far you walk, drive, swim or fly you simply cannot get there from here. God Himself must reach down to us and draw us up to Himself. This is precisely what He does in Christ. But we cannot ascend to heaven with Christ while we are holding fast to the things of this world. This is why we fast during Lent; to learn detachment from the things that may be holding us back from God.

And third, because we learn through our penance to rely solely on Christ. As Paul says to Timothy, we are to bear our share of hardship for the gospel, with the strength that comes from God (2 Tim 1:8). By bearing small burdens voluntarily for the sake of Christ, we learn to bear the harsher burdens of our fallen world as Christ bore His burden for us on the cross. 

God has only one begotten Son, Jesus Christ. But those who are reborn in Christ become adopted sons and daughters of God. God becomes for us more than our Maker; He is our beloved Father. By living in Christ and cooperating with His grace, we can have sure and certain hope that at the end of our lives we, too, may hear the Father's voice crying out to greet us, "This is my beloved son/daughter, in whom I am well pleased."

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Can Catholics Eat Meat on St. Patrick's Day?

St. Patrick's Day falls on a Friday this year, which has many Catholics (of Irish descent or otherwise) wondering whether they can celebrate this day with their traditional corned beef and cabbage. You see, Fridays in Lent are days when Catholics are bound by the law of the Church to abstain from meat. Every time St. Patrick's Day falls on a Friday, stories start to float around of special permission being granted for Catholics to eat corned beef. So is there really an exception to our normal Lenten penance for our favorite Irish saint?

Yes and no.

Here's the situation. Every Friday during the year is considered a day of penance according to Canon Law (can. 1250). For most of the year, Catholics in the United States are free to choose how they will observe that penance. However, during Lent, the Friday penance must be observed by abstaining from flesh meat (meaning warm blooded animals, so fish and reptiles are OK). Observing this common penance during Lent helps to foster solidarity in the Church. There is also something to be said for the witness given by practicing a tradition in common.

But there are exceptions. When a solemnity falls on a Friday, that day is not observed as a day of penance. This is because solemnities are celebratory. They are the highest feast days of the Church, and one cannot feast and fast at the same time. So when a solemnity falls on a Friday during Lent (as sometimes happens with the Solemnity of St. Joseph on March 19), Catholics do not have to abstain from meat on those days.

So what about St. Patrick? Is his feast day a solemnity? For most of the world, the answer is no. It is not.

We commonly refer to the observance of a saint's day as a "feast" but technically it can be one of several things depending on the saint's prominence and how much emphasis the Church wishes to give to its celebration. At the top of the ranking are solemnities, but then there are feasts, memorials, and optional memorials. This ranking system determines whether a saint's day must be celebrated, or may be celebrated, as well as what observance takes precedence when there are overlaps on the calendar.

To make matters more complicated, the ranking of a saint's feast can also differ based on where you are in the world. St. Patrick's Day is a perfect example. In Ireland and Australia, it is observed as a solemnity. In Scotland, Wales and New Zealand it is observed as a feast. For the rest of the world, including the United States, it is an optional memorial. That means in Ireland and Australia, on Friday, March 17 this year, Catholics are free to eat meat as usual, because that Friday is not a day of penance. But for the rest of the world, the Friday penance still stands.

Unless it doesn't. Individual bishops are free to make exceptions. Why would they do this? A bishop might grant a dispensation if there is a significantly large Irish immigrant population in his diocese, or if St. Patrick is the diocesan patron. Moreover, there are different ways a bishop might do this. He may simply grant an exemption from the Friday abstinence. Or he may, more likely, dispense from the requirement to abstain from meat but still require the faithful in his diocese to observe penance in some other way that day. I have heard of some bishops granting a dispensation to those who participate in a Mass that day. In any case, whatever dispensation an individual bishop chooses to make, it applies only in his diocese and has no effect on Catholics in other parts of the world.

What about the Diocese of Charlotte? To the best of my knowledge, Bishop Peter Jugis has granted no such dispensation allowing Catholics to eat meat on St. Patrick's day this year, corned beef or otherwise. If I hear differently, I will be sure to let everyone know.

In the meantime, there are plenty of ways to honor this beloved saint without eating corned beef. St. Patrick was a holy man, a caring pastor, and friend of Christ. There is no better way to honor him than with our prayers and devotions, by keeping a holy Lent, and preparing ourselves to celebrate with joy the risen Christ at Easter.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Temptation

1st Sunday of Lent (A)

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The temptation of Christ in the wilderness.
Every time we pray the Lord's Prayer, we ask God to "lead us not into temptation." Yet we know from experience we continue to face temptation every day. Does God not answer this prayer? Of course this is not the case. Our Lord Himself gave us this prayer as the model for all our prayers. What we ask God for in the Lord's Prayer is not to remove all temptation from us, but rather for the strength to resist temptation. To remove temptation entirely would be to remove our free will, for temptation arises any time we are called to make a choice that has moral weight. Even Jesus experienced temptation, though He did not yield to it.

Sometimes we are called to make a choice between something good and something which is clearly evil. These are usually the easiest decisions to make. The hard choice comes when we are tempted to choose a lesser good over a greater good. This is how Satan, the great tempter, operates. We this on display in the readings for the first Sunday of Lent. 

The very first temptation came in the garden of Eden, shortly after the creation of Adam and Eve. God had given our first parents dominion over every plans and animal in the garden. But there was one tree of which they could not eat, the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Along comes Satan. The first thing he does is to place himself between Eve and God, causing her to doubt God's word. "Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?" And again, when Eve tells him that God said they would die if they ate of the fruit, Satan causes her to doubt. "You will certainly not die! God knows that the moment you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is evil."

Satan temps Eve with knowledge. And knowledge is a good thing. So what was wrong with eating of the fruit of the tree? It was not the gaining of knowledge per se, but the gaining of knowledge in the wrong way, at the wrong time. Some theologians have speculated that God intended for Adam and Eve to eat from the tree of knowledge when the time was right, when they were ready. Otherwise why would God have put that tree in the garden? Regardless, God clearly told them not to eat of it. Adam and Eve were called to trust God and instead allowed themselves to be beguiled by Satan. They were tempted by the lesser good he seemed to offer them (knowledge) and allowed themselves to mistrust and then to disobey God, their loving Father and Creator. They chose a lesser good at the expense of the greatest good of all, their relationship with God.

Contrast this with our gospel reading, where we see Jesus, too, is tempted by Satan, who is using the exact same tricks. First, he tries to get Jesus to doubt God. "If you are the Son of God..." he begins each time. But this does not work, for Jesus will never doubt His loving Father. 

Satan also tempts Jesus with seemingly good things. "Turn these stones into loves of bread." Bread is a good thing. Jesus was fasting and so was hungry. What can be more good to a hungry person than food? Satan tempts Jesus with power. He offers to give Jesus dominion over all the kingdoms of the world. Imagine the good that Jesus could achieve with that kind of political power. All that Satan asks for in return is that Christ worship him. And this Christ could not do. He would never worship Satan, a creature, over God, the Creator. Jesus would never choose a lesser good at the expense of the greatest good.

Satan is not creative. He is powerful. He is conniving, He is tireless. But he is not creative. When it comes to temptation, He is a one-trick pony. He tempts you and I in the same way that he tempted Jesus in the desert, and Adam and Eve in the garden. He tempts us first by getting us to mistrust God. Did God really say you shouldn't do that...? Surely God wouldn't punish you for that... Surely God wouldn't mind...

Then he offers us something that is seemingly good. Every sin we are tempted to commit has at its heart a kernel of goodness. Otherwise we would not find it attractive. We want love. We want pleasure. We want power. We want affirmation. We want security. We want all of these things. And all of these things are good, as far as they go. But there are right ways and wrong ways to pursue them. And when we seek these good things at the expense of the greatest good, at the expense of our fidelity to God and to His commands, then we fall. We yield to the devil's temptation.

This Lent we should do two things. First, we should reflect back on our lives and identify those times when, like our first parents, we succumbed to the temptations of the devil. Identify those times we have fallen into sin, like Adam and Even, and repent from them. Turn away from them. Come before God humbly in the sacrament of Reconciliation and receive the loving mercy won for us in Christ.

Second, we should pray, every day, for the strength to be like Christ; to resist every effort of Satan to plant the seed of doubt in our hearts and to pull us away from God. We should pray every day to God to "lead us not into temptation," with confidence in our hearts that, with Christ as our helper, we will have the strength to remain true to our loving Father all the days of our lives; that we will have the conviction to never choose a lesser good over the greatest good of all.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Still Trying To Decide What to Give Up for Lent?

It's Fat Tuesday. Do you know yet what you are giving up for Lent? If you are scrambling for ideas and still trying to decide, here are some helpful tips. (No, this won't be another "10 ideas for Lent" click-bait list).

What's Required?

First of all, know that you are not required to give up anything specific for Lent (or give up anything at all, really). All you are required to "give up" during Lent is meat on Fridays and Ash Wednesday, and food (in the form of fasting) on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Fasting means only having one meal during the day, though it does not preclude taking other food if necessary so long as it does not equal another meal. Catholics 14 and older are bound to abstain from meat, while Catholics ages 18-59 are bound by the fasting law. All things considered, that's not much.

So Why "Give Up" Something?

If all that is required is what is mentioned above, why do Catholics typically give up other things during Lent? It's because Lent overall is a season of fasting, prayer, and charity. Fasting should be part of our Lenten experience. That's why we are required to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, marking the beginning and ending of Lent. But it's good to fast in other ways all through Lent. The US Bishops recommend fasting on all weekdays of Lent. This won't be possible for everyone, though. So most of us will choose to fast in a limited way by voluntarily giving up something, usually food-related.

So you may choose to fast from desserts, from snacking between meals, from meat, from coffee, from alcohol, or some other type of food. 

It's Not a Diet

Keep in mind our fasting is supposed to be for our spiritual benefit, not necessarily our health. If you want to give up carbs so that you can lose a few pounds by the summer, that's a diet, not fasting. Dieting for your health may be a praiseworthy endeavor, but that's not the point of the Lenten fast. Our Lenten fast is about both doing penance and also disciplining ourselves to learn to resist bodily pleasures. By denying ourselves something good that we desire (like chocolate or coffee), we learn to deny ourselves more illicit pleasures when the temptation to sin arises. 

With that in mind, the thing you choose to give up should be something good. Otherwise it is not a sacrifice. It should also be something that you feel attached to in some way. It should be something you will miss. If you only drink a couple of beers on the weekend, then giving up alcohol for Lent won't be much of a sacrifice for you. You may not even notice it. But if you habitually eat dessert after each meal, giving up dessert will have a great impact on your daily life. 

Try to choose something that you will feel the absence of each day. You want it to be difficult to give up -- but not impossible. Don't set yourself up for failure. You want your Lenten sacrifice to be hard, but not too hard.

It's Voluntary

Remember, too, that your Lenten fast is self-imposed. Apart from the requirements mentioned above, what you give up is up to you. That means you can make changes as you go, if you feel they are necessary. If you start out Lent by giving up caffeine, you may find two weeks in that it's much easier than you think. You don't miss it at all. It doesn't really feel like a sacrifice. Perhaps, then, you should consider giving up something else.

Alternately, you may find that without caffeine, you are especially grouchy. You feel miserable, and are making others around you miserable. It starts to negatively affect your friendships, or makes it very hard for you to study. This may also be a reason for giving up something else. Your Lenten sacrifice should be a sacrifice for you not for those around you.

Think Outside the Box

We typically think of giving up something food related, because of the connection to fasting. But you are free to do penance in other ways. One year my pre-teen daughter gave up her bed, sleeping on the floor of her room all of Lent. Some people will give up Netflix or social media. I had a student once who gave up eating with utensils.

Some will suggest giving up your time by devoting extra time during the day to prayer, spiritual reading, or doing charitable acts. These are all good things, and go right along with the Lenten practices of prayer and works of charity. So I'm not saying don't do them. Definitely do them. But, in my opinion, they don't really address the spirit of fasting. Fasting calls us to do without. It reminds us that the material things of this world, as good as they are, are not the greatest good. By voluntarily denying ourselves the happiness we get from food, drink, or other material things, we learn to turn to God as our primary source of happiness, and so grow one step closer to that eternal happiness we are called to enjoy forever in heaven.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff

8th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)

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Richard Carlson was one of the most popular motivational speakers of the twentieth century, considered an expert in happiness and stress reduction. I generally don't go in for motivational speakers, this Sunday's gospel reading reminds me of the line that made Carlson famous: "Don't sweat the small stuff... and it's all small stuff!"

Jesus tells us not to worry. He wants us instead to trust in God. He uses the examples of birds and wild flowers. God cares for these creatures of nature and provides for all of their needs. And aren't you and I much more important to God than birds and flowers? Why should we doubt that God will provide for our needs with even greater care?

But birds don't have test and exams. Birds don't have three papers due on Monday. Birds don't have to work two part time jobs to supplement their student loans. Birds don't suffer through breakups, fight with their parents, or worry about finding jobs after graduation.

I know from experience that college can be a time of high anxiety. I've stood on that precipice of adulthood, knowing you are only a couple of short years from grown-up responsibility, and having no idea how to go about finding a job, or a spouse. It can be hard envisioning yourself paying a mortgage when you are still learning how to balance a check book. When I was preparing to strike out on my own, the very idea of insurance filled me with dread! How can you not be worried about the future?

But something happened to me in college that changed my perspective. I found faith. God became the biggest thing in my life, and judged by the scale of His majesty, all my worries became "small stuff."

Don't get me wrong. Faith is not a magic pill that makes all your problems go away. Faith is no guarantee of health or wealth, friendship or security. We don't believe in the "Prosperity Gospel" peddled by TV preachers who promise fancy cars and luxury homes if you only pray hard enough. Our Lord is the Christ who told His followers that they would be persecuted and commanded that they take up their cross and follow Him to Calvary. Faith in God does not mean you will never suffer in life. You will.

Former Czech president Vaclav Havel once said that, "Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, no matter how it turns out." I think the Catholic version of that quote could read, "Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that God works all things for good" (Rom 8:28). 

There are Christians of deep faith who go hungry. There are Christians of deep faith who lack decent clothing. More astonishingly, there are Christians of deep faith who intentionally give up their material possessions to embrace a life of poverty. I'm thinking of the Franciscans and other similar religious orders. They do this because they know that God is the greatest thing in life, and in light of His love, even good and necessary things like food and clothing seem small in comparison.

Jesus tells us in our gospel reading, "Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?" Food and clothing are good and important things. But they are not the most important things. Jesus tells us what is most important. "Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness." 

If our relationship with God is the most important thing in our life; if we allow His kingdom to reign in our hearts, then we will know happiness and peace even amidst poverty, even amidst sorrow, even amidst illness -- even when we fail that exam, or don't get into that grad school we applied to. We will have hope, not that things will turn out well, but that we will be in God's friendship no matter how things turn out. We will know that whatever hardships befall us in this life, nothing can ever take God's love away from us. We will know that the suffering endured in this life is but a moment's pain in light of the eternal joy of our blessed reward in the life to come.

In short, Jesus tells us not to sweat the small stuff. And compared to our relationship with God, everything is small stuff.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Getting Ready for Lent

Ash Wednesday is March 1 this year, which means Lent is barely a week away. It's not too soon to start thinking about how you can grow spiritually this Lenten season.

Lent is a penitential season, and so we rightly think of Lent as a somber time to turn away from sin and toward Christ. But did you know the word lent actually comes from an old English word meaning "springtime?" Lent therefore is also a time of growth and renewal.

The season of Lent is meant to be a time marked by prayer, fasting and almsgiving (charitable acts). Here are some quick tips to help you get the most out of this Lent.

Don't Just Fast

It's common for Catholics to "give something up" for Lent; often it's food related -- sweets, coffee, alcohol, meat, and so forth. This goes hand in hand with the long tradition of fasting which the Church has always upheld, and which goes back to ancient Jewish practice. 

Food is good. Not only do we need a certain amount of food to sustain our lives, but we also derive enjoyment from eating. This makes fasting a good form of penance and a good spiritual discipline. By voluntarily denying ourselves the licit pleasure of certain kinds of food that we like, it becomes easier for us to resist illicit temptations when they arise. 

But to be spiritually beneficial, our fasting must be accompanied by prayer. Fasting without prayer is a diet plan, and Lent is not just a Catholic diet. It's about spiritual growth, not losing weight. Over and over again, in the scriptures, in the Catechism, in the writings of the Church Fathers and other saints, these two things are always mentioned together -- prayer and fasting, prayer and fasting, prayer and fasting. They are meant to go hand in hand.

So while it's good to "give something up" for Lent, you should at the same time increase your prayer. There are many different forms this can take. You can pray a daily rosary. You can try to get to a daily Mass a couple of times during the week. You can begin your day with a morning offering. You can do an examination of conscience each night before bed. You can simply set aside five minutes during the day to be silent and allow God to fill your heart.

A good rule of thumb is to start with your current prayer routine and add something a little extra. If you already pray the rosary every day, try adding a Marian litany afterwards. On the other hand, if  you currently are not praying at all, I wouldn't recommend jumping in with a daily rosary, daily Mass, reading the Bible for 30 minutes, and spending an hour in silent Adoration each day. Don't set the bar too high; all you will end up doing is frustrating yourself. The point is to grow spiritually, and we all must grow starting from where we currently are.

The same holds true for fasting. Don't try to give up too much. The point is to discipline yourself not torture yourself. Set yourself up for succeess, not failure.

Spiritual Reading

Many Catholics also like to use Lent as an opportunity for extra spiritual reading. It's hard to go wrong with the Bible. You might choose one of the books of the Bible that has always interested you and make a personal scripture study out of it. Or you might make a daily devotion out of reading the scripture readings for the Mass of the day. You can find these daily readings on the USCCB web site. You can even have them sent to your email each morning.

Outside of the Bible, there is no end to good spiritual books to read. St. Augustine's Confessions is the most read non-Biblical Christian book of all time. Have you read it? If you are looking for a more contemporary author, The World's First Love, by Fulton Sheen (or really anything Sheen has written), or Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis are modern classics. For something even more modern, you can read one of Matthew Kelley's books such as Dynamic Catholic, written specifically to inspire Catholics to reboot their faith. Ask someone whose faith you admire what books have been especially helpful to them.

Get Involved

If you haven't been very involved in campus ministry, or not as involved as you would like to be, Lent is a great time to check out what we've got going on. I especially recommend joining one of our Bible Study small groups. We have one that meets on Mondays at 5:00pm and another that meets on Thursdays at 6:00pm, both at the Starbucks on campus. These are student-led groups that explore the scriptures together each week and discuss faith, life, their joys and struggles. These groups are open to anyone, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, and are a great shot-in-the-arm for your spiritual life.

I also encourage you to accompany us to the Community Table on Tuesday afternoons, where we serve meals to the hungry from 4:00-6:00pm. This ties directly in to the almsgiving emphasis of Lent, performing a work of mercy to help those in need. While Tuesdays are our regular volunteer days, Community Table needs volunteers all during the week, so feel free to go in any day on your own. There are, of course, many other wonderful charitable organizations who could benefit from your service -- the Smoky Mountain Pregnancy Care Center, Safe Harbor, Neighbors in Need, local nursing homes and more.

Return to the Sacraments

Needless to say, if you've been away from the sacraments for a while, Lent is the perfect opportunity to come back. Because Lent is a penitential season, most parishes will have penance services and extra times for Confession. 

Here at CCM, we have Confession available every Sunday at 3:30 pm (30 minutes before Mass). We usually try to schedule an additional opportunity for Confession one Wednesday evening during Lent, so stay tuned for that. You can also contact Fr. Voitus to make an appointment (you can contact him through St. Mary's office number or email). 

If it's been a long time since you've been to Confession, here is a simple one-page guide that takes you through it step-by-step. You can also watch this short youtube video that walks you through the process. It's also perfectly OK to tell Father, "It's been a long time since I've done this so can you please walk me through it?" He will guide you in making a good confession. 

Of course it's important to spend some time before Confession thinking about your past actions, identifying your sins, and turning away from them in repentance. An "examination of conscience" is a good resource to help you do this. These are generally lists of questions meant to lead you in self-reflection. There are many out there: here is a short one from the Fathers of Mercy, and an even shorter one from the USCCB.

If you've been away from Mass for a while, we'd love to have you back. Our campus Mass is Sunday at 4:00 pm. Sunday Masses at St. Mary's are at 9:00 and 11:00 am. Remember that participating in Sunday Mass is a serious obligation for Catholics, so if you've missed Mass for anything other than a serious reason (illness, for example), be sure to get here a little early so you'll have time for Confession beforehand. Your mom taught you to wash your hands before eating dinner; you should take the same care to prepare your soul to receive Christ!

Be Intentional

Most of all, be mindful that Lent is not just another time during the year, just as Sunday is not just another day of the week. It's a time of repentance and spiritual growth, but it can only be that for you if you want it to be. Take advantage of this special season of grace offered by the Church to get all that you can out of this Lent. God bless!

Friday, February 17, 2017

Are Christians Wimps?

SEVENTH SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME (A)

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Are Christians wimps? It's easy to see how some may get that impression. In this Sunday's gospel reading (Mt 5:38-48), Jesus says that when someone strikes us on one cheek, we are to offer the other one. He says if someone wants your tunic, to give him your cloak, as well. He says if someone presses us into service for one mile, we should go two miles. He says we should not refuse anyone who wants to borrow money from us.

Is Christ commanding us to be door-mats? Are we to allow others to walk all over us, and take advantage of us?

I don't think so. I don't believe Christ desires a wimpy Church. Christ desires a Church that is strong. But there are different kinds of strength. What Christ asks of us is not militant aggressiveness or egotistical defensiveness. Christ wants a Church that is strong in love.

The Christian is called to love without limits. What Jesus does in this gospel reading is to shatter our preconceived notions of how far our love should extend. "You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy" is easy enough to understand. To love those who love us and to hate those who hate us seems natural. It makes sense. 

But Christ calls us to something higher. Christ says we are to love even our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. Jesus tells us that there is nothing praiseworthy about only loving those who love you. "Do not the pagans do the same?" 

When I was in college and I had friends who were involved in neo-pagan religions, especially Wicca. They told me that the key moral code of their religion is, "If it harms none, do what you will."  This is a passive morality. It doesn't so much tell us what to do, as what to avoid. Not causing others harm is good. But it's not good enough.

Our Christian morality goes farther than forbidding us from harming our neighbor; it commands us to love our neighbor. Love is more than just not causing harm. Love means working for their good. This is an active morality, one that calls us to go forth and do something

True love is not contingent upon anything else. True love is generous. True love is unconditional. This is what Christ is calling us to -- true and perfect love. "Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect," is what Christ commands. And how does the Father love us? He loves us so completely that even when we were His enemies, lost in our sin, He sent His only begotten Son to die for us; to be punished and persecuted for our sake, and to bless those who persecuted Him as He was being nailed to the cross. That is our new standard of love. 

So when someone strikes a Christian, we forgive them. When someone persecutes a Christian, we bless them. When someone hates a Christian, we love them. Anything less is a sin. 

Now I ask you again: Are Christians wimps?