Friday, July 21, 2017

Letting Weeds Grow

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

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Vincent van Gogh:
Peasant woman binding sheaves
What kind of gardener lets weeds grow in their garden? A bad one, that's who. And that's the kind of gardener I am, because my garden is always overgrown with weeds this time of year. I'm a lazy gardener. I like the idea of a garden. And so every year I plant tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. I fertilize the soil. The beds look really nice at first, and I tell myself I'll keep them looking that way. But a few weeks later my garden inevitably looks like a jungle. Because I don't actually like getting out there and doing the hard work that it takes to make a garden successful. And that work involves pulling weeds.

I know this because even though I'm a bad gardener, my mother and father are wonderful gardeners. Their vegetables grow in neat, easily accessible rows with a marked absence of weeds. They work hard at it every day. It takes diligence. As soon as they see a weed sprouting up through the soil, they pull it out by the roots so that it won't grow back. Having a garden full of weeds doesn't just look bad. The weeds can choke out the good plants if left unchecked, depriving the vegetables of needed nourishment. 

This is why Jesus' parable in this Sunday's gospel reading would have raised the eyebrows of people from an agrarian society who know how to grow crops. He tells a story about a man who sows good seed in a field, but then "the enemy" comes along and sews bad seed, so that both wheat and weeds grow up together. His servants ask him if they should pull up the weeds. He says no. "Let them grow together until harvest." Then, and only then, he will gather the wheat into his barn. The weeds, he will gather to be burned.

Why would he do this? Why would the farmer in Jesus' parable let the weeds grow? It doesn't make sense, as any gardener would tell you. This would certainly seem an odd growing strategy to Jesus' listeners. 

It doesn't make sense to us, because Jesus isn't really talking about a farmer and a field of wheat and weeds. Jesus is describing the kingdom of heaven. He uses parables whenever He does this because it's impossible to describe in human language what God's kingdom truly is; so Jesus tells us what it is like using stories. Jesus explains the meaning of this particular story at the end of this reading. He is the farmer sowing the good seed. The devil is the enemy who sows the bad seed. The wheat is the children of the kingdom, and the weeds are the children of the devil. The harvest is the end of time, at which the children of the devil (the "weeds") will be gathered and burned, while the children of God (the "wheat"), will "shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father." 

I believe Jesus uses the metaphor of wheat and weeds growing together in a field to help us appreciate that God's ways are not our ways. As it says in Isaiah 55:8-9, "As the heavens are far above the earth, so far above our ways are His." We would never let weeds grow in our garden (unless you are a bad gardener, like me). God is certainly not a bad gardener. He knows what He is doing. So why does He allow the weeds to grow, if they are just going to be burned at harvest time? Why risk them choking out the good wheat?

What we are really asking is, why does God allow evil people to persist in their evil? Why doesn't God smite the sinner, to prevent him or her from doing any more harm to the kingdom? 

Because unlike wheat and weeds, saints and sinners are not two different types of thing. A weed is never going to magically transform into a stalk of wheat. When I look into my tomato garden, I can tell by looking at a plant whether or not it's a tomato. If it isn't, I know it is not going to become one, so I yank it up (or would, if I weren't such a lazy gardener). 

But when God looks and you and I, he doesn't see either a saint or a sinner. He sees a person who has the potential to be either.

He sees, first and foremost, a creature whom He loves. Always remember this. God would not have made you if He did not first love you. You are here on this earth for only one reason, and it is because God delights in your existence. God loves you. Your task is to love God in return, and learn to love what God loves, which is first and foremost your fellow human beings. This is how one becomes a saint. This is what God intended when He planted that good seed which is you.

But the enemy is also active in the field, planting bad seeds. The devil plants the seeds of selfishness in our hearts, the seeds of greed, sloth, despair, and disordered desire. When these things take root in us, we become like weeds. And weeds are useless. They aren't good for anything except being yanked up by the roots, gathered and burned.

But not yet. And this is the good news. Jesus doesn't pull up the weeds. He lets them grow. He lets them grow because He is hopeful that the weeds in his field will yet become wheat. And so He waits patiently until the time of harvest.

Our first reading from Wisdom reminds us that the Lord governs us with leniency, He gives His children ground for hope, and He permits repentance for our sins (Wis 12:16-19).  God allows weeds to become wheat. He provides the grace to make that happen.

And so He waits.

Eventually the harvest time will come. Eventually the time for repentance will run out. At that time, our fate will be sealed. Jesus is quite clear on this point. Either we will be thrown into the fiery furnace where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth, or we will shine like the sun in the kingdom of our Father. Given the choice, who wouldn't choose the latter?

We all say we want to go to heaven, but many of us, if we are honest, have to admit that we don't live that way. There are souls that are prideful; that do not realize they are weeds. They think they are fine how they are and refuse to change. They are not humble enough to ask for God's mercy. One the other end of the spectrum, there are souls that are despairing. They see their sinfulness and think there is no way out. They know they are weeds, and don't believe that can ever change. They can't see how God could love a weed.

I'm here to tell you, God loves the weeds. That's why He lets them grow. 

The harvest will come. There will come a day when it is too late to repent of your sins and your final destiny will be set. You will forever be either weed burning in the fire, or wheat gathered in the Father's barn for all eternity. But that day is not today. Today is an opportunity for repentance. Today God offers mercy. Today God is letting you grow. Whether you grow into wheat or into a weed is up to you.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Whoever Has Ears Ought to Hear

15th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)

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G
. K. Chesterton is one of the most quoted Catholic writers of the twentieth century. He seems to have an applicable quote for every occasion. In his collection of essays, Tremendous Trifles, he writes, "The object of my school is to show how many extraordinary things even a lazy and ordinary man may see if he can spur himself to the single activity of seeing."

Chesterton was not speaking about the physical act of seeing, but the inward act of understanding and appreciating what one sees. A small number of us are truly blind in the physical sense. Most of us have healthy eyes, but walk by amazing sights every day without really comprehending what our eyes are telling us. When we finally see the things we have been looking at all along, we might be inclined to pause, take a breath, and say, "Oh, I see..."

In this Sunday's gospel, Jesus tells us the Parable of the Sower. Some of the sower's seed falls on the bare path where it is eaten by birds, some falls on rocky soil and cannot establish roots, and some falls among thorns which choke out their growth. But some of the seed falls on fertile ground and grows well. In each case the seed is the same; only the ground is different.

Jesus tells us that this parable describes different responses to hearing the "word of the kingdom" (Mt 13:19). Even though we all may hear the word of God, there are distractions that may prevent us from allowing the word to take root in our hearts and bear fruit. These are the world, the flesh, and the devil, represented here by the path, the rocky soil, and the thorns.

Jesus does not always take the time to explain the meaning of His words. A prime example would be the Bread of Life discourse in the sixth chapter of John, when the majority of His followers leave after being told they must eat His flesh and drink His blood. He says what He needs to say and then leaves it to His disciples (us) to hear Him and understand. But here He explains the meaning of His words in plain language. It is almost as if Christ is saying, "People will either hear what I am saying or they won't. It doesn't matter how plainly I explain it; if they are not really listening, they won't understand."

He quotes the prophet Isaiah: "They look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand." But to the faithful disciples, He says, "But blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear."

The sower casts his seed upon all terrains, but only in some did it take root. Jesus speaks His words in public, for all to hear, but only some were willing to listen.  God offers the gift of faith to all, but only some are willing to receive it.

The Catechism defines faith as, "Both a gift of God and a human act by which the believer gives personal adherence to God... and freely assents to the whole truth that God has revealed." How can faith be a free gift from God but also something we humans have to do? Does God give faith only to some people and not others? If I am struggling with my faith does that mean God has't given me enough? These are honest questions. It can be a bit confusing to be told that faith is a gift from God and at the same time our response to God.

This is where the parable of the sower helps. Just as the sower casts the same seed on all grounds, God gives the same gift of faith to all of us. But for the seed is to take root, grow, and bear fruit, it must have fertile soil. That is our part. The fertile soil is our act of faith, allowing God's word to take root in our heart. There are many things that can keep us from doing that. We could not be open to hearing the word at all. We could hear it, but be anxious or fearful to fully open our lives to it. Or we could allow the many distractions of this world to crowd it out.

Everyone in the crowd heard Jesus preach this parable. But only a few understood because only a few were truly open to listening to the Word of God. Some were made deaf by cynicism, or concern for things of this world, or attachment to sin. Others were willing to hear the word of God and follow through, even if it meant a radical change in their lives. This is a necessary condition of faith -- to be open to seeing what God is showing you, and hearing His word, and then following where He leads. 

Open your eyes to see His beauty. Open your hears to hear His wisdom. And prepare your heart to be rich and fruitful soil, where His gift of faith can take root and prosper. For "the seed sown on rich soil is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold" (Mt 13:23).

G. K. Chesterton said it is amazing what ordinary people can see if they decide to start seeing. We can also say it is amazing what ordinary people can hear if they decide to start listening. Let us set ourselves to this task; the wonderful task of seeing and hearing the spirit of God active in our lives.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Flesh & Spirit

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

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St. Paul frequently speaks negatively about the flesh in his writings. The second reading this Sunday offers one such example. Paul reminds the Christians in Rome that they are not in the flesh, but in the spirit; and that they should not "live according to the flesh," and if they do they will die (Rom 8:9-13). 

Is the flesh bad? Does following St. Paul's instruction mean that we have to live strict lives of asceticism, marked by severe fasting and self-denial? Must we all wear hair shirts and sleep on stone slabs? Does salvation consist in liberating our pure souls from our corrupt mortal bodies? 

Not at all.

St. Paul is no Gnostic. Gnosticism was an early Christian heresy that in many ways survives to this day, in certain attitudes, if not in name. Gnosticism was a pluralistic belief system, borrowing elements from other religions, including Christianity. But at its core was a dualistic understanding of the universe. Gnostics believed in two gods: a good god, associated with light and spirit; and an evil god associated with darkness, physical creation, and the body. The human person, according to Gnostic belief, was a good soul trapped in an evil body. Gnostics claimed to have a secret knowledge that would free the soul from the body (giving them their name, from gnosis, the Greek word for "knowledge"). 

Different Gnostic sects took these ideas to various extremes. Some practiced strict asceticism, denying their bodies of any and all sensual pleasures in an attempt to live purely spiritual lives. Few signed up for this form of Gnosticism. The more popular sects were hedonistic, operating on the assumption that since the body is evil it doesn't matter what you do with it, so you might as well have a good time! These Gnostics were much more successful in making converts. 

Any and all forms of Gnosticism were condemned by the Church in no uncertain terms. Firstly because the Gnostic understanding of God is so wrong: there are not two gods, but one God, who is totally and perfectly good. But Gnosticism also has a very incorrect understanding of the human person. Human beings are not good souls trapped in evil bodies. Human beings consist of spiritual souls and physical bodies joined together in one person. This means that our bodies are just as much a part of us as our souls

Our bodies are part of our humanity, and therefore they are fundamentally good. At the end of the sixth day of creation, after God made man, He looked upon His creation and pronounced it good -- body, soul and all. Human beings are not evil, but we are fallen, which means we are capable of doing evil things.

This is what St. Paul is referring to when he instructs us not to live according to the flesh. "Flesh," the way Paul uses the word, does not refer to our physical bodies as much as it refers to the human condition after the fall.  

After the original sin of Adam and Eve, our primordial friendship with God was broken. We lost the supernatural grace God originally bestowed upon the human race. The consequences of the fall are many. Our bodies are corruptible and subject to death and decay. Our minds have been darkened, our intellect no longer able to perceive the truth as clearly as we ought to. Our wills have been weakened, so that we are no longer able to obey God without the gift of His grace. And we suffer from concupiscence, which is a word that means "an inclination to sin." All of this Paul neatly summarizes by the single word "flesh."

When St. Paul tells warns us not to live according to the flesh, he is not telling us to deny our bodies because they are evil. He is telling us not to live according to our fallen human nature apart from Christ - because that way of life is futile and cannot save us.

He begins this passage by reminding the Romans that they are in the spirit because the Spirit of God dwells in them. They have been baptized. They have put on Christ. St. Paul says elsewhere of his own baptism that "it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me" (Gal 2:20).  We who have been baptized are no longer "debtors to the flesh." That is to say, our fallen human nature no longer holds sway over us. We are no longer destined to the death promised by the fall. But if we live as if we were still in our fallen state, following only after the base and selfish desires of our animal impulses, then we will die -- spiritually as well as physically.

But if we live according to the Spirit -- "the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead" -- then that same Spirit will give life to our mortal bodies also. Far from condemning our physical bodies as evil and corrupt, Paul says that if we live according to Christ our bodies will rise to everlasting life! We will have glorified bodies for all eternity in heaven! 

The Christian faith, we must always remember, is incarnational. That word comes from the Latin word carne, which means "flesh." When we say the Son of God became incarnate, we mean that He took on human flesh. God, from that moment forward for all eternity, has a body made of human flesh. God thought the human body was so good, so worth redeeming, that He went and got one for Himself! How could we dare to think of our bodies as something evil!?

This incarnational attitude is reflected throughout our faith. This is why we revere Mary, because hers was the body through which God took His own body. This is why we sculpt statues and paint icons, why we burn candles and incense, ring bells and chant psalms. Through the incarnation, the things of this world have been made holy. Nowhere is this realized more than in the sacraments, which are visible signs of God's invisible grace transmitted to us through the physical things of this world. 

We must be careful. Just because our physical bodies have been redeemed doesn't mean everything we do with our bodies is good and holy. We are still capable of sin. We still face temptation. We must avoid vice and illicit carnal pleasure, which is why St. Paul's warning not to "live according to the flesh" is as relevant now as it was when it was first written. 

We are not Gnostics of either variety. We cannot do anything we want with our bodies just because it feels good -- gluttony, drunkeness, and fornication are all sins St. Paul specifically condemns in no uncertain terms. We must treat our bodies with respect, because they are good and our bodies matter. Some things may feel good to our bodies but are harmful to our spirits, and therefore we must not do them.

But neither are we extreme ascetics. Catholics can and should enjoy in moderation the good things in life. We can enjoy licit pleasures of the flesh (and there are many) because licit pleasures are good for the spirit. We sing. We dance. We enjoy good food and drink. We are moved by symphonies and sunsets. As the early 20th century writer Hilaire Belloc quipped, "Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, there's always laughter and good red wine!"

Friday, June 30, 2017

Love God First

13th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

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Jesus sometimes says things that we must assume He knows will be shocking. He tells us to pluck out our eye and cut off our hand if these parts of our body cause us to sin. He says we have to eat His flesh and drink His blood. When one man wanted to wait to follow Jesus until after he had buried his father, Jesus told him, "Let the dead bury the dead." Jesus knows how shocking these things sound to us. He's shaking us up in order to draw our attention to the deep truths that lie behind these unsettling statements.

This Sunday's gospel gives us one of these shocking statements from Jesus. He tells us, "Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me." Matthew's gospel gives us the tame version of this saying. In the parallel passage from Luke, Jesus says we should hate our father, mother, sisters and brothers.

Is Jesus actually telling us we should hate our family members? Is He telling us to break the fourth commandment, which says we are to honor our fathers and mothers? Of course not. God is Truth and He would not contradict Himself by telling us to violate one of His own commandments. And God is Love, and so He certainly wouldn't command us to hate anyone. So what is going on?

Jesus does not say it is wrong for us to love our parents or our children. What is wrong is if we love them more than we love Jesus; more than we love God. Why would that be wrong?

If we return to the commandments, the fourth commandment instructs us to honor our father and mother. But the very first commandment, the most important commandment of all, tells us that we should place nothing above our love and adoration of God. "Thou shall have no other gods before Me." The first commandment is the first commandment because God is always first in order of precedence. He is maker of all things. He is before all else. It is through Him that we all have our being. It is right that He comes first in the order of love. This is why Jesus summarizes the ten commandments by saying that we must first love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, and then after that we must love our neighbor as ourselves.

God is Love. This means if we love something or someone more than God, we are loving them more than love. How can you love something more than love? It would have to be, by definition, a disordered sort of love -- something which resembles love, but which fails to rise to the full meaning of love. For love to be true love at all, it must always begin with God, and flow back to God. Love for God must always come first.

So when Jesus wants to teach us this truth, He does not say that we must love God more than vice or sin. Of course we must love God more than these things. That would be obvious. What Jesus does to drive the point home -- to shock us into seeing just how important it is for us to love God first -- is to instruct us to love God more than the very people we are called to love most in this world. 

As a parent I cannot imagine loving anyone more than I love my kids. I have talked with many students who are close to their parents who have a hard time when they get to this saying of Jesus. "I just don't know how I can love anyone more than my mother," they tell me. But at some point they realize that if they really love their mother, in order to love her well, they have to love God more than her. As a Catholic parent, I know that the best way for me to love my kids is to be a good father to them, and I can't do that unless I put God first in my life. God must always come first.

This is because the God who is Love is the source of all love. By loving God first, we allow God to teach us how to love as we ought. We learn to love as God loves. Because as much as you may love your parents, and as much as I may love my children, there is one thing that is undeniably true -- God loves them more. We can only love them with a finite and fallible human love. But God's love is perfect. God's love is infinite. God's love is eternal. God's love never fails.

When we love God first, we love not only God, but everything that God loves; not with our weak human love that is a pale reflection of the divine love, but with God's eternal love flowing through us. It is one of the wonderful ironies of our Christian faith that by loving God more than we love our family and friends, we begin to love our family and friends much more than we ever imagined we could before. Ultimately, loving God more than we love our family doesn't mean loving our family less -- it means loving them more.

So when you come to a passage like this in the gospel that at first seems hard, difficult, or even scandalous, don't be afraid. Don't pass it by or write it off. Look for the truth that Jesus is trying to open your eyes to see. And trust in His divine love for you.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Jesus Saves

12th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)

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Jesus saves. That's what you see written on countless hand painted signs along the side of the highway across the south. It's tempting for us to smile and roll our eyes at this particular brand of home-spun Protestant piety, but we shouldn't be too smarmy about it. If you were to summarize the gospel message in just two words, those would be them. Jesus saves.

But saves us from what? He saves us from our sins. This is certainly true. By liberating us from the self-inflicted chains of sin and vice, Jesus enables us to live freely a life of virtue and thereby become more truly human, more truly the men and women God created us to be. This is vitally important.

But some may say, "So what?" Some may say, "I like my sins. I enjoy them. They make me feel good. I don't particularly want to be 'liberated' from them, thank you." This is the attitude of the hedonist. Life is short, so live it up. Eat, drink and be merry today, for tomorrow you may die.

But what if death were not the end?

Jesus saves us from our sins. This is true. But that's not the full extent of what Jesus does. Jesus saves us from our sins because ultimately He comes to save us from death. And sin brings death. St. Paul reminds us in the second reading that death came to the human race because of the original sin of Adam. "Through one man sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and thus death came to all men" (Rom 5:12). But Jesus is the answer to Adam. Whereas Adam brought death to the human race by sin, Jesus -- the new Adam -- brings life to the human race by His grace. "For if by the transgression of the one the many died, how much more did the grace of God and the gracious gift of the one man Jesus Christ overflow for many" (Rom 5:15). 

Last week we celebrated the feasts of two men who died during the early days of the English Reformation, both considered to be martyrs of the Church. One is the bishop St. John Fisher and the other was a lawyer and Chancellor of England, St. Thomas More. Both were beheaded by order of King Henry VIII. The king wanted to proclaim himself the head of the Church in England so that he could grant himself a divorce. This would separate England from the Roman Catholic Church. Some English bishops were willing to renounce their loyalty to the pope and accept the king as dead of the Church, but many, including Bishop Fisher and Sir Thomas More -- who was a friend and close adviser to the king -- refused. So they were killed.

The Office of Readings in the Liturgy of the Hours for their feast includes an excerpt from a letter More wrote to his daughter, Margaret. He wrote it from prison, where he was being held in anticipation of being executed for treason if he would not endorse the king's plans. As I read it, I was struck by how well prepared St. Thomas More was to meet his death, even though he knew he was to be executed unjustly.

You can tell that More had a deep and personal relationship with Christ. He wrote:
His grace has strengthened me until now and made me content to lose goods, land, and life as well, rather than to swear against my conscience... By the merits of His bitter passion joined to mine and far surpassing in merit for me all that I can suffer myself, His bounteous goodness shall release me from the paints of purgatory and shall increase my reward in heaven besides.
I will not mistrust Him, Meg, though I shall feel myself weakening and on the verge of being overcome with fear... I know this well: that without my fault He will not let me be lost. I shall, therefore, with good hope commit myself wholly to Him... 
[T]herefore, my own good daughter, do not let your mind be troubled over anything that shall happen to me in this world. Nothing can come but what God wills. And I am very sure that whatever that be, however bad it may seem, it shall indeed be the best.
What struck me as I read St. Thomas More's words to his daughter was that More was not willing to die for a "cause." More was willing to die for Christ, because he knew -- and knew deeply -- that to die with Christ is to rise to new life.

More knew deeply the words that Jesus preaches in today's gospel. "[D]o not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna" (Mt 10:28). Jesus goes on to say that he will acknowledge before the Father those who acknowledge Him, but that He will deny those who deny Him.

More knew that to deny his conscience, to deny deny his faith, to deny Christ, would be the true death sentence. Doing so may allow him to enjoy life in this body for a little longer, but his soul would be dead. Only by staying true to his faith and publicly acknowledging Christ, even and especially by his own death, would he gain eternal life in heaven.

St. Thomas More could do this, because he knew well what the roadside signs still proclaim today: Jesus saves.

We see those words plastered everywhere. But do we believe them? Do we believe them as much as St. John Fisher, St. Thomas More, and all the other martyrs willing to die before they would deny Christ or His Church? Are we willing to stand against the rising tide of the world that insists our faith is a fairy tale and the Church's moral teachings are outdated and irrelevant? That the Church should change her teachings or get out of the way?

Most of us, thankfully, are not threatened with death if we don't "get with the program" and deny the teachings of the Church. Most of us are threatened only with mild inconvenience and perhaps a certain amount of social stigma. But there may come a time when we will be asked to sacrifice much more. Will we be ready?

Ironically, our lives depend upon our willingness to give them up. And there is only one thing that can make us face that possibility with peace, dignity, and hope. That is a sure and abiding trust in God -- a certain knowledge that yes, Jesus does save. By remaining true to Him who conquered death, death becomes for us only a portal to our final redemption; the gateway to eternal life.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Indwelling of the Body

Solemnity of the Body & Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi)

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Last Sunday the Church celebrated the great solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity. On that day above all others we meditate upon the mystery of the inner life of God revealed to us in Christ; that the one eternal God exists as a community of three Persons. Divinity is Trinity in Unity. It is impossible for us, with our finite human minds, to fully understand what this communal life of God must be like, but theologians tell us that the three divine Persons are so united in love that they actually dwell within one another.

The Father lives in the Son and in the Spirit. The Son lives within the Father and the Spirit. The Spirit lives within the Father and the Son. Where any one of them are, there is the whole united Godhead. We cannot imagine what being inside another person must be like, although true romantic love can inspire in us something like a desire to dwell within our beloved. But even if we could imagine living inside of another person, that's only part of the equation. In the Trinity, the Person you are dwelling inside of also dwells in you. To live inside of someone who is also inside of you is impossible, right?

But something like the mutual indwelling of the Trinity is what God calls us to. On the night before He was to suffer, Jesus prayed to the Father "that they may all be one, just as You are in Me and I am in You" (Jn 17:21). He doesn't say "with me," but You are in me and I am in You. Christ wants us to have that same sort of indwelling unity. We may think that this is impossible -- but all things are possible with God.

This Sunday, we celebrate the solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, also called Corpus Christi. It is the day that the Church celebrates in a special way the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. The gospel reading for the feast of Corpus Christi comes from John chapter 6, from what is called Jesus' "Bread of Life" discourse. In it, Jesus says, "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him" (Jn 6:56). Jesus uses the same sort of language here as He does to describe His relationship to the Father.  You are in me and I am in You.

The Eucharist is not the only thing we refer to as the Body of Christ. We also use that term to refer to the Church. And just as with the Eucharist, we do not use the term metaphorically. The Catholic Church is, in a real and substantial way, the Body of Christ. The Church is the continuation of the Incarnation here on earth. When you are baptized into the Church, you are baptized into Christ's body. You become a part of His Body. Jesus is the head. We are the members. As St. Paul says in the second reading, "We, though many, are one body" (1 Cor 10:17).

Now think about what happens when you receive the Eucharist. It may look like you are just receiving a little piece of bread and a little sip of wine that a man in fancy robes said some nice words over. But we know it is more than that. We know that the bread and wine is not ordinary food and drink, but the Flesh and Blood of the Son of God who became flesh for us.

So now we, who dwell within Christ's Body by grace of our baptism, are now able to receive Christ's Body within us by the grace of the Eucharist. We dwell within Christ at the same time that Christ dwells within us. You are in Me and I am in You.

As Catholics, we know that Jesus Christ is truly present in the Eucharist. We know that the bread and wine, once consecrated, become the Body and Blood of Christ. This is a miracle, and more than we deserve. But for Jesus, it isn't enough. Jesus does not stop at giving us His Body and Blood. He gives us His divinity. He gives us, in the Eucharist, a taste of the Trinity. He draws us into the life of God, a community of Persons dwelling within one another in an eternal communion of Love.

Friday, June 9, 2017

A God of Relationship

The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity

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One must be very precise when talking about the Holy Trinity, theologically speaking. The concept of one God existing as three Persons, each distinct in personhood but united in being, is so far beyond our experience that we have to rely on metaphor to help us understand. Yet we cannot press any Trinitarian metaphor too hard without falling into heresy, as this humorous video put out by a group called "Lutheran Satire" so aptly illustrates.

My favorite way of talking about the Trinity focuses on the manner of procession of the Divine Persons. The Father knows Himself and thus begets the Son -- also known as the Logos or Word -- by way of intellect. The Father and the Son love one another and so the Holy Spirit (the Spirit of Love, c.f. 1 Tim 1:7) proceeds from the Father and Son by way of the will. But even then I have to be very careful not to reduce the Son and the Spirit to mere personifactions of God's intellect and will.

The Son is God. The Spirit is God. The Father is God. Not parts of God. Not aspects or characteristics of God. But not three Gods, either. They are each fully and completely the same one God.

Indeed, the only way the three Divine Persons differ from one another is in their relationship to one another. The Son is like the Father in all things but one -- He is not the Father. He is the Son. Their relationship defines them. Likewise with the Holy Spirit and His relationship with the Father and the Son. Really, when the Church describes the Son as being generated by the Father through the divine intellect, and the Spirit proceeding from them both through the divine will, it is an attempt to further describe the precise nature of the relationships within the Holy Trinity.

Relationship is such an important concept when it comes to the Holy Trinity -- so much so, that whenever you hear the term "Holy Trinity" you should think in your mind, relationship. When we say God exists as a Trinity, three Persons in one God, what you should hear is God exists as relationship. 

This is important, for two reasons. First, it tells us something about the nature of God. God is perfect. God lacks nothing. God has within Himself everything He could possibly want or need, and that includes relationship with others. In other words, God did not create us or the angels because He was lonely. Quite apart from creation, God has within Himself a community of love. Part of the very nature of His existence is relationship. Isn't that a wonderful thought?

The second reason this is important is because you and I are made in the image and likeness of God. That means you and I are also meant to be in relationship. But unlike God, who exists as a community of Persons, you and I and the rest of humanity have our existence as a single person. This is why the Trinity is such a hard thing for us to imagine. We exist as one person, and that's it. We can't begin to fathom what it would be like to share our existence with another person. But nevertheless, we are made in the image of a God who is relationship, and we are also called to be in relationship. It is part of our nature.

We are called first and foremost to be in relationship with God, our Creator. But we are also called to be in relationship with one another. And if you think about it, this is what the Christian religion is all about. It is about helping us to have a good, loving relationship with God, and good, loving relationships with one another. 

The first reading for today, from Exodus 34:4-9, talks about Moses carrying the "two stone tablets" to the top of Mount Sinai. Those are the tablets of the Ten Commandments. The first three commandments tell us how to love God. The last seven tell us how to love our neighbors. When people ask Jesus what is the greatest commandment?, Christ tells them first to love God, then to love your neighbor. The Christian life is all about living in right relationship with God and neighbor.

The two go hand in hand. It is impossible to love God without loving your neighbor. God tells us too many times in the scriptures that this is hypocrisy at its worse. The parable of the Good Samaritan is a good example, but perhaps the most direct statement comes in Matthew chapter 25 when Jesus tells us that whatever we have done (or failed to do) to the least of our brethren, we have done (or failed to do) to Him. How we love our neighbor, in other words, is counted as love for God. You cannot love God and hate your neighbor.

But nor can you love your neighbor without also loving God. Not truly. If you remove love of God from the equation, it falls all to easily into mere tolerance toward our neighbor, or kindness toward our neighbor. Tolerance and kindness are good and necessary things. But they are not the same as love.

If my neighbor engages in immoral and self-destructive behavior, I may be able to tolerate it well enough. And I can, and should, still be kind to them. After all, they are made in the image of God and that dignity deserves respect. But this is not love. Love is so much more than being kind and polite. And love cannot tolerate that which is harmful to the beloved.

We have to remind ourselves always that sin is never personal. If you think about all the different ways we can violate the commandments, most of the sins we commit are against other people. Sin is harmful to our human relationships, let alone our relationship with God. Even those sins we like to think of as secret, that affect no one but ourselves, keep us from being in right relationship with God and with one another. 

So if I truly love my neighbor, I will seek out ways and opportunities to correct sinful behavior. I will discourage immorality, not because I am perfect myself, but because I love them and want to be in right relationship with them. We see St. Paul doing this for the Christians in Corinth. In both of his letters to the Corinthians, he rebukes immoral and harmful behavior he has heard about in that community, but does it as a loving father would correct a wayward son or daughter. He does it because he loves them and desires above all communion with them in Christ.

The second reading for Trinity Sunday is from the closing of Paul's second letter to the Corinthians. It is tempting to assume the Church chose this reading because of the Trinitarian close of the letter. However, I wonder if it was not chosen because of the way it highlights how our human relationships are meant to image the loving relationships of the Holy Trinity.
Brothers and sisters, rejoice.
Mend your ways, encourage one another,
agree with one another, live in peace,
and the God of love and peace will be with you.
Greet one another with a holy kiss.
All the holy ones greet you.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ
and the love of God
and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you
(2 Cor 13:11-13).
There is a lesson here for how we are to lovingly correct our neighbor who has fallen into sin. First St. Paul tells them to rejoice -- even though sin has wounded their relationships, there is a remedy. Jesus Christ offers mercy that is greater than any transgression we may commit. And so we should rejoice!

Next Paul tells them to mend their ways. Before we can rebuke our neighbor we must first rebuke ourselves. We must be mindful of the fact that we are all fellow sinners, and correct our neighbor always from a place of humility.

Then he tells them to encourage one another. Correcting another's sinful behavior should always be about encouraging one another to be the holy saints we are called to be, never about condemning others as irredeemable sinners (lest we get condemned ourselves).

Finally, if we do this, we will have peace. And what is peace, but living in right relationship with those around us? Our relationships in this world should be ordered toward this peace, so that we may all enjoy together the eternal peace of Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God the Father, in the union of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Who is the Holy Spirit?

Pentecost Sunday (A)

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I have found in my time as a Christian that the Holy Spirit can be notoriously hard to talk about. It is relatively easy for us to talk about God the Father. We have an image of fatherhood from our human fathers. We understand God as the creator, the first cause, the maker of all the universe. It is also fairly easy for us to talk about God the Son. The Son has a human face. We can read about the life and teachings of Jesus in the gospels. Of course we cannot fully comprehend the mysteries of the Father and the Son, but these concrete images help give us a place to start.

But how do we think about the Spirit? The scriptures give us different images of the Holy Spirit, all rather ephemeral. At Pentecost the Spirit manifests as tongues of fire. He is described as a "mighty wind." At Jesus' baptism He appears as a dove. In the Old Testament, the Spirit is the personification of Wisdom. The word spirit literally means "breath," and so in our gospel reading for the feast of Pentecost we see Jesus breathing on the Apostles and saying, "Receive the Holy Spirit" (Jn 20:23). Breath, wind, fire, a dove -- these images all convey movement. They refuse to be contained. None of them convey "personhood" in our way of thinking.

In a way it is understandable that we have such a hard time thinking about the Spirit. But it shouldn't be this way. After all, we are spiritual beings. Yes, we have physical bodies, like the animals. But we are more than our bodies. We are body and soul. There is a spiritual aspect to our existence that we share in common with the angels, and yes, even with God. 

We tend to be much more aware of our bodies than our souls. We can look down and see our hands and our feet. We can touch our skin and feel our muscles. By contrast, it's relatively easy for us to forget about our souls. Yet our souls are vitally important. Remove the soul from the body and it becomes a corpse.

It is easier for us to forget about our soul not because it's any less a part of us than our bodies, but because it is so much a part of us. Our soul is the center of who we are. It's hard for us to be aware of our soul for the same reason that it's hard for us to see our eye. You can't see your eye, because your eye is what does the seeing. Your soul is what makes you aware. It's too close, too near, too intimate to allow for objective perspective.

In our lives as Christians, we can sometimes take the Holy Spirit for granted, as He functions in the Church the way the soul functions in the body. He's too near. But, like the soul, the Spirit is absolutely vital to the life of the Church. If the Spirit were to withdraw from the Church for one fraction of a moment, the Church would cease to exist. It would became a body without a soul, a lifeless corpse.

The Feast of Pentecost is an opportunity to remind ourselves of just how the Spirit functions in the Church and within us as individual Christians. First we can ask the basic question: what is the Holy Spirit?

Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is also called the Word or the Image of God. The Son is God's perfect Image of Himself, and so He proceeds from the Father by the Divine Intellect. And what do the Father and the Son do? They love one another. (Love is an act of the will. It is not something one feels but rather something one does.) This Love that proceeds from the Father and the Son by the Divine Will is the Holy Spirit. Just as Jesus is God's Word and the Image of God, the Holy Spirit is God's Will and the Love of God.

Because we are made in the image of God, we also possess the divine qualities of rational intellect and free will. To use these faculties properly means that we must learn to think and to love as God does. We learn to think as God does by thinking in union with Christ, and we learn to love as God loves by cooperating with the Spirit. This is why the Spirit was sent to us, so that we might love like God. St. Paul says, "God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us" (Rom 5:5).

The first thing that God's Love does is offer forgiveness. Our sins keep us from being like God. They stand in the way of our holiness. If we are to love like God, we must first be freed from our sins. So Jesus gives the Apostles the Spirit so that they can carry out this vital work of forgiveness and reconciliation. "Receive the Holy Spirit," He tells them, "Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained" (Jn 20:23). We participate in this forgiveness first through our baptism, and subsequently through the sacrament of reconciliation (confession), by the power of the Holy Spirit still at work in the Church.

Having been freed from our sins, the Spirit is then able to help us grow more and more in accord with the image of God. This is manifested through what we call the "fruits" of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal 5:22-23). These are not things that we do but rather things that the Spirit does for us. If we cooperate with God's grace by avoiding sin, obeying the commandments, and pursuing love of God and neighbor, we will experience these things in our lives.

The Spirit is what unites us to God. He is what binds us together as members of Christ's Body. He makes it possible for us to become holy. We cannot do this on our own, so the Spirit provides us with divine strength. St. Paul says, "The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes with sighs too deep for words" (Rom 8;26). 

Finally, the Spirit also makes it possible for us to participate in Christ's mission. As I have mentioned many times previously, we are all called to be evangelizers. The Spirit gives us the power to be Christ's witnesses in the world. We see this in the Pentecost reading from Acts 2:1-11, when the Apostles are transformed by the Holy Spirit from fearfully hiding behind locked doors to openly and boldly proclaiming the good news of Christ.

We may not be able to speak in tongues, like the Apostles did on that first Pentecost. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are manifested in different ways to different people, in different times and places, according to God's plan. But the Spirit is the same. The Holy Spirit that descended upon the Apostles at Pentecost is the same Holy Spirit that gives life to the Church today.  It is the same Holy Spirit that each one of us has received (or will receive) at our confirmation. The same Spirit unites us to the same God, makes us sharers in the same Love, and gives us the power to fulfill the same mission -- that of reconciling a fallen world to its Maker. Let us strive always to remain in the Spirit, and do our part in carrying out His work of salvation.

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.