Friday, January 27, 2017

To Be Blessed

4th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)

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What does it mean to be blessed? When you count your blessings, you probably think of the good things you have in life: food, shelter, health, friends, family, and so forth. This makes sense. A blessing is something conducive to happiness or well-being. In a religious sense, a blessing is a bestowing of God's favor or protection. Either way, to be blessed is to be happy.

So I imagine Jesus challenges our perception of what it means to be blessed in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:1-12). Jesus tells us that we are blessed when we are poor and meek, when we mourn, when we are insulted and persecuted. These are generally not things we think of as contributing to happiness.

Jesus does have a way of turning things on their head. But what exactly is going on here? Are we to believe that what really will make us happy is mourning, poverty and persecution? Things that generally make us feel pretty miserable when they are happening? Does Jesus expect us to believe this?

Yes. He does.

But like most things with Christ, there is more to it than what we see at first glance. Consider the phrase "poor in spirit." What Jesus has in mind here is not mere material poverty. What does poverty of spirit mean, and why is it a good thing? In part, it means recognizing that we are all materially poor. Sure, some of us have more goods at our disposal than others. But none of us really "owns" anything. Not really. The richest and the poorest among us all end up in the same hole in the ground. Consider these famous words from Job: "Naked I came forth from my mother's womb and naked I shall return" (Job 1:21). You can't take it with you when you go.

Part of Christian discipleship has always involved a detachment from material goods. St. Paul even says that "the love of money is the root of all evil" (1 Tim 6:10). Note Paul does not say money is the root of all evil, but rather the love of it. Neither Paul nor Jesus have any problem with wealth per se, only placing too much importance on it. This is why Paul could write in Phillipians 4:12 that he knows how to be rich and how to be poor and to be content in all circumstances. For Paul, it didn't matter whether he was rich or poor in material wealth because he knew that the only thing of true and lasting value was his relationship with God. His happiness depended entirely on Christ. Paul was poor in spirit.

Consider the phrase "blessed are the meek." To be meek is to be small. It is to be humble. Part of Christian discipleship also involves cultivating the virtue of humility. The remnant of Israel mentioned in the first reading is said to be "a people humble and lowly" (Zep 3:12). Humility is the opposite of pride, the most dangerous of all sins. Pride is said to be the sin that caused Satan's fall. Pride is the most deadly sin because pride prevents a person from admitting they are wrong. Pride prevents a person from seeking help. Pride precedes a fall because pride precludes repentance.

It is easy for man to be proud. We stand at the pinnacle of material creation. We are higher than all the other animals, masters over the earth. The scriptures even say that God made us just a "little lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor" (Ps 5:8). Impressive. But so what?

So what if we are higher than the animals? What does it mean to be better than a guinea pig or a kangaroo? Even the highest being in all creation is still a created being, small in comparison to the Almighty God. To be meek and humble is to realize that. It is to recognize your place in reality.

But the question remains: how does recognizing that we are poor and meek compared to God make us blessed? How does it contribute to our happiness?

Imagine two people who have cancer. The first recognizes some symptoms and goes to the doctor for an examination. His cancer is diagnosed. He begins treatment and is cured. The second person never admits to feeling ill. He refuses to see a doctor. His cancer is never diagnosed, and never treated. He is dead within a year.  Two people. Both with cancer. Only one of which we might describe as "blessed" -- the one who recognized that he was ill, and sought out a physician.

We are all "ill" in spirit compared to God's standard of perfection. Only the meek and humble will recognize that. Only the meek and humble will seek out the Divine Physician.

In our second reading, St. Paul points out how most of the first Christians were not "wise by human standards." They were not powerful, or of noble birth. They were weak and lowly. But in Christ they became wise. They found righteousness, sanctification and redemption (1 Cor 1:26-31). They found blessedness.

Meekness and spiritual poverty are but two of the marks of beatitude Christ mentions. Jesus also calls us to hunger for righteousness, to show mercy, and to keep a clean heart. If we do these things, then Jesus promises us great reward in heaven. Unlike the fleeting happiness we may enjoy in this world, our heavenly joy will be forever. There will be no more mourning, no more hunger, no more war or persecution. We will rejoice and be glad forever.

This is the blessing God wishes to bestow upon us, and the only blessing worth pursuing. It is not a blessing that fades with time or that the world might take away. He offers us eternal Beatitude.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Shining the Light

3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)

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Yesterday I had to traveled Hickory for a meeting at the Catholic Conference Center. I had to be on the road early, so it was still dark when I went to put some packages in my mailbox. The sun had not come up yet, and there was heavy cloud cover, blocking out what little light the moon would have given. My front yard was nearly pitch black. As I cautiously walked forward, I could see the outline of a tree in front of me. Assuming it to be the tree that stands at the base of the steps leading up to our mailbox, I stepped up. I stumbled, however, discovering the ground was flat. This was not the tree by our mailbox. It was a different tree growing in the middle of our yard. I wasn't anywhere near where I thought I was. The near perfect darkness had left me disoriented even in a place as familiar as my front yard.

Later that same day I found myself again disoriented by darkness. It was after sunset as I left the Catholic Conference Center to come home. It is a drive I have made hundreds of times before, but I soon found myself in unfamiliar territory. I had missed my turn. It is a mistake I never would have made in the daylight, but which was all too easy to make at night on those poorly-lit rural roads.

Darkness is oppressive. It prevents us from seeing the world around us. It limits our knowledge of reality. It makes it much harder for us to know where we are supposed to go, and how we are to get there. In our scripture readings this week, the people of Israel are described as "a people who walked in darkness" (Is 9:1). Isaiah is not talking about literal darkness. The sun still rose over Israel. He is talking about a spiritual darkness. Before the coming of Christ, we had a very limited knowledge of God and therefore of reality. We didn't know where we were supposed to go, and we certainly didn't know how to get there.

Christ is often spoken about in terms of light. We speak of Him as the New Dawn. We speak of Him as the Day Star. When we light the Paschal candle at Easter, we proclaim "the light of Christ" that has risen in the world.

Like light, Jesus Christ is revelatory. He reveals God to us. By His light, we have a clearer picture of reality, and our place in it. We can see our sins more clearly (which is not always pleasant, but necessary for spiritual healing). But more importantly, we can see by His light the path we are to take for forgiveness of those sins. Jesus calls Himself the "Way" because by His light we see the way to God.

The nature of light is that it wants to spread out. Light does not want to be contained. When we turn on a lamp, it does not just light up one corner of a room, but the whole room. The sun does not just shine over one town or city, but over the whole world. Even light from distant stars and galaxies streams toward us from millions of light years away.

So, too, the light of Christ wants to be spread. During the Easter Vigil, the pinnacle of the Church's liturgical celebration, we light first the Pascal candle and then each Christian believer lights his or her own small candle from that single flame. The Exultet chant then proclaims the praises of the Pascal candle as being "a fire into many flames divided,yet never dimmed by sharing of its light." This is a beautiful and fitting symbol for the light of Christ, which is never diminished by being spread.

Many today still live in spiritual darkness. The light of Christ wants to be spread, and the way it is spread is through you and me. In our gospel reading after we hear Christ proclaimed as the light that shines on the people in darkness, the very next thing we read is Jesus calling Simon, Andrew, James and John to follow Him and be witnesses to His light. This is how the light is spread, by the witness of Christ's followers.

We mustn't think that the duty to spread the faith falls only on ordained ministers in the Church, or to monks and nuns (or campus ministers). The task of evangelization belongs to all the faithful, and in a special way to the laity, who live and work in the world. The Second Vatican Council points out 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).

This is especially true on our college campuses. The best evangelizers on campus are college students. Christian students are in classes, in the dorms, studying, working, living and playing with other college students. It is here that natural relationships are formed. It is here that the witness of a student living a Christian life will be seen and felt. It is here that students will have opportunities to speak about the importance of their faith with their friends, who will be open to receiving that word because they are friends. A priest, a nun, a campus minister cannot do that. Only you can.

Let the light of Christ shine in your life, in your words, and in your witness. Let it burn in you brightly, illuminating the path before you. Follow that path toward holiness, toward peace, and toward God. And lead others down that path by Christ's light shining through you.

Friday, January 13, 2017

That He Might Be Made Known

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

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Last week we spoke about how Epiphany means "manifestation," or a making known. When the magi came to adore the newborn Christ, it was a manifestation of Jesus' universal kingship beyond the Jewish nation to the rest of the world. Traditionally, the feast of the Epiphany has been linked with two other events in the lift of Christ: the wedding at Cana and Jesus' baptism by John in the Jordan. Each of these events represent a manifestation of the Messiah.

At the wedding feast in Cana, recorded in John's gospel, Jesus turns water into wine. This is His first public miracle, by which Jesus makes Himself known. John writes, "Jesus did this as the beginning of His signs in Cana in Galilee and so revealed His glory, and His disciples began to believe in Him" (Jn 2:11). 

This past Monday we celebrated the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, and in this Sunday's readings we hear John give account of that baptism. "I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven and remain upon Him... Now I have seen and testified that He is the Son of God" (Jn 1:32-34). John's words call to mind the passage from Matthew's gospel that we read last Monday, recounting the Spirit descending upon Jesus like a dove, and the Father's voice saying, "This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased" (Mt 3:17).

There is an ancient heresy called Adoptionism which holds that at this moment Jesus was "adopted" by God as His Son, and became the Messiah. This is not true. The Church condemns this position, teaching instead that Jesus was always the Son of God, from all eternity. At His baptism God the Father does not "adopt" Jesus by these words, but proclaims for all who can hear what has always been true.

If Jesus was not adopted as God's Son at His baptism, we might ask, What was the point? What exactly was going on when Jesus was baptized?

When you and I are baptized, several things happen. We are cleansed from original sin. We receive God's sanctifying grace. We are united to Christ's death and resurrection, dying to our self and rising again a new creation. None of these things are applicable to Jesus. Jesus is totally without sin. Jesus is the source of grace. He is the resurrection and the life. Jesus's baptism was obviously for a different purpose than our own. 

So why was Jesus baptized? Theologians have put forth several different possible reasons. One suggestion is that He did it as a model for us to follow. Certainly in His baptism Christ sanctified the waters of the earth and instituted the sacrament of baptism as we know it, opening for us this channel of grace. One thing we know for certain -- Christ was not baptized for Himself, but for us. 

When John sees Jesus in our gospel reading, he says the same words that the priest says to us today before offering us the Eucharist at Mass. "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world" (Jn 1:29). St. Paul teaches that Jesus, who was without sin, "became sin on our behalf" so that we might become righteous (1 Cor 5:21). 

When the One who is without sin is baptized for the forgiveness of sin, it prefigures the suffering and death that the One who is without sin will later undergo as punishment for our sin. Christ rising from the waters of the Jordan prefigures His rising from the tomb. Christ's Baptism is therefore a manifestation of His mission -- His mission of salvation, His mission of dying and rising for the sake of us sinners. 

John the Baptist says that the reason he baptized the Christ "was that He might be made known to Israel" (Jn 1:31). But that knowledge is of no benefit to us unless we act on it. When we are baptized, we follow Christ into the waters of the Jordan and join ourselves to His work of redemption; we are joined to His suffering and death; we are joined to His resurrection and life. 

But baptism for us is only the beginning of our Christian journey, just as Christ's baptism marked the beginning of His ministry. Each day of our lives we have the opportunity to live united with Christ, making His mercy manifest in our lives, making Him known to others, and by so doing growing in holiness until that day when we join Christ in death and the hope of eternal resurrection. 

Friday, January 6, 2017

The King Made Manifest

The Epiphany of the Lord

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Epiphany represents the climax of the Christmas season. It recalls the time when wise sages from the east came to Bethlehem to adore a newborn king. It is an image remembered in songs and on Christmas cards, but do we really understand its meaning?

The only time we hear the word "epiphany" used outside of the Christmas season is when someone has a breakthrough idea. They have a moment of clarity that suddenly allows them to see a solution to a problem, or that reveals up a new way of seeing the world. Their eyes open wide and they cry out, "I've had an epiphany!"

An epiphany is more than a good idea. It's an eye-opening understanding. It's like having cataracts removed and seeing the world clearly for the first time. A synonym for "epiphany" is "manifest." To manifest something is to reveal it -- to make known what was hidden. When we read the origin story of a superhero, it's usually about the first manifestation of his or her powers. Through this manifestation they discover who they really are, as does the world.

Epiphany is the manifestation of the greatest superpower the world has ever known - Christ's unstoppable love for us. God desired so much to reconcile sinners that He came to be with us in person. Christ is the manifestation of God in the flesh.

We can think of Christmas as the manifestation of Christ to the Jewish people. For nine months since the annunciation of the angel to Mary, the Divine Son of God remained concealed in His mother's womb. It was not until Christmas day that His presence was announced to Jewish shepherds by choirs of angels singing, "Glory to God in the highest!"

But the manifestation of Christ does not stop at Christmas. Jesus came to the Jewish people, but He did not come only for the Jewish people. Christ came to redeem the whole world, which is why the feast of Epiphany is so important. On this feast we celebrate the fact that Gentile sages came to worship a Jewish baby who was King of the Universe. Their epiphany is the manifestation of Christ to the world.

There is a popular phrase that circulates during the Christmas season: "Wise men still seek Him." This is true. We call these eastern sages "wise" because they were seekers of the truth. They sought the truth in the stars and something they saw in the sky at the time of Christ's birth led them to seek out a newborn King in Judea. They discovered the truth, and they followed where it led.

We are called today to be wise men and women. We are called to seek the truth. We seek it in religion. We seek it in science. We seek it in philosophy. We seek it in our lived human experience. All truth reveals to us -- if we have eyes to see -- the one who is Truth, Christ our God. May we have the courage of the magi to leave our comfort zones behind and follow where the Truth leads us; all the way to the manger, all the way to the cross.

By following the Truth as disciples of Christ, we continue to make Him manifest in the world. By living a life united to Him, we make Jesus manifest in our lives. We make Christ manifest in our relationship with others, in how we love our neighbors, care for the poor and sick, and lead others in virtue. As our celebration of Christmas draws to a close, let us pray that Christ be made more and more manifest in our hearts each day throughout the coming year.