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.