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.