Thursday, January 19, 2017

Which Way To Heaven?

How do you get into heaven?

If we were to ask most people, they would say that, after we die, God makes a list of all the good and bad things we've done. If the list of good works is longer than the list of sins, we go to heaven. But if the list of sins is longer, we go to hell.

This is the impression that most people – maybe even many Christians – have. However, there are some significant problems with this kind of thinking. In fact, if God really did judge our lives this way we'd be in big trouble.

First of all, every sin we commit is an offense to an infinitely good and loving God. Whenever we choose evil, we are rejecting the love of the one who created us and loves us unconditionally. Since even the smallest sin is a rejection of God's love, there is no way we could ever make up for offending him. Because we are finite, imperfect people, no amount of good works, donations or pure intentions could make up for the offense we give to our infinitely good and perfect God.

The second problem we have is that we do not really deserve that much credit for our good works. None of us can say to God," Well, I have never killed anyone or stolen anything." God would only respond to that, "Well, you're not supposed to kill or steal!" Because we're supposed to do good and avoid evil, we cannot expect God to give us a parade every time we do what he has commanded us to do or avoid doing what he has commanded us not to do.

So, we are faced with a tremendous dilemma. Every one of our sins puts us in debt to God. And, no amount of good works we perform could ever pay it back. How, then, would it ever be possible for any of us to get into heaven?

This is where the good news of Jesus Christ comes in. Because He is God, Jesus is infinitely good and loving. He has never sinned and can never offend the Father. By becoming man, He performed the ultimate good work. He did not need to take on our human nature and neither did He have to die. However, by doing so, He could pay the debt we incurred. Because He is infinitely good and perfect like the Father, He could offer a pure sacrifice on behalf of us who are sinful and imperfect. Once that debt is paid, we can be forgiven for the infinite offense we've caused the God who loves us unconditionally.

This reality makes sense of the strange words John the Baptist utters in today's gospel: "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world." Calling Jesus, "the Lamb of God" may not sound strange to us because we say those words at every Mass before receiving communion. However, it would have sounded unusual to the people of Jesus day.

Lambs were animals offered in sacrifice. They were slaughtered and their blood spilled in hopes of making peace with God. It was understood that anyone who broke the commandments deserved death. However, God in his mercy, would accept the blood of the lamb in place of the life of the sinner. Calling Jesus "the Lamb of God" means that, like the sacrificial lamb, He offered His life in exchange for ours. He received the punishment we deserve for our sins. And because of that, He can bring forgiveness, healing and peace to all who call on His name.

So, if Jesus takes away our sins, does it mean that we can go on sinning and breaking God's commandments without ever having to worry about getting punished for it? By no means! Consider this. What if someone you love hurt you. If he came back and asked for forgiveness, you would likely forgive him. However, what if he turned around and hurt you again? Would it not be that much harder to forgive him? Wouldn’t you start to wonder whether he was really sorry?

The same is true for God. Now that He has sent His Son to die for our sins, it is even more offensive to Him when we break His commandments. Thankfully, our Heavenly Father is infinitely merciful and always willing to forgive us. However we have to make an extra effort to avoid evil and to do good if we are to show Him that we accept His forgiveness. We can do so by going to confession frequently and making a point of showing mercy to others.

We cannot earn our way into heaven. Eternal life is not a reward for being a nice person. Rather Jesus, the Lamb of God, paid the price for us to take away the sins of the world.  He offers eternal life as a free gift to us who believe and are baptized. For our part, we must strive to keep his commandments and spread his good news up until the day we stand before the judgment seat of God.

In a few minutes, I will hold up the Body of Christ broken for us and repeat the words of John the Baptist: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” As we come up to receive Him, let us do so with gratitude for His sacrifice. Let us accept the offer of salvation He makes to us by welcoming Him into our hearts. And let us commit ourselves to serving our neighbor not only in hopes of one day seeing Jesus face to face in Heaven but in response to the love He has shown us. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Called To Be Holy

It was no surprise to anyone when Jane graduated first in her class at medical school. It was also no surprise when, after a stellar residency at the teaching hospital, she was offered a position there.

It was a surprise, however, when she decided to give it all up to pursue her dream of working in a clinic for the poor in sub-Saharan Africa.

For weeks, her friends and professors tried to talk her out of it. They tried to convince her that there would be plenty of time for her to go on missionary trips after she had established her own practice. However, Jane was adamant. Though her friends and family could not understand why she was willing to give up so much, she tried explaining to them that she felt called to such work. In her heart, she had always known that she had been set apart by God to use her knowledge and her skills to help the poor. It took her a while, but she finally found the courage to answer that call.

When we hear the word “calling” or “vocation” we tend to think of it primarily in terms of religious life. Nuns have a calling. Priests have a calling. Deacons and monks have a calling. However, vocations are not limited to just those called to religious life and service. Rather, everyone has a vocation. Each one of us is called to a certain lifestyle and a certain life’s work that only we can accomplish. Sometimes it manifests itself in dramatic fashion as Jane’s calling to work with the poor in Africa. However, most often it manifests itself in small hidden ways such as the couple who are called to adopt special needs children, the woman who is called to provide health care for the homebound, or the teenager who stands up for his classmates who are suffering from peer pressure and bullying. We can be called to perform one special work which only lasts a short time or we can be called to a path which takes up our whole lives such as marriage or religious life.

However it may manifest itself in our lives, each one of us has a calling, a special work or life’s work that only you and I can accomplish. It is our contribution in both big and small ways to God’s saving work.

Today’s readings speak to us in a beautiful way about the meaning of vocation in the Christian life.

The second reading is taken from the beginning of Saint Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In his greeting to that church, he states that they are “called to be holy.” While some people are called to different work and different lifestyles in pursuing the Christian life, all followers of Christ are called to be holy. The Second Vatican Council called this principle, “the universal call to holiness.” Our beloved Holy Father, Pope Francis, echoed this when he recently said, “To be saints is not a privilege for the few, but a vocation for everyone.”

How do we become holy? By letting God’s love shine through us in everything we do. Whatever work or lifestyle we are called to, we must do all things in love. God is love and His holiness is most clearly manifested in those who show His love to others.

It is not always easy, especially when we have been laboring under harsh conditions or dealing with difficult people. Stress and anxiety can distract us from being kind and gentle to others. Therefore, an essential element of holiness is prayer. God’s love takes root and grows in our hearts when we put ourselves in His presence, when we confess our failings and when we seek wisdom by reading His word in Sacred Scripture. Time in prayer both alone and with others is crucial to helping us discover our vocation and nurture it.

This call to be holy is not only a way for us to feel good about ourselves and build up our self-esteem. The gifts of holiness and love are not to be kept to ourselves. Rather, they are meant to be given away. A life of holiness and love naturally leads to the second element of vocation, giving witness.

In the first reading, God tells the people of Israel through the prophet Isaiah that He has chosen them “to be a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth”. In the second reading, Saint Paul talks about his calling to be an apostle, that is, one sent out by Christ to be a witness to His resurrection. And in the gospel, Saint John the Baptist describes his vocation as a witness to Jesus, “the Lamb of God.”

Every vocation, then, involves bearing witness to the love and power of God. No one who has experienced the presence of God has a right to keep it himself or herself. Rather, no matter what our state in life may be, we are all called to give witness in both our words and actions to Jesus, the Son of God. As a community of disciples, we cannot wait for people to come to us. Rather we go out and announce the good news to everyone we meet. As Pope Francis described it in his recent work, The Joy of the Gospel,: “The Church which ‘goes forth’ is a community of missionary disciples who...boldly take the initiative, go out to others, seek those who have fallen away, stand at the crossroads and welcome the outcast.” Those who are filled with the love of God are like the psalmist who has to proclaim it to others: “I announced your justice in the vast assembly; I did not restrain my lips, as you, O Lord, know.”

To sum it all up, each of us has a calling, a unique vocation. Though we live that calling out in different works and lifestyles, we are all called to pursue holiness and to give witness to the God of faithful love. Like Saint John the Baptist, at the heart of our vocation is the need to point out to others Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away our sins and the Son of God who comes to establish the Kingdom of Heaven. It all comes from God through our baptism and flows back to Him through our lives of humble service and witness to His goodness. It flows from Him because only in the power of the Holy Spirit is it possible to give witness not only with our words but in our everyday choices. If we can find the courage to live for God alone, then it will be no surprise to anyone that it is Jesus at work in us reaching out to continue His work in our world.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

John The Baptist Speaks

Over the past month, we have heard quite a bit from John the Baptist.

During the four weeks of Advent leading up to our celebration of Jesus’ birth, we heard his proclamation to us that we prepare the way for the Lord through penance and good works.

Last week, as we celebrated the baptism of the Lord, he witnessed the Spirit come down upon the waters in the form of a dove, the heavens open up and the voice of God proclaim that Jesus is the Beloved Son.

And, as we begin a new year, we hear from him once again. This time he is pointing Jesus out as the Lamb of God who will take away the sins of the world.

John the Baptist is an important figure in the gospels because he announces the coming of the Messiah. Many of Jesus’ earliest followers were disciples of John. The Church puts the message and example of John before us each year because he still has much to teach us, especially as we begin a new year. In particular, there are three points that we should take away from the gospel proclamation about John the Baptist - that we need to repent of our sins, that we must witness to the truth, and that we must put Jesus at the center of everything we do.

First of all, we need to give up our sinful ways. When John appeared along the banks of the Jordan River, he preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He made it clear to all who approached him that, once baptized, they could not return to their former way of life. They needed to make a real and lasting change.

The message is the same for us two thousand years later. All of us have areas of our lives that do not reflect the love of Christ. Whether it be in our families, our schools or workplace, we fail to respect others, to show concern for those in need or to put the interests of others before our own. We all need to examine our consciences daily, to review our actions and to commit ourselves to doing better with the grace of God. Our faith is only real if it is making a difference in the way we speak and live. John the Baptist teaches us that we must make a real effort everyday to change our sinful behavior so that our lives can reflect the love of our Savior who came to die for us.

Secondly, John the Baptist teaches us that we must always speak the truth. Just as we struggle to avoid sin in our own lives, we must point out the ways in which our society fails to uphold the dignity of the person. Every day in our world, the rights of the poor are being trampled on, innocent people are killed and the powerful take advantage of the weak. As people of faith, we cannot stand idly by or keep silent. Otherwise, we will be condoning injustice. We must speak up to defend the innocent and the downtrodden because they are our sisters and brothers.

John the Baptist did this unceasingly during his life. He died because he dared to criticize King Herod for living with his brother’s wife. He spoke up because he recognized the importance of marriage and family life. Like John, we must never fail to defend the sanctity of marriage both by living good and holy family lives ourselves and by speaking out against the threats our society poses to marriage such as divorce and pornography. Our society needs people of faith with the courage to speak the truth or else more innocent lives will be lost and more damage will be done to the poor and needy.

Thirdly, Jesus must be at the center of all we do. John the Baptist understood that the reason he was sent was to give witness to the Messiah. His mission was not to gather disciples for himself but to lead others to Jesus. So, when Jesus did finally appear, he never failed to point him out to people and encourage them to follow him. When he was asked whether it distressed him that his disciples were leaving him to listen to Jesus, he replied “He must increase, and I must decrease.” John’s whole life was centered around preparing the way for Jesus so that, when he finally did appear, he was happy to fade into the background.

As individuals and as a parish community, we must ask ourselves daily the question: Is everything we are doing centered on Jesus or on ourselves? Are we more concerned about what people think of us or what Jesus would think of us? Are we more concerned about pleasing others or pleasing Jesus? It is very easy in the midst of all life’s little details to forget why we exist. It is easy to lose focus when our days are filled with so many activities. We must take time everyday to remind ourselves of what is most important - that we know, love and serve our Savior, Jesus. When we put Jesus at the center of our lives, everything else falls into place.

It is for good reason that John the Baptist is such a prominent figure in all the gospels and that the Church places his message before us so often during the year. At the beginning of a new year it is especially important to reflect on these three key elements of his message - that we repent of our sins, that we speak the truth with love and that we keep Jesus at the center of all we do. It is an unfailing formula for growing in holiness as individuals and for drawing others to Christ as a parish community.

So that we can have strength to live up to this challenge, we turn to the Lamb of God. He will come to us in the form of bread and wine at this table to nourish our souls. He is with us as we struggle to root out sin in our lives, speak the truth and keep our lives centered on him. We can trust that he will give us the grace and courage necessary to live up to our calling as his followers.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Introducing Jesus, The Beloved Son

We can learn a lot about people by the way they introduce themselves.

After telling us their name, most people will describe what they do for a living or where they work. Younger people might tell us what they want to do when they grow up or what job they are preparing for in college. Because our society places such a high value on productivity and wealth, it is natural that we will identify ourselves with our chosen profession.

Work is important to us. It gives us a sense of accomplishment and meaning. If we make a lot of money or have important positions in our company, it will be a source of pride for us and we will enjoy talking about that with others.

However, if our introduction does not go beyond what we do for a living, chances are that we will never become good friends with the person we are talking to. Most likely, we will have a pleasant conversation and then go our separate ways. We might bump into him or her later on in a store or on the street and say “hello” but it will never go beyond that. They become the kind of people we see from time to time but whose names we can never remember.

Then there are people who introduce themselves and tell us about their relationships. They identify themselves as “Carmen’s son” or “Hughie’s wife”. For them, friendships are important. They connect with the people they meet by finding out what friends or relatives they might have in common. They might say, “You’re from Sussex? Do you know Susan who lives on the main road? I went to school with her.”

Usually these types of introductions lead to conversations which are more meaningful. When we focus on relationships, we tend to share more of ourselves with the people we meet. We gain a deeper insight into the person we are speaking with and feel a deeper connection with them. These conversations lead to more lasting friendships. Rather than share information about one another, we are revealing our values and feelings. Because we feel an instant bond, we make a point of seeing them again. Introductions that begin with our relationships rather than with our employment lead to richer exchanges and deeper connections.

In today’s gospel, God introduces Jesus to us and what He says tells us a lot about who Jesus is. Saint Luke tells us that while Jesus is praying after His baptism, the skies opened and God’s voice thundered from heaven. What does God say about Jesus? He does not introduce Him to us as a carpenter. He does not tell us what His specialty was or what projects He might have worked on. He does not tell us where He went to school or what subject He majored in. He does not even tell us that He is from Nazareth in Galilee. Rather, He introduces Jesus as His Son: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

Jesus based His identity on His relationship with the Heavenly Father. If we were to meet Jesus, He would introduce Himself to us as the Son of God. His one mission in life was to make known to us the love of His Father in heaven. For this reason, He went through all the land proclaiming the Kingdom of God, calling sinners to follow Him and healing the sick. Because He had total trust in His Father’s love, He was able to say “Not my will but yours be done” and hand Himself over to death for our salvation. Jesus did not want to be known simply as a great man, a spiritual leader or even the Messiah.  Rather, He wants to be known as the Son of a good and loving God and He wants us to know this great God as well.

Introducing Jesus as His beloved Son tells us that God is not interested in impressing us with his resume but in being friends with us. God wants a relationships with us. He wants to enter into a conversation with us that is less about what we are doing and more about what type of people we are becoming. He wants us to realize that each one of us is known and loved by Him and that He wants us to know and love Him in return.

God revealed Jesus to the world as His Beloved Son at His baptism. Just so, at our baptism, each one of us became a daughter and son of God. That is our truest, deepest and most lasting identity. We can lose our jobs. Whatever skills we learned at school can become obsolete. Even our relationships end. However, we can never lose our identity as sons and daughters of God. Even when we have sinned, our Heavenly Father calls us back home and waits for our return just like the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son.

When we identify ourselves as sons and daughters of God above everything else, so much in our lives changes. We come to understand that we are loved unconditionally. Any doubts we might have about our worth or goodness melt away in the warmth of God’s love. We also live with a sense of purpose and meaning. We realize that God has a plan for our lives and that He leads the way before us. Our level of stress and anxiety diminishes as we come to trust that our Heavenly Father will provide for us. Finally, we have hope that no matter what may happen, our Heavenly Father will make all things turn out for our good.

Jesus is God’s Beloved Son. He is the One sent by the Father to reveal His love for us. God introduces Him to us as His Son because, more than anything else, He wants to have a relationship with us. All love affairs begin with a simple introduction and a “hello”. If God seems distant and prayer seems difficult, perhaps the way to start would be to simply welcome your Heavenly Father into your life with a simple “hello”. He is waiting for you and is eager to introduce Himself to you. The process has already begun at your baptism. All that is left now is to open your heart to the One who wants to be known as your Heavenly Father.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Baptism - Pass It On

There was a couple who, though they loved their Catholic faith, decided not to have their children baptized. As they saw it, they could make their own decision when they were older.

Their family and friends were puzzled and alarmed by their decision and tried to encourage them to change their minds. They prayed hoping they would see the wisdom of having their children baptized even as infants.

Eventually, as the parents reflected on their decision, they did change their minds. They realized that their faith was the most important gift they had received from their own parents and that they wanted to pass it along to their children. They also understood that until the children were baptized, they could not receive their first Holy Communion. Not wanting to deprive them of that sacrament, they scheduled an appointment with the deacon to arrange the baptism.

We end our celebration of Christmas today with the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. It is an opportunity for us to reflect on our own baptism. The vast majority of us would have been baptized as infants because our parents wanted to pass the faith they loved on to us. Baptizing babies has been the custom of our Church from the earliest days. In the second reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Saint Peter is preaching to Cornelius, a Roman soldier. Later on in the story, Cornelius asks that he and his whole household be baptized. We can assume that children and infants would also have been baptized on that day.

Because we were baptized as infants, however, we have no memory of it other than the photographs and videos our parents would have kept for us. We cannot always understand how it has changed us or made a difference in our lives. But one thing is certain. We are different people because our parents decided to have us baptized. We received the gift of faith and became children of God. God planted the seed of everlasting life in our souls and it has been growing within us ever since. Whether we understand it or not - whether we appreciate it or not - our baptism was the most important day of our lives because it united us forever with our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Jesus’ baptism was an important day for him as well. All the gospel writers give it a prominent place in their accounts of his life. It marked the end of his hidden life in Nazareth and the beginning of his public ministry throughout Galilee and, eventually, to Jerusalem. On that day, God announced in a booming voice from heaven to all the world that Jesus was his beloved Son. And Jesus received the Holy Spirit who came down upon him in the form of a dove. It was that Spirit which gave him power to preach the good news, to heal the sick and to drive out demons. It was in the power of that Spirit that he rose from the dead.

Jesus’ baptism also reveals to us the meaning of our own baptism. Just as God proclaimed from heaven that Jesus was his Son, so, in the waters of this sacrament, we became children of God. Though all people - baptized or unbaptized - may be called children of God because they were all created by him - the baptized person is a child of God in a very special sense. Just as children enjoy the right to live in their father’s house, eat at the table and have their needs taken care of, so we - the sons and daughters of God- have all the blessings of his house at our disposal. We are enlightened by his word. We receive all the graces that come from the sacraments. And we are part of this community, the Church, which stretches out over all the world. Furthermore, just as children can expect to receive an inheritance from their parents, so we expect to receive as our inheritance everlasting life in the Kingdom of God. All these blessings are showered upon us in abundance because of the gift of our baptism.

As sons and daughters of God, we also live with a profound sense that we are loved by God. The gift of the Holy Spirit which came down upon Jesus at his baptism and which we received at ours, is the gift of God’s love. The Holy Spirit reveals to us how much our Father loves us. He teaches us that we are loved  just as we are. There is nothing we can do to make God love us more or to make him love us less. No matter what sins we have committed in our past and no matter what situation we find ourselves in today, God continues to cherish us as his precious sons and daughters. This relationship is ours because we became his adopted children through baptism.

It is important for us as daughters and sons of God to spend time each day contemplating God’s love for us. It will help us to grow in confidence. When we face difficulties, we will endure them with more patience knowing our Father is by our side. We will make better choices because we will not want to disappoint our loving God. We will be less likely to turn to the cheap substitutes for God’s love such as overeating or impulsive shopping because we have experienced the real thing in Jesus. And we will overflow with joy knowing that all the abundant blessings of our Father’s house are ours, and we will want to share those gifts with others.

Knowing all the graces that are ours through baptism, why would we ever want to deprive any child of them? Why would we want to live any other way than the way of love Jesus has shown us? And how can we live our dignity as sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father in such a way that others will want to join this wondrous household of faith?

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Shocking And Revolutionary Love Of God

What I am about to say is shocking and revolutionary. Some will find it unbelievable and absurd.
Others will think it is even blasphemous. However, if this message were ever to leave this
building, it would turn the whole world upside down. If we were able to take this message to
heart, it would transform the way we treat each other and solve many of our society’s problems.

The message is - God loves you.

Listen to it again - God loves you.

We have all heard this small, simple sentence thousands of times since we were children. However, if it does not surprise us, then we never really have taken it to heart. And if it has not revolutionized our lives, then we have never really heard the message.

This God who loves us is the creator of the universe. With an awesome explosion of energy and matter, He sent the planets hurling into space. In this vast universe, nothing happens without His knowing it and willing it. All the wonders of our beautiful planet - the ocean’s depths, the mountain’s heights - were all sculpted by His creating hand. He is a God of unfathomable power.

Yet this God knows each of us by name. As Jesus tells us, He has counted the number of hairs on our heads. We never leave His sight. He is never distracted from thinking about each one of us. Though He commands a vast universe, His one desire is to love us and to have us love Him in return.

When we reflect on this awesome truth, when we let it sink into our hearts, it can truly change our lives. How could we ever feel inferior to others when the God of the universe considers us His beloved? How could we ever fear knowing that our lives are in the loving hands of our Creator? And how could we ever fail to treat others with dignity and respect when they are also loved by our Heavenly Father?

As we hear in today’s gospel, when Jesus was baptized, the heavens opened up and the Father’s voice boomed out, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” It was the Father’s love for Him that shaped Jesus’ life. His whole mission in life, starting with His baptism, was to spread that love to the world. He did it by preaching. He did it by healing the sick, casting out demons and raising the dead. He also did it by establishing a Church which was commissioned with carrying that message of love to all nations and all peoples down through the centuries.

It was this knowledge of God’s love which gave Jesus courage to preach the good news even when He was ridiculed and rejected. It was this confidence that emboldened Him to accept the tortures of death on a cross and to endure even when He felt most abandoned. Because of that love, He was able to commend His soul into the hands of His Heavenly Father. Finally, that love was affirmed when God raised Jesus from the dead.

Jesus is God’s face shining down upon us. He shows us how far our Heavenly Father will go to win our love. He did not spare even His Son so that we could be reconciled to Him. If such a message does not leave us stunned, then we have never really understood it and taken it to heart.

Each of us has not only been created by God, but we have also been saved by Him. Through the waters of baptism, He has cleansed us and chosen us to be His adopted sons and daughters. He has put His life’s breath in us through the gift of the Holy Spirit. To each of us He proclaims, “This is my beloved son, this is my beloved daughter, with whom I am well pleased.”

God not only loves us but He is pleased with us. All of us have sinned. None of us has lived up to the dignity that is ours as sons and daughters of God. In both small and great ways, we have rejected the hand that our Heavenly Father extends to us. However, God never stops loving us. There is nothing we can do to make God love us more. There is nothing we can do to make God love us less. No matter what bad choices we have made, we can always return to Him and ask for forgiveness. No matter how forgetful of Him we have been, we can always turn to Him and ask for help. And we can have confidence that He will answer us in marvelous ways if we are truly sorry and our heart is open.

In our prayer throughout this coming week, let us meditate on this remarkable truth. In quiet reflection, let us allow the message to sink into our mind, heart and soul. Let us hear God saying to us, “Your are my beloved. I am pleased with you.” In the silence of our hearts, let us allow God to simply love us.

Then, let us reflect on how much God loves others. Let us consider that God loves those whom we ignore, whom we find offensive or whom we consider inferior to ourselves. God loves those who have hurt us, who have neglected us and who have abandoned us.

When we let that truth sink in, we will live with more confidence knowing that our Heavenly Father will provide for us. We will see others as our sisters and brothers rather than as strangers. It will become easier for us to forgive when we realize how much we have been forgiven. As we understand how much God loves us, we will be able to love others ourselves. As amazing as it might sound, we will become more and more like Jesus.

Then this simple but revolutionary message, the good news of God’s love, will really begin to transform our world.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Love Revealed

To many of those who had gathered for services at a Taylorsville, Utah Mormon church, the sight of Dave Musselman was unusual and unsettling.

His hair and beard overgrown, he sat on a bench wrapped in a blanket staring at his feet and mumbling to himself. When he walked in, many of the congregants turned their heads not wanting to make eye contact with him or engage him in any way. Though a few people welcomed him and even slipped some money into his hand when he wished them a “Happy Thanksgiving,” most treated him politely but with suspicion. In this well off suburb of Salt Lake City, most people had never seen a homeless person and were feeling conflicted between their desire to welcome the stranger and their instinct to protect themselves.

The level of tension rose dramatically in the congregation when the time for the sermon came and the homeless man got up from his seat and stood at the pulpit. Some of the men got up thinking they would need to escort him out. Instead they looked on in shock as Dave took off his wig, pulled off the fake beard that had been glued to his cheeks, cleared his voice and announced that he was their bishop.

Recalling the incident to the local newspaper, the bishop said, “It had a shock value that I did not anticipate. I really did not have any idea that the members of my ward would gasp as big as they did.”

One of the congregants told the same newspaper about her reaction when she learned it was her bishop, “I started feeling ashamed because I didn’t say hello to this man... He was dirty. He was crippled. He was old. He was mumbling to himself.”

During the sermon, the bishop explained to the congregation that his intention was not to embarrass or make them feel ashamed. Rather he wanted to call their attention to the presence of Christ in our midst in the most unlikely of circumstances and the most unlikely of people. Jesus is always near. Most likely he is hiding where we least expect to find Him.

The lesson that this congregation in Salt Lake City learned is the same lesson that we are reminded of throughout the Christmas season but especially on this feast of the Epiphany. Jesus Christ has come to live among us. Though we cannot see Him, He is still among us. However, as Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, He is hiding in the distressing disguise of the poor and needy.

The word “epiphany” means “revelation”. It describes what happens when a truth finally “dawns” on us. Suddenly our eyes are open to an idea or concept which previously made no sense to us. For instance, when the bishop took off his wig and fake beard, it was an epiphany to the congregation who he really was.

When Jesus was born, it was an epiphany of God’s love. It taught us how far He would go to show us His personal love for each of us. It revealed His willingness to share our human condition with all its poverty and weakness. It also revealed that this love is destined for all people whether it be the lowly shepherds huddling in the cold or the cultured and sophisticated Magi from the East. It is a love that is destined for all peoples of every nation. It is a love that especially goes out to the poorest and neediest among us.

Unfortunately, it is a love that is too often rejected. Jesus suffered rejection from the first years of His life when King Herod chose not to welcome Him but to kill Him. Jesus continues to suffer rejection and persecution whenever the hungry are denied food, the poor are denied decent wages and immigrants are denied a warm welcome. In His life, Jesus experienced hunger and poverty and lived the first years of His life as a refugee in Egypt. He told us that He identifies most closely with the needy in our midst and warned us that we would be judged on how we served them. If we call ourselves Christians, then we must be willing to recognize and adore Jesus who chooses to reveal Himself in ways that make us uncomfortable and which may even frighten us.

This is a challenging message. All of us have to admit that we have fallen short. Because we want to protect ourselves and our families, we have been too cautious when dealing with the needy. It could also be that we are influenced by prejudices that blame the poor for their adversity because we think that  they are too lazy to find work. However, if just one time we take the risk of saying “hello” to a homeless person, shaking her hand or offering her some money, then we will see that she is a person just like us, a person with dreams and hopes but who has experienced more tragedies and difficulties than we can imagine.

We will make another surprising discovery as well. We will find love welling up in our hearts, love that we might not have found possible before. It will be a love that changes us because we will never again be able to experience comfort knowing that our brothers and sisters have no home. We will never again be able to enjoy a warm meal knowing that so many others are going hungry. Though this love will not allow us to rest, it will at the same time leave us with abiding peace because we have finally learned how to recognize Jesus, the Lord whom our hearts were created to seek out and adore.

On this feast of the Epiphany we celebrate a God whose love is revealed for all the world to see in the person of Jesus Christ. This love pours itself out in a special way for the poor and needy as we heard proclaimed in today’s Responsorial Psalm - “For he shall rescue the poor when he cries out....the lives of the poor he shall save.” To be able to receive such a wonderous love, we have to recognize our own poverty. If we have enough money, enough food and enough comforts, it is very likely that we do not have enough faith, hope or love. If that is the case, then we have to serve the poor around us. In that way God’s love will be revealed in and through us for all the world to see.