Thursday, March 23, 2017

Cast Out And Into The Arms Of Jesus


She was an outcast, a nobody. Whenever she walked by, people would pretend they did not see her or whisper gossip to one another about her. She would never be invited to any parties or gatherings in the town. If she had any children, they too would have no friends. The other children would have been warned not to play at their house or go near them. She did not have a friend in the world.

For this reason we find her walking alone at the hottest time of the day to get water from Jacob’s well. At noon she hoped that everyone would be inside their homes avoiding the heat. She would not have to put up with the stares of the people in the street. And at the well she would not have to deal with the awkward silence that would come over everyone as soon as she approached.

Though she expected to be alone, there was someone at the well waiting for her. A Jewish man. At least he would not speak to her, or so she thought. What she did not know was that Jesus was there waiting for her. This man knew her loneliness. He knew all the choices she had made in the past which now haunt her, leaving her with no friends and no peace. What she also did not know was that He was the only one who could make everything right for her.

With the purest of intentions, Jesus begins to seduce her. He intrigues her with His offer of living water. In her mind, she thinks that if she could get this living water she would never have to come to the well again and face the other women of the town. But Jesus is talking about an even greater gift than that. He is offering her a refreshment that she has never known and could never imagine having. He is offering her peace with God, a relationship with Him that can sustain her. He is offering her a new life based not on shame and loneliness but on awareness of God’s love and freedom.

The woman is overwhelmed by what Jesus tells her. Forgetting her shame, she now no longer avoids the people of her town but runs up to their homes knocking furiously on their doors beckoning them to come to the well and meet the one who told her “everything she had ever done.” Though they may have thought she was crazy, they did come out to meet Jesus and they eventually believed in Him.

As the town’s greatest sinner, she was the most unlikely person that Jesus would meet. Even more, she was the most unlikely person to carry His message to others. But she was precisely the one whom Jesus chose. She was precisely the one whom Jesus sought out, because His delight is in finding the lost, in rescuing those most in danger and in bringing love to the most abandoned.

Like the woman going to the well, we have come here to this church today looking for something. Perhaps we are lonely and feel that we do not have a real friend in the world. Perhaps we are burdened with shame, haunted by the sins of our past and frightened that we lack the strength to not repeat them in the future. Perhaps our hearts have grown cold and hard and we need faith, hope and love to rejuvenate them. Perhaps we are tired from all the responsibilities of life and just need to rest.

Jesus is waiting for us here. In fact, Jesus has been expecting us. He wants to refresh us with the living water - His word which revives us and His Holy Spirit who sustains us. He wants to reassure us that He knows everything we have ever done. He understands the burden of shame we carry, but He loves us anyway and He wants us to put that burden down for good. If we give it to Him, He can carry it for us instead. If we have been feeling distant from God, He wants to teach us how to worship in Spirit and in Truth. We know that His word is truth and that when we gather here with other believers the Holy Spirit is among us. Finally, He wants us to know that He is the Messiah, the Saviour of the World. He is the One we long for. He is the One we have been searching for to soothe the aching of our hearts. He is here, and He is waiting for us.

Just as the Jews wandering in the desert found water in the most unlikely of places - a rock - and just as Jesus chose the most unlikely of persons - a sinful Samaritan woman - to carry His message, so we will find Jesus in the most unlikely of places and the most unlikely of persons. If we have found God to be elusive or fulfillment to be beyond our reach, it could be that we have been looking everywhere else except where He can be found. It could be that we have to slow down and begin opening our eyes to everything and everyone around us. God loves us, He is waiting for us and He is looking for us. It could be that we just have not noticed it yet. One thing we can be sure of is that when we do slow down, open our eyes and begin to notice it will be a surprise.

How will we know when we have met Jesus and have found the spring of living water? We will know for sure when we want to share it with others, when we want to tell our family, friends and neighbors all that God has done for us so that they can share our joy. Joy - a contagious, overflowing joy that we cannot keep to ourselves - is the sure sign that God is living within us. If that joy is still elusive, all we need do is ask Jesus for the gift of living water. He has been waiting a long time to offer it to us. Let us lay down our burden of shame, our fears and our doubts believing that just as He loved us enough to die for us on a cross He will not refuse us the living water our hearts long for. Then let us open our eyes to marvel at all the surprising ways in which He will answer our prayer.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Thirst


What are you thirsting for?

What unfulfilled dreams drive you? What unrealized goals motivate your actions? What is the “something more” that exceeds your grasp and pushes you to try harder?

All of us in the pit of our being live with an unmet need. At times we experience it as anxiety or restlessness. It can be the lingering feeling of disappointment when we reach a milestone that does not seem to satisfy us the way we expected. We know that we are made for great things, for that “something more”. However, no matter how hard we look, it manages to elude us.

In today’s gospel, Jesus meets a woman who was thirsting for that “something more”. Her drive for love and intimacy took her through five marriages. As if that were not enough, she was living with a man who was not her husband. There is no doubt that she was restless and unsatisfied.

What did her life-long search for love and belonging get her? Much heartbreak. With each of those failed marriages she must have felt devastating rejection and numbing shame. She had become an outcast in her village. That is why she sets out at the hottest hour of the day in the desert to draw water from the well. She hoped that she would not bump into the other women of her town. She hoped to avoid their condescending stares and mocking whispers.

All her life, she thirsted for love and belonging, but found herself heartbroken and alone.

And so, in the middle of the desert, underneath the blazing midday sun, whom does she find waiting for her at the well? Jesus.

She is amazed that he would even speak to her. Not only does he speak with her, it turns out that he already knows her. Though he knows her soul and reads its secrets, he does not ridicule or blame her. Rather he wants to be her friend. He makes it clear that he alone can provide her with the water she so desperately needs. He alone can quench the thirst she has been suffering with for so many years. She believes and runs back to the village leaving her water jug behind. She has found the love she was craving and wants to tell everyone about it.

Has your thirst for love and belonging taken you to places you should not have gone? Have you looked for friendship from people who could only take from you and who left you with less than you started with? Has your shame weighed so heavily upon you that you are convinced you do not deserve to be treated any better?

Have you finally had enough? Are you ready to let your thirst lead you to the one who has the power to really satisfy you?

God placed that emptiness within each one of us so that we would search for him. He is the only one who can fill it. Just as we thirst for him, Jesus thirsts for us. He longs for us to come home to him. We can be confident that he will not condemn us or heap more shame on us. Rather, he will heal our broken hearts and fill them with joy. He will restore our dignity, our freedom and our sense of meaning. We will no longer be groping in the dark for that “something more” that has eluded us. Rather we will have a personal relationship with the one for whom our hearts were made.

On the cross, Jesus cried out, “I thirst”. Blood and water flowed out from his pierced heart so that our thirst could be satisfied. Turn to Jesus, then. Be fed by him. Know the peace that he alone can give. And go from this place in joy to tell others so that they can receive the living water that only he can give.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Going To The Well

Please take a few seconds to think about the teachers who made a difference in your life. If you're like me, I remember them not because of what they taught, but because of how they taught. Good teachers do more than lecture students and spoon-feed them raw data. Instead, they try to draw out from them an understanding of the material and an ability to relate that information to real life. By engaging them in the learning process, a good teacher not only teaches students what to learn, but teaches them how to learn.

Like a good teacher, Jesus did not get his point across with lectures or by assigning book reports. Instead he encountered people face to face and sought to draw faith from them.

In today's gospel, Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman at a well. Under the hot, noontime sun, he sees an opportunity to draw faith from the well of this woman's soul. By speaking to her and asking her questions, Jesus guides her through a gradual understanding of who he is. At first, she recognizes him to be a Jew. When he offers her living water, she asks if he is greater than the patriarch,  Jacob.  Then, when Jesus tells her that she has had five husbands and that she is living with a man who is not her husband, she recognizes that he is a prophet. Finally, when Jesus tells her that true followers will worship in spirit and in truth, she asks him if he is the Messiah. Elated at her new discovery, she drops her water jug and runs off to the village to tell the people that she has found the Messiah. Like a good teacher, Jesus did not just tell her who he was, but revealed himself to her gradually in a way that she could take to heart.

But not only is there a change in the woman's understanding of who Jesus is, there is a change in the woman herself. Remember that Jesus told her that she had had five husbands and that she was living with a man who was not her husband. That's probably why she was at the well at the hottest time of the day, to avoid the disdainful stares of the other women in town. She was the town harlot, a public sinner, who lived as an outcast. But now that she had encountered the Messiah and come to believe in him, she went from being the town sinner to a herald of the good news. She leads the people from the village out to meet this man "who told her everything she ever did!"

We are now in our third week of Lenten prayer and sacrifice. Through our prayer, Bible study and works of charity we have sat at the foot of our teacher, Jesus, and learned from him. By his presence in our lives, we have come to a deeper understanding of who he is. We may know in our minds that Jesus is our Messiah, but to have it change our lives is another story. Like a good teacher, Jesus is patient with us. He knows it will take time for our understanding of him to penetrate our hearts and to make a real change. The important thing is that we keep going to the well, that we keep seeking out Jesus, that we keep learning from him. Jesus will not deny us the living water when we approach him with sincerity and humility.

Jesus thirsts. Jesus thirsts to have us know him and to live a life of intimate friendship with him. He also longs to quench our thirst for hope and truth. We are gathered here today to worship in Spirit and in Truth. Our worship is guided by the Holy Spirit who was poured into our hearts at our baptism. And, we worship in the truth revealed to us in the Gospels and taught to us by our master, Jesus. If we open our hearts this day to that truth and to that Spirit, Jesus will draw from the well of our hearts a living water which is the promise of everlasting life with him in heaven. And, we will leave this place forever changed.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Ad Astra Per Aspera



When a man and woman first fall in love, they cannot get enough of each other. As often as possible, they spend time together. In their conversations, they want to learn everything about each other. As trust grows, little by little they reveal different facets of their personality. They become increasingly comfortable being themselves as they learn to accept one another.

As time goes on, the deeply felt emotional moments begin to fade and the near ecstatic experiences of love become fewer and fewer. If the couple marries, the glow of romance gives way to the demands of everyday life - maintaining a household, earning a living and raising children. Though the feelings might not seem as intense, the love itself does not go away. Rather it is growing stronger as it grounds itself not just in emotion but in a total, lifelong commitment.

The same is true with our spiritual lives. As we fall in love with Jesus, we want to spend increasingly more time with Him in prayer. We pour over the Bible and other books trying to learn as much as we can about our Savior. At Mass or at adoration, we experience intensely deep emotions, even breaking down into tears as our Heavenly Father’s love becomes more and more real to us.

However, with time, those emotional highs become fewer and fewer. We experience dryness in our prayer and often find it a chore rather than a joy. If we are involved in the Church, we may begin to wonder if our efforts are making any difference. We may doubt that we are making any progress in the spiritual life at all. However, like a married couple, our faith is growing deeper and basing itself not on emotions but on a real commitment to Jesus, His word and His Church.

Today’s readings offer us stories about intense spiritual experiences and the hardships that followed them. .

In the first reading, we hear the call of Abram. In a mystical vision, God reveals Himself to the man who would be the father of the Israelite people.  God promises to make Abram the father of a great nation, though he is an old man. No doubt, this spiritual experience was very intense for Abram. However, it came with a condition. He had to leave his ancestral land to travel to a far off place where God’s promise would be fulfilled.  

This mystical experience, then, was followed by many years of traveling. He and his wife, Sarah, endured many hardships making their way from Ur to Canaan. They suffered famine, witnessed the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and dealt with all the dangers involved in traveling in the ancient Near East. We also know how much God tested Abram’s faith, especially when He asked Him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. There must have been many times when Abram wondered whether he had done the right thing in leaving his homeland and he must have been tempted to go back. However, the mystical experience of God and His promise gave him the strength to continue. Through it all, Abram trusted in God’s promise. He did not always have intense mystical visions but, nonetheless, he remained faithful to God in his everyday life.

The second example comes from the gospel account of the Transfiguration.

Jesus invites Peter, James and John to join Him in prayer on Mount Tabor. It is an invitation they had probably accepted numerous times as they followed Jesus. However, this time would be different. Jesus is transfigured before them, Elijah and Moses appear, and the voice of God is heard booming from a bright cloud which overshadowed them. In the intensity of the experience, they fall to the ground, trembling with fear. In a privileged moment, they witness Jesus in all His glory as the Son of God. However, just as soon as it begins, it is over. In a short while, they are walking down the mountain with Jesus who is telling them to keep the mystical experience to themselves.

By showing Peter, James and John the mystical vision of His glory, Jesus was strengthening them for the hardships that would follow. Once they left the mountain, they would be traveling to Jerusalem where Jesus would be put to death. The disciples would have their faith tested as Jesus was arrested, dragged through the streets and finally put to death. They would wonder whether they had made a mistake in believing in Him and following Him. By showing them His glory, Jesus hoped to encourage them in their faith, to help them believe that He was in control and that He really would rise again in three days as He promised.

Unlike Abram and the disciples, few of us have been blessed with intense mystical experiences. However, most of us have sensed God’s presence in a particularly tender way at one time or another. We may have been overcome with a feeling of His care. In our prayer, we may try to recapture such moments, trying to recreate the experience which gave us so much consolation and peace. However, those experiences are a gift. God gives them to us when we need them. There is no way to repeat them. We have to simply wait until our Heavenly Father feels it is time to grant them to us again.

At the same time, we should not be looking for such intense experiences. They should not be the goal of our prayer. We should be thankful when they do come, but we should also remember why God gives them to us. He gives them to strengthen us in times of temptation, to encourage us in time of hardship and to remind us of His love when we are feeling abandoned or overwhelmed.

As we enter another week of Lent, we recommit ourselves to the sacrifices we have promised to undertake. They too will strengthen us to face temptation. When we begin to feel weak, when it seems that we cannot go on, when we are tempted to abandon it all, that is when we should call to mind all the gifts which our Heavenly Father has bestowed on us. Also, we should be quick to share with others the joy and consolation we have experienced in prayer and in good works. Our God stands with us, ready to give us what we need on our journey to everlasting life.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Transfigured In Prayer


Saint John Vianney tells the story of a parishioner of his who, after Mass, would sit in church staring up at the tabernacle. He asked him one day, “What is it that you are doing when you pray?” The man answered, “I look at Jesus, and he looks at me.”

There are few definitions of prayer as simple yet as beautiful as that. Prayer, at its heart, is looking into the face of God, seeing his beauty, contemplating his love and allowing ourselves to be changed by his grace and power.

Because all of us are called to know and love God, prayer must be a part of our life. It does not have to be complicated or difficult. It is a simple matter of opening our hearts to God and allowing him to touch us.

Today’s gospel reading - the story of the Transfiguration - gives us some clues as to how all of us can grow in our spiritual lives. They are steps which we need to take in our journey of prayer. First, we must climb the mountain; second, we must look upon Jesus; and third, we must go  back down the mountain to tell others what we have seen.

First, we must climb the mountain. In today’s gospel, before revealing his glory to Peter, James and John, Jesus first leads them up a high mountain. Climbing a mountain takes a good deal of effort. There is always the danger of falling off a cliff or running into a wild animal. Also, it is very tiring because the higher one climbs, the thinner the air is and the harder it becomes to breathe. Peter, James and John must have wondered to themselves why Jesus was taking them on such a demanding hike. Whatever it was that Jesus wanted to show them or tell them, couldn’t he have chosen someplace easier to get to?

The apostles’ experience teaches us something very true and profound about the spiritual life. God does not reveal himself until we are willing to make the hard journey up the mountain. That mountain could be a sin that we have to overcome, an unhealthy relationship in our lives or sickness. Every difficulty and challenge we experience is an invitation from God to climb the mountain so that he can reveal his glory to us. Like the apostles, we may not understand why God has put those obstacles in our path and made things so hard for us. However, if we ask him, he will give us the strength to endure whatever may come. And, with time, we will see and be amazed by God’s mercy.

The second truth of the spiritual life which today’s gospel teaches us is that we are meant to see the vision of God. Unlike the apostles, we do not see Jesus face to face. How, then, do we get a glimpse of him in all his glory? The central and most important way is in the Mass. At every Eucharist, the Risen Lord is truly present in our midst. When the readings are proclaimed, it is Jesus’ voice that we hear. The bread and wine we offer are truly transformed into his Body and Blood. They are not merely symbols, but Jesus himself in his Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. When we receive the Eucharist, we touch the body of the Risen Lord just as the apostles did, and we are transformed by him.

For that reason, the Sunday Mass is an indispensable part of our Christian life and spirituality. While it is very good to read the Bible, pray the rosary and contemplate the beauty of nature, none of those activities compare with the gift offered us in the Eucharist. While those activities can give us some insight into Jesus and his love, they cannot actually give us Jesus himself as the Eucharist does. There is no substitute for the real, life-changing encounter we have with the Risen Lord in the sacrament of his Body and Blood which we receive every Sunday.

The third truth of the spiritual life is that we cannot stay on the mountain. We have to go back down to witness to others the Jesus we have come to know.

The experience the apostles had of Jesus was overwhelming. It filled them both with awe and fear. Understandably, Peter does not want it to end. He wants to stay there, camping out with Jesus, Elijah and Moses forever. But Jesus does not allow it. The vision of his glory comes to an abrupt end, and he leads them back down the mountain to continue preaching the good news and healing the sick.

Many times when we are praying and feeling God’s presence all around us, we do not want it to end. We want to stay basking in the warmth of God’s love. That is entirely natural because we were created to praise God and never feel so much “at home” as when we are praying. But it is not enough. The spiritual life is never just a private affair. From worship, we must go into service. We have to bring the love of God we have experienced to others. We must come down the mountain and point out the way to encounter God to others so that they may share our joy.

The spiritual life is not only for priests, deacons and nuns any more than food and exercise are meant only for professional athletes. All of us are called to cultivate a deep life of prayer in whatever way suits our lifestyle, personality and calling in life. No matter what our individual prayer lives look like they will all have some characteristics in common. They will require us to climb the mountain of sacrifice and self-denial, they will lead us to gaze upon the face of Jesus and they will lead us back down the mountain to some type of service to our neighbor. All of these aspects of the spiritual life will revolve around the Mass which is the source and summit of our Christian life.

As we look upon the face of Christ, we will be changed by the vision of his glory and will begin to reflect that light to everyone we meet.

Monday, March 13, 2017

A Taste Of Future Glory


Have you ever noticed in supermarkets a lady at the end of the aisle with a table full of little goodies to give out as samples? Usually the goodies are little pieces of cheese or meat served on a cracker. What the store hopes is that we'll get a taste of the product and want to buy it. It is a powerful means of advertising a product by enticing us to give it a try even before we have committed to buying it.
  
In today's gospel reading, Jesus is offering a little taste of his glory to us. Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a mountain and reveals to them his glory as the only Son of the Father. They had already come to believe in him because of his words and because of his miracles. In the previous chapter of Matthew's gospel, Peter had made his profession of faith that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God. This, now, was an opportunity to see for themselves the divine glory of Jesus which was hidden in his humanity. Jesus was giving them a little taste of who he was as the Son of God.

Jesus didn't bring Peter, James and John up the mountain just to show off to them. He had a specific purpose in mind. Jesus wanted to give them a taste of what his resurrection would be like, so they would desire it enough to endure Jesus' passion and death, and to endure the demands that ministry with Jesus would place on them.

Jesus was asking a lot from Peter, James and John. First of all, he asked them to leave their families and jobs. Secondly, he asked them to believe that he, a carpenter, was the Son of God. Thirdly, he asked them to proclaim that to others. Finally, he would ask them to accompany him through his suffering and death. Remember, it was Peter, James and John who would also go up to the Mount of Olives with Jesus as he suffered the agony in the garden.  For them to accomplish all this, they would need something to hold on to, a memory of Jesus' glory to sustain them along the way. And so, Jesus' transfiguration gives the apostles a taste of the future resurrection to help them accept the suffering and shame of the cross.

Paul encourages us in the second reading: "Bear your share of the hardships which the gospel entails." Jesus is asking a lot of us as well. Unlike the apostles, we have never seen Jesus, yet he expects us to accept him as Savior and Lord. To each of us he has given a certain mission which he expects us to undertake. Whether our mission is to be a good parent, a good student, a good spouse or a good priest or deacon, we need help, especially when we encounter hardships. We need the hope that things will turn out okay, that things will get better, that we will adapt to whatever difficult situation we may find ourselves in. For us to be faithful to Jesus and to the mission he's called us to, we need small tastes of his glory. It could be as simple as someone telling us we're doing a good job when we feel like a failure. It could be a beautiful, sunny day reminding us of the beauty of our God. Or, it could be a powerful experience of God's presence in prayer. Whatever it may be, we need to hold on to those experiences to give us the strength to endure whatever difficulties we may encounter.  And, we need to ask God to open our eyes to his presence in our life so that we can take notice of those transfiguration moments in our day to day lives.

God is revealing to us His glory in the face of Christ so that our desire to know and love Him will be greater than any difficulty we may face on our journey to Him. Peter, James and John were privileged to see for themselves Jesus transfigured in glory. We have to hold on to less dramatic manifestations of Jesus' presence in our lives as a small taste already on earth of the life that we will share with Jesus in heaven. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Eucharist. Bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ to give us on earth a taste of the intimacy we will have with God in heaven. Through the Eucharist, Jesus is really present among us and within us. We hold on to that small taste of future glory to sustain us during the hardships which come with living the gospel message of love. And, we claim it as a promise that one day that glory will be ours with Jesus at the end of time.