Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Divine Mercy

Most of us are aware that Our Lady has appeared many times over the past 200 years in places such as Lourdes and Fatima. What we may not be aware of is that, over that same period of time, Jesus has also appeared.

One of his recent appearances took place less than one hundred years ago in Poland to a young woman named Faustina Kowalska. Between 1931 and 1938, Jesus revealed to her that she was chosen to spread the message of His Divine Mercy. He wanted her to tell the whole world how great His love was for mankind and that if we would only turn to Him we would experience forgiveness and limitless blessings. At the urging of her superiors and spiritual director, Sister Faustina kept a diary of her conversations with our Lord. They are available in a book entitled, Divine Mercy in My Soul.

In one appearance, Jesus asked that the Sunday after Easter be celebrated as “Divine Mercy Sunday.” It would be a blessed day when sinners would find relief from their transgressions and grace to live holy lives. Jesus describes this feast to Sister Faustina in these words recorded in her diary: “On the day of my feast, the feast of mercy, you will go through the world and bring fainting souls to the spring of my mercy. I shall heal and strengthen them.”

And so, on April 30, 2000, Saint John Paul II honored our Lord’s request by declaring that the first Sunday after Easter be celebrated by the whole Church as Divine Mercy Sunday. Today, we gather to honor Jesus’ request, to reflect on His fathomless love and to abandon ourselves to His Divine Mercy.

Today’s gospel - the story of Doubting Thomas - is especially fitting for this celebration.

If anyone was in need of mercy, it was Thomas. He was not present when the Risen Jesus revealed Himself to the other ten apostles. He was not able to see for himself and so he refused to believe.

The gospels do not tell us where Thomas was or what he was doing on that first Easter Sunday.
However, he was most likely walking the streets of Jerusalem. He would have heard people talking about Jesus’ crucifixion which had happened only a few days earlier. Some would have been saying how unjust it was that He was treated so cruelly. Others would be laughing at Him and His followers for believing in such nonsense. Some people may have recognized Thomas as a follower of Jesus and confronted him. Wherever he was and whatever he was doing, the trauma of Jesus’ death and the opinions of the people in the city were working on his mind and heart. His spirit was crushed. He did not want to believe anymore.

Does this not also describe the situation our modern society finds itself in? We live in a time when people’s spirits are crushed. We experience much evil, deception and cruelty in the world. Everywhere we turn we hear different opinions. We don’t know who to believe and begin to wonder what is true. We doubt, and like Thomas, we stray from the source of all truth - Jesus and His Apostles. The longer we stay away, the deeper the roots of doubt sink within us. Eventually, we begin to lose hope.

That was the situation Thomas found himself in. He just could not bring himself to believe anymore. His heart was too broken.

How does Jesus react? Does He abandon Thomas to his fear and doubt? No. In His mercy, He appears to Thomas to relieve him of his burden of doubt, to heal his broken heart and to restore his faith.

It is here at the Sunday Mass that we experience the Risen Jesus. Each of us is aware of a Thomas in our life who has stopped coming to Mass. They are kept away by doubt, fear and sin. We should not judge them but should feel sorry for them. They may seem to be doing fine, but inside their soul is starving and their heart is broken. There is nothing the world can offer that will fully satisfy them. Only Jesus can provide them with what they are ultimately looking for.

I often hear people say, “If I walked into church, the ceiling would cave in.” There is nothing sadder that a person can say. It shows a total lack of trust in Jesus and His mercy. Jesus came to save sinners. He died on the cross so that all of us could find forgiveness. There is no sin so great that God cannot forgive it. And no one is so sinful that they cannot turn to Jesus and through His grace become a great saint. Jesus said as much to us through Sister Faustina when He said: “The greater the sinner, the more right he has to my mercy.”

Our Heavenly Father, more than anything else,  wants to forgive and save sinners. That means each of us here and those who have failed to join us. What is holding us back from abandoning ourselves wholeheartedly to Him? Whatever it is - whether it is doubt, fear or sin - His mercy is infinitely greater than it. He can overcome it all in us and in our loved ones who are not here to experience it for themselves. We need only to trust Him, send out the invitation to others to come and see for themselves, and let God take care of the rest.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Being Let Down And Being Lifted Up

As we make our way through our adult life, we come to expect letdowns and disappointments. Because of so many unfulfilled promises and unmet expectations, we grow cynical of anything that can seem too good to be true. Our hearts cake themselves in callouses to protect us from future disillusionment. And so, we come to demand proof and assurances before committing ourselves to anything.

Such is the case with Thomas and the other apostles in today's gospel. They had set all their hope in Jesus. They had left their jobs and families to follow Jesus. And, it all came to a horrifying and humiliating end with the crucifixion. Now, they were reduced to hiding behind a locked door for fear that the authorities would do to them what they had done to Jesus.

While they were cowering in fear, Jesus appears to them. John tells us that Jesus shows Himself to them "despite the locked doors". John is not just referring here to the heavy wooden doors of their hiding place. He is talking about the closed doors of their hearts. Jesus breaks through the door of their fear. Jesus doesn't wait until they calm down or get perspective on the situation before appearing to them with the good news that He is alive.

Jesus' first words to them are "peace". "Peace be with you," He says. It is a greeting which makes sense given their fear and confusion. And, then, He exhales over them to bestow the gift of the Holy Spirit. That Holy Spirit gives them the power to forgive sins. And so, the victory of the cross is now passed on to them.

Just as Jesus is not shut out by the closed doors of the apostles' fear, neither is he shut out by the closed door of Thomas' doubt.  Instead, taking up Thomas' challenge, Jesus appears to him so that he can put his doubt aside. The nail marks on his hands, feet and side dispel any doubt that this is truly the Risen Jesus standing before him.

All of us, no matter how deep our faith, come before God with a closed heart. Our heart might be closed to Jesus' message out of fear that God will take from us more than we're willing to give. Or, we might fear that we'll be made fun of if we live His message in a total and radical way. Our hearts may also be hardened by doubt. With so many different religions and so many different opinions,  we might wonder, who's to say which is the right way?

No matter where we are with our faith - no matter how closed our hearts may seem - Jesus can break through that closed door and reveal Himself. If you can only go so far, Jesus can meet you there. If you can only believe so much, Jesus can take your hand and lead you a little further along. There is no doubt, no fear, no weakness that Jesus through the power of His resurrection and the power of His Holy Spirit cannot surmount.

Thomas is an example for us here. He is famous for his doubt - but his story doesn't end there. After his experience of the Risen Jesus, tradition tells us that he went on to preach the gospel in India. He is often pictured with a spear, because while in India preaching the good news, he was run through with a spear and killed. Doubting Thomas was martyred for his witness to the good news of Jesus' resurrection. Jesus broke through the closed door of Thomas' doubt and filled him with the faith which enabled him to eventually give his life for Jesus.

We have heard the story of Jesus' resurrection and will now celebrate the meal of His Body and Blood. If we really take seriously what we are receiving, each of us will approach this tremendous mystery with some fear and some doubt. Nonetheless, whatever our level of faith or doubt, trust or fear, the same Jesus gives Himself to each of us. Let us open the doors of our hearts to Jesus and embrace the gift of His peace and the gift of His Holy Spirit. When our lives change because of it - when our fear and doubt are dispelled - then we will know what it means that Jesus is still alive.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Keeping Our Eyes Fixed On Jesus

Saint John Bosco worked tirelessly with the youth of Turin, Italy. He had a special passion for children who were delinquent and who were often in trouble. His loving and playful disposition would often win them over and save them from a life of crime.

One day, he saw a tightrope walker and was fascinated by how the young man could walk on such a small rope without falling. He asked if the tightrope walker would teach him how to do the same. So they took a rope and tied it between two trees about three feet off the ground. Saint John Bosco stepped on the rope and steadied himself by holding on to the tree trunk. When he let go, however, he lost his balance and fell off the rope. Never one to give up easily, he climbed back up, held on to the tree to get his balance and started walking. This time he was able to take one step but, once again, he lost his balance and fell to the ground.

The tightrope walker told him, “Your problem is that you are so afraid of falling that you are looking down at your feet. The trick to mastering this skill is to not look down or not look to the side. You must look straight ahead and put one foot in front of the other with confidence.”

Taking the advice to heart, Saint John Bosco climbed back on the rope and forced himself not to look down but to look straight ahead. With that he was able to make his way across the rope to the other side.

When talking to young people, Saint John Bosco would often tell them this story, sometimes even climbing up on a rope to show them that it worked. He would tell them that, if they kept their eyes always fixed on Jesus, they would be able to make it through the challenges of life without losing their balance and falling.

Saint Paul tells us in today’s second reading, “If then you were raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.”

We so often lose our balance and fall because we are looking at everything else except Jesus risen from the dead.

We often are looking at other people and wondering what they think. We are too busy measuring ourselves up to their expectations rather than seeking what pleases God. When we do so, we get so wrapped up in what our friends, co-workers, classmates or family want that we do not even know what we want for ourselves. Focused on what others demand from us rather than what Jesus does will lead us to lose our balance and fall.

Other times we have our eyes focused on our own weakness. Looking to the past, we see how many mistakes we have made and lose our confidence in the future. We think our sins are too great for the Lord to forgive and that our weakness will make it impossible for God to work through us. Sometimes we get so down on ourselves that we think we deserve it when others mistreat us. When we take our eyes off Jesus and His merciful love, we lose our balance and fall.

Oftentimes we take our eyes off Jesus because we become enchanted with the things of this world. The pursuit of power, pleasure and possessions can become all-consuming. We believe that positions of authority, money and status will fulfill us. When chasing the things of this world, we can lose sight of what our hearts truly desire - communion with our Risen Lord. In short order, we lose our way and lose ourselves in the process.

If we are to keep our balance in this life and not fall, we must constantly keep our eyes fixed on our Risen Lord.

By dying on the cross and rising from the dead, He has conquered sin and death.

We do not have to be focused on our fears, then. Our Risen Lord has conquered death. We do not have to be focused on our weakness because our Risen Lord has conquered sin. We do not have to be focused on what others think because the only standard we need to measure ourselves by is the love that Jesus has shown by dying on the cross for us. And we do not have to focus on the fleeting things of this world which always disappoint us and leave us feeling empty. Our Risen Lord has shown us the way to the eternal life our hearts desire and the friendship with God for which our spirits long.

Saint Paul says a curious thing in today’s second reading. He says, “If you have been raised with Christ..”. What can he mean by that? The people he was writing to hadn’t died yet.  How could they be raised with Christ?

He is talking about baptism. Through baptism we die with Christ and are raised to new life through the Spirit. The waters of baptism, in effect, drown our egotistical selves and we rise up with the hope of everlasting life with God. That everlasting life is not just something we will experience in Heaven. We experience it already today when we choose love over hatred, when we overlook what we want to serve the wants of the poor, when we choose forgiveness over revenge and when we work for justice rather than for our own benefit. That everlasting life of Heaven which we experience already today is what we should be keeping our eyes focused on if we want to keep our balance through the trials of this life.

This Easter Day we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. He rises from the dead as the conqueror of sin and death. His victory can only make a difference in our lives if we decide to take our eyes off  what others expect, off our own sinfulness and off the things of this life and focus on Him. Then we will be transformed by His love and share in His victory over sin and death. We will not lose our balance but can walk with confidence, step by step, up until we see Him face to face in the everlasting glory of Heaven. 

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Seeing For Ourselves

If only I could see Jesus as the disciples did, then I could believe.

It is easy to envy the first followers of Jesus. With their own eyes, they saw Him give sight to the blind, open the ears of the deaf and raise the dead. They knew the features of His face, the timber of His voice and the charisma of His personality. They spoke with Him and witnessed for themselves the love He had for them.

Living some two thousand years later, it can be tempting for us to think that if we had their experience, we would find it easier to believe all the claims of the gospel and even easier to live them out. We think that this is especially true about the feast we celebrate today, the Resurrection. If He appeared to us, if we were able to see His Risen Body, if we were able to touch Him as Thomas did, then we would have no doubts whatsoever. We would put our faith without reservation in Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord.

However, reading today’s gospel, quite a different scene is played out. Mary Magdalene, Peter and John are not the confident disciples we would expect. More than anyone else, they were Jesus’ most intimate friends. Yet they are confused. They do not know what to make of the scene that is unfolding before them. They are not sure what they are to believe.

In many ways, they find themselves in the same situation we do. Like us, Jesus has not yet appeared to them in His resurrected body. Like us, the only evidence they have that Jesus has risen is an empty tomb. And yet, with so little to go on, we are told that John, the disciple Jesus loved, believed. He had not seen Him with His own eyes. He did not yet understand the Scriptures which prophesied that He would rise from the dead. And yet he believed as we are called to do.

Gathered here today, can we believe that Jesus rose from the dead? Let us consider the evidence that we have - the empty tomb. Is that enough to put faith in the resurrection?

It is clear that Jesus died and was placed in a tomb. Three days later, that tomb was found to be empty and Jesus’ body was never found. Is there a theory that can explain for us how that could have happened?

Some have suggested that the disciples stole His body. But how likely is that? The gospels tell us that the tomb was already empty when the women arrived there. We know also that guards were placed at the tomb by the Romans and that there was a large stone blocking its entrance. Is it possible that the disciples who had fled during the crucifixion and were in hiding in the upper room could suddenly find the courage to confront the Roman guards and steal Jesus’ body?

Also, history tells us that all of the apostles except Saint John were martyred for the faith. Yet there is no historical record that any of them, even under the most horrific of tortures, confessed that Jesus’ body had been stolen. If the disciples had conspired to fake the resurrection, would not one of them have admitted it?

There are some who claim that the Roman authorities took Jesus’ body so that the disciples would not have a place to gather and remember Him. As the story goes, they hoped that once they discovered that Jesus’ body was missing, they would leave Jerusalem and forget all about Him. However, this claim also does not stand up to scrutiny. As faith in Jesus’ resurrection began to spread throughout the empire, would not the authorities have produced His body to prove that He had not risen and squash the claims of the apostles?

Finally, there are some who explain the empty tomb by claiming that Jesus had not really died on the cross. He only had gone into shock or fallen into a coma. When they placed Him in the tomb, he only appeared to be dead. After resting for a few days, He revived. The disciples then interpreted this as His having been raised from the dead.

However, like the others we have mentioned above, this claim also makes little sense. Consider what Jesus’ endured. He had been severely whipped and beaten. For three hours, He hung on the cross with nails run through His hands and feet. He experienced a tremendous loss of blood. With all the trauma He suffered, is it possible that all He needed to recover was a couple days rest? Even if He had been taken to a modern day intensive care unit, it would take months of blood transfusions, surgeries, physical therapy and other medical interventions to get Him back on His feet. It is not possible that. given all He suffered, He could have healed up in such a short period of time.

Like the disciples, we are confronted with an empty tomb. When we consider the evidence, there is only one logical conclusion we can draw. Jesus was raised from the dead as He predicted He would be. Though we have not seen Him, that does not mean that we have no reason to believe. We have the empty tomb and the testimony of Scripture. It was enough to make John believe. It is also enough to make us believe as well.

In the next few weeks, we will read the gospel accounts of how Jesus appeared to the disciples, showing Himself to be very much alive. We will notice that those appearances always take place on “the first day of the week”, that is, Sunday, the day of the resurrection. It is also the day that Christians gather to celebrate the Eucharist. At Mass, when we receive the Body and Blood of Christ, Jesus appears to us. He shows Himself to be alive. We receive Him into our bodies and we become one with Him.

As it turns out, we have all that we need to believe that Jesus is risen from the dead and alive among us. Blessed are we who have not seen yet believe. Now we must go and put that faith into practice.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Empty Tomb

Imagine on a Sunday morning going to visit the grave of a loved one and finding the tombstone gone and a hole in the ground where the coffin once lay. At first, you would feel confused and wonder whether you had gone to the wrong grave. Then you would feel outraged. How dare anyone tamper with your loved one’s final resting place! When the anger subsided, grief would overcome you. You would feel as if you had lost your loved one all over again. Finally you would call your family and friends. They would all rush over to find out for themselves what happened.

This gives us some idea of how Mary Magdalene, Peter and John were feeling on that first Easter Sunday morning. Upon seeing his tomb empty, their first assumption was that someone had stolen Jesus’ body. They felt confused, sad and afraid. After all they had been through, what could possibly happen next?

We know what happens next. Jesus will appear to His disciples showing that He is alive. Their confusion would be transformed into wonder, their grief into joy and their fear into faith. The resurrection does not bring new life only to Jesus, but also to those who believe in Him. They are transformed into new women and men.

The same is true for us. The new life of Jesus’ resurrection is a reality in our own lives. So many of us lived with constant confusion, grief and fear. The direction of our lives was a mystery to us. We lived from day to day not knowing and often not caring about the purpose of our existence. We knew something was missing, but could not put our finger on what that something was.

As it turned out, the “something” that was missing from our lives was really “somebody”. It was Jesus. By the grace of God, at some point or over time, we became keenly aware of God’s presence in our lives and of His unconditional love for us. The faith we received at baptism and which was taught to us throughout our childhood began to make sense. The hope of everlasting life with God in Heaven gave us new meaning and purpose. We exchanged our fear and confusion for faith. The resurrection of Jesus became a reality for us.

Not only has the resurrection changed us personally, it has transformed the whole world. It would take us all week to detail how the course of history has been changed by the resurrection of Jesus.  We would have to talk about the apostles who spread the good news throughout the earth. We would have to tell the story of countless followers of Jesus who began the hospital system by caring for the sick, elderly and homeless. It would be women and men of faith who would work tirelessly to educate the young and so make the Catholic Church the largest private provider of education in the world. Inspired by the resurrection, Christians would seek out the lonely, the lost and the poor to provide for their needs making the Church the largest charitable institution in the world. Billions of people throughout history have had their lives changed for the better because of the love and care shown to them by those who call themselves followers of Christ. The resurrection of Jesus has changed the world and saved it in more ways than any one of us can begin to fathom.

But God’s work is still only just beginning. Our world is still under the dark spell of confusion, grief and fear. Though Jesus has already conquered sin and death, the truth of His victory has not reached every human heart. That is where we must step in. It is up to us to carry the message of Jesus resurrection to those in despair. It is our task now to be witnesses of His victory to those who are locked in self-destructive patterns of sin. How will others come to know if we do not tell them? Most importantly, how will they know the beauty of a life lived for Christ if we are not living that way ourselves?

Many of us do not share our faith with others because of fear. We are afraid what people will think of us. We do not want to be made fun of. Or we are afraid of offending our friends. The early followers of Jesus had those same fears and doubts. But the resurrection of Jesus changed all that. By the power of the Spirit, they were emboldened to proclaim to everyone that Jesus was alive. Of course, they were made fun of and many were even killed, but they kept on proclaiming the truth because it was just too wonderful to keep to themselves.

When Jesus appears to the disciples after His resurrection, His words to them are “Do not be afraid”. The Risen Jesus speaks the same words to us here today. “Do not be afraid.” God is with us. The Spirit we have received at our baptism and confirmation is a Spirit of boldness and conviction. He will give us the opportunity to witness to Jesus, He will give us words that can change minds and hearts and He will give us the patience and courage to deal with those who reject and ridicule us. Faith in the Risen Lord conquers all fear.

Jesus is truly risen from the dead. He now lives forever, and He offers us the hope of everlasting life. The resurrection becomes real in our lives when we exchange fear, grief and confusion for faith, joy and conviction. Having experienced the Risen Lord through faith, we are now sent out to be His witnesses. We do not fear because God is with us. A hurting world is longing to hear this message. In the power of the Holy Spirit, we cannot fail.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Easter Mysteries Of The Rosary

Traditionally, there are three groupings of mysteries for praying the Rosary: the Joyous Mysteries, the Sorrowful Mysteries and the Glorious Mysteries. In his Apostolic Letter, The Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Pope John Paul II added the Luminous Mysteries. And, recently, I discovered mysteries surrounding the life of Saint Joseph. The Rosary can help us to ponder any mysteries of the Christian life, not just those which are widely known and practiced. Therefore, to add some life and variety to my own prayer, I have developed a set of mysteries based on  Jesus’ appearances after the Resurrection. Hopefully you will find them as helpful in deepening your own sense of awe and wonder at Christ’s victory over death as I have.

1) The appearance to Mary Magdalene (Jn. 20: 11-18)
2) The appearance to the disciples (Jn 20: 19-23 & Lk.24: 36-49)
3) The appearance to Thomas (Jn.20: 24-29)
4) The appearance on the road to Emmaus (Lk.24: 13-35)
5) The appearance at the Sea of Galilee (Jn. 21: 1-23)

Sunday, April 16, 2017

He Is Truly Risen! Alleluia!

Today is the day of Easter joy!

Over the past 40 days, we have prepared ourselves through sacrifice and prayer so that we could renew our baptismal vows with deeper commitment and embrace the wonder of Jesus' resurrection from the dead. In particular, over this past week, beginning with Palm Sunday, we have delved into the mystery of Jesus' suffering and death. We learned that we have a God who does not abandon us to sin, suffering and death, but a God who suffers along with us and offers us the hope of redemption.

This God continues to be alive and active in our world. Whenever a person changes, leaving selfishness behind, God's hand has moved. Whenever good comes out of evil, God is at work. That is the power of the resurrection continuing to act in the world over two thousand years later.

The resurrection of Jesus from the dead has the power to transform lives. We see it in today's readings in the person of Simon Peter. When Mary Magdalene tells the apostles that the body of Jesus is not in the tomb, both Peter and John race to the scene. John reaches the tomb first. When Peter finally gets there, he is cautious, not knowing what to make of the empty tomb. John, however, knows right away what's going on. Because John looks at the situation through the lens of love, he sees and believes.

Now, let us go back to the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. We find a much different Peter. He is no longer cautious, but proclaims in bold and uncompromising language that Jesus is the Son of God and that He is risen from the dead. What has caused the change? Nothing less than Peter's encounter with the Risen Jesus. Over the next few weeks up until Pentecost we will read in the gospels how the Risen Jesus appears to Peter, forgiving him for denying Him, and challenging him along with the other apostles to leave fear behind and proclaim His resurrection to all people. Meeting the Risen Jesus transforms Peter from a timid and cautious man to a bold witness of Jesus who would eventually be given the courage to lay down his life for the gospel.

If we were to look around this church today, we would find people here who have been transformed by their encounter with the Risen Jesus. There are people here today who were sick, but found strength and hope through the prayers of others. There are couples here today who struggled in their marriage or with their children and through the gift of faith were able to work toward a resolution of their problems and, so, strengthen their relationship. There are people worshipping here today who doubted and weren't sure what to believe. They searched different faiths and researched exotic philosophies in their quest for the Truth. Finally, by the light of the Holy Spirit, they came to believe that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

So, how do we encounter the transforming power of the Risen Jesus? One way is through reading the Bible. The Bible is the word of God. Whenever we read the Bible, we can be assured that the Risen Christ is speaking to us. We also encounter the risen Christ through the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. The bread and wine will become the very body and blood of the Risen Jesus. Receiving the Body and Blood of Christ is a transforming encounter with the Risen Lord. Every time we receive it in faith, it has the power to change us in a deep and permanent way.

Our liturgy will continue this morning with the renewal of our baptismal promises. We will reject sin and profess our belief in the God who saves. And, with that new commitment, we will receive the Body and Blood of Jesus, a life-changing encounter with the Risen Lord! We need not be cautious like Peter, waiting to see what happens. Instead, like John, we can look on the marvel of this day through the lens of love and believe in the power of the Risen Jesus to change us and to change our world.