Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Crying out!

Have you ever been out minding your own business and had someone come up to you whom you were really not interested in talking to? It might have been someone asking for directions or a homeless person asking for change. It might have been someone in line at the checkout who for some reason tried to start up a conversation with you. Strangers can make us feel uncomfortable and suspicious. Our guard goes up because we are unsure what they might want from us. Most of the time, we prefer to be left alone.

That is the situation that Jesus and his disciples find themselves in in today’s gospel. They are outside the land of Israel in the pagan territories of Tyre and Sidon. As foreigners in a strange land, they would just as soon not have any attention drawn to them. If they had been in a car, they would have rolled up the windows and made their way straight to the next highway exit back to Galilee.

Then a pagan woman appears yelling out to them, asking Jesus to relieve her daughter of the demon that is tormenting her. They feel embarrassed and irritated. Trying to ignore her, they walk away as fast as they can. But she refuses to go away and only cries out the louder. Finally, Jesus is forced to speak with her.

What does He find? Is she just an ignorant, pagan woman? Does she have no idea to whom she is speaking or what she is asking for? On the contrary, Jesus finds in her a mother who is desperate to have someone help her afflicted daughter. And most of all, He finds a woman of great faith.

Jesus and His disciples took the time to speak with this foreigner, and they were deeply moved by what they found. They were so moved, in fact, that they have handed the story down to us over the centuries as an example of faith.

It is easy for us to write people off, especially those who are different than we are. We do not believe that we could ever learn anything from them. But every person - the stranger, the immigrant, the homeless - is made in the image and likeness of God. Each person is unique and loved personally by our Heavenly Father. Each person is endowed by God with gifts for a mission that only he or she can accomplish. And it could be that that person’s mission is to touch our hearts and teach us something about faith and love.

Mother Theresa of Calcutta often said that the poor are merely Christ appearing to us in a distressing disguise. Like the pagan woman in the gospel, God very often chooses to reveal Himself to us in the most unlikely of persons. That is why we have to be prepared to see the face of Christ in everyone. Jesus made it very clear to us that we will be judged on how we treat the least of His brothers and sisters.

Another point for us to consider is that everyone who is part of our life is there for a reason. Whether it is a lifelong friend, a family member or someone we just happen to bump into at a store, God meant for us to have some contact with them for a reason that only He knows. Some people are in our lives to be our friends, to laugh and cry with us and to support us. Those family and friends are great blessings to us.

But there are also people sent to us by God to teach us other lessons. They are the people who get under our skin and irritate us. They are the ones who just always seem to be saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. We would just as soon avoid them at all costs. However, God placed them in our lives to teach us lessons that our family and friends could not teach us. From them, we learn to be patient and to forgive. By listening to them and going out of our way to be friendly with them, we might learn that underneath their gruff exterior is a lonely heart and a needy soul. Our caring presence to them might be just what they need to find some relief from the demons that torment them. We also might find ourselves being touched by their faith and their insights into God.

Jesus never judged people by their appearances. He looked straight into a person’s soul. Whether they were a tax collector or Pharisee, Jew or foreigner, He spoke directly to their heart. Jesus loved without exception and without distinction. That is the way He loves each of us. And that is the way He commands us to love one another. If we are to do that, then we must be transformed through grace into the likeness of Jesus. We must have His eyes to see through the exterior appearances into the interior heart. We must have His ears to hear the pain and frustration that so often lie behind hurtful words. We must have His heart to truly care for those in need no matter how unappealing they may be or how much they might inconvenience us.

That is why we are gathered here today, to learn from the Master. The faith, hope and love we need are His to give us. He teaches it to us through His word. And He unites us to Himself through the miracle of the Eucharist which we are about to share. Here and now we can exchange our hurting, selfish hearts for loving hearts. Recognizing Him in the Body and Blood which is given to us, we can then recognize Him in the needy people He places in our path.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Syro-Phoenician Woman

When it comes to what's best for their children, mothers never take "no" for an answer.

A case in point is today's gospel. The Canaanite woman is literally begging Jesus to cure her daughter who is tormented by a demon. Though the gospel doesn't tell us anything else about the girl's affliction, we can imagine that she was in a great deal of pain.

Though Jesus appears to be ignoring her, she persists in begging for him to help her. It gets to the point where the disciples are starting to get annoyed and want Jesus to tell her to leave them alone.

After talking to the woman, Jesus surprisingly refuses to help her because she is not Jewish. But, she will still not give up until Jesus, recognizing her faith, grants her request to relieve her daughter of her affliction. The woman's great persistence was a reflection of the depth of her faith - a depth of faith which Jesus could not ignore.

Now, it may shock us to think that Jesus would be capable of ignoring a woman in such obvious distress. It goes against the compassionate image of Jesus that we so often encounter in the gospels. Could it be that Jesus was really not going to help her? Could it be that Jesus was really willing to allow her daughter to continue suffering just because she belonged to another race and another religion than he?

On the contrary, I believe that Jesus pretended to ignore the woman to teach a lesson to his disciples who were with him that day and to us who hear this gospel proclaimed today. Jesus must have sensed the woman's distress and seen the faith in her heart. Jesus somehow knew she wouldn't take "no" for an answer and that she wouldn't give up. By forcing the woman to pursue him, he wanted to teach us about the need to persevere in prayer, to not give up even though it seems that our prayers will never be answered and our needs will never be met.

The history of the Church is full of stories of mothers who, like the woman in the gospel, persevered in praying for their children over many years. One of the most moving stories is that of Saint Monica, the mother of Saint Augustine. Saint Augustine, though a bright young man, lived many years of his life without direction. He was seeking happiness and peace, but didn't know where to find it. His mother, Monica, prayed for him consistently as he looked into different philosophies and different ways of life all looking for the joy and peace his mother knew he would only find through faith in Jesus. Eventually, after many years of intercession, Monica finally saw her prayers answered when Augustine embraced the gift of faith and turned his life over to Jesus. He was ordained a bishop and became known for his powerful sermons and writings, becoming one of the Church's greatest saints.

The prayer of mothers is very powerful indeed, because it is motivated by deep love and faith. Many of us can point to the prayers and examples of our own mothers and grandmothers as reasons why we came to take our faith seriously. And, I can attest that mothers are in this church daily on their knees in prayer for their children who may be having difficulties in school, fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan, having difficulties in their marriage or struggling with illness. Thankfully, mothers never give up in their prayers for us and for the world.

This past week, we celebrated the feast of the great Mother of the Church, Mary, the mother of Jesus. Like a good mother, she never ceases to bring our prayers to her son for us. No matter what we may need and no matter how long it may take, a devotion to the Mother of God assures us that Jesus will hear and answer our prayers.

Our families, our Church and our world have many needs. There is much pain and suffering everywhere we look. With the love and faith we find in our mothers, we must never give up in bringing our prayers to Jesus. If Jesus delays in answering us, then we must pray even harder. Jesus hears us, and Jesus sees the faith in our hearts. Jesus will answer eventually if we do not let up. We can be especially assured that he will answer if we enlist his mother, Mary, as our ally.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Blessed Among Women

The “Hail Mary” is one of the best known prayers for Christians. Like the “Our Father”, it is taken mostly from the Bible. The opening lines, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you,” is taken from Gabriel’s greeting to Our Lady when he announced to her that she would be the mother of the Messiah.

The words which follow, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” are taken from the greeting which her cousin Elizabeth gave her when Our Lady visited her upon learning that she was pregnant with John the Baptist.

Mary is blessed among all women because she was chosen to be the mother of Jesus. She was blessed to carry Him within her, to love Him as her own child and to accompany Him throughout His life right up to His death on the cross. In fact, Mary will say of herself in her great song of joy, “The Magnificat”, that “all generations will call her blessed. We honor our Lady as the “Blessed Virgin Mary” because of the unique role she played in the life of Jesus and, therefore, in our salvation as believers in her Son.

Had it not been for her willingness to say “yes” to God’s plan to bring the Savior into the world through her, Jesus would not have been born. Mary willingly participated in God’s plan though it meant sacrificing her own plans for the future. Because of this, we honor Mary not only as the mother of our Saviour but as our mother also in faith. Just as we would not have life without the sacrifice of our own earthly mothers, so we would not have eternal life without the sacrifice of our spiritual mother, Mary.

Mary is “blessed among women” not only because she was chosen by God to be the mother of the Messiah but also because she lived a holy and virtuous life herself. She was a disciple of the one she cared for. Not only did she feed Him when He was hungry, but she fed on every word He said. Not only did she bathe Him at night, but she was cleansed by following His teaching. Not only did she support Him as He traveled the countryside preaching the good news, but she was supported by the great signs of healing He performed. Finally, she remained faithful to Him until the end, standing at the foot of the cross, taking part in the most horrific event any mother has ever endured - the crucifixion of her Son. Mary is “blessed among all women” because she heard God’s word through her Son and lived it.

Because of her faithfulness to her until the end, Jesus shared with His mother the victory He earned over death. Just as Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, so He raised His mother up, body and soul, into the glory of His eternal Kingdom. Could you imagine a son who, suddenly coming on a fortune, would not share it with his mother? Could you imagine him not building a new house for her and providing for her just as she had provided for him? Just so, Jesus honored His mother by sharing His victory over death with her and by crowning her as queen of His heavenly Kingdom.

This is the feast we celebrate today, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven. It is the fitting conclusion of a life marked by faithful service to the Son of God. Mary was blessed to love and serve Jesus throughout her life. Now, in death, she is blessed to enjoy the fruits of the salvation He came to bring. After Jesus, she is the first to share in all the joys of heavenly life not only in her soul but in her body as well. Because she was faithful to God, God remained faithful to her crowning her with everlasting life and glorifying her body.

In heaven, Our Lady continues to serve her Son by praying for us, His people. Like a good mother, she brings our needs to her Son. She has not forgotten us who strive to follow her Son under the burdens of this earthly life. In all our needs, we can turn to her because she knows what it is like to struggle, she knows what it is like to go without and she knows what it is like to suffer. In Mary, we literally have “a friend in high places” who will never forget us and will pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.

Mary is “blessed among all women” but we are also blessed because we have come to believe in her Son and strive to keep His word in all we do. With the help of Our Lady’s prayers, we can be confident that we will continue to grow in grace until we too are called to share in Jesus’ victory over sin and death and take our place in the Heavenly Kingdom praising God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit forever with Mary and all the saints in glory.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Have you ever heard God speak to you? Have you ever had a thought pop into your head or a feeling move your heart so intensely that you knew it could only have come from God? Have you ever seen your prayers answered? Have you ever felt yourself wrapped in your Heavenly Father’s loving embrace?

If any of us have answered “no” to these questions, there is probably one good reason why. We most likely do not have enough quiet time in our lives.

In today’s society we are surrounded by noise. We are jerked out of sleep in the morning by a radio alarm. As soon as we get out of bed, we turn the television on. In our cars, we have the radio going. Every other time, we either are scrolling through the computer, playing with our cellphones or have earphones on. Even in church before Mass when we should expect to have some quiet time, there is often needless chatter in the pews.

However, without silence, we cannot hear God speak to us. Our Heavenly Father most often does not reveal Himself in blinding visions. He does not come to us shouting and waving His arms. Most often, God speaks to us in silence, when we are quiet and when our attention is focused on Him.

This is the lesson the prophet Elijah learned in today’s first reading. He is standing on the mountain where God first appeared to Moses and gave the Ten Commandments to the Israelites after they fled Egypt. Elijah was in trouble. Jezebel, the queen of Israel, wanted him killed, and he was running for his life. He knew it was the end of the road for him, and he wondered what God was going to do about it.

As the story goes on, a strong gust of wind passed by, an earthquake shook the mountain and a fire blazed up. These were the ways God had shown Himself in the past. He had appeared in the burning bush to Moses. He had led the people out of Israel in a pillar of fire. And an earthquake rocked Mount Sinai when the Ten Commandments were delivered to the people. But God did not choose to appear in these ways to Elijah. Instead, He spoke in a soft, gentle whisper. God was doing something new. If Elijah had been looking for some great show of power, he would have missed it altogether.

God loves each of us. And because He loves us, He wants to speak to us. He wants us to know that He is always with us. He wants us to know that He is in control and that He will provide us with all that we need. However, if we are to hear Him, we have to be quiet. We have to shut out all the noise buzzing around us and calm our minds and spirits. We have to be ready to listen.

How do we do that? A good first step would be to set aside time everyday to practice being quiet. Each of us needs a place we can go where we can be alone with God without noise and without distractions. It may mean getting up earlier in the morning or going to bed later. It may mean clearing out a room in our homes or apartments where we can settle ourselves down to focus on our Heavenly Father. Whatever it takes, for our spiritual well-being we need to give ourselves some quiet time.

If by God’s grace we are able to make time everyday to be quiet, our lives will change in amazing ways. We will experience a growing sense of God’s presence. When difficulties arise, we will have more perspective and a clearer mind to be able to deal with them. No matter how out of control circumstances may be around us, we will have a peaceful center that gives us reassurance and serenity through it all. Most importantly, we will live with a sense that God ultimately is in control of everything and, because He loves us, He will make all things work for our good.

Storms inevitably come our way. Like Elijah we may find ourselves running for our lives, or like the disciples in the gospel, we may find ourselves being tossed about by the waves. God may seem to be far away or to have abandoned us altogether. Like Peter, we may feel that we are about to drown and have come to a point where our only hope is to reach out our hand to Jesus and cry out, “Lord, save me.” But if we have a peaceful center that is nourished by quiet time and prayer, we will have confidence no matter how strong the wind is or how powerful the waves.

If we were to make quiet time for the Lord and  were to hear Him speak in His soft whisper, what would we hear? Most likely it would be the words Jesus speaks in today’s gospel, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” In fact, there are no words that Jesus speaks more often in all the gospels than, “Be not afraid.” Jesus wants to relieve our fears by reassuring us that He is by our side. The One who calmed the raging sea, who revealed Himself in fire on Mount Sinai and who conquered death is in control. Though He is hidden from our sight, He is still by our side. And He will save us if we cry out to Him. If we make time to be quiet in His presence every day, then our ears will be opened to hear Him speak and our eyes will witness His actions in our lives.

Monday, August 11, 2014

God is Greater!

A woman was widowed at a young age and left with three young children to raise. As you can imagine, she struggled through many long days and lonely nights worrying about how she would pay her bills and build character in her children. Sympathizing with her, a friend gave her a magnet for her refrigerator which simply said, "God is greater than..." After the "than", there was a blank line to fill in. So, for instance, God is greater than my bills. God is greater than my worries. God is greater than my boss. She kept the magnet on her refrigerator as a reminder that, no matter what she might be experiencing, God was in control. The God who loved her was greater than whatever challenge she might be facing.

In today's gospel, Jesus shows that he is greater than the powers of nature. The disciples were being tossed about the Sea of Galilee by strong waves and head winds. Despite the chaos and obvious danger, Jesus comes to them walking on the water. He shows himself to have power over nature even at the height of its fury by calming the sea and its waves. The display of majesty and power leaves no doubt in the minds of the disciples that Jesus is the Son of God.

Throughout the Scriptures, the sea symbolizes chaos and nature's power to destroy. We see it dramatically in the story of Noah as the flood waters rise to destroy all life on the earth. The prophet Jonah likewise encounters rough seas when he tries to flee the Lord's command that he preach repentance to the city of Nineveh. It is only when he stops running away from the Lord and is tossed into the raging sea that the waters calm down.

But, the seas can also be the place where God's saving power is manifest. For instance, as the Hebrews are fleeing the Egyptian army, the Red Sea parts for them allowing them to cross to safety. And, at the end of the forty year pilgrimage in the desert, it is the waters of the Jordan River which welcome them into the promised land flowing with milk and honey.

So, the sea represents both the fury and chaos of nature as well as the place where God shows himself to be Master and Savior.

In our everyday lives, the same is true. It is precisely where there is chaos in our lives, where there is confusion, where we are struggling that God shows his power in our lives. God shows himself to be greater than any pain we may be suffering. God shows himself to be master over our lives and over our world.

How do we come to know this power of God at work in our lives? Very simply, we have to begin by thanking God for our difficulties and for our struggles. That's right! We have to thank God for the chaos and confusion in our day-to-day lives. When we stop complaining and start thanking God we begin to realize that God has a plan for our life and that God can use our problems to make us grow in holiness. By praising God, we proclaim our faith that God is the master of our lives and that God is greater than our trials and tribulations. And, we grow in the assurance that God will never allow us to be submerged by the waters, but even when we fail as Peter did, he will be there to reach out a hand to us. By thanking God, we don't trivialize our pain and suffering, rather we maximize our experience of God's power at work in us.

Peter was doing a fine job of walking on the water. He only got into trouble because he took his eyes off Jesus and starting worrying about the wind and the waves. In that moment, Peter forgot that Jesus was greater than the sea and greater than the power of nature. As long as we keep our eyes on Jesus, no matter how daunting or how difficult our lives may become, we will be fine. We can be assured of this because the God who holds the whole world in his hands cares for us even more than we care for ourselves. He will pull us to safety soon.  

Saturday, August 2, 2014

"Fish" or "Fishes"?

Do you know of any instance in which Jesus turned someone away?

Throughout the gospels, Jesus gives of Himself to all those who approach Him in faith. Whether they need a healing, whether they have a question or even when they are trying to test Him, whoever approaches Jesus with a need gets His full attention.

Today’s gospel is no different. Jesus is greeted on the shore by over five thousand people. For the small villages that surrounded the Sea of Galilee, this would have been a record crowd. Jesus and his disciples had probably never seen a multitude that large in all their lives. What does Saint Matthew tell us? Is Jesus overwhelmed by so many people? Is He irritated that they have intruded on His plans to get away to a deserted place for some rest? Does He tell them to come back on another day or to make an appointment with Him? No. He looks on them and has pity on them. His Sacred Heart is so full of love and mercy for every person that He cannot but meet whatever need is brought to Him in faith. He cures their sickness, speaks to them of the love of the Heavenly Father and even performs a miracle to make sure they do not leave hungry.

The past few Sundays we have been meditating over many of Jesus’ parables. We read the parable of the seed and the sower in which Jesus teaches us that those who receive His word in faith bear abundant fruit. We read the parable of the weeds and the wheat in which we learn that God shows love and mercy on both the good and the evil. And we read the parables of the pearl of great price and the treasure buried in the field through which Jesus taught us that no earthly possession can compare to the riches of grace that God offers us. All these parables and many others that Jesus spoke are meant to reveal to us the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven. They are meant to show us what our world will be like when God finally has established His rule over all the earth. They reveal to us what we can expect when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

If the parables teach us what God’s Kingdom will be like, the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fish show us what the Kingdom will be like. In God’s Kingdom, every need will be met. There will be no more sickness, no more disease, no more death. In the Kingdom of Heaven, God Himself will teach us. And it will be a time of plenty when there will be enough for everyone, when no one will go hungry and no one will worry about how to provide for his family. Jesus was showing the people that the Kingdom of Heaven He preached about was not just a future reality waiting for them after they died. Rather it was a power already at work in the world which had its most beautiful expression in Jesus Himself.

The power, love and mercy that Jesus revealed on the shores of the Sea of Galilee to the multitudes that gathered to meet Him is still available to us who gather here today. Like those five thousand men and their families, we come to this place with many needs. Some of us need healing. Some of us have unanswered questions. Many of us seek a simple reminder that God is with us and that He loves us. We have looked in other places and have been turned away. What we are looking for was not there. But in this place we find the love our hearts are longing for and the mercy our souls desire. Here we find Jesus.

Today’s first reading from the prophet Isaiah speaks beautifully of God’s power to meet our needs. Our Heavenly Father appeals to us to come to Him. Come you who are thirsty. Come without money. Come no matter what you need. Come to God who is the source of every good thing. God can never fail us, and He will never turn us away. Whatever it is that we think is lacking in our lives, whatever makes our heart ache, whatever worries keep us awake at night, God has the answer and the cure. We simply need to come to Him, open our arms and wait to receive it.

We are privileged today to be able to gather in the presence of our Risen Lord. He is here among us. We cannot see Him, but His presence is real. He has the power to read our hearts, to see our need and to touch us with His healing love. We need only open our hearts and welcome him. He will do the rest. It may take time, it might not happen in just the way we expect, but He will not let us down. Saint Paul assures us that nothing can separate us from the love of God revealed in Jesus. That love is poured out on us in abundance each day to renew us, strengthen us and sanctify us.

We are privileged today not only to be in the presence of our Risen Lord, but to be fed by Him. We will witness a miracle no less astounding than the one the crowd witnessed at the multiplication of the loaves and fish. We will witness simple bread become the very Body of Christ. Jesus Himself will give us His Body to nourish our souls. There is no greater gift in all the world. There is nothing that can compare to it. God has come down to earth to feed me and you. Our deepest need is met, what we long for is provided to us and we will never be the same.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

...To Follow Jesus

The crowd of teenagers was speechless.

A young man had been invited to speak to their youth group. At the start of a promising career, he decided to leave his job, sell his condominium and his car to become a Franciscan priest. The teenagers just could not understand why he would give up so much. They asked him if he was afraid that he was making a mistake or whether he thought he would be missing out on all that life could offer him. To all their questions, he simply replied that he had found something better. He had seen what the world had to offer and decided that God had something even better in store for him. He had met Jesus and in comparison to serving him, everything else began to seem worthless.

This young man was able to give up everything to follow Jesus. But we know that it is not only priests or nuns who sacrifice themselves for the Lord. It is also young families who are willing to sacrifice vacations or bigger homes to have more children. It is also business people who take smaller salaries so that they can pay their workers a just wage. It is single people who often are left out because they will not follow the crowd. All these people are willing to give up money, comfort and friends to live the message of the gospel. Why? Because they have met Jesus, and when you have Jesus, you have everything.

Jesus’ parables about the treasure buried in the field and the pearl of great price teach us that there is nothing the world has to offer that can compete with the riches we find in the Kingdom of God. Why is that? Because God created this world with all its wonders. If He created it, He must be greater than it all. And if He is greater than it all, why would we settle for the things of creation when we can know the Creator Himself?  It would be like a wife loving her husband’s shadow more than her husband. It does not make sense. In just the same way, it makes no sense for us to love material possessions and even other people more than we love God Himself.

Jesus’ parables also teach us that, though we can have a loving relationship with our God, it must come at a price. It will cost me something to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. Not everyone will have to give up everything like the people in the parables, but everyone will have to give up something. If we are to reach out our hands to grab hold of the love, peace and joy which Jesus is offering us, then we have to drop whatever we are holding on to.

What are you holding on to that is keeping you from living the gospel with fervor and joy? Is it material possessions, a sinful relationship or a bad habit? Are you holding on to the fear that if you give your life totally and completely to God you might be missing out on what life has to offer? Or are you holding on to the worry that others will judge you or call you crazy? Whatever it is that you and I are clinging to cannot compare to what God has to offer us. It is sad to lose the things we love. But it is even sadder to hold on to those things so tightly that they crumble apart in our hands.

The enemy does not want us to receive all the blessings of grace that God wants to give us. He wants us to hold on to our false securities and fleeting pleasures. He whispers in our ear that if we give anything up for God we will regret it. He tells us that we will be missing out if we change our lives to follow God’s plan for us.

But if God is asking us to give something up, it is because He has something even better to give us. As Saint Paul tells us in the second reading, “all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose.” We can trust Him to lead us in the way that will make us thrive and prosper.

And if God is asking us to give something up for Him, He will also give us the strength to do it. He will place within our heart a desire for Him that is so strong that we will be able to sacrifice ourselves willingly. And, like the people in the parable who discovered the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price, the result will be great joy.

The love of God is within our reach. The price to receive that love will be different for each of us,  but it will cost us something. As we prepare to receive a gift which is beyond all price, the Body and Blood of Jesus, let us look honestly at our lives. What is it that God is asking us to do without so that we can follow Him more closely? Let us offer it up to Him together with the bread and wine. Let us ask Him to give us so deep and moving an experience of His love and goodness that we will desire to give up anything and everything to serve Him. Then we will know the joy that comes from discovering that treasure hidden for many ages but now revealed in Jesus Christ.