Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Palm Sunday

Every year of his life, Jesus made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, the commemoration of His people’s freedom from slavery in Egypt. For most of those years, He went unnoticed. He blended in with the crowds who prayed in the temple and offered sacrifice according to the Jewish law.

However, today things are different. Jesus enters triumphantly into the Holy City. Rather than walking through the gates of the city, He rides a donkey. Rather than join the bustling crowd filing its way through the cobblestone streets, He enters the city as part of a festive parade with crowds chanting His name, laying their cloaks on the street before Him and waving palm branches in celebration.

The crowds gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover that year had a sense that something was about to change. They had the feeling that somehow they were part of an historic occurrence, a once in a lifetime opportunity to witness history in the making. The atmosphere was charged with excitement and anticipation. And Jesus was at the center of it all.

Those crowds could not have known that in only a few short days the man they hailed as Messiah would be executed as a criminal. They could not have known that they would soon turn on Him and demand His crucifixion. Much less could the political and religious leaders who were already planning His death know that, within a week’s time, He would rise from the dead and change the course of history forever. They were all part of an historic event, but they could not yet begin to grasp its meaning for themselves and for the world.

Jesus enters the Holy City of Jerusalem as its King and Messiah. But unlike an earthly king, He does not conquer through military power. He does not rally His disciples to attack His opponents or devise a plan to coerce the people to hand power over to Him. Rather He comes as the Suffering Servant described in today’s first reading from the prophet Isaiah. He defeats evil by doing good. He returns a blessing for a curse and forgiveness for injury. He refuses to attack those who arrest Him or to defend Himself against those who torture Him. And by so doing, He changes everything.

We stand here today as we have for just about every year of our lives to commemorate the suffering and death that Jesus underwent to save us from the slavery of sin and death. We remember as Saint Paul tells us in today’s second reading, how He came down to earth that we may be lifted up to Heaven and how He emptied Himself that we may be filled. Jesus suffered it all for you and for me. Why? Simply because He loves us and He wants us to know His Heavenly Father’s love for us. We must also realize that it was because of our sin that He died on the cross. If we were to leave this place and continue living sinful lives, we would be no better than the crowds who so shortly turned on Jesus after welcoming Him with such fanfare.

We stand here today in a society that is increasingly hostile to the message of Jesus. It is a world that fails to value the dignity and sacredness of human life. It is a world that treats fertility as a curse and pregnancy as a disease rather than as a participation in God’s creative power.  It is a world that ingratiates the powerful and enriches the wealthy and that tells the poor that their lack of resources is their own fault. It is a world that ridicules and persecutes those who follow Jesus.

It is to this world torn by selfishness, hatred and ignorance that we are called to bring Jesus’ message. Like Jesus, we do not change the world through military power or political influence. We do it with the witness of our lives, by acting as He did. We do it through marriages that are truly loving. We do it by sacrificing our pleasures to feed the poor and help those in need. Very often, it means putting up with insults and ridicule because we do not share the values of our classmates or coworkers. Only by forgiving those who injure us and blessing those who curse us as Jesus did can we convince others about the sacredness of every human life and the love of God.

It is not easy. We cannot do it without God’s help. So I would encourage all of you to make the effort this week to attend all the Holy Week services for Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil. As we recall all that Jesus did to save us we will be strengthened to not only change the way we live but to proclaim to others that we are truly free only through the love of God. Then Jesus the King and Messiah will be welcome in our world once again.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Here Comes Your King, Meek and Humble

Over the past few decades, what has come to be called the "Prosperity Gospel" has gained popularity among televangelists. Anyone who has ever watched programs featuring Joel Osteen or Creflo Dollar will have heard various forms of it. The Prosperity Gospel states that following Christ should result in increased financial success for the believer as well as improved health and well-being. For those who follow such a doctrine, religion is a way to win friends and influence people. The Word of God becomes a means to reach our goals and fulfill our potential.

Now there is no doubt that Jesus wants us to be happy. He came to give us an abundant life. And there's no doubt that a life of faith gives us the discipline which can also translate into success in our relationships and other endeavors. However, there are many problems with interpreting Christianity as a program for material prosperity or psychological well-being. First and foremost, it is not the example that Jesus left for us. He did not come to earth to fill himself with wealth, but to empty himself for us. He did not come to claim places of honor for himself, but to take the lowest place. If Jesus' primary concern was his well-being, he would never have accepted the humiliation of the cross, and we would never have been forgiven our sins.

In today's second reading, Saint Paul tells us that we should follow the example of Christ. Biblical scholars tell us that he is quoting from an ancient hymn celebrating the humility of Jesus. Unlike Adam who, in the garden of Eden, tasted the fruit so that he could be like God, Jesus did not cling to his equality to God, but willingly took on our human flesh. Being the Son of God, he could have been born into the family of a powerful king or a wealthy landowner, but rather he chose to be born to peasants of humble means. Though he was the most powerful man to ever walk the earth, he chose not to use that power to enrich himself but to enrich us. And he did not use that power to save himself from the shame of the cross, but willingly gave himself up to death to save us. Why did he endure all this? So that God the Father would glorify him. As Saint Paul writes, because of what he suffered "God highly exalted him and gave him the name which is above all other names."  Jesus was not after the glory that the world gives. Rather, he was after something greater, a glory that could only come from God. And the only way to reach that glory was to suffer the humiliation of the cross.

Paul's message to us is that if Jesus is humble and puts our needs before his own, then we must do the same. As we contemplate his death for our sins, we must ask ourselves whether we are too concerned with living a prosperous and comfortable life to pick up our own cross and follow Jesus. And as we hold in our hands these palm branches symbolic of the coming of our Savior, we must reflect whether we have welcomed him in the needy, in the poor and in the sorrowful whom we meet everyday. Whose needs are we called upon to help God meet? Whom are we ignoring in our everyday life who could use a friendly smile or a helping hand. Those people are Jesus who comes into our midst in the disguise of the distraught.

If we have learned anything during the financial crisis of the past year, it is that the security that money promises to give us is an illusion. God wants to offer us something more permanent than riches, power or popularity. He wants to give us his very life. He wants to give us his love.

Each of us has a need to be loved. And we each want to be loved for the person we are, not for what we have. God is no different from us in that respect. He does not want us to love him because he gives us things. He wants to be loved because he is our Creator and our Father. He wants to be loved because he is love itself. This is the mystery of the cross. That God has nothing greater to give than his very self. And he wants to offer us nothing less than his life. What good is gold or silver in comparison to the knowledge of the love of God?

On this Palm Sunday, we commemorate Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He comes as a king to take the throne of David. But he is no earthly king. He does not enter on a muscular steed, but on a lowly donkey. It is not a well equipped army that escorts him through the gates of the royal city but a band of peasants. And he does not enter the city to take it by force but to surrender himself to a sentence of death. Jesus is not at all what we would expect from someone who claims to be the Son of God and Savior of the World. If we are to be his followers then we cannot live only for our own comfort and well-being but for his glory. But if we do take up our cross and follow him, we will know a joy and a peace which no one can ever take from us. And we will have treasure in heaven more glorious than we could ever hope for or imagine.

(image by Marisol Sousa) 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Holy Week Mysteries of the Rosary

1. The Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem
Mt 21: 1-10; Lk 19: 29-40; Jn 12: 12-19; Mk 11:1 - 11

2. The Anointing at Bethany
Jn 12: 13-25; Mk 12: 15-18; Mt 21: 12-17; Lk 19:45-38

3. The Cleansing of the Temple
Mk 12: 15-18; Jn 2: 13-25; Mt 21: 12-17; Lk 19: 45-48

4. The Washing of the Feet
Jn 13: 1-17

5. The Agony in the Garden
Mt 26: 36-46; Mk 14: 32-42; Lk 22: 39-46

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Jesus Saves

Arnold had hit rock bottom. For years he had abused drugs and alcohol and it had ruined his life. Over the years he lost many friends who could no longer stand to be around him. He lost his job after showing up drunk to work. Though his wife had stood by him trying to get him help, she finally could take no more and left him. The final straw, however, was when he was caught by the police with possession of drugs. Knowing he would be facing jail time, he pulled over to the side of the road to commit suicide. However, as he stopped his car and opened the bottle of pills he planned to overdose on, he looked up at a telephone pole and saw a poster that read, “Jesus Saves.” Choking back his tears, he prayed, “O Jesus, can you save me?”

That simple prayer changed his life. He threw away the pills and decided to stop running away from his problems. The next day he went to confession for the first time in many years. As he recounted all the bad choices he made and all the people he had hurt, he could feel God’s forgiveness and mercy surround him. For the first time he felt loved by God and trusted that He would see him through. When he was released prison, he went back to school to learn about the addiction that had done some much damage to him. Now he works as a drug counselor helping others recover from addiction. With time he was able to win his wife’s trust back. They were eventually married in the church and had more children.

It all started with a simple prayer. It is a prayer that Arnold repeats first thing every morning on his knees, “Jesus, can you save me?” He begins every day remembering what drugs and alcohol did to him. He realizes that he had to hit rock bottom to build a new life on his Savior, Jesus Christ.

The essence of the Christian life can be found in the words of Jesus which we heard proclaimed in today’s gospel: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” This is Jesus’ response to Andrew and Philip when they tell him that some Greeks want to meet him. It is his response to anyone who wishes to follow him. “If anyone wishes to be my disciple he must deny himself, pick up his cross and follow me.” Jesus does not tell us this because he likes to see us suffer or because He wants to take all the pleasure out of life. Instead He wants us to experience all the joy and peace that comes from living according to His word. He wants us to know the power of His Holy Spirit at work in our lives.  Before we do that, however, we have to leave behind all the sins, the addictions and the selfish attitudes that weigh us down.

In Arnold’s case, he had to hit rock bottom, he had to lose everything that he loved, to realize that he could not get the love and peace he longed for from drugs and alcohol but only from Jesus. He had to be at a point of utter desperation before he could realize that only Jesus could save him. And he has to remind himself everyday that he cannot overcome his addictions without Jesus by getting on his knees and begging for his help.

We may not have made as many bad choices as Arnold did. We may not be as desperate as he was or may not have hit rock bottom yet. But we have the same need for God as he did. We have the same desire for love and joy that only our Heavenly Father can give us. And we have no other way of finding it than in Jesus Christ, our Saviour.

It can begin for us with short, sincere prayers such as, “Jesus, save me.” or, “Jesus, I trust in you.” Another beautiful prayer from Scripture is, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” These types of prayers give our Lord great joy because they come from the heart. They are the prayers we say when we come to realize that only Jesus can help us. Because of the sincerity of these prayers, we can rest assure that He will answer them and show us His power to save.

In today’s first reading, the prophet Jeremiah teaches us that the days are coming when God will write His law in our hearts. This prophecy has been fulfilled by us in Jesus. Through His death and resurrection, we have received the Holy Spirit who now lives in our hearts through faith. So we do not have to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem or climb a mountain to find God. He is living within each of us. He is always with us at the secret core of our being. So we no longer have to rely only on our strength. We can draw on His strength to face whatever it is that is making us afraid, whatever it is that is holding us back from following Him with all our hearts, minds, souls and strength. He wants us to enjoy all the abundant blessings of the life He has given us, and He will help us clear away whatever is holding us back if we will only trust in Him.

To receive those blessings, however, we may have to part with some things that are dear to us. Each of us when we are honest with ourselves and with God, know what those things are. It is never easy but what we must always keep in mind is that our Heavenly Father never asks us to give something up without replacing it with something better. If He asks us to give up our silver it is so that He can give us gold. We see such a wonderful exchange as this symbolized in the Eucharist we are about to receive. We give Him bread and wine, and He gives us His Body and Blood. As the gifts are brought up, let us offer up to Him all the fears, addictions and selfish attitudes that are holding us back from following Him with all our strength. Let us do it with total trust knowing that only in Him can we find the joy and peace our hearts truly desire.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Spiritual and Religious

It is common nowadays for people to describe themselves as "spiritual and not religious." We all have friends who say that about themselves or have seen the phrase written on bumper stickers. Some of us here today might even describe ourselves that way.

But what do people mean when they claim to be "spiritual but not religious"?

Generally, they mean that they have a relationship with God or with a "higher power" without belonging to a church or adhering to any dogmas or creeds. In fact, they claim to have respect for all religions, picking and choosing from each the teachings that suit their lifestyle and the  "god of their understanding". For such people, religion is not a shared, communal reality, but a personal, interior experience.

As with all fallacies, there is a kernel of truth in what these self-described spiritual people believe. Religion is primarily a matter of the heart and of the spirit. Because each of us is created in God's image and likeness, we all carry within ourselves the ability to hear his voice speaking to us through our conscience. Our hearts were made to love God above all things. When we look within, we already find a basic understanding of God and his plan for our lives. God created us to be spiritual.  

We hear this reality described in today's first reading. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God promises the people of Israel that he is about to establish a new covenant with them. That is, he is about to invite them into a new relationship of faithful love with him. Unlike the old covenant which was written on the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments,  the new covenant will be written on their hearts. As Jeremiah describes it, no one will need to be taught the ways of the Lord because God will reveal himself to the heart of each believer. This is what we commonly mean by the word "spiritual" - to have an interior, heart-felt love of God.

However, God is talking about something more than a natural desire or ability to know him. Rather, this personal relationship with him is a gift. It is not something that is ours through birth, but through baptism. God's Spirit who writes this new covenant in our heart, who speaks to our spirit about the ways of truth and love, is given to us through baptism and faith. The Holy Spirit is not something we can receive just through personal reflection or meditation. We receive the Holy Spirit when we become members of a community of faith. We receive the Holy Spirit by practising religion.

Jesus gives us more insight into what it means to be genuinely spiritual in today's gospel. Andrew and Philip approach Jesus to tell him about some Greeks who want to meet him. It is the week of Passover, close to the time when he would suffer and die. His upcoming death is weighing heavily on his heart. His "hour" is approaching, and he takes the opportunity to instruct the disciples and us about what it means to be a true follower. It means having our hearts set on eternal life. And the only way to enter into that heavenly life is to hate our earthly life. The only way to reach the glory of heaven is through death. Jesus say, "Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit." And so the person who loves Jesus is willing to follow him when it is inconvenient, when it is painful and when it is costly. The truly spiritual person who has his or her heart set on the things of heaven will follow Jesus even to the cross. The person with genuine insight into spiritual matters realizes that Jesus cannot be separated from his cross nor can eternal life be separated from death to self.

The words of Jesus are very different from the language we hear from the "spiritual but not religious" crowd. For them, being spiritual is not a way of dying to self but of enriching oneself. It is not a way of glorifying God but of growing in self-esteem and self-fulfillment. It is not a way of seeking the things of heaven but of having a better life on earth. It is not about knowing God as he has revealed himself in Scripture and in Church teaching so that we can humbly serve others but about having secret knowledge that gives one a sense of superiority over others. This so-called "New Age" spirituality is really something very old - trying to achieve the glory of heaven without the shame of the cross.

We shouldn't judge such people. Very often, they are well-meaning and generous. At the same time, we don't want to fall into their error and miss out on the abundance of life that Jesus is offering us. His words are clear to all those who seek him: "If anyone would follow me, he must take up his cross." The deepest desire of our heart is union with God through Jesus. It is natural that we fear being ridiculed by others for practising our religion in a whole-hearted way. It is also natural that we fear what we would have to give up to follow Jesus. But as the Holy Spirit reveals to our hearts more and more the love of God and the truth of the gospel, those fears diminish because we are beginning to taste what our spirits long for and  everything else seems less important by comparison. When we have the real thing, we will not settle for cheap imitations!

We are here today because we are both spiritual and religious. We do not want to deny ourselves the experience of worship with other believers. We want to learn from the words of Scripture and the teaching of the Church. We want to benefit from the wisdom of the believers who have gone before us. We want to encounter Jesus in the Eucharist. This abundance of spiritual riches is ours through baptism and faith. It is a taste of heaven given to us who have decided to pick up our cross and follow Jesus.  

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Jesus, the Son of God

The great Christian writer C. S. Lewis is one of the most influential believers of the last century. His many books including Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain and The Abolition of Man, have helped millions of Christians to understand their faith better in the light of modern challenges.

Because of the wide influence he has enjoyed it can be difficult for us to believe that at one time he was an atheist. Though he was raised as a Christian in the Anglican Communion, he abandoned it during his years as a university student and then as a professor. As happens to so many people, once he became successful he forgot how much he needed God.

Then, one day, he was speaking with a colleague, a history professor whom he admired a great deal,  about the New Testament. His friend shocked him by saying, “You know, it looks as though all the events detailed in the New Testament really happened.” Up to that time, C. S. Lewis considered it all to be a myth like those of the ancient Greeks and Romans. But now he was hearing a highly educated and learned man claiming that it all really happened.

As Lewis thought about what his colleague had said, a question kept coming to his mind. Is Jesus really who He claimed He was? Is He really the Son of God? If He is not the Son of God then He must be a liar or He must be delusional like those with mental illness who say they are Napoleon. But if He really is who He says He is, if He really is the Son of God, then He must be listened to and obeyed. If He really is the Messiah, then one must drop everything to follow Him. And it was right there and then that C. S. Lewis became a believer in Jesus and dedicated His life to helping others come to believe in the Son of God.

That is the question that God poses to all of us here today. Do we believe that Jesus is the Son of God come down from heaven to save the world? Do we believe He is who He says He is?

If we do not believe - if we claim that Jesus was a liar or a lunatic - then coming to Mass is a big waste of time. But if we do believe - if we accept Jesus as Lord and Savior of the World - then coming to Mass is not enough. We have to drop everything and follow Him. We have to learn about every word He spoke because it is the very word of God which teaches us how to live in a way that pleases Him. We have to strive to live according to His word in everything we do. If Jesus is who He says He is, we have to dedicate our whole lives to serving Him.

When we come to understand who Jesus is and when we decide to give our lives over to Him, we call it receiving the gift of faith. Faith as we understand it, is more than a simple belief that God exists. Many people say they believe in God, but few of them live according to His word and the teaching of His Church. Merely believing that God exists cannot save us. As Saint James tells us, even the demons believe that God exists. Rather the faith that saves us is believing that Jesus is the Son of God, that He died to free us from our sins, that He rose from the dead to give us the promise of everlasting life and that He established the Church to pass on this good news of salvation.

How do we know if we have such faith? The only way to really know is to take a hard look at or lives and ask ourselves if what we believe is having an impact in the choices we make and the way we act. The faith that saves us is one that makes a real difference in our lives causing us not only to think differently but to act differently. We will have a commitment to prayer and to receiving the Sacraments. We will have a heart that is sensitive to the needs of the people around us. If we truly believe in Jesus, our lives should be markedly different from that of those who do not believe.

If after examining ourselves it is clear to us that we do not have enough faith - and who of us hear can really say that we do? - we need not be alarmed. Saint Paul teaches us in today’s second reading that faith, first and foremost, is a gift. It is not something we earn. It is not something we have a right to. It is freely given by God. And what is the best way to receive a gift? Simply by asking for it. To receive the gift of faith, all we have to do is ask for it and wait for God to grant it to us. Because He loves us and wants to save us, He will not deny it to us.

We are gathered here today because we have come to believe that Jesus is the Son of God. We have given our lives to him and wish to receive the power to live in the Spirit of His resurrection. We will stand now to profess our faith in One God, in Jesus Christ His Only Son our Lord, and in the Holy Spirit who is Lord and Giver of Life. Let us ask our Heavenly Father that our profession of faith not be empty words we recite but a way of life we commit to with all our hearts, minds, soul and strength proclaiming to all the world with our deeds that Jesus is the Son of God.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Secret Seeker

There is no doubt that Jesus made an impression on everyone he met. Because of the power of his words, some left their jobs and their families to follow him. Others, however, were offended by the special relationship he claimed to have with the Father and turned their backs on him refusing to listen despite the powerful signs he performed. Others were afraid of him. They feared that he would incite the people to rebel against the Roman occupation and create instability in Jerusalem. We will hear in the upcoming weeks how these people would eventually convince the Romans to crucify him.  

There is another class of people, however. There were those who didn't know quite what to make of Jesus. They were moved by the beauty and power of his words. They were amazed by the miracles and signs he performed. Yet they were just not ready to follow him. Such a person was Nicodemus whom we read about in today's gospel.

Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a man with much power and influence. He considered himself an authority on the Jewish Law and a teacher of the people. Like the other Pharisees, he would have felt some responsibility to guard the people from error. And so he would have been especially cautious of Jesus. Nonetheless, he felt drawn by his words. So he visits Jesus at night in secret to see for himself what he is all about.  He is not ready to become a follower, but he is not ready to turn his back on him either.

Jesus welcomes Nicodemus. He does not turn him away because he is skeptical and unsure. He does not tell him to come back when he has more faith. Rather Jesus builds on the faith he already has and challenges him to recognize the gift of salvation and eternal life which he is being offered.

There are two parts to Jesus' message to Nicodemus.

First, he speaks to him about the great love of God. Jesus was sent into the world by the Father, not to condemn it, but to bring eternal life to all those who would believe in him. God's desire is not to find fault with us but to draw us into a relationship of love with him. For this reason, Jesus would be lifted up on the cross as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert to bring forgiveness and healing.

Second, that gift of eternal life is available to anyone who believes in Jesus. Those who believe are the ones who are willing to step out of the darkness of sin and falsehood and into the light of faith. Remember that Nicodemus is visiting Jesus at night, when it's dark, so that no one will see him. Jesus is challenging him to step into the light and not be ashamed to be counted as one of his followers. It will mean leaving behind the prestige and power he has as a leading Pharisee. It will mean being rejected and ridiculed by many of his friends. But, more importantly, if he can find the courage to step into the light, it will mean being a friend with Jesus, seeing his great works, and knowing the Father's love in a way he could not otherwise imagine.

The gospel reading does not tell us how Nicodemus responded. We presume that he slipped away into the night to ponder Jesus' message to him. We won't hear about him again until later in John's gospel when he argues for a fair trail for Jesus and at the crucifixion when he, along with Joseph of Arimathea, helps to place his body in the tomb.

There is a little bit of Nicodemus in each of us. Most of us have an admiration for Jesus and are moved by his words. Yet there is still a part of us that wants to hold back. We are not ready to follow Jesus all the way. We fear what others will say about us if we live our faith wholeheartedly. Or we aren't ready to give up some sinful behaviors to embrace the full message of the gospel. Others of us can't get over the shame we feel about our past life and aren't ready to welcome the Father's promise and gift of forgiveness. Each of us, in some way, prefers to meet Jesus in the dark where our ugly faults and failures can be hidden from sight.
These forty days of Lent are all about stepping out of darkness into light. Through prayer and penance, we are to examine our conscience and bring to God our weakness and sin so that his forgiveness and grace can begin to fill up the emptiness of our spirit. There is still time for those of us who haven't yet gone to confession to do so before Holy Week. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is an important first step away from the darkness. We reveal our sins to a priest so that we can be freed from the burden of shame and embrace God's love and forgiveness. Then we can begin to live again in the joy and peace of God's Spirit.

In today's second reading, Saint Paul reminds us that God is rich in mercy. We need not linger in the shadows of fear and shame because there is a forgiving God who waits for us in the light. It was for this reason that Jesus came - to draw all people to himself. At this Eucharist, Jesus will be lifted up in the form of bread and wine for us to adore and to receive with gratitude and faith. The prayer, "My Lord and my God," will come to our lips as we gaze upon our Savior who is given to us as food. Let us ask that he ignite a fire within us so that we can take the light of his truth and love to those who continue to dwell in darkness. Then we will become what he has called us to be - a light for all the world.