Thursday, September 18, 2014

By Your Holy Cross You Have Redeemed The World

Only once every six or seven years does today’s feast fall on a Sunday. We are blessed that 2014 is one of those years when we are called to reflect on and celebrate the Holy Cross on which Jesus won our salvation.

Today’s feast commemorates the finding of the true cross in Jerusalem and the building of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre over the site where they were found. In the fourth century, when Christianity was legally recognized by the Emperor Constantine, his mother, Saint Helen, made  a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to visit the places where our Lord lived. Of particular interest to her was finding Calvary, where Jesus was crucified, and the empty tomb.

During her pilgrimage, she was led to a place which the local peoples had always identified as the site where Jesus had been crucified and buried. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Romans had previously filled the area in with dirt and built a pagan temple over it. Saint Helen ordered that the temple be torn down and the area around it excavated. In the course of digging up the site, three crosses were discovered which were taken to be the cross of Jesus and that of the two thieves crucified with Him. It was unclear which cross was the one Jesus died on until a woman who was at the point of death came to the spot, touched one of the crosses and was healed. Saint Helen then directed that a church be built there, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where the true cross could be venerated.

We commemorate those events to this day as we celebrate the Holy Cross of Jesus as our source of salvation and healing.

In today’s first reading from the book of Numbers, the people, weary from travel and from lack of food, grumble against God. We can understand their fatigue after so long a journey. However, their sin is not so much that they are complaining about the conditions of their journey, but that they ask God, “...have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this desert...?” Such words show a mistrust in God’s goodness, a suspicion that He is up to no good. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, they think that God is holding back something from them, that He is not being entirely truthful with them. Just as the serpent was the source of temptation for Adam and Eve, so in this story it is serpents which now attack the people. The point is clear - when we rebel against God, nature rebels against us.

However, God continues to be merciful and directs Moses to cast a serpent in bronze and mount it on a pole so that whoever looks upon it can be healed. As He so often does, our Heavenly Father looks past the sinfulness of His people and takes what was the cause of their suffering and turns it into the source of their healing and salvation.

In today’s gospel, Jesus refers to this story to describe His death on the cross. “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” Just as the people in the desert were healed by looking at the serpent mounted on a pole, so we find healing by looking upon and contemplating the Holy Cross of Jesus Christ.

Let us look at a few ways we can find healing in the cross.

First of all, the cross heals us of hatred. When we look upon Jesus’ nailed to the cross, we see the greatest expression of God’s love. As Jesus tells us, “...God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” Though He was innocent, Jesus embraced all the tortures and suffering that went along with His death out of love for you and me. If God has loved us so much, what right do we have to hate another person? If Jesus could forgive those who crucified Him, what right do we have to hold a grudge against our brother and sister? As we contemplate the love Jesus had for us, hatred, bitterness and anger melt away. Our hardened hearts are healed.

Secondly, the cross heals us of temptation. As weak human beings, we are subject to so many temptations throughout the day. However, looking upon the cross can strengthen us. When we consider that it was for our sins that Jesus died, the resolve to not offend Him any more can carry us through when we feel weak. The simple prayer, “Passion of Christ, strengthen me”, can keep us determined not to fall. The cross of Christ can lift us up when we fear that we may fall.

Finally, the cross heals us of despair. Jesus’ death on the cross is the source of our hope. Because of His love, He transformed the most cruel and degrading of deaths into the source of salvation for the world. By following His example of love, we can transform our daily humiliations, difficulties and pains. They no longer have the power to break our spirits, make us miserable or cause us to live in fear. By contemplating the cross, we can find the strength to endure whatever life sends our way. We become hopeful, joyful and peaceful persons.

For those with faith, the cross is no longer a symbol of humiliation and defeat. Rather, it is a sign of victory, of salvation and healing. Just as the true cross healed the woman in Jerusalem, so by looking on the image of Jesus offering Himself on the cross for us we can find healing for our minds and souls. We find the courage to love, the resolve to confront evil and the strength to endure whatever trials may come. All this because, in the shadow of the cross, we see the dawn of the resurrection, Christ’s ultimate victory.

We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you. Because by your Holy Cross you have redeemed the world.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Exaltation of the Cross!

(This article originally appeared in Connect! magazine)

In his recently released book, Jesus, A Pilgrimage, Fr. James Martin, S.J. tells the story of Doris, a hospital volunteer whom he met while serving as a Jesuit novice in Cambridge, Massachusetts. During a discussion group that was being led by the hospital chaplains, Doris, who was confined to a wheelchair, shared about her experience. Rather than complain about the limitations her condition imposed on her or the difficulties of getting around the city in a wheelchair, she expressed gratitude. Though she had once seen her wheelchair as her cross, she now looked upon it as her resurrection. As Fr. Martin quotes her in his book, “My wheelchair helps me get around....Without it, I wouldn’t be able to do anything. Life would be so dull without it.”

Though she may not have realized it, Doris in her wisdom revealed a deep truth about the mystery of the cross. What appears in our lives as a punishment, a burden or an affliction, carries within it the seeds of new life. When we accept our suffering, bear it patiently and even embrace it, we find new meaning in it. Suffering borne in love transforms us.

The cross is at the center of everything we do as Christians. We begin all our prayers by marking ourselves with the sign of the cross in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. A cross features prominently in every church. All our processions are led by a cross. It is the symbol of everything we believe and everything we are as followers of Christ.

Because the cross is such a part of our life, we can forget that it was originally used as a means of torture by ancient Rome. In fact, it was such a cruel form of punishment that it was reserved for foreigners and the worst of criminals. Often, the Romans would leave the bodies of their victims nailed to the cross for days to strike fear in the people. For the Jews of Jesus' day, the cross was a shameful way to die. There was nothing about it worthy of exaltation.

Jesus, however, has transformed the meaning of the cross. Because he accepted it with all its suffering out of obedience to the Father and love for sinful humanity, the cross went from being a shameful tool of execution to a means of salvation for all the world. When he was preparing his disciples for the violent death he would face, Jesus repeatedly told them that he would lay down his life willingly. Because he was the creator and the Lord of heaven, he could have called on a host of angels to save him. He could have silenced the taunts of the crowd by showing off his tremendous power. But, out of love, he surrendered his life to gain for us the hope of everlasting life.

Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, we can look on our own suffering differently. Certainly we want to relieve suffering in ourselves and in others whenever possible. However, there are circumstances in which modern medicine and psychology can only do so much. There are also some burdens such as loneliness, confusion and doubt that we can only bear alone. However, we no longer need to add despair to our burden of sorrow. Like Doris, and like Jesus, we can find the resurrection already shining forth through the cross. For each one of us, the experience of new life through the cross will be unique and personal. Nonetheless, the path of discovery will start with humble acceptance of suffering in faith.

We can find the strength to begin by looking on Jesus’ own cross.
Jesus, raised up from the earth on the wood of the cross, shows us the depth of God's love. He accepted its shame and pain out of love for you and me. No one is left outside of this all-embracing act of salvation. It is never too late to approach the cross to seek healing and forgiveness in our time of need. Because the sacrifice of Jesus is a bottomless treasury of grace and mercy, it can never run out. We can go to the wood of the cross every day and even every hour to find forgiveness again and again and again. We can never use up or exhaust God's infinite mercy.

In the gospel reading, Jesus explains why this is. God so loved the world he created that he could not bear to lose it to sin and death. At the same time, sin is so offensive to his majesty and goodness that it could not go unpunished. And so, God sent his son, Jesus - a man who never sinned - to take upon himself the punishment which we deserved for our disobedience. Now, no matter how we may have offended God in our lives, we may go to him without fear knowing that Jesus has taken upon himself the punishment we deserve.

All this is because God loved us so much. Like all love, it is not ours because we deserved it or because we earned it. It is simply a free gift of God.

Today's gospel reading contains some of the most popular verses in the Bible because it captures the whole mystery of God and his plan of salvation. Very simply, God loves us and wants to forgive us; not because we are nice and not because we deserve it. God loves us and forgives us because he created us and because he is good.

Knowing how much suffering our sins have caused Jesus, how could we not weep with sorrow for our disobedience? Knowing how generous God has been in forgiving us, how could we not shout with joy and gladness? And, knowing how ready God is to shower us with his mercy, how could we not resolve to meet him as frequently as possible in confession and in the Eucharist to access the treasury of grace flowing from the cross of Jesus Christ?

Friday, September 12, 2014

Speaking the Truth in Love

There was a man who, for much of his life, gave little thought to God or his faith. However, little by little, he felt in his heart that there was something missing and that he should start going back to church. He also knew that the first step would be to go to confession.

Though he hadn’t been in over twenty years, he found the courage to go before Mass one Sunday afternoon. At first, he felt awkward. After so long away from the sacrament, he couldn’t remember his prayers or what to do, but the priest kindly helped him through it.

In the course of their discussion, he admitted that he and his wife had not been married in the Church and that their children had not been baptized. The priest explained to him as gently as possible but firmly what a serious sin it is for a Catholic to be married outside of the Church. He urged him to do everything possible to do the right thing, and told him that until they were married in the Church, they would not be able to receive communion.

The man felt devastated. He had gone to confession in hopes of finding some peace, but instead was told that he was living in sin. He was outraged and decided that he would never go to church again.

As time passed, however, the man reflected more on what the priest had said and discussed it with his wife. He decided to set an appointment with the deacon at his parish to try to understand why the Church did not recognize their marriage and why he couldn’t receive communion. The deacon gently explained to him God’s plan for marriage and all the graces that come from being married in the Church. He explained how in receiving communion we are receiving Jesus Himself and that our lives must be in union with His word if we are to be in communion with His Body.

It made sense to him, and he knew in his heart it was what he wanted. He and his wife discussed it and prayed together about it. They took the necessary steps to be married in the Church and to have their children baptized. Eventually, as they learned more about the Church’s teaching on marriage, they stopped using contraceptives and welcomed more children into their family. Now they work together with the deacon in their parish preparing young couples for marriage.

At first, the truth was hard to swallow. But because their minds and hearts were open, they were able to accept the reality of their situation and change their lives. Now they are experiencing countless blessings all because they overcame their fears and said “yes” to God’s plan for their lives.

Now imagine if that priest did not have the courage to tell that young man the truth. Imagine if the deacon did not love him enough to spell out to him why their lifestyle was sinful. They would have continued living just as they always had and would have missed out on the blessings God had been preparing for them.

It is hard to hear the truth, but how much harder is it for us to speak the truth to one another, to point out one another’s errors and to call each other to live the gospel in its fullness. Yet the Bible clearly teaches us that, in love, we owe it to one another to speak the truth.

God tells the prophet Ezekiel very plainly that if he fails to warn sinners that they will die because of their sins then God will hold the sinner’s death against him. These are very strong words, and we should all take them to heart. In essence, God is telling us that if we know that our neighbor is sinning and we say nothing about it, then we are partially responsible. Because we haven’t warned them, we are allowing the sin to continue. By keeping silent, we become complicit in our neighbor’s sinfulness.

Now does that mean that we go up to everyone in our families or at our work and start pointing out their sins to them? Of course not. We need to be gentle and loving in the way we approach our neighbor. We need to have a great deal of humility knowing that we are all sinners in need of God’s mercy. And we have to pray very intensely before even thinking about having a discussion with someone about his or her sinful choices.

Jesus in the gospel gives us some very useful advice. He cautions us always to talk to the person alone. By speaking one on one, the person will feel less defensive and will be more open to our words. Also, it gives the person a chance to explain himself. It could be that we have misunderstood something he said or jumped to conclusions about something he had done. When the matter is cleared up, it could be that our neighbor has not sinned as we thought, and our conscience can be at peace.

However, if the person has sinned and does not want to change, Jesus tells us that we don’t have to deal with it alone. We should ask someone else to discuss it with him and then we should get the Church involved, typically by seeking help from a deacon, sister or priest. If he or she still will not listen after that, then our consciences can be in peace. We have done what we can. All that is left is to pray for the person that God will help him or her to change.

The truth very often hurts, but it can never harm us. When we accept it, we are set free to embrace all the blessings that God has in store for us. It is an act of mercy to admonish the sinner and instruct the ignorant because it gives them a chance to experience God’s mercy and all that blessings that come from living in the light of His love. And we will be helping to save our own souls in the process. Why would we want to deprive anyone of that just to be polite or out of fear of offending someone?

Sunday, September 7, 2014

In Our Midst

The legendary quarterback of the San Francisco '49'ers, Joe Montana, ended his football career in Kansas City playing for the Kansas City Chiefs. One Sunday, he attended Mass at a local parish. After the Mass, a parishioner breathlessly ran up to the pastor and asked him, "Father, Father, did you know that Joe Montana was here?!" The pastor wryly replied, "Well, did you know that Jesus was here?"

We are gathered here today for one reason - to meet Jesus. Jesus is here. We encounter Jesus here in a way that is more real and more profound than if we had stayed home to pray alone. Jesus promised us that whenever two or three are gathered in his name that he is present among them. And so, Jesus is present in this assembly of believers gathered here today.

Jesus is also present in the Scriptures we proclaim. The Bible is inspired by God to such a degree that we can rightly call God its author. Whenever the Scripture readings are proclaimed at Mass, it is God who is speaking to us. Likewise, whenever the gospel readings are proclaimed, it is Jesus who is speaking to us. We have heard God speak to us today in a real way through the Scriptures.

And, finally, the most real way - indeed the most miraculous way - that Jesus makes himself present to us today is through the Eucharist, the gift of his body and blood. The bread and wine we receive at communion is not just a symbol of Jesus' body and blood. Rather, it is actually his body and blood. When we receive the bread in our hands or on our tongue and when we bring the chalice to our lips, it is the very body and blood of Jesus our Savior who comes to meet us and to dwell in us.

If someone famous were to show up here today - like Joe Montana or some other sports personality - we would get very excited. We would be staring at him, taking note of what he was wearing, how he was praying and trying to see with whom he was sitting. We might even try to meet him and get his autograph. Can we be just as excited about Jesus' presence here today? Do we get a lump in our throat knowing that he is speaking to each of us personally? Does our heart start to race knowing that we will touch him in the Eucharist? Do we get short of breath when we realize that Jesus is sitting right next to us in the person of our neighbor?

As we grow in the awareness of the presence of Christ among us, it becomes obvious to us that we are called to mirror the love and mercy we have encountered in Jesus. Since Jesus is present when we gather together, we have to be more like him in our everyday lives. And, because of Jesus' presence in each of us, we must love each other. As Saint Paul tells us in the second reading: "Owe no debt to anyone except the debt that binds us to love one another."

Brothers and sisters, we owe it to each other to love one another. Since we are the presence of Christ in the world, we must prove it through our willingness to love. When we love, Christ shines forth in us. When we love, Christ is real in us and in our world. And so, when we fail to love as we should - when we sin - it is never a personal failure. It is never just something between ourselves and God. When we fail to live up to the gospel message of love, we let each other down. When any one of us sins, all of us are affected because it makes it harder for us to show to the world the image and likeness of Jesus Christ. Because of this we begin every Mass by calling to mind our sins and praying: "I confess to Almighty God AND TO YOU MY BROTHERS AND SISTERS that I have sinned through my own fault." We can pray those words because we recognize that we are responsible to each other to live as Jesus taught us.

It is also for this reason that, in today's gospel, Jesus doesn't tell us to mind our own business when we see our brothers and sisters sinning. Rather, he tells us that we are to speak with them and to try to correct them. Jesus teaches us that we have a real responsibility to each other and for each other to ensure that we are all living the gospel message. It is not because anyone of us is better than another nor because any one of us is worthy to judge another. Rather, we correct each other precisely because of our love for our brothers and sisters and because we want each other to experience the presence of Christ. But, we must not only be willing to correct others, we must also be willing to be corrected. And, out of love, we must also be willing to forgive each other. No matter what the situation may be, we must always correct each other lovingly and respectfully because our goal is one and the same - to make the Church a place where Jesus is made present and where the love and mercy of Christ shine with a light which is as brilliant as the sun.

My brothers and sisters, the Risen Jesus is truly here today. We have heard him speak and met him in each other. We will touch him through the miracle of the Eucharist. And, we are each called to carry the light of Christ out into the world - to our families, to our workplaces and to our schools. It is by our love that we show the face of Christ to the world. It is through love that we will draw more people to this place so they too can meet and experience Jesus for themselves.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Jeremiah Was A Prophet; Was a Good Friend of God

The prophet Jeremiah is one of the most compelling figures in all the Old Testament.

He lived in a town just north of Jerusalem some five hundred years before the birth of Jesus. As a young man, he was called by God to be a prophet to the people of Israel. Though he protested because of his youth, God promised to be with him and to give him the words he should speak.

His basic message was that, unless the people repented of their sinfulness and turned back to God, the nation of Israel and the city of Jerusalem would be destroyed. Needless to say, his preaching was not very popular, especially with the leaders of his day and he suffered greatly because of his prophetic ministry. One time he had been thrown in a cistern and left to die. In today’s first reading, he had been placed in stockades by the king. As people walked by they spit on him and ridiculed him.

Unfortunately, his prophecies came to pass. The city of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians and its inhabitants were marched into exile. Jeremiah himself was exiled to Egypt where tradition tells us he was stoned to death.

Jeremiah is sometimes called “the prophet of the passion of God”. Except for Jesus Himself, no other prophet suffered as much at the hands of his own people. In fact, perhaps no other prophet was most like Jesus in the way he lived, preached and, ultimately died.

In today’s first reading, we are given a glimpse into the mind of this great prophet. Because of all that he suffered, he felt “duped” by God. If he could, he would just as soon abandon his role as prophet to the people. But he cannot. As he writes, “ becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it.” The fire burning within him is so strong that he cannot ignore it. He must speak out. He cannot hold it in.

What is that fire if not his deep, burning love for God?

It was because of his love for God that Jeremiah had to warn the people of the disaster that would befall them if they did not change their ways. It was because of that love that he put up with rejection, harsh treatment, torture and, ultimately, death. In God, Jeremiah experienced the “love that is better than life” which we read about in today’s Responsorial Psalm. Love drove him to not keep the message of truth to himself but to proclaim it to the whole world without counting the cost.

In Jesus, we see the love of God made manifest. In Jesus, we meet a God we can see and touch. All those who throughout history have taken the words of today’s gospel to heart, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me,” did so because they fell in love with Jesus. It was not because they liked discipline or had more willpower than anyone else. They simply loved Jesus so much that no amount of difficulty, suffering, hardship or rejection could keep them from following Him.

When we love, we becoming willing and able to sacrifice.

This is an experience that all of us can understand. Parents willingly lose sleep to feed their babies in the middle of the night or comfort them when they are sick. Young people in love will do anything to spend time together. They are willing to move mountains to see each other. Older couples willingly care for each other when one of them becomes ill. Love does not make difficult situations easier. Rather, it gives us the strength to overcome obstacles, to pull down barriers and to work through difficulties for the sake of the ones we love.

Without love, Christianity makes no sense. From the outside, it looks like just a system of rules meant to deny us pleasure and fulfillment. Once we fall in love with Jesus, however, everything changes. The rules become ways that we can learn how to love God. They teach us how to please Him by doing His will. Our focus becomes not on ourselves and our own fulfillment, but on God and His glory. Our priorities shift from this world and its passing pleasures to the world to come where we will praise our Heavenly Father forever. The inconveniences, difficulties and rejection that come from following Jesus become more bearable because of the love that burns within us.

If your faith seems like nothing more than jumping through hoops, if you are here today merely to meet your Sunday obligation and not because you have a burning desire to be united with Jesus in the Eucharist, then God wants to touch your heart today. He wants you to know that He loves you. He wants you to know that truth down into the depths of your soul. He wants that love to be the driving force in your life. All you need to do is simply welcome God into your heart. It is a simple step that will change everything.

Without love, the cross is simply two pieces of wood meant to torture, kill and oppress people. Because of Jesus’ love, it has been transformed into the means of salvation for all the world. That love that drove Jeremiah to speak truth to power, that drove Jesus to give His life for the liberation of the world and that drove countless saints to feed the hungry, heal the sick and counsel the doubtful can be ours for the asking. It is the “love that is better than life” which God offers to all those who believe in Him and are willing to follow His Son. It is the love that is made manifest in the Body and Blood of Jesus which we will share. It is the love we are called to bring to a world which is pining for the Living God.

Monday, September 1, 2014

What's In It For ME?!

Why should I?

What’s in it for me?

What will I get out of it?

Have those questions ever run through your mind when someone has asked you for help? Our society teaches us that we should never do anything for free. There should always be something in it for us whether it be money, or influence or even just emotional satisfaction.

However, we can clearly see how this selfishness has damaged relationships and families. When we put our own comfort before the needs of others, society begins to break down. Families cannot function because spouses are so busy pursuing their own interests that they stop communicating with each other. And once that happens, they cannot meet the needs of their children. We only have to look at our schools, our prisons and even our parishes to see the toxic effects. It is a downward spiral that drags all of society down with it.

In today’s second reading, Saint Paul urges us not to be conformed to this world in its selfishness. We are instead to be transformed by the renewal of our mind so that we can look at life in a different way, not from the perspective of our own needs and wants but from the point of view first of God and then of our brothers and sisters. We are to put the interests of others before our own. We are to make sure that the needs of our brothers and sisters are met before we take care of our own needs.

This mindset is absolutely foreign to our present culture. We are taught to put ourselves first and to let others take care of themselves. But imagine what our world could be like if we started to live the self-sacrificing love shown to us by Jesus. Imagine a world in which everyone had enough to eat because neighbor shared with neighbor. Imagine families in which mothers and fathers could work out their differences and raise their children to care for others. Imagine neighborhoods transformed because people began watching out for one another. All this could be possible if, through the grace of God, we could begin to live the gospel message of self-sacrificing love.

If a world transformed by love is going to be a reality, then it must begin with you and me. We can only bring it about by making the conscious effort to put the needs of others before our own. But how do we even begin? As always, it is Jesus who shows us the way. In today’s gospel, He gives us the antidote for our selfishness by telling us that we must deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him.

First, we must learn to deny ourselves. We learn from an early age that if we are going to accomplish anything, we have to learn to say “no” to ourselves. We cannot get our homework done unless we turn off the television. We cannot learn how to play a sport without sweating through practices. The same is true in our life of faith. To break the selfishness that locks our world in destructive competitiveness, we must learn how to say “no”. It starts in small ways by going without desert at supper or by not buying an extra pair of shoes that we know we do not need. Then we begin donating the money we save to help the poor. Going a step further, we miss a meal so that we can volunteer at a homeless shelter. Or we lose a good night’s sleep because we are manning the phones at a suicide hot-line. Before we know it, our small acts of self-denial are transforming us into saints.

Second, we must take up our cross. Each of us has a burden to carry. It could be sickness, anxiety, a challenging job or family members who constantly hurt us. It is natural for us to want to avoid difficulties and suffering at all costs. But Jesus teaches us to look at our life’s burdens in a new way. They are not there to punish us but to help us on the way to holiness. By accepting the burdens of our daily lives and offering them up to God out of love for him, in atonement for our sins and for the conversion of sinners, we grow in patience and in love. By realizing that Jesus is carrying our cross with us, our burden does not seem as heavy. Then we are not so overwhelmed with our own problems that we cannot reach out and help others to carry their crosses.

Third, we must follow Jesus. Our eyes must always be fixed on our Lord and Savior. He walks ahead of us marking a sure pathway forward. We learn from Him that we do not have to be afraid. We do not have to hoard money because He will provide for us. We do not need to have a big house and lots of clothes to feel good about ourselves, because He gives us the dignity of being called sons and daughters of God. Knowing that Jesus is always by our side frees us to care for others because we know He will care for us.

There is much that is wrong with our world today. All the problems we are faced with can overwhelm us and make us want to give up. While there are no easy answers or quick fixes, there is something each of us can do. We can attend to the needs of those around us, the people God has placed in our lives. By denying ourselves, picking up our cross and following Jesus we can begin to make a difference. At first, it may not seem as if there is anything in it for us. But we will experience the joy of bringing a smile to a tired woman’s face, the satisfaction of helping a neighbor make it through another day and the peace that comes with doing God’s will.

Friday, August 29, 2014

On This Rock

Ask any good Jew in Jesus’ day where the center of his faith was located and he would tell you without hesitation, “The Temple in Jerusalem.”

The Temple  was a massive structure constructed of huge stones and adorned with gold and precious gems. Taking over forty years to build, it could be seen for miles around.

It was the center of the Jewish faith because it represented God’s dwelling place on earth. The Lord in all His glory lived in the Temple and could be found there. It was there that sacrifices were made in atonement for sin and all the feast days were observed.

The Temple was situated in a very significant location in the city. It was built on the highest point, Mount Moriah. It was on that mountain that Abraham was about to sacrifice his son, Isaac, before the angel stopped him and gave him a ram to slaughter instead. Mount Moriah was the rock on which God tested Abraham’s faith. So, quite literally, the Temple in Jerusalem was built on the rock of Abraham and his  faith.

In today’s gospel, we read about another rock, Peter. Jesus is testing the disciples’ faith in Him. Do they really understand who He is and why He came to earth? Are they willing to proclaim it boldly to others? “Who do you say that I am?”, Jesus asks. And in no uncertain terms, Peter stands up and replies, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus, for his part, proclaims him to be blessed for he received that knowledge directly from God. And He declared that He would build His Church on the rock of Peter and his declaration of faith.

To any Jew, the implication would have been clear. Just as the Temple was built on the rock of Abraham’s faith, so now Jesus’ Church was built on the rock of Peter and his faith. Jesus’ intention was to create a new Israel with the twelve apostles representing the twelve tribes of Israel. And the Church would be the new Temple. However, this Church would not be built of massive stones and adorned with gold. Instead it would be a spiritual Temple built of faithful people and adorned with virtue and holiness. It would not be located in Jerusalem or in any other city. Rather, it would stretch out to cover and embrace the whole world.

There are some who claim that Jesus never intended to institute a Church. They say that He was merely a good man teaching people that all they needed was to love each other. They say it was His disciples who started the Church on their own after His death. But nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus says specifically to the apostles, “I will build my Church.” The Church was founded by Jesus Himself and is built up by Him to spread the good news of God’s love throughout all the world, to extend the blessings of salvation to all people, to heal the brokenhearted and to feed the poor. The Church founded by Jesus to which we belong was given to the world as a blessing so that, through the Holy Spirit, He could continue to speak and act throughout history.

There are others who say that we really do not need the Church to have a relationship with Jesus. All we need to do is lead good lives and pray at home alone. While living a good life and praying are important, they are not enough to live a fully Christian life. We also need the helps that the Church provides for us. Consider this. How would we even know about Jesus and His death and resurrection if the Church had not proclaimed it over the centuries? How would we have the Bible to read if it had not been written, preserved and handed down by one generation of believers to another? How would we know anything about our faith if catechists and teachers had not dedicated their lives to instructing us in the mysteries of God? Without the Church we would have no idea who Jesus is. And without the Church we would not be able to receive His Body and Blood in the Eucharist. The Church does not get in the way of our personal relationship with Jesus. Rather it sustains and nourishes it helping it to grow into the fullness that God intends for us.

Finally, there are those who say that it is fine to follow the Church’s teaching on matters of faith. But on moral issues we should be able to make our own decisions. This error is rampant in our society today and has led many people astray. The truth is that Jesus’ established His Church so that we would have all the truth we need to be saved and to live a joyful life. The truth that will set us free is not only the truth about Jesus and who He is, but the truth about how we should live as sons and daughters of God. When we hear a teaching that we disagree with or that does not make sense to us, our first reaction should not be to disregard it as if we knew more than the Church does. Rather we should try to understand it by talking to someone who can explain it to us, by looking it up in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or by reading a book on the subject. Jesus said to His apostles, “Whoever hears you, hears me.” So when we reject a teaching of the Church, we are rejecting a teaching of Jesus. None of us wants to do that. Therefore we should make every effort to understand, to embrace, to live out and to pass on to others all the truths the Church teaches whether it regards matters of faith or moral issues.

The Church is not just buildings and bishops. It is people. It is you and me. And because the Church is made up of human beings, it is imperfect and sinful. But it was left to us by Jesus to continue His saving message. Jesus loves the Church despite its failings, and we should love the Church too. If we want to know the truth, if we want to know Jesus, it can only be through the Church that He founded on the rock of Peter.