Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Sign Of The Cross

Church signs have become an art form all their own. Many of us have seen the inspiring and witty words posted in front of houses of worship as we drive around town or visit relatives. They are meant to grab our attention and make us think.

Some clever ones are “Wise men still seek him.” “Sign broken; message inside”. “We are prayer conditioned.” and “Eternity - smoking or non-smoking?”

Another witty one you may have seen is: “If you are looking for a sign, here it is.”

We have gathered here today to mark ourselves with a sign - the sign of the cross in ashes. It is a sign we are all familiar with. But what does that sign mean? Why do we begin every Lent drawing this dramatic symbol on our foreheads?

The sign we will be marked with is a sign of repentance. It means that we see that we need to change, we have not lived up to our baptismal vows and we are begging God to forgive us and help us.

As we look out onto our world, we can probably all agree that something needs to change. We cannot keep going on as we are in a society marred by violence, greed and division. Politicians and pundits are scrambling for a solution. How can we build a culture which values human life, helps the poor and supports real and lasting human development?

As followers of Jesus, we have the answer but it is not a quick fix or easy solution. The answer is conversion. Each of us in our hearts must change. No laws, no government structures, no civil institutions can give us lasting peace and freedom if we are carrying around hatred, greed or malice within us. If anything is going to change, then each of us must change.

If we are looking for a sign that it is time for us to change, we need look no further than the sign of the cross we will be tracing on our foreheads. Now is the time. This season of Lent is the opportunity God is giving us to become people who radiate the joy that comes from knowing His word and putting it into practice. Let us take full advantage of it. As Saint Paul tells us in today’s second reading: “[W]e appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain... Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”

The sign of the cross we draw on our foreheads, however, is not magic. It has no power to change us. It is an outward symbol of a real conversion that must take place within us. By the time we go to bed tonight, these ashes will have worn off. They will no longer be visible. But what about our innermost self? Will that be changed for the better? Will we have a renewed purpose to follow Jesus, to keep His teaching, no matter what the cost? That will be the true test of whether this sign of ashes will have any meaning or produce any real effect in our lives.

By signing ourselves with ashes, we are confessing to God and acknowledging to one another that we are sinners. We are acknowledging that it is time for us to change. We cannot continue living as if God did not exist. At the same time, these ashes are not a sign of condemnation but one of hope because the cross we mark ourselves with is also the sign of God’s love. “God so loved the world that He sent His Son not to condemn the world but to save the world.” Jesus came to save us. If we reach out to Him on this day of grace and beg Him to have mercy on us, we will begin to change. He has the power to do it no matter how far gone we may think we are. Most importantly, He desires to do it because He loves us.

Now is the time for us to repent of our sins and to believe in the good news. Now is the time to put away our selfishness and follow Jesus in the power of His Spirit. Now is the time to embrace the cross and its promise of new life. Today is the day to make a new beginning, not looking back on the failures of the past but fixing our eyes on Jesus who calls us to a fuller, more abundant future.

Monday, February 8, 2016

God's Creative Touch

It is the gift of the artist not only to see possibilities but to bring them into reality. A Michelangelo sees the young David in a flawed block of marble and chisels away until we can see him as well. With what at first sound like random notes, the great composers string together melodies which stir our spirits. They are a reflection of the genius of our Creator. God not only sees in us possibilities we could never imagine, but he labors to bring that potential to fulfillment. We may see ourselves as flawed, but God sees our beauty and chisels away until others can see it as well. We may see the events of our lives as random, but God directs those events to lead us to sanctification and to inspire others.

When Jesus first meets him, Simon is a fisherman like any other tending his nets on the shore of the Lake of Tiberias. The day began as a waste since he had no catch to take to market after a night of labor. Then Jesus chooses his boat to be the one from which he will proclaim the word of God to the pressing crowd. Though Luke does not record Jesus' words for us, they were no doubt powerful enough to effect a change in Simon Peter. He is willing to obey Jesus and put out into the deep water for another go at a catch even though he knows it is too late in the day and even though his previous efforts met with nothing but futility. The miraculous catch of fish shakes Simon Peter to his core overwhelming him with fear and shame. He saw himself as a sinner and a failed fisherman. But Jesus somehow saw a man of faith cowering in that bow, a man willing to leave everything to follow him. He saw in him a leader who was able to convince his partners James and John to do the same. Jesus saw a greatness in Simon Peter that no one else could see and that no one else could bring out. And, as unlikely as it seemed at the time, it was upon the rock of this simple fisherman's faith that he would build his Church.

When Jesus first met Paul, he was hurrying on to Damascus, "still breathing murderous threats", to persecute the followers of Christ. He was full of a rageful purpose to bring to an end this new way which he saw as a threat to his people. It seemed as though nothing could stop him. The disciples knew him to be a murderer and an enemy. But Jesus saw in him one who would proclaim the good news to the Gentiles. Paul saw himself as the least of the apostles because he had persecuted the Church. But no one besides Jesus himself has been as influential in shaping the Christianity we live today. Jesus saw greatness in Paul and so appeared to him in all his risen glory to enlist him in the effort of spreading the gospel. 

We could go on and on giving examples throughout the Scriptures of the prophet Isaiah, of Mary, the virgin of Nazareth, of Mary Magdalene who stood at the foot of the cross and was the first witness to the resurrection, and of the poor widow who gave her last pennies to the temple treasury. They are all women and men who seemed unremarkable in the view of the world but who were called to greatness through faith. Scripture does not present them to us as examples of what ordinary folk can do if they just "set their mind to it". Rather they are models of the marvels God can accomplish with humble believers who are willing to entrust their lives to him. They illustrate the ability of God to see and bring out in us more than we could ever hope for or imagine.

In every instance, it begins with the encounter with Jesus. Meeting Jesus was all it took to change the course of ones life. Those who left everything to follow him heard his teaching, saw firsthand his miracles and shared a friendship with him both before and after his resurrection that is unique and unrepeatable. They are privileged witnesses to everything Jesus did and said. However that does not mean that we cannot encounter Christ and be changed by him. On the contrary, every time we read the Scriptures and celebrate the sacraments Christ makes himself present to us in the Holy Spirit in a  life-changing way. It is different from how Peter, Paul and Martha experienced Jesus, but real nonetheless. Just ask Saint Francis, Mother Theresa of Calcutta and countless others who have been called to witness to Christ many centuries after his resurrection.

We also know that the transformation that the Holy Spirit works in our lives is not instantaneous. Just as it took Michelangelo many blows of the hammer to sculpt his famous statue of David, it will take many encounters with Christ and much letting go on our part to effect our conversion. There will be times when we feel as if we are making no progress and other times when we think we are going backwards. It will often not be given to us to see where the road leads or enjoy the finished product. But I suspect that the forging forward in hope toward the unseen promise is part of the transformation itself. 

There is much comfort in knowing that God is not done with us yet. We are his handiwork, each of us a masterpiece on which he is willing to spend his time and energy. God never fails to find something beautiful in us and never grows weary of endeavoring to draw it out. We need only allow him to stop us in the middle of our journey, let him into our boat and invite him into our daily work. Then the adventure can begin.  

Sunday, February 7, 2016

A Religious Experience

“Have any of you ever had a religious experience?” the teacher asked the class.

Confused, the children looked at each other wondering what she could have meant. Seeing their reaction, the teacher asked again, “Have any of you ever had a religious experience?”

Again, all she received was blank stares. So she went on to explain. “Having a  religious experience does not just mean seeing visions or hearing heavenly voices. We also have a religious experience when we pray, when we receive Communion or  when we feel a sense of God’s closeness to us.”

So she asked the class again, “Have any of you ever had a religious experience?” This time every hand shot up.

When we hear the words, “religious experience” do we think it means only having Mary appear to us or having a so-called “out of body” experience? Or do we understand, as the teacher tried to explain to the students, that whenever we approach God with humble faith and seek Him out with sincerity we have a religious experience? Most especially, do we understand that whenever we receive a sacrament whether it be Baptism, Communion or the Sacrament of Penance we are having a real encounter with the living God?

We have all experienced moments when we have felt especially close to God, moments when we really felt His presence in a way that filled us with peace and joy. We did not see a vision or hear a voice, but we knew in our hearts that God was really there by our side. There are other times when we knew God was directing us whether by putting an idea into our minds or bringing new clarity to our thinking. These are also religious experiences, real encounters with our Heavenly Father.

However, it is natural for us to ask, is what I am experiencing really God or are they just figments of my imagination? Is it really God’s voice I am hearing or is it wishful thinking to believe that I have been in His presence?

Today’s readings can help us to understand how we can answer those questions. Both Isaiah and Peter have real, life-changing religious experiences in the first reading and in the gospel. Though they are very different in terms of the way God appeared to both of them, they have some similarities that are important for us to understand if we are to come to a knowledge of God’s real presence in our lives.

First of all, a real encounter with God produces awe. When Isaiah sees God enthroned in the temple and angels crying out, his first instinct is to feel ashamed. Saint Peter too when he witnesses the miraculous catch of fish falls to his knees at the feet of Jesus. They realize that they are witnessing something that is literally “out of this world” and it gives them the sense of just how little they are. In the light of God’s holiness and glory, they feel acutely just how sinful they are.

Saint John of the Cross explained this phenomenon using the example of a pane of glass. When it is dark outside, a window looks clear. However, when the sun rises and light streams through the window, we start to see its imperfections. We see smudges, fingerprints and dust that are hidden when it is nighttime. Just so, when we start to turn to God, all our imperfections and sins become clearer to us in the light of His truth and goodness.

Therefore, any real encounter with God should give us not only an appreciation for His glory but a sober realization that we are small and sinful people. So if our religious practices, our attendance at Mass or our contributions to the parish are filling us with pride or if they are leading us to judge others who are not appearing to contribute as much then they are not real encounters with Jesus. On the other hand, if our prayer is leading us to a new understanding of our weakness, if our reading of Scripture points out for us where in our lives we need the grace of conversion, and if a real desire is welling within our hearts to live as Jesus lived, then we can be sure that it is God’s voice we have heard and His presence we have felt.

Finally, a real religious experience should leave us with a sense of mission, with something that we need to do to serve our Heavenly Father. In the first reading, Isaiah hears God call out from the throne, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?’. Isaiah readily responds, “Here I am. Send me!” In the gospel, Jesus tells Peter not to be afraid, that now he would be a fisher of men. The same is true for so many saints down the ages. Their religious experiences left them with a desire to serve others. When Saint Francis has the vision of Jesus on the cross, he hears him say, “Go, rebuild my church.” When Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta makes her private vow to never say no to Jesus, she receives the call to serve the poorest of the poor.

The same should be true of us. When we truly experience the presence of God, it makes us want to serve Him. Just as not every religious experience is as dramatic as the ones Isaiah and Saint Peter encountered, so every call to serve God is not as radical as those received by Saint Francis and Blessed Mother Teresa. For most us all, it will be a simple mission to love others, to pray or to forgive. It may be an idea that pops into our head about a way we can put our talents to God’s service. Or it could be a desire to join a parish or diocesan ministry. Whatever it may be, if it is really our Heavenly Father whom we are experiencing, it will result in some concrete action.

God is seeking all of us out. He wants us to be assured of His love and to commit ourselves to living our baptism by serving others. We need only give Him some quiet time every day so that He can reveal Himself to us. If in that time we have a deeper sense of His glory, a humbler opinion of ourselves and a hunger to meet the needs of our neighbors, we know that we have been touched by Him and can never be the same.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Nazareth - Jesus' Native Place

Have you ever noticed that priests are rarely assigned to the parishes they grew up in? There is a good reason for that. If the parish is filled with people who knew the priest when he was young, they might find it harder to look upon him as a leader. It might be difficult to take what he has to say seriously because they knew him as a mischievous youngster. Also the parishioners would find it harder confessing their sins to him in the Sacrament of Reconciliation or bringing their problems to him if they see him as no different from themselves. When we think we know someone very well, it is difficult to see him or her in another light. The better we think we know them, the harder it is for us to be inspired or surprised by them.

Jesus knew this very well. In today’s gospel, he returns to His hometown, Nazareth. Up to this point, He had been preaching throughout the Galilee area and had established a reputation as a powerful healer. When He returns to Nazareth, the townsfolk are anxious to see what has become of their hometown boy. In Jesus’ time, Nazareth was a very small town of a few hundred people. Everyone knew each other very well. There were no secrets among them. So when Jesus arrives, they are impressed by His words of wisdom but cannot get passed their memories of him. They think they know everything there is to know about Him but are unaware of just how wrong they are. It is clear to us when they ask, “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?” that they have no idea that He is in fact the Son of God. And because of their lack of faith - their inability to get past what they think they know - Jesus is unable to perform any miracles for them.

How does Jesus react? Does He tell them that He understands the difficulty they are experiencing in accepting Him? Does he reassure them that it is natural not to believe that a hometown boy could perform miracles? On the contrary, He rebukes them sternly for their stubbornness. He lets them know in no uncertain terms that they are missing out on a great work of God and that they will be judged for it. We know how strong Jesus’ criticism of them is by their reaction. They immediately seize Him and take Him to the edge of town to throw Him off a cliff. “How dare He speak to us like that!” , they must have thought. “Who does He think He is?” The sad part is that, because of their preconceived notions, they missed out on the opportunity to be healed, to have their sins forgiven and to draw closer to their Heavenly Father.

Today’s gospel reading provides a stern warning for us, especially for many of us who are lifelong Catholics and think we know all there is to know about our faith. Because we attend Mass every Sunday and follow all the rules, we can be deceived into believing that we are already doing enough. We can think that there is nothing more for us to learn, nothing more that is required of us. We have already heard it all. If we think that way, then God has a big surprise for us.

Have you ever had the experience of someone asking you a question about your faith? Maybe you have had a Protestant friend ask you why Catholics pray to Mary or a child ask  you how God can be three persons but still one God? Then have you had the experience of not being able to explain what you believe? It is at such moments that we appreciate just how rich our faith is and how much there is to learn. We can never exhaust all there is to know about God, the Church, the Bible, the Sacraments and all the great treasures of our faith. Even our Holy Father, the Pope, spends time every day in study trying to gain a deeper understanding of the mysteries of God. If He is still hungry to learn more, then we certainly should make an effort to study our faith.

A good place to start would be reading the Bible. Just a few minutes everyday going through the Old Testament prophets, the gospels or the letters of Saint Paul can broaden our understanding of the mysteries of salvation. Another important book to have is the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Just about any question we might have regarding what the Church teaches can be found there. There are also many websites that provide helpful information about our faith. The more we learn, the hungrier we will be to understand even more and the deeper our faith will grow.

Our second reading today gives us insight into the best way to keep our faith fresh and new for us. It is by cultivating love. We can never allow ourselves to forget that the Catholic faith is not primarily a matter of attending Mass and following rules. First and foremost, it is a matter of love. All the rules are meant to teach us what it means to love God and one another as Jesus commanded us. Love is an ongoing adventure. We never reach a point in our lives when we have loved enough. Rather love is a day to day commitment to reach out to the poor, to put the needs of others before our own and to strive to see the face of Christ in everyone we meet. Dedicating ourselves to loving God and others daily we ensure that we will not miss out on all the beautiful gifts our Heavenly Father wishes to pour out upon us.

No matter where we are on our faith journey, it can be tempting for us to think we have heard it all and know everything we need to know. The good news can easily sound like old news to us. However, by committing ourselves to growing in our understanding of what Jesus teaches and by focusing on love we can keep the message of Christ ever fresh in our hearts. In this way, we will always be open to the way Jesus visits us today with new graces and deeper insights. Unlike the villagers of Nazareth who could not put faith in Him, we will be able to receive all the gifts of knowledge, healing and power that Jesus brings to us.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Presentation Of The Lord

Many people have tried to read the Bible from cover to cover, from the book of Genesis all the way through the book of Revelation. However, spiritual directors typically do not recommend reading the Bible this way, especially for beginners. It is not an easy task and can be discouraging to those who are young in their faith. While there are many beautiful and illuminating passages throughout Scriptures, there are also sections with long genealogies and tedious historical accounts that seem flat and monotonous.

Where people typically say they give up on reading the Bible this way is in the book of Leviticus. It is the third book of the Bible and contains many chapters which go on and on describing in detail how temple rituals are to be performed including how animals are to be sacrificed, what vestments the priests are to wear and how those participating in the rituals must purify themselves before taking part. There are also strict dietary laws and rules about observing the Sabbath.

To us in the twenty-first century, these rules seem arcane and legalistic. What possible spiritual benefit could anyone gain from observing them? However, we must keep in mind that these laws are a part of God’s word. Though we no longer follow many of  them today, they served an important role in shaping the life and faith of the Jewish people. For instance, the meticulous rituals taught the Israelites that God is holy, that He is the one God, greater than all the other gods of the pagans. The sacrifice of animals taught them that God is the Creator and that all life belongs to Him. By following the rules of ritual purity, God’s People learned that they must respect Him and approach Him with humility. Finally the dietary laws and Sabbath rules helped the Jewish people hold on to their religious identity when they were forced to live among pagan peoples. Therefore, the Jewish people did not look upon these many laws as a heavy burden but as a blessing given them by God. They were taken very seriously by all Jews including Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the apostles.

However, it is human nature that when we are presented with laws we try to look for loopholes. We look for ways to meet the bare minimum that the rules require. We try to figure out how much we can get away with without breaking the commandments. The same is true of the Jewish people. For that reason, God sent prophets to remind them that the law was meant to train them to treat each other charitably, especially the poor. Through the prophet Hosea, God would say, “It is mercy I desire and not sacrifice” (Hos 6;6). Through Isaiah God would proclaim, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free,  and to break every yoke?” (Is 58:6). It is clear that to please God it takes more than following rules and regulations. It requires more than ritual or dietary purity. It also requires moral purity, purity of heart. As the prophet Micah teaches, “And what does the LORD require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God? (Mic 6:8).

Today we celebrate the feast of the Presentation of the Lord. Jesus, Mary and Joseph travel to the temple in Jerusalem to fulfill one of the dictates of the law - that of offering sacrifice for a firstborn son. This was done to recall how when the people were enslaved in Egypt the angel killed the firstborn sons of their captors but spared the firstborn of the Israelites. The law required that a sacrifice of a lamb, a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons be offered. Scripture scholars tell us that because Joseph and Mary were poor, they were not required to bring a lamb. However, there is another way to look at this. Could it be that they did not bring a lamb because Jesus Himself was the lamb?

Jesus is the Lamb of God who is sacrificed on the cross for our sins. We no longer observe all the sacrifices and ritual laws of the Old Testament because Jesus has met them all for us by offering Himself on the cross. His death made all the sacrifices of the Old Testament obsolete. We no longer need to offer bulls, lambs or turtledoves to find forgiveness for our trespasses. God has taken care of all that through the blood of His only Son. As we read today in the book of Hebrews, “Through death [Jesus destroyed] the one who has the power of expiate the sins of the people.” Through our baptism we have been made pure to worship God and to enjoy a personal relationship with Him.

There are still rules we must follow. However,  they are just the minimum that is required of us. Like the people of the Old Testament, we can fall into the trap of only trying to meet the rules without living the faith in all its fullness. We can become content with making it to Mass every Sunday yet fail on Monday to live the demands of the gospel we heard. When we do that, our faith becomes lifeless. It becomes just a matter of jumping through hoops. We do not exude the joy of the good news.

To be true followers of Jesus, then, we need the purity of heart which the Old Testament speaks of, a purity that is not content with keeping rules but with showing love. If we are to truly know the God who reveals Himself in Jesus Christ we must not only keep the letter of the law but the spirit of the law.  We must forgive those who offend us just as God has forgiven us in Christ. We must reach out to the poor, the needy and the sick as Jesus did. Then our prayers, our sacrifices and our good works will be acceptable to God. Then we will know the salvation that Jesus died on the cross and rose in glory to make possible for us.

It is customary on this feast day to bless the candles that will be used in the church in the coming year. They serve as symbols of Jesus who is the Light of the World. This same Jesus calls us to be light for a world plunged in the darkness of fear, skepticism, denial and hatred. If we are content to simply follow the rules, our light will be dim at best. But if in the power of the Spirit we love our neighbor, feed the hungry, show mercy to sinners and give comfort to those in need, then we will radiate hope to a world that does not need more judgment or more laws but, instead, needs more of Jesus and His love.  

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Love Never Fails

When children first learn about God, they can believe that he created all things and that he is everywhere at the same time. What they have trouble believing is that God knows every single person on earth by name. It is just too much for their little brains to comprehend. And when you tell them that not only does he know everyone who is living now, he knows everyone who ever lived and everyone who will ever live in the future, you might think that their heads would explode. However, as they get over the shock of realizing God's vast knowledge and power, it is a joy to see their eyes open with wonder when it begins to sink in that God knows each one of them personally, by name. They then begin to realize that God not only knows them but loves them.

It is important for us every now and then in prayer to ponder over this simple but profound fact. God knows each of us by name. He knows every detail of our lives. He knew us before we were even born. He knew us in our mother's womb, and he knows us now. Why is he so interested in us when he has a whole universe to watch over? Very simply, because he loves us. His love for us is the one thing that can never change in our lives.

Today's first reading is taken from the beginning of the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah is being called by God to be a prophet at a time of much corruption in Israel. He knows that it is going to be a struggle speaking God's truth to the nation's power brokers. He knows that he will be ridiculed, persecuted and maybe even killed. God does not assure Jeremiah that it will be easy or that people will listen to him. Instead, he tells Jeremiah that he knew him in his mother's womb, and that he will always be with him. That knowledge that God is always by his side will give Jeremiah the courage and strength to speak the truth to the people, to shoulder their ridicule and rejection and to face his own death. His confidence is not in himself. His sense of security does not come from whether or not people like and accept him. Rather he needs nothing else than to know that God loves him and is with him.

In the gospel proclaimed today, Jesus is preaching in his hometown of Nazareth. One would think that it would be the safest place for him to be, among those who have known him since he was a boy. But his words meet with opposition even there. In fact, the people are so incensed by his message that they drag him out to the edge of the town to throw him off the cliff. But Jesus calmly walks away. He knows that God is with him, that it is not his time to suffer and die, and that his Father would not allow a hair on his head to be harmed until the time was right. Any of us would have been devastated to have our friends reject us as Jesus' friends rejected him. Though Jesus was no doubt hurt by them, he was not devastated. The source of his identity and confidence did not come from the esteem of the people of Nazareth. Rather it came from the Father's love for him. Knowing that he could never be separated from that love gave him the courage to labor on preaching the good news even in the face of such hostility.

Where do we place our security? Where do we draw confidence from? If our security and confidence are not based on God's love for us, then they are misplaced. There is nothing else on earth that we can count on as surely as God's love for us. Our money eventually runs out. Our loved ones eventually die and leave us. Our health gets weaker as we age. When all is said and done, it is only God's love that is constant in our lives.

Our society is suffering from an epidemic of anxiety. Our world feels unbalanced, and fear can so easily creep into our minds and hearts. We have placed our confidence in money, relationships, our talents and our health, and realized just how shaky all those foundations can be. When we sense that fear is nipping at our heels, it is time to turn to our Heavenly Father and reaffirm our faith that he is in control of our lives. It is time to put our confidence in his unfailing love. Such an attitude will not solve our problems. But it will give us the confidence to face them and the perspective necessary to not be overwhelmed by them.

Our second reading today is one of the most popular in all the New Testament. It is Saint Paul's song of love. The love which Saint Paul describes, however, is not an emotional love full of drama as we might see on a soap opera. Rather it is the love of Christ displayed in all its glory on the cross. God loved each of us so much that he sent his beloved Son to die for us. If God has loved us so much, he will do all else for us besides. And we can never lose that love. No matter what we may have done in our lives, no matter how far off we may have drifted, God always calls us back to him. We can count on God to forgive us and to put behind us whatever sins we may have committed. The one thing we can count on in life is God's forgiving love.

God knows each of us. He knows every detail of our lives. He knows what we need before we ask. He knows our future, and he knows our past. Why would rely on anything or anyone else when the God who created the universe loves us so passionately and so completely? How could we ever doubt that everything will be okay when God himself is watching over us?

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Jesus' Mission - And Ours

Every successful business or organization begins with a mission statement.

Usually no longer than a paragraph, a mission statement is a summary of the purpose and values of an institution. It crystallizes and gives focus to the organization’s time and resources. Finally, it gives people outside the group an idea of what they are all about.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus proclaims to us His mission statement. Reading from the prophet Isaiah, He declares to those gathered in the synagogue - and to us sitting here today - what He is all about. By reflecting on these words, we can gain deeper insight into the mystery of who Jesus is and what He was sent to do.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.  

First of all, Jesus is the One sent by the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit. His proclamation in the synagogue follows His baptism in the Jordan River when the Holy Spirit came down upon Him. It is by the power of God that He acts. Jesus is no mere activist or do-gooder trying to make the world a better place through convincing arguments and charitable works. His power does not come from His ideas or His organizational skills. Rather it comes from the Spirit of God at work in Him. Therefore He is not just one prophet in a long line of prophets or just one reformer in a long line of reformers. Instead He is THE  prophet. He is THE One sent to bring about the salvation that God had promised.

Secondly, Jesus came not only to preach God’s word but to show His mercy in concrete acts on behalf of the poorest of the poor. The Spirit of God at work in the world through Jesus brings about freedom, healing and forgiveness. We see this play out throughout the gospels. Jesus releases many people from captivity by driving demons out of them. When the woman was caught in adultery and about to be stoned by the Pharisees, He won her freedom and refused to condemn her. Whenever He encountered the blind, the deaf and lepers, He never failed to heal them when approached Him with faith. He forgave the sins of the paralyzed man who was brought down to Him through a roof and promised the thief who was crucified beside Him that He would be with Him in Paradise.

Today’s gospel tells us all we need to know about Jesus. He is the One who in the power of the Holy Spirit brings freedom, healing and forgiveness.
If we hear Jesus’ mission statement in the gospel, then we hear our own mission statement as His followers in today’s second reading:

For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body....
You are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it.

First of all, through baptism, we received the Spirit of God. This is the same Spirit that empowered Jesus to bring freedom, healing and forgiveness to the world. What sets us apart as believers is that we do not try to accomplish good works through our own skills and effort. Rather we do it in the power of the Spirit we received at our baptism. As was the case with Jesus, it is God at work in us making us holy and enabling us to do more good than we could ever do on our own. It is only by abandoning ourselves daily to the Holy Spirit and being obedient to His promptings that we can accomplish more than we could ever hope for or imagine.

Secondly, through baptism we become members of Christ’s body. Now that Jesus has ascended to the right hand of the Father, He accomplishes His work through us. He is the head and we are the body. If Jesus is to bring freedom, healing and forgiveness to the world today, it has to be through us. As Saint Teresa of Avila said so beautifully, “Christ has no hands now but yours.” As is the case with our bodies, every member is important and necessary. We cannot function well without our heart, or our fingers of our kneecaps. So we as a Church cannot be fully who we are unless everyone contributes. If there are people in today’s world who continue to suffer and who are ignorant of Jesus and His saving power the only reason can be that we have failed to help them in the power of God’s Holy Spirit. However, if we give ourselves over to the work of the Spirit, if we step outside our comfort zone to console someone who is hurting, to give a hand to someone who has fallen down or to offer food to a homeless person, God’s power will be released into this hurting world and it will be forever changed.

Jesus continues to bring good news to the poor, to release captives, to give sight to the blind and to proclaim favor from the Lord through us, His body on earth. We can only do it through the strength that He gives us. By offering ourselves to His service no matter how few skills we think we may have, we will witness great things. The smallest good works done with love have infinite potential through His Spirit at work in us. The world needs us. Jesus needs us. What will our answer be?