Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Easter Joy!

Today is the day of Easter joy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 21, 2014

Easter Mysteries of the Rosary

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

1) The appearance to Mary Magdalen (Jn. 20: 11-18)

2) The appearance to the disciples (Jn 20: 19-23 & Lk.24: 36-49)

3) The appearance to Thomas (Jn.20: 24-29)

4) The appearance on the road to Emmaus (Lk.24: 13-35)

5) The appearance at the Sea of Galilee (Jn. 21: 1-23)

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Empty Tomb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Fire of God's Love

Our ancestors, the first human beings, would end their days around a fire telling stories. The fire provided light and heat for them in the cold, dark night. The smoke kept biting insects and wild animals away. Around that fire, they would sing, dance and recall their history. Learning how to use and control fire was a turning point for the young human race. It brought people together and, through the power of song and story, it helped create bonds of friendship and community.

Tonight, as a community of faith, we gather with millions of other Christians throughout the world to celebrate the pinnacle of human history - the resurrection of Jesus. Like our earliest ancestors, we began this celebration around a fire. The fire we set and the candles we hold flooding this church with light are a symbol now of the victory of Jesus. By rising from the dead he set sin and death on fire, destroying them forever. And the light emanating from that great blaze - the light of faith and hope - has been leading and guiding us ever since.

Like our ancestors, we gather to sing and tell our story. It is a history that spans the centuries. We recall how God created us from the dust of the earth and gave us dominion over the world. However, we rejected His love, choosing to disobey Him. Though we lost that intimate friendship with God, He did not abandon us. Again and again God revealed Himself to His people by acts of power and love. He rescued the Israelites from slavery, establishing them in a land flowing with milk and honey. He sent prophets to teach us how to live in peace. All His words and actions, however, were pointing to a future event, something even greater which He had in store for us, a Messiah who would save us. After centuries of hoping and waiting, that Messiah has come to us. He is Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, is the Savior of the world. His resurrection has changed the world forever. It would take the rest of this night well into tomorrow to tell the story of how the history of the world has been transformed by the resurrection. We would have to talk about the apostles who spread the good news throughout the earth. We would have to tell the story of countless followers of Jesus who began the hospital system by caring for the sick, elderly and homeless. It would be women and men of faith who would work tirelessly to educate the young and so make the Catholic Church the largest private provider of education in the world. Inspired by the resurrection, Christians would seek out the lonely, the lost and the poor to provide for their needs making the Church the largest charitable institution in the world. Billions of people throughout history have had their lives changed for the better because of the love and care shown to them by those who called themselves followers of Christ. The resurrection of Jesus has changed the world and saved it in more ways than any one of us can begin to fathom.

Each of us knows this personally. That is why we are gathered here on a spring evening. We have been touched by the Risen Lord. He has led each of us out of darkness into light. By His power, we have crossed over from slavery to sin into the freedom of faith. We once were steeped in fear and despair, but now we live with confidence and hope. God was once a distant Being, now we know Him to be our loving Father. We have been changed by the resurrection of Jesus. We are being saved. The fire continues to burn within us, consuming our sins and enlightening our hearts.

The journey that led us to this night began over five weeks ago on Ash Wednesday when we committed ourselves to prayer and self-denial. It passed through our commemoration of Jesus’ entry in Jerusalem, Last Supper and death on the cross. Now, bathed in the light of His victory over sin and death, we will renew our baptismal vows. We will proclaim boldly that Jesus lives. In a loud voice and with conviction we will reject sin, proclaiming that it no longer has any power over us. And we will renew our joy in knowing that we now live in freedom as sons and daughters of God.

There are many who have chosen not to gather with us tonight. We cannot know or judge why. But if they will not come to the light, we will take it to them. We will carry our candle of faith into a world that has lost its way and continues to stumble blindly in the dark. With a renewed baptismal faith, we will go out and set this world ablaze so that everyone will know that Jesus is truly risen! Alleluia!

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Cross Is A Mirror

On the day of our baptism, after we had water poured on us, the deacon or priest would claim us for Jesus by tracing the sign of the cross on our foreheads. Our parents and godparents would do the same, marking us for Christ by the sign of the cross. From then on, every time we entered a church, we would call to mind our baptism by blessing ourselves with holy water in the sign of the cross. Every time we pray, we begin by marking ourselves in the sign of the cross in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. And we began this great season of Lent by repeating the sign of the cross on our foreheads in ashes remembering that if not for Jesus’ death and our baptism we would be nothing but dust. Our lives as followers of Christ are marked by the sign of the cross.

On this Good Friday, we gather at the foot of that cross. It is a sad day. In the shadow of the cross, we reflect on how far we have allowed sin to run amok in our world. The cross is a mirror that shows us how much sin has disfigured us. We look up and see how we have even allowed it to disfigure our Savior, God made man. It calls us to reflect on how many times we have rejected Jesus, abandoned Him, spit upon Him and sent Him away to be crucified.

However, despite the violence running through the story of Jesus’ death, there is hope and even joy. This cross upon which He shed every drop of His blood is now the means of our salvation. If it was because of our sins that Jesus would die, then it would be through His death that our sins would be forgiven. Jesus has taken upon Himself the punishment we deserved, and so the gates of paradise are once again opened for us. Now from heaven comes tumbling down upon us all the blessings of God, grace upon grace. From the cross flow the forgiveness of sins, the hope of eternal life, consolation in our suffering, strength to face temptation and healing for our bodies and souls. From the cross flow the sacraments of Baptism, Reconciliation, the Eucharist, Confirmation and the Anointing of the Sick. The cross is the bridge between heaven and earth.

Because of the cross, we no longer need to fear. There is no condemnation for us now. Jesus has taken it upon Himself. Sin has lost its power. And there is no more death. It is true that our bodies must still suffer and die. But we know that death is not an end but a beginning. Because of the cross, death is now the portal to a new and everlasting life with Jesus. Even the anxieties and stresses of daily living have no more power over us. We are relieved of these through our confidence in the love of God. If God loved us so much that He was willing to give His only Son to free us, what else would He be willing to do for us, His beloved sons and daughters?

Today is a day for us to leave sin and fear at the foot of the cross and to begin living with confidence and joy. Any shame, guilt or regret we may be still carrying with us as a result of sinful choices we have made in the past can be dumped right here. We no longer need to be carrying that burden. Jesus has already carried it for us. It is now time for us to embrace His mercy, to open wide our arms and gather up all the graces of heaven which are being showered down upon us.

And it is time for us to live with joy because, by His cross, Jesus has finally set us free.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

You Must Wash Each Other's Feet

After three weeks of visiting her father every day at the nursing home, Sarah could not bear to see him there anymore. After talking it over with her husband, she decided to take a leave of absence from her job and allow her father to live out the last few months of his life at home. They set up a hospital bed in the living room of their small home and prayed to God that he would help them.

At this stage of his life, her father was like an infant. He needed to be washed and fed. Many times he cried out in the middle of the night not remembering where he was. A few days into it, Sarah thought she had made a big mistake. But then she noticed a change in her family. Rather than complain that they were not able to watch TV in the living room anymore, her sons enjoyed sitting around talking with their grandfather. Her husband, even though he came home exhausted from a day of work, would pitch in with the laundry and other duties. They were all willing to make the necessary sacrifices so that he could spend the last months of his life surrounded by his loved ones.

When Sarah's father did eventually pass away several months later, they realized what a gift it had been having him around. Even though it was an inconvenience and even though their friends and neighbors wondered why they would take on such a burden, they knew that the sacrifices they made to have their loved one home with them brought them together as a family and taught them that there is nothing more important than showing love to the people God has placed in our lives.

Many of us are not fortunate enough to be able to take time out of work to care for a loved one. But, no matter what our situation, Sarah's story teaches all of us an important lesson. When we sacrifice ourselves out of love for another person, we get a glimpse into the heart of God and are forever changed.

On this day - Holy Thursday - we begin the great celebration of Jesus' passion, death and resurrection. Before he died, Jesus wanted to share one last meal with his apostles, the traditional Passover meal which is described in the first reading from the book of Exodus. As the meal began, he knelt to the ground and began to wash their feet. It was customary that a host offer to wash the feet of his dinner guests, but it was a job for a lowly servant not the master of the house. We see how shocking Jesus' actions are when Peter at first refuses to let him do it. But Jesus wants to teach them that if they are to be his disciples, then they must also serve each other, even in the most humiliating way.

Whose feet is Jesus calling us to wash? Sarah and her family learned the way of self-giving love through taking her father in to live with them. Who in our life is in need of the attention and love that only we can give? It could be the homeless person in the subway on our way to work. It could be a family member who is alone and could use a visit from us. It could be a classmate who is having trouble making friends. If we look hard enough, we will find people in our lives who are aching for a simple pat on the back or word of encouragement. Are we willing to stoop down to them and wash their feet as if they were the feet of Jesus himself?

It was also at the Last Supper that Jesus gave us the gift of his Body and Blood to nourish us in our journey through life. Jesus feeds us so that we may feed others. He gives himself to us so that we can give of ourselves for others. The mystery of the Eucharist is of a God who never fails to pick us up when we fall and who comes to our aid when we are in need. He is a God who promises to be present among us always. If that presence is to be real and active in our world, then we must follow his example not by waiting for needy people to come to us but by going out and finding them. Then the power of the Eucharist to heal and transform us will also be real and active in our lives.

Saint John says of Jesus in the gospel that  "He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end." Jesus gave all he had to give, even to the last drop of his blood. There is no limit to the love Jesus shows our world. He continues to give himself in the form of bread and wine to a world hungry for truth, meaning and love. If we feel that there is something missing in our lives, we need only turn to Him. He longs to wash our feet and feed us. And once he has strengthened us, we must go out and share with others the good news of the Savior we have found. Then the love and mercy we celebrate at this altar will spread itself out and embrace all people.  

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Remember and Live It

It is important for us to remember all that Jesus did to save us - the indignities He suffered, the blood He shed, the life He gave. All that He endured was for you and for me. He took upon Himself the punishment we deserve for our selfishness, pride and hatred. The forgiveness of our sins and the hope of everlasting life are ours because of the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross for us.

His death on the cross was an act of pure love. He had the power to put an end to it all, to allow the cup to pass Him by. He could have called down legions of angels to save Him from the Roman soldiers. As the Son of God, He could have come down from the cross. Instead, He chose to lay down His life and so take upon Himself the sins of all the world.

Because of His great love, He accepted a humiliating death even though He knew that so many would still refuse to recognize Him as Lord. He knew that many would still reject Him or be indifferent to His sacrifice. He knew that for many people His death would make no difference in the way they lived. Yet He pressed on obedient to the will of His Father. As the prophet Isaiah writes, He set His face like flint knowing He would not be put to shame.

This is the mystery we remember and celebrate today as we read the account of His passion and death with palm branches in our hands.

But we would miss the purpose of today’s solemnity entirely if all we did was remember it. It would be nothing more than a retelling or a re-enactment of an historic event of the past. Rather what we must do is imitate our Lord in His humility, patience and, most especially, His love. As Saint Paul tells us in the second reading, we must have within us the attitude of Christ Himself.

As He suffered for us, so we must accept suffering for Him and for others. Just as He loved those who hated Him, we must love our enemies as well as our friends. Just as He forgave those who tortured and killed Him, so we must forgive those who offend us. And just as He has shown mercy to us poor sinners, so we must reach out to the poor who are in need of our generosity.

When we do so, the love of Christ becomes real for us and the healing power of the cross breaks into our world which can so often be dark and cold. Considering all that Jesus has done to save us, how could we ever close our hand to or turn our backs on our neighbors in their need?

As beautiful as these words and sentiments may seem, we know how difficult they are to live. As Jesus tells Peter, James and John: “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” It is natural for us to want to avoid suffering at all costs. It is natural for us to want to get even with those who hurt us. And it is natural for us to seek as comfortable a life as possible for ourselves. The way of the world seems so much easier than the way of the cross.

.At the same time, we know that we cannot follow Jesus without denying ourselves and picking up our own cross. The only way we can do that, given our weak and wounded human nature, is by the power Jesus offers us through that same cross. If we try to avoid temptation and strive for virtue by our own power, we will fail miserably. However, if we turn to Jesus, look upon His cross and pray, “Passion of Christ, strengthen me,” we will be given the ability through grace to accept suffering, to bear wrongs patiently and to forgive those who wrong us. We will find the courage to accept ridicule and humiliation for living out our Christian faith. Through it all, we will experience the blessing and consolation of having Jesus by our side.

Jesus died for you and for me that we might have life. He accepted humiliation so that we could receive sanctification. The fruit of that sacrifice - His Body and Blood - will be given to us at this altar. We will be nourished so that His death on the cross will not be some past event that we commemorate but an ongoing sacrifice that we perpetuate so that the blessings and power of His passion and death may extend themselves to everyone we meet.