Monday, April 27, 2009

The resurrection of the body

A man learned that he had cancer. As you can imagine, he was afraid and distraught. Before starting his treatment, he decided that he would take his mind off his sickness by renting a hotel room and watching re-runs of the Three Stooges. Since he was a kid, he had always enjoyed watching Moe poke Curly in the eyes or pull a fistful of hair from Larry's head. As it turned out, all the laughter somehow triggered his immune system to fight the cancerous tumor. By his next check-up, the doctors were unable to find a trace of cancer in his body.

While this is not a common occurrence, it does point to a truth that scientists are coming to realize more and more. Our emotional and spiritual health has an effect on the health of our bodies. Stress, frustration, anger and resentment eat away not only at our spirits but at our bodies increasing our blood pressure and shortening our lives. At the same time, happiness, optimism and laughter boosts our immune systems and helps us to live longer. God created us with both a body and a soul. Though they are distinct, they both effect each other. What is good for the body is also good for the soul. And what is good for the soul is also good for the body.

Today's second reading from the First Letter of John gives us some further insight into the truth of the unity of our bodies and souls. Like today, the early Christian community had to deal with a lot of bizarre philosophies that threatened the preaching of the gospel. One such idea was that the body was evil and only the soul was good. Because the body was evil, it did not matter what you did with it. You could get drunk, cheat on your husband or wife, even commit suicide. None of it was sinful because it did not affect your soul. As long as you knew and loved God, your body was yours to do with as you pleased.

Saint John immediately debunks this idea by clearly stating: "Those who say, 'I know him,' but do not keep his commandments are liars, and the truth is not in them." Any action which goes against God's word and commandment is a sin whether it is a sin of the body such as lust or drunkenness or a sin of the soul such as pride or anger. Both our bodies and our souls are good in God's eyes and destined for eternal life with him in heaven. So we must glorify God with our bodies. We must keep our bodies pure just as we seek to keep our souls pure.

Another proof of the goodness of our bodies is the fact that the Son of God took on a human body in the womb of Mary. If the body was evil, Jesus would never have taken on our flesh. It would have been incompatible with his absolute holiness and goodness. By becoming human both body and soul, Jesus proves to us that our bodies are good and meant to give praise to God.

Today's gospel reading from the Gospel of Luke makes it plain that Jesus, now risen from the dead, still has a body. It is not a mortal body as we now have, but a resurrected body. We know that there has been some change in Jesus because the disciples have difficulty recognizing him. Unlike our bodies, Jesus' resurrected body is not limited by time and space. He can appear out of nowhere, even when the doors are locked.

At the same time, it is a real body. It is made of flesh and bones as he tells them, "Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have." Furthermore, his body still bears the wounds from the crucifixion on his hands, feet and side. Though the disciples have difficulty recognizing him, they can tell that it must be Jesus because of the wounds. And, finally, Jesus was still able to eat as he demonstrated to them by consuming a piece of fish in their presence. After the resurrection, Jesus still has a body, but it is a glorified body.

What does this mean for us? It means that, thanks to Jesus' death and resurrection, we too will have a resurrected, glorified body. It is true that when we die our soul continues to live while our body is buried in the ground. Our soul goes either to heaven, purgatory or hell as we await the final judgment at the end of the world. At that time, when God's victory over sin and evil is finally and definitively established, we will be reunited with our bodies at the resurrection of the dead. This new body will not grow old or experience pain. It will live forever to praise the God of goodness who saved us through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

It also means that it is a good and holy thing to take care of our physical selves. A healthy diet, exercise and rest will benefit our souls as well as our bodies. When we are worn out or under stress, we can find it difficult to focus and to meditate. If we over-eat or drink to excess, it will be difficult for us to slow our minds down enough to pray. And when we indulge in sexual sins such as pornography or sex outside of marriage, shame builds up within us which causes us to shrink from the embrace of our loving God. Any sin we commit makes it impossible to the live with the abundance of joy and peace that God has planned for us. If we are still under the grip of any of these sins, we can go to God with confidence and seek his forgiveness by bringing our bodies to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. God is merciful, and he wants us to experience both in our bodies and in our souls the gift of everlasting life.

Jesus is risen! He is alive so that we might have life, both our bodies and our souls. He is here among us as he opens our minds to the Scriptures. He will share a meal with us as he did with the apostles. The meal is his very self - the Eucharist - which is the body, soul and divinity of Jesus. With a renewed spirit and a sanctified body, let us continue to give him praise through a holy life as we look forward to our own resurrection.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Jesus our Hope

As a country over the past few years, we have had a sense that things are not well. We have been at war since 2001 in both Afghanistan and then in Iraq. We have seen our popularity and stature in the world diminish. Our economy has suffered as homes have been foreclosed on at a record pace. We are deadlocked over important moral and political issues such as the death penalty, abortion and embryonic stem cell research with no common ground to help us discuss these issues civilly. We are living with a sense that things are going in the wrong direction for us as a country, and we are deeply divided as to how to set things right. We don't know where to find hope.

As Christians, we proclaim that hope has its center and meaning in God. On the day of Pentecost, Peter, having just received the gift of the Holy Spirit, proclaims to the people of Jerusalem who witnessed Jesus' death on the cross, that Jesus' death was not a humiliating defeat. Rather, it was the culmination of God's plan of salvation for all people. Jesus laid down His life willingly out of love for us. But, even death could not silence Jesus, for He rose from the dead and continues to live giving us the hope of everlasting life. Because Jesus lives, we have hope that we also will live with Him forever through faith.

Peter continues to speak about hope in his first letter. Jesus died to deliver us from a futile way of life. That futile way of life was a life of false hopes and false promises. We know those false hopes and false promises too well in our day. We hear people say that if only we had a different president, the world would stop hating us. If only we would raise taxes, then no one would be poor. If only there were more money for stem cell research, then we could end human suffering. While helping the poor and ending suffering are certainly noble sentiments we should all be striving for, we cannot pin our hopes on any one policy or any one person to solve all of history's problems. It is God alone, the just judge, who can forgive our sins and render justice for the poor. Our hope, then, finds its center in this just and merciful God who has acted powerfully in history in the person of Jesus Christ.

In the gospel of Luke, the Emmaus story begins with two people who had lost hope. Faced with Jesus' death on the cross and the dismay over Jesus' empty tomb, they decide to leave the community of faith at Jerusalem. As they walk along, they are so caught up in their confusion and despair that they cannot recognize Jesus. Nonetheless, their heart burns as He restores their hope by showing how Scripture taught that Jesus' death, as Peter tells us in the first reading, was necessary for the forgiveness of sins and to complete God's plan of salvation. Once they recognize Him, they return to the community of faith in Jerusalem and find their hopes confirmed. Jesus is truly risen!

We are a people who desperately need to have our hope restored. If we are looking for the economy to restore our hope, or a presidential candidate to give us a perfect social order, then we will be sorely disappointed. Only God can both promise and deliver the hope our hearts are burning to receive - the forgiveness of sins, justice, eternal life and peace. On earth, we can only have it in a partial way. There will always be threats to our peace and security. There will always be those seeking to pervert justice for their own ends. Only God can establish true justice and lasting peace in a permanent way.

Does this mean that we throw up our hands and give up? By no means! That's the way people with no hope act. People who don't believe in God generally don't see the point in trying to make the world a good place and decide just to live for themselves and their own pleasures. Otherwise, they may try to help but get disillusioned because they don't see their efforts making any difference. But, those who believe in God and have their hope centered in Him live differently. We know that we will be judged by God based on our actions. We see God's face in those who suffer. We know that the poor are our brothers and sisters and refuse to abandon them in their need. However, we are not deluded into thinking that any person, any government or any policy can turn our world into a perfect paradise. And so, knowing that we will not achieve a perfect world, we don't give up even when we experience setbacks and disappointments. We press on knowing that God's perfect justice and perfect peace are awaiting us. Though there's only so much we can do - only so much difference we can make - we know that our sincere efforts are rewarded by God and so have eternal value.

We gather here today as people who know very well the fears, misgivings and disappointments of today's world. But, more importantly, we know the hope which our faith in God holds out to us. We feel God's Word burning in our hearts. Moreover, we will see Jesus in the breaking of the bread as we celebrate and share the gift of His Body and Blood. When we leave here today, when the songs of praise have ended, we must go into that world and witness to the hope we have found in God. That hope gathers into one community those who are scattered by fear. It gives new strength to those who have been disillusioned by life's injustices. It gives new meaning to those who have been disappointed by the limited effectiveness of governments and politicians. It calls all of us to recognize Jesus, the world's only hope for perfect justice and lasting peace.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

My Lord and My God

Over the past few years, more and more books have come out promoting atheism, that is, the belief that God does not exist. For us who have an active faith life, it can seem impossible that anyone could possibly deny God's existence. However, the numbers of those who are unwilling or unable to believe in God are growing in size and influence.

Atheists are a small part of the overall population. Most people are searchers. They are not sure what or who to believe. They see the problems facing our world and wonder why a good God could allow so much injustice and suffering. At the same time, they see the beauty of nature and the basic goodness in people and can't help but believe that a good God must be responsible for it all. Their heart tells them that there must be something more to this world than what their eyes can see and what science can explain. They are ready to embrace the truth. They just are not sure where to find it.

That is where we come in. God has called each of us here for a reason. He has given us an active faith and a relationship with him so that we can reach out to those who are searching with the good news of Jesus' resurrection.

Today's first reading from the Acts of the Apostles describes the first community of believers. They are really the first parish founded by the apostles. As Saint Luke describes it, it is a community marked by deep love for one another. They shared everything they had so that none of them went hungry or homeless. Though the community of believers was experiencing rapid growth, no one was lost in the crowd or left out. All shared a sense of belonging and friendship because of their common faith in the Risen Lord.

In today's world, people long for community and to belong. Many of us live far from our extended families and childhood friends. Our work schedules and the technologies that surround us increasingly isolate us. We do not want to be another face in the crowd. We want to belong. We want to be missed when we don't show up. We want to be known and loved. This lonely world so often makes it difficult for people to believe and trust in a good God.

If we, as disciples of Christ, are going to effectively spread the good news of his resurrection, then we must be a people marked by love as were the first community of believers. As a parish united by faith, we are called to welcome each other, to take care of each other and to testify to one another about the power of God at work in our lives. Most people come to know and believe in God by meeting someone who is filled with God's love. God wants to make this parish a family where people encounter his love and become convinced that he is real because of the goodness of our lives.

Up to this point we have been discussing those who are searching for God who do not come to Mass. But what about those here today who are themselves searching? What about us when we have doubts and question our faith? For those of us who continue to question and even doubt, we have a great friend in Saint Thomas. As the gospel tells us, Thomas was not present the first time that Jesus appeared to the disciples. When the disciples told him that the Lord was alive, he refused to believe. Thomas could have left the other disciples to head back to his hometown to resume the life he had before Jesus called him. Believing that Jesus was dead, he could have abandoned his faith altogether. But despite his doubts, Thomas continued to stay with the other apostles. And because he decided to stay rather than to leave, he was able to see the Risen Lord for himself.

Thomas has much to teach us. There are times when we doubt and question our faith. At those times we are tempted to stop going to Mass or to leave the Church altogether. We might say to ourselves, "What's the use? I'm not being fed, and my prayers are not being answered." But we need to keep showing up to the Eucharist just as Thomas kept showing up at the upper room. It might not be today, it might not be next week, but when Jesus is ready, he is going to reveal himself to us as he revealed himself to Thomas. We are going to hear the word which will answer the questions we have. In a time of quiet, something we have been struggling with will all of a sudden make sense. If we are going to find the answers we are searching for, then it will be here, in this place, among God's people and at the altar where bread and wine will become for us the Body and Blood of Christ.

Asking questions and looking for answers are part of what it means to be human. God created us to be individuals who seek meaning and truth. While he put the questions in our hearts, he also provided an answer in his Son. Whatever it is we may seek - love, truth, meaning, purpose - it can all be found in Christ. And Christ can be found here. As it turns out, he is seeking us. No matter how tightly we may have closed the doors of our minds and hearts out of fear and doubt, he will reveal himself to us and offer us his gift of peace. Then we will know why we have been created and what our purpose on this earth is - to live with him forever in heaven.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Help my unbelief

As we make our way through our adult life, we come to expect let-downs and disappointments. Because of so many unfulfilled promises and unmet expectations, we grow cynical of anything that can seem too good to be true. Our hearts cake themselves in callouses to protect us from future disillusionment. And so, we come to demand proof and assurances before committing ourselves to anything.

Such is the case with Thomas and the other apostles in today's gospel. They had set all their hope in Jesus. They had left their jobs and families to follow Jesus. And, it all came to a horrifying and humiliating end with the crucifixion. Now, they were reduced to hiding behind a locked door for fear that the authorities would do to them what they had done to Jesus.

While they were cowering in fear, Jesus appears to them. John tells us that Jesus shows Himself to them "despite the locked doors". John is not just referring here to the heavy wooden doors of their hiding place. He is talking about the closed doors of their hearts. Jesus breaks through the door of their fear. Jesus doesn't wait until they calm down or get perspective on the situation before appearing to them with the good news that He is alive.

Jesus' first words to them are "peace". "Peace be with you," He says. It is a greeting which makes sense given their fear and confusion. And, then, He exhales over them to bestow the gift of the Holy Spirit. That Holy Spirit gives them the power to forgive sins. And so, the victory of the cross is now passed on to them.

Just as Jesus is not shut out by the closed doors of the apostles' fear, neither is he shut out by the closed door of Thomas' doubt. Instead, taking up Thomas' challenge, Jesus appears to him so that he can put his doubt aside. The nail marks on his hands, feet and side dispel any doubt that this is truly the Risen Jesus standing before him.

All of us, no matter how deep our faith, come before God with a closed heart. Our heart might be closed to Jesus' message out of fear that God will take from us more than we're willing to give. Or, we might fear that we'll be made fun of if we live His message in a total and radical way. Our hearts may also be hardened by doubt. With so many different religions and so many different opinions, we might wonder, who's to say which is the right way?

No matter where we are with our faith - no matter how closed our hearts may seem - Jesus can break through that closed door and reveal Himself. If you can only go so far, Jesus can meet you there. If you can only believe so much, Jesus can take your hand and lead you a little further along. There is no doubt, no fear, no weakness that Jesus through the power of His resurrection and the power of His Holy Spirit cannot surmount.

Thomas is an example for us here. He is famous for his doubt - but his story doesn't end there. After his experience of the Risen Jesus, tradition tells us that he went on to preach the gospel in India. He is often pictured with a spear, because while in India preaching the good news, he was run through with a spear and killed. Doubting Thomas was martyred for his witness to the good news of Jesus' resurrection. Jesus broke through the closed door of Thomas' doubt and filled him with the faith which enabled him to eventually give his life for Jesus.

We have heard the story of Jesus' resurrection and will now celebrate the meal of His Body and Blood. If we really take seriously what we are receiving, each of us will approach this tremendous mystery with some fear and some doubt. Nonetheless, whatever our level of faith or doubt, trust or fear, the same Jesus gives Himself to each of us. Let us open the doors of our hearts to Jesus and embrace the gift of His peace and the gift of His Holy Spirit. When our lives change because of it - when our fear and doubt are dispelled - then we will know what it means that Jesus is still alive.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Christ is Risen!

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 worshipping 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.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

It is finished

It is for this week that we have prepared over forty days. It is for this celebration of our Lord's passion and death that we have readied our hearts through prayer and sacrifice. We have turned away from sin and done good works so that our spirits can be lifted up to contemplate in wonder the love of God that drove his Son to accept the humiliation of the cross.

Every year on this day we read together the story of the Lord's passion from the gospel of John and have to ask ourselves, "why?". Why would anyone want to torture and kill Jesus? He came to preach the love of God but encountered such hate. He came to heal but was stripped, beaten and scourged. Why?

It was for our sins that he died. He gave his life out of love for us. It is not only the people of Jesus' day who are responsible for his suffering and death. Each of us who has ever sinned is to blame just as surely as those who betrayed him, those who beat him, those who nailed him to the cross and those who looked on and said nothing. I am the reason Jesus died on the cross. You are the reason Jesus died on the cross.

Did it have to be this way? Couldn't the Father find some other way to forgive our sins and restore our relationship with him? Why the gruesome spectacle of the cross?

Because God is all-powerful he certainly could have dismissed our sins by snapping his fingers or by the power of his divine command. Then why submit his Son to so much pain and cruelty? The simple answer is that the Father wanted us to know how deep his love for the people he created is. He wished to hold nothing of himself back. He spent himself totally and utterly by enduring the most horrific suffering and death imaginable so that we might know the passion he has for each of us. None of us can look at the cross and honestly say to Jesus, "There's more you could have done." The cross convinces us that God's love for us has no limits.

The cross also convinces us how offensive our sins are to God. If our reconciliation with the Father required his Son to take on flesh and die for us then how far must our sins drive us from God? If our sins caused Jesus to die, then can there be any such thing as a "harmless" or "victimless" sin? The cross not only teaches us about the love of God, but it also teaches us something about ourselves. It convinces us that we are sinners in need of mercy and forgiveness. And it teaches us to fly to the cross for strength in temptation and for mercy when we have sinned.

Finally, the cross begins to answer for us the most heart-wrenching question that every human being faces, "If God is good and all-powerful, why is there so much suffering?" When we look upon the cross, we do not see a God who keeps himself at a safe distance from the suffering of the people he created. We see instead a God who is with us in our trials, who feels every pain we feel and who carries us in our affliction. Because of Jesus' sacrifice, suffering takes on a whole new meaning in our lives. By accepting our pains and difficulties and offering them to God together with Jesus, we participate in the mystery of salvation. The second reading from the letter to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus learned obedience from what he suffered and was thus perfected to become a means of salvation for the world. God wants to use our suffering to bring forgiveness of sins to the world. Without the cross, our suffering would be meaningless and would drive us to despair. Now in the light of Jesus' sacrifice, our pains and difficulties do not separate us from the Father but help us to grow closer to him.

Now that we have reflected on the words of the gospel recounting for us the suffering and death of our Savior, we will offer some intercessory prayers for the world and its peoples. Then a bare, wooden cross will be carried into the church with the words, "This is the wood of the cross, on which hung the Savior of the World". And we will respond, "Come, let us worship." Then we will each be invited to approach the cross, genuflect before it and kiss it. Let us not lose sight of what we are doing by this simple act! We are venerating the device which was used to torture and kill Jesus! We are recognizing that it is now transformed from a means of horror to a source of salvation. As we approach it, let us bring with us the burdens we carry and pledge to bear them patiently with the strength that God gives. Let us pledge to help carry the burdens of our neighbor. And let us promise to keep the cross ever before us as the sign of God's unfailing love.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Behold, the wood of the cross!

There was a young lady who spent much of her young adult life partying. She couldn't hold a job because of her abuse of alcohol and drugs. She caused her family a lot of grief because she would so often come home late or be gone for days at a time. It got to a point that, at still a young age, she had ruined her health and needed a kidney transplant. It turned out that her younger brother was the only match. Now, her younger brother was the exact opposite of her. He worked hard at his studies to make a future for himself. Seeing what drugs and alcohol had done to his older sister, he avoided them. Sometime he felt resentful of his sister for the pain she had caused their parents. But, when he learned that he was the only match for his sister, he did not hesitate, despite the risks, to donate one of his kidneys.

When the day for surgery came, there was a complication. The younger brother had an adverse reaction to the anesthetic and died during the surgery. The doctors were still able to save his kidney and successfully transplant it into his sister. Her brother had given his life to save her. He had so much potential and such a bright future ahead. Yet, he was willing to risk it all to give his sister a second chance at life. When she awoke from the surgery and learned that he had died in the procedure, it changed her life. She had gotten a second chance, and she was determined to make the most of it so that her brother's sacrifice would not be in vain.

Jesus has done the same for us. "He who knew no sin was made sin for us to save us and to restore us to His friendship." God so desired to save us that He did not spare his beloved Son. The cost that Jesus was willing to pay, the price of His blood, tells us two things. First of all, our sinfulness is infinitely offensive to God. Our selfishness, our greed, our lust is disgusting in God's eyes. If our sins were not so grievous, then God could simply wave them off as a fairy godmother might with a swish of her wand. But, it took the spilling of Jesus' blood to cover over the offenses of centuries of human history.

Secondly, and more importantly, Jesus' death teaches us the lengths to which God is willing to go to save us. How passionately God must love us if he is willing to abandon His Son to our savage violence. How our slavery to sin must have agonized the Father that He was willing to pay such a high price to free us from it.

That's why the second reading tells us that we can approach the throne of grace with confidence. Because God was willing to go to such an extreme to give us a second chance at intimacy with Him, how could we not expect to find forgiveness or mercy every time we pray and approach the Sacrament of Penance. No matter how we may have chosen to live our lives to this point, that offer of a second chance is always there for us. God's determination to save us and to have a loving relationship with us is undeterred by our weakness, doubt or sin.

In today's liturgy, we will all line up to kiss the wood of the cross. This is the wood that saved us. This is the wood that frustrated the devil who thought he had succeeded at silencing Jesus and assuring our eternal damnation. This is the wood that gives us a second chance and gives us the confidence to approach God for mercy and peace.

Let us make the most of this day and the most of this opportunity. When we venerate the wood of the cross, let us pledge to live our lives differently so that Jesus' death won't be wasted in our lives. The cross teaches us that our sins are repugnant to God. As we venerate the cross, we must commit ourselves to leaving sin behind. The cross teaches us about God's love. So, let us commit ourselves to never allowing guilt or fear to keep us from seeking God's forgiveness.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Were You There?

Memory is an important part of what it means to be human. We understand so much about who we are by looking back on our past. That is why we take pictures, scrapbook and write in diaries. We want to remember what happened, who was with us and how we felt. Our memory has the power to take us back in time. How often have we heard a song or smelled a fragrance that took us right back to an event of our past? Immediately we begin to relive that moment, remembering the feelings we had and seeing it all before us as if it had just happened. Our memory not only reminds us of who we were yesterday but helps us to understand who we are today.

For the Jewish people, memory is an important part of what it means to be religious. Many of the commandments of the Old Testament begin with the word "remember". Through the prophets, God is always calling his people to remember the mighty deeds he performed to save them. For the Jewish people remembering means much more than commemorating an event of the past. It means bringing that past event into the present.

In this evening's first reading, God commands the Israelite people to remember how he saved them from Pharaoh and delivered them from slavery by slaughtering the first born of the Egyptians but sparing the children of the Israelites. Every year they were to slaughter a lamb, sprinkle its blood on their doorposts and eat its roasted flesh with bitter herbs and unleavened bread. The blood reminds them of how they were delivered from the power of Pharaoh. The bitter herbs symbolize the bitterness of slavery, and the unleavened bread represents the bricks they were commanded by Pharaoh to make out of mud. Any Jew who participates in this ritual meal, even all these centuries after the actual events, understands that it is he or she who is being delivered from slavery and spared death. They understand that they are not just reenacting an historic event but participating in a saving reality.

Though the word, "remember", appears frequently in the Old Testament, we only hear Jesus use the word during the Last Supper. It is not his miracles or his parables that Jesus tells his disciples to remember. Rather, it is the gift of his Body and Blood in the Eucharist that he wishes to leave as an everlasting legacy to his followers. As a good Jew, when Jesus says to his disciples, "Do this in remembrance of me", he is not asking them to reenact the Last Supper the way we might reenact a play. Instead, he wants his Body and Blood to be given to believers to sustain them throughout the centuries. What we celebrate is not just a commemoration of what Jesus did. It is the real thing. Whenever we celebrate Mass, we are at the foot of the cross where Jesus' body is offered and his blood spilled for us. It is what Saint Paul describes so clearly for us in this evening's second reading: "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes."

One of the most powerful and moving Negro spirituals is "Were You There." In beautiful simplicity, the song asks us if we were there when they crucified our Lord and invites us to tremble at the thought of our Savior's death. We were not there. We were not in the upper room at the Last Supper to share a meal with Jesus and have our feet washed by him. We were not in the garden when Jesus was undergoing his agony. We were not at the foot of the cross when he suffered and died. Nor were we at the tomb when the women discovered that it was empty and that Jesus was alive. Yet at every Mass we are brought there through the power of memory and the mystery of faith. Jesus comes to us in the form of bread and wine just as surely as he was present to the apostles. It is the same flesh crucified to the cross and the same blood which was spilled which we receive. Our sins are truly forgiven and we are empowered to live a new life in the Spirit.

With this evening's liturgy, Lent officially comes to an end and the great feast we call the "Holy Triduum" begins. During these three days - Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil - we relive the events of Jesus' life which won for us the forgiveness of sins and the promise of everlasting life. These days mark our passover from the slavery of sin and death to the freedom of the children of God. Through our commemoration of these saving events, we are brought "there" - to Jerusalem, to the upper room, to Golgotha - so that we may bring Jesus and his saving power "here" - "here" to our homes, "here" to our schools, "here" to our places of business, and "here" to our hearts.

The thought of it should cause us to tremble.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Do this in rememberance of me

Anyone who has ever lost a loved one to death knows how much we treasure our last moments with that person. Whether it's at their bedside as they slip into unconsciousness or at home before they leave for the hospital, we remember the last words they may have spoken to us or a gift they may have given to us. And, for the person who is dying, having the opportunity to see and speak with loved ones for a last time is an important moment. Every person hopes to leave a legacy - both material and spiritual - to their families and loved ones.

It's natural, then, that Jesus wanted His last Passover meal with the men he had chosen to carry out His mission to be special. He wanted it to be the way He would be remembered. "Do this in memory of me."

Remembering is an important concept in the Bible. Depending on which translation one uses, the word "remember" appears about 451 times in Scripture. God commands us to remember the mighty works which led to our salvation. The first reading, for instance, spells out how the Jewish people were to commemorate how God liberated them from slavery in Egypt. The bitter herbs were meant to remind them of the bitterness of slavery and the hard, unleavened bread was meant to remind them of the bricks they were forced to make for Pharaoh.

At the Last Supper, Jesus used the traditional Passover meal to show His disciples - to show us - that the Passover, the liberation, had found its fulfillment in Him, in the mystery of His death and resurrection. So Saint Paul tells us in the second reading that whenever we remember what Jesus did - whenever we eat the bread of His Body and drink the cup of His Blood - we proclaim His death until He comes again. In the Eucharist, then, we celebrate our Passover. We remember and proclaim that we have been freed from the cruelest of slaveries - the slavery of sin. And, we have been liberated from the cruelest of fates - everlasting death.

So, then, how does Jesus want to be remembered? He wants to be remembered as one who gave of Himself until He had nothing left to give. God spared nothing in giving His Son to us. He poured Jesus out to the last breath of His life, to the last drop of His blood and to the last ounce of His strength. The washing of the feet which we celebrate every year on this day gives witness to this. Jesus gets on His knees to wash the apostles' feet so they would know that He came not to be served, but to serve. He wanted them to know that they must do the same, and that we must do the same.

So, when we gather here to celebrate the Eucharist, we remember who Jesus is and the way he lived so that we can commit ourselves to living as He did. And, how did he live? He lived the same way that He died - by giving of Himself until He had nothing left. And, who did He give Himself to? He gave Himself to us and He continues to give of Himself to anyone who approaches Him with faith and with the conviction to live - and maybe even to die - as He did.

If God can give us so much in the person of Jesus, then how can we turn our back on those in need whether they are a friend or an enemy? If Jesus, our teacher and our master, has washed our feet, how can we then turn up our nose at the poor who stretch out their hands to us?

We gather here today to remember how Jesus lived. We remember how Jesus died. We proclaim His death with the confidence that He will come again. And, we live our lives so that, when He does come again, He will find us living - and perhaps even dying - as He did: by giving of ourselves until there is nothing left to give.

Monday, April 6, 2009

He Comes, Meek and Humble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 5, 2009


If we had been alive two thousand years ago, what would we have seen?

We would have seen Jesus entering the gates of Jerusalem, the holy city, in the midst of great jubilation. Though Scripture tells us he rode on a simple donkey, the crowds came out to hail him as though he were a conquering general. The crowds shouted, sang and waved palm branches with indescribable joy at Jesus' entry into the city of David.

Why were they so enthused? Because they heard of all the wonders Jesus had worked. The stories of his healings had made their way all through the city. The incredible tale of the raising of Lazarus from the dead in Bethany, just a few miles from Jerusalem, had no doubt been told in every barbershop and at every marketplace. As Jesus entered the city, there was a feeling that something remarkable would happen. The people parading behind Jesus must have had a feeling that history was being made, that something of tremendous importance for the city and for the world was about to happen, and that they would be there to see it all.

What went wrong? Why would it be that in less than a week, their jubilation would sour to bitter scorn? Why would it be that this same crowd would call for this man's death? Why would they reject Him as Messiah saying that they wanted no other king than Caesar?

It is most likely the same thing that caused Judas to betray his friend and teacher, Jesus. This Messiah was not strong enough, not flashy enough. They preferred a Messiah mounted on a mighty steed, not a lowly donkey. They wanted a Messiah clad in shiny armour, not in a simple linen tunic. They wanted a Messiah who could shower them with riches, not one who was even poorer than they were. How could this humble carpenter from Nazareth ever stand up to the mighty Roman Empire and fight for them?

And so, they ask the Roman Empire, in the person of Pontius Pilate, to save them from their Messiah by crucifying Him among thieves.

Can we say two thousand years later that we are so different from them? Can we say that we would have acted differently? Don't we act the same way when we praise God on Sunday, but turn our backs on those in need on Monday? Do we act any differently if we reflect on the mysteries of the rosary, but are blind to the mystery of God unfolding in our lives? Are we any better when we can remember everything that happens on American Idol, but can't recall what the gospel reading from the Sunday before was?

For two thousand years, the world has both longed for its Messiah, Jesus, and turned its back on Him. It has longed to see Him and closed its eyes to Him. It has wondered why God is so silent, yet failed to listen to Him. Today, with all the advancements of modern society, we cannot claim to be much different than that crowd that welcomed Jesus two thousand years ago.

Yes, the week that saw Jesus enter triumphantly into Jerusalem will end with the tragedy of His death. But, wait! The story is not over. For, this week, the God who chose to suffer and die rather than exact vengeance on His people will accomplish something marvelous. It is something that no one could ever have imagined when Jesus' beaten, lifeless body was taken down from the cross. Yet, it was for this moment that the world was created. It is the mystery of how God plans to save us even in the midst of our rejection of Him.

We'll have to come back next Sunday to find out what this wonderful thing is. But we can be assured that it will not fail to disappoint us. For this God of surprises, this God who loves us beyond all telling, will not let death have the final word over His beloved Son nor over us who believe in Him and welcome Him into the city of our hearts.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Spirit of Life

We are familiar with the story of how God created the first man, Adam. After forming him from clay, he blew into his nostrils the gift of life. This is different from the way God created any of the animals or any of the plants. By giving Adam His own breath, God was sharing His life with him. Breath is life. We are aware that someone is alive if he or she is breathing. To stop breathing - or to be unable to breathe - is to die.

The word "spirit" is closely related to the word for breath. We call breathing "respiration". To stop breathing or to breathe out is to "expire". Both of those words are related to the word for "spirit". In this way we can understand the Holy Spirit to be the breath of God, the life of God. We have that life not only because we have been created by God, but also through the gift of faith. Through baptism and confirmation, in particular, God breathes the Holy Spirit into us. God shares with us His very life.

Paul speaks of this in the second reading. The Spirit who worked so powerfully in the life of Jesus, is the same Spirit we have received through faith and baptism. This is the same Spirit who empowered Jesus to speak with authority. This is the same Spirit who empowered Jesus to perform miracles. This is the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead. That Spirit is with us here as we gather to worship.

What does this mean for us? If God's Spirit is the very life of God within us, then the eternal life of heaven is not something we receive after we die. That eternal life of God is already in us. We are already living it. Heaven is already within us and around us. To be sure, it is still in seed form. It hasn't yet reached its fullness. We are not always aware of it. But, it is at work in us just as surely as our breath is filling our lungs with oxygen.

We see that eternal life at work in the words of Martha and Mary. They are distressed at their brother's death and distressed at Jesus' apparent neglect of them in their need. Nonetheless, in the midst of their grief, they confess their belief with the words: "I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God". And, Jesus does not let them down. When Jesus says that they will see their brother again, Martha misunderstands and thinks He is talking about the resurrection on the last day. But, Jesus has something else in mind. He has in mind the life of the Spirit which is already at work in Him and is beginning its work in the world. Jesus' life was not something that Martha and Mary would experience in some far off day in the future. They were to experience it that very day with the raising of their brother Lazarus from death. Because they believed, they saw the glory of God.

Jesus came to earth for one reason - to redeem us from our sins and to restore us to life with God. Sin cuts us off from God's life. Sin strangles God's breath of life within us. Sin inevitably leads to death. When Jesus weeps in today's gospel reading, he is not just mourning for Lazarus. He is not just sympathizing with Martha and Mary. He is weeping for all of humanity which suffers death because of sin. But, Jesus will conquer death by Himself suffering it and by rising from the dead to give us the hope of everlasting life with Him now through faith, and in fullness with Him forever in heaven.

All life needs food to sustain it, and the life of God in us is no different. Not only does God provide us with the breath of His Spirit, He also nourishes us with the body and blood of His Son. The same Spirit which raised Jesus from the dead will transform simple bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ to give us the power to live as He lived.

Now that we have tasted the life of God - now that we have breathed it into our lungs - why would we ever go back to living just for ourselves? Why would we ever want to let sin cut us off from that life again? No matter what choices we have made in the past - even if it seems that our souls are buried deep in a tomb - God can roll away the stone and breathe new life into us. Today is a new day. If we believe, we can see God's glory at work in us and at work in our lives. We need only believe to breathe deeply of God's eternal life which He offers through the Holy Spirit.