Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Living Water

When we are children, we need our parents to watch over us. We haven't learned yet that we'll get burned if we touch the stove or that it's dangerous to run into the street. As we grow older, though, we start learning how to protect ourselves and how to stay out of trouble. The discipline that our parents imposed on us, often against our will, eventually comes to be an almost automatic way of thinking and living for us. We absorb from our parents values and attitudes that will be with us for the rest of our lives. We know how true this is because so often we catch ourselves saying something to our children or grandchildren that our parents used to say to us. We internalize the messages we received from our parents and act on them as we mature.

When Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit as a river of living water which flows from within the person, He is describing much the same reality. When Jesus' Holy Spirit dwells in us, then we have Jesus' values and Jesus' attitudes operating within us. We see things as Jesus sees them. We begin to recognize Jesus in the people we meet. We begin to understand that it is Jesus speaking to us when we read the Bible. Just as we absorb our parents' attitudes and values by the discipline they imposed on us, so Jesus' Word begins to penetrate our hearts and minds through the gift of the Holy Spirit, and we begin to change from within.

How does this all take place? When we come to believe in Jesus, when we grow in knowledge of the Scripture and receive the sacraments, the Holy Spirit begins to work on our minds and hearts so that we grow in the knowledge and love of God. And, as we grow in that knowledge and love, we come to be more like Jesus. Before we know it, we will be surprising ourselves by saying inspirational words and doing kind deeds. Just as we often catch ourselves saying something our parents used to say, we'll catch ourselves being moved by the Spirit to speak words of comfort and encouragement to those we meet.

The next thing that happens as the Holy Spirit takes up residence within us is that the rivers of living water begin to overflow in us. We can no longer keep Jesus and His Word all to ourselves. Like the apostles on Pentecost day, we can no longer contain the joy that loving God gives us, and we have to tell others about it. The Holy Spirit makes us witnesses to His power and love at work in us.

We live in a culture that tells us that religion is something private, something we should keep to ourselves. We typically don't care what our neighbors believe or what religion they belong to, as long as they don't tell us about it. But, a Christian who has really experienced the power and love of the Holy Spirit, can't keep the message to himself or to herself. We can't keep the lid on the rivers of living water bubbling up from within us. And thank goodness for that! Where would we be if the apostles had decided that Jesus' resurrection would be their little secret? Where would we be if those who witnessed Jesus' miracles and heard His words didn't pass the stories along to the next generation of believers? And, what will become of our children and grandchildren if we fail to share with them the power of God's love made manifest in the person of Jesus Christ?

Today's feast, Pentecost, is the celebration of the birthday of the Church. We are the Church because of the Holy Spirit. This Holy Spirit through faith now lives in the hearts of almost two billion women and men who call themselves Christians. There are women in Africa, men in Asia, children in Europe, old ladies in South America and teenagers in Australia who believe and worship just as we do. This didn't all take place over the past 2000 years because the apostles had a good business plan and marketing strategy. It happened because the Holy Spirit worked in a powerfully way giving authority to the words of those who preach and making those who hear ready to give their hearts over in faith. That same Holy Spirit is among us now strengthening me as I preach and touching your hearts as you listen.

The task now falls to us who have been given to drink of this life giving water in the Spirit of Jesus. Will we keep it to ourselves? Or, will we speak about to everyone we meet so that all creation which is groaning and in agony can be transformed by the values and the attitudes of Jesus, our Savior.

Friday, May 29, 2009

God's Plan A

This homily based on last Sunday's reading originally appeared in Connect magazine

Whenever we take on a big project, we have to put some contingency plans in place. If everything works out perfectly, if everyone shows up and does their job, then we can implement Plan A. If, however, someone calls out sick or the computer system is down, we have to settle for Plan B. Plan A is always the best case scenario when everything functions smoothly. Plan B is not as good as Plan A, but will take effect just in case something goes wrong.

Because he is infinitely creative, God has a different way of implementing his big project of salvation. For God, when Plan A fails to work because of human sinfulness and weakness, his Plan B is not an inferior fall back. Rather, Plan B turns out to be even more wondrous than Plan A. In fact, even God's Plan Z is superior to his Plan A. God does not suffer setbacks in the working out of his plan to reconcile all things in Christ.

We see this illustrated in the readings for the Seventh Sunday of Easter. In the first reading from the book of Acts, Peter mentions Judas' betrayal of Jesus. No doubt Jesus' Plan A for Judas was that he, like the other apostles, be a witness to his resurrection and work to spread the Good News to the ends of the earth. But Judas, in his weakness, falls prey to doubt and greed. Then God's Plan B went into effect. Judas would now become instrumental in Jesus' death for the salvation of the world. This by no means makes Judas a hero. Rather, it shows that God's plan is fulfilled despite human sin and weakness.

The whole history of salvation can be understood in this light. At the Easter Vigil, during the Exultet, we rejoice in the "happy fault" of Adam because it sets in motion the plan of salvation in Christ. Without Adam's fall, we would have no need of a savior. God has willed from the beginning that human beings cooperate with him in the spreading of the kingdom. Our human weakness does not frustrate or hamper God's will. On the contrary, in some mysterious way, it actually advances his will. God maintains control all the while. Jesus made this clear throughout his passion when he let it be known that his life was not being taken from him, but that he was freely laying it down. Similarly, both Peter in the first reading and Jesus in the gospel state that Judas was "destined" to betray Jesus because his actions had already been mysteriously accounted for in God's saving plan.

This is important for us to keep in mind today. As individuals and as a Church, we will be continually beset by difficulties and challenges. We will fail, and sometimes dramatically to the point of scandal. In the eyes of the world, we are on the brink of collapse and irrelevance. Yet God's plan of salvation is mysteriously working itself out in our lives and in our world. The gospel is being handed on to a new generation of witnesses. Minds and hearts are converted to the truth. The sick and the poor are being comforted. God is dwelling among his people through love. This does not mean that we may grow complacent about our sinfulness or about our Church's constant need for reform. Instead it means that we pray and work with the confidence that God has everything under control.

This is developed even further in the gospel reading. Through his prayer, Jesus gives his disciples a peak into his intimate relationship with the Father. Jesus wants them to know that he has been protecting them and will continue to do so even after he is gone from this world. This text has been called Jesus' "high priestly prayer" because it shows us that he is constantly interceding to the Father on behalf of his people. While we tend to picture Jesus as the one who receives our prayers, we do not often focus on him as one who prays for us. Yet that is precisely what he does, offering himself continually to the Father on our behalf. What confidence it should give us to know that the Son of God himself is supporting us in prayer!

In the course of the prayer, Jesus asks that his disciples be protected from the evil one while they remain in the world. Throughout his gospel, John uses the term "world" to describe all the forces opposed to God and his will. In our day, we would identify these forces as those, among others, who exploit the poor, corrupt the young with a materialistic worldview or promote the objectification of women. In our struggle against evil, we can often feel overwhelmed by their vast influence and resources. But when we consider the sovereignty of God's will and the power of our Savior's intercession, we realize that no matter how dire it may look, it really isn't even a fair fight! Even when we appear to fail, God's kingdom mysteriously advances as we are equipped with the Spirit of Truth.

And so our approach to this world is not one of hatred or defiant opposition, but love. If God can make good come from our failings and weaknesses, he can also demonstrate his power and sovereignty even through those who do not recognize him.

Furthermore, it was for this world that Jesus came, not to condemn it but to save it. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that before we can hope to change people, we must love them; and they must know that we love them. The second reading reminds us that if we have experienced God's love by way of forgiveness and mercy, then we must show love to others. When we love, God dwells in us, and the invisible God is then seen in us. And wasn't that God's Plan A to begin with - that his image be perfected in us through love?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Holy Spirit - Advocate and Guide

No one has ever said that we need more lawyers. Yet, we can't function as a society without them. When we find ourselves in trouble, we need experts who know how the law applies to our case. Lawyers are unrelenting in seeking recompense when we are injured and in arguing for leniency when we injure. When we lack knowledge or are timid even in the defense of our own rights, a lawyer's expertise and tenacity are greatly needed and appreciated.

During his Last Supper with his apostles, Jesus made the case that we do indeed need one more Advocate and Counselor. It is the Spirit of Truth who is kept on retainer for us who love Jesus and obey His commands. The Spirit of God works pro bono to remind us of everything Jesus said and did. It is a Spirit that the world cannot see, but who makes a home in the heart of the believer.

Enlightened by this Spirit, we ourselves become advocates. Since the world cannot see this Spirit at work in us, we have to make it known by being ever ready to give witness to the hope we have. The school of the Spirit gives us competency to be tenacious in protecting the rights of society's weakest members and seeking justice for those routinely exploited. People, restless because of the injustices done to them, raise the human cry throughout the streets of the world every day. The Spirit we have received compels us to stand with them and be their advocates.

Jesus promised the apostles that He would not leave them orphaned. The Spirit - Advocate and Counselor - would make Jesus Himself present and active in the believer. To a world who cannot see Him, we make Jesus alive and active when we love Him and obey His words. God puts it in our power to assure those without power that they are not alone. They have an advocate and a counselor in the Spirit working through believers. And, we certainly need more of those!


Almighty Father,
Your Spirit at work in us
accomplishes infinitely more
than we can hope for or imagine.

May our "Yes" to your commands
lead us from complacency and self-indulgence
to a restlessness for equity and righteousness.

We ask this in the Spirit and through Christ our Lord.


(artist: Albrecht Durer)

Monday, May 25, 2009

Come, Holy Ghost!

These ten days between our celebration of the Ascension of Jesus to heaven and of Pentecost, the day when the Holy Spirit came down upon the apostles and Mary, are days of expectant prayer. We ask God to send his Holy Spirit anew upon his people so that we may be re-energized in our faith and given new power to spread the good news of Jesus' death and resurrection to all the world.

The Holy Spirit is the life-breath of the Church. Through the Holy Spirit we are given the power to follow Jesus' example and live the good news.

Sometimes the Holy Spirit is called the forgotten member of the Trinity. We are very comfortable bringing our prayers and worship to God the Father and to Jesus. But the Holy Spirit is often overlooked although it is through him that we are even able to pray at all.

And so as we spend these days asking God to pour out his Spirit upon us anew, let us look at the readings which the Church offers us this day and ask the question, "Who is the Holy Spirit?" As we reflect on the Scriptures set before us, we see that the Holy Spirit is a Spirit of truth, of unity and of love.

First of all, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth. He reveals to us the truth about God and his love. The Holy Spirit is given to us to speak to our minds and hearts about what God requires of us.

Today's gospel reading from Saint John shows us Jesus in prayer for his disciples and for those who would believe because of their testimony. At the end of the prayer, he asks that they be consecrated in the truth and says that God's word is truth. The truth about who God is and what his plan of salvation is can be found in his Word, the Bible. We believe that the Bible was written by men, but that they were inspired by the Holy Spirit to such a degree that God can truly be considered its author. Therefore, we find in the Bible a sure pathway to understanding who God is and how much he loves us. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit who dwells in our hearts guides us so that as we read the Bible we are able to grow in our understanding of it and in our ability to apply it to our lives. Spending time in prayer reading the Bible is indispensable to the life of every follower of Jesus if we are to be consecrated in the truth by the Holy Spirit.

Secondly, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Unity. He gathers together people of different languages, ethnic backgrounds and abilities into one Church which extends itself throughout every century into every nation.

Again, in the gospel reading, Jesus begins his prayer for his disciples by asking that they be one as he is one with the Father and the Holy Spirit. The followers of Jesus are not meant to be a bunch of individuals scattered about the world doing their own thing. Rather we are meant to work together and to worship together. The closer we get to Jesus and the more his Spirit takes up residence in our souls, the closer we become to one another. Nowhere else is this more evident than when the Church gathers to worship on Sunday. All of us here are very different people. We would have no other reason to be gathered here together except for the faith we share in Jesus and in his presence in the Holy Eucharist. What's more, we are not alone. Throughout our country and throughout the world, people are gathering to worship with the same words and reflecting on the same readings we have pondered today. The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Unity, makes this possible.

Finally, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Love. Because he is God, the Holy Spirit is love itself. When the Holy Spirit dwells within us, we come to experience the unconditional love the Father has for us and are empowered to show that love to others.

Today's second reading from the first letter of Saint John teaches us that, when we love, God dwells within us. When we show love, the invisible God who is love itself is then made visible to the world. As Saint John tells us, "No one has ever seen God. Yet, if we love one another, God remains in us, and his love is brought to perfection in us." This love is not merely having warm feelings for others. It is a love that shows itself in action by forgiving those who wrong us, by visiting the sick, by instructing those in error, by witnessing to the power and presence of God in our lives to those who are lost and by putting aside our own comforts to wash the feet of others. It is the love that Jesus showed by offering himself to us on the cross. It is not a love which we can show by our own human power. It is only possible by the Spirit of love who dwells within us.

The Holy Spirit we worship is a Spirit of truth, of unity and of love. We know that we are drawing closer to God when those three characteristics of his Spirit are growing in our lives. So as we approach the feast of Pentecost, let us focus our prayers more on the third person of the Blessed Trinity. Let us bring him our worship and adoration. Let us ask him to make his home within us and reveal to us the truth of God's burning love for us. Let us ask him to set our hearts aflame with love for God and for one another so that we may be renewed as his People and bring the good news to all the world.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Pray constantly

This is a homily based on last year's readings for this Sunday

In the morning, a mother is rushing to get her kids off to school and herself off to work. She's made the lunches. Now, it's time to get her three-year-old daughter dressed. It shouldn't take her more than a minute to push the shirt over her head and pull her pants on. But, her daughter decides that she doesn't want to stop watching T.V.. So the mother has to talk her into getting off the couch and going to her bedroom. Once she accomplishes that, the daughter decides that she doesn't like the shirt her mother has picked out. So, the mother has to patiently convince her daughter why the shirt she picked out is the right choice. Once she gets her shirt on, the daughter decides that she wants to tell her mother a story. Then, the daughter decides that, even though it's the middle of winter, she wants to wear her flip-flops. Finally, after much negotiating, the daughter is finally dressed and ready for the day. What should have taken only two minutes at the most took about ten minutes. Getting a child dressed is no exercise in efficiency.

Our spiritual life and our life as a Church community are much the same as getting a three-year-old dressed. It doesn't always follow a straight line. We make progress one day, and then face a setback the next. One day, God feels close to us and prayer comes naturally. The next day, we're distracted and in a fog. The life of God in us as individuals and among us as a Church is also no exercise in efficiency.

The Scriptures teach us about the necessity and the power of waiting on the Lord. In the first reading (Acts 1:12-14), Jesus has ascended into heaven and instructed the apostles to go to Jerusalem and wait for the promised gift of the Holy Spirit. The Scripture tells us that in that upper room they dedicated themselves to constant prayer waiting for the time when Jesus' words would be fulfilled. Jesus didn't send them back to Jerusalem to do something or to accomplish something. He sent them there merely to wait. Of course, Jesus could have just given them the Spirit right away without their having to wait. He could have brought God's Spirit down upon them as He was ascending to heaven. But, the time wasn't right. And, Jesus always waits until the time is right to ensure that His gifts have the maximum effect in our lives. Jesus is not concerned with efficiency, but with sanctity.

There are many definitions for prayer. For some, prayer is reciting the Our Father or the Hail Mary. For others, prayer means asking God for "our daily bread". Some people in their prayer praise God in a loud voice for the wonders of His power. But prayer, first and foremost, is about waiting on the Lord. Prayer means waiting for the Lord to speak to us. Prayer means waiting for the Lord to direct us. Prayer is not about something we do whether it is a prayer we recite or thoughts we conjure up. Prayer is about what God does. Prayer is about quieting our minds down so that when God speaks, we can hear Him. Prayer is about waiting so that when God is ready to work in our lives, we will be ready to say "yes". Like getting a three-year-old dressed in the morning, prayer is no exercise in efficiency. But, it is an exercise in experiencing the beauty and power of God and His love.

In our preaching, we don't tend to pay too much attention to the Psalms. But, the Psalms are the prayer book of the Bible. The Psalms are the prayer book of the Jewish people and of Christians. The Psalms are Jesus' prayer book. Today's psalm (Psalm 27) gives us a beautiful description of what prayer is and can be. Simply put, prayer is gazing on the loveliness of the Lord. No words need be spoken. The way a lover looks into the eyes of his beloved or the way a mother holds her child, so we savor the wonder of an Almighty Creator who is present among us, who knows us and who loves us. God is beautiful. Prayer, then, means waiting to be seduced by God's love and beauty.

We are gathered here in this church not to accomplish anything or to get something done. There is no agenda to our meeting here today. We are simply here to wait and to listen. We are here to receive and to give. A wonderful thing is about to take place. The Creator of the Universe will come to us in the form of bread and wine. We will gaze on His beauty. We will taste of His goodness. The time is now. The hour has come for us to open our hearts and receive our beautiful savior. How lovely is this place! How lovely is the dwelling place of the Lord!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

I Am With You Always

What are we like when we are feeling confused? What goes on in our minds and hearts when circumstances in our life don't make any sense? We usually stop whatever we are doing and try to make sense of the situation. We stare into space trying to figure out just what is going on. We take a step back to get perspective on our surroundings. Confusion can paralyze us with the fear that we have lost control.

In today's reading from the Acts of the Apostles, the disciples are the picture of confusion. Who can blame them? In a few short days they experienced the devastating brutality of Jesus' death and then the exhilaration of learning that He was raised from the dead. And, they had just finished up many glorious days with Him in their homeland of Galilee. Now, Jesus is ascending into heaven. All they can do is look up into the sky like people who won't leave a theatre after the movie is over. They don't know what to do next. They don't know what their next step should be. It takes the angels to snap them out of their trance and to reassure them that Jesus would return.

Where had Jesus gone? Jesus ascended to heaven to take the throne the Father had prepared for Him. In heaven, Jesus is exalted for winning the victory over sin and death through His cross and resurrection. When generals return victorious from battle, we honor them with parades. Jesus' ascension into heaven is His victory parade for having won back for the Father all the peoples of the earth. Paul says, in the second reading, that God has put all things under Christ's feet. This victory still has not been completed, and won't be until Jesus comes again in glory at the end of the world. But, we know who the winner will be, even as the battle rages on.

It was unclear to the disciples just what was going on. But Jesus' plan was to make them His witnesses throughout all the earth. From His throne in heaven, Jesus would send upon them the Holy Spirit which would give them the power to overcome their fear and the conviction to preach about Jesus' death and resurrection even when their lives were threatened. The confusion was to last only a short while. The Holy Spirit would make everything clear to them in short order.

The message of the apostles and their mission has been passed on to us who gather here 2000 years later. We are to make disciples of the nations, if we are to be true disciples ourselves. We are to baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, just as we have been baptized. We are to teach the commands of Jesus, just as they have been taught to us. And, we are to know and remember always that Jesus is with us until He comes again in glory at the end of the world.

We live with much confusion. In our individual lives, we can be confused about what God wants for us, about what direction our life is leading us in or about why some difficulties always seem to be placed before us. As a Church, we are so often confused about how to preach and live God's Word faithfully and how best to be true disciples of Jesus. That confusion too often paralyzes us. It too often causes us to do nothing or to give up altogether. It sometimes tempts us to turn back to old, comfortable patterns of living rather than stay on the path of ongoing conversion that the gospel calls us to. It too often causes us to look to the world and its values for guidance, rather than striving to know and live God's will.

But, Jesus' ascended to heaven to take over authority for our individual lives and our lives as a Church. Jesus is now fully in control, even when things seem chaotic around us. And so, when we are confused, we are to go forward in faith expecting that Jesus will eventually make clear to us why we are experiencing difficulties or why such-and-such a thing is happening in our individual lives or in our history as a Church community.

To serve Jesus, we do not have to have everything figured out. We do not have to know everything to be faithful to Jesus our Savior. We only have to trust that if we say yes to Him and to His will, then He will use our words and our actions to touch the lives of those we meet. When we are confused or agitated by events around us, we simply have to know and believe that Jesus is with us and that He will make all things work our for our good and for His glory.

Jesus has ascended to heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father where He reigns as King over heaven and earth. When Jesus does come again, we don't want to be caught looking up into the skies waiting for something to happen. We want to be living in the Spirit of insight and wisdom which Paul describes in the second reading. That Spirit reveals to us the great hope to which we are called. It emboldens us through the immeasurable scope of His power at work in us who believe. It works wonders in us who give our lives over to our Savior Jesus and who trust that, at the right hand of the Father in heaven, He has everything under control.

(painting by Salvador Dali)

Sunday, May 17, 2009

God is Love

God is known by many titles. Philosophers call God "the Supreme Being" and "the Unmoved Mover." Some know God as Creator, the origin of the universe with all its wonders. Those who are struggling to overcome addictions describe God as a "higher power".

However, we who believe that Jesus is the Son of God know him under a different name. In Jesus, God has revealed himself to be Love.

This love has manifested itself in the person of Jesus. He teaches us that the God we worship is not a distant God who looks on the world from afar. Rather he knows each of us by name. He cares for us and sustains us in being. No matter how many times we reject him or push him away, he continues to shower us with his blessings.

The greatest manifestation of his love, however, is that he sent his Son to die for us. Jesus took upon himself the punishment we deserve for our sins so that we could have an active friendship with this God of love. There is no doubt about the truth of the words we hear in today's gospel when Jesus says: "No one has greater love than this, to lay down ones life for ones friends." And it is in just this way - by laying down his life for us - that Jesus has shown us the greatness of his love stemming from the love of the Father.

Jesus does not stop there, however. He goes on to say that we are to love one another just as he has loved us. It is not enough for us to simply acknowledge or even rejoice in the immense love of God revealed to us in Jesus. We are to imitate that love ourselves by laying down our lives for one another.

While we might think that such a love is too much to ask or impossible for God to expect from us, examples of heroic acts of generosity and forgiveness happen everyday through the grace and power of the Holy Spirit.

One example of just such a love took place several years ago in California.

Two young men decided to have a drag race down a stretch of road. As they careened down the street at a speed well over 100 miles per hour, a woman with her young daughter in the car turned on to the road. Her car was struck head on by one of the young men, and she and her daughter were killed instantly. The young man was also injured in the crash, but recovered within a few days. He was eventually arrested, convicted and sent to prison.

The woman's husband was distraught at the news of the death of his wife and daughter. He was understandably filled with hatred for the young man who so foolishly and needlessly took the lives of the people most important to him.

However, his rage soon began to consume him. He isolated himself from his family and friends and began drinking heavily. At night, he couldn't get to sleep because the image of the wreckage was constantly on his mind. It was all he could do to continue functioning at his work.

Eventually, he began to realize that his anger toward the young man who killed his wife and daughter was eating him up in side and that the only way to get his life back was to find a way to forgive him. He knew that he couldn't forgive him on his own, and so he got down on his knees and begged God to help him.

It wasn't easy, but the man began to experience his heart changing. He even found it within himself to visit the young man in prison. Through it all, he came to see that the person who killed his wife and daughter himself had a family and friends who loved him. He was not just some nameless punk, but a good kid who did a very stupid thing with tragic results. Unbelievably, the man found himself later showing up at the young man's parole hearing to speak on his behalf.

He found that he was given the power by God to not only forgive this man but to actually love him.

Before we jump to the conclusion that the young man did not deserve to be forgiven or that forgiveness of someone who has hurt us that deeply is too much to ask, let us remember one important fact. It is just such a love which God has revealed to us in Christ. Each of us through our sins is responsible for the death of God's only Son. Yet God has loved and forgiven us nonetheless. We are now called to do the same for each other.

Hopefully it won't take some tragic event like the death of a loved one for us to have the opportunity to show love. We can already show it in smaller ways by going out of our way to give money to a beggar, by listening to a co-worker who is having a rough day or by sitting next to that kid in the cafeteria who nobody likes. Most of the time our witness to the love of Christ will take place in such small ways as these. Nonetheless, the change it will effect both in us and in those we show love to will be great indeed!

Like the man in the story, we cannot show love, generosity and forgiveness even on a small scale without the help of God. That is why we gather here every Sunday - to be reminded of what great love the Father has bestowed on us in Christ and to celebrate that love in the gift of the Eucharist. Then we are empowered to "go in peace to serve God and love one another."

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Feast of the Holy Spirit

This article originally appeared in Celebrations magazine

One of the challenges of liturgical planning is weaving together the themes, symbols and rituals of a liturgical season so as to give the assembly a sense of the "whole" of that season. During the four weeks of Advent, the Advent wreath gives us a visual symbol of the time leading up to our celebration of Christ's birth. But, with people dumping their Christmas trees on the sidewalk three days after Christmas, we must find ways to convince the assembly that the Christmas season actually starts after Christmas day, not before it. We find ourselves in the same situation following Lent. The practice of sacrifice carries us beautifully through the forty days into the Triduum. The Easter season, in contrast, can seem to "lose steam" midway through the home stretch into Pentecost.

The Portuguese community has long ago addressed this concern through their remembrance of one of the great saints of their history, Saint Elizabeth of Portugal. Her story and the tradition that grew out of it are worth examining to give us fresh ideas when approaching the question of connecting Easter to Pentecost for our assemblies.

Elizabeth (or Isabel, in Portuguese) was born in Spain in 1271 and given in marriage to King Denis, the monarch of Portugal, at twelve years of age. Throughout her life she showed concern for the poor. To the outrage of her husband, she would often leave the castle at night to bring them food, clothing and money. Whenever she learned that a beggar had been mistreated by one of the castle guards, she would usher the beggar in, feed him and treat his wounds.

She also had a profound devotion to the Holy Spirit, directing that a church be constructed in honor of the third person of the Blessed Trinity. When the country was suffering from a long drought, Saint Elizabeth promised to donate her crown to that church if God would bring an end to it. Keeping her word, she not only donated her crown but established the tradition of feeding all the poor in the city on the day of Pentecost. At that celebration, she would choose children from the crowd and place the crown on their heads to symbolize that the poor were the true royalty of Portugal, thus committing herself to serving them as she would any other king or queen.

For many years after her death, the Church in Portugal would commemorate Saint Elizabeth and her devotion to the needy by continuing the tradition of hosting meals for them on Pentecost.

Though it came to be observed less frequently as the years went on, there would be a leap in the development of the tradition in the Azorean islands. Inhabited by the Portuguese in the 15th century, the Azores are an archipelago of nine volcanic islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean which have often been subjected to violent tremors. Drawing on the example of Saint Elizabeth's prayers at the time of the drought, the faithful would parade through the streets whenever the earth would shake. Carrying a banner emblazoned with a dove representing the Holy Spirit, they sought to demonstrate their faith in the midst of peril and to inspire calm in the populace.

Their experience breathed new life into the traditional observance. Instead of just providing a meal on Pentecost, the parishes would eventually expand the commemoration to the seven Sundays between Easter and Pentecost. Beginning with the first Sunday of Easter, each parish would choose seven families to host celebrations. Each week would have as its theme one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. During the week, the families would host prayers at their homes, usually the rosary and a reflection on whichever gift of the Holy Spirit was the theme of the week. Then, at the end of the Sunday liturgy, the host family would gather in front of the assembly to be crowned with a replica of Saint Elizabeth's crown representing both the descent of the Holy Spirit and the Church's commitment to the poor. The celebrations would end on Pentecost with the meal for the needy along with other festivities for the community.

This traditional observance has survived in many immigrant Portuguese communities both in the United States and around the world. Though the historical and symbolic meaning is often lost even on its participants, it achieves many of the goals we currently have for the renewal of parish life. First of all, it gives a sense of wholeness and continuity to the Easter season. Secondly, it calls parishioners to host prayer in their homes and to form a small community of worship which flows from the Sunday liturgy and leads back to it. Thirdly, it connects worship to service of the poor. While this particular tradition would be difficult to adapt for non-Portuguese communities, it does provide a beautiful illustration of prayer and service, parish and home, culture and faith all working in tandem.

Meeting the challenges of today's worshipping communities requires much forward thinking. Sometimes, however, solutions lie in rediscovering and celebrating with new meaning the symbols, rituals and traditions our communities are already familiar with. As parishes grow in ethnic and racial diversity, it could be that we find in these diverse traditions and customs means of renewing our parish life whether our goal is to bring unity to a long liturgical season or to connect Sunday worship with Monday labor.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

More on Christ, the True Vine

This blurb of mine was published recently in Connections magazine

Trees have evolved a clever way of making sure their seed gets distributed far and wide - fruit! The fruit attracts animals which carry it off, eat it and leave the seed within behind to take root and grow. A tree doesn't grow fruit for its own use, but to entice others to grab hold of it and carry the seed off with them. Just so, the fruit that believers bear is not meant for themselves but for the nourishment of others that they too may take the seed within (the Word!) and carry it far and wide.

(painting by Elaine Fraser)

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Christ - The True Vine

When personal computers first came out in the eighties, they were really nothing more than glorified typewriters and calculators. Though they made it possible to store information electronically, there was little else that they were good for. In fact, many companies still managed to stay in business without using computers.

Then in the nineties, the Internet was introduced. Now computers could be connected together in a web which spanned the globe. Messages could be sent electronically in an instant. We became able to use our computers to purchase goods online or to manage our checking accounts. This new phenomenon made the computer impossible to ignore. Rather than just a glorified typewriter and calculator, the computer became an indispensable part of business and of every household. By simply connecting computers together, the possibilities became endless.

In today's gospel, Jesus tells us that he is the true vine, and that we are his branches. Just as each branch is vitally connected to the vine, so we are each individually connected to him. And just as a computer is transformed into an engine of commerce by connecting it to the Internet, so we are transformed from mere human beings into children of God through our connection to Jesus.

Saint Paul is a perfect example of Jesus' power to transform our hearts and minds. During these Sundays in Easter, we have been reading from the Acts of the Apostles which chronicles the early years of the Church after Jesus' ascension into heaven. In the first chapters of this book, Paul is a sworn enemy of the fledgling Christian community. He is even complicit in the murder of the Church's first martyr, Saint Stephen. However, while on the way to Damascus to persecute more Christians, Saint Paul has a life-altering encounter with the Risen Jesus. As Christ speaks to him, he is transformed from the Church's chief persecutor to its foremost missionary. Disconnected from Christ, Paul was full of hate and violence. Now connected to him, Paul becomes an instrument of reconciliation and peace. In fact, no one except Jesus himself has done more to spread the gospel message throughout the world than this murderer turned apostle.

Jesus wants the same for each of us. He wants us to plug into him, to draw our life and strength from him so that we may live with new power and confidence. Jesus didn't die on the cross so that we would be nice and not hurt anyone. Rather he gave us his Spirit to transform us and to send us out to change the world. The only way we could ever hope to live this challenge of the gospel is to realize that it is only possible by our connection to the true vine, Jesus Christ.

How then do we become connected to Christ so that his power can be at work in our lives? The good news is that we are already connected through our baptism. By the gift of faith which was planted in our hearts through water and the Spirit, we became connected to Christ and are already drawing from the immense fountain of his life and goodness. That power is already at work in us and in our community to make Jesus present to the world.

I want us each to take a second to look around this congregation to the people sitting next to us. This place is filled with people who have been touched by Jesus and who draw their life from him. There are parents who teach their children about Jesus and provide an example of love because of the faith they received at their baptism. There are catechists who give of their time to form our young people in the faith because they themselves have been touched by Jesus. There are those who bring communion to the sick and food to the hungry because they hold on to the teaching of Jesus that whatever you do to the least among you, you do to me. And there are those dedicated to a quiet life of prayer who do immensely more good for the world than we can ever know. In these pews, in the eyes of our brothers and sisters, we see the branches springing from the vine which is Christ, and we see the abundant fruit of his Spirit.

None of us can do what we do unless we remain connected to Christ. And we stay connected to him by obedience to his commandments as Saint John tells us in the second reading: "Those who keep his commandments remain in him, and he in them, and the way we know that he remains in us is from the Spirit he gave us."

If obedience is what keeps us connected to Christ, then disobedience and sin means that we fall off the vine. When that happens, we dry up and die. That is why we call serious sin, "mortal sin", because it means death for our soul since we become separated from Christ who is the source of our life. That is also why we must avoid sin at all costs. Jesus warns us very plainly in the gospel: "Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me." And so, when we are conscious that we have sinned, we must fly to the Sacrament of Reconciliation so that the Father can prune out of our lives all that is not worthy of him and re-establish that connection to Jesus so that his life and power can begin to flow back into our lives.

Jesus promises that if we remain in him we will bear much fruit. A tree cannot eat its own fruit. Rather, the tree bears fruit for others. Just so, the fruit we bear through our connection to Christ is meant to bring nourishment not just to ourselves but to others. As we prepare ourselves to receive from the vine the gift of Jesus' body and blood, let us ponder how our faith makes a difference not only in our lives but in the lives of those we meet. And let us ask Jesus to make our connection to him stronger so that we can continue to draw our life from him.

Sunday, May 10, 2009


A branch fell off the tree of the Republican party last week when longtime Republican Senator Arlen Specter decided to switch his affiliation to the Democratic party. The news caused an immediate reaction with some Republicans decrying it as a purely political attempt at self-preservation, others pointing out his disloyalty to the constituents who elected him, and still others fearing that it signals a Republican party increasingly unable to accommodate opposing views. The loss of such an influential colleague will no doubt cause much soul-searching among party leaders.

Changing affiliations is a common occurrence not only in the political sphere but in the religious as well. A recent poll conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life looked at what led people to change their Church membership. The reasons varied from loss of faith in the Church's teaching to joining the religion of ones spouse. Whatever the case, faith and religion continue to play a major role in American life. The search for the transcendent persists especially in an increasingly secular and materialistic culture. Nonetheless, the loss of someone to another religious tradition causes much heartache in parishes and families.

Despite our romanticized image of the early Church, the loss of members was a common occurrence in the communities founded by the apostles. Whether members left because of persecution or to join a heretical sect, we can imagine that their departures had a discouraging effect among the fledgling churches. One wonders whether Saint John, writing his gospel for a later generation of believers, had this in mind when he recalled for his readers the image of Jesus as the True Vine. Only by maintaining that vital connection to Christ could the believer hope to continue to thrive and bear fruit. Those who cut themselves off can only whither. Could it have given them some consolation to know that it was God himself who pruned the vine and ensured that those who remained in his Son by keeping the commandment of love would bear abundant fruit?

Still, what do we do about the branches that have been pruned away leaving scars on the vine? Can we gather them back to ourselves before they are gathered up to be burned? If we believe that, as a community of faith, we are the privileged place of encounter with the Risen Lord, then can we ever give up reaching out to those who have chosen another way? Is that not the "love in deed and in truth" which Saint John calls us to in the second reading?

Paul's case in this Sunday's first reading from the Acts of the Apostles is an interesting one. He had seen the Risen Lord and received the mission from Christ himself to bring the good news to the Gentiles. Yet he still needed to be accepted by the community who remembered all too vividly his complicity in the martyrdom of Saint Stephen. It took conversion both on the part of Saint Paul and on the part of the community to welcome him into the fold and open the community up to the next phase of evangelization which would reach the ends of the earth. And the fruit of that conversion was that the Church experienced peace.

As a mystical communion, the Church is a mystery of inclusion and exclusion. Despite our instinct to want to welcome and embrace everyone, there are those who cannot be in full communion with us because of differences of belief and practise. At the same time, there is a yearning in all believers to be one in Christ. If we are to bear fruit in love, then it is an effort we must undertake with full confidence that the Father who prunes the vine can also graft the branches back on.

Your Spirit calls us
to unity in your Son.

Guard our mouths from speaking
uncharitably about our separated
brothers and sisters.

Guide our hearts to move
beyond the pain our
differences can cause.

And call us all to the conversion
which will heal the wounds of
sin and division,

So that we may be one
as you are One
with the Son and the Holy Spirit
One God forever and ever.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

No other name...

What is wrong with me?

What is wrong with you?

What is wrong with us?

All of us sense that there is something wrong either with ourselves as individuals or with the society as a whole. We feel that something is missing or that we are going in the wrong direction. Even when things are going well we are haunted by the fear that our happiness is only temporary, that it will all be taken away from us. Or, when we have reached the level of success and prosperity we have worked so hard to achieve, we all of a sudden wonder if that's all there is.

No one has a permanent answer or remedy for this unease which every human experiences. Politicians can offer us rules and regulations. Psychologists can encourage us to improve our self-esteem. The television tries to convince us that all we need is the latest fashion or gadget. But we end up in the same place, wondering what that "something more" is that our hearts are longing for.

The Bible has a different perspective on our problem and a certain answer. God's word teaches us that what is wrong with us and with the world is that our relationship with God is broken. Because we have sinned, the God who created us for himself is now a stranger. Our hearts ache for him, yet he is out of our reach. We spend much of our lives seeking a substitute for his love and mercy, but nothing else can take the place of an Almighty and Infinite God. And so we feel lost, unable to experience the fullness of joy and peace which our hearts were created to contain.

The Bible teaches us that what we need is salvation which is the forgiveness of our sins and the restoration of our relationship with God. Salvation is not just something we receive after we die and go to heaven, but a power already at work in our lives to transform our hearts. The Bible also teaches us that there is no other way to achieve that salvation than through Jesus Christ. Peter proclaims this boldly and clearly in today's first reading: "There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved." When we turn to Jesus and welcome him into our lives, the anxiety which burdens our hearts gives way to confidence and joy because in him we find the meaning of our lives and the pathway we are to follow.

How does Jesus go about the transformation of our hearts and our lives?

First of all, Jesus gives us a sense of identity. In him we learn that we are daughters and sons of God. This is the wonderful truth which Saint John proclaims in today's second reading: "See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are." Because of God's great love, we grow in the sense of our personal dignity and worth. We no longer allow people to use us. We no longer accept cheap substitutes for God and his love. Only the real thing is good enough for us. We no longer accept the world's standard of worth and importance. We do not measure our value by how much we make, by how many possessions we have or by what neighborhood we live in. Rather, our sense of worth comes from knowing that we are loved by God, that we are his sons and daughters.

Not only does Jesus give us a sense of identity, he also gives us a sense of direction. There is a reason that Christians are called "followers of Christ." When we have an active, loving relationship with Jesus he becomes our leader. Accepting Jesus into our lives means surrendering ourselves and our future into his hands. Jesus becomes our shepherd. We listen for his voice to direct us. We are no longer trying to do things "our way", but we look to Jesus and his word to guide our choices.

In today's gospel reading, Jesus tells us that he is the Good Shepherd and that we are his sheep. Unlike other shepherds who watch the sheep just to earn a day's pay, Jesus loves the sheep and is willing to give his life for them. He does not run away when the wolf or the thief appears. Rather, he will fight to protect them even if it means losing his life. That is why we are willing to entrust our lives to him. Even when the way he is calling us to follow is difficult. Even when the choices he is asking us to make do not seem to make any sense. At those times we remember the great love he showed us by accepting death on the cross to free us from our sins. We know that he will make everything work out for our good and that he will always protect us come what may.

There are times when we feel lost. There are times when we realize that the choices we have made have only brought us misery and pain. There are times that we just don't know what to do. At those times we must turn to Jesus with confidence and entrust our lives to him. Only by following in the way of love he marks out for us can we hope to achieve any measure of serenity and fulfillment in our lives.

Our Risen Lord and Good Shepherd will once again give himself to us in the form of bread and wine as food for our journey. At every Mass he never fails to offer himself to us just as he did when he offered his life for us on the cross. As we receive the Eucharist today, let us surrender control of our lives to him and ask him to teach us to listen for his voice. Let us ask him for the faith to leave behind the cheap substitutes for love we have been clinging to even though they have only brought us failure and disappointment. Finally, let us ask him to give us the courage to lay down our lives for others so that they too can know the joy of being counted among the sons and daughters of a loving God.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Good Shepherd

When we think of sheep, we tend to think of cute, fluffy four-legged creatures. But, sheep are very difficult to take care of. First of all, they are very dumb. They just walk around with no idea where they are. It is not uncommon for a sheep to walk right off a cliff because it is not paying attention to where it is going. Also, sheep are slow. The shepherd has to be very patient because the sheep are in no rush to move for him. And, because they are so slow, the shepherd has to keep a sharp eye out. If a wolf were to show up, the sheep would be unable to run away. And, sheep have no fangs or claws to protect themselves. Without the shepherd, the sheep are completely helpless.

Sheep may be dumb, but they are not so dumb that they don't recognize the voice of their shepherd. They know right away when an impostor has taken his place. They get anxious and jittery. They start to scatter when someone other than their trusted shepherd has hopped over the fence to take advantage of them.

Jesus loved the image of the relationship between a shepherd and his sheep to describe His relationship with the people He came to redeem. That's because there are three things a shepherd does that Jesus also does for His people. Those three things are leading the sheep, protecting the sheep and feeding the sheep.

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, leads His sheep. As Jesus says in the gospel, the Good Shepherd goes ahead of His sheep. The Good Shepherd charts the way forward for them. Just so, Jesus has shown us the path we must walk. We often talk about how Jesus reveals God to us. But Jesus, being fully human, also teaches us what it means to be truly human. No one, no matter what he or she may have accomplished, has ever lived a life more fully human than Jesus has. So, in Jesus we come to understand that living a meaningful life and living a fully human life means following our Good Shepherd.

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, also protects His sheep. He knows how helpless we are without Him. He knows how easily we fall to temptation and how easily we can lose hope. He also knows how many people out there are looking to take advantage of His weak, helpless sheep. Jesus looks with love on us in our helplessness and, if we decide to follow Him, pledges to protect us from everything and everyone who can imperil our souls.

Finally, Jesus, the Good Shepherd, feeds His sheep. He brings them to lush pasture land where they can feast and fill their bellies in peace. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, knows many rich pastures. He feeds us with the banquet of His Word which emboldens our hearts and calms our fears. And, He feeds us with His Body and Blood in the Eucharist, giving His very life to us and a taste of the deep intimacy He wishes to share with us. Once we have enjoyed the rich pastures of our shepherd, why would we ever want to return to the barren wastelands of selfishness?

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, leads us, protects us and feeds us. We are familiar with another gospel in which Jesus separates sheep from goats. He says to the sheep, "Come, inherit the kingdom prepared for you." When they ask, "When did we see you hungry and feed you? When did we see you thirsty, and give you drink?, Jesus replies, "Whenever you did it for the least among you, you did it for me." Today, as we reflect on Jesus' word, we might ask: "When did we see you leading us? When did we see you protecting us? When did we see you feeding us?" Jesus, two thousand years after His resurrection, leads us, protects us and feeds us through His Church. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, Jesus continues to shepherd His people, the Church. The gift of the Holy Spirit leads us to the Truth we need for our salvation. The Holy Spirit guarantees that the Church will lead us faithfully in the knowledge of God. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, Jesus also protects His people. Through the Church, we receive all the graces we need to keep us safe from sin and its corrosive effect in our souls and in our community. Finally, through the Holy Spirit, Jesus continues to feed the Church with His Word and with the sacraments, especially the Sacrament of the Eucharist.

Whenever we talk about the Church, we are not just talking about bishops, priests, deacons and nuns. The Church is much bigger than that. When we say "Church", we mean all the people who have been baptized and believe in Jesus. We are talking about students, parents, single persons, young people, old people and babies. Jesus works through each one of us to lead, protect and feed each other. None of us can follow Jesus by ourselves, anymore than a sheep can protect itself or find food on its own. Whether we are aware of it or not, Jesus works through us whenever we reach out to help another person. And, it is Jesus we are serving whenever we reach out to those in need. The gift of the Holy Spirit is working in each of us to make Jesus real and active in the world.

In a world so confused about what life is about and how to live, we hear the voice of our shepherd, Jesus, leading us, protecting us and feeding us. We do not scatter or stray because we have found peace and meaning in the fold of the Church. Soon, we will leave this place where we have been fed to help Jesus seek out and save those who are lost and to lead them back to the Shepherd of their souls - Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who lays down His life for His sheep so that we can have life and have it in fullness.