Sunday, September 20, 2009

Beautiful in God's Eyes

Who are the people whom the world considers important? Who are the people who show up on the covers of Time, Newsweek and People magazines? They are the women and men with power who make things happen. Or the rich who have luxurious homes and fast cars. They are the "beautiful people" - actors, musicians, politicians - who are attractive and have personalities that get them noticed. These are the people our materialistic culture holds up as "heroes". These are the people our society worships.

But the way we measure importance is far different from the way Jesus measured it. Power, money, looks, charisma - none of that made a person important to him. Instead, Jesus came to serve those who went unnoticed, those who didn't seem to make a difference in society. He came for the sick, the lepers, the poor and all those pushed aside by the world and seen as a drain on its resources. Those were the people he sought out in every city and town he entered. When he preached God's love and concern for every person, he was speaking to them. When he healed, theirs were the bodies he touched. And it was the sinners he chose to eat with, not those who were righteous in their own eyes. Everything Jesus did and said was directed to those who were forgotten, pushed aside, ridiculed and reviled.

And so he taught his followers that the only way that they could be important in God's eyes - the only way that they could get noticed - was to make themselves the slaves of others. If God's loving gaze was always on the poor, then they had to make themselves poor. If it was the sick that God was gathering into his kingdom, then they had to be found among them. The strong would have to make themselves the slaves of the weak, and the rich would have to put themselves at the service of the poor. Jesus taught that his greatest follower would be the one who acted as if everyone else were greater, as if everyone else were holier, as if everyone else were more important.

In today's gospel, Jesus illustrates his point by placing a child in their midst. In doing so, he was stressing that their job was to reach out to those members of society who were the most insignificant. In Jesus' day, children had no legal rights at all and were, therefore, the most vulnerable members of society. Jesus' message was that the greatest of his disciples would be the ones to look after the needs of the most vulnerable, those who otherwise would fall through the cracks.

Why does Jesus insist on this point? Because he believed that every human life had the same value in God's eyes. The poor person's life means as much as the wealthy person's life. The life of the sick is no less valuable than that of the healthy and strong. In God's eyes, the death of an Iraqi soldier is as tragic as the death of an American soldier. A person's power or money cannot make their lives more precious. To God, every human life is worth creating and every human life is worth saving. God never thinks that he has wasted his gift of life on any one of us.

The greatest example of this is the cross. Jesus, the innocent Son of God, the most important person who ever lived, was willing to give his life for each and every one of us. Whenever we are tempted to doubt our own worth or the worth of another person, we must remember that, no matter what we might think about ourselves or others, God thought us precious enough to offer up his Son in sacrifice for us. Jesus was willing to give his life up for ours. How, then, could we ever doubt the inestimable value of each and every human life, no matter how young or how old, how rich or how poor, how weak or how strong?

Jesus calls us who wish to follow him to serve the needs of those society deems unimportant. We must consider the needs of those who normally go unnoticed to be more important than our own because every human being deserves our love and attention.

Who in our lives could be going unnoticed and could use a little love and attention? Do you have a sick relative who would be delighted to get a visit from you? Is there someone at your work who is struggling and could use a helping hand? Is there someone at your school who has trouble making friends and would appreciate it if you sat with him or her in the cafeteria? Is there a poor person asking for hand outs at the light on your way to work whom you could give a dollar to and let know that someone cares for him? Each of us knows such people. They are Jesus approaching us in disguise and asking us if we love him. Even though our society has little use for them, they are God's precious children worth more to him than we can ever know.

What makes a person important in God's eyes? We know that wealth, beautiful homes and powerful positions cannot impress the all-powerful God who created the universe with all its wonders. To impress God it takes a loving heart willing to go out of its way for those who cry out for our help. At the end of time, the world with all its glory will be wiped away. Everything we thought was important will be no more. We will each stand naked before the God who created us, and we will be judged on how we loved the poor people he placed in our lives. Today can be the day when we confess to God that we have been busy trying to impress the wrong people. And today can be the day when we begin to ask him to open our eyes and our hearts to those in our families, in our places of business, in our schools and in our communities who are truly in need and who, therefore, are truly important and deserving in his eyes.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Sent by the Father

Digging through some old papers, I found the first homily I ever gave as a deacon way back on April 24, 1991.

The Christology of the gospel of John depicts Jesus as the One sent by the Father. Jesus' identity and self-consciousness revolve around the mission the Father has given him to save the world. He makes real the Father's presence in the world such that he can claim: "Whoever puts faith in me believes not so much in me as in him who sent me, and whoever looks on me is seeing him who sent me" (John 12: 44-45).

The identity of the early disciples revolved around the same concept. Just as the Father had sent Jesus into the world, so Jesus sent his disciples to preach the good news of salvation in his name. In fact, the Greek word, apostolos, which came to designate those disciples closest to Jesus, derives from the verb, apostellein, meaning "to send". Throughout the Acts of the Apostles the disciples are presented not only as witnesses to the resurrection but, by means of the miracles they perform, they are shown to continue the salvific ministry of Jesus. Saint Paul captures this self-understanding of the early Christian community in his second letter to the Corinthians: "We are ambassadors for Christ; God making his appeal through us" (2 Cor.5:20). They understood themselves as a continuation in history of the saving presence of Jesus in the world. So it is that Jesus says: "I solemnly assure you, he who accepts anyone I send accepts me, and in accepting me, accepts Him who sent me" (Jn.13: 20).

Brothers, in the light of the word we have heard proclaimed, how are we to understand our own identity as men called to priesthood? In the word we are preparing to proclaim and preach, are we not the instruments through which Jesus contines to appeal to the human heart? In the sacraments we are preparing to celebrate, are we not continuing Jesus' healing activity among his people? Even now, are we not called to make real to everyone we come into contact with the love of Jesus who lived and died for us?

The effectiveness of our lives and our testimony is guaranteed by Jesus' promise to accompany us in our Christian lives. Christ makes an appeal to the world through us. It is Jesus himself whom people hear and see in us. And who can remain indifferent before the appeal of Jesus?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Senhor Santo Cristo dos Milagres

One of my favorite holy cards is that of Senhor Santo Cristo, a statue depicting Jesus at the moment when he was presented to the people by Pilate after he was scourged, which has been venerated for centuries in the Azores. I've translated this beautiful prayer from the original Portuguese

O good and lovable Jesus,
who for love of our souls
desired to be scourged, crowned with thorns
and treated with ridicule in the praetorium of Pilate,
giving us the greatest example of humility,
Grant that, drawn by your beloved face,
we may have no other thought than to praise you,
and no other desire than to love you.
Grant, Lord, that our lives may be always enlightened
by the luster of your sacred passion so that,
in our struggles we may feel your strength,
in our aflictions your solace,
in our pain your consolation,
and in our sadness your joy,
and so enter unharmed into your eternal Kingdom.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Faith That Saves

What is faith? What do we mean when we say that we have faith?

When we say that we have faith we mean that we believe in something without any hard evidence for it. For instance, I do not need faith to know that two plus two equals four because it can be proven to me. However, I do have to have faith to believe God exists because it cannot be proven.

Faith, however, also means something more. It means trust. It means not only knowing that God exists, but loving him and placing our lives in his hands.

Because faith is both belief and trust, it can be at work in our lives on two levels.

On the first level, we accept certain truths of Catholic teaching. For instance, we believe that God exists, that we should go to Mass on Sundays or that babies should be baptized. This is a faith of the head, an intellectual faith, dealing mainly with doctrines and catechism. It is a faith of belief which is centered on facts and data. Most people have at least this level of faith at work in their lives.

However, there is a deeper level of faith which not only agrees that God exists and that he loves everyone, but believes it so deeply that it changes the way a person thinks, acts and speaks. If the first level of faith is a faith of the head, this second level is a faith of the heart, a faith that drives us to believe with our whole being. People who have been given such a level of faith love everyone because they believe that God loves everyone. They forgive whomever may hurt them because they believe that God forgives all wrongs. This level of faith goes beyond mere belief in God to trust in God. People who have such a gift of faith are willing to stake their lives on what they believe, not just their intellect or their opinions.

It is this second level of faith that James describes in today's second reading. When he says that faith without works is dead, he means that if our beliefs do not lead us to change the way we live, then our faith has no power to save us. If it is not making a difference in the choices we make, then we really do not have faith. We all know this from our personal lives. People may tell us they love us. But we know that our true friends are the ones who stand by us in the bad times as well as the good times. It is the actions of our friends that reveal whether or not they have love for us in their hearts. Just so, it is our actions that reveal whether or not there is faith in our hearts.

In today's gospel reading, both levels of faith -faith of the head and faith of the heart - are tested in Peter. When Jesus asks his disciples, "Who do you say that I am?", Peter alone has the right answer: "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God." But when Jesus pushes beyond this faith of the head to see if he has a deeper faith of the heart, Peter flunks. Peter could not accept that being the Messiah meant that Jesus would have to suffer. Though in his head he could believe that Jesus was the Son of God, in his heart he was not ready to accept the consequences.

As with Peter, it is suffering oftentimes which tests on which level our faith rests. It is natural to want to avoid suffering and even more natural to not want to see the people we love suffer. Sometimes, however, suffering is unavoidable, and it is in those times when our experience seems to clash with what we believe about God. Faith that is merely at the level of the head will not be able to survive the ordeals of disease, divorce or death. It takes a faith of the heart to continue to believe that God loves us no matter what difficulties we or our loved ones have to suffer. The good news is that God uses suffering not only to test the faith we already have, but to offer us a deeper faith. If we can accept our suffering with patience, God can make the faith in our head trickle down into our heart. That way, we can learn to trust that no matter how senseless our suffering may seem, God still loves us and can still make all things work for our good.

Suffering is very often an inevitable part of life. Jesus came not to take our suffering away but to suffer with us and to make our suffering an opportunity to have a deeper faith of the heart. And so Jesus says to all of us who want to follow him: "Pick up your cross and follow me. Pick up your suffering and follow me. Pick up your loneliness and follow me. Pick up your broken marriage and follow me. Pick up your failed business and follow me." These difficulties need not be obstacles in following Jesus, but they are the ways God uses to help us grow in holiness and trust. It is the way God uses to place in our hearts a faith that can really save us.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Exaltation of the Cross

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

Because the cross is such a part of our life, we can forget exactly what it is. The cross was originally used as a means of torture and punishment by ancient Rome. In fact, it was such a cruel form of punishment that it was reserved for foreigners and the worst of criminals. Often, the Romans would leave the bodies of their victims nailed to the cross for days as an example to strike fear in the people. For the Jews of Jesus' day, the cross was a shameful way to die.

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

The cross is no longer a source of shame but a source of hope to all who look upon it and place their faith in it. Jesus, raised up from the earth on the wood of the cross, shows us the depth of God's love. He accepted the shame and pain of the cross out of love for each of us. No one is left outside of this all-embracing act of salvation. It is never too late to approach the cross to seek healing and forgiveness in our time of need. Because the sacrifice of Jesus is a bottomless treasury of grace and mercy, it can never run out. We can go to the wood of the cross every day and even every hour of every day to find forgiveness again and again and again. We can never use up or exhaust God's infinite mercy.

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Christ and His Cross

There is a saying: "Don't seek Christ without his cross. You might find a cross without Christ."

Jesus cannot be separated from his cross. The whole purpose of his life was to bring us back to God through his death on the cross. The cross is the fulfillment of Jesus' mission on earth and the realization of God's promises. Without the cross, Jesus is just another good man who said some nice things but who has no power to forgive sins. With the cross, Jesus is the Savior of the World holding out to us the promise of everlasting life.

Jesus makes this very clear to his disciples. To save the world, he will have to be rejected, will have to suffer and will have to die. In so doing, Jesus will take upon himself the punishment we deserve for our sins.

Peter, however, would have none of it. He didn't want to hear that Jesus, whom he loved dearly, will have to suffer. I have no doubt that Peter would gladly have suffered and died for Jesus. But it is often more painful for us to see the suffering of those we love than to go through the suffering ourselves. Peter loved Jesus so much that he couldn't bear the thought of him suffering and dying. And so he cried out: "God forbid that any such thing happen to you!" However, Jesus rebuked Peter in the strongest possible terms, going so far as to call him "Satan". For Jesus, there was no other way for him to save the world and gain for us the forgiveness of our sins except by embracing the suffering of the cross.

Peter did what we are so often tempted to do. He tried to separate Jesus from his cross.

If Jesus and his cross come as a package, then we cannot welcome Jesus into our lives without also welcoming his cross. We cannot follow Jesus without picking up our own cross. We cannot love Jesus without also loving the cross.

Each of us has a different cross to bear. For some, it is illness. For others, it is financial hardship. Most of us struggle under the weight of a cross made up of many smaller crosses. Whatever form it may take, we can often stumble under its weight. We can feel alone and isolated because of the pain we feel. We can become bitter and let suffering harden us and close us off from others.

But, when we welcome Jesus into our lives and choose to live as his disciples, our cross is transformed from a burden into a source of life and even joy. We begin to experience that we are not alone in our pain, but that Jesus is carrying our cross with us. Our suffering no longer closes us off from others, but helps us to become more sensitive to the pain that others experience in their lives. And, instead of making us bitter, our pain begins to open our heart to the love and mercy of Jesus. We even begin to inspire others by persevering through difficulty. Suffering, then, takes on a whole new meaning in our lives. We begin to love the cross because it is the means by which we come to know Jesus in a profound and personal way.

We can begin to experience the transforming power of the cross in our lives by following the advice many of us received from our parents whenever we complained about something - by "offering it up". It is as simple as saying, "Jesus, I offer this suffering up to you for my sins and for the sins of the world." Or, "Jesus, I offer this pain to you for my friend who is also in pain." We can offer up our suffering for our own sins, for the souls in purgatory or for others who are also suffering. When we offer up to Jesus whatever difficulties, inconveniences and hardships we experience, they are transformed from sources of anger and frustration into opportunities to give Jesus more of our heart and more of our lives. Eventually, we even become grateful for the struggles we encounter in our daily life because they bring us closer to Jesus. We come to love the cross because we understand that it is the way to Jesus.

There is a still deeper meaning of the cross in our lives. If we decide to live according to the gospel message, we are going to experience difficulties. We are going to be ridiculed for our beliefs which seem out of touch to many people. We are going to be rejected by our friends, co-workers and classmates because we live differently than they do. We are going to be accused of being close-minded and judgmental. We are going to feel left out of the crowd. It is the same rejection and ridicule that Jesus experienced in his life. When we have the courage to stand up for what we believe, to go out of our way to help the poor and the needy and to defend the rights of the weak against the powerful, we will know the real power of the cross not only to transform us but to transform the world.

Jesus cannot be separated from his cross. But, just as importantly, the cross cannot be separated from the Resurrection! The power of the cross comes from the fact that it leads us to the Resurrection. The Resurrection is Jesus' victory over sin and death. It is the Resurrection that we celebrate when we gather every Sunday. We come to this place with our cross on our shoulders to proclaim boldly that there is no suffering, no persecution, no difficulty which God cannot transform. And, we reaffirm our commitment to embrace the cross by overcoming evil with good through the power that Jesus gives us in his Body and Blood.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Every Morning, He Opens My Ears That I May Hear

For over 70 years, Alcoholics Anonymous has helped people from all over the world overcome addictions to alcohol, drugs and other destructive behaviors. Through a program comprised of 12 steps, the addicts learn to combat the spiritual sickness at the root of their compulsions by confessing that they are powerless to change their behavior and by giving control of their lives over to a "higher power". As they make their way through the other steps and achieve a certain level of serenity and healing, they learn that it is not enough for them to simply stop drinking or using drugs. If they are to know true and lasting healing, they cannot keep their stories to themselves. Rather, they have to reach out to others with the good news that their addictions can be overcome. It is part of the healing process itself to help bring others to experience healing in their own lives.

The same is true with those who are healed by Jesus. They are so overcome with joy after their encounter with him that they have to tell everyone about it. It is interesting that throughout the gospel of Mark, Jesus commands people not to tell anyone who he is and what he has done for them. It seems strange to us that Jesus would want to hide his identity, but he needed it to be clear to the people that he would not be a political Messiah who would liberate them from Roman rule, but a suffering servant who would free all people from the tyranny of sin. When he tells the apostles not to tell anyone who he is, they obey him. Even the demons whom he casts out obey him when he tells them to keep quiet. But those whom Jesus heals, though they are warned sternly not to spread the word, cannot help but go around telling everyone they meet about the powerful prophet who restored them to health. For them, telling the story of Jesus' healing power is part of the healing process itself.

Today's gospel is no different. Jesus opens the ears of a deaf man and heals his speech impediment. Throughout his whole life he was unable to hear the sounds all around him. Now the first voice he hears is that of Jesus commanding his ears to be opened. During his life he probably spoke only when necessary because he was ashamed of his speech impediment. Now, with his tongue loosened by Jesus, he cannot help but tell everyone about the miracle that God performed in his life. His first clear words were praise of God for the gift of healing he received in Jesus. How could he now be expected to keep silent about the great work God performed in his life?

Jesus continues to be in our midst exercising his healing powers. Though it is rare, it still happens that people are cured of diseases or physical impairments through the power of prayer. Most often, however, the healings we experience through faith are of an emotional or spiritual nature. Because of our own prayers or those of others, we may find ourselves finally able to forgive someone who has hurt us. Or we may find the strength to let go of a burden of anger which we were carrying for many years. Or we may simply be overcome with a sense of God's infinite mercy and believe that our sins have been forgiving. No matter how we may experience it, each of us here has been touched by Jesus and healed. Now it is up to us to tell others about it so that they too may meet Jesus, the healer. If we want to hold on to the healing we have received, and if we want it to deepen in our lives, we must spread the word.

It could also be that many of us have been waiting for a healing that just has not come yet. Whether the cure we are seeking is for ourselves or someone we love, we have prayed, offered up Masses and asked others to pray for us, but God has not chosen to touch us with his healing power as yet. It could be that, for reasons only he can know, he wants us to bear that suffering so that we can grow to be more like his Son. Or it could be that he wants us first to bear witness to what he has already done for us to others. Many times when we take the opportunity to speak to others about the wonders God has worked in our lives, we look back and see that the healing has already been granted to us. We just have not noticed it. If we are seeking a healing and have tried everything from prayer to counseling to try to get it, could it be that God is asking us to try one more thing - making known to others the good things Jesus has already done for us?

Before we approach this altar to receive the Body of Christ, we will pray: "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word, and I shall be healed." The Eucharist is the greatest source of healing for our body, mind and spirit. The man in today's gospel was privileged to have Jesus touch his ears and his tongue, but we have the awesome gift of receiving him into our entire body. If we approach him with faith, he will open our ears to hear his word and loosen our tongues to proclaim his praises. If we seek a healing, he knows it and most certainly will want to grant it to us in some form or another. It will then be up to us to spread the word that our God heals and saves.