Sunday, June 17, 2012

Eleventh Sunday of Ordinary Time

This homily originally appeared in Connect! Magazine

It is an experience every Father has no matter how many children he may have or how old they get. We look on our children and marvel at how much they have grown. Around the dinner table hearing the clever words they use or watching them develop their talents we cannot help asking ourselves where they got it all. As they learn at such a rapid pace we realize that there is something at work in them that is wider and deeper than the nurture we have provided. Even though we cannot always take credit for it, we delight in seeing them become unique individuals before our eyes.

Just as our children grow in marvelous and often unseen ways, so God’s Kingdom sends its roots deep into the earth and stretches out its branches throughout all the world. The growth is almost unnoticeable. Much of it takes place underground beyond what we are able to see. Yet Jesus assures us in today’s parable that the growth is steady and sure. Just as the smallest of seeds can become the largest of shrubs, so God’s Kingdom, small and hidden as it often is, can grow to give shelter and shade to all peoples.

Jesus’ parable should give us deep peace. When we look at our individual spiritual lives, we often can feel discouraged as we struggle with the same temptations or experience times of dryness in our prayer. God’s will and purpose does not always seem clear. However, through God’s grace we are growing. Like a seed deep in the earth, it is a hidden growth. But it beckons us to trust in God, allow Him to do His work and wait for the results.

Jesus’ parable should also give us peace as we labor in God’s vineyard. So many of our words as catechists and preachers can seem like seed thrown into the wind. We can look out onto a congregation with faces as expressionless as the statues on Easter Island and wonder if we are really getting through to anyone. Are our sacrifices and efforts making any difference? It is natural for us as humans to want to see results, and as Westerners we want to see them instantly. Yet Jesus assures us that He is giving the growth. We may be blessed to see the fruits of that growth from time to time, but for the most part it will take place in hidden ways requiring us to trust and wait patiently.

There are many cliches to help us try to understand the mystery of our cooperation with God’s great work of building the Kingdom. We have all heard, “God helps those who help themselves,” or “Work as if everything depended on you and pray as if everything depended on God.” None are as powerful as Jesus’ parable of the seed. Like a good farmer, we water the soil and tend the young plant, but it grows with a vitality and a dynamism that comes not from us but from God.

And just as the tree is vastly larger and more beautiful than its seed, so what we see around us is nothing compared to what we will see when the Kingdom is in full flower.

Therefore, Saint Paul’s words to us from the Second Letter to the Corinthians spell out the attitude we are to have as we tend God’s Kingdom. “We continue to be confident.... We walk by faith, not by sight.” We go forth every day with our prayer and our work understanding that we will not always see them bear fruit. We experience frustration and failure trusting that somehow it may still serve God’s purpose. And, in the end, we entrust all our efforts to our Heavenly Father with the confidence that all things will eventually be revealed before the tribunal of Christ.

Given that all this is God’s work, is there not also reason for us to rejoice? We can get so bogged down in our failures, our ineffectiveness and our sin that we fail to see what God has already accomplished. When a child speaks her first words, our instinct is not to correct her. Rather we laugh, encourage her and take delight in her ability to learn. Just so, can we trust that our Heavenly Father takes delight in us though our steps may be unsteady? Can we rest in the knowledge that we are loved and that all our needs are being provided for by a God who loves us? Can we rejoice in what God has been able to accomplish so far with people such as we are?

That does not mean that we blind ourselves to the real challenges or neglect the hard work that still needs to be done. It does not mean that we become triumphalistic or prideful. Rather, it means that we humbly see our efforts for what they are - not a means of affirming ourselves and our own goodness but a means of affirming God and His sovereignty.

Fathers see it so clearly in their children who grow into maturity and adulthood in marvelous ways. Early in their children's development, they may compare them to their peers and wonder why they are not yet walking or why they do not seem to be learning to speak as quickly. But, before long, they are chasing them down the aisles of the supermarket or telling them to shush during Mass. Just so, we may wonder why we are so slow to grow in virtue or why our parish does not seem to be flourishing. Can we let go of our need to manage everything and to see immediate results so as to trust that our Heavenly Father is at work? Can we take delight in what we see before us just as God surely does?

There is no more marvelous symbol of our daily struggles to tend the Kingdom than the Eucharist we celebrate every Sunday. We bring to God dry,stale bread and vinegary table wine, and He transforms it into the Body and Blood of Christ to nourish us on our journey. Therefore, we can rest in peace and work with confidence. Our Heavenly Father has it all under control and is making everything work out for the salvation of the world.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Body and Blood of Christ

During his trip to the Holy Land in 2009, Pope Benedict XVI had the opportunity to preside over a first communion Mass in Jordan. Many of the young children were refugees from Iraq. At such a tender age, they already know the ravages of war, the destruction it has wrought in their country and the deaths of many of their family members and friends. Also, as Christians in a predominantly Muslim country, they experience discrimination on a daily basis. But for that hour they felt the joy of receiving the Body of Christ from the hands of the Holy Father.

The Catholic News Service, in reporting the joyous occasion, quoted one young girl as saying, "I'm going to receive my first communion from the Pope. Wow! This is something really amazing. It's a dream come true!" Her brother who was also receiving his first communion told reporters, "Words cannot describe what I am feeling at receiving my first communion from the messenger of God, the messenger of peace."

The enthusiasm of these young people cannot help but remind us of our own first communion. Our parents dressed us in white suits and dresses symbolic of our innocence and purity. Up to that time, we had to sit in the pew while our parents and older brothers and sisters went up to communion. Now we would be able to join them in receiving the Body and Blood of Christ. No matter what problems we may have been facing at the time, each of us felt special for that one day because Jesus, our Lord and Savior, would be entering our bodies and souls for the very first time.

Today is a day for us to renew the innocence and joy of our first holy communion. While every Sunday is a celebration of the Body and Blood of Christ, the Church sets aside this Sunday every year to focus and meditate in a special way on the gift that the Eucharist is to us as individuals and as a believing community. As the young boy who received communion from the Holy Father said so well, words cannot describe the wonderful reality of our God who gives us his very flesh and blood in the form of bread and wine. Since Jesus first instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper, as we read in today's gospel, to this very day, the Church has always believed that when the priest prays the words of consecration during Mass, the bread is no longer bread but really becomes the Body of Christ. In the same way, the wine is no longer wine, but the Blood of Christ. What we receive in the Eucharist is no mere symbol, but the real thing. Jesus, the Son of God, in his body, blood, soul and divinity becomes our food. When we say, "Amen", we are affirming that we believe that what we are receiving is Christ himself. In fact, the only words that are fitting in the face of such a mystery are the words, "I believe."

Today's gospel reading gives us the story of the very first communion. At the Last Supper, Jesus gathers his apostles together to celebrate the Passover meal. To commemorate how God delivered their people from slavery in Egypt, Jews have a meal with a roasted lamb, unleavened bread and wine. The blood of the lamb is taken and smeared on the door posts to commemorate how the angel of death passed by the homes of the Hebrew families sparing the lives of their first born sons. The gospel reading of the Last Supper tells us about the bread and the wine, but it doesn't mention that Jesus and the apostles had lamb. That is because Jesus himself was the lamb. He was the one who would be slain and whose blood would deliver us from our slavery to sin. He was the one who would take upon himself the punishment we deserved for our sins.

We recognize this at every Mass when we break the bread which has become Christ's body and say: "Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world. Have mercy on us. Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world. Grant us peace."

It is important for us to take advantage of this feast to reflect on the great mystery we celebrate every Sunday. It is important for us not to lose the wonder and joy we felt at our first communion when Jesus came to make his home within us. In the face of such a wondrous gift that is ours in the Eucharist, we must strive to keep our hearts innocent and pure so that we can receive Jesus' body and blood worthily. Jesus, the Lamb of God, suffered, died and rose again so that his flesh and blood could be the food for our journey. So then, let us prepare our hearts with joy and humility to receive him so that we can then bring him into a world that is starved for mercy and peace.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Most Holy Trinity

Throughout the centuries, the rosary has been one of the most popular forms of prayer for the Christian people. It allows us not only to invoke the powerful intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but the repetition of the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the Glory Be invites us to focus our minds on the mysteries of Jesus' life which we contemplate with each decade. As the rosary becomes more and more a part of our spiritual life, the mysteries take on new meaning for us. They are no longer just events of the distant past. Rather, we begin to look at our own lives through the lens of the life of Christ. We see in our joys the joyful mysteries of Jesus' life playing themselves out. Our difficulties and suffering are transformed into moments of grace as we see the sorrowful mysteries of the suffering and death of Christ becoming a reality in our own lives. Through this powerful form of prayer, we learn that mysteries are not just something we ponder in our minds with wonder, but realities that we are invited to enter into and to live.

Each year we set aside this first Sunday after Pentecost to ponder the great mystery of the Blessed Trinity. We reflect on the nature of our one God who is three persons - Father, Son and Spirit. There have been many attempts to try to explain this reality. Saint Patrick used the example of the shamrock which has three leaves but is still one flower. Sometimes the triangle which has three sides but is one shape is used as a symbol of the Blessed Trinity. One of the best examples is that of a family. A mother, a father and a child - though distinct persons - come together in love to form one family, one household. So God is a family, a community of persons marked by self-giving love. The mystery of the Blessed Trinity, in its simplest terms, is another way of describing our God as a God of love.

Like the mysteries of the rosary, the Blessed Trinity is a reality that is not just meant to be pondered but to be entered into and lived. Saint Paul explains how in today's second reading. The third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, lives in our hearts and testifies to us that we are the sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father. God has invited each of us to join the family of love that he is. We have been adopted by God so that we can share in the unconditional, self-giving love which the Father offers to the Son and the Son offers to the Father through the Holy Spirit. The mystery of the Blessed Trinity is not just about the nature of God, but about how we are chosen to become part of the family that God is.

As we meditate on this mystery and enter into it, we cannot help but change. We begin to act like members of the family of God. If we were adopted by a king or a wealthy person it would no doubt change our lives. Because of the power and riches which would be at our disposal, we would no longer be happy with the simple life we lived before. It is just so for us when the reality of our adoption in Christ takes root in our hearts. We no longer settle for the fleeting pleasures this world offers. We no longer live and act like people who have no faith and no hope. Rather the knowledge that we are loved by God and are members of his family causes us to act with a certain dignity and a new purpose.

Our ancestors in the faith, the Jewish people, understand this reality very well. As Moses describes it for us in the first reading from the book of Deuteronomy, the Jews understand that they have been chosen out of all the nations on the earth to be a people special to God. They look at their long history through the lens of God's saving power beginning with the covenant with Abraham, through their delivery from slavery in Egypt and into the crossing of the Jordan River into the Promised Land. Because they are a chosen people, they understand that they cannot live the way other nations do. Rather they must live according to the Law which God revealed to them. They must show forth his justice and mercy by caring for those whom society casts asides and by turning their backs on all forms of permissiveness and immorality. Just so we who have been called out of the slavery of sin and given the Spirit of adoption must live our lives according to the gospel message so that our dignity as sons and daughters of God can be shown forth to the whole world.

Because, by its nature, a mystery is impossible to fully explain or understand, ritual is at the heart of what we do as a believing people. Jesus and the apostles understood that if we were to participate fully in the saving mystery of the one God who is three persons, we would need something more than words to nourish our spiritual lives. For that reason, Jesus left us not only his teaching but the sacraments as well. In today's gospel Jesus commissions the disciples not only to preach the good news but to baptize the nations "in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit." Through baptism, which is the first of the sacraments, we are adopted as sons and daughters of God. The other sacraments build on this reality. And so participating in the sacraments whenever possible is vitally important if the mystery of God's life is to become real in our own lives.

We bless ourselves "in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." We offer the Mass to the Father, through the Son and in the Holy Spirit. Though we cannot fully explain or understand it, the mystery of the Trinity is woven into our lives as believers. It is nothing more or less than the nature of God whose love is so abundant that he welcomes us to share in his very life. It is an invitation which we first received at our baptism. We strive, with God's help, to respond to that invitation daily by living our lives according to the dignity that is ours as sons and daughters of God. Through the sacraments and prayer, we enter more fully into that mystery which is beyond words. And we live with an active hope that one day we will see God as he is - one God in three persons - and praise him forever.