Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Expecting a miracle

This is a homily I wrote for the Diocese of New Orleans as part of their Year of the Eucharist

Have you ever seen a miracle? Have you ever witnessed something for which there was no rational or scientific explanation? Have you ever caught sight of an event that was so remarkable and out of the ordinary that it could only have been done by God Himself?

Well, if you have ever been to Mass, then you have witnessed just such a miracle.

Every Sunday, when the people of God gather to celebrate the Eucharist, simple bread and wine become the Body and Blood of the Risen Jesus. It is no mere symbol of God’s presence. It is no simple remembrance of what Jesus did two thousand years ago. Rather, it is the real presence of Jesus among His people today. When we look upon the Eucharist, we are looking upon the flesh of our Risen Savior. When we drink the chalice, we are receiving His Blood, the Blood he shed on the cross for our salvation that is now poured out to give life to the world.

There is no scientific explanation of how this bread and wine can become Jesus’ Body and Blood. There is no other way to explain it than that the Holy Spirit of God comes down to transform the simple gifts we offer into the most precious gift imaginable - a gift that God offers to us every Sunday and even every day. It is a true miracle.

Saint John tells us in today’s gospel that many crowds followed Jesus because they wanted to see for themselves the signs He performed. They heard the stories of how He had given sight to the blind, had healed the paralyzed and cleansed the lepers. They wanted to see for themselves the mighty acts He performed. Saint John tells us that they gathered to hear Him with the expectation that something out of the ordinary would take place before their eyes.

Everytime we gather for Mass, it should be with the same excitement and anticipation that the crowds had in Jesus’ day. Something incredible and out of the ordinary happens here. God has prepared something miraculous for us to witness. In one way or another, if our eyes are open to His presence among us and our hearts are ready to receive Him, each of us will be touched by God.

One way we are touched is through the word which is proclaimed. Every Sunday we read from the Old Testament, the Psalms, the letters of the New Testament and from the Gospels. The Church teaches us that because the Scriptures are the very word of God, whenever they are read at Mass it is God Himself who is speaking to us. So when we gather for Mass, it should be with the expectation that God has a word to speak to us. On our way to church or as we sit in the pew praying before Mass begins, we should pray to the Holy Spirit to open our minds to the readings we are about to hear. We should ask Him to speak to our hearts so that we can have a deeper knowledge of His love for us and a deeper awareness of how we are to live our lives. By doing so, we may be surprised by what we hear and how deeply we can be touched.

Another way we are touched is through the Body and Blood of Christ which we receive. Through this great sacrament, He will enter our bodies, and we will enjoy a deep union with Him. He comes to bring untold graces of healing, peace and the abiding sense of His presence. That is why, before coming to Mass, we fast from food and drink for an hour, so that we can already have our bodies, minds and hearts focused on the One we are to receive. It is a miracle of God’s profound and unfailing love for us that cannot fail to touch and transform us if we welcome it with anticipation and trust.

If we found out that an historic event was taking place in our town we would go out of our way not to miss it. We would want to be the first in line. That is the same attitude we must have about the Sunday Mass. We should make every effort not only to attend but to participate in it enthusiastically for we are witnessing the greatest miracle of all - the transformation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ and our transformation into children of God.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Making Jesus King

After seeing the miracle Jesus performed, the crowd wanted to make him their king. They probably thought that with Jesus ruling over them all their problems would be solved. Only a man like Jesus who could feed five thousand people with just five loaves of bread and two fishes would be able to put an end to hunger and poverty in Israel. Only a man like Jesus who could cure any illness would be able to banish sickness and suffering from the land. Only a man like Jesus who could get such great numbers of people to follow him could find enough popular support to lead an uprising against the Roman Empire so that Palestine could be free again. This was what they felt they needed from a king. This was the kind of "salvation" they wanted Jesus to bring - an end to everything that made their lives miserable and hard.

But Jesus always rejected the crowd's desire to make him their king. Being an earthly ruler was not the reason the Father sent him to live among us. As Jesus will say in next week's gospel, "You should not be working for perishable food, but for food that remains unto eternal life." Jesus knew that the five thousand people he fed would get hungry again and soon need to find more food. Likewise, all the people he cured of leprosy and other illnesses would eventually get sick again and die. None of those miracles would have lasting effects except as signs of Jesus' power and of faith in those who witnessed them. What Jesus wanted to do for Israel - and for us - was something that no king could give his people; something that would not only have a temporary effect for one nation, but would last forever and be offered to all people of every age. By dying on the cross and rising from the dead, Jesus showed what type of a king he was - a king who could free us from our sins and give us everlasting life with him in heaven where there is no more hunger, no more sickness, no more wars and no more death.

Earthly kings rule over lands and territories by coercion, threatening force against all who would disobey them. Jesus, however, rules over the human heart through love. Jesus is the type of king who gets to the root of what is wrong with each of us and the whole world, namely, sin. He treats the rebellion in our hearts that steers us in the wrong direction - away from his love and mercy and into selfishness. Like the crowd in today's gospel, we prefer the bread to the one who gives the bread. We prefer our possessions to the one who gives us everything we have. We prefer to have total control over our lives rather than submit ourselves with loving trust to the God who created us to fit a certain plan.

But Jesus teaches us what it means to turn away from the sin that is the cause of so much misery in our world; to turn away from the violence which is the cause of so much war and murder; to turn away from the greed which leaves people poor and hungry. Because he is God and lives in each of us, Jesus is the type of king who can make an appeal directly to the human heart to stop hating and to start loving. No king could know all his subjects by name, know all their needs or love them enough to die for each of them. Jesus is just such a king.

Jesus' kingdom will come in its full glory only at the end of the world when all will stand before his throne for judgement. But we do not have to wait until the end of the world or until we get into heaven to know the salvation which Jesus brings. All of us who have turned to Jesus as our Savior and allowed him to be the King of our hearts by making a decision to live as he did already have a taste of what that salvation means. Everyone here has a personal story about what believing in Jesus has done for them. Some people thought they were worthless and good for nothing until they learned how much Jesus loves them. Some people had no meaning in their lives, stuck in jobs they hated, until they believed in Jesus and learned that God has a plan for them. Some people constantly worried about money, about their health or about their future until they learned to place their trust in Jesus who provides for all our needs and who makes all things work for the good. The salvation Jesus won for us by dying on the cross is not something we can only "cash in on" when we get to heaven, but it is something already at work in our lives, changing us from the inside out.

At this altar we will gather to celebrate the everlasting gift of Jesus' love - the bread of life and the cup of eternal salvation. No other healing can cure the root of the sickness that ails us. No military victory could have won for us the freedom from sin that Jesus won for us on the cross. No other miracle than the Body and Blood of Jesus could feed and satisfy the deepest hunger within us for God. What we celebrate every Sunday when we take time off from our work to hear the word of God and to gather around the altar is precisely this - the freedom from sin and the everlasting life which God offers us in our King and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Shepherds Among Us

A short Italian man, Enrico, worked as a janitor in one of the office buildings in the city of Rome, Italy. To pass the time as he washed windows, painted walls or cleaned out office rooms, he would hum the most beautiful melodies. One of the office workers approached him out of curiosity to ask where he learned to sing such melodious songs. He explained that as a boy he lived in one of the small towns in the hills surrounding Rome. His father owned some sheep and he would help bring them out to pasture. To let the sheep know that someone was close by keeping an eye on them, he and his father would hum the songs. If they ever got distracted and stopped humming, the sheep would get excited, stop eating and begin to panic. Once they began humming the songs again, the sheep would settle down and feel secure. They needed to hear the humming to know that their shepherd was nearby and that they were safe.

The author of the twenty-third psalm which we prayed together after the first reading loved to think of God as a shepherd. God was always close to him providing him with all he needed and comforting him. Because God was always by his side, he felt that nothing could make him afraid. As he writes: "Even though I walk in the dark valley I fear no evil; for you are at my side." Just as the sheep could graze in peace knowing their shepherd was nearby, so the sacred author of this psalm felt that God was so close to him and so protective of him that he could live in peace, confident that all would be well.

So much in life can make us panic. There are so many bills to be paid, but only so much money. There is so much work to be done, but only so much time and energy. The obligations and demands of being a parent, a student or a priest can seem overwhelming and impossible. But within the roar of our daily activities a gently humming can be heard if we slow down long enough to notice it. Our God is always at our side giving us what we need to make it through the day. The Lord is our shepherd; there is nothing we shall want.

Do we face the difficulties of life with the confidence that God is close by? No matter how busy our schedules may be, do we take time aside to pray as Jesus and the apostles tried to do in today's gospel and listen for the voice of our shepherd? Do we trust God to lead us in paths that are right and to provide for our needs and the needs of our family?

Jesus is still among us as our shepherd. Though we can no longer see and touch him, he is very much in control of our lives leading us and protecting us. His Holy Spirit, which we received at our baptism, speaks to our hearts and assures us that he is close by. The Holy Spirit is the voice of God humming within us giving us joy and confidence as we face the challenges of life in the 21st century. We simply need to make the time each day to step out of our routine and listen for that gentle voice in the silence.

Not only does Jesus shepherd us individually through the Holy Spirit, he also leads us as a community of faith through the gift of the priesthood. When the priest baptizes, it is the Good Shepherd, Jesus, bringing another sheep into his flock. Through the ministry of priests, Jesus leads us to a rich pasture by feeding us his very body and blood in the Eucharist. Jesus seeks us out when we are lost and heals our wounds when we approach the priest in the sacrament of Penance. Through the gift of the priesthood, Jesus is really present among us meeting our deepest need for friendship with God.

We should make a special effort throughout this year to remember priests in our prayers. Like each of us, they face many difficulties. They often see people at the very worst day of their lives, when they are sick or dying or have suffered a tragedy. They are willing to rush out in the middle of the night to be with a family whose house has caught on fire. They are expected to have words of wisdom and consolation whenever we are confused or anxious. We expect much of our priests, and it can often leave them discouraged and exhausted. It is not only important for us to pray for them at all times but to let them know that we love and appreciate them by saying a kind word to them after Mass or even dropping a thank you note in the mail from time to time. When we do so, we are also honoring the Good Shepherd, Jesus, whose life and ministry is still active among us because of the dedication of these special men.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

What Is Your Name?

Her name was Olga Bejano Dominguez. From the age of 23, after a series of illnesses and a heart attack, she was left unable to see, speak, move or breathe without the assistance of a machine. Faced with loneliness and despair, she decided to give her life to God and find in her faith a reason to keep on living with hope. With the help of a nurse, she wrote four books about her experiences and insights which became bestsellers throughout her native Spain. Upon her death in December of 2008, her mother said that at least four people were inspired to not commit suicide because of her daughter's writings. Most people would have considered Olga's life over the minute she lost use of her eyes, voice and limbs. And yet she saw her life as only just beginning. God called her at the moment she seemed most weak and unable to serve him and used her to inspire others with the hope that all things are possible with him.

His name was Amos, a poor shepherd from the town of Tekoa, south of Jerusalem. Though uneducated, he was called by God to speak his word at the royal temple of Bethel. Because of its prestige, Bethel was the home of the most educated priests of Israel. King Jeroboam, who was ruling over Israel at the time, had at his beck and call any number of prophets willing to tell him whatever he wanted to hear. And yet God called a simple shepherd to warn the king that Israel was headed for sure destruction if they did not return to the pure worship of the Lord who had given them the Promised Land. The priests and prophets of King Jeroboam's court would look down their noses at Amos asking him by what right he dared speak to the king. They told him to go somewhere else to find work as a prophet. Yet Amos continued to speak out recognizing that it was not by his own authority that he was speaking but by command of the God of hosts. Despite his lack of credentials, Amos is the first prophet of the Old Testament to have a book named after him. Amos trusted not in his own knowledge and ability, but in the power of God, and God used him to bring his word to the most powerful people of the day.

Their names were Peter, Andrew, Matthew, Thomas, Phillip, Bartholomew, John, James, Simon, Jude, James, son of Alphaeus, and Judas Iscariot. They were simple fishermen, tax collectors and political radicals. Unlike the scribes and Pharisees of the day, they held no prestige and could make no claim to being experts in the Law. Yet Jesus chose them to be the ones to bring his teaching to the people of Israel. In today's gospel, he sends them out with nothing except the clothes on their backs. Despite their lack of education and resources, they are able to cast out demons and heal the sick - miracles which the Pharisees and scribes were never able to perform. Jesus chose simple men for the great task of preaching repentance to the nations. He made them the foundation of the Church he would build which he promised would last through all ages. We stand here today as witnesses to their success through the power of the Holy Spirit.

What is your name? What do you do? How is God calling you? What is keeping you from saying "yes" to God's call?

Each of us has been called by God for a task which only we can perform. Each of us is irreplaceable in the sight of God. Saint Paul tells us in the second reading that we were chosen by him even before the world began. No one else in the history of the universe can do what God is calling us to do.

Are we afraid that we do not have enough education? Are we afraid that we do not have enough resources? Are we afraid that we do not have enough talent?

Certainly, most of us have an advantage over Olga Bejano Dominguez. She could not see, speak, move or even breathe. Yet she was able to spread God's word of hope throughout Spain. What excuses could we make when faced with her example of courage and perseverance?

We most certainly have more education and resources than the prophet Amos and the apostles did. Yet their words continue to inspire us over the centuries. Can we honestly say that we are ill-equipped to spread God's word when we consider the obstacles which they faced?

There is only one resource that is necessary to accomplish God's will - faith. That is why Jesus sends the apostles out with nothing except their clothes, sandals and a walking stick. They already carried within themselves all that they needed to preach the gospel of repentance. We were given that faith at our baptism and it is continually being nourished by Scripture and by the sacraments. No amount of talent or education can take the place of what simple faith is able to accomplish in our lives and in our world. Each of us already carries within us what allowed Olga Bejano Dominguez to overcome her disabilities and what compelled Amos and the apostles to spread God's word with boldness.

Whoever we are, whatever we are and wherever we are, we are each called to witness to the power and love of our Almighty God. It does not require lofty rhetoric or complicated philosophical arguments. It does not require wealth or prestige. It only requires of us simple faith to believe that God has placed people in our lives for a reason and that he will give us whatever we need to bring his word into the lives of those we live with, work with or bump into in the course of our everyday lives. God has called each of us here today to hear this challenging message and is sending each of us from here as messengers of his good news. Can anything hold us back when God himself is our strength?

Monday, July 2, 2012

Jesus' Healing Touch

A young girl was terminally ill with cancer and close to death. Her mother sat by her bedside crying and pleading with God to perform a miracle and heal her daughter.

After several weeks, the cancer ran its course and the young girl died.

The mother, in her grief, was angry at God for not answering her prayer for her daughter. Eventually, she sought comfort by talking to the deacon in her parish. She asked him, "Why didn't God heal my daughter?" The deacon, at first, felt at a loss as to what answer to give this woman who was in so much pain. As she cried, he put his head down and said a silent prayer to the Holy Spirit to help him give her a word of comfort. Finally, the deacon raised his head and said to the mother, "Your daughter is healed now." At those words, the mother stopped crying and looked out the window to think about what he had said. She thanked him and left with the comforting thought that her daughter was now in God's hands safe from all harm.

Each of us at one time or another has been faced with a desperate situation and have begged God for a miracle. It might have been for a loved one who was sick or in trouble. It might have been for ourselves. But chances are that the miracle we asked for didn't take place. We might have been left wondering why God didn't seem to answer us. We probably thought that miracles were just something that happened in Jesus' time and not in modern times. Or we may have wondered if we had too little faith to ask so much of God. It could be that most of us have given up on asking for or expecting miracles. And so gospel stories like today's in which Jesus raises a little girl from the dead sometimes hold little meaning for us.

It is true that Jesus did perform many miracles while he walked the earth. He healed the sick, he drove out demons, he turned water into wine, he walked on the water, and he raised the dead. They were all powerful works demonstrating his mastery over nature, over sin and over death. Those mighty deeds proved to all who witnessed them that Jesus was no ordinary preacher but the Son of God. Nonetheless, no matter how marvelous his show of power was, Jesus always told those who were healed by him that the miracle was the easy part. What was truly amazing was not the healing, but the faith in the heart of the person who asked for his help. What impressed Jesus more than anything else was the simple faith he encountered in the people he met. And it was because of it that he was moved to perform mighty acts of power and compassion on their behalf.

It is important for us to remember that everyone whom Jesus healed and raised from the dead eventually got sick again and died. The healing was only temporary. What was permanent was the faith in the heart of those who were touched by him. That faith leads to the ultimate healing - everlasting life with God in heaven. We must never lose sight of the fact that any answers to our prayers which we receive during our lives on earth are only partial solutions. Problems and difficulties come and go. We probably don't remember today what we were asking God for last week. What endures - what has lasting value - is our relationship with God. And that relationship is based on faith - the faith that God loves us, that he has power over whatever trials we are facing, and that he can make all things work for our good and for our salvation.

All this being said, we must never stop going to Jesus for help whenever we are faced with problems. Those difficulties are an opportunity for us to exercise our faith. By bringing our concerns to our heavenly Father we grow in the trust that he does love and care for us. And our eyes are opened to the way in which he is acting in our lives already making our faith grow and perfecting the gifts of his grace within us. Faith is not only about getting God to do something for us. It is also about being able to recognize how God is answering our prayers in ways we could never imagine. And that is the real miracle.

Miracles do continue to happen in our day. By the power of faith, people experience healings that defy medical explanations. In those cases, it served God's glory to show forth his power in a virtually undeniable way so that others could be brought to faith in him. For most of us, however, God will work in subtle and hidden ways. It will go unnoticed at first or seem like a coincidence, but it will eventually be made clear to us that it was Almighty God who was working to bring us the healing we needed. We should witness to how God has worked in our lives in small ways with as much joy and wonder as we would if he had worked in miraculous ways. What is most important is not the mighty deed but the mighty faith alive in our hearts unlocking God's power for the salvation of the world.