Friday, August 31, 2012
God had a dream for Israel when he called them out of slavery in Egypt to form a new nation. He dreamed that they would be a sign to the whole world of his love. As we hear in the first reading, The people of Israel were meant to live by God's commandments in such a way that people in surrounding nations would be attracted to God because of their holiness. For this reason the Jewish people did not look upon the commandments as burdens - as a bunch of hoops God placed before them - but as a gift by which they could radiate to the whole world God's love and goodness.
For the most part, Israel lived up to this great expectation God placed upon them. They taught the nations the truth that there is only one God who is the Father of all. They witnessed to the value of human life by speaking out against child sacrifice which was rampant in the cultures around them. By prohibiting divorce and not allowing men to have more than one wife, Israel did much to begin promoting the equal dignity of women. And by insisting that orphans, widows and immigrants be treated justly, they testified to the responsibilities of society to its weakest members. There were also times when they failed as a people to live up to these lofty values. But they never stopped turning to God to seek his mercy and renew their commitment to his commandments. The Jewish people to this day strive to be a light to the nations.
God's dream, however, does not end with Israel, but continues with us who profess belief in Jesus Christ as the Messiah. Christians are to live in such a way that the people around us say, "Hey, they have something that I want." The joy we manifest in our lives, the concern we show for strangers and our willingness to tell others about our faith in Jesus are all meant to make an impression on others and leave them with the question: "Why have I never known that believing in Jesus was so important to leading a happy life."
Like the people of Israel, Christians for the most part have done a good job through the grace of God in witnessing to the truths of our faith. It was Christians who led the way in abolishing slavery and establishing civil rights in our country. It is Christians who are the strongest voice for the dignity of all persons both born and unborn. And the Catholic Church is the largest provider of education and health care in the world today. The witness of Christians has been indispensable to guaranteeing that justice is done for all people created in God's image and likeness. By the grace of God, we have much to be proud of about our Christian faith and heritage.
Unfortunately, many people in today's world don't see things this way. There is a lot of cynicism about religious people. Those who choose to live the way Jesus lived are often labeled as fanatics or hypocrites. So many widely publicized scandals involving religious leaders make people suspicious that we Christians do not practice what we preach. And what we do preach is often looked upon as backward, not up to date with the findings of science and with the way people live today. Because of this, many people find it hard to believe in Jesus, to read the Bible and to participate in Mass.
Though much of what I have mentioned is caused by prejudice against Catholics and ignorance, we have to be honest with ourselves and admit that we have not always been the examples of holiness and goodness that God dreamed we would be. People have not turned to Jesus often because we have not shown by our lives or by the way we act that belief in Jesus does make a difference. I think the reason Jesus got so frustrated and angry with the religious leaders of his day, as he does in today's gospel, was that so many people in Israel needed to hear about God and his love for them, but they were too busy worrying about matters of little importance.
There are people all around us who need to hear that God loves them - people in whose lives God could make a big difference. What can convince them more movingly than any words we say or any arguments we come up with is for them to see us loving others as we love ourselves, forgiving others as God has forgiven us and giving to the poor and needy just as God has provided for our needs. As Saint James tells us in the second reading, such is the religion which is pure and undefiled in the eyes of our heavenly Father. And the world, despite its prejudices, cannot help but take notice of the good we do when it is done in the strength provided by God.
Saint Francis of Assisi said: "Preach always. When necessary, use words." As followers of Christ, it is our mission to bring him into the world by living holy lives. Through our baptism, we are the hands of Christ stretched out to the world. We all know someone who needs God. Maybe we need to make it a point this week to reach out to them, give them a phone call and invite them to have coffee with us. By showing love and concern, we can witness to them about the love of God and perhaps change their lives. It may be the only opportunity that person will ever have to hear the good news. That is God's dream for each one of us - to live lives marked by such holiness that others will say, " I want to know your God."
Sunday, August 26, 2012
After a life-changing spiritual experience, a woman decided to try reading the Bible from cover to cover. She had a hard time making it through the Old Testament because there was so little of it that she understood. And yet she tried not to let herself get discouraged because she believed that even in all the bizarre stories about kings who lived thousands of years ago God had a message for her. Even though she understood only about ten percent of what she read, she thanked God for the ninety percent he would one day reveal to her. Her trust that God would help her to understand kept her from getting discouraged and abandoning her commitment to reading Scripture.
The disciples in today's gospel find Jesus as hard to understand as the woman in our story found the Old Testament. Jesus had just finished saying that he would give them his flesh to eat, and they cannot understand what in the world he could mean by that. So, in frustration, many of them choose to stop following him rather than listen to what they considered to be nonsense. However Peter, speaking for himself and some of the other disciples, tells Jesus that he will stick by him. It is not that Peter understood what Jesus was saying any more than the disciples who decided to leave. The difference was that Peter knew he had nowhere else to go and no one else to turn to. He had left his family and his job as a fisherman to follow Jesus because he was convinced that there was something special about him. Even though there was much about Jesus that he didn't understand, he knew that no one could speak about the Father the way he could. No one else could make his heart burn with love and faith. No one else could inspire him the way Jesus did. Though he did not always understand what Jesus was saying, he could not imagine ever leaving him.
Looking at our own lives, we can relate to the disciples' confusion. There is much about life, about God and about religion that we find difficult to comprehend. Many of our questions never seem to get a satisfactory answer. Some mysteries of the faith are so perplexing that we cannot even begin to understand them. How does the bread and wine become the very body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus? How can God be three persons in one nature? They are important and difficult questions, but to be honest, we are not going to have a nervous breakdown over them. The toughest mysteries are those that hit us where we live, the senseless experiences that really challenge our belief in God. If God is good, how can he look on as innocent people are tortured and murdered? Why do I have to suffer? Why did my father, wife or daughter have to die? Why can't I find the love I need? Why does God tell us to forgive and turn the other cheek when there are so many wicked people in the world?
Many good and intelligent people have abandoned their faith in God because of these questions. But we have decided to stick around. We have decided to continue believing in God, believing that he is good and believing that he loves us even though that sounds like nonsense in a world that's falling apart.
What keeps us coming back to God? It must be because, like Peter, we know that there is no one else to turn to. No one else can give us the hope God gives us that the world can change and that things can get better. No one else but God can give us the hope that the sufferings of the present are as nothing compared to the glory to be revealed in us. If God does not exist, if he is not all good, if he does not know each of us and love us completely, then we are ruined. There is nothing left to hope for. There is no meaning in our lives.
It is during the difficult times in our lives, when these hard questions arise, when we are suffering or depressed or bored that our faith in God is put to the test. We know that our faith is strong if we can pull out of these hard times still believing in God, still loving him and still trusting that he cares for us. That is the type of faith that saves us: the faith of a woman who continues to read the Bible even though she finds it hard to understand; the faith of Peter who can stick by Jesus even when many of the other disciples have left him; our faith that no matter what life throws at us, our God still loves us
Wednesday, August 22, 2012
This homily was written for the Archdiocese of New Orleans year of renewal of the Mass
In the Greek language, there are two words which are translated by the English word “life”.
The first word, “bios”, from which we get the English word “biology” is used to speak of the type of life we share with the animals. It could also be translated “existence”. It is life as the ability to breathe and move.
The second word, “zoe”, from which we get the English words “zoology” and “zoo” describes a different quality of life. It is not just mere existence but life in its fullest sense. We might translate it as “fulfillment” or even “happiness”. It is life as we experience it when it is charged with excitement and joy. It is the kind of life we share not with the animals but with God Himself.
When Saint John uses the word “life” in his gospel, it is this second meaning that he is referring to. For instance, Jesus tells His disciples that He came that they may have life and have it in abundance. And in today’s gospel He says that unless we eat His flesh and drink His blood we do not have life within us.
Jesus came to enhance our lives. He came to bring purpose to our existence. Whatever we have that is good becomes better when we add Jesus to it. Whatever is difficult and burdensome becomes more bearable through the perspective and hope that comes with faith in Him. Jesus takes us beyond mere existence, beyond simply getting by, to having a life charged with joy and peace.
How do we come to experience that full and abundant life? Jesus tells us in today’s gospel: “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you do not have life within you.” The Eucharist, therefore, is the way we come into contact with the fullness of life which is God’s own life. Just as God used our parents’ bodies to create us and transmit our human lives to us, so He uses the body of His Son to communicate His eternal life to us.
The Mass, then, is our lifeline. Whenever we come to Mass, we receive, participate in and are filled with the very life of God.
At every Mass, after the petitions are prayed, we bring the gifts of bread and wine which will become the Body and Blood of Jesus up to the altar. They are brought up from the middle of the church because they represent our offering to God, the offering of our lives. They represent everything that is good and bad, everything that is sweet and bitter. As these gifts are brought up in procession to the deacon or priest, we should imagine ourselves adding to them everything we are thankful for as well as our needs, our fears and our sins. We should imagine ourselves placing into the deacon or priest’s hands every area of our life that is in need of God’s healing touch. And as the Mass goes on we should imagine Jesus transforming what we have offered into a source of new life for us. Then when we receive communion, we can imagine Jesus blessing our lives, giving us strength to overcome difficulties, giving us peace in our struggles and enhancing the joy of everything that is already good. That way the life of Jesus - the full and complete life which He desires for each of us - can become a reality.
The Risen Jesus is truly present among us. He comes that we may have life and have it in abundance. Without Jesus we would be just getting by, living for the day without a firm sense of purpose. With Jesus, we are experiencing the life of God Himself pulsing through our souls. It is ours to receive through the gift of the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Christ given for the life of the world.
Sunday, August 19, 2012
There is an ache and a restlessness that haunts us throughout our lives. We can reach a certain degree of happiness and fulfillment, but there will always be something missing from it. We always want to be more and to do more. The widespread abuse of alcohol and drugs, the breakdown of marriages and the aimlessness of so many young people testify to the fact that people everywhere are groping for more in life but do not know where to find it.
As Christians, we interpret this restlessness as our desire for God. We believe that when God created us he ripped a hole in our soul that only he could sew back up. He left an emptiness within us that only he could fill. We also know that during our lifetime this emptiness will never be filled until we are with God in our heavenly homeland. In fact, one of the reasons why religious women, brothers and priests do not get married is so that they can stand as signs of the truth that we cannot find total fulfillment in our earthly lives.
The Bible describes this emptiness as a hunger and uses many images of food and of meals to show how God alone can satisfy that hunger. In the first reading, Wisdom is pictured as a woman preparing a banquet for all those tired of seeking happiness in foolish pursuits. The psalm response, "Taste and see the goodness of the Lord", speaks of God's beauty and goodness in terms of delicious foods. Though the second reading from Paul's letter to the Ephesians does not talk specifically about food, he hints at the same idea. When he warns us not to get drunk on wine but to be filled with the Holy Spirit, he is saying in effect, "Do not turn to alcohol to cure your loneliness but turn to the Spirit who alone is capable of filling that emptiness." Finally, in the gospel reading, Jesus calls himself "the living bread come down from heaven." He is the one sent by God to fill up this hunger we all suffer from. He tells us that his flesh is "real food" and his blood "real drink" meaning that it alone can really satisfy that emptiness that God left within us.
The Scriptures also use the image of food to describe our relationship with God because it is so vital to our lives. Just as we cannot live without food, so we cannot live with God. Just as our body requires bread to sustain it, so our souls require God to nourish the gift of eternal life.
This theme is also weaved throughout today's gospel. Jesus promises that whoever eats the bread of life - a bread which is his very body - will never suffer death. That is quite a claim to make! No wonder the crowd listening to Jesus found it hard to understand and accept. Could anyone seriously offer a cure for death, a promise of immortality? Could anyone offer an escape from what we fear most? But that is exactly the bold claim that Jesus is making: "Whoever eats this bread will live forever."
What is the eternal life Jesus promises us who eat his body and blood? What is this life that even survives death? It cannot be a human life because human life does not last forever. If it is an eternal and comes from Jesus, it must be God's life, a divine life already living in us, already at work within us who have believed in his only Son and received his Body and Blood. For that reason, we can make the claim that we are God's dear children. Sons and daughters receive life from their parents. They have their parents' blood running in their veins. Just so, we are God's sons and daughters because we have the life of our heavenly Father living in us.
Besides the gift of life, children also receive many of their characteristics from their parents. They look like them, have many of their same talents and often act similarly. Just so, we who are the children of God, who have received eternal life through him, are to be imitators of God. We are to be people who follow the way of love that Jesus followed. The eternal life we receive from the Father manifests itself when we choose love rather than hate. When we have been hurt we do not seek revenge but to forgive. Following Jesus' way of love means that a man and a woman wait until they are in the committed relationship of marriage before making love rather than risk using the other as an object. To love as Jesus loved means we give to those around us the attention and care we would like others to show to us. We know that Jesus is truly living within us and that God's life is really at work in us when everything we say and do is marked by love.
We come to Jesus at this Mass today simply because we need him. Nothing else can satisfy the deepest craving of our heart for the love and life of God the Father which only Jesus can bring us. Our heavenly Father has prepared a banquet for us, the Body and Blood of his Son, given to us out of love. And yet it is not enough for us to receive that love. We must also give it away to all those we meet. As God has fed us, so we are to feed others. Then the love and the life of God can take root in our hearts, and we can know the great joy that our hearts were created to contain.
Wednesday, August 15, 2012
What will heaven be like? What will we see when we approach the gates of Paradise and are greeted by Jesus, the saints and the angels? What will our bodies be like when they are raised from the dead and free from the corruption of sin? What will it feel like to finally be liberated from pain, fear and sorrow?
Besides Jesus, there is someone who already enjoys that perfect state of joy in Heaven which we someday hope to reach ourselves. That person is the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, was the first to believe in Jesus. When the angel Gabriel announced to her God’s plan that she would conceive the Son of God in her womb through the power of the Holy Spirit, she gave herself totally to his will. As her cousin Elizabeth proclaims, “Blessed is she who believed that God’s word to her would be fulfilled!” In fact, God had been preparing Mary for her role as mother of the Savior from the moment of her conception when he preserved her from original sin. By the grace of God, she remained holy and innocent, just as Jesus was sinless.
Mary’s role in God’s plan of salvation did not end with the birth of Jesus. She shared in his suffering by walking the way of the cross alongside him. She wept at his crucifixion as she saw her son treated so savagely. It was there, at the foot of the cross, that Jesus gave her to us to be our mother when he said to John, “Behold your mother.” And she held his lifeless body in hers before he was taken away to be buried. Finally, she rejoiced at the news that he had risen from the dead and, together with the apostles, she received the Holy Spirit which descended on them as tongues of fire on the day of Pentecost.
Because of Mary’s unique place in God’s plan of salvation, she remained free from sin. Because she was the first to believe the good news, God would not allow her body to decay in the ground. Just as he kept her soul free from the corruption of sin, so he would preserve her body from the ravages of death. On this day, the feast of the Assumption, we celebrate the truth of our faith that Mary was taken up body and soul into heaven. Just as she shared in Jesus’ suffering, so she would share in his resurrection.
The Blessed Virgin Mary is a source of hope and inspiration for us. We call her “blessed” because she believed. We call her the “Mother of God” and our mother because she gave herself totally and without reserve to God’s plan even when it involved sacrifice and suffering. If, like her, we believe and give ourselves over to God’s plan for us, we too can hope to be welcomed into heaven. If we are willing to share in Jesus’ suffering by denying ourselves, avoiding sin and putting the needs of others before our own, we can look forward to also sharing in Jesus’ resurrection. Like Jesus and Mary, our bodies will one day be raised from death and glorified. For this reason, we keep our bodies pure and undefiled by sin through God’s grace knowing that they will one day be taken up into heaven to share in the joy of the angels and saints.
And so today we commemorate not only what God has done for Mary. We also celebrate what God has in store for each of us who believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus. God created us to spend eternity with him in heaven. He has conquered sin and death and has prepared a place for us in his Kingdom. Mary is the first to receive these blessings. They will one day be ours as well if we hold fast to our faith in Jesus.
The Blessed Virgin Mary - the Mother of God and our mother - is standing now before the throne of God, her body and soul forever free from the corruption of sin and death. Her role in God’s plan is now that she bring our needs to her Son for us. As the Queen of Heaven, she prays constantly for us. We can bring our needs to her with confidence that she will in turn bring them to Jesus. We can also be confident that - as we pray in the “Hail Mary” - she will pray for us at the hour of our death so that we may be welcomed into our heavenly homeland and finally know the joy of eternal life, beholding the face of God together with Mary, our mother.
Sunday, August 12, 2012
About half of the New Testament is made up of the letters of Saint Paul. Unlike those written by Saint James, Saint John and Saint Peter, Saint Paul's letters are addressed to specific Christian communities in the areas that are now Turkey, Greece and Italy. In effect, the letters to the Romans, the Galatians, the Corinthians and others are written to communities which we today would call "parishes" to instruct them on the mystery of Christ and how they might live the faith they have received in a fuller and richer way.
Our second reading today is taken from Saint Paul's letter to the church in Ephesus. Ephesus was an important seaport city with a rich diversity of people, and like the city, the church there was made up of people of very different backgrounds. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that Ephesus was one of the earliest Christian communities to be established after Pentecost and that there were even disciples of John the Baptist there. Nonetheless, like the parishes of our own day, it was a church that suffered many divisions, a community torn apart by conflict among its different groups. We can tell by the words Saint Paul uses in today's reading that their gatherings were marked by shouting, fury and anger. Someone looking in from the outside would not recognize them to be a church marked by the love of Christ. And so one of the purposes of Paul's letter is to remind them that loving Christ means also loving our neighbor and that our worship of the living God is useless if it is not making us kind, compassionate and mutually forgiving.
Today's reading gives us as a parish an opportunity to ask ourselves whether we are a community marked by the love of Christ. Are we a reflection of the compassion of God or are we here to meet our obligation and go home? These are important questions because our success as a parish depends not on how much money we raise or on how many children we graduate from our religious education program but on how we imitate the love, compassion and forgiveness of the God we worship.
Every parish, like every family, suffers from infighting, jealousy and gossiping. We cannot claim to be any different. To the extent that each of us participates in it or allows others to participate in it, we are all to blame. The root cause of any divisions in our parish is really our unwillingness to forgive. We work closely together as a parish community, and it is inevitable that someone is going to say something unthoughtful which will hurt our feelings. There are times when we will feel that our work is taken for granted and not appreciated. Or there are people who for whatever reason just get under our skin. As long as we are a parish made up of human beings, we will offend each other from time to time. By holding on to our grudges, however, we are only allowing bitterness to take hold of our hearts and poison our community. When we are unwilling to forgive, we give the person who hurt us power to steal our inner peace and hinder our relationship with God. It is imperative that each one of us forgive one other from the heart for our own sakes and for the sake of our parish community. Only then will our worship be pleasing to our heavenly Father who has so richly forgiven us in Christ.
If we are to grow as a community which models the love and compassion of Jesus, then we must also be a welcoming community. Everyone should feel as though they have a place at the table with us - the poor man, the homeless, the immigrant, the sinner and the saint. Jesus tells us in today's gospel that no one comes to him unless he is drawn by the Father. Do we accept and welcome those who are drawn to our community by the Spirit? Do we martial their gifts and talents in service of the gospel? Can we look around this church and recognize God at work in each of us so that we are not just a nameless bunch of people but a community of faith and love called together by the Spirit? Our answer to these questions will determine just how effectively we are living the gospel message.
The story is told of a priest stationed at a parish in a popular beach resort area. There was a strong community of year round parishioners who served the parish well. However, during the summer months, the number of parishioners would swell with those who had seasonal residences in the area and tourists. One Saturday afternoon, a young man walked into the church for Mass straight off the beach with just a bathing suit on and a towel draped over his shoulder - no shirt, no shoes and his long, dirty blond hair still dripping wet. He walked straight up the center aisle and sat on the floor in front of the first row of pews. Everyone looked at each other, not knowing what to do. The priest was about to send an altar boy over to invite him to at least sit in a pew, when one of the oldest members of the parish got up to approach the young man. Everyone in the church started to tense up as they expected the older man to scold the young man for being inappropriately dressed for Mass. But instead, the older man walked over and sat on the floor next to the younger man. The whole church burst into applause and laughter at what was so obvious a display of the all-embracing love of our heavenly Father.
I'm not suggesting that we should encourage people to come to Mass in bathing suits! But just such a welcoming spirit is required of us if we are to grow as a community marked by the presence of Christ.
We gather in this place today to worship a God who sent his only Son to die for us. We gather at this table to receive the living bread come down from heaven. Each of us is drawn hear by our heavenly Father and called to be a reflection of his love, compassion and forgiveness. By putting away our bitterness, jealousy and grudges we can become a community of believers wherein each person feels welcomed and challenged by the gospel message. It is the life that we are called to as followers of Christ.
Friday, August 3, 2012
It is a temptation that every father faces at one time or another - to think that providing for the material needs of his family can take the place of his presence in the home. Tired from a long day of work and sometimes frustrated by the daily humiliations of life, fathers can want to tune out their wives and children when they come home. They tell themselves that it should be enough that they provide their families with a place to live, clothes, food on the table and whatever else they may possibly want. In reality, their children want nothing else than to spend a little time playing with them when they get home, and their wive wants nothing else than a few minutes to tell them how their day went. No amount of material goods can take the place of a father's loving, attentive presence in the home.
God, our heavenly Father, does not suffer from such a temptation. Even while he showers us with blessings and provides for all our needs, he wants nothing more than to be by our side giving us the opportunity to love him. God never tells himself that he has done enough for us. Rather he seeks every opportunity to meet our needs. Nonetheless, considering every good gift that he could give us or every miracle he could perform for us, God wants nothing else than to give us his very self. Just as no amount of material goods can take the place of a father's presence in the home, so nothing God could give us can ever take the place of God himself.
The first reading is from the book of Exodus which chronicles how God acted powerfully in freeing the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. During their forty year journey through the desert, they would often grow weary and complain. In today's reading, they are afraid that they will not be able to find enough food in the barren desert. Their fears and grumbling are understandable, and God wants them to know that he hears them. At the same time, how could they ever doubt that God would provide for them when they had already witnessed the plagues he visited on the land of Egypt and how he parted the Red Sea for them? Moreover, they had seen the glory of the Lord traveling with them as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Was it not enough for them that they were in God's presence and were witnesses to his mighty deeds? By leading them through the harsh desert with all its dangers, the Lord was trying to teach them that if his presence and glory were not enough for them, then no amount of food or comforts would be either. Again, God is happy to free his people and provide for them, but, more than anything, he wants to be loved by them.
Something very similar takes place in today's reading from the gospel according to John. Remember that last week we heard the story of how Jesus fed 5000 men with only five barley loaves and two fish. The people who witnessed the miracle followed him to the other side of the Sea of Galilee to see if he would perform some other wondrous deed. They must have been thinking that if he could multiply loaves and fish then maybe he would start handing out other things like money and clothes. Whatever it might be, they did not want to miss it. Jesus recognizes right away what the intention of the crowd is. He must have felt sad to know that he was no more than a curiosity to so many of them. But he uses the occasion not to scold them but to invite them to a deeper level of understanding. What he is offering them is much more than bread or any other material thing. It is even much more than God offered the Israelites in the desert. He is giving them his very self - his flesh and blood. And the work of God is not miracles and mighty deeds but faith in Jesus who is sent by the Father to be his living presence among us. Belief in Jesus as the Son of God is the bread that satisfies us for all eternity.
We are not unlike the Hebrews who wandered through the desert in search of food or the people in Jesus' day in search of a miracle. Most of our time and energy are devoted to making a living for ourselves and providing for our families. We are all too aware of how helpless we are at times and how insecure our lives can become. When faced with our neediness, we have two choices. We can grumble, complain and despair. Or we can turn to God with trust, thank him for all we have, and ask him with confidence to supply us with what we lack. Whatever difficulty we may face, it is an opportunity for us to learn to rely on God and his power. God often withholds his help from us for a while so that we will learn just how much we really do need him. Then, in the nick of time, he rushes in to meet our need and assures us that he is always by our side.
At the same time, God wants to meet our deepest need, the most profound pang of our heart, which is friendship and union with him. Like a good father who does not allow the pursuit of material goods to take away from his loving presence in the home, God wants nothing else than to give us his time and his presence.
All things are ours if we believe in Jesus. Most especially, God is ours forever! We are about to celebrate the supreme example of God's self-giving love in the Eucharist which is the bread come down from heaven to feed us so that we may never hunger again. Let us approach the altar with confidence and faith knowing that it is nothing less than Jesus himself whom we are receiving. What more could we hope for? What more could we need?