Sunday, October 28, 2012

Healing of Bartimaeus

Jesus healed many people during the years he traveled with his disciples through the Galilean countryside. Lepers, the deaf and the blind would come streaming out to meet him holding out the hope that he would take pity on them and cure them. However, of the many people touched by Jesus, only a few are named by the gospel writers. Bartimaeus, the blind man healed in today's gospel, is one of them.

There are a few reasons why the disciples of Jesus would have remembered the name of this humble beggar. Saint Mark tells us that after his healing, he joined the other disciples in following Jesus to Jerusalem. In fact, the very next scene in the gospel of Saint Mark is the account of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem which we recall every Palm Sunday. It is very likely that Bartimaeus is remembered because he was with the other disciples the week that Jesus was condemned to death and crucified. He may have even been one of those who saw Jesus with his own eyes after he rose from the dead.

However, the most likely reason that Bartimaeus is remembered by the gospel writer is for the faith he showed in calling out to Jesus. The whole scene probably made a great impression on the other disciples. And for believers throughout the centuries, this humble, blind beggar has served as an inspiration and an example of faith, perseverance and the willingness to leave everything behind to follow Jesus. Let's take a look at how his story can motivate us in our own journey of faith.

First of all, Bartimaeus is an example of faith and trust. He was deeply aware of his need for God. Having been blind much of his life, he had no other hope than that God would some day restore his sight. We have to always remember when we read about sick people in the Bible that illnesses were considered punishments by God. Not only did Bartimaeus want his sight restored so that he could be a part of human society, he was also longing to be reconciled to his heavenly Father. Love as much as hope spurred Bartimaeus to cry out to Jesus. And so, when Jesus asks him, "What do you want me to do for you?", he could respond without hesitation, "Master, I want to see."

If Jesus were to ask us, "What do you want me to do for you?", would we be able to respond without hesitation as Bartimaeus did? Do we know what our most pressing and urgent need is? What weighs most heavily upon our hearts as we listen to God's word today? Do we believe that Jesus is willing to carry our burden with us and able to take it away completely if it be his will? The story of Bartimaeus serves as an example of just such faith that is willing to hold out hope in God alone.

Secondly, Bartimaeus serves as an example of perseverance. When he realizes that it is Jesus who is passing by, he shouts out at the top of his lungs, "Son of David, have pity on me." The people around him waste no time telling him to shut up. They tell him that he's a nuisance, and that Jesus would not be interested in helping someone as wretched as he. But he doesn't listen to them and shouts out all the louder, "Son of David, have pity on me." He recognized that, in Jesus, God was visiting him, and he would not allow his only opportunity for healing to pass him by no matter who tried to discourage him. Bartimaeus persevered, and Jesus rewarded his great faith.

Very often, Jesus delays in answering our prayers. That is because he wants to build our faith by, first, helping us to recognize our need and, second, training our hearts to continue seeking him no matter how desperate our situation becomes. For this reason, persevering in prayer is central to our friendship with God. When others are discouraging us, when people tell us to "face the facts" and give up hope, we need to shout out all the more to God. As he did with Bartimaeus and as he has done with countless others, Jesus will reward our faith if we continue to reach out to him.

Thirdly, Bartimaeus teaches us that we must leave behind our former way of life if we are to follow Jesus. It might not mean much to us to read that Bartimaeus threw aside his cloak when Jesus called him. But, in Jesus' day, only the wealthy would have had more than one cloak. And for a beggar who was most likely homeless, that cloak would have been his only protection against the cold and the rain. So when Bartimaeus throws his cloak aside, he is declaring that now that he has met Jesus, his life cannot be the same. He will no longer be a beggar. His world will no longer be the gutter of a road in Jericho. His life will not longer be characterized by his disability but by his identity as a believer in Christ. Leaving the cloak of a beggar behind, he will now wrap himself in the Lord Jesus Christ.

By faith and baptism, each of us has been healed and wrapped in the mantle of Christ. Nonetheless, we may be holding on to some vestige of our former way of life. What are we still keeping as a souvenir of the sinful way we lived before we knew Jesus? Can we cast those things aside as Bartimaeus cast aside his cloak so as to follow Jesus unburdened by the skeletons of our past? Jesus wants us to be free of such things so that we can serve him joyfully.

The gospels hold up for us the person of this humble beggar to give us an example of faith, of perseverance and of the willingness to cast everything aside for Jesus. Though he was blind, he saw better than anyone else who it was who was offering his sight back. And once he recognized him, he was eager to follow Jesus wherever he went, even to Jerusalem, the place of his crucifixion. At this Eucharist, we will be approached by Jesus present in the sacrament of his Body and Blood. Do we know what it is we need from him? Are we ready to ask him with faith to be healed? And are we willing to cast aside our former way of life to follow him wherever he may lead us?

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Twenty-Ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Thomas Vander Woude was a 66 year-old retired commercial airline pilot and father of seven children, the youngest of which, Joseph, has Downs syndrome. While working in the yard one day after morning mass, Thomas heard his son calling out for him. He had fallen through the metal covering of their septic tank and was struggling to get out. Without hesitation, the father called out to the house for help and jumped into the sewerage to try to push his son out. While his wife held onto Joseph's hands, the father submerged himself to keep his son's head up above the muck. When rescue workers arrived, they were able to finally pull the young man out of the tank and stabilize him. Unfortunately, the father, whom they estimated had been in the tank about 15 to 20 minutes, was unconscious and later pronounced dead when he arrived at the hospital.

While Thomas Vander Woude's death was heroic, it was no surprise to those who knew him. His family, friends and fellow parishioners recounted how what he did to save his son was in keeping with the generous spirit of service he displayed throughout his life. Besides being a father of seven sons and a grandfather of twenty-four children, he went to daily Mass, was a veteran of the Vietnam war, volunteered as a basketball coach and trained altar servers. His was a life of service and giving that culminated in offering his life to save another person. His pastor, Father Francis Peffley, said it best: "His whole life was spent serving people and sacrificing himself. . . . He gave the ultimate sacrifice. . . . Giving his life to save his son."

By his heroic act, Thomas Vander Woude was living out the meaning of the Mass he had attended that tragic morning. At every liturgy, we recall how Jesus humbled himself to enter into the muck of our world of sin so as to lift us up above it. And, along with the bread and wine, we offer ourselves together with Jesus as a living sacrifice to the Father. We pledge that we too will give of ourselves in service to the needy, the lonely and the desperate so that the blessings of eternal life may be extended throughout the world. When we come to Mass, we are not unconcerned bystanders. Rather our lives are at stake. We are proclaiming that Christ has died to save us and that we are willing to sacrifice ourselves in service to others.

Jesus makes this very clear to his disciples in today's gospel reading. Though he was the most powerful man to ever walk the earth, Christ did not become human to amass wealth for himself or dominate others. He came to seek out the sick, the suffering and the sinners. Not only did he desire to instruct and heal them, he gave his life suffering the cruelest death imaginable to open up heaven to those who would believe. Jesus was not in it for the glory. And anyone who follows him must be willing to live as he lived. To be like our master, we must make ourselves the slaves of others.

As a parish family, we can relate to the bickering that went on among the disciples. We all love our church and many of us give long hours of our free time to support it. Many of us are generous when it comes time to give to special collections or help out with fundraisers. However, it happens more often than we would like to admit that generous people get overlooked and feel slighted. We can feel bitter that others get the recognition we believe we deserve. We can resent that we are giving so much and others are giving so little. Or we can get so frustrated and offended by the pettiness and gossiping of others that we want to give up altogether.

While it is natural to want to be recognized for our work, it is not what the follower of Jesus is called to seek. All the great saints prayed that they would be overlooked and taken for granted even as they spent long hours in service of others. What they wanted more than anything was to be recognized by God for their work. So they continued on even when they were made fun of because they wanted to be like Jesus who gave without counting the cost and who did everything not for the glory it would bring him but out of pure love for others. Each of us who calls Jesus "Lord" must do the same.

We are gathered here to recall the sacrifice that Jesus made to save us. Are we willing to give of ourselves for others? Are we willing to go without so that we can give more generously to the needy? Are we willing to risk injury or even death to protect the helpless? Are we willing to take on the thankless jobs no one else wants out of pure love for Jesus? Are we willing to go without being recognized because we set our hearts on the reward that only God can give? Above all, can we do all this with a spirit of joy and thankfulness because we are blessed to be able to know, love and serve our Lord?

People like Thomas Vander Woude become heroes because they live for others and not for themselves. Such people give of themselves daily in big and small ways. We cannot help but be inspired and challenged by them. However, we have as our supreme example of love and sacrifice the one who has saved us - Jesus Christ our Lord. He will offer himself to us again in this Eucharist, giving his very body and blood to nourish and sustain us. Let us not overlook or take for granted what he has done to free us from sin. Let us approach the throne of grace with awe and trembling that it is our Lord whom we are receiving. And let us ask for the strength to serve him in everyone we meet and to do whatever he asks of us especially when the task is hard, the hours are long and there is no recognition or glory.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Come, Follow Me

The saints we call "great" are not great because they knew how to follow rules. Rather, their greatness and holiness were a result of their willingness to go beyond what was required, to go beyond the letter of the law, to follow Christ. It is the holiness of Saint Francis who not only kept the commandments, but gave all he had to live among the poor. It is the generosity of Mother Theresa of Calcutta who left her native land to seek out and serve the poorest of the poor. These great saints teach us what it means to follow and to serve Christ. It means not only keeping the commandments and following the rules, but being willing to sacrifice anything and everything to do God's will.

In today's gospel reading, Jesus meets a young man who is full of enthusiasm for his faith. He has been keeping the commandments throughout his life, but, deep in his heart, he knows that God has something more to offer him. And so he throws himself at Jesus' feet asking what more he can do to inherit eternal life. Unfortunately, he is not prepared for the challenge Jesus places before him. " Go, sell everything and follow me." The young man is utterly shocked by Jesus' words and, despite his initial enthusiasm, cannot bring himself to sell his possessions. He was torn between his desire to follow Jesus and his attachment to his belongings. He is not free to follow Jesus because he is held back by material things. Interestingly, the gospel does not tell us that the young man felt relieved or grateful the he was able to keep his possessions. Instead, it tells us that he went away sad. Our possessions can never replace the joy and freedom that comes from following Jesus.

Our Lord is offering a challenge to each of us who have gathered here today to ponder his word. He is extending an invitation to go beyond an approach to faith that is based just on following rules. He is challenging us to stop trying to figure out how little we need to do and how much we can get away with. He is inviting us to be like the young man in the gospel and to discover that religion is about having a deep love for God and experiencing the joy that the Holy Spirit gives. At the heart of it, Jesus wants us to welcome him into our everyday lives and to make him our friend. As Cardinal Basil Hume once put it, "Holiness involves friendship with God. There has to be a moment in our relationship with God when he ceases to be just a Sunday acquaintance and becomes a weekday friend." That is what the young man was seeking when he ran up to Jesus. That is what is being offered to each of us here today - friendship with our Savior, Jesus Christ.

There is another challenge, however, that Jesus is extending to us. If we want to continue on this journey to his kingdom, there is going to be something we need to leave behind. It may not be every single one of our possessions, as it was for the young man in the gospel. It is more likely a bad habit, an unhealthy relationship or something else that is keeping us from experiencing all the joy and peace that God has planned for us. Every single one of us has something we are holding onto, something we are trying to keep hidden from God, that is draining life away from us and keeping us from getting closer to him. He is asking us if we love him enough to let go of it for good. Or will we continue holding on and letting it keep us in darkness and in slavery.

As we look into our hearts and consider the invitation that Jesus is making to us today, it may be clear to some of us what it is we need to give up. For others of us, however, it might not be so clear. It begs the question, how do we know what God's will for us is? How can we be sure that it is God asking us to give something up or to do something for him? These are questions which the saints have been grappling with throughout the centuries. There are no hard and fast rules for recognizing the voice of God because it involves mystery. The most important thing for us is to put ourselves in God's presence daily and ask him to give us the wisdom we need to sort out his will and the strength to carry it out. Today's first reading promises us that if we ask God for such wisdom and seek it out, he will not fail to give it to us. And, as so many saints before us have learned, we will come to desire it and treasure it more than any material possessions.

For the Christian, religion means more than following rules, keeping commandments and attending church services. It means, above all else, having a close and personal relationship with Jesus. That friendship is what gives life and meaning to the dogmas we hold and the principles we live by. As we grow in love for our Savior, we will find that spending only one hour a week with him on a Sunday is not enough for us. We will find ourselves making more time for prayer and looking for opportunities to go to Mass during the week. We will find ourselves going out of our way to visit Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. The material possessions that once gave us a sense of security will no longer be as important to us. We will find ourselves wanting to live a simpler life so that we can give more of our money to the needy. And we will no longer look on our faith as something we have to do but as someone we have to love - namely, Jesus and our neighbor. Then we will know what it is to be on the path to everlasting life.

Monday, October 8, 2012

27th Sunday of Ordinary Time

What does it mean that we are created in the image and likeness of God? Simply put, we are like God because we have the ability to love. By making us capable of and willing to give ourselves totally to another person in a life-long embrace of love, God shows us who he is. God is love.

Today's first reading is taken from the book of Genesis which tells the story of the creation of the world. On the last day, God completed the crowning achievement of his creation when he formed man from the clay of the earth and breathed a soul into him. While God proclaimed that all his creation was good, he said of the man that he was "very good." But right away, God noticed that something was not right. This man whom he made capable of loving had no one to love. None of God's other creatures were suitable partners to the man. So God decided to take a rib out of Adam to form a woman. When Adam sees Eve, he is overjoyed. We can hear in his words how relieved he was that finally he had someone he could share his life and his love with. "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!" The man who was made in love and for love, finally had someone to give his heart to. Without someone to love, the man could never live up to the potential that God had placed within him. Without a suitable partner, the man could not reflect the image and likeness of God and so fulfill his destiny. The two - man and woman - were created to be one flesh.

In the gospel, Jesus gives us an even deeper understanding of what this life-long partnership of love is. When asked whether or not it was permissible for a man and woman to divorce, he says that it is God himself who unites a woman and man in the sacrament of marriage. Therefore, no one - no government, no church, no individual - has the power or the right to separate them. Just as God made Adam and Eve for each other, so he makes every woman especially for the man she marries and ever man especially for the woman he marries. Married couples are literally made for each other!

This is a truth that every married couple should reflect on daily. Can each of us love and honor our spouses as someone who is made especially by God to be our partner? Can each of us rejoice over the woman or man God has given us to spend our life with just as Adam rejoiced over Eve? And, if we are not yet married, can we trust that God has someone picked out for us already and will introduce us to him or her at just the right time if that is indeed his will for us?

Just as we are each created in the image and likeness of an unfailingly loving God, so married life is meant from the beginning to be a reflection of the faithful love of our heavenly Father. The love that a man and woman show each other in good times and in bad times, for richer,for poorer, in sickness and in health is meant to be a living portrait of the faithfulness and love that God shows to all of humanity. And we see the supreme example in the life and person of Jesus Christ who, as we hear in the second reading, gave his life so that we could be saved. Love is not only showing affection to one another and having romantic dinners. It is, above all, sacrificing ourselves for the good of the other. It means waking up in the middle of the night to feed a baby. It means taking a second job to provide extra income when our spouse is unemployed or disabled. It means sometimes not watching our favorite TV show or not going to our favorite restaurant to accommodate the other's wishes. All those mundane chores and sacrifices we make throughout our day, even though they do not seem heroic or significant, are sanctifying us and making us more and more like Jesus who gave of himself for us. Through the mystery of the sacrament of marriage, husbands and wives are knitted together in one flesh and live out a level of love which is deeper than emotions because it is rooted in and draws its life from the mystery of the love of Christ.

Even as we reflect on the beauty and the power of God's words, we must keep in mind those for whom those words are difficult to hear and accept. There are many for whom marriage and family life are often burdensome and painful. There are many who are separated from their spouses by divorce or death. And there are those who have given up hope of ever finding someone to share their lives with. In a world that seems to revolve around couples, they can feel left out and lonely. If married couples are to live their lives as reflections of God's love, then they must always be willing to open their homes to those who have no families, to those who spend their holidays alone and to those who grieve the loss of a loved one. Following the example of Jesus, families cannot be closed in on themselves, but must be willing to share their blessings with the needy. Then the all-embracing love of Christ will be the hallmark of their homes.

We are each created with a desire to love and to be loved. The more we love, the more like God we become, because he is love. Marriage and family life is one way, along with consecrated celibacy and a chaste single life, that God has given the world to help us grow in holiness. The supreme example of love which we are all called to follow whether we be married or single is that shown by Jesus Christ. In a short while, we will be invited to this altar to become one flesh with him through the sacrament of the Eucharist. Let us take this opportunity to ask God to help all married couples to grow in love and holiness and so inspire us to live the commitments we have made as people made by love and for love.