Sunday, November 25, 2012

Christ the King

The founders of the United States had a very basic and important insight about how governments should rule over peoples. Thomas Jefferson articulated it in the Declaration of Independence when he wrote that we are "endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights." The rights that we hold dear as a free people - the right to free speech, the right to worship and the right to free assembly, among others - are not given to us by the government. Rather they are given to us by God. It is because we are made in the image and likeness of a good God that we have these rights. The government cannot give them to us and neither can any government take them away from us. They are ours because of who we are as human beings. All the government can do is recognize them and protect them.

Government, therefore, is not the ultimate authority. The ultimate authority is God himself.

The same is true with our laws. If they are to ensure that we live well as a society, then the laws that governments enact must be reflections of the truth and justice of God.

We are all familiar with the law of gravity. We call it a "law" because it is a foolproof guide to how the world works. What goes up must come down. And we know that if we try to ignore the law of gravity by jumping from a bridge or dropping a boulder on someones head it will have disastrous consequences.

Just as there is a law of gravity, there is also a moral law, a law that guides how we should live as human beings and the choices we should make. It is as foolproof a way of guiding our lives as the law of gravity is. If we ignore it and act contrary to it, then it will also have disastrous consequences for ourselves as individuals and for our society as a whole. The laws enacted by our government, if they are to truly benefit us, must be taken from this moral law which comes from God. Just as the government cannot give us our rights or take them away, so it cannot create laws that are contrary to the law of God and expect them to serve the common good. It would be like trying to walk off a cliff or jump from a bridge and hope to come out of it unharmed. Sadly, we have seen over the past decades how laws and policies that are contrary to God's law have damaged the family, young people, the economy and our society in general.

Each of us knows how true this is from our personal lives. We have all tried making our own way through life. We have lived under the delusion that life is whatever we make of it, that truth and reality are whatever we decided they should be. However, instead of giving us a sense of control over our lives, this attitude only confused us. We became unsure about what choices were right for us. Our lives began to lose their purpose and direction. It wasn't until we submitted ourselves to God and his plan that we regained a sense of meaning and started to make good choices again. When we put God at the center of our lives, when we make him our King and let his law rule over us, we can go forward with confidence, peace and joy.

What is true for each of us as individuals is also true for us as a society. Only when Christ and his truth are at the center of all we do can we be assured that history will make real progress toward a future marked by peace and justice.

The feast we celebrate today - Christ the King - is a proclamation of this central truth: that Jesus is the ultimate authority. Each person, no matter how great, will stand before him one day and be judged for the good or the evil he or she has done in life. We will all be accountable to the one who created us for the choices we have made.

Saint John says it beautifully in the second reading from the Book of Revelation. Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. Alpha and omega are the first and last words of the Greek alphabet. What Saint John is saying is that Christ stands at the beginning of the world and its history as its creator and also at the end of the world as its judge. All things come from Christ, and all things are leading toward him. Whatever exists exists because of Christ. There is no part of our world and no part of our individuals lives that does not fall under the shadow of his mighty arm.

Jesus is our King. However, his kingdom is not of this world. It is not a kingdom we can see. It does not have an army, a flag or any territory. It is a kingdom of faith whose territory is the hearts of believers and whose flag is the Scriptures. But that does not mean that this kingdom is not real. In fact, history tells us that it is the only real and lasting kingdom that has ever existed. Every earthly power, no matter how mighty, has faded from the scene. Many of them are unknown to us today. But God's kingdom has endured through the centuries because it is based on his law which never fails.

At our baptism, we made vows that we believed in God and that we rejected sin. We promised to place ourselves under the rule of Christ our King. Our presence here today is a testimony to that commitment made in faith. Let us also commit ourselves today to spreading the word about the justice and peace that can only be found in God's word. Only by making Christ king over our hearts will our society stop its descent into wickedness and will we as a country know the true meaning of peace and the freedom that the founders of the United States envisioned for us.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Drawing Back the Veil

It seems hard to believe that it is already over ten years ago that the world was caught up in worry over the "Y2K bug". The fear was that, once the year changed to 2000, the calendars that regulate computers would become confused. It was predicted that the computers controlling the nation's power grids and the world's financial institutions would go haywire and fail. Electricity would be cut off, financial records would be erased and communication networks would fail. Countless millions of dollars were spent to try to upgrade computers and circumvent the "bug". In the end, the year 2000 arrived like every other year, without incident. All the worry and fear were for nothing.

This year, we are beginning to hear predictions of calamity surrounding the end of the year 2012. It has something to do with the end of the calendar developed by the Mayan civilization that flourished in South America prior to the arrival of the Spanish and also something to do with predictions made by the French astrologer, Nostradamus. There will be countless television programs about how reliable these predictions are, even though so many of them have failed in the past. And if, God willing, this year comes and goes without incident, there will no doubt be another date in the future for which there will be even more predictions of the end of the world.

All these fears are fed by a sense that we are living in a time of rapid change, and not all of it is for the better. Whether it is the economy, the climate or society in general, things are not as they were in the past. There is great unease in not knowing what lies in the future. Our world feels unbalanced and unstable. It is natural to feel that it is all building up to an unhappy ending.

Both the Old and New Testaments speak frequently about the end of the world and the coming judgment of God. The first reading from the book of Daniel is one example, as is the gospel reading. We call this type of literature in the Bible "apocalyptic" writing. The premiere example of it is the book of Revelations which is also sometimes called the "Apocalypse". Though in our popular culture the word "apocalypse" tends to mean a "catastrophe", the original Greek word literally means "drawing back the veil". When the apocalypse happens, as the Bible teaches us it will, the veil which separates heaven and earth will be opened like a stage curtain. God will be revealed in all his majesty and glory along with Christ so that there will be no doubt that he exists and that his word is true. At the same time, the curtain will be drawn back on us as well. The intentions of our hearts, the good or evil of our actions and our innermost thoughts will be revealed as we stand before the throne of our God.

When the authors of Scripture, inspired by the Holy Spirit, wrote about the end of the world, they intended neither to scare us nor make exact predictions about when the end of the world would occur. In fact, Jesus tells us that even he does not know when these events would take place. Rather this type of literature appears in the Bible during times of intense persecution to encourage believers to not abandon their faith but to remain faithful and persevere. For example, the book of Daniel from which today's first readings are taken was written at a time when Jews living outside of Jerusalem were being forced to give up their beliefs and traditions. The gospel of Mark as well as the book of Revelations were likewise written at a time when Christians were being fiercely persecuted both in Jerusalem and in Rome. They wanted believers to know and understand that God will appear to judge harshly those who have made his beloved people suffer and that, if they remain faithful to him, they will share in his victory.

In today's world, we are fortunate to have the freedom to worship God and live our faith. But that does not mean that we are not persecuted. We only have to watch television for five minutes or read the front page of the newspaper to see our beliefs and way of life being ridiculed. The message is constantly going out that Christianity is backwards and meaningless in today's world. That along with the upheaval in our society and the allure of material things may cause us to question our faith and make us wonder if the sacrifices our baptismal vows require of us are really worth it. It is at those times that we must remember Jesus' words, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away." Governments come and go. Fashions and popular trends come and go. But we are guided by the light of God's word, and we press on with our eyes focused on Christ and his promise of eternal life. When we do so, we can be assured that we will not stumble and fall for Jesus promises us that those who believe in him will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life.

Jesus certainly does teach us that the world will eventually come to an end, and there will be much turbulence and tribulation leading up to it. It sounds terrifying. But, for the believer, the end of the world will be glorious. Jesus will reveal himself to all peoples as the Son of God and Savior of the World. As the second reading from the letter to the Hebrews reminds us, all God's enemies will be placed under his feet. This includes especially sin and death which will have no more power over us. Though we will be judged for the good and evil we have done, we must remember that it is the Father who offered his Son to death for our salvation who will be weighing us in the scales. If we have made a sincere effort to cooperate with his grace and live according to his word, we can be assured that he will look upon us with mercy for he knows our hearts. Our struggle against sin, the sacrifices we have made and the ridicule we have endured will seem nothing when we look upon the face of God and know that we will spend eternity with him.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

All That She Had To Live On

There is nothing more that I can do.

There is nothing more that I can give.

I am at the end of my rope.

The widow in today's reading from the first book of Kings has hit rock bottom. There is a famine in the land, and she has run out of food. She has just enough to make two little biscuits for herself and her son, and then she expects to starve to death. There is no one who can help her. She has run out of options and run out of hope.

Any of us, if we were in her shoes, would have laughed at the prophet Elijah's request to bring him a bit of bread. At worst, we would have scolded him for being insensitive to the dire plight of a widow facing starvation and death. He should have been bringing her food.

But the prophet promises that if she will perform this kindness for him, God will reward her for it. In her extreme need, she does not say to Elijah, "I have done enough, and I have given enough." Rather she gives what little she has, and God blesses her beyond measure. God visited her when she was most abandoned and most alone and worked a miracle to save her. But what opened God's hand was her willingness to literally bet her life on the prophet's promise that God would not forget her act of kindness. Faith in the face of impossible circumstances unleashes God's mighty power in our lives.

Each of us has a place in our lives where we feel powerless. It may be in our personal life, in our family or in our work. We feel that we have done all that we can do. We feel that we have given all that we can give. Nothing has changed. We have seen no improvement despite our best efforts. The situation may have become so dire that we have fallen into depression or bitterness because of it. It may be sucking up so much of our energy that we are unable to find joy and peace in our daily lives. We may feel that we are at the end of our rope with no hope in sight.

It is when we have hit bottom that God comes to meet us. It is when we have exhausted all our options that God reminds us that he alone is all-powerful and that he will help us if we place it in his hands. A simple act of faith is the first step in turning things around for the better.

However, there is one catch. Before God starts to turn things around in our life, he may ask us to do something we think we are unable to do. As with the widow in today's reading, he may ask us to give something we think we are unable to give. It is God's way of opening a door for us into a world of new possibilities. Mother Angelica who founded the global Catholic television network, EWTN, often said, "If we are unwilling to do the ridiculous, God will be unable to do the impossible." If we want to see a real change in our lives and in our world, we must be willing to trust God and to do whatever he tells us.

In today's gospel reading, Jesus introduces us to another widow and holds her up as an example of faith and generosity. She is also in extreme need, with little to give except two coins worth mere pennies. It was too little to do anyone any good. Though others put into the treasury much more significant sums of money, it is her contribution that Jesus points out and that we reflect upon two thousand years later. The courage and faith she demonstrated in abandoning what little she had into God's hands has done more to confirm and strengthen the faith of believers over the centuries than millions of dollars in contributions could ever have done. Great faith makes even small contributions yield infinite dividends.

Most of the time, you and I fail to contribute our time, talents or money not because we are selfish and want to keep them to ourselves, but because we do not think it will do any good. We fear that what little we have to give will make no difference. We see how gifted others are and may feel intimidated. Or we may hold our talents in such low esteem that we think anyone can do the same and so we are not needed. But nothing can be further from the truth. God has placed each of us here for a reason. Each of us is irreplaceable. No one else can do what you or I are able to do. No one else can reach the hearts that you or I are able to reach. Each of our contributions are needed no matter how small or insignificant they may seem. God sees the heart. If we give of our time, talent and money with humility, love and faith, then God will make it multiply and bear fruit beyond our power to imagine.

God has gathered us here today and prepared a meal for us. It is a wafer of bread which seems very small and insignificant. And yet, it happens to be the very flesh and blood of Jesus, the Savior of the World. It is taken from a jar of flour which has never gone empty and has nourished countless saints and sinners throughout the centuries. God never fails to make it available to us, small though it may seem. As we prepare our hearts and minds to receive this tremendous gift of God's love, let us ask him what it is he wants us to do. Where can we give more? Where can we do more? If we think we do not have it within us to go one more day, let us turn to him to find that strength. And then God's power will be unleashed in our lives in big and small ways. Doors will open for us, and hearts will be touched. And we will know what it is like to have the joy of the Lord be our strength.

(image by Mary Walker)

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Heaven Runs On Love

A Catholic school teacher invited her pastor to visit her classroom and answer questions her students had been asking about heaven.

In the course of the conversation, one young man asked, “If God loves us and wants us to be with Him in heaven, why didn’t He just put us there already instead of making us live on earth?”

The pastor explained it by comparing the situation to a child who was about to inherit his family business. Would it make any sense, he asked them, for the father to give his child the business before he had learned to read and write or before he knew how to add or subtract? No matter how much he may love his son, would it make any sense to let him run the business before he understood the product they were manufacturing and what went into bringing it to market? If he were to give it to his son before he was ready to run it, both his son and the company would suffer.

He went on to explain that it is the same with heaven. It is not just a place but an activity, the activity of loving God with all our hearts, minds, souls and strength. To be ready for eternal life in God’s presence, we must learn first to love Him above all things. Just as a son is not ready to inherit his father’s business until he can learn how to add and subtract, so we cannot enter into Paradise until we learn how to love.

Jesus tells us in today’s gospel that the greatest commandment is that we love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. It is a commandment that we have heard often and, like the scribe, we can wholeheartedly agree with Jesus that there is nothing more important than love. But what does it mean to love God above all things? How can we know that we have reached such a love?

Jesus answers that question for us by linking our love of God to our love of neighbor. We know that we love God if we also love others. As Saint John tells us, we cannot love the God we do not see if we hate the neighbor we do see. Therefore, our love of God is not measured by those we love the most - our families and friends. They are easy to love. As Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount, “If you love those who love you, what merit is there in that? Pagans and tax collectors do the same.” Rather, our love for God is measured by those we love the least. It is measured by the concern we have for the poor who cannot repay us. It is measured by the attention we give to the sick who are pushed aside and forgotten. It is measured by our willingness to forgive those who hate and hurt us. If we want to know how much we love God, it is there that we must look.

Like faith, such love is a gift from God. Loving those who do not love us does not come naturally to us. It is difficult for us to look past our own interests to the needs of others. It can only come as a gift of grace. Nonetheless, it is absolutely necessary if we are to reach our eternal destiny of everlasting life with God.

How can we receive this gift? First of all, it comes to us through prayer. When we reflect on how much God has loved us, when we consider that He sent His only Son to die for us, when we consider all the blessings He gives us, we cannot help but love Him in return. As Saint John says, love consists not in that we have loved God but that He has loved us. We also grow in love by reflecting on how each person is made in the image and likeness of God and on how He loves all people without distinction. As that reality sinks into our minds and hearts, we also find it easier to love others no matter their race, religion, social status or political beliefs. Out of love for God, we can even find it possible to love and forgive those who do not love us in return.

We also grow in love by keeping the commandments. Jesus tells us that if we love Him, we will keep His commandments. Though love of God and neighbor are the greatest commandments, they do not mean that the others are not important. All of God’s laws, and in turn, all of the Church’s rules, are meant to teach us what it means to love. As Moses tells the Israelites in today’s first reading, by observing God’s law we grow and prosper in the land He has given us. We can measure our love of God, then, in our willingness to keep His word. If Jesus founded the Church, then we can also say that we can measure our love of God in our willingness to follow what the Church teaches us is necessary to believe. They are all given to us not to limit our freedom or take away our pleasure, but to instruct us in what it means to love so that we will be prepared not only to flourish in this life but to enjoy eternal life with our loving Father.

Heaven runs on love. When we love others from our heart, we bring a bit of heaven to this hurting world. As we grow in our ability to love, we also prepare ourselves for our eternal destiny. The Eucharist we are about to receive is also all about love. It is the Body and Blood of Jesus given to us out of love. He died for all people - both those who would come to love Him in return and those who would reject His offer of salvation. Through this Sacrament, we are strengthened to do the same - to love all persons without distinction and without limits - until we reach our destiny where love reigns supreme.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

For All the Saints

It has been a very ancient custom of the Church to venerate the relics of the saints.

A relic is something connected to the life of a saint. Often it is a piece of their body such as a bone or hair. But it can also be an article of their clothing or a place they lived. In fact, many of the first churches were built over the sites where the saints were martyred or buried. Saint Peter's Basilica, for instance, was built over the site which is believed to be where he was buried. In keeping with this tradition, every altar in every church, including our own, has relics of the saints within it.

For the church of the early centuries, venerating the relics of the saints was a way of recognizing the sacrifices of those who went before them. Those first saints were the ones who faced persecution by the Roman authorities, they were the ones who spent long hours copying the Bible by hand so that it could be made available to the people, and they were the ones who formulated and clarified the beliefs we hold to this day. Their memory deserves to be honored because of the gift of grace that God displayed in their lives and the foundation they laid for our own faith two thousand years later.

However, there was one more very important reason that the early Church displayed and reverenced the bodies of the saints. It was to show the Roman and Greek peoples that the heroes of this new Christian faith were very different from the heroes of pagan mythology. Unlike Hercules, Odysseus and Zeus, the Christian saints were actual people who really lived. Jesus, Mary, the apostles and martyrs were not mythical figures but real flesh and blood who lived in human history. By honoring their remains and building churches at the places they were buried, not only was the memory of their sacrifice kept alive but the people were reminded that these saints were women and men no different than themselves. They had simply been given a powerful gift of grace to answer the call of Jesus in a heroic way.

For us two thousand years later, the memory of the saints is still important. Everything we cherish as Catholic Christians - the Bible, the Mass, our beliefs, our prayers - all have been given to us by God through the saints. We stand on their shoulders and build on the foundation of faith which they laid. They are examples to us of what it means to follow Christ. And they remind us of the great destiny that God has in store for us. Like the saints we are all called to spend eternity in heaven looking upon the face of God in all its splendor. Not only will our loved ones be there, but so will Jesus, the apostles, the Blessed Virgin Mary and the angels. Saint John speaks about this hope of ours very beautifully in today's second reading. Through baptism, we are rightly called "children of God". But in heaven, when we see God face to face, we will be transformed into the likeness of his glory. It will be a wonder beyond our power to imagine and describe. Whatever beauty we experience in this world is only a shadow of the beauty and majesty of the face of God. And so, as Saint John teaches us, we strive to keep ourselves pure from sin as we look forward in hope to the glorious destiny that awaits us.

Also, it is important for us to remember that the saints were human beings made out of flesh and blood who were no different than we are. They became Christians through the same baptism we received. They held the same beliefs we hold today. They received the same Holy Spirit which we received in our Confirmation. Like us, they had weaknesses and knew what it was like to be tempted. If they were different from us, it was because they loved God above everything else and so desired heaven that nothing on earth could tempt them to turn away from the source of their joy. Because of their great love for God, they were able to live the beatitudes which we read in today's gospel. The saints were people like Saint Francis of Assisi who gave up all the comforts of his father's house to become poor in spirit and so inherit the Kingdom of heaven. They were men like Saint Peter Claver who had such a hunger and thirst for righteousness that he chose to work among slaves. They were women like Saint Maria Goretti who so valued her purity of heart that she preferred being stabbed to having her virginity taken away from her. They were countless women and men throughout the centuries who so desired the rewards awaiting them in heaven that they endured insults, persecution and even death. Despite their heroic lives, they were just like us. God holds out to us the same gift of grace and the same rewards of eternal life that motivated the saints to live lives of faith, hope and love.

We are here today because of the saints. But they are not just heroes of the past whose time has come and gone. Rather as they stand before the throne of grace in heaven they continue to pray for us. We should each take advantage of these powerful intercessors and call upon them whenever we are in need or are facing temptation. If we befriend them and model our lives after them, they will not let us down. If we follow their example and desire the glory of heaven to any pleasure the earth can offer, then we can hold onto the hope of one day meeting them face to face as we look together upon God in all his splendor and majesty.