Sunday, January 29, 2012

Jesus Wows them in Capernaum

All of us have wondered what it would be like to meet Jesus in person. What if we could actually speak face to face with our Savior? What would he look like? What would he say to us? How would we feel as he looked into our eyes and spoke to our heart?

Today's gospel tells us about a group of people who actually had the opportunity to meet Jesus and how it changed their lives forever.

Jesus was teaching in the synagogue of Capernaum. Saint Mark tells us that the people were astonished as they listened to him. They were riveted by his words because, unlike anyone they had ever heard before, he spoke with authority. Not only was he interesting to listen to, but his words penetrated their hearts and illuminated their minds. No one had ever spoken to them with such conviction and meaning.

And their astonishment would only grow, because not only did Jesus demonstrate his authority by the words he spoke, he also showed his power by the actions he performed. In this case, a man possessed by a demon was sent into a fit of convulsion when Jesus spoke. The demon knew very well who Jesus was, the Holy One of God. Jesus rebuked the demon and it came out of the man with a shriek. The scene must have left everyone in the synagogue shaken and confused. I think we can say with confidence that the people had never seen anything like that before! The authority of Jesus' words was backed up by the power of his actions.

None of us will ever have the opportunity to meet Jesus face to face in this life. That does not mean, however, that we can no longer be astonished by his words or by his works. Jesus is still among us exercising his authority in a powerful way through the Church in the power of the Holy Spirit. He continues to speak to us with authority through the Bible, and his power over sin and evil is powerfully present in the Sacraments.

Let us take a look at how each of us can meet Jesus and be transformed by reading the Bible and receiving the Sacraments.

First, Jesus continues to speak with authority to the world through the Bible. As Christians, we believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. Though it was written by men in the language and imagery of their time, it was inspired by the Holy Spirit to such a degree that we can truly say that God himself is its author. In the Bible, we experience the authority of God's Word teaching us the truth about his love and calling our hearts to change. By reading and studying the Bible, we come to understand God in a way that we otherwise would be unable to. Because it is God's inspired word, when we read it privately at home or hear it proclaimed at Mass, it is Jesus himself we are hearing. And so, any of us who have ever wished that we could hear Jesus speak to us should read and study the Bible everyday.

There was a man once who decided to read the Bible from cover to cover. He came across many sections that he couldn't understand, but he kept on going. He simply thanked God for the parts that he could make sense of and asked for help understanding the more difficult sections. That is the way we have to approach the Bible. It is not always easy to read and understand. Rather than be overwhelmed by it, we should start slowly by maybe focusing on the Sunday readings or the daily Mass readings. There are many Catholic magazines such as The Word Among Us which are great helps in guiding our study of Scripture. However we may decide to approach it, the Word of God is indispensable in the spiritual life of all believers.

Second, we encounter Jesus' continuing authority over sin and evil through the Sacraments. Each Sacrament is a real encounter with Jesus. While we meet Jesus in the Bible through words, we encounter him in the Sacraments through signs. These signs are not just symbolic of Jesus' presence and action, they really give us the grace that they signify. For instance, the waters of baptism really grant the forgiveness of sin and make us children of God. Through the Sacrament of Confession, we really receive the forgiveness of our sins. And in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, bread and wine really become the Body and Blood of Christ. It is not just symbols that we receive when we come up to communion, but the body, blood, soul and divinity of the Risen Jesus himself. When we take to heart the mystery of Christ's presence and action in all the Sacraments, how could we not want to receive them as frequently as possible to be transformed by the power of our Savior?

The Sacraments, however, are not magic. For us to have our lives changed by the light and power that the Sacraments offer us, we must strive to live lives that are pleasing to God. We saw in the gospel reading today how the demon shouted out when Jesus walked into the synagogue. That is because Jesus and the Devil cannot be in the same room together. They are mortal enemies. Just so, we cannot welcome Jesus into our lives and continue to hold grudges, gossip, lie or steal. There can be no compromise with sin if Jesus is to have a place in our hearts. It is certainly not easy, and we can never be totally free of sin in this life, but the Sacraments are given to us precisely for this reason - to give us both the desire and strength to change and to make us examples of Jesus' love to everyone we meet.

None of us can hope to meet Jesus face to face in this life. But each of us will one day stand before his throne of glory to give an account of our lives. If we take to heart the Word proclaimed to us today and receive him in the Sacraments with faith, we can trust that we will be ready to receive his mercy and forgiveness when he comes again in glory.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Time of Fulfillment

There was a boy named Billy who had trouble fitting in with the other children at his school. Because he was constantly called names and being picked on, he learned to spend much of his time alone. One day, Billy was riding his bike in the park when he noticed one of his classmates sitting on a bench crying. He asked the boy what was wrong, and he told Billy how some older kids had ganged up on him and roughed him up. It left him feeling shaken and hurt. Billy told the boy that he knew how much it hurt to be picked on. And so, the two boys spent the rest of the afternoon in the park playing together. Billy was happy that he finally had a friend.

The next day at school, Billy was excited to see his new friend again. However, when he ran up to him in the bus line, the boy started to make fun of him along with his other classmates. Billy became upset and ran away crying. The boy ran after him and asked Billy, "Why are you crying? You never cried when I made fun of you before." Billy, wiping his face and holding back his sobs replied, "Yeah, but you were never my friend before!"

Each of us had a moment in our lives when Jesus went from being an historical figure or a character in a book to being a living person who knows us and loves us. At that moment, Jesus became our friend. And, like the boys in the story, being friends with Jesus meant we had to change. We could not go on living the way we had before.

Today's gospel reading from Saint Mark gives us the first words that Jesus ever preached: "This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel." These three sentences give us in a nutshell what the life and ministry of Jesus is all about. First of all, Jesus is the fulfillment of all the promises of the Old Testament. Secondly, Jesus ushers in the kingdom of God which is God's victory over sin and death. And, finally, if we are going to be a part of this marvelous work of the Father in our midst, we must repent. We must change.

The first examples of the change required to follow Jesus comes in this same gospel reading when Jesus approaches Peter, Andrew, James and John as they are working on their nets along the banks of the Sea of Galilee. He challenges them to be his disciples: "Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men." The four men are faced with a decision. It is clear to them that they cannot become friends and followers of Jesus and continue to live the way they had up to that point. They could either be disciples of Jesus or continue to be fishermen; but they could not be both. Following Jesus required a change. And so, they dropped everything to follow him.

In the first reading from the Old Testament, we find a similar situation. The prophet Jonah is sent by God to the pagan city of Nineveh. Their wickedness had set them on a path to certain destruction. Yet God wanted to show mercy to them. Jonah makes it clear that if they do not repent of their evil ways, they will soon meet catastrophe. The people take Jonah's words to heart and change their behavior. God could then begin to show mercy to them.

Following Jesus and believing in him changes us. When we realize that God created each of us in his image and likeness, then we begin to treat all people with love and respect. When we realize the depth of God's love for each person, we can no longer turn our backs on people when they need us. When we realize how much we have been forgiven by a merciful God, we begin to forgive those who hurt us no matter how great the offense. Friendship with Jesus transforms us from selfish, narrow-minded individuals into people who love truly from our hearts after the example of our Savior.

There is one thing that our friendship with Jesus cannot do, however. It cannot keep us from being sinners. No matter how close we grow to Jesus we will always be tempted to turn our backs on him in one way or another. No matter how long we may have followed him, we will always fall back into sin. But Jesus our friend is forgiving. He will always take us back no matter how we have offended him if we show him that we are sorry and are committed to changing. Though we can and do abandon him, he will never abandon us. Jesus is the most faithful of friends.

Jesus is always there for us to turn to in our time of need. When the bad choices we have made in our lives start catching up to us, Jesus is there to listen and to guide us back on the right path. If any of us wishes to know what life is like with Jesus as a friend, it is as simple as asking him to come into our hearts and our lives. Going to the sacrament of confession and laying out before God all the ways we have chosen the wrong path is an important place to start. Then the regret can give way to peace, the fear can give way to joy, and the hostility can give way to love. And we can say with so many others before us - What a friend we have in Jesus!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

I Am Calling You

Ask any married couple, "How did you know your husband or wife was the one for you?" Every one would have a different answer. Some knew right away, from the moment they first saw each other. For other couples, the process was longer. They may have known each other for years and dated off and on before they decided to spend the rest of their lives together.

No matter how they met or how they decided to marry, every couple has one thing in common. They had to decide together that marriage was the right thing for them. One person cannot decide on his own that he wants to get married. It is a joint decision because marriage is by its nature a partnership.

As Christians, we have an even deeper understanding of what marriage is because of the teaching of Jesus. Marriage is more than a contract between a man and a woman. Marriage is a calling from God himself. God is the one who brings a man and a woman together to live as examples of the beauty of his love. That is why Jesus can say, "What God has joined, no man may tear asunder." It is God himself who joins a man and a woman in married life. It is God who calls them to live together as one.

Marriage is not the only calling. Some men are called to be priests or deacons. Some women are called to live as religious sisters. Different careers such as writing or business can also be callings. Each one of us, in one way or another, is called to be part of God's plan and to contribute to the common good. Each one of us is chosen by God to play a special and unique role in the salvation of the world.

Today's readings speak to us about what it means to be called by God.

In the first reading, young Samuel is asleep in the temple when the Lord calls him. But he mistakes it for the voice of his mentor, Eli. Sometimes we wish that God would just come down from heaven and tell us himself what he wants of us. Just such a thing happened to Samuel - in the temple where the Ark of the Covenant was, no less - and he still needed help understanding that it was the voice of the Lord he was hearing. His mentor gives him excellent advice. When you hear the Lord call, simply say: "Speak Lord, your servant is listening."

Listening is an important part of any relationship. But it is crucial to our relationship with God. If we are to know where God is calling us, we must listen. God may be speaking to us by placing a desire to serve him in our hearts. He may be speaking to us through a passage from Scripture that we keep opening our Bible to or that we hear being quoted frequently. He may be speaking to us through a friend. One thing is sure - God is trying to get our attention. We have to open our ears, and more importantly our hearts, if we are going to get the message.

Today's gospel tells the story of the calling of Jesus' first disciples. They were among those who answered the call of John the Baptist to be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. John points Jesus out to them, and they decide to follow him. But something interesting happens. Before they could speak a word to him, Jesus turns around and asks them, "What are you looking for?" Jesus makes it clear to them that it is not they who are choosing him, but he who is choosing them. Throughout the gospels, no one follows Jesus on their own initiative. It is always Jesus who picks out and calls those who will be his disciples.

Just so, none of us can make our own path in life. None of us can live our lives "our way." God has a plan for each of us. We can either say "yes" to God, or "no". But our lives belong to God, and our peace is only in doing his will.

We all know how true this is by looking at our own lives. We have all tried forcing things to work out, and they just didn't. We may have wanted to be doctors or rock stars when we grew up, and it just didn't fit. Or there may have been that one woman or one man we wanted to spend our life with, and the relationship just wouldn't work. For some reason, the pieces didn't seem to fit no matter how hard we tried. We had to finally stop trying to force things to happen and let events take their course. We then started to experience peace as things began to work themselves out on their own. We could then look back and thank God that the course of our life worked out his way and not our way.

It is not always easy to know what God's will for us is. If it wasn't easy for young Samuel in the temple nor for the followers of Jesus, then we cannot expect it to be any easier for us. Like the decision to get married, it takes time for the right course of action to become clear to us. It takes much patience and a heart willing to listen for God's voice. But there is also great relief in knowing that an almighty and all-loving God is in control, and that he has a plan for us.

The Catholic spiritual writer, Thomas Merton, put together the following prayer for people like us who want to serve God but are not always sure how:

My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think that I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope that I have that desire
in all that I am doing.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Baptism of the Lord

In the Old Testament, we read about God's mighty works and the words he spoke through the prophets. God spoke face to face with Adam and Eve, called Abraham to be the father of his people and gave the ten commandments through Moses. The people of Israel witnessed God's power as he led them out of slavery in Egypt. It is in the Old Testament that God, the Father, reveals his tender love for his people and his desire to save them.

In the New Testament, we witness something altogether different. God the Father remains silent throughout most of the gospels. In fact, there is only one time we hear the Father's voice. It is in today's gospel, at Jesus' baptism.

As Jesus emerges from the waters of the Jordan River a booming voice from heaven is heard: "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased." God the Father uses the opportunity of Jesus' baptism to let the whole world know that this is his Son, his beloved. But from here on, God the Father will remain silent. It will be Jesus who now speaks for him and performs mighty deeds in his name. With his baptism at the hands of John the Baptist, the torch is handed on to Jesus.

Before this time, Jesus lived an ordinary life among the people. No one besides Mary and Joseph knew his secret that he was the Son of God. But upon his baptism, Jesus begins to proclaim the kingdom of God with an authority that no other man had ever claimed for himself. It was clear to all who heard him that Jesus was no ordinary rabbi. John the Baptist even recognized this when he claimed that one was coming who was even mightier than he. No one had ever seen anyone like Jesus of Nazareth before.

Where did this power to teach with authority and to perform miracles come from? It came from the Holy Spirit.

The word "Messiah" means "anointed one." According to the Old Testament, the Messiah would be anointed by God with the Holy Spirit to save his people. The prophet Isaiah says of the Messiah: "Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased, upon whom I have put my spirit." The gospel tells us that it was the Holy Spirit who descended on Jesus like a dove as he was baptized. The Holy Spirit empowered Jesus the Messiah to touch hearts, to free those held in bondage and to speak the truth with conviction and courage.

Now that Jesus Christ has risen and ascended to heaven, we are living in a different time. Just as God the Father remained silent throughout much of the New Testament, Jesus the Son is silent now. He does not appear from heaven to speak to us directly. He does not show up at hospitals to cure the sick or at the scene of accidents to raise the dead. As God the Father passed the torch on to Jesus, Jesus has now passed the torch on to us! It is now up to us to witness to God's love.

And so, if our family members have questions about their faith, how else will they learn the truth unless we witness to it? If our classmates are being picked on, how else will they learn about Jesus' love unless we stick up for them? If a beggar is hungry, how else will she eat unless we feed her? Jesus wants every confused person to know the truth, every suffering person to be comforted and every lonely person to have a friend. But he will not rip open the heavens and come down in a fiery chariot to do it. He will use us.

How can Jesus expect us to speak the truth with courage and perform heroic deeds in his name? Because he has anointed us with the gift of the Holy Spirit!

At our baptism, each of us received the same Holy Spirit which lived and worked through Jesus. The same Holy Spirit who empowered him to teach with authority and to perform miracles lives in our hearts through baptism and through faith. We have within us the same Holy Spirit who compelled the apostles to give testimony to the Messiah with their words and the martyrs to bear witness through their blood. We have exactly the same tool that Jesus and every saint throughout the ages has had to live the Christian life with power and confidence. Not only has the torch been passed on, but the power to hold that torch up high and carry it proudly has been given us through the Holy Spirit.

Having the Holy Spirit at work in our lives is like having a billionaire give us a credit card. With it, we can buy things we could otherwise never be able to afford. Just so, with the Holy Spirit we have the strength of God within us which enables us to performs acts of generosity and courage we could never have dreamed of doing on our own. Because of our baptism, we have been made daughters and sons of God and now have access to that great power at work in us who believe.

When someone wins a million dollars, the first thing people ask is, "What do you plan to do with your money?" As we reflect on the gift of the Holy Spirit we have received, we should ask ourselves the same question, "What do we plan to do with the power of God at work in us?"

(image by Dave Zelenka)

Sunday, January 8, 2012

We Three Kings

The story of the Magi is among the best known and most popular of the gospels. Whether we know them as the "Three Kings" or the "Three Wise Men", they have a prominent place in every manger scene as well as in the New Testament story of Jesus' birth.

But who were these Magi from the East? The gospel does not tell us much about them. It is assumed that there were only three of them based on the three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh which they bring to Jesus. But the gospel never tells us how many Magi there actually were.

We do know, however, that they studied the stars.

In Jesus' day, knowledge of the stars and their position in the sky was vital for travelers. There were few established roadways in the Middle East, especially through the desert. Only by coordinating one's journey along the position of the stars could one be assured of staying on the path and not getting lost.

We also know from the New Testament that the Magi were not Jews. Like many pagans in ancient times, it is likely that they observed the stars not only to guide them when traveling but also to predict the future, just as our modern-day astrologers try to do. They would have believed that their fate was written in the stars. Any unusual occurrence such as a comet or a large star would have gotten their attention.

And just such a thing happened. The Magi observed a star which foretold the birth of a great king, the King of the Jews.

As it is usually told, the Magi follow the star all the way to Bethlehem to the stable where Jesus was born. But that is not how the story is told in the gospels. According to Saint Matthew, the Magi go first to Jerusalem. They needed to consult the Scriptures and the teachers of the Law to learn where they were to find this great king. The star by itself only took them so far. They needed to turn to God's word to get the whole itinerary. If they had not consulted the prophecies of the Old Testament, they would have been lost.

The meaning for us who search for Jesus and seek to lead others to him cannot be clearer. Without the Scriptures, we are lost. Relying on the light of our own intelligence and experience, we may be able to grope our way along. Unaided by faith, we may be able to become nice people. But God wants so much more for us. God wants us to know Jesus personally and intimately. He wants to reveal his love and power to us and use us to lead others to him. We cannot do it on our own. Without the Bible and the Church's teaching which helps us to understand it, we can easily get stuck in our journey or lose our way.

In today's world, we see just how true this is. People are lost. Billions of dollars are spent on palm readers, astrologers and other spiritualists. Books on new age spirituality continue to be popular. Everyone is looking for the latest thing, but they are never satisfied. Their conscience tells them that they are lost, that something is missing, but they are unable to find their way back by the light of their own intelligence. They need the light of God's word to reveal to them that it is Jesus that they seek. To fill the missing piece in their life, they need look no further than the Bible they have tucked away in some drawer and the neighborhood parish they pass on their way to work every day.

Today's readings, however, do not only contain a message for those who seek Jesus and do not know where to find him. There is another side to this coin that has to do with us who claim to already know that Jesus is the answer.

The Magi were seeking the newborn King of the Jews but did not know where to find him. The chief priests and the scribes knew where to find him, but they were not looking! You would think that many of them would have wanted to join the Magi on the trip to Bethlehem to witness the birth of their Messiah. But they were content to let their knowledge of the Scripture and their positions of authority replace their relationship with God. And so they missed out on the blessed event of Christ's birth.

Like these chief priests and scribes, it is easy for us who believe in Jesus to get complacent and even lazy. It is easy for us to make our relationship with Jesus and the Church simply a matter of following rules - going to Mass on Sundays, fasting on Good Friday, going to confession and so on. Rules are important, but they are not the whole life of faith. If we are not actively seeking God in our daily lives, then we are missing out. If our religion is not about a relationship with Jesus the Messiah then it is dry, lifeless and uninspiring.

As followers of Jesus, we have a responsibility to be light for the world. If people are lost, we have to be the light leading them back to Christ. Could it be that our society has turned to palm readers, new age gurus and other quacks because we have not shone forth in our lives the joy and peace that Jesus can give? Rules do not inspire people. Lives of faith and courageous witnesses of truth do. If we are to be a light to those we meet, we have to ask ourselves - are we seeking to follow rules or are we seeking to follow Jesus? Only by following Jesus ourselves can we hope to ever lead others to him.

The Magi were not satisfied with merely knowing that a newborn King of the Jews had been born. They wanted to meet him, to pay him homage and to bring him gifts. We cannot be satisfied with just going through the motions when it comes to the practice of our faith. We must seek Jesus daily in a sincere manner. We must study the Scriptures and conform our minds and hearts to its teaching. Then we will become the stars leading others to the desire of their souls - Jesus the Messiah.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Prayer of Saint Anselm

O Lord my God,
Teach my heart this day where and
how to see you,
Where and how to find you.
You have made me and remade me,
And you have bestowed on me
All the good things I possess,
And still I do not know you.
I have not yet done that
For which I was made.
Teach me to seek you,
For I cannot seek you
Unless you teach me,
Or find you
Unless you show yourself to me.
Let me seek you in my desire,
Let me desire you in my seeking,
Let me find you by loving you,
Let me love you when I find you.

(as reprinted in Bible Alive magazine)

Monday, January 2, 2012

Mary, Mother of God

The Catholic preacher, Fr. John Corapi, once began a homily on the Blessed Virgin Mary asking the question: "If you could have created your own mother, would you not have made her perfect in every way?"

God chose Mary among all the women who ever lived to be the mother of his Son, Jesus. From the moment she was conceived, God kept her free from the stain of sin. He sustained her with his grace throughout her life and formed in her a heart open to his will. When the angel Gabriel appeared to her, she said "yes" to God's plan for her because God had been preparing her all along for the great mission she would undertake. She would be the Mother of God.

The Son of God did have the opportunity to create his own mother. And he made her perfect in every way.

When we call Mary the "Mother of God" it can be confusing for some. Some people take it to mean that Mary is greater than God or that God would not have existed without Mary the way we could not have existed without our mothers. But nothing could be further from the truth. Mary was a human being created by God just as all of us were. When we call Mary "Mother of God" we are not so much saying something about her but something about her child, Jesus.

Jesus is the Son of God. Because he is God, he is the Creator of all things and has always existed throughout eternity. It is this Son of God who is conceived in Mary's womb through the power of the Holy Spirit. This child born of the Virgin Mary is both fully God and fully human. Because Jesus is God and Mary is his mother, Mary can rightly be called the "Mother of God."

In the same homily, Father Corapi went on to say: "If Mary is good enough for Jesus, then she is good enough for me!"

When we call Mary, "Mother of God", we are also making an act of faith in who we are as baptized followers of Jesus. At our baptism we each became members of the Church and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, were made daughters and sons of God. This is what Saint Paul teaches us in today's second reading from the letter to the Galatians: "...God sent his Son, born of a that we might receive adoption as sons."

If by Jesus' death and resurrection we can dare to call ourselves sons and daughters of God, then Mary must also be our mother! God's plan for Mary did not end with Jesus' birth. Rather God in his mercy and generosity willed that Mary should also be the Mother of the Church, the Mother of all believers.

While he was dying on the cross, Jesus turned to his beloved disciple, Saint John and told him, "Behold your mother." It has always been understood that Jesus was not only entrusting his mother to the care of his disciple, but entrusting all believers to the care of his mother. And from her place in heaven, she continues to pray for all the faithful that we receive every possible grace from her Son. Just as we would turn to our own mothers in our time of need, we can turn to our heavenly mother, Mary, with confidence that she will bring our prayers to her Son for us.

The act of faith we make today, then, is that Jesus is the eternal Son of the Father and that Mary is his Mother. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit we received at our baptism and confirmation teaches us that we are also sons and daughters of God. If so, then Mary is also our mother.

It is traditional at the beginning of a new year to set goals and make resolutions. It is no coincidence that, as a Church, we dedicate this first day of the year to Mary, the Mother of God. Following her example, our firmest resolution for the coming months should be to seek out God's will for us and to put it in practice. As individuals and as a parish community, I would like all of us to consecrate this coming year to Mary, the Mother of God. Whatever it is we hope to accomplish, whatever it is we want to change in our lives, we can count on the Mother of Jesus to keep our prayers in her heart and to present them to her Son for us. If our resolutions are not in keeping with God's will, we may stick to them for a few weeks or months, but we will eventually fail. However, if we seek God's will with Mary to both inspire us and pray for us, we can rest assured that we can conquer any difficulty in the strength provided by her Son, Jesus.

So I would ask all of us to bring to mind those resolutions right now. In our hearts, let us offer them to Mary so that she may pray for us this year.