Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Transfiguration of Jesus

Wherever Jesus went, a crowd always followed him. People sought Jesus out for many different reasons. Some were ill and in desperate need of healing. Some were curious and wanted to see for themselves the wonder-worker from Nazareth. Still others wanted to find some reason to discredit him and write him off as a false prophet. Whatever the reason for his popularity, one thing is clear - Jesus had a powerful attraction on the people he came in contact with.

At the same time, there were only a few who really knew him. Only a select group shared a personal friendship with Jesus. They were the ones who were not only curious about his message but willing to live out his teaching. They were the ones who were not only interested in witnessing his miracles but who understood those mighty works to be a sign that Jesus was sent by God. They were the ones who were willing to stay behind after the crowds had dispersed. They were the ones willing to follow Jesus to his death in Jerusalem. Because of their faith, Jesus chose them to be the ones who would see him in all his glory both during his earthly life and after his resurrection.

These disciples teach us a very important lesson about what it means to believe in Jesus. Unless we are willing to leave everything behind, we will never understand who Jesus really is. Jesus may be for us a teacher, a good man or an inspirational leader, but we will never know him as our Lord and God unless we give him the number one spot in our lives and our hearts. That is why so many people in Jesus' day even though they heard his words and witnessed his miracles failed to recognize who he was and believe in him. They saw, but they did not understand. They heard, but they did not believe because they were unwilling to change their lives and their way of thinking to make room for the Messiah, the Son of God. Faith makes all the difference between missing out on God's offer of salvation or enjoying a deepening friendship with Jesus Christ.

The first reading from the book of Genesis tells the story of one of the Old Testament's greatest men of faith, Abraham. When God speaks to Abraham, he is a very old man. Yet God promises that he will be the father of a great number of people, more numerous than the stars of the sky. Though it sounded impossible, Abraham put his faith in God's word. He was willing to leave his homeland and travel far away with only God's promise as his guaranty of safety and happiness. Because Abraham believed and was willing to abandon everything, he witnessed God work in powerful ways throughout his life. Without faith, Abraham would have been an old man who would have died in his homeland with no sons to continue his name. But with faith, Abraham became the father of the Jewish faith, and Christians along with Muslims consider him to be their father in faith as well. Faith made all the difference in the life of Abraham.

The gospel reading from Saint Luke is that of the transfiguration of the Jesus. Though the gospel tells us that Jesus' appearance changed, that is not exactly the case. What really happened was that Peter, James and John were witnessing the glory that Jesus already had as Son of God but that was hidden by his human nature. They were given the opportunity to see Jesus in all his glory because they already believed that he was the Son of God. What was normally hidden to their physical vision became visible because of their faith. As with Abraham, because of their faith and their willingness to leave everything behind, the glory of God revealed itself to them.

Over two thousand years since his birth, Jesus still manages to draw a crowd. Historians, sociologists and even atheists continue to be fascinated by the person of Jesus of Nazareth. They pour over the Scriptures in an attempt to understand him better. Sadly, like the religious leaders of Jesus' day, many of them do so to discredit him and his teaching. However, no matter how they scrutinize the New Testament, the real Jesus in all his truth and glory eludes them because they fail to approach him with faith. They read the same words we do and the same stories we do but it fails to convince them because they are not willing to change to live up to the gospel message.

During this season of Lent, we have all committed ourselves to growing deeper in our knowledge of Jesus. If Jesus seems distant to us, if the radiance of his glory seems outside our vision, perhaps we should ask ourselves if there is some activity or bad habit in our life which is not in keeping with his teaching. Is there something in our lives which we need to abandon so that we can follow Jesus more closely? Or is there a teaching of Jesus and his Church which we find difficult to accept and which is keeping us from giving our hearts over more fully to God? If so, now is the time to offer up to God all our shortcomings and sins. Now is the time to profess our faith in the love God has for us and to turn ourselves over to his unfailing mercy. Once we do so, our faith will deepen, and the glory of God's Son will manifest itself in our lives in unmistakable ways.

Each of us has been drawn here today by the person of Jesus Christ. We have placed our faith in him not only by our words but by our actions. Because of our faith, we will witness a great miracle. Jesus will make himself present to us in the form of bread and wine. Just as he appeared in all his glory to Peter, James and John in his transfiguration, he appears now to us. The glory of this sacrament is hidden to all except those who look upon the bread and the wine with faith. Seeing, then, let us believe. Hearing, let us proclaim his marvelous deeds. And receiving him, let us bring the message of his glory to all those we meet.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Spring Fever for Jesus

Today begins the great season of Lent, forty days of preparation for the celebration of Jesus' resurrection from the dead. We begin this season by gathering on a Wednesday, interrupting our weekly schedules, to acknowledge before God and one another that we are sinners. Our lives have not reflected the joy and love of the good news of Jesus. And so we resolve throughout these forty days, with the help of God's grace, to pray, to fast and to give to the poor as a sign of our desire to change and as a means of strengthening ourselves against temptation.

The word "Lent" comes from an old English word for "springtime". During these days, the long, cold winter is coming to an end and spring with its promise of warmth and new life bursts forth. We will all go into our yards and gardens during these weeks to clear out any leaves left behind from the Fall and clean up all the damage done by winter's cold weather. In the same way, we must each enter the garden of our hearts to clear away the debris left behind by our sinful choices and clean up the damage done in our soul every time we turned away from our Heavenly Father. We are stepping out of the cold winter of sin and turning our lives over to the warmth and light of a new Spring of grace, love and mercy.

It is not only warmer weather which we think about as Spring approaches. The Spring is also a season we typically associate with love. The warmer weather not only brings forth new life in nature, it also stirs our hearts with the desire to give ourselves to another, to find a companion to share the sunny days with. These forty days of Lent are also a time for us to grow in love with God and with our neighbor. It is a time for us to catch a "Spring fever" for Jesus. And so whatever we choose to give up for Lent, whatever good works we resolve to perform, are only worthwhile if they draw us into a closer, more loving relationship with God. We must change not only our behavior, but our hearts. The prophet Joel tells us in the first reading that we are to "rend our hearts, not our garments, and return to the Lord". These forty days will be a success not if we lose a few pounds but if we gain a new heart. The new life which the Springtime of Lent offers will only be real and lasting in our lives if it makes us more compassionate and more sensitive to the needs of our neighbor.

At this point, we have already decided what we are going to give up for Lent. However we must ask ourselves if there is any way that we can make our sacrifice beneficial for someone in need. Traditionally, Christians have taken the money they saved from their Lenten sacrifice whether it be going without coffee or not going out to eat as often and given it to the poor. Others have resolved to give their free time to volunteer work with the needy. Whatever we choose to do, our Lenten fast will be most pleasing in the eyes of our Heavenly Father if it leads to the hungry being fed, the naked being clothed and the sick being cared for. The best Lenten sacrifices are those which not only deprive us of something we enjoy but which at the same time enrich those who are themselves deprived. And hopefully it will lead us to live a simpler life, consuming less of the world's goods, so that we can have more left over to give to the poor. Then the springtime of God's love and justice will not only arise in our hearts but in our world.

God loves us and offers us his friendship in Jesus. No matter how we may have sinned, he is always ready to welcome us back. The great sign of that mercy is the cross upon which Jesus, his Son, gave his life. We draw that cross in ashes on our foreheads to acknowledge to the world that our hope is in the cross of Christ. And we resolve throughout these forty days to practice prayer, fasting and almsgiving as a way of strengthening ourselves to take up our own cross. We also resolve to show God's mercy to a needy world by helping others to carry the cross of poverty, sickness and loneliness. Such is the fast which pleases our Heavenly Father. It is in just such a way that we store up treasure for ourselves in heaven. And it is in just such a way that we can be assured that this Lenten season will be a Springtime of new life for us.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

I Am A Sinful Man

It is the gift of the artist not only to see possibilities but to bring them into reality. A Michelangelo sees the young David in a flawed block of marble and chisels away until we can see him as well. With what at first sound like random notes, the great composers string together melodies which stir our spirits. They are a reflection of the genius of our Creator. God not only sees in us possibilities we could never imagine, but he labors to bring that potential to fulfillment. We may see ourselves as flawed, but God sees our beauty and chisels away until others can see it as well. We may see the events of our lives as random, but God directs those events to lead us to sanctification and to inspire others.

When Jesus first meets him, Simon is a fisherman like any other tending his nets on the shore of the Lake of Tiberias. The day began as a waste since he had no catch to take to market after a night of labor. Then Jesus chooses his boat to be the one from which he will proclaim the word of God to the pressing crowd. Though Luke does not record Jesus' words for us, they were no doubt powerful enough to effect a change in Simon Peter. He is willing to obey Jesus and put out into the deep water for another go at a catch even though he knows it is too late in the day and even though his previous efforts met with nothing but futility. The miraculous catch of fish shakes Simon Peter to his core overwhelming him with fear and shame. He saw himself as a sinner and a failed fisherman. But Jesus somehow saw a man of faith cowering in that bow, a man willing to leave everything to follow him. He saw in him a leader who was able to convince his partners James and John to do the same. Jesus saw a greatness in Simon Peter that no one else could see and that no one else could bring out. And, as unlikely as it seemed at the time, it was upon the rock of this simple fisherman's faith that he would build his Church.

When Jesus first met Paul, he was hurrying on to Damascus, "still breathing murderous threats", to persecute the followers of Christ. He was full of a rageful purpose to bring to an end this new way which he saw as a threat to his people. It seemed as though nothing could stop him. The disciples knew him to be a murderer and an enemy. But Jesus saw in him one who would proclaim the good news to the Gentiles. Paul saw himself as the least of the apostles because he had persecuted the Church. But no one besides Jesus himself has been as influential in shaping the Christianity we live today. Jesus saw greatness in Paul and so appeared to him in all his risen glory to enlist him in the effort of spreading the gospel.

We could go on and on giving examples throughout the Scriptures of the prophet Isaiah, of Mary, the virgin of Nazareth, of Mary Magdalen who stood at the foot of the cross and was the first witness to the resurrection, and of the poor widow who gave her last pennies to the temple treasury. They are all women and men who seemed unremarkable in the view of the world but who were called to greatness through faith. Scripture does not present them to us as examples of what ordinary folk can do if they just "set their mind to it". Rather they are models of the marvels God can accomplish with humble believers who are willing to entrust their lives to him. They illustrate the ability of God to see and bring out in us more than we could ever hope for or imagine.

In every instance, it begins with the encounter with Jesus. Meeting Jesus was all it took to change the course of ones life. Those who left everything to follow him heard his teaching, saw firsthand his miracles and shared a friendship with him both before and after his resurrection that is unique and unrepeatable. They are privileged witnesses to everything Jesus did and said. However that does not mean that we cannot encounter Christ and be changed by him. On the contrary, every time we read the Scriptures and celebrate the sacraments Christ makes himself present to us in the Holy Spirit in a life-changing way. It is different from how Peter, Paul and Martha experienced Jesus, but real nonetheless. Just ask Saint Francis, Mother Theresa of Calcutta and countless others who have been called to witness to Christ many centuries after his resurrection.

We also know that the transformation that the Holy Spirit works in our lives is not instantaneous. Just as it took Michelangelo many blows of the hammer to sculpt his famous statue of David, it will take many encounters with Christ and much letting go on our part to effect our conversion. There will be times when we feel as if we are making no progress and other times when we think we are going backwards. It will often not be given to us to see where the road leads or enjoy the finished product. But I suspect that the forging forward in hope toward the unseen promise is part of the transformation itself.

There is much comfort in knowing that God is not done with us yet. We are his handiwork, each of us a masterpiece on which he is willing to spend his time and energy. God never fails to find something beautiful in us and never grows weary of endeavoring to draw it out. We need only allow him to stop us in the middle of our journey, let him into our boat and invite him into our daily work. Then the adventure can begin.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

God's Unfailing Love

When children first learn about God, they can believe that he created all things and that he is everywhere at the same time. What they have trouble believing is that God knows every single person on earth by name. It is just too much for their little brains to comprehend. And when you tell them that not only does he know everyone who is living now, he knows everyone who ever lived and everyone who will ever live in the future, you might think that their heads would explode. However, as they get over the shock of realizing God's vast knowledge and power, it is a joy to see their eyes open with wonder when it begins to sink in that God knows each one of them personally, by name. They then begin to realize that God not only knows them but loves them.

It is important for us every now and then in prayer to ponder over this simple but profound fact. God knows each of us by name. He knows every detail of our lives. He knew us before we were even born. He knew us in our mother's womb, and he knows us now. Why is he so interested in us when he has a whole universe to watch over? Very simply, because he loves us. His love for us is the one thing that can never change in our lives.

Today's first reading is taken from the beginning of the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah is being called by God to be a prophet at a time of much corruption in Israel. He knows that it is going to be a struggle speaking God's truth to the nation's power brokers. He knows that he will be ridiculed, persecuted and maybe even killed. God does not assure Jeremiah that it will be easy or that people will listen to him. Instead, he tells Jeremiah that he knew him in his mother's womb, and that he will always be with him. That knowledge that God is always by his side will give Jeremiah the courage and strength to speak the truth to the people, to shoulder their ridicule and rejection and to face his own death. His confidence is not in himself. His sense of security does not come from whether or not people like and accept him. Rather he needs nothing else than to know that God loves him and is with him.

In the gospel proclaimed today, Jesus is preaching in his hometown of Nazareth. One would think that it would be the safest place for him to be, among those who have known him since he was a boy. But his words meet with opposition even there. In fact, the people are so incensed by his message that they drag him out to the edge of the town to throw him off the cliff. But Jesus calmly walks away. He knows that God is with him, that it is not his time to suffer and die, and that his Father would not allow a hair on his head to be harmed until the time was right. Any of us would have been devastated to have our friends reject us as Jesus' friends rejected him. Though Jesus was no doubt hurt by them, he was not devastated. The source of his identity and confidence did not come from the esteem of the people of Nazareth. Rather it came from the Father's love for him. Knowing that he could never be separated from that love gave him the courage to labor on preaching the good news even in the face of such hostility.

Where do we place our security? Where do we draw confidence from? If our security and confidence are not based on God's love for us, then they are misplaced. There is nothing else on earth that we can count on as surely as God's love for us. Our money eventually runs out. Our loved ones eventually die and leave us. Our health gets weaker as we age. When all is said and done, it is only God's love that is constant in our lives.

Our society is suffering from an epidemic of anxiety. Our world feels unbalanced, and fear can so easily creep into our minds and hearts. We have placed our confidence in money, relationships, our talents and our health, and realized just how shaky all those foundations can be. When we sense that fear is nipping at our heels, it is time to turn to our Heavenly Father and reaffirm our faith that he is in control of our lives. It is time to put our confidence in his unfailing love. Such an attitude will not solve our problems. But it will give us the confidence to face them and the perspective necessary to not be overwhelmed by them.

Our second reading today is one of the most popular in all the New Testament. It is Saint Paul's song of love. The love which Saint Paul describes, however, is not an emotional love full of drama as we might see on a soap opera. Rather it is the love of Christ displayed in all its glory on the cross. God loved each of us so much that he sent his beloved Son to die for us. If God has loved us so much, he will do all else for us besides. And we can never lose that love. No matter what we may have done in our lives, no matter how far off we may have drifted, God always calls us back to him. We can count on God to forgive us and to put behind us whatever sins we may have committed. The one thing we can count on in life is God's forgiving love.

God knows each of us. He knows every detail of our lives. He knows what we need before we ask. He knows our future, and he knows our past. Why would rely on anything or anyone else when the God who created the universe loves us so passionately and so completely? How could we ever doubt that everything will be okay when God himself is watching over us?