Sunday, April 28, 2013
Most of us live in homes that are older and could use a bit of repairs and updating. When we do have the opportunity to spruce up our home by painting the exterior, putting up new cabinets in the kitchen or refinishing the hardwood floors, we feel a good deal of satisfaction. It can feel as though we are living in a new house. The desire to keep our homes clean and up-to-date has made companies like Home Depot and Lowes flourish and programs like "This Old House" and "Generation Renovation" among the most popular on cable television.
The word "renovate" means "to make new". When we renovate our homes or apartments we are trying to make them like new. However, unless we totally tear down and rebuild them, we cannot make our houses brand new. No matter how much work we do, we will, in most cases, still have the same foundation, the same joists and the same studs. And whatever work we do to our homes is never permanent. In a few years, we will have to repaint again, replace the heating system again or fix the appliances.
It is not only our homes that need to be renovated. Every aspect of our lives and of our world needs to be renewed. In our personal lives, our minds and spirits need education and prayer so that we can grow in knowledge and love. Our society is in constant need of reform and change so that it will be more just and peaceful. And our Church is faced with the need of ongoing conversion so that it will be a more effective instrument of Christ's presence and power. The task of being made new never ends in any facet of our lives.
Who is the one who has the power to change us? Who can shake the dust off our old habits? Who can clear out the cobwebs of bitterness and replace the rotted out places in our hearts?
No one but Jesus.
During the Easter season, we continue to read from the book of Revelation. Saint John has a vision of a new heaven and a new earth. The sea, which is the symbol of chaos and violence, is no more. The new earth is a place where people are living in peace and the landscape has been healed of the scars left by pollution. The centerpiece, however, is the new Jerusalem which descends from heaven. This new Jerusalem is the Church purified from all sin and glowing with holiness. Every tear is wiped away. All people lives as sisters and brothers. It is a brand new start for all of God's creation. It is a total renovation from the foundation to the rooftop. And it all stems from the power of God made manifest in Jesus, our Risen Lord. Therefore, he can proclaim from his throne in heaven, "See, I make all things new."
How does Jesus make all things new? Our reading from the gospel of John tells us. It is taken from Jesus' discourse with his disciples during the Last Supper. He is bidding farewell to those he has gathered to continue his work on earth. He tells them that all he has taught them can be summed up in one commandment, "Love one another." The love that Jesus is talking about is no warm feeling of affection that expresses itself in hugs and kisses. Rather he commands them to love one another as he has loved them. How did Jesus show his love? By dying on the cross. Jesus is the only hope of renewal for us individually, for the Church and for the world. And he accomplishes that transformation through a love willing to sacrifice even to the point of death.
All of us stand here today with some area of our lives that needs healing and renewal. We will encounter continual failure and frustration in facing those problems if we do not bring Jesus and his love into the situation. If our marriages are suffering, the only way to turn them around is by husbands and wives making sacrifices for each other and putting the other's interest before their own. If our parish is to grow and overcome its struggles, it will be by each of us loving and forgiving one another. We must strive to be a community marked by love so that others will know that we are disciples of Jesus and be drawn to worship here. If our world is to enjoy peace and an end to violence, the only way is Jesus' way of love and forgiveness. Until we learn to put aside our pride and forget our grievances we can make no progress toward a world free of poverty and despair. No treaty or government program can replace the change of heart that only Jesus can make happen. Whenever we invite Jesus into a situation and are willing to follow his commandment of self-sacrificing love, then problems begin to turn around, hearts begin to open and real lasting peace can take hold of our lives.
The home renovations business is a multi-billion dollar industry in today's world. Imagine if we could have the same interest in renewing our families as we have in renovating our homes. Imagine if we could work as hard at repairing broken relationships as we do at repairing our leaky roofs. Imagine if we were as concerned about replacing hate with love and bitterness with forgiveness as we are with replacing our Formica countertops with granite ones. Then our world would undergo a real and lasting renewal marked by the love of Christ.
Today is the day to start. It is here that we meet Jesus, the One who makes all things new. He wants to change us. We need only accept his commandment of love and welcome him into our lives. He will waste no time getting to work, and we can begin to see the transformation take place.
(image by Michael Moss)
Sunday, April 21, 2013
Scientists tell us that babies develop their sense of hearing very early on. Even in the womb, a few months after conception, babies can hear and make out sounds. It is even believed that a baby can recognize his mother's voice while still in the womb. That is why many doctors encourage expectant mothers to talk to their unborn children. We sometimes see mothers rubbing their bellies and singing softly to their child in the womb. All this serves to build up the natural process of bonding that is taking place between mother and child by attuning the child to the voice of his or her mother.
During the first few weeks of the Easter season we have heard much about the sense of sight. Saint John sees the empty tomb and believes. Mary Magdalene meets Jesus in the garden and believes. Jesus shows the apostles the wounds in his hands and side, and they believe. Saint Thomas overcomes his doubts when he finally sees the Risen Lord for himself. It is by seeing Jesus that Mary Magdalene and the apostles come to faith.
Today, however, the focus is on the sense of hearing. Faith comes not only from seeing Jesus, but from hearing his voice. Jesus tells us as much in the gospel when he says, "My sheep hear my voice....I give them eternal life."
Faith which comes through hearing is a very important concept in the New Testament. Only a few believers were privileged to see Jesus with their own eyes. The vast majority of Christians - ourselves included - came to believe through our ears, not our eyes. We heard God's word, it touched our heart and we believed. We are among those whom Jesus called "blessed" because we have believed without seeing. We are the Christians who, like children whose ears are attuned to the voice of their mother in the womb, have recognized the voice of our Good Shepherd, Jesus, and decided to follow him.
During those first few weeks of Easter, when the readings focused on the sense of sight, we discussed how we can still see the Risen Lord, though in a hidden way, through the sacraments. All seven sacraments are real, life-transforming encounters with Jesus. If the sacraments are a way for us to see Jesus, then is there a way that we can hear the Risen Lord speak to us today? Is there a way that we can attune our ears to recognize and respond to the voice of our Good Shepherd?
The answer, of course, is yes! The Risen Lord continues to speak to us, his sheep, through the Bible.
As Catholic Christians we believe that the Bible, though written by men, was inspired by the Holy Spirit to such a degree that we can rightly call God its author. Because it is God's word, it is totally reliable as a source of knowledge of our Heavenly Father. It is a sure way of hearing his voice. When we proclaim the Scriptures together at Mass or when we read them to ourselves in our private prayer, it is God himself who speaks to us. When we approach the Bible with faith that it is God's word, our hearts and lives are changed.
It is for this reason that the reading of Scripture has such a prominent place at every Mass. The Bible is really the first course of this holy meal which Jesus prepares for us every week. It speaks to us of his love and willingness to forgive. It also challenges us to invite him to change those areas of our lives wherein by our actions or attitudes we are not living up to the great commandment of love. Through the Bible, Jesus, our Good Shepherd, continues to lead, nourish and console us, his sheep.
If we are to grow in our ability to recognize the voice of Jesus, we must make time everyday to read and study both the Old and New Testaments. Sometimes we can be intimidated by the Bible because it is so big and so many parts of it are difficult to understand. The best way to approach it is to remember that God has a message for us hidden in those pages. We only need to ask the Holy Spirit to guide us in our reading and to help us to understand it. No one is better at explaining a book than the one who wrote it. Since the Holy Spirit is the author of Scripture, he is the one to go to when we come across a passage which is difficult to understand. He does not want to keep his message of love a secret. So if we are patient and diligent, the meaning will become clearer and clearer with time.
Another helpful way to grow in our knowledge of the Bible is to find books that explain certain facets of Scripture such as the history of the people of Israel and the cultural background of the people of Jesus' time. Such books give us added insights that can take away some of the mystery from the places and peoples mentioned in the Bible and can make it seem less intimidating. There are also many good Catholic resources online that can help us in our study of God's word. As with any study, it takes time, dedication and effort, but the fruit it bears in deepening our faith is rewarding beyond measure.
We often say, "Seeing is believing." But for most of us, it is in hearing that we come to believe. Jesus, our Good Shepherd and Risen Lord, continues to speak to us. We are his lambs, the sheep of his flock. He loves to tell us how much he cares for us, and he longs for us to follow him. Like a child who recognizes her mother's voice even before she is born, we can attune our ears to the gentle whispers of our Good Shepherd by reading his word, the Bible, everyday. Then we will be quick to follow him whenever he calls. And we will be ready when we finally see him face to face at our judgement when he calls to us, "Come, good and faithful servant. Enter the kingdom I have prepared for you from the foundation of the world."
(image by Marisol Sousa)
Sunday, April 14, 2013
When those suffering from a terminal illness reach a point where they have accepted that they are dying, one of the first things they want to do is make peace with their loved ones. They make a point of calling them to either ask for forgiveness or to offer it to those who may have hurt them. On the other hand, one of the most painful and haunting experiences we could have is to lose a loved one before we have an opportunity to make peace. The finality of death helps us to appreciate how insignificant our squabbles are. None of us wants to carry the burden of a grudge with us as we prepare to meet our Maker.
We can imagine the distress, then, that Peter must have felt on the day Jesus died. Though he had promised to stand by Jesus no matter what, he denied ever knowing him to the guards who were warming themselves over a charcoal fire. When he learned that Jesus would be condemned to death, he ran and hid out of fear. It must have been eating him up inside that when Jesus needed him most, Peter did not stand by him. What was probably most haunting was the thought that he would never have a chance to tell him how sorry he was and to make peace with him. He thought that he would have to live the rest of his life with the guilt and shame of knowing that he had let Jesus down.
What Peter could not understand at the time was that Good Friday was not the last time he would see Jesus alive. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus would rise again with a new, glorified body. He would appear to the apostles during the course of forty days helping them to understand what the tragic events surrounding his death all meant. And he would give them the same Spirit which raised him from the dead so that they could continue his good works of preaching the gospel, bringing forgiveness to sinners and healing to the sick. Peter would have a chance to see Jesus again and to express his love for him.
Today's reading offers us the last appearance of the Risen Jesus as recorded in the gospel of Saint John. The apostles have left Jerusalem with all its reminders of those last days of Jesus earthly life. They have returned to their hometown, the region of Galilee, where they feel most at home and comfortable. It was at Galilee that the apostles, many of them fishermen, had met Jesus for the first time and had begun to follow him. It was at the shores of the Sea of Galilee that they first witnessed how he touched so many lives with his message of love and forgiveness.
When the apostles recognize him, Jesus is on the shore of the sea preparing breakfast for them. Seeing the charcoal fire Jesus had made must have reminded Peter of how it was against the glow of just such a fire that he had denied knowing him. His heart must have been aching to tell Jesus how sorry he was for abandoning him.
Peter would have his chance. He finally has an opportunity to be alone with Jesus as they walk along the beach after breakfast. It is an idyllic, peaceful scene - the type of scene we would imagine ourselves in if we had a chance to meet Jesus face to face. Just as Peter denied Jesus three times, so Jesus asks Peter three times whether he loves him. When Peter replies, "Yes, Lord, I love you.", Jesus gives him the mission of feeding or tending his lambs. By professing his love, Peter makes up for his sin and is restored to his dignity as the chief shepherd.
It is interesting that Jesus does not call him by the name he had given him - Peter, which means "rock". Rather he addresses him as "Simon, son of John". The only other time Jesus addresses Peter this way is when he first meets him and calls him to be a disciple. What Jesus is doing is letting Peter know that, though he has failed, he is still called to be a disciple. This is emphasized at the end of their conversation when he says to him, "Follow me." Jesus forgives Peter and restores his status as a disciple based on a simple profession of love.
We tend to associate mercy and forgiveness with the season of Lent. But it is just as fitting for the Easter season. It was for the forgiveness of sins that Jesus died and rose again. When he appeared to the apostles on the night of the resurrection, his first gift to them was the power to forgive sins. All that Jesus did was centered on giving us new life by reconciling us to the Father. And so the sacrament of Reconciliation, or confession, is not just for the Lenten season. Rather, like the other sacraments, it is a real encounter with the Risen Lord. Through confession we walk with Jesus, tell him that we are sorry for abandoning him, and profess our love for him as Peter did. Jesus then pours his forgiveness and mercy out upon us and renews his call to us to follow him as his disciple. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is one of the beautiful ways that we can come into the presence of our Risen Savior during this Easter season and experience the healing power of his mercy just as Peter did at the banks of the Sea of Galilee.
Jesus calls us to his side today. He has prepared a meal for us. It is his very body and blood. We can approach this table with confidence knowing that he has forgiven us. We can approach this table with joy because he is alive. We can go in peace knowing that he will always be by our side.
Sunday, April 7, 2013
During Easter it is customary to decorate the church with lilies. Just as the poinsettia is considered the official flower of Christmas, so the lily is the official flower of the Easter season. It is not only because of its beauty that this flower has come to be associated with the resurrection of Jesus. Rather, early on, people noticed that this beautiful white flower was shaped much like a trumpet. The lily is meant to serve as a reminder to us that just as a trumpet is sounded to announce the arrival of a king or dignitary, so we must trumpet the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. We are not meant to keep the good news of God's victory over sin and death a secret but must proclaim it to everyone we meet.
If we are meant to spread the message of new life in Christ with boldness, why is it that so many of us act more like shrinking violets? We so often find ourselves keeping our faith to ourselves out of fear that we will offend someone or because we doubt that we know enough to express the ancient faith of the Church. Our fears may run even deeper. We might be afraid of being ridiculed by our friends or rejected by those we love. Our doubts may also run deeper. We may wonder whether the good news of Jesus has any relevance to life in the twenty-first century. These emotions and conflicts often keep us from living our faith with the fullness of joy which God intended us to have.
Of course, fear and doubt are nothing new to Christian believers. The followers of Christ have experienced them since the beginning. Even those who saw Jesus with their own eyes and heard the gospel message directly from his lips suffered intense fear and doubt. Today's gospel reading is a reminder of just how true this is.
In today's reading from the gospel of John, it is the evening of the resurrection. The apostles are confused. They learned that the tomb in which Jesus had been buried is now empty, and Mary Magdalene claims that he appeared to her. Peter and John ran out to the tomb to see for themselves, and they found it to be empty just as the women said. John believed, but Peter remained confused and afraid. Now they have barricaded themselves in the room where they were staying. They were afraid that they would be killed just as Jesus was. They were not able to believe in Jesus' resurrection much less celebrate and proclaim it because their hearts were gripped with mortal fear.
The gospel tells us that Jesus appears to them "despite the locked doors". Those doors were bolted fast because of the apostles' fear. The Risen Jesus, however, cannot be locked out by fear, much less by locked doors. Now that he has conquered sin and death, he is the Lord of all. Nothing can hold back his presence or keep him from touching any heart he so wishes to reach. When the apostles recognize that it is truly the Lord - when he shows them his hands and side - their fear turns into joy. He breathes the Holy Spirit upon them to replace their fear with peace and to give them power to forgive sin. By encountering the Risen Lord, the apostles take the first step toward overcoming their paralyzing fear.
The same is true with the problem of doubt. As we all remember, Thomas was not present when Jesus first appeared to the apostles. He refused to believe that Jesus was risen unless he could see and touch him for himself. Again, a week later, the apostles find themselves behind locked doors. This time, however, the doors are locked not just because of fear, but because of doubt. Jesus is not offended by Thomas' lack of faith. Jesus does not refuse to reveal his risen glory to Thomas because of his doubts. Rather, he made a point of reaching out to him though the doors of his heart were bolted by unbelief. It is by having a personal encounter with the Risen Jesus that Thomas is able to overcome his doubts and make one of the most sincere and profound expressions of faith found in the New Testament, "My Lord and my God!"
We see what a transformation takes place in the lives of the apostles in our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. They are now fearlessly proclaiming the good news of Jesus' resurrection throughout Jerusalem. Crowds are flocking to hear them just as they did to Jesus. And miraculous healings are taking place, just as they did by the hand of Jesus. The encounter with the Risen Lord has transformed the apostles from men fettered by fear and doubt into men who proclaim with boldness the resurrection of Jesus and who continue his ministry of healing and reconciliation.
The Scriptures make it clear to us that if we find ourselves weighed down by fear and doubt, then we must encounter the Risen Lord. How is that possible so many centuries after he has ascended into heaven? Today's readings again give us more insight into how it is that we may have a personal encounter today with the Risen Lord.
We remember that Jesus makes his first appearance to the apostles on the night of the resurrection, a Sunday. But then Jesus waits a whole week to reveal himself again. He does not appear to them the next day, but waits until the following Sunday to show himself to Thomas. To drive the point home even further, in today's second reading from the book of Revelation, it is on a Sunday, the Lord's day, that John has a vision of the Risen Christ and receives the revelation of all that is to take place. This is to make it clear to us that Sunday is the day when we encounter the Risen Lord, in particular during our celebration of the Eucharist. Therefore, for us who live so many centuries since the death and resurrection of Jesus, it is in this place where we hear the word of God proclaimed and receive the Body and Blood of Jesus that we encounter Christ still alive among us. Though we cannot see him as clearly as the apostles did or put our fingers in his wounds as Thomas did, the encounter with Jesus is just as real and has the same power to dispel our fears and doubts.
So if fear and doubt continue to siphon off our peace and joy, this is the place to bring it. Here we meet Jesus in all his risen glory. Here we exchange the burden of unbelief for the power of faith. It is here that we bloom into believers willing to trumpet the good news of a Savior who has broken down the doors of sin and death. Blessed are we! We have not seen, but we believe and cry out, "My Lord and my God!"