Saturday, May 25, 2013

Reaching God

The first man to travel into outer space and orbit the earth was the Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin. Besides being a monumental human accomplishment, it was a source of pride for the Russian people to beat the West in sending a manned craft into space. And for the Soviet government, it was an opportunity to promote their atheistic, totalitarian regime. The Soviet premier at the time, Nikita Khrushchev, took the opportunity of his country's achievement to criticize religion by stating, "Yuri Gagarin flew into space and didn't see God there."

Of course, as is so often the case with atheists, Khrushchev's comments show a basic ignorance about God. God does not live in outer space. God is not out in the universe floating around somewhere. Rather, he is outside the universe. No spacecraft could ever travel far enough or fast enough to reach him. God is outside space and time. There is no way for us to get to where God is. God is greater than this vast universe for he created it.

In fact, if God had not revealed himself first to the Jewish people through the covenant with Abraham and later to the whole world through Jesus Christ, there is no way we could come to a full knowledge of him. Through the wonders of nature we would have some glimpse into his power and wisdom. Through our human ability to love and care for each other, we would have some sense that he is good. But if he had not sent Jesus Christ, we would not know that he is a personal God who knows each of us by name and who wants us to have a relationship with him. And we could never have imagined how limitless his love for us is that he would send his only Son to die for us. It is only through Jesus that we can know God in all his mystery and only by the gift of the Holy Spirit that we can love him in return.

Nothing illustrates this more than the mystery we celebrate today, the mystery of the Holy Trinity. We love and worship one God who is three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Though three persons, they are one God. Though one God, they are three persons. We call it a "mystery" because our human intelligence can never fully understand it. If God had not revealed this truth to us through Jesus and through the Church, we could never have known it. As it is, only when we are in heaven, outside the bounds of space and time, will we glimpse fully the reality of God's mystery.

Because God dwells in mystery outside of the universe, there is no way that our human efforts alone can reach him. Just as there is no spacecraft that can travel to where he dwells, there are no amount of good deeds we could perform to earn our way into heaven. If it were possible to enter heaven simply be being good and not hurting each other, it would not have been necessary for Jesus to have suffered and died on the cross. Salvation is not a result of our efforts or good intentions. Rather it is a gift offered to us out of the love of God who created us to live eternally with him in heaven.

That is why Saint Paul tells us in today's second reading that we are justified by faith. As he uses the term, justification means that our friendship with God is restored. Sin destroyed our relationship with God, but Jesus restored it by dying on the cross for our sins. It is because of Jesus' effort, not our own, that our relationship with God is restored. For us to be saved, we need to believe not just that God exists, but that he sent his Son to die for us and that our sins are forgiven in his name. We need to have faith. And we have already received that faith through baptism.

You will notice that I said that our human efforts alone cannot get us to heaven. That is not to say that our efforts have no value or that we should not strive to be good. Rather our efforts assisted by God's grace are pleasing to our heavenly Father. When we add God's love to whatever we do, it has immeasurable worth. The gift of salvation is given to us freely, but we must accept it and put it to use in our lives. We have to strive to be good with the help of God, understanding all the while that even our ability to do good is a gift of God.

Science can never develop a spacecraft capable of reaching God. We could never engineer a computer program capable of unraveling the mystery of a God who is Father, Son and Spirit. No one could ever write a self-help book that could help us once and for all conquer sin. Since we could not travel to God, he traveled to us. In Jesus Christ, God revealed himself to be a Father who created us, a Son who saved us and a Spirit who makes us holy. We do not have to figure it all out or try to understand it. We need only accept the gift and rejoice that our God loves us so much. The mystery comes down to one simple fact - this God who dwells in mystery loves us, and he wants us to love him in return

Sunday, May 19, 2013


The success of the movie, Avatar, made 3-D film-making popular again. With 3-D technology, the viewers get the sense that they are in the middle of the action, that it is taking place all around them. It is an effective way of making the on-screen action more exciting for the audience.

Of course, to have the full effect, the viewer must be wearing special 3-D glasses. Without the glasses, one can still follow the plot, but the thrill of the action is not as intense. It is through the glasses that the audience is brought into the middle of the adventure making them part of the full experience.

The gift of the Holy Spirit is much like those special 3-D glasses. We can manage to live without his power and presence in our lives, and sadly many people do. But by doing so, we do not experience life in its fullness. We do not grasp the real purpose for our existence which can only be found in the God who created us in his image and likeness. Without the Holy Spirit we can manage to get by, but there is much that we will miss along the way.

Today we bring the Easter season to a close by celebrating the feast of Pentecost. It is the day when Jesus' promise to his disciples that they would be clothed with power from on high was fulfilled. While they were gathered in prayer with the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Holy Spirit rushed down upon them like a mighty wind. With this gift of power, the Church was born. The good news would now be preached to the ends of the earth.

Like 3-D glasses, the Holy Spirit made the apostles see things differently. Before they were afraid, hiding behind locked doors. Now they boldly enter the streets of Jerusalem proclaiming to all that Jesus is risen. Before they could not understand the meaning of Jesus' suffering and death. Now with the eyes of the Spirit they understand that his death was necessary for the salvation of the world. Before they were simple friends and followers of Jesus. Now, clothed with power from on high, they are the ones who will carry Jesus' teaching to the ends of the earth. With the vision that only the Holy Spirit can give, the apostles see things in a whole new way.

That gift of the Holy Spirit is not just for the apostles. Rather he has been poured out on each of us through baptism and confirmation. We do not look different because of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. However, with the eyes of faith, we know that he is transforming us day by day, leading us from fear into confidence, from ignorance to understanding and from darkness into light. We understand that the Holy Spirit is opening our eyes to the wonders God is working all around us.

How is it that the Holy Spirit helps us to see our lives and our world in a whole new way?

The Spirit helps us to see that we are the temple of God. Jesus tells us that if we believe in him and are obedient to his commandments then the Father and he will come to make their home within us. We are each carrying within us the presence of the Living God. Whenever we enter a church, we genuflect before the tabernacle because it holds Jesus' body. But Jesus is also present in our hearts in just as real a way. In fact, our hearts are the place he most longs to dwell.

Because the Holy Spirit helps us to see that God is present within us, we treat our bodies with care and respect. We dress modestly. We are careful about how much we eat and drink because we want to nourish our bodies and keep them healthy. We keep our thoughts pure and focused on God, and we avoid using foul language because we understand that we are always in the presence of the Most High God. The Holy Spirit helps us to see our dignity as daughters and sons of God.

If through the Holy Spirit, we can see our dignity as children of God, then we will also recognize that same dignity in the people we meet each day. We will treat them with the care and respect they deserve as temples of the Most High God no matter how they look and no matter their social status. If they are hungry, we will feed them. If they are sad, we will cry with them. If they are lonely, we will be their friends. Without the vision that only the Holy Spirit would give, we would see them as strangers. However, with the gift of faith, we see them as brothers and sisters whom we may never abandon.

If we have been living without the presence and power of the Holy Spirit then we have not been seeing things as they are. We have been missing out on all that life has to offer us. This feast day is an opportunity for us to look within and reflect on the powerful gift we received at our baptism and confirmation. It is time to reclaim our dignity as children of God and to welcome the presence of God into our hearts so that we can begin to see ourselves and others differently and to live fully the life that God is calling us to.

If the presence and action of the Holy Spirit still seems hard for us to understand, one good step to take would be to ask our Blessed Mother to pray for us. She knows in a personal way how powerful the Spirit is. It was by that power that she conceived Jesus and the words of the angel, "Nothing is impossible with God", were fulfilled. She was also present on that day when the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles. Because she wants to lead us to Jesus, she will certainly pray that we come to understand the presence of the Spirit in our lives and begin to draw on his power to fight temptation and to do good for those around us.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Seventh Sunday of Easter

Without a doubt, the greatest writer in the English language is Shakespeare. Though he composed many sonnets, he is best known for his plays. The dramas he wrote for the stage all have a distinctive feature, a literary device called the "soliloquy". The stage darkens, and a spotlight draws our attention to the main character who addresses a monologue to the audience. The best known of Shakespeare's soliloquies is the one delivered by Hamlet which starts off with the words, "'To be or not to be?'" Shakespeare uses the soliloquy to give the audience insight into what the main characters are thinking and into the emotions which are driving their actions.

If the gospel of Saint John were a Shakespearean play, the passage we heard proclaimed today would be one of its soliloquies. We are given a glimpse into the mind and heart of Jesus as he speaks intimately in prayer with his heavenly Father. Through his words, we are given insight into what is important to him and what he cares about.

Whom is Jesus praying for as he lifts his hands to heaven? He is praying for those who will believe because of the testimony of his disciples. He is praying for us.

This prayer takes place during the Last Supper. Before he faces his trial and execution, we who will come to believe in him are on his mind. It is natural that he would be thinking of us at such a time because it would be for our sake that he would endure the tortures of the cross.

And what is Jesus praying for? He is asking his heavenly Father that we be "one". Our Lord wants all believers to enjoy unity through love. This unity is not a matter of dressing alike, sharing the same taste in music or liking the same foods. Rather it is a matter of sharing the same beliefs and living according to the same moral code. It is a matter, ultimately, of loving one another as Jesus has loved us. Jesus wants us to have unity so that others may also come to believe that he is Lord and that he died to save them.

Throughout the Easter season our first readings have come from the Acts of the Apostles which chronicles the lives of the first followers of the apostles. We are told that the early Christians were one in mind and heart. They shared what they had with one another so that no one suffered want. It was because of the love they showed one another - their unity - that they were able to draw others to join them as believers.

In our day there are many who are skeptical about the good news of Jesus. It is not because they do not believe that Jesus is the Son of God or that they reject the Church's teaching. Rather, many people stay away because they do not see us acting with love toward one another. They see the pettiness and bickering that so often goes on and get turned off. We might not even be aware that we are doing it much of the time, but people notice, and they stay far away because of it.

If we are going to be a place where people can encounter the Risen Christ, then we must demonstrate a unity based in love. What are some of the ways that we, the ones who have come to believe in Jesus, make his prayer for unity among believers a reality?

Our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles gives us a clue. It is the story of Saint Stephen, the first to give his life for the faith. He is dragged outside the city walls and stoned to death. Yet, with his dying breath, he prays that God will forgive those who have killed him. If Stephen, like Jesus, can forgive those who killed him, what right do we have to not forgive those who have hurt us. If we are carrying around bitterness because someone has offended us or hurt our feelings, then we cannot be filled with the Spirit of Christ who commands us to love our enemies. If our minds are constantly going over the wrongs others have committed against us, then we cannot radiate the love of God whose sun shines on the good and the wicked alike. And so, the first step toward answering Jesus' prayer for unity among us is that we must forgive one another from the heart.

The second step toward becoming a more loving community is for each of us to make a commitment to not say a negative word about another and to avoid gossip at all costs. Few things are more painful than learning that someone you worship with on Sunday is spreading rumors about you on Monday. Few things devastate the unity of a Christian community more quickly than cliques of parishioners each talking badly about the other. Even when our criticisms are true, it is best that we address them with the person face to face or keep them to ourselves. None of us is perfect, and we would all prefer that our good qualities be noticed and our not-so-good qualities be overlooked. We should treat each other in just that way remembering that the reason we are here in the first place is to put our faith into action through love so that the good news of Jesus may spread far and wide.

Jesus did not only pray for us at the Last Supper. He continues to intercede for us in heaven at the right hand of the Father. His prayer continues to be that we be united in mind and heart. Jesus' will is always done. If he is praying that we be united in love, then it will happen. We have to cooperate with him, however, by forgiving one another sincerely and by endeavoring never to say an unkind word about one another. He left us the sacrament of his Body and Blood, a sacrament we call "Holy Communion", so that we can be in communion not only with him but with one another. We who share the one bread are one in Christ. As we draw closer to Jesus, we draw closer to one another. By the love we radiant, more and more people will be drawn to this place, and they too will come to believe that Jesus is Lord, and that he will come again.

Come, Lord Jesus!

(this homily originally appeared in Connect! magazine)

Thursday, May 9, 2013

A Friend in High Places

When our first parents, Adam and Eve, disobeyed God, they were cast out of Paradise. The gates were closed to them and an angel with a flaming sword was set at the entrance to make sure they could not be let back in. They and their children would never again enjoy peace, abundance and a face-to-face friendship with God in an earthly paradise.

The Risen Lord has ascended to heaven to open the gates of Paradise up again for us. Whereas Adam and Eve disobeyed God, he was obedient unto death. With perfect obedience and love he gave his body as an offering for sin. Now the sin which kept heaven closed to us has been forgiven, and we enjoy the hope of everlasting life. We no longer live in despair separated from our God. Instead we fix our eyes on Jesus who has gone up to heaven to prepare a place for each of us who believe in him.

When Jesus ascends to heaven, the apostles are full of anticipation. What will happen next? Will Jesus establish his Kingdom on earth? They have seen marvelous things and are anxious to know what else they should expect. But Jesus tells them to stay in Jerusalem and wait. They will be "clothed with power from on high." Now that Jesus has ascended into heaven, he will send them the power to be his witnesses. This power is nothing else than the Holy Spirit who will rush upon them like a mighty wind compelling them to preach throughout all the world the words and deeds of the Risen Lord.

The gospels tell us that the apostles were filled with joy and were constantly proclaiming the wonders of God. It would seem that they would be ready to carry out the mission Jesus left for them. But something is missing. In fact, the most important element is missing. They still lack the gift of the Holy Spirit. Without that Spirit they would be unable to convince anyone that Jesus had risen and ascended to the right hand of the Father in heaven. They would be like cars without gas or toys without batteries, unable to accomplish what they were made to do. And so Jesus tells them to wait in prayerful expectation for the Holy Spirit who will give conviction to their words, power to the deeds and make the hearts of all who hear them open to their message.

We who gather here today are assembled in prayer. We are the fruits of that gospel that was first preached by the Apostles. The Holy Spirit has touched our minds and hearts to welcome the good news of Jesus' death and resurrection. We have also known what it is like to be used by the Holy Spirit to bring comfort to those who are sorrowful, to convince others of the truth of the faith or to offer helpful advice to someone facing a difficult decision. We know there was something more at work than our natural talents or insights. God was using us through the Holy Spirit which made us his temple at our baptism and confirmation.

The image of the apostles who gathered with Mary in prayerful anticipation of the gift of the Holy Spirit is a beautiful way for us to understand our mission as a church. We cannot always be busy doing something. We also have to make time to pray and to wait. As a parish community we very often feel the frustration of so many plans and programs which never seem to bear any fruit. We expect great things and are often disappointed. It is not because we lack dedication or commitment. It is not because we lack talent. It may be that the missing piece is the Holy Spirit. It is vital for us as a community of faith to pray often for the gift of the Holy Spirit.

What does the Holy Spirit provide for us who are patient enough to wait for his anointing? First of all, he gives us guidance. He inspires us as to where we need to place our efforts and energies. Secondly, he gives us the words which will convince minds and open hearts. He inspires us with the message that will touch those who hear us. Thirdly, the Holy Spirit goes ahead of us preparing the hearts and minds of those who will hear us so that they will be fertile ground for the message we will deliver to them. Finally, the Holy Spirit consoles us when things fail to go as planned. He encourages us to continue doing God's work even when we are seeing no positive results.

What we are saying about our life as a parish we could also say about our family lives, our marriages, our personal lives and even our jobs. Waiting for the gift of the Holy Spirit is an important piece of every aspect of our lives no matter how ordinary or how unimportant it may seem. The Holy Spirit wants to influence our whole life, to sanctify it and make it pleasing to God.

Jesus has ascended to heaven and opened up the gates of paradise for us. In these days leading up to the feast of Pentecost, we wait and pray that he will once again pour out his Holy Spirit upon each of us and his whole Church. We pray with tears in our eyes because we know how often we fall short of the great commission to spread the gospel to all nations. We pray with deep need because without the Holy Spirit we can do nothing. We pray with faith because the Risen Christ is Lord of all. And we pray with anticipation knowing that God will do great things for us who believe.

(image by Alexey Pismenny)

Sunday, May 5, 2013

If You Love Me, You Will Keep My Word

There are many ways that we can show love to others. Husbands and wives can show love by kissing. Friends often hug when they meet. Besides the physical displays of affection, we show love by spending time together, by listening to one another or by sending cards. These and many other signs of love let others know that we are thinking about them and that we care for them.

Another way to show love - a way that is not very romantic - is through obedience. When children obey their parents, it is an act of love. By doing what a parent asks, children show that they trust that their father and mother know what is best for them. By behaving, children show that they have respect for their parents and want to live according to the values their parents are trying to instill in them.

Obedience is not only a sign of love between children and their parents, it is also a sign of love between believers and God. Jesus tells us in the gospel, "Whoever loves me will keep my word." And to make sure that we understand his meaning, he tells us again, "Whoever does not love me, does not keep my word." As children put their trust in their parents' guidance, so we as believers put our trust in God's will for our lives. By obeying God's word we are affirming that he has a plan for us, and that his plan is far better than any other we could craft for ourselves. By saying "yes" to God's word as it comes down to us in the Bible and the teaching of the Church, we acknowledge that he cares for us, and we profess that we love him enough to do what he asks of us.

Obedience can be a dirty word in today's world. It makes us think of mean teachers who are ready to rap our knuckles with a ruler every time we get out of line. It conjures up images of a God who is ready to punish us for every sin. In today's world, we prefer to make our own decisions about what is right and what is wrong. If a rule does not make sense to us - especially if it is a Church teaching - we are more than happy just to ignore it. It is hard for us to accept that someone can tell us what we ought to believe and how we should practice our faith. It is difficult for us to think that obedience has anything at all to do with love.

On one level, such an attitude can be a good and healthy one to have. We should not only know what the Church teaches, but we should also understand it. It is the job of the bishops along with religious, priests and teachers to help us to make sense of what the Church teaches and why. Understanding is central to being able to accept what the Church teaches and incorporate it into our daily lives.

However, the attitude which is not good and which is in fact deadly for our spiritual lives is the one that says that if we do not understand a certain teaching of the Church, then we will not follow it. When we act that way, we stay stuck in our false beliefs and misconceptions and are unable to grow in our faith. A better attitude would be to say, "I do not understand this teaching, but I am going to try to understand it and live it." Instead of rejecting it outright, it is better to ask the Holy Spirit to enlighten our minds and hearts so that we can accept the teaching in an authentic way and be able to explain it to others and even defend it when necessary.

Another reason we can find obedience distasteful is our image of the Church. Because we are exposed to a media which is constantly critical of the Church, we can often think of it as an institution of men who keep themselves busy by making up rules for us to follow. But the Church is so much more than buildings and bureaucracies. The Church is people. The Church is us. We are saints and sinners who have strived to show our love for Jesus by obedience to his word. During these two thousand years, we have accumulated much wisdom and insight into human nature and God's plan for the world. Church teaching, whether it concern what we believe or the moral life we must lead, is nothing else but an application of the teaching of Jesus for today that is strengthened by the accumulated wisdom of centuries of believers. Church teaching is a gift to us who seek to follow Christ because it points out to us a sure way that we can follow to reach the kingdom of God.

There is no doubt that Church leaders frequently let us down and even hurt us. They are not always good examples of what it is to be a follower of Christ. Nonetheless, our faith in the Church and its teaching does not come from our confidence in its leaders. Rather it comes from our faith in the Holy Spirit. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would remain with the Church always so that it could never be led into error regarding the most important doctrines of faith and morals. The Holy Spirit works powerfully through the Church so that we can have assurance that by accepting its teaching we are on a sure course to salvation. The Holy Spirit guarantees that in the Church, despite all its weakness and failures, we will meet the Risen Lord and be transformed by his word.

If we love Jesus, we will keep his word. His word is not far from us. It is easily accessible through the Bible and through the teaching of the Church. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit which we received at our baptism and confirmation helps us to understand that word and apply it to our daily lives. If our heart is open and we are willing to obey, then we can be sure that we are on a path to the Kingdom where Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father and where we may live forever in the glory of heaven.