Sunday, June 23, 2013

Follow Me

Diane Wilson was a mother of five and the captain of a shrimp boat off the coast of Louisiana. Her life was no different than that of her neighbors. Then one day she read a newspaper article that listed her county as one of the most polluted in the country. She realized that the air her children breathed and the waters she trawled in were contaminated with harmful chemicals. When she thought about the damage it was doing to people and the environment she knew she could no longer stay silent. She began circulating petitions, organizing meetings and initiating lawsuits. In the end, she was able to force very powerful and influential chemical companies to stop discharging chemicals into the San Antonio and Lavaca bays.

And she did not stop there. With the network she had developed and skills she had learned, she went to other polluted areas of the country to educate the people about the damage done by pollution and to force companies to enact stricter emission controls.

In a recent interview she gave on public radio, she spoke about the toll her activism has taken on her personal life. Many of her neighbors and friends came to despise her. She received death threats on a regular basis. But, she said, in the process of fighting for what she believed in she came to overcome her fears. She was no longer afraid of being ostracized and no longer afraid of dying. That freedom from fear gave her the power to speak the truth and work for justice. Because she did not let fear muzzle her, she discovered her purpose in life. She found that she could make the world a better place.

How many of us are held down by fear? We know in our hearts what is right, but we so often fail to speak out because we do not want to be ridiculed or rejected. We would rather live a comfortable, sheltered life than let our voices be heard. In the process, we lose ourselves and fail to live up to the purpose for which we were created.

Fear most of all has a chilling effect on our life of faith. Jesus tells us upfront that if we are to follow him we must deny ourselves and pick up our cross daily. We can try to follow Jesus at a distance, coming to Mass on Sundays and meeting the obligations of faith without letting it change the way we live the rest of the week. But that is an empty way of living which ultimately leaves us unsatisfied. We remain a prisoner of our fears, unable to give voice to our beliefs because we are afraid of what others will think.

There is another way to live, however. It is the way that Jesus offers us. It is the life of faith. When we, like Peter, confess that Jesus is the "Christ of God" a new life opens up for us. We are given the light of truth and are no longer willing to accept the lies our society values. We are given hope to see that our destiny is an everlasting life. We are given strength to carry whatever crosses may come our way. And, most especially, we are given freedom - freedom from sin and freedom from fear. It is not easy, but it is possible and it is necessary. Once we acknowledge Jesus as Lord and give our lives over to him we will find ourselves doing things we could never have imagined possible. Jesus' words become true for us: "...whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it."

Why have so many people throughout the centuries decided to give up everything to follow Jesus? Consider the apostles who left their families and their jobs. Consider the countless women and men who were tortured and killed rather than deny their faith in Jesus. Consider the many unknown people who sacrifice themselves daily without recognition to bring bread to the hungry and hope to the despairing. Why would they be willing to sacrifice so much? Why should we be willing to give up so much? Because of Jesus. The reward for denying ourselves and bearing our crosses daily is that we become friends of Jesus. When we love him truly above all other things, then we want nothing else than to be close to him. Once we taste the joy of intimacy with him, we will do whatever it takes to draw near to him. As Saint Paul puts it, we will consider everything else garbage in comparison to the love and knowledge of God we find in Christ Jesus. There is a cost to being a disciple. But what we gain in return - friendship with God - is so much more valuable than anything this world can offer us.

Jesus puts the question to us as he posed it to his disciples: "Who do you say that I am?" It is the most important question we could ever answer. None of us will ever discover who we are until we have decided who he is. Will we be like the crowds who follow from a distance and consider him to be merely a prophet? Or will we be like the disciples who acknowledge him as Lord and Savior and are rewarded with a close, personal relationship with him? Will we continue to allow our lives to be circumscribed by fear, or will we discover the freedom that comes from loving Jesus? Will we be confined to our safe, comfortable lives, or will we do great things for our Lord?

The choice is laid before each of us - faith or fear. How we decide will determine whether we find ourselves in him or lose ourselves in this world which is swiftly passing away.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The One Who is Forgiven Much, Loves Much

Prostitution is called the world's oldest profession. Every society and culture has been plagued by some form of it. Though it is illegal in most places, we tend to consider it a harmless vice and victimless crime. But prostitution, whether it is legal or illegal, takes a heavy toll on the individuals who participate in it and on society as a whole.

Most women become involved in prostitution around the age of sixteen. They are usually running away from homes where they have been physically or sexually abused. Alone on the streets, they are easy targets for pimps who promise to take care of them. And before they know it, they find themselves in an even more abusive situation than the one they were running away from.

The average prostitute will spend eleven years of her life on the street. During that time, she will be physically assaulted on a regular basis by either her pimp or her customer. She will be homeless during many of those years. And most likely her pimp will get her addicted to drugs as another way of controlling her.

Sadly, it is not only women who are exploited by prostitution. Around the world children as young as seven are bought and sold to work in the sex industry in such countries as Thailand and India. It is estimated that there are more than one million sex slaves in Asia.

Prostitution is not a victimless crime. For the women and children who are caught up in it, it is a devastating blow to their dignity and future. It destroys families and introduces crime and disease into communities.

Today's gospel does not tell us whether it is a prostitute who approaches Jesus in the home of Simon the Pharisee. Saint Luke, instead, calls her a "sinful woman". But she has been traditionally identified as a prostitute. If so, we can imagine that she lived with a heavy burden of shame. Wherever she went, people would avoid her and point fingers. There was no one in her life who loved her, and she had no hope for her future. She would have been beaten frequently and perhaps even raped.

Saint Luke does not tell us why she seeks out Jesus. Maybe she had heard him speak earlier in the day and was moved by his words. Maybe Jesus had reached out and healed her at some point. Whatever the reason, she feels so drawn to him that she is willing to show up uninvited at the home of an influential family and lavish Jesus with affection. The people at the table would have been shocked. How would you feel if such a woman showed up at your child's birthday party? There would have been an awkward silence as she walked into the room and everyone stopped eating and talking. Yet she did not hesitate to show Jesus just how much she loved him. Just as she shamelessly sinned in her past, so she would shamelessly lavish gratitude on him. She took his feet into her hands, kissed them, bathed them with her tears and anointed them with perfumed oil. She had been set free. Because of Jesus, she was no longer caught up in the cycle of abuse, indignity and despair. In him, she found new self-respect, and she was not ashamed to display her joy.

This woman, sinful as she may have been, is an example for us and a source of hope. All sin is a trap. Whether it is a sin as serious as prostitution or as common as prejudice, it leads us away from God. And when we turn our backs on our Heavenly Father we lose our sense of dignity as his daughters and sons. We are blinded to the needs and interests of others and become locked down in selfishness. Our hearts grow cold and shame and bitterness begin to take over. Eventually we find ourselves unable to climb out of the pit we have fallen into.

Thanks be to God, we have Jesus to lead us out. He is the light shining in the darkness. He is the way leading us out of despair. He is the truth which dispels the lies of this world. No matter how we have sinned, he is capable of forgiving us. No matter what mistakes we have made, he is capable of helping us get free of the trap. If we are willing to turn to him and accept in faith the forgiveness he offers us, we will find our cold, hard hearts pumping with new life and vitality. Like the woman in the gospel, our love will know no limits. We need simply to be willing to leave our sinful past behind and follow the way that Jesus so clearly marks out for us.

We are here today to lavish love and gratitude on Jesus, our Savior. With music, prayer and incense we wash and anoint his feet. We are joyful because he has forgiven us, and we are free. Filled with his love, we will bring his light to those who are still blinded by the darkness of sin. Inspired by his word, we will seek out those who are caught up in the trap of despair and tell them about the freedom we have found. And nourished by his Body and Blood, we will live boldly and confidently as daughters and sons of God.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Body and Blood of our Lord

One of the great saints of the twentieth century was Saint Faustina Kowalski.

She was born in Poland in 1905, and around the age of 20, decided to serve the Lord as a nun, becoming a Sister of Our Lady of Mercy.

After several years of prayer and service to others, she began receiving mystical visions of our Lord. In moments of intense prayer, Jesus would appear to her and speak of the great love he has for sinners. He chose her to spread the message of his divine mercy. He wanted her to tell the world that no matter how great our sins may be, God is willing to forgive us, cleanse us of our wickedness and strengthen us to live a good life. At the urging of her spiritual director, she kept a diary of all the words Jesus spoke to her.

Saint Faustina had a deep devotion to the real presence of our Lord in the Eucharist. She would spend hours gazing at the tabernacle marveling that Jesus would give himself to us in the form of bread and wine. Many of her conversations with Jesus focused on how he longed for us to receive him in the Blessed Sacrament. He told her how sad it made him that we so often receive the Eucharist without realizing what a great gift we are being given.

In one of her diary entries, she writes the following words from the mouth of our Lord:

When I come to a heart in holy communion, my hands are full of all kinds of graces which I want to give to the soul. But souls do not even pay attention to me. They leave me to myself and busy themselves with other things.... They treat me as a dead object. (Diary, 1385).

These words of our Lord should make us all stop and think. How do we receive the Body of Christ? Are we focused on the tremendous gift we are about to welcome into our bodies? Have we prepared our hearts to be the dwelling place for our Risen Lord? Do we receive him with wonder, joy and deep devotion? Jesus, who visits us disguised as bread and wine, deserves no less than our full attention and most profound gratitude.

During his earthly life, people could see Jesus. They could hear his voice and touch him. Who he really was - the eternal Son of God - was hidden. Many chose not to believe. But those who did believe received healing, witnessed miracles and had their lives changed forever.

We see it in today's gospel. The people come by the thousands to hear him speak. Many of them are healed of their sickness and disabilities. Most importantly, their eyes are opened to the love God has for them. They are so caught up in their love for Jesus and the joy of being in his presence that they do not want to leave.

Jesus is here among us today. He promised that where two or three are gathered in his name, he would be among them. He is also present in his word. When the Scriptures are proclaimed, it is God himself who speaks to us. And in a most marvelous way, he is present in the Eucharist. When the bread and wine we offer as gifts are consecrated by the priest, they become the very Body and Blood of our Risen Savior. They are not merely symbols. They are not offered simply to remind us of his love. They become Jesus - his body, blood, soul and divinity. It is Jesus himself - the one who healed the sick, who ate with sinners, who died on the cross, and who rose on the third day - who comes to us in this tremendous gift of the Eucharist.

And so whenever we come to Mass we should be prepared to meet Jesus. We should make sure if we have committed any serious sins that we go to confession so that our hearts are pure. We should already have in mind what graces we will ask for when we receive. Nothing is beyond God's power to do for us. If we need to be healed of sickness, it is certainly possible. That is why we pray before communion, "only say the word, and my soul shall be healed." If we are plagued by a sin that we keep on committing, God is certainly capable of giving us the strength to fight temptation. If we are burdened by guilt or overwhelmed by our feelings of inadequacy as we approach Jesus, we can rest assured that he has a deep and sincere love for us. His mercy can cover any sin and forgive any offense.

There is one attitude, however, that he will not accept - indifference. We should never receive the Body of Jesus without thinking long and hard about who it is who is giving himself to us. We should never receive Jesus without at the very least thanking him for his love and mercy. We should never receive Jesus without pouring our hearts out to him in joy for making himself so accessible to us.

Jesus called Saint Faustina to spread the message of his love and mercy. Nowhere do we experience that love and mercy more intensely than in the communion we are about to share. We are called to this supper not because we are good people or because we somehow deserve it. We are here today, like the multitudes who gathered to hear him speak, because we need his mercy, his healing and his peace. We are broken people who have no other hope except him. His heart is moved for us, just as it was moved by the hunger of the crowds. And he will not fail to feed us from the abundance of his grace. We need only to believe, to approach him with humility and to commit ourselves to feeding others just as we have been fed.

(image by Marisol Sousa)