Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Narrow Path

We honor as saints those holy women and men who lived their lives according to the message of Jesus and are now enjoying eternal rest in heaven. They walked the narrow way by serving the poor, preaching the good news and dedicating themselves to prayer. Now, in heaven, they serve as an example for us to follow in our own lives.

When the Church declares someone a saint it is no small matter. Before they are held up as examples of a good and holy life, the Church wants to make sure that they truly were godly people. And so a thorough investigation is undertaken into their life and background. People who knew them are interviewed and any writings they may have left behind are scrutinized. There also have to be miracles which are attributed to their intercession. For this reason, it can take decades for someone to be declared a saint even when they have a reputation for holiness such as Mother Theresa of Calcutta and Pope John Paul II. Before we declare that a person is undoubtedly in heaven, the Church wants to be assured that he or she is worthy of our imitation.

While the Church can declare with the certainty of faith that a soul is definitely in heaven, she will never declare that a soul is definitely in hell. Even when someone has been excommunicated for a very serious sin, we always hold out the hope of salvation for every person who has died. We do so because God has told us that he wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For this reason, we should never forget to pray for the souls of those who have died, no matter what type of life they lived. The hope of heaven is offered to everyone out of the mercy and love of God.

The greatest example of God’s desire to save all people is the cross. God sent Jesus, his only Son, to die for us so that our sins could be forgiven. He handed over that which was most precious to him so that we could be saved. It is the blood of Christ which is our hope of immortality. Through faith in his death and resurrection, we can be assured that our destiny is eternal life in heaven.

We have to be careful, however. While we must trust in God’s infinite mercy, we can never forget that hell is a real possibility. Jesus has made this clear in no uncertain terms. During his Sermon on the Mount, he declared, “Not all those who cry out, “Lord! Lord!” will be saved, but only those who do the will of my Heavenly Father.” In the parable of the sheep and the goats, he declares to those who refused to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, “Depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” And in today’s gospel, he says that many who expected to be given a seat at the banquet feast of heaven will be on the outside looking in. These words of Jesus should give all of us pause. While we must hope in the salvation of our souls, we should never take it for granted but, instead, should strive daily to live good and holy lives.

Jesus tells us in today’s gospel that we should “strive to enter through the narrow gate.” In Saint Matthew’s version of this reading, Jesus adds, “Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction and many enter through it.” This narrow gate is no doubt the way of life which Jesus marks out for us in the gospels. He tells us that he himself is the way. Any of us who have tried to take seriously the gospel message to love our neighbor and forgive those who have hurt us know how true Jesus’ words are. It is not easy to live our Catholic faith. We very often stumble along the way and get sidetracked. We might even want to give up altogether and look for an easier way. But we do not because we know that this path leads to Jesus, and we know that he is walking alongside us.

Today’s second reading is from the letter to the Hebrews. It was written for a people who are in many ways like us. They lived in a society that was hostile to the message of Jesus. They faced ridicule and persecution every day because of their faith. They were tired from walking the narrow path and discouraged. This letter reminds them and us about the example of faith set by so many of the heroes of the Old Testament from Abraham on up. Their road was not easy. But they persevered because they believed in the promise God made to them. Because of their faith, they kept their eyes fixed not on the difficulty of the road but on the reward awaiting them at the destination.

This letter reminds us also that the trials and difficulties we face along the way are meant to strengthen us. Just as our muscles grow stronger when they pick up heavy objects, so our spirit becomes stronger when we face difficulties with faith and patience. By accepting the challenges we encounter along this narrow path that Jesus marked out for us, we grow in faith. He tells us that many will attempt to enter through the narrow gate but will not be strong enough. We can be sure that we will be strong enough if we have persevered through the difficulties life puts in our way.

We are all called to be saints. God has called each of us to live good and holy lives. It is never easy to walk in the footsteps of Christ. It requires discipline and sacrifice. Because the path the world marks out for us seems so much easier and more alluring, we might want to give up along the way. But we keep fixed in our minds and hearts that we are on a journey to our heavenly homeland. For this reason, we gather here today to receive the Body and Blood of Christ which is food to sustain us on this pilgrimage. He will strengthen our drooping hands and weak knees. He will remind us that though few choose this narrow path, we are not alone. We are all journeying together with Jesus at our side. By his grace, we hope to persevere through the obstacles in the way until we are welcomed into the banquet prepared for us in heaven.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Can Jesus be serious? What does He mean when He tells us that He has come to bring division rather than peace? Is He not the Prince of Peace? What can He mean when He tells us that because of Him father will be against son and son against father? Did He not command us to honor our mother and father? Did He not teach us to love our neighbor? Why all this talk then of setting the earth on fire and creating conflict?

There are times in the gospels when Jesus, like the rabbis of His day, used exaggeration to get His point across. He does that, however, to show the crowds how important His teaching is. Therefore, when Jesus uses exaggeration, it does not mean that we take what He has to say less seriously but more seriously. When Jesus exaggerates, we must sit up and pay attention. This is certainly the case with today’s gospel passage.

In trying to discern Jesus’ message there are a few ideas we can rule out from the outset.

First of all, Jesus is not condoning the use of violence. We know this by looking both at His teaching and His life. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches us to turn our other cheek rather than answer violence with more violence. He teaches us to love our enemies and those who persecute us. Also, when He was tortured and put to death, He refused to use force to defend Himself although He was innocent. He rebuked Peter when he used a sword to cut off a soldier’s ear. Throughout His life and teaching, Jesus renounces the use of violence.

Secondly, Jesus is not talking about ideologies. He is not preaching about the type of divisions that come about because of differing political philosophies or religious affiliations. Our Saviour did not come to give us more or better ideas. Rather, He came to give His life for us and teach us the way of love. The point is not about who is right and who is wrong. It is about the way of self-giving charity even in the face of hostility and persecution which we see in the cross.

When we look closely at today’s gospel, we notice that Jesus is talking primarily about relationships and, most especially, about family relationships. This gets to the heart of Jesus’ message. He came primarily to restore our relationship with our Heavenly Father. Through His blood and through the waters of baptism, we are now sons and daughters of God. We can rightly call Him “Father”, and we can rightly call Jesus “Brother”.

Because of this new relationship with God, all our other relationships must change - even our closest family bonds. Once we give our lives over to Jesus, He becomes our number one priority. This is how Pope Francis In his encyclical letter, “The Light of Faith”, describes this new relationship: “Christ’s work penetrates the depths of our being and transforms us radically, making us adopted children of God and sharers in the divine nature. It thus modifies all our relationships, our place in this world and in the universe...”

We know how often conflicts arise in families. Brothers and sisters often fight over who will inherit what piece of furniture. Parents argue with their children over their choice of friends or spouses. Unfortunately, religion can also be the cause of conflict in family life. When we decide to take our faith seriously, it can alienate, irritate and even infuriate our parents, siblings or cousins who may find themselves in relationships or lifestyles which are at odds with the Church’s teaching. They often waste no time letting us know what they think about the Church and can even call us hypocrites or accuse us of being judgmental.

All this can make family gatherings very awkward and can leave us at a loss as to how to respond. We may feel sadness that relationships we cherish so much are being put under strain by our decision to follow Jesus. We may even wonder whether the disagreements are our fault because of the way we are representing ourselves.

When we find ourselves in such a position, we must first remember that Jesus promised us that following Him would cause ruptures in our families. It is part of the cross which every disciple must carry. Secondly, we must remember to always respond gently and lovingly even when a family member is being dismissive or hostile. It is not often our arguments which convince our loved ones about the truth of the gospel message but our example of kindness and happiness. Thirdly, we must never doubt the power of prayer to soften hearts and open up minds. We may never sense a change in our loved ones, but if we are praying for them, we can be sure that God will be at work moving them to reconciliation with Him.

Jesus came to bring peace. However, it is a peace built on truth, justice and love. It involves some conflict, hostility and even persecution. Sadly, this will often come from the people we love the most - our own family. If we accept it and respond in love, we can trust that God will use us to help bring them to salvation along with us. Then a real, lasting peace can be established - a peace that no one can take from us because it is founded on the faithfulness and love of our Heavenly Father.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Hail, Holy Queen, Enthroned Above

What will heaven be like? What will we see when we approach the gates of Paradise and are greeted by Jesus, the saints and the angels? What will our bodies be like when they are raised from the dead and free from the corruption of sin? What will it feel like to finally be liberated from pain, fear and sorrow?

Besides Jesus, there is someone who already enjoys that perfect state of joy in Heaven which we someday hope to reach ourselves. That person is the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, was the first to believe in Jesus. When the angel Gabriel announced to her God’s plan that she would conceive the Son of God in her womb through the power of the Holy Spirit, she gave herself totally to his will. As her cousin Elizabeth proclaims, “Blessed is she who believed that God’s word to her would be fulfilled!” In fact, God had been preparing Mary for her role as mother of the Savior from the moment of her conception when he preserved her from original sin. By the grace of God, she remained holy and innocent, just as Jesus was sinless.

Mary’s role in God’s plan of salvation did not end with the birth of Jesus. She shared in his suffering by walking the way of the cross alongside him. She wept at his crucifixion as she saw her son treated so savagely. It was there, at the foot of the cross, that Jesus gave her to us to be our mother when he said to John, “Behold your mother.” And she held his lifeless body in hers before he was taken away to be buried. Finally, she rejoiced at the news that he had risen from the dead and, together with the apostles, she received the Holy Spirit which descended on them as tongues of fire on the day of Pentecost.

Because of Mary’s unique place in God’s plan of salvation, she remained free from sin. Because she was the first to believe the good news, God would not allow her body to decay in the ground. Just as he kept her soul free from the corruption of sin, so he would preserve her body from the ravages of death. On this day, the feast of the Assumption, we celebrate the truth of our faith that Mary was taken up body and soul into heaven. Just as she shared in Jesus’ suffering, so she would share in his resurrection.

The Blessed Virgin Mary is a source of hope and inspiration for us. We call her “blessed” because she believed. We call her the “Mother of God” and our mother because she gave herself totally and without reserve to God’s plan even when it involved sacrifice and suffering. If, like her, we believe and give ourselves over to God’s plan for us, we too can hope to be welcomed into heaven. If we are willing to share in Jesus’ suffering by denying ourselves, avoiding sin and putting the needs of others before our own, we can look forward to also sharing in Jesus’ resurrection. Like Jesus and Mary, our bodies will one day be raised from death and glorified. For this reason, we keep our bodies pure and undefiled by sin through God’s grace knowing that they will one day be taken up into heaven to share in the joy of the angels and saints.

And so today we commemorate not only what God has done for Mary. We also celebrate what God has in store for each of us who believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus. God created us to spend eternity with him in heaven. He has conquered sin and death and has prepared a place for us in his Kingdom. Mary is the first to receive these blessings. They will one day be ours as well if we hold fast to our faith in Jesus.

The Blessed Virgin Mary - the Mother of God and our mother - is standing now before the throne of God, her body and soul forever free from the corruption of sin and death. Her role in God’s plan is now that she bring our needs to her Son for us. As the Queen of Heaven, she prays constantly for us. We can bring our needs to her with confidence that she will in turn bring them to Jesus. We can also be confident that - as we pray in the “Hail Mary” - she will pray for us at the hour of our death so that we may be welcomed into our heavenly homeland and finally know the joy of eternal life, beholding the face of God together with Mary, our mother.

(image by Marisol Sousa)

Monday, August 12, 2013

Under Pressure

As a society, we are experiencing an epidemic of stress and anxiety. Trying to keep up with the demands of life, we have worn ourselves out. Many of us are getting much less sleep then we need because we are worried about paying our bills or finding a job. This heightened stress takes a toll on our bodies making our blood pressure soar. It causes us to overeat and drink too much to compensate for the pressure we feel. It makes it harder for us to relate to others because we become closed in on ourselves. We are trapped in a prison of fear.

How different our life is when we put God at the center of it! Jesus promised those who follow him that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. Those who live according to his teaching are no longer burdened by having to live up to the world’s unrealistic expectations. We no longer measure ourselves against what others expect of us. Rather we measure ourselves against the word of a merciful God who knows us and loves us. We no longer live in a prison of fear. We who follow Jesus live in the freedom of faith.

Today’s second reading from the letter to the Hebrews focuses on what faith means in the life of the believer. Faith means more than believing that God exists. As Saint James tells us, even the devil believes in God. Rather, the faith that transforms our lives and saves us is the belief that God’s promise to us will be fulfilled. It means trusting God and his word even when our instincts tell us something different or the people around us are making different choices. It means believing God’s word so deeply and so earnestly that we pattern every aspect of our lives in accordance with it. We give food to the hungry because Jesus tells us we must. And we bite our tongue rather than spread gossip because it is what Jesus expects of us. We make these choices not because they are easy nor because people will appreciate us for it. Very often, the opposite is true. Rather we act with love and mercy because we hold onto God’s promise that he will reward our good deeds. We make these choices out of faith.

When we are experiencing a high level of stress in our lives, it is important for us to take some time aside to reflect and pray. Sometimes stress is unavoidable. In that case, Jesus will help us carry our burden. However, more often than not, we feel pressure because we are trying to live up to the expectations of others. It could be that we are burdening ourselves with debt trying to live up to the standard of living we think our society expects. It could be that we are involved in a lifestyle that makes us fit in with those around us but which goes against our core values. In these cases, Jesus offers us the opportunity in faith to throw off those burdens and exchange them for the light yoke of his word. He gives us the strength to no longer fear what others will say or think and to live in true freedom. Once we experience the peace that comes from doing God’s will, we will no longer want to go back to the pressure of trying to live up to the world’s expectations.

The antidote to the stress and fear we are experiencing as a society is faith in Jesus Christ. But how do we get such faith? It is not something we can learn by reading a book or that we can earn by being good. Faith is a gift of God. The good news is that because God loves us, he wants us to have everything we need to live a full and happy life. And so, he will give us faith if we ask him. In fact, we already have the gift of faith through our baptism and confirmation. We just have to put it to use. If we think we do not know how to put our faith to use, we only have to ask God to teach us. As our life focuses more and more on him, we will see just how active he is in our lives and how willing he is to help us along.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus gives us an important example as to how we are to exercise our faith. As believers, we are to live in the active expectation that Jesus will come again. This is the real important difference between those who believe and those who do not. Those who live without faith act as if this world is all there is. They live to accumulate possessions and experience as much pleasure as possible. Sacrifice, giving to others and patience mean nothing to them because they are living only for today. However, they live in fear because all these material things they hold so dear can easily be taken away from them.

Those of us who enjoy the gift of faith have an altogether different outlook. We know that this world and its pleasures are passing away. Our hope is set not on what this world can give us but on the eternal life promised to us by our Savior. We still need to work, to support our families and to prepare for the future, but we do so in trust knowing that God will provide for us. And if hardship or misfortune should come or way we endure it with patience knowing that God is at our side and trusting that he will make all things work for our good. It is not an easy way to live, but it is a more fulfilling and happier life than this world can give. And it is ours if we stake our lives on God’s promise.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Eighteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s first reading is taken from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes.The theme of the book is the drudgery of life and its lack of meaning. Though it was written about 2300 years ago, the sentiments are still relevant today. Today’s reading in particular about the passing nature of wealth and possessions sounds as if it were written to describe our current economic crisis.

We spend most of our lives working whether at school, at home or in an office or factory. Much of it can be a burden and a drudgery. Even if we enjoy our work, we see how quickly the money we earn is spent once we pay for gas, insurance, the mortgage and all of the other expenses of life. Any money we do manage to save gets eaten up by inflation or taxes.

Is there any meaning to our work? Is the little money we are able to earn and save worth the effort? Can money really give us the security and the status we think it can?

Today’s gospel reading gives us some insight into this question. Jesus tells the parable of a man who accumulates great wealth and thinks he is set for life. Though he has planned for the future, it turns out that he has already lived his last day on earth. He will die and face his Maker. He thought he was secure. He thought he had everything planned out in advance. But there was something he had not considered. In fact, it turned out to be he most important thing - his immortal soul.

Like the man in Jesus’ parable, all of us will stand before God and give an account of how we have used the gifts he has given us. He will not ask to see our tax returns, our stock portfolio or our real estate holdings. He will not check our credit score or review our bank statements. He will simply ask us if we have loved others as he has loved us. What type of an answer will we be able to give?

All of us hope that when we do eventually die that our families will be provided for. We have life insurance to help cover expenses and a will to ensure that everything we have worked hard for passes over to our loved ones. But have we taken the same care of our souls? Are we prepared to come face to face with God? Have we been so busy accumulating possessions on earth that we have neglected to build a treasure in heaven?

These questions are very important for us to ask ourselves. It is so easy for us to get lost in the monotony of life. We get up, go to work, come home and then repeat the pattern day after day. When we do take time to relax and reflect on our lives, we wonder how the time has passed so quickly. We see our children and society changing, and we wonder when it all happened. In all the running around, we find that we have lost ourselves. What we thought was important - security, status, success - does not seem so valuable to us anymore when we consider what we gave up to achieve them. While we busy ourselves in our work, our family and friends begin to drift away from us, and we find ourselves alone asking the question, “Is it all worth it?”

These questions take on an even greater meaning for the large number of us who have lost our jobs in the past few years. After working so hard for a company for many years, it can be a shock to be let go as if none of our time and dedication mattered. The security we thought we had vanished. The loyalty we showed to our company was not shown back to us. It can leave us feeling empty and bitter.

The good news is that work and possessions are not all there is to life. Through faith, we believe that we are created for something greater - to love and serve God in this life and to enjoy eternal life with Him in the next. We are only passing through this world on a journey to our eternal homeland in heaven. The stock market goes up and down. Companies are created and go out of business. We save money, and we spend it. All these are sources of frustration for us. But they point to a reality that should fill us with hope and joy. As this world is passing away, the Kingdom of God is growing among us. Jesus who is Lord of all is creating a new heaven and a new earth. If all our hope and effort is invested in this world, then we will be sorely disappointed. But if our hope is in God and his Kingdom, then we will be blessed beyond measure. The challenge for us is to live in this world, working and making use of material things, while setting our sights on the Kingdom of God.

What if we worked as hard at impressing others with the holiness of our lives as we do at impressing them with our homes, cars and social status? What if we prayed as hard as we worked? Then we would be able to put up with the drudgery of life and find a meaning and hope that would sustain us whether we have plenty of money or none at all, whether we have good paying jobs or are unemployed or whether the stock market is up or down. We would store up a treasure for ourselves in heaven where inflation and the tax man would be unable to touch it. And our lives would be marked by happiness and pleasure rather than boredom and fatigue because we would be living out the purpose for which we are created - to know. love and serve our Savior, Jesus Christ.