Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Thief Who Stole Paradise

He has been called “the thief who stole Paradise.”

The good thief, as he has also been called, was one of the criminals crucified with Jesus. Since crucifixion was reserved for the worst offenders such as murders or terrorists, we know that he must have been more than just a simple thief. The gospels do not tell us his name, but the tradition has referred to him as Saint Dismas. He has been invoked to give hope to us that no matter what our sins may be, we can always turn to Jesus and expect to find mercy and forgiveness.

In Saint Matthew’s gospel, we are told that both criminals condemned with Jesus began mocking him along with the religious leaders and soldiers. However, something happened to the good thief. Something changed Saint Dismas? What could it have been?

We know that the good thief must have been a hardened criminal. During his infamous career, he would have known many other lawbreakers like himself. As he looked upon Jesus, he must have known that He was different. Unlike the felons Saint Dismas knew, Jesus did not curse, did not protest His innocence and did not show disdain or hate for those who condemned Him. The good thief must have known in his heart that Jesus was no criminal and did not deserve to be put to death.

The turning point for Saint Dismas must have been when, in the height of agony, Jesus cried out from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” An innocent man, put to death unjustly and subjected to the cruelest of tortures, forgives those who persecute Him. The good thief lived in a world that thrived on violence and revenge. Forgiveness was a concept He could not grasp. In his mind, it was for the weak and the powerless. But now He sees a man forgiving others out of love. Maybe Saint Dismas had never been shown love by those around him. Now he was seeing a divine love capable of embracing the worst of sinners - those who would put the Son of God to death.

Seeing Jesus willingness to forgive must have given the good thief great confidence. “If He can forgive His persecutors, then He can forgive me.” Summoning whatever strength was left in his crucified body, he turns to Jesus and cries out, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he hears the words that all of us would also rejoice to hear, “ you will be with me in Paradise.”

Jesus is a King who conquers hearts not through violence but through love. His strategy is to offer mercy and forgiveness rather than condemnation. Our Lord longs for us to love Him rather than fear Him. He wants us to run to Him rather than run from Him. He desires to comfort us rather than judge us. Now matter how great our sins may be, no matter how far we may have drifted from the path that God would have us walk, we can always come back to Jesus. We can always be forgiven. We can always change.

It is natural for us to be skeptical when we hear that prisoners have “found Jesus.” We cannot help but wonder whether their sudden conversion is just a ploy to get sympathy from judges and juries. However, the experience of the good thief may challenge us to reconsider our attitudes. Could it be that because murderers, thieves and sex offenders are rejected by society and held in scorn that they have no one else to turn to except God? Could it be that because their crimes are so savage and brutal that any notion that they could be forgiven melts their hearts? As Jesus tells us, “those who have been forgiven much, love much.”

Furthermore, if we claim that we are followers of Christ, if we want a share in His Kingdom, then do we not have to follow His example of forgiveness? If we want to spread His Kingdom, then will it not be by our willingness to extend a hand of friendship, comfort and support even to the worst of people?

Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has given us so many wonderful images of this love of Jesus that goes out to sinners. One of the most beautiful was on Holy Thursday when he celebrated Mass at the Casa del Marmo youth penitentiary in Rome. With tender love and humility, he washed the feet of the young offenders offering them mercy as Jesus did to the good thief on the cross. A Vatican spokesperson commenting on the event told BBC news, “It is a gesture of humility and service....It teaches that liberation and new life are won not in presiding over multitudes from royal thrones...but by walking with the lowly and poor and serving them as a foot-washer along the journey.”

If we are to have a share in Jesus’ Kingdom, if we are to join Him one day in Paradise, we have to show the same love, forgiveness and mercy to everyone without exception.

Like the good thief, it begins with our acknowledging our sinfulness before the cross of Jesus. All of us have fallen short of the glory of God. None of us is the person God dreamed we could be when He created us. We allow our hearts to be hardened by bitterness, we allow our relationships to be corrupted by selfishness and we allow our choices to be determined by narrow self-interest. If we cannot recognize our own sinfulness, then we will be like the thief who mocks Jesus because he does not believe he deserves to be condemned. On the other hand, if we admit our need for forgiveness, then we will not be willing to offer it to others.

Jesus is a King who offers love and mercy to us, especially to the most hardened of sinners. The greater our sins are, the greater our right to turn to Him. It was for sinners that Christ came to the world and unless we go to Him as sinners we cannot expect to receive anything from Him. At the same time, He expects us to extend that mercy to everyone, especially to the greatest of sinners. Then His Kingdom will be a reality on earth and our hope for Paradise.


Sunday, November 24, 2013

Christ the King

 (This article originally appeared in Connect! magazine)

In the summer of 2010, the world was captivated by the ordeal of thirty-three miners in Chile.
On August 5, a shaft at the San Jose copper and gold mine in Chile’s Atacama Desert collapsed trapping the thirty-three men two thousand feet below the earth. At first they had no idea whether anyone knew they were down there. Somehow they were able to get word to the surface that they were alive. However, it was expected to take over three months to rescue them. No one had survived underground for that long a period. It was an extremely dire situation.
They could have despaired and given up. They could have turned against each other and blamed each other for their situation. Instead, they turned to their faith to sustain them. They built a shrine and prayed together. Against all odds, they believed that God would make a way for them.
Finally, in October, after sixty-nine days underground, a shaft was completed capable of raising them to the surface. As they came out one by one, they praised God for saving them. One of the men, Jimmy Sanchez, wrote in a letter that there were not thirty-three men trapped in the mine but thirty-four. God had been down there with them. They knew they were not alone but that God was sharing the ordeal with them. That knowledge gave them the hope that they would be saved and kept them from succumbing to fear and despair.
Today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King. As creator of the universe, all things belong to Christ. Most earthly kings and rulers live in palaces separated from the people by stone walls and fortified towers. They do not share the life of the people and are for the most part unaware of their struggles and fears. Jesus is not such a king. He came down from heaven taking on a body so that He could know what it was to be human. Because of this, He understands our weakness and temptations. He knows what it is like to work long hours and to feel the loneliness of being separated from his family. He has felt the pain of being ridiculed and humiliated. Because of that, we can turn to Him when we are in distress and be assured that He is standing by our side carrying us through whatever difficulties we are facing.
We are not alone. Jesus is with us.
The greatest example of Jesus’ love and His willingness to share our human life is His death on the cross. Though He was the most powerful man to ever walk the earth, He allowed Himself to be crucified between two thieves. He did this out of love for us. He wanted to take upon Himself the punishment for our sinfulness. He wanted us to understand the lengths He would go to so that we could be redeemed and saved. That is the kind of king Jesus is. The kind of king who shares the life of His people even to the point of death. Because of this, Jesus’ throne is not made of marble or granite. Rather, Jesus’ throne is the cross.
Whenever there is a tragedy in our world whether it be the typhoon in the Philippines or the ongoing bloodshed in Syria, it is natural for us to ask “Where is God?” When we see children suffering and malnourished we cannot help but wonder how God can allow it. Because of such questions, many have wondered whether God exists at all or, if He does exist, they wonder whether He really cares. When we see the reality of evil in our world, wars, hatred and the random killing of innocent life, we can wonder whether Jesus’ death on the cross made any difference.
Pope Benedict XVI in his book, Jesus of Nazareth, looked at this question.  The world asks, "What difference did Jesus make?" Pope Benedict answers, "He brought God." Jesus ended God's seeming silence, indifference and impotence before the reality of evil, suffering and death. In Jesus, we can no longer say that God does not know what death is and, more importantly, that He does not care. Jesus’ death on the cross revealed a God who stands with us when we are afraid and is at our side while we are suffering.
We judge our rulers and leaders by the results they get for us. So it is natural that the world continues to look at Jesus and require from Him a salvation that can be measured in economic or political terms - a salvation that can be put to some use. But that is not why Jesus died. He did not put Himself through the ordeal of the cross so that we could have more prosperity or more power. He did it simply so that we could know God and love Him more.
If all we want out of life is material prosperity, then, when problems arise, we will act like the thief on the cross who ridiculed Jesus saying, “If you are the Messiah, save yourself and save us!” But if our greatest desire in life is to love and serve God, then we will rejoice when we are faced with difficulties because we will realize that at that moment God is with us. Like the good thief, we will want nothing more than to know that one day we will be with Jesus in paradise.
No one needs to suffer alone. Even if everyone abandons us, God stands by our side. Like our breath and our heart beat, He is always at work even when we are unaware of it. Our King Jesus calls us out of the darkness of fear and despair into the bright light of faith and hope. All we have to do is give Him our lives, and He will change them.


Thursday, November 21, 2013

Blazing Like Fire

Without the sun, life on earth would be impossible. With the light that it emits, we are able to see. Plants receive nourishment from its rays. We are warmed by the heat it sends to earth. Through our modern technology, we are even able to transform energy from the sun into electricity and use it to heat our homes.

However, the same sun that sustains our life can also harm us. If we are in it too long, our skin burns. Many car accidents are caused by drivers who are blinded by the sun’s glare in their eyes. If we were to look directly into the sun for too long a period, our eyes would be damaged.

The sun is an indispensable element for life on Earth. However, at the same time, its power can harm us when we do not respect it.

In today’s first reading, the prophet Malachi compares God to the sun. Like the sun, God is indispensable for life. Without God the Creator, nothing would exist. Furthermore, He sustains all creatures in being. From His providence, we receive everything we need to nourish our existence. Everything comes to us from His goodness. If we follow His commandments and seek to do His will, we can be assured that more good things will come our way. As He says to us through the prophet, “...for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.”

However, if we do not respect God’s law and His power, then, like the sun, we will find ourselves unable to stand before His brilliance and glory. If we are not used to walking in the light of His truth, then our eyes will be blinded before Him. If we have not sought out the warmth of His loving presence, then we will try to hide from the heat of His rays. As the prophet Malachi tells us, “...the day that is coming will set [the proud and all evildoers] on fire, leaving them neither root nor branch.”

This is a truth which all of us most reflect on during our lives here on earth. One day we will all stand before the Lord. He will reveal Himself to us in all His glory. There will be no more question as to whether or not He exists, whether or not He is all-powerful, or whether or not He is good. We will see with our own eyes the beauty and majesty of our Heavenly Father.

As we stand in the light of His presence, the truth of our lives will be revealed to us. If we have loving hearts, we will warm ourselves in the glow of His warm presence. However, if we have hearts filled with resentment, bitterness and jealousy, we will shrink before His mercy and goodness. If we have dedicated ourselves to the service of others, then we will rejoice in recognizing Him as the one we have served in the poor and needy. On the other hand, if we have been selfishly focused on our own interests, then He will not recognize us.

In the light of God’s goodness, we will see ourselves as we really are. All the pretenses to self-importance we may have had, all the virtues we thought we possessed, all that seemed important will look pathetic in the brilliance of His glory. When we see ourselves as we truly are for the first time, we will either choose to run to God for forgiveness or choose to hide from Him because we cannot bear to see our own ugliness. If we have made it a habit of examining our consciences, confessing our sins and making amends for our faults, then we will run into the arms of our Heavenly Father. However, if in our pride, we have made excuses for our shortcomings, overlooked our sins and refused to confess them, then we will try to run for cover at the sight of our nakedness just as Adam and Eve did when they were caught red-handed eating from the Tree God had forbidden them to eat from. However, this time, there will be nowhere to hide.

We often hear people ask, “How can a good and loving God send anyone to Hell?” There is some truth to this question because our Heavenly Father wants all of us to be saved and to spend eternity with Him in heaven. At the same time, He will not force us. He has given us this life to make the choices which will decide our eternal fate. If we have made good choices, if we have strived to serve others, if we have taken advantage of the graces He has given us through the Church, then we can be sure that we will be able to stand in the radiance of His glory and run into His loving embrace. If, however, we have ignored His word, if we have sought to do our own will, if we have closed our eyes to the needs of our brothers and sisters, then we will be blinded by the light of His presence and will flee from the searing rays of His truth.

Every choice we make has eternal consequences. It either draws us closer to God or pulls us away from Him. It either strengthens our vision to take in the radiance of His glory or makes our eyes so used to the dark that we will be blinded in the glare of His truth.

At the same time, there is no need for us to live in fear. None of us is so good that we can withstand God’s judgment on us. None of us, when called to give an account of our lives, can claim to be perfect. That is why God sent His only Son to die for us. He took upon Himself the punishment that each of us deserves. Through His blood our eyes are cleansed to look upon the glory of God and not run away in shame. Because we have forgiveness of our sins through Jesus’ death and resurrection, we can run to God, not run from Him, because we are confident of His loving mercy.

Here, in this place and at this time, we can turn to God. If we have not lived a good life, there is time for us to change. If we have already given our hearts over to Him, we can grow in our ability to live His truth. Today is the day to train our eyes to look upon His glory, to strengthen our hearts to trust in His mercy and to equip our minds with the truth needed to affirm our faith in His goodness. Then we can approach Him with love rather than fear and with trust rather than shame.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

No Stone Will Be Left On Another

There are many unpleasant facts of life we try to avoid thinking or talking about. First among these is our own death. Our life is precious, and we cannot bear the thought of losing it. Nonetheless it is a reality that we need to be aware of and come to terms with. As unpleasant as it may be to think about, it is unavoidable.

Every year in November with the days growing darker and winter fast approaching, we as a Church reflect upon some disturbing and sometimes terrifying realities - our death and the end of the world.

It is one of the articles of faith which we profess boldly in the creed: Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead. All of human history is building up to the moment when Jesus will be revealed as the Son of God. At that point, everyone will have to acknowledge Him as Lord and Savior. We will all bend the knee before the One who comes to bring justice to the earth. For those of us who have already welcomed his grace into our hearts and proclaimed Him as Lord of our lives it will be a joyful day. But for those who have denied Him and lived only for this world and its pleasures, the revelation of God’s justice will be painful and humiliating.

Our first reading comes from the book of the prophet Malachi. He uses the image of fire to describe the coming day of the Lord saying that it will “blaze like an oven”. Fire can be a very useful thing for us. We can use it for light, for warmth or to cook our food. However, if we fail to respect its power, that same fire can also burn us and destroy our property. In the same way, if we love God and live according to His word, His coming will be a fire that brings us light and warmth. However, if we have not respected Him and have not loved our neighbor, His coming will burn us and destroy all that we thought was important.

And so, every day of our lives we have a decision to make. Will we live according to God’s word or will we live only for our own desires? Will we form our minds according to the Bible or according to the values of the society around us? Will we respect the life and dignity of every human being or will we remain silent while millions of babies are aborted and many millions more live in poverty? We have the power to shape our future by the choices we make today. The day will come, however, when it will be too late to choose, when our destiny will already be set. How it turns out depends on God’s mercy and on our willingness to show His mercy to others today.

It is important for us to keep in mind that, when we preach about the realities of our own death and the end of the world, it is not meant to fill our hearts with fear. It is not God’s desire for us to live in trepidation for the future. Rather we discuss these uncomfortable topics so that we may be converted and change the way we live while there is still time. We also reflect on these realities so that we can learn to trust God more. He has our life and destiny in His hands. If we love Him and listen to His word, we can be sure that He will guide us on the path to life.

Jesus speaks to this in today’s gospel. He tells his disciples who are marveling at the beauty of the temple in Jerusalem that a day will come when it will all be destroyed. This is a shock to them. The temple was a massive structure constructed of large stone blocks which took over forty years to build. It was a marvel of engineering and architecture. Moreover, it was the dwelling place of God on earth. It was unimaginable to the people of Jesus’ day that it could ever be destroyed. Though the disciples are alarmed, Jesus does not tell them this to frighten them. Even when He tells them that they will be hauled off and put to death, He wants them to know that they need not fear. He will always be with them. He wants them not to be afraid but to be aware. No matter what will happen, they can trust that He will provide for them. Nothing can happen to separate them from their Heavenly Father.

We are living in a time of large scale transition in our society and in our world. We cannot tell what will happen and can feel anxious for the future. The world as we know it is passing away. As Jesus said, there are many who claim to have the answer to society’s ills. But there is only One who can cure what is really disordered in the human heart. That is God Himself. He alone can burn away the sin which destroys our families and communities. No matter how well organized governments may be or how sound the economy, if we continue hating one another, lying and cheating each other, our society cannot enjoy peace. Only by humbling turning to God and submitting to His will can we ever find any real solutions to the problems plaguing our world. There is no other way than The Way, Jesus Christ.

And so, as we reflect on these sometimes disturbing realities, we need not be afraid. God will provide us with the strength we need to endure whatever trials may come. And He will provide us with the grace we need to live everyday of our lives in accordance with His word so that, when He does come again we will be ready to embrace Him and bend the knee before Him in reverence and awe rather than in shame and fear.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

God of the Living

It is the call that all of us dread getting.

Around 2:00 in the morning, Ron’s phone rang. It was his mother saying, “Come quick. Your brother has been in an accident.”

Throwing some clothes on, he got in his car and rushed to the hospital. The rest of the family was already there crying and hugging each other. Ron’s father walked up to him, put his arm on his shoulder and said, “Your brother didn’t make it.” While walking home after closing up the pizza place he worked at, he was struck by a driver who fell asleep at the wheel and was killed instantly.

Ron was devastated. His brother, Mike, was only eighteen years old. He had just started college and was the happiest Ron had ever seen him. All he could do was shake his fists in rage and through his tears cry out, “It’s not fair! It’s not fair!”

In what seemed like a fog, Ron managed to get through the next few days sitting through the wake and planning the funeral with his parents. However, when they stood around his brother’s grave to say their final farewell, Ron burst into tears all over again. “Why, God?! Why?I” is all he could say.

In his grief and anger, he was tempted to stop believing in God. How could a good God allow this to happen? None of it made any sense. At the same time, he realized that if there was no God then there was no heaven. And if there was no heaven, he would never see his brother again. He did not want to believe that. Like so many who have lost a loved one under tragic circumstances,  he continued to believe in God grudgingly, but could not bring himself to go to Mass or to pray.

As time went by, Ron developed skills for coping with his grief. He would find himself talking to his brother when he was driving alone in the car of when he was lying awake in bed at night. Many times after work he would drive by the cemetery to visit his grave. Whenever something good would happen - if he had an especially good day at work or if a project he was working on went smoothly - he would credit it to Mike whom he began to call his angel.

The Thanksgiving after Mike’s death was especially difficult for the family. Since he was always the life of the party, they knew that Mike would want them to enjoy themselves. As they reminisced about the practical jokes he would play on them and the trouble he would get into, they all laughed and found comfort in his memory.

Suddenly, Ron was struck with an insight. Somehow, Mike was still alive. Of course, Ron knew he could not see him or talk to him as he once did. But that did not mean that he was dead. He was just living what he called “a higher existence”.  Another insight struck him. This so-called “higher existence” was only possible because of God and His love. Drawing on what he remembered from his catechism classes, Ron also understood that eternal life is made available to us through the death of Jesus. In one moment of grace, it began to make sense to him. Though Mike’s death was senseless and tragic, God did not take him from Ron and his family forever. They still have a relationship with him and will one day be reunited with him in heaven where nothing will be able to separate them again.

Jesus assures us in today’s gospel that God “ not a God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.” God created each one of us to live forever. Our earthly life is merely the beginning of an eternal life which we hope to spend in heaven. He created us for something greater than this world can offer. We can only understand ourselves fully when we keep this in mind. Furthermore, it puts into perspective all the injustice, suffering and tragedies that we experience in this life. It is merely the growing pains of the new heavens and new earth that God is preparing for us.

That eternal life is a gift which God offers to each of us. We are free to accept it or to reject it. We are free to believe or to disbelieve. In the face of life’s challenges and difficulties, we can decide that there must be some purpose to it all beyond our ability to understand and continue to press ahead. Or we can decide that it is not worth it and give up.

If we decide to believe, to accept our existence as God created it, we will be given the strength to face whatever challenges may come. As our second reading instructs us, “...the Lord is faithful; he will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one.” If we decide not to believe and to give up, God will continue to seek us out, to comfort us and to encourage us to not give up hope. This was Ron’s experience and the experience of so many others who, in the face of tragic circumstances, come to find meaning and new purpose through God’s grace.

Our Heavenly Father has destined us for eternal life. Just as the seed is different from the tree that it produces, so that heavenly life will be far different from the life we now live on earth. It is beyond anything we could ever hope for or imagine. We do know one thing however. We hope to be reunited with the ones we love, we hope to gaze on God’s grandeur and we believe that it never end. Because of this hope, we keep His commandments and draw nourishment from the sacraments of His love. May Saint Paul’s blessing in today’s second reading inspire us to go forward with courage and faith: “May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the endurance of Christ.”
(image by Marisol Sousa)

Friday, November 8, 2013

I Believe!

For over two years now, a new translation of the Mass has been implemented in parishes throughout the English speaking world. It has been the most important change to the liturgy since it was first translated into English after the Second Vatican Council. The hope has been that by presenting a translation which is closer to the original Latin, we will gain a deeper understanding of the words we pray during Mass.

One of the interesting changes in wording that has taken place is to the Nicene Creed which we pray together after the homily. The words, “We believe” have been changed to “I believe.” Not only is “I believe” a more literal translation of the original Latin, it is also a challenge for us to take ownership of the words we are praying. Each of us is meant to lay claim to the words of the creed, standing up together with our fellow Christians and professing our belief in one God, in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Spirit who sanctifies us in our faith.

Professing our faith, living it every day and defending it are integral parts of what it means to be a follower of Christ. Thankfully, in every generation, God has raised up holy women and men who have had the courage to profess their faith in Jesus despite persecution and hardship. If it were not for their brave and faithful witness, the faith in all its richness would not have been handed down to us. We now need to profess and live that faith so that a new generation of believers can hear the good news and know the joy of a life lived in and for Christ. And so, when we pray the words “I believe”, we need to ask God for the faith to really believe to the depth of our soul and for the courage to put our faith into practice.

Today’s first reading from the Second Book of Maccabees offers us the harrowing account of a family that is put to death for refusing to compromise their beliefs. We might think it strange in our day that someone would rather die than eat pork. However, Israel’s dietary laws were an important means by which the nation was able to retain its Jewish identity as the chosen people of God despite invasions and exile. This family understood that by eating pork they would be disobeying God. They would rather obey God and suffer at the hands of men than obey men and betray their God. For this family, faith was more important than life itself. The hope of everlasting life gave them the courage to endure grisly tortures knowing that God would reward them.

In our day, we no longer follow the strict dietary laws which the Israelites observed. We maintain our Christian identity not by the foods we choose to eat but by the way we live. We use whatever money we have  to feed and clothe the poor. We love our neighbors and pray for our enemies. We visit the sick and those in prison. We value human life and the sanctity of marriage as a union between a man and a woman. We revere our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit and refuse to pollute or abuse them. We know that we are called to live forever praising God in heaven so we do not seek fulfillment only in this life. We know that only God can meet the deepest need of our heart.

Our way of life and the witness of our faith has the power to inspire those we meet and lead them to Jesus who is the source of our goodness. But, very often, it can be met with hostility by those who have rejected the gospel message. They resent it when we do not join in their gossiping. They want to label us fanatics because we believe that life is sacred. And so they take every opportunity to ridicule us or to pressure us into taking part in their sinful behavior. None of us wants to feel left out, so the temptation to abandon our beliefs and join the crowd can be strong. However, whenever we do so, we risk losing our identity. We let others define our values for us rather than taking them from the gospel. And we communicate to others that our faith is just for show, that it plays no part in the way we live or in the decisions we make.

However, when we find the courage to refuse to follow the crowd something powerful takes place. We will certainly be ridiculed and ostracized for professing our faith. But others will start to take notice. They will start to wonder why our faith is so important to us that we would risk everything to live it. And they will want to come to know this man, Jesus, who inspires and strengthens us.

We believe in one God. We believe in the resurrection of the dead and life everlasting. And we commit ourselves to living this belief without counting the cost. However, we cannot do it on our own. We need the Holy Spirit to strengthen and inspire us. We need our brothers and sisters gathered with us here to encourage and support us. And we need Jesus to feed us with His Body and Blood so that we will have the strength to carry on. God is faithful. He will not abandon us. May we not abandon Him but, instead, leave this place full of His joy and the courage to spread our faith to everyone we meet.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

No More Excuses....Ever!!

A leading financial magazine surveyed business owners and corporate managers with the question, “What keeps people from succeeding in business?”

Some answered that it was lack of motivation and effort. Others complained that most workers had other priorities than getting ahead in the company. Still others noted that many people just do not have the skills necessary to plan, budget or manage effectively.

However, what just about everyone polled reported as a major factor holding workers back from success was the tendency to make excuses. One respondent was quoted as saying, “Many of the people I manage are better at producing excuses than producing results.” Making excuses was also described as the expectation to fail even before trying. Rather than taking responsibilities for choices, it allows workers to blame others for their lack of success. Excuses give people permission to not take risks and, therefore, remain imprisoned in mediocrity.
What is true in the business world is also true about our spiritual lives. We have many excuses for not taking time to pray, for not attending Mass even for not following the Church’s teachings. We have excuses for not giving something up for Lent, for not spending time reading the Bible and even for not spending time with our families. For every challenge that might come our way because of our faith, we have an excuse to avoid it. All the while, we are missing out on all the graces that God wants to offer us. So many gifts of peace and joy are lost to us because we are too busy making excuses rather than taking the risk of following the path Jesus calls us to.

Today’s gospel has much to teach us about all the blessings that can come our way once we put our excuses aside and take a risk for Jesus. It is the story of the tax collector, Zacchaeus.
There were plenty of reasons why it would be absurd for such a man as Zacchaeus to hope to ever have a life changing encounter with our Lord. He had plenty of excuses to not try to get a glimpse of Jesus.
First of all, Zacchaeus was a short man. The crowd was so tightly packed that he could not hope to see Jesus over their shoulders and heads. The children had the benefit of sitting on their fathers' shoulders to get a look at Jesus. But no one was about to help Zacchaeus. We can just imagine him getting on the tips of his toes and jumping up and down to see over the people who were packed along the side of the road.
Secondly, Zacchaeus was not only a small man physically, but he was also a small man spiritually. Though his name means "righteous one", he was far from being a just man. He had accumulated his riches by extorting from the locals more taxes than the empire required. And the taxes he gathered helped ensure that the Roman Empire could exercise its tyrannical grip on the Jewish people. He must have known in his heart that a man like himself was not worthy to be anywhere near Jesus. Zacchaeus must have feared that a sinner such as himself would be brushed aside, ignored or even scolded openly by the truly Righteous One, Jesus.
Thirdly, because of his position in the empire, Zacchaeus was small in the eyes of the crowd. No one was about to help him. Even if Jesus were to acknowledge him, the crowd would certainly denounce him for his crimes against them. In fact, we see just that happen when Jesus asks to dine at his house. Zacchaeus had reason to fear the ridicule of the crowd and, being a small man, might even have feared that they would turn on him and beat him.
With everything that was against him, Zacchaeus could have told himself that it was no use. However, instead of hanging his head and going home, Zacchaeus knew he would have to take an extreme measure to get a look at Jesus. He took the risk of climbing the sycamore tree. The crowd would surely ridicule him. He may have fallen and hurt himself, or at the very least, torn his fine tunic. But it got Jesus' attention.
Jesus called Zacchaeus by name Though he had never met him, Jesus recognized that it was God’s grace that stirred in Zacchaeus' heart compelling him to do whatever it took to overcome his size, his shame and his fear of the crowd. And he was rewarded because his love for Jesus overcame his fear.
Faith requires overcoming obstacles and facing challenges to bring our values into reality. For every shameful experience, for every crowd that denounces us, for anything standing in our way, there is a grace compelling us to do whatever it takes to overcome it. Once we brush our excuses aside, we can grasp what Jesus is offering.
Unfortunately, we tend to associate religion with guilt and shame. However, they do not help us in our relationship with God. Rather, they make us shrink away and hide. They close us off in fear, rather than opening us up in love. They may motivate us to drop harmful habits, but they cannot inspire us to do good. Zacchaeus' spontaneous pledge to payback fourfold the money he extorted came not from any shame he felt before the crowd, but because of his joy that Jesus recognized him and desired to stay with him.
Guilt and shame create excuses for us. But grace overcomes our limitations, compelling us to do whatever it takes to reach out to Jesus for friendship.
What excuses are holding us back? What are we afraid of? What challenges and obstacles stand in our way? Jesus is offering us the grace to overcome them if we put our trust in Him and take the risk of seeking Him out no matter what the crowd may think of it. When we do, we will find that He knows us by name, that He calls us to a banquet of love and that we can have a deep, personal relationship with Him no matter our sin and failings.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

"I Mean To Stay At Your House Today"

What if Jesus were coming to our town. What would you do to make sure you had a chance to meet Him? Would you camp out on the street all night to make sure you had a good spot along the street He would be passing by? Would you climb a tree or a telephone pole so that you could get a good look at Him? Would you yell out to Him in hopes that He would hear you and look your way? Would you break through the police barricade and risk getting arrested to run up and touch Him? How far would you go for a chance to meet your Lord and Savior?

What if Jesus were coming to your house? What would you do to prepare? What do you think you would talk to Him about? What questions would you ask Him? What do you think He would want to know about you? Is there any part of your life that you would want to hide from Him? Is there any part of your life that you think He would not be pleased with? How do you think your life would change if Jesus were a guest in your home?

In the gospel we have just heard proclaimed, little Zacchaeus is in just such a spot. Jesus was passing through Jericho, and he was determined to get a look at him. The problem was that he was very short, and the crowd was already pressed tight along the way Jesus was passing. Worse still, little Zacchaeus was despised by the people. There was no way they were going to make room for him. If he was going to see Jesus, he would have to find a way to rise above the crowd. And so, he decided to climb up a sycamore tree. He could have let the crowd intimidate him. He could have decided it was no use and gone home. But Zacchaeus would not miss his chance to see the wonder-worker from Galilee. Because of his determination and efforts, Jesus recognized him and spent the rest of the day with Him.

We have come here today to get a glimpse of Jesus. All of us have taken time out of our weekend to hear His word and receive His Body and Blood. We encounter Him in our brothers and sisters gathered together with us. For some of us, it is natural to come to Mass every week and even every day. We have been doing it all our lives and would not dream of spending this time any other way. On the other hand, for many of our families it was no easy task getting the children ready, packing a bag for the baby and piling into the car to make it here on time. Others of us considered not coming because we had pressing chores at home or a television show we would have liked to watch. But we made the effort anyway. No matter why we are here or what efforts we made to get here, God is pleased. He, in turn, will make an effort to reach out to us. He knows each of us by name. And He is determined to be our guest.

There is one thing, however. For us to receive Jesus into our hearts, something about our life must change. When Zacchaeus agreed to have Jesus be a guest in his home, he pledged to give half of his belongings away to the poor and to repay anyone he may have defrauded. It was a stunning act for such a wealthy man. But he knew that he would be all the richer for having the opportunity to get to know Jesus personally. Each of us is likewise holding onto something that we must let go of if we are to stretch our hands out to Jesus. It could be an old habit or an unhealthy relationship. Our greed could be driving us to overwork ourselves and neglect our families. Or bitterness over past hurts could be making us unwilling to forgive others. We have to be willing to let it all go so that we can make room for Jesus in our lives.

We are all sinners. Each of us struggles to live the gospel message in a society which is hostile to it. Each of us is bearing a cross of some kind. We are very often forgetful of God and His love. We very often fail at reflecting His joy and mercy in our lives. But we keep showing up here. We keep praying, we keep hoping and we keep trying. We very often wish we could see more results but realize that our walk with Jesus is in baby steps not leaps and bounds. Despite our own shortcomings and the difficulties that are part of the Christian life, we are determined to move forward because we cannot be satisfied with anything else except Jesus. At this point, we see that the world cannot give us what our hearts truly desire. And so, even though the crowd tries to push us away and block our view, we find a way to rise above so that we can see Jesus who is our true joy. Whatever effort we have to make, whatever changes we need to make in our lives, whatever it costs us, we are willing to do it because there is no greater joy  than hearing Jesus call out our name and welcoming Him into our homes and into our lives.

And so, each of us has a decision to make today. Is Jesus just another man passing through town, or is He the Son of God, our Lord and Savior? Do we let the crowd intimidate and accuse us, or do we find a way to rise above so that we can see Jesus? Do we make excuses or do we make a way? Do we hold onto our sinfulness, or do we reach out our hand to Jesus?

However we answer these questions will make all the difference in our lives.