Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Way of Forgiveness and Love

Blessed Mother Teresa walked into a bakery one hot afternoon in Calcutta. At her side was a young girl who had not eaten for days. Anxious to get something into her stomach, Mother Teresa asked the baker if he had some left over bread for the girl to eat. With a look of disgust, the baker leaned back and with all the force he could muster, spit in Mother Teresa’s face. Wiping her face, she looked at the baker and said, “Thank you for the gift for me. Now, is there something that you could give this child?” Amazed by her reaction, he reached behind the counter and gave the girl a loaf of bread.

Let us consider all the ways Blessed Mother Teresa could have acted when the baker spit in her face. She could have scolded him for his cruelty and lectured him on how to treat others, especially elderly women and young children. No one would have criticized her for doing so. Considering  her popularity among the people of Calcutta, she could have organized a protest and boycott of the bakery which would have put it out of business. Again, she would have been totally within her rights to do so.

However, she had a greater purpose in mind. Not only was she anxious to find food for the girl, she was concerned for the soul of this baker. Even though he expressed hatred and contempt toward her, she still loved him. She desired not only to feed the young girl but to heal the baker. She wanted him to experience, as she had, the joy of giving to the poor. Rather than seek revenge for the humiliation she suffered, she returned kindness and it made all the difference.

As she did throughout her whole life, Blessed Mother Teresa was seeking to follow the example of Jesus who teaches us: “When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well.”

We do not know what became of the baker. I would like to think that Blessed Mother Teresa’s example of love helped to soften his heart and make him more generous to the needy.

Violence plagues our society. It takes place on a large scale through wars and organized crime. Sadly, it also plays itself out on schoolyards, office buildings and parking lots all throughout our country. At times we can feel utterly helpless, unable to do anything about it. We feel compassion for the victims and sometimes even fear that we could be targeted. However, we are not sure if we can do anything to make a difference.

If history teaches us anything it is that violence only leads to more violence. When we react to the injustice of the powerful with force of arms, it only leads to more injustice. When we seek revenge, it only leads to more bloodshed. Unfortunately, it is the poorest among us and often the most innocent who bear the brunt of the brutality.

Thanks be to God, there is a better way. It is the way that Jesus showed us, the way of love.

Jesus lived in a time when the Roman Empire was occupying the Holy Land. It was not uncommon to be slapped by a soldier, to be made to carry heavy loads for them or to have soldiers break into their homes and take their goods. Often these soldiers wanted Jews to react violently so that they would have a pretext to beat them, imprison them or even kill them. What Jesus asked his followers to do was not to retaliate. Not only would this keep the soldiers from having a pretext to inflict further harm on them, it would also surprise them, make them wonder how someone could forgo vengeance and, hopefully, make them reconsider the way they treated others.

The same is true for us today. Thankfully, we do not suffer the indignities that the people of Jesus’ day did. However, we are often insulted, offended or even cheated by others. Can we take a step back, forget our pride for a minute, and consider what made them act as they did? It could be that they are suffering in ways we cannot see or understand. It could be that they are just plain ignorant. Whatever the case may be, could we find a way of addressing them not to hurt them but to help them see why what they said or did was hurtful and to invite them to change?
At the very least, could we find it within ourselves to pray for them? As Blessed Mother Teresa sought to do, we should be concerned not only with righting wrongs but with righting hearts.

The way of love works if only we have the humility and courage to try it. Every human person has a heart that was made for love and not for hatred. When we see love in action we are instinctively drawn to it. If a person’s heart is calloused from many acts of violence and abuse, it may take that much more love to begin to chip away at it. But love never fails. Eventually it heals, corrects and soothes any human heart that experiences it.

In a world as jaded as the one we live in, these words of Jesus could sound unrealistic and impossible. In fact, without God’s grace it is impossible to love our enemies and show compassion to those who persecute us. But in a world in which violence and vengeance are wreaking havoc, it is the only way forward. It is the only way that we can put an end to the brutality all around us. It is up to us, as followers of Jesus, to make it happen.

The Dalai Lama who himself has witnessed injustices against his native land of Tibet wrote: “The planet does not need more successful people. The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of all kind.” The vengeance, the retaliation, the hatred has to stop. However, it can only stop if we decide it will and if we choose a better way. Jesus offers that better way to us and gives us the power to live it. We need only turn our cheek to Him and ask him to lead us.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Love Your Enemies

(This homily originally appeared in Connect! magazine)

Today’s gospel strikes us on the cheek with the most difficult and challenging words in all of Scripture: “When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn and offer the other....Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Jesus’ words are so pointed and direct that we often think he must be exaggerating to make his point. He cannot possibly expect us to love those who hate us. He cannot mean that we are to allow others to mistreat us without seeking vengeance.

We might be able to accept that we should forgive the small indignities we suffer in day-to-day life such as the co-worker who takes credit for work we have done or the driver who cuts us off during rush hour. But what about the schoolyard bully who tortured us throughout childhood? What about the Wall Street “fat cats” who swindled away the life-savings of the elderly? What about the drug-dealers and gang members who make us fear for the safety of our children? Does God really mean that we should love them? How can that be possible?

It is clear from Jesus’ teaching and from the example of his life that he meant exactly what he said. Just as we accept forgiveness for our own sins, we are to forgive those who sin against us, no matter what they may do. Not only must we forgive them, we must love and pray for them. It is a lot to expect from frail human beings as we are. But it is not impossible. If God expects it of us - and he does - he will give us the power to accomplish it.

Many people have heard these challenging words of the gospel and, rather than writing them off as an exaggeration, have taken them to heart and tried to live by them. One such person was Immaculee Ilibagiza.

Immaculee was a young college student living in the East African nation of Rwanda with her parents and three brothers. Like all young college women, she had many hopes and dreams for her future.

All that changed in 1994 when civil war broke out in her country. The president of Rwanda, a member of the Hutu tribe, was assassinated. Hutu tribesmen wanted revenge against the other major tribe in Rwanda, the Tutsis, whom they blamed for the murder. Hutu militias handed out machetes, machine guns and grenades to the people urging them to kill every Tutsi they encountered. Over the course of 100 days an estimated 850,000 people were killed.

When the killing began, Immaculee’s father sent her to the home of a friend of his, a Hutu pastor, to hide her until the frenzy ended. Along with five other women, she took refuge in a small bathroom off his bedroom.

For nearly three months, the women huddled in that bathroom. Gripped with fear and not knowing what had become of the rest of her family, all Immaculee could do was pray the rosary. Outside the window, she could hear people screaming and begging for their lives as they were mercilessly butchered. Bands of killers would search the pastor’s home but, miraculously, they never found the bathroom in which she was hiding. Prayer became the only way she could keep her sanity with so much inhumanity around her.

Eventually she learned that her family had been killed. The only one spared was a brother who had been studying in Senegal when the war broke out. Her father was murdered when he ventured out to get food for neighbors who had taken refuge in a nearby stadium. The killers took his body and used it for a road block. Her mother was killed when she ran out of her house to protect a neighbor who had been confronted by the mob. Finally, her two brothers were killed when their hiding place had been discovered.

As we can only imagine, she was filled with grief and rage. She wished all the Hutus would suffer cruel and humiliating deaths as her family did. At the same time, she understood Jesus’ words calling her to love and forgiveness. During her months of hiding, the rosary had given her comfort and strength. How could she keep praying it, especially the words of the Our Father: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” if she continued to harbor hatred in her heart?

This is what she writes in her memoir, Left to Tell:

In God’s eyes, the killers were part of his family, deserving of love and forgiveness. I knew that I couldn't ask God to love me if I were unwilling to love his children. At that moment, I prayed for the killers for their sins to be forgiven. I prayed that God would lead them to recognize the horrible error of their ways before their life on earth ended - before they were called to account for their mortal sins.

Immaculee’s story is powerful and moving. But she is not alone. Many others have discovered the peace that comes from forgiveness even after suffering unspeakable traumas.

Chances are, whatever wrongs others have committed against us are not as heinous as having our family killed in a genocide. If this courageous woman could find it in her heart to forgive those who cruelly tortured and killed her family, we can find it within our hearts to do the same. It is not easy. It requires much prayer. It is not only possible, it is necessary if we are to one day end the cycle of violence and war which has plagued so much of human history.

In the first reading, God tells his people to be holy as he is holy, and then he follows by commanding them to love their neighbor. In the gospel, Jesus teaches us that we must be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect and precedes it by commanding us to love our enemy. Love of neighbor and especially of enemy is only possible when we discover that we are loved unconditionally by our Heavenly Father and that our enemy is not only our neighbor but our brother and sister. We want to be loved and forgiven unconditionally and so we must show love and forgiveness unconditionally as well. The love of God makes it possible.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Peace Offering

Jared Diamond is a professor of geography based out of the University of California in Los Angeles. He has dedicated a good part of his life to studying indigenous people, particularly how their traditional cultures have been able to survive through modernity and what they have to teach us in civilizations which are at least more technologically advanced.

In a recent radio interview, he told the story of an incident which he witnessed in Papua New Guinea. A young man from a tribe had been killed in an accident caused by another young man. Predictably, the family of the man who had been killed were overwhelmed with grief at their son’s untimely death. However, instead of seeking revenge on the young man who killed him, they invited him to a banquet.

In the course of the meal, the family members each took a turn expressing through their tears how much they missed their loved one. They told stories of the mischief he would get into as a little boy, what he had been able to accomplish as he entered manhood and all the hopes for his future which were now shattered by his death.  

After they had finished, they allowed the young man who had killed him to speak. Sobbing and beating his breast, he told the family how sorry he was about the accident. He also had known the young man who was killed and grieved at his loss. Admitting that it could not replace the life he had taken, he offered them the gift of a pig which traditionally is offered in compensation for a wrong committed. In conclusion, he let them know in no uncertain terms that he wished he had died in his place.

After everyone had finished speaking, they all sat in silence for a time. Then the family stood up and each embraced the young man who had killed their loved one. They assured him that he had been forgiven and that they would not seek revenge. Everyone left the meal with some measure of consolation and peace in their hearts.

Professor Diamond contrasted this with how we in the developed world would handle the same situation. Most likely, the police would get involved, investigating the accident to determine how it happened and what degree of guilt there was on the part of the person who had committed it. There would follow a long court process to either punish the young man or award compensation to the family. A great deal of time and money would be spent. However, all the while the family would be left with their heart wrenching grief and the young man would spend a lifetime burdened with guilt. Money might be exchanged or punishment might be doled out, however no real reconciliation or healing would ever take place.

In today’s gospel, Jesus has some pointed words to say to us who have gathered to make our offering at this altar: “...if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”

Can any of us here today honestly say that we can think of no one who has anything against us? Is there anyone here today who can say that he has never wronged anyone or that she has no one to say “I’m sorry” too? If we were to take Jesus’ words literally, I imagine that this church would empty out very quickly.

We have a lot to learn from the people of Papua New Guinea. They live the spirit of today’s gospel in a vibrant way. Their primary concern was not with fairness, with finding fault or with settling a score. Rather, they sought healing, reconciliation and peace.

All families experience feuds which can last over decades. They can simmer under the surface over time or explode into all out shouting matches. How can we be instruments of Jesus’ peace to our families? Are there family members we can contact to offer forgiveness to even if we think they are the ones in the wrong? Are there members of our family that we could work at bringing together to settle their differences? What is keeping us from taking the initiative to bring reconciliation to our families? Is it pride or fear? Then, let us pray to our Heavenly Father to give us the humility and courage to say, “I’m sorry”, and to offer forgiveness to anyone who has wronged us.

No parish is immune to divisions and cliques. Even as we preach love and forgiveness, we bicker behind one another’s backs and spread gossip. Such behaviour tarnishes the image of Christ in a community and renders it inhospitable and unwelcoming. Beginning with me, each of us must make an effort to avoid gossiping at all costs. We must find a way to put aside our desire to control and our need to make ourselves the center of attention. Whatever it may cost us, we must ask each other for forgiveness and be willing to extend pardon even to those who are unaware that they have hurt us. If we cannot do this, then our worship will be in vain. It will produce no fruits in us. Our righteous will not surpass that of the scribes or Pharisees who did all the right things but with a cold, hard heart.

As we approach the altar today, we each have much soul searching to do. Jesus waits for us with open arms. He comes to bring us the healing, peace and reconciliation He won for us on the cross. He wants to set our hearts on fire with love. However, if we are harboring bitterness and scorn in them, that fire will go out. As we receive His Body and Blood let us earnestly ask Him to reveal to us at least one person we can be reconciled with. Let us ask Him for both the opportunity and the courage to carry it through. Then the peace of God will be a reality in our lives and our offering will be acceptable to our Heavenly Father.

(image by Herbert Martin Stoops)

Sunday, February 16, 2014

In My Thoughts and In My Words

We have all had the experience of telling what we thought was a harmless white lie. We may have done it to spare another person’s feelings. Later on, it turned out that we had to tell other lies to cover our tracks or the person discovered the truth on his own. As a result, feelings were hurt or a friendship was damaged. What we thought was a harmless lie ended up causing us much needless anguish.

On the other hand, we have also had the experience of doing a good deed. We may have given someone a hand with a project or listened to a friend’s problems. At the time, it seemed like a small gesture. Then, months and sometimes years later, that person reminds us of our good deed and tells us how much it meant. What we thought was a trivial act of kindness turned out to touch someone deeply.

Cardinal Thuan, a former bishop of Vietnam, wrote in his memoirs: “A straight line consists of millions of little points. Likewise, a lifetime consists of millions of seconds and minutes joined together. If every single point along the line is rightly set, the line will be straight. If every minute of a life is good, that life will be holy.”

Every day of our lives - indeed, every minute of every day - we have choices to make. Those choices, no matter how insignificant they may seem, shape our character either for better or for worse. And the consequences of those actions also add up to our benefit or our detriment. As we hear in the first reading from the book of Sirach: “Before man are life and death, good and evil. Whichever he chooses will be given to him.” Every decision we make is important. Every course of action we take determines in what direction our life will be headed.

Jesus speaks to this in today’s gospel passage. Sinfulness consists not just in breaking the commandments. Rather it is rooted in the decisions we make and in our thoughts and desires which, though hidden to others, are made plain to the eyes of God.

Most of us will make it through life without breaking the fifth commandment: “Thou shalt not kill.” But, as Jesus says, how many of us at times have wished harm on others because they have hurt us or because we are jealous of them? How many of us carry grudges and resentments over the years because we are unwilling to forgive? We may not have done any real harm to these people. But the malice that we bear in our hearts is the same sinful root - anger - from which so many despicable and reprehensible acts stem. We have made seemingly small decisions to not forgive, to bear a grudge or to envy someone, and it has made our hearts hard with anger.

We only have to look at some of the tragic events of the past year to see how true Jesus’ words are. When a shooting or a bombing takes place, we often learn about the history and character of the perpetrator. They did not just decide one day for no reason that they would kill their fellow human beings. Rather, resentment and hate had been building up within them over years. Finally, it gets to a point at which they explode, lashing out at others for all the misfortunes and injustices they believe they have suffered. And it all began with daily decisions not to forgive, not to sympathize with others and not to find positive ways to deal with their anger and hurt.

Jesus teaches us that not just the actions we take but the thoughts we think are the result of decisions we make. It is true that sometimes ideas pop into our heads without our knowing where they came from. However, we can choose which thoughts we will welcome and which we will dismiss. We can decide which thoughts we will entertain and which we will recognize to be foolish or harmful. We can decide which thoughts we will follow through with and which we will abandon. It requires much discipline for us to be aware of what we are thinking and to change the direction of those thoughts before they take us down the wrong road. But such discipline is vital if we are to keep God’s word and learn to love our neighbor from our heart.

The good news is that we do not need to do this alone. While no one can read our thoughts or see into our hearts, God can. His Holy Spirit scrutinizes all things as Saint Paul tells us in the second reading. He can make us aware of thoughts and feelings which are causing bitterness and anger to well up within us. And he can guide our minds to thoughts of joy, peace and love. We need only commit ourselves to spending some quiet time in prayer daily asking the Spirit to guard and guide our thoughts and feelings. Then we will experience an inner transformation and inner peace because the burden of grudges and long guarded jealousies will be lifted from us and our hearts will be free to love.

The American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote” "Watch your thoughts. They become words. Watch your words. They become deeds. Watch your deeds. They become habits. Watch your habits. They become character. Character is everything."  

Each of us has choices to make. How we choose will determine what kind of person we become and how our lives will turn out. If we are not happy with the direction our lives have taken to this point, there is always time for us to change course. The decision to come to Mass today is a good start. The next step is to put our lives in God’s hands and give him control over the decisions we make. If we ask him to, he will transform us beginning with the small choices we make. Then our crooked ways will be made straight and our bumpy paths made smooth.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Salt for the Earth

Light is a common theme throughout the Bible.

The Old Testament tells us that God began creation with the words, “Let there be light”. Moses and the prophets instructed the people that, if they keep God’s commandments, they would always walk in the light. Later on, God promised his people, Israel, that they themselves would be a light to the nations.

In the New Testament, Jesus calls himself the “Light of the World.” He promised his disciples that anyone who follows him would not be in the dark but would have the light of life. And in today’s gospel, he tells his disciples that they are the light of the world and challenges them to let their good deeds shine for all people to see so that they will give praise to their Heavenly Father.

It is easy for us to understand what Jesus means when he talks about light. More obscure is the image of salt. While the theme of light runs through much of the Bible, only rarely do we hear salt being mentioned. In fact, today’s gospel is the only time Jesus speaks about it. It is mentioned only two other times in the New Testament and only about  five times in the Old Testament.

Why would Jesus choose to use the image of salt in today’s reading, and what possible meaning could he have?

First of all, in ancient times, salt was a costly and precious commodity. It was so valuable, in fact, that soldiers accepted it as payment for their services. Our English word, “salary”, is taken from the Latin word for salt. And so, by calling us the “salt of the Earth”, Jesus is telling us that we are precious and valuable. Every follower of Jesus, no matter how humble matters to God and his Kingdom.

Secondly, in the ancient world, before refrigerators and cooling systems, salt was used to preserve meat from going bad. Especially in desert climates, fish and meat were in such short supply that people could not afford to buy them fresh. And if they killed a lamb or goat, they would not be able to eat all the meat at once, so salt would be added to preserve it for use at a later time.

For that reason, it was very important that salt be pure. If there were any impurities or contaminants in it, the meat would be ruined. Then both the salt and the meat would have to be thrown away, and all the hard work and expense of getting it would have been wasted.

So, when Jesus calls his disciples, “the salt of the earth”, he is telling them that, as salt keeps meat fresh, they are to preserve his message and keep it pure for future generations of disciples. He wanted the good news of the Father’s love and the story of his death and resurrection to be remembered so that others would come to believe. It would be the task of Jesus’ followers to preserve the memory of all that he said and did.

Two thousand years later, that task falls to us who have come to believe in the message that has been handed down to us. As “salt of the earth” we are to keep Jesus’ message fresh first of all by living it and, secondly, by passing it on to others. The Church has no more important task than that of preserving the message of Jesus Christ faithfully in every generation. In today’s world, there is a lot of pressure on the Church to change that teaching to fit modern biases and ways of thinking. If we were to do so, we would be betraying Christ who entrusted it to us and charged us with passing it on whole and entire. If we were to change the teaching of Jesus to suit modern sensibilities and tastes, using opinion polls as our guide rather than the enduring word of God, then our salt would lose its flavor.

For us to accomplish our task of preserving God’s word for all people to hear, we must keep ourselves pure. Just as salt that is contaminated ruins the meat it was meant to keep fresh, so we render God’s word meaningless if it does not change the way we live. If we are not different because of our faith -  if we gossip or drink too much or ignore the poor - then we cannot convince anyone that God’s word is worth hearing and heeding. We have lost our flavor, and our witness is worthless.

How can we as a community of faith answer Jesus’ call to us to be salt for the earth? Today’s first reading from the prophet Isaiah tells us how.

The people of Israel had been complaining to God asking him why their prayers were not being answered. Through the prophet, God gives an answer. If they want God to take care of them, then they need to start taking care of the poor in their midst.

The message is the same for us here today. We will earn our salt as followers of Christ by attending to the needs of those we meet. By putting the needs of others before our own, by sacrificing ourselves to enrich others, we will show that we are disciples of Jesus, and more people will be drawn to the gospel message.

Each of us is precious in God’s eyes. He is counting on us to bring his message of love to everyone we meet by living holy lives and by attending to the needs of all those we meet.

We cannot do it alone. We must be salt and light to one another, supporting each other as we reach out to those in need.

And we must turn to Jesus and ask for his Spirit to help us live up to this calling so that our salt will not lose its flavor but lead others to taste how good our God is.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Light for the World

During the height of the Vietnam War, Nguyen Van Thuan served as the bishop of a small diocese in South Vietnam. Along with his brother bishops, he tended to the needs of his flock during the most trying of times.

In 1975, Pope Paul VI called on him to serve as archbishop of what was then the capital of Vietnam, Saigon.

When he arrived in the capital, he was invited to a meeting at the president’s palace. There he was arrested by the Communist authorities and placed into solitary confinement. During the next thirteen years, he would be sent to several prisons without ever being tried for a crime and with no opportunity to prove his innocence.

At first, he felt bewildered by his situation. He wondered how it could all be happening to him. Feeling abandoned by God, he was tempted to become bitter and angry. But, as he was being transported to the prison in a boat along with fifteen hundred other prisoners, a thought came to him. He would make the prison his mission territory and the prisoners his parishioners. Rather than allow the experience of being imprisoned  break him, he would transform it by allowing God’s love to shine through him. As he put it in his memoirs, “I decided then and there that my captivity would not merely be a time of resignation but a turning point in my life.... I would live the present moment and fill it with love.”

During his stay in prison, he showed unfailing kindness to the guards no matter how cruelly they treated him. He would speak to them about the love of God and how it gave him freedom and peace even behind bars. Because of his gentleness, he was able to win the sympathy of his captors. They helped him smuggle in bread and wine so that he could say Mass. They also helped him smuggle out messages to the Catholic people of Vietnam in which he encouraged them to remain faithful to Christ and to have courage under Communist rule.

Whenever a guard or other prisoner asked him why he kept such a positive attitude and showed such kindness to his captors, he would reply that Jesus taught us that we should love even our enemies. If we cannot love those who treat us harshly as our Lord did,  then we do not deserve to be called Christians. Many people, both guards and fellow prisoners, were converted to Christ by his witness.

When he was finally released in 1988, he went around the world telling people about his experience and encouraging those who find themselves persecuted and despised that they do not have to give in to bitterness or despair but that they can transform their circumstances by allowing the light of God’s love to shine through them.

This brave and holy man’s life is a perfect example of the words of our Lord which we hear proclaimed in today’s gospel: “You are the light of the world.... Your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” Cardinal Thuan went into one of the world’s darkest places - a Communist concentration camp - and let his light shine there. He did not allow the bitter circumstances he found himself in to extinguish the light he carried within him. And by showing love instead of hate, by responding to cruelty with kindness, he touched many hearts and changed many lives. He turned a place of torture and despair into a cathedral where the love of Christ could be experienced.

In our day-to-day life we run into people who have never experienced the love of Christ. The trials and difficulties of modern day life have made them cynical and hard. They can find no other direction or meaning in life except chasing after their own comfort and pleasure. As lost and wounded as they are, they lash out and belittle those around them. It can be easy for us to react by avoiding them or treating them as harshly as they treat us. But Jesus teaches us another way. He wants us to befriend such people and treat them kindly so that they can have an experience of God’s love. How else can they realize that the love of God is real unless we show them the love which is within us? And seeing our willingness to forgive and treat others with kindness, they will get a glimpse of God’s love for them and come to find a better way in life - the way of faith.

We live in a society which is skeptical about the ability of people to change. For that reason, we have created a vengeful culture which expects harsh prison sentences and even death penalties to be handed out leaving little room for mercy or hope that criminals can be rehabilitated. Laws, harsh punishments and crowded prisons cannot change hearts. Only God’s love can really transform people. It can break down barriers of hostility. It can thaw out cold attitudes and soothe raging hostilities. When people meet Christians who are truly living the gospel of Jesus - who show love to those who hate them and forgiveness to those who harm them - they begin to change. Each of us gathered here today can make that happen by committing ourselves to living the words of Jesus in the power of the Spirit and not allowing the difficulties of life or the meanness of the people around us to make us bitter.

We are the salt of the earth and the light of the world because we have experienced the love of a God who was willing to die on the cross for us. We carry that love within us, and it shines with a brilliance that no darkness can overcome. The world outside is counting on us to bring that light along with us to the dark places of life - to bring hope where there is despair and faith where there is doubt - so that one day all the universe may be set aglow by the love of God.

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Presentation of the Lord

Many people have tried to read the Bible from cover to cover, from the book of Genesis all the way through the book of Revelation. However, spiritual directors typically do not recommend reading the Bible this way, especially for beginners. It is not an easy task and can be discouraging to those who are young in their faith. While there are many beautiful and illuminating passages throughout Scriptures, there are also sections with long genealogies and tedious historical accounts that seem flat and monotonous.

Where people typically say they give up on reading the Bible this way is in the book of Leviticus. It is the third book of the Bible and contains many chapters which go on and on describing in detail how temple rituals are to be performed including how animals are to be sacrificed, what vestments the priests are to wear and how those participating in the rituals must purify themselves before taking part. There are also strict dietary laws and rules about observing the Sabbath.
To us in the twenty-first century, these rules seem arcane and legalistic. What possible spiritual benefit could anyone gain from observing them? However, we must keep in mind that these laws are a part of God’s word. Though we no longer follow many of  them today, they served an important role in shaping the life and faith of the Jewish people. For instance, the meticulous rituals taught the Israelites that God is holy, that He is the one God, greater than all the other gods of the pagans. The sacrifice of animals taught them that God is the Creator and that all life belongs to Him. By following the rules of ritual purity, God’s People learned that they must respect Him and approach Him with humility. Finally the dietary laws and Sabbath rules helped the Jewish people hold on to their religious identity when they were forced to live among pagan peoples. Therefore, the Jewish people did not look upon these many laws as a heavy burden but as a blessing given them by God. They were taken very seriously by all Jews including Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the apostles.

However, it is human nature that when we are presented with laws we try to look for loopholes. We look for ways to meet the bare minimum that the rules require. We try to figure out how much we can get away with without breaking the commandments. The same is true of the Jewish people. For that reason, God sent prophets to remind them that the law was meant to train them to treat each other charitably, especially the poor. Through the prophet Hosea, God would say, “It is mercy I desire and not sacrifice” (Hos 6;6). Through Isaiah God would proclaim, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free,  and to break every yoke?” (Is 58:6). It is clear that to please God it takes more than following rules and regulations. It requires more than ritual or dietary purity. It also requires moral purity, purity of heart. As the prophet Micah teaches, “And what does the LORD require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God? (Mic 6:8).

Today we celebrate the feast of the Presentation of the Lord. Jesus, Mary and Joseph travel to the temple in Jerusalem to fulfill one of the dictates of the law - that of offering sacrifice for a firstborn son. This was done to recall how when the people were enslaved in Egypt the angel killed the firstborn sons of their captors but spared the firstborn of the Israelites. The law required that a sacrifice of a lamb, a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons be offered. Scripture scholars tell us that because Joseph and Mary were poor, they were not required to bring a lamb. However, there is another way to look at this. Could it be that they did not bring a lamb because Jesus Himself was the lamb?

Jesus is the Lamb of God who is sacrificed on the cross for our sins. We no longer observe all the sacrifices and ritual laws of the Old Testament because Jesus has met them all for us by offering Himself on the cross. His death made all the sacrifices of the Old Testament obsolete. We no longer need to offer bulls, lambs or turtledoves to find forgiveness for our trespasses. God has taken care of all that through the blood of His only Son. As we read today in the book of Hebrews, “Through death [Jesus destroyed] the one who has the power of expiate the sins of the people.” Through our baptism we have been made pure to worship God and to enjoy a personal relationship with Him.

There are still rules we must follow. However,  they are just the minimum that is required of us. Like the people of the Old Testament, we can fall into the trap of only trying to meet the rules without living the faith in all its fulness. We can become content with making it to Mass every Sunday yet fail on Monday to live the demands of the gospel we heard. When we do that, our faith becomes lifeless. It becomes just a matter of jumping through hoops. We do not exude the joy of the good news.

To be true followers of Jesus, then, we need the purity of heart which the Old Testament speaks of, a purity that is not content with keeping rules but with showing love. If we are to truly know the God who reveals Himself in Jesus Christ we must not only keep the letter of the law but the spirit of the law.  We must forgive those who offend us just as God has forgiven us in Christ. We must reach out to the poor, the needy and the sick as Jesus did. Then our prayers, our sacrifices and our good works will be acceptable to God. Then we will know the salvation that Jesus died on the cross and rose in glory to make possible for us.

It is customary on this feast day to bless the candles that will be used in the church in the coming year. They serve as symbols of Jesus who is the Light of the World. This same Jesus calls us to be light for a world plunged in the darkness of fear, skepticism, denial and hatred. If we are content to simply follow the rules, our light will be dim at best. But if in the power of the Spirit we love our neighbor, feed the hungry, show mercy to sinners and give comfort to those in need, then we will radiate hope to a world that does not need more judgment or more laws but, instead, needs more of Jesus and His love.