Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Waters of Baptism

The story of Noah and the flood is one of the best known and fascinating narratives in the Old Testament. Not only is it a gripping saga about a family trying to survive a devastating natural disaster in an ark filled with animals, it is also a tale about the destructive power of sin and God’s desire to save us.

The book of Genesis tells us that, when God saw the wickedness on the earth, “[He] was sorry that he had made humankind....” (Gen 6:6). These words sound harsh to us today; however, God does not utter them out of anger and contempt. Rather, He says them out of profound grief. The people whom He breathed His own life into and created to be “very good” had turned out to be wicked. God is saddened by the sinfulness of His people.

This story gives us some insight into how sin offends God. Our Heavenly Father is all good and He created us to be good also. However, when we sin, we reject the goodness God placed within us and choose something less. To use a very mundane example, imagine putting our time and effort into cooking a meal and it ends up getting burned. It would be natural that for us to feel disappointed that it did not turn out to be as delicious as we imagined. In much the same way, we disappoint God when we are not the good and holy people He created us to be.

Because sin offends God who is “all good and deserving of all our love”, it warrants punishment. In civil society, when laws are broken,  a fine or jail sentence is handed out to restore justice. Just so, when God’s commandments are broken, a punishment must be inflicted to bring the evil doing to an end so that no one else may be harmed. In the story from Genesis, that punishment comes in the form of a devastating flood.

However, the story does not end with sin and punishment. For all the terror and destruction the flood inflicted on earth, the point of the story is that God wants to save us, not punish us. For that reason, He commanded Noah to build the ark to protect his family and to give His creation a fresh start. When the waters recede, He makes a covenant - that is, a sacred promise - that He will never destroy His creation again. God makes that promise on His own initiative because He wants a relationship with the people He created. In the end, God is willing to put aside His right to punish us so that He can loves us and  be loved by us in return.

The ultimate sign of God’s desire to save us comes in the person of Jesus Christ. He took upon Himself the sins of the world and endured the punishment we deserve by dying on the cross. Any good works or any penance we might perform over a lifetime could never begin to make up for the offense against God that only one of our sins causes. However, because Jesus never sinned, His offering on the cross is pure. Also, because as God, Jesus is infinite, the blood He shed on the cross can be extended to all people who ever lived and ever will live. It can never be used up. There will never be a point where the wickedness of humanity will exhaust all the forgiveness that flows from the cross of Jesus Christ.
The forgiveness of sin, therefore, comes through Jesus Christ. He has paid the price of salvation for us, a price that we could never have paid on our own. Because of the cross, sin has no more power over us. It has no claim on us. And, just as new life and a new creation followed the flood, so new life and a new creation flow from the cross of Jesus Christ. Because He rose from the dead, Jesus not only conquers sin but the ultimate punishment, death. Not only are we offered the forgiveness of our sins through the cross but everlasting life with God in heaven.

How are the graces and merits of Jesus’ death on the cross applied to us? How do we get credit for what Jesus has done? Through baptism. Saint Peter makes this clear in today’s second reading. Just as God saved Noah and his family from the waters of the flood, so we are saved through the waters of baptism. At our baptism, the death and resurrection of Jesus was applied to us. Our sins were forgiven and we were given faith through the Holy Spirit which makes us children of God and empowers us to live good and holy lives. The new creation and new life of the cross and resurrection of Jesus flow to us through the waters of baptism.

However, baptism is not magic. We have to live out the victory of Jesus over sin and death in our everyday choices. We have to reflect in our character and in our actions the goodness and holiness which is fitting of a child of God. Like Jesus, we have to struggle against temptation. In the face of injustice, we have to right wrongs and protect the vulnerable. We have to serve others with the power that God gives us. Ultimately, baptism is not a one-time event but a lifestyle in which we place ourselves in God’s hands and commit to doing His will.

We no longer have to fear punishment. We do not have to be defeated by sin. We do not have to despair because of the shortness of our lives on earth. Sin and death have been defeated on the cross. Everlasting life is offered to us through the resurrection of Jesus. This everlasting life which is ours through baptism is not something we will reach only at the end of our lives. It is a power which is at our disposal even now to defeat temptation, to fight injustice and to do good. It is simply a matter of drawing on it when we need it. Then we will be truly living out our baptism and experiencing the victory of Jesus every day.  

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A Father Who Keeps His Promises

The popular Catholic writer, Scott Hahn, begins his book, A Father Who Keeps His Promises, with a story from the 1983 earthquake in Armenia which killed 30,000 people. A father had just dropped his son off at school when the devastating earthquake hit. He ran through the streets yelling out his son’s name. When he arrived at the school it had been reduced to a pile of rubble. He called his son’s name out again and again, “Armand! Armand!” but he could not find him. Some of the bystanders put their arms around him and told him that it was no use. There was no hope of finding any of the children alive.

However, the father remembered the promise he made to his son that if anything should happen to him, he would be there to save him. So the father went over to the pile of rubble that had been his son’s school and started to dig. He cleared away bricks, chunks of asphalt and broken glass. At first, some of the bystanders tried to help him. But as the hours went on, they abandoned him telling him that it was no use. But the father, driven by the promise he made to his son, would not let up. Ten, twenty hours passed and he was still at it clearing away as much debris as he could and yelling out his son’s name.

He continued his efforts well into the next day even though the police came by to tell him there was no hope. Finally, after over thirty hours of digging, he called out his son’s name and heard a faint voice calling out from under the rubble,  “Papa, Papa!” Digging with even more fervor and calling out his son’s name, he was able to reach the place where he and several of his classmates were,  rescuing all of them. Everyone was amazed and overjoyed. Young Armand turned to his classmates and told them, “See. I told you my father would keep his promise.”

This moving story cannot help but make us think about our Heavenly Father. No matter what, He keeps His promises. There is nowhere we can go that He cannot find us. There is no trouble we can get ourselves into that He cannot lift us out of. If an earthly father can take such care to keep his children safe and rescue them when they are in danger, what lengths will our Heavenly Father who is love itself not go to rescue, save and comfort us?

Today’s first reading from the book of Genesis gives us a beautiful example of one of God’s promises. After rescuing Noah and his family from the flood, God seals a covenant with them promising never to devastate the earth again. As a sign of His promise, He paints a beautiful rainbow across the sky. God makes a promise that He will not punish His people but save them. He will treat His people tenderly rather than harshly. He will show compassion rather than judgment.

Throughout the Old Testament, our Heavenly Father made many other promises as well. The greatest of these promises is that He would send a Messiah, a Saviour, to free His people from their sins and deliver them from death. For many centuries the people of the Old Testament held firm to that promise. They knew that God was faithful and that He would keep His promise no matter how long it took.

When Jesus appears on the scene in Galilee preaching the good news, His first words are, “This is the time of fulfillment.” With Jesus, all of God’s promises are fulfilled. Through His death, we are delivered from our sins. Through His resurrection, we are delivered from death. Through the gift of His Spirit, we live with our hearts set on the things of heaven. And when He comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead, we will receive the inheritance of eternal life He has kept for us in heaven from the beginning of time. God is a Father who keeps His promises. And all of His promises are fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ.

As we begin our Lenten journey, it is important for us to keep our hearts and minds focused on this great love our Heavenly Father has for us. Though this is a time for us to mourn our sins and to strengthen our resolve for doing good through penance, we must never lose sight of why we want to rid ourselves of sin. Sin displeases God. It offends the One who has shown us so much love. If He did not love us, our evil-doing would not hurt Him as much as it does. As we meditate on His fatherly care for us, it makes us even more determined not to hurt or offend Him again. We may be able to change our behaviour through fear or guilt, but love is the most powerful motivator. It is love that should be motivating and driving whatever penances or acts of self-denial we undertake throughout these forty days.

All  the promises God made to the people of Israel He now extends to us through faith in Jesus Christ, His Son. They are given to us through our baptism, as Saint Peter reminds us in today’s second reading. Through that great sacrament, our sins are forgiven and God’s Holy Spirit takes up His home within us. It gives us the right to be called sons and daughters of God and to inherit all the promises He makes to those who love Him. We should call to mind our baptism every day and lay claim to God’s promise that He will be there to save us whenever we call. He is a Father who keeps His promises. No matter what happens, we can be sure of that.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Help On Our Way Through The Desert

The Bible is rich with imagery and symbolism. Today's readings offer us the symbol of the rainbow - the sign God placed in the sky of his promise to never destroy the world he created. We also read about the desert which the Bible uses as a symbol of the place where we encounter God.

In the Bible, not only do things have symbolic value, but numbers do as well. For instance, the number seven is a symbol of the covenant. And when Jesus chooses twelve apostles, it is symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel.

One number that has great symbolic value in Scripture is the number forty. For the ancient Hebrews, the number forty represented change and transition. When the Jews left their bondage in Egypt to enter the Promised Land, it took forty years, symbolic of Israel's transition from an enslaved people to a kingly people. Today's first reading recalls for us the great flood when it rained for forty days and forty nights. This is symbolic of God's desire to transform the world from a place of wickedness to a place of justice. And, in the gospel, Jesus is compelled by the Spirit to spend forty days in the desert doing battle with Satan. Jesus' forty day retreat was symbolic of his transition from a hidden life in Nazareth to a public ministry of announcing God's Kingdom which will eventually lead to his death and resurrection.

This past Wednesday, we began the forty days of preparation called "Lent". They are forty days of change for us. Like the Jews who traveled forty years in the desert, we are to spend these forty days transitioning from slavery to sin into the freedom of the Spirit. Like Jesus who spent forty days in the desert, we are to do battle with the devil by facing our weaknesses, our temptations and our sins. These forty days are meant to change us.

To help us maximize these days of preparation for our great celebration of Jesus' death and resurrection, the Church gives us three practices - three tools - so that we may overcome our weaknesses and temptations. They are prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

Prayer is simply communicating with God. Whether we pray the rosary, read the Bible or spend time quietly before the Blessed Sacrament, prayer is about tuning our minds and hearts to God's voice so that we will be ready to respond to him when he calls. To pray, all we need is time, a quiet place and a willing spirit. God will provide the rest. If these forty days are going to be a time of growth for us, we all need to make extra time for prayer. And that will require sacrifice whether it means skipping our favorite TV program, waking up earlier in the morning or taking time out of our lunch break. But we can be sure that if we make the time, God will bless us with much insight and consolation.

Fasting is the practice of going without food as a sacrifice. There are two days in the year when all healthy Catholics are asked to fast - on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Fasting is a powerful tool in our struggle against sin and temptation because it trains us to say "no" to our desires and impulses. It also helps us to grow in sympathy and compassion for the poor who go without food every day. Fasting also helps us in our prayer because it slows our bodies down making us better able to concentrate. And so fasting must be an important element of our Lenten journey.

Finally, almsgiving means giving money to the poor. Jesus teaches us that our religious practices are meaningless unless they help us to grow in love and compassion for our neighbor. Giving to the poor is one of the highest forms of sacrifice because what we give up actually benefits another person. It is also an act of faith by which we recognize that everything we have comes from God and belongs to God. It is a very good practice during Lent to take whatever money we may save from our sacrifices, whether it is ordering water instead of beer with dinner or not going out to eat on a particular day, and donating that money to a charity. By thinking more about others and their needs, our heart becomes more like Jesus', and we grow in love and faith.

These forty days are a time of transition and change in preparation for the celebration of Jesus' death and resurrection during Holy Week. They are a time for us to go into the desert with Jesus to face our temptations and sins. The desert is a symbol of the place where we encounter God. But it is also the place where people can get lost and die! By using the tools of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, we can be sure that the Holy Spirit will help us to grow beyond our slavery to sin and make real in our hearts the freedom we are called to by our baptism.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ash Wednesday

Paul was about to lose everything.

When the economy was good, he made a lot of money as a building contractor. But he overextended himself buying cars, eating out at expensive restaurants and taking lavish vacations. Now that his work had slowed down, he was left with a huge mortgage and credit card debt that he knew he could never pay off. His personal finances created so much tension in his home that his wife eventually left him. Finally, the bank foreclosed on his home and he had no where to go until a friend offered to let him live in his basement.

A client whom Paul had done work for in the past heard about his dire situation and decided he would try to help him. He had a piece of land sitting vacant and decided to hire Paul to build a house on it. He immediately agreed and was excited to finally have some work. At the same time, Paul was not sure when he would work again so he wanted to make as much money at this job as he could. He cut corners on the construction to save money and pocket the difference. Though his client provided good quality materials such as granite counter tops and hardwood flooring, he would sell them to other contractors and buy cheaper quality products instead. At the end, it was not the house he agreed to build but a much inferior product. He figured he would probably never see this client again so he was happy just to make whatever money he could out of the project.

When the construction was complete, Paul went to the client’s house to deliver the keys to him. However, the client surprised him when he said, “No. You keep them. I am giving the house to you.” Paul was shocked. “What do you mean?” he asked. The client answered, “Well I knew you were struggling and I had this piece of land which I wasn’t using, so I figured I would help you out by not only giving you some work but providing a home for you to live in. It is yours.” Stunned by his client’s generosity, Paul was left speechless. At the same time, he realized that if  he knew he was going to end up owning the house, he would have done a much better job building it.

Today, we begin the great season of Lent. Forty days to reflect on our lives as we prepare to celebrate Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is a time for us to think about what kind of house we are building for ourselves. What are we doing with the materials God has sent us? Are we using them as he intended or are we trading them in for cheap substitutes? Are we putting our best effort into building a life that is pleasing to God or are we just trying to get by with as little work as possible? At this point in our journey, are our lives something that we can be proud of or have we really made a mess of things? These days give us time to look over what we have done, to repair what is broken and to resolve to do a better job going forward.

The key to building a strong home is first laying down a firm foundation. The foundation of our lives is Jesus. He created us and sustains us with His grace. He provides everything we need to build holy and good lives. If our lives are not what we want them to be, if we are not happy with the direction in which our lives are headed, the first thing to do is turn to Him. He will provide the answer. Once we fix our relationship with Him through confessing our sins, doing penance and resolving not to sin again, the other broken things in our lives will start to be repaired. These forty days of Lent, above all else, are a time for us to get back to what is most basic, our relationship with our Lord.

When our homes need repair sometimes it is very tempting just to make cosmetic changes and not fix the real problem. For example, if we have a hole in the wall, we may want to just hang a picture up to cover it rather than do the work of plastering the wall and repainting it. The same is true of our spiritual lives. We may show up at Mass, not eat meat on Fridays and sacrifice something small throughout these weeks of Lent out of a sense of obligation rather than out of a desire to make our lives pleasing to Jesus. We think we may be “covering our bases” but in the end we are really cheating ourselves. We are missing out on the opportunity to make a real change in our lives. Jesus explicitly tells us in today’s gospel that He is looking for more than outward expressions of faith. Rather He is looking for real, heartfelt conversion. He does not just want a change in our behavior, but a change in our heart. That can only happen if we come to Mass and make sacrifices not out of a sense of duty but out of a sense of love. It can only happen when we allow Jesus to touch our hearts and change us.

That is what Jesus expects from us during this Lenten season. And it is possible because He has already provided us with all the materials we need to build lives that are pleasing to Him. Have we settled for cheaper substitutes? Have we failed to give Him our best effort in return for all He has done for us? As Saint Paul tells us, now is the time to change that with God’s help.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Saint Damien of Molokai

He was the Mother Theresa of his day. Just as Mother Theresa brought the plight of the poor in Calcutta to the world’s attention, so this saint showed the world the suffering of those living with leprosy on the island of Molokai.

His name was Saint Damien of Molokai.

Born in Belgium in 1840, he joined the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts with his brother. Though his brother was originally supposed to go to Hawaii, he became sick and Damien would have to go in his place.

Upon arriving in Molokai and witnessing the inhumane conditions the lepers were forced to live under, his heart went out to them. In fact, the conditions were so difficult that missionaries were only sent to live there three months at a time and then were sent back home to rest. However, Damien asked to stay past the usual three months, so much did he desire to bring comfort to them. Through his efforts, he was able to build permanent housing and bring medical care to the colony.

After working so closely with the lepers of Molokai, he eventually contracted the disease himself. Rather than make him bitter and resentful, it drove him to give even more of himself in service to those most desperate of people. As he wrote in a letter to his brother, “I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Christ.”  The disease finally took his life in 1889, but his efforts inspired a generation of Christians to seek out and share their lives with those who suffer from disease and poverty.

Jesus touched many people during his brief life. None were more desperate than lepers. They were true outcasts. As they journeyed about they were forced to cry out, “Unclean! Unclean!” to warn people that they were nearby. Imagine what it would be like to have people run away from you whenever they saw you. What a lonely, painful life it must have been!

Not only were they ostracized because of the ugly sores the disease produced on their skin, they were also considered the worst of sinners. It was believed that it must have been because of some terrible sin they committed that they would be punished with such a painful illness. So not only did lepers feel rejected by the community, they also felt abandoned by God.

So imagine what it would have been like to have Jesus not run away from them, but actually reach out and touch them. Imagine being looked at with love for the first time in years. Imagine hearing Jesus say to you, “I do will it. Be healed.” Imagine the hope of being finally reunited with your family, finally able to embrace your wife and children, finally being told that you are welcome back home. It must have been an exhilarating experience to finally have hope again, to finally have a life worth living.

Thankfully, diseases like leprosy are not as widespread and as untreatable as they were in the past. And thankfully we understand how illness works and do not consider it a punishment from God. However, there are still many people who are physically healthy but in their spirits suffer the same torments as lepers. They feel unloved, alone in their struggles and abandoned by God. They are teenagers who need so desperately to belong but are  unable to relate to their parents or to their peers. They are the elderly who have lost so many of their loved ones and have no one to share their memories with or to visit them. They are the divorced who live with deep feelings of rejection and failure. They are each one of us who struggle with sin and our own weaknesses, who feel so often like hypocrites because we believe the words of Jesus but can find them so difficult to live out. All of us need hope. All of us need to know that we are loved despite our warts and bruises. All of us need to know that someone cares and that we are not alone.

That is what Jesus came to bring. Hope for the hopeless. There is no one outside of the circle of God’s faithful, unconditional love. There is no wound He cannot heal, no obstacle He cannot overcome and no sin that He cannot forgive. The more desperate our situation appears, the closer Jesus is to us. Jesus never rejects or abandons anyone. He died so that all of us could find forgiveness, healing and salvation. In fact, when Jesus appeared to the great mystic, Saint Faustina, He told her, “The greater the sinner, the more right he has to my mercy.” Jesus came for sinners. He came for you and me. We can go before Him with confidence for He knows what we need and He desires to heal us.

Where can we go to find this healing that Jesus offers us? Where do we experience the depth and power of His mercy? The best first step on the road to healing and recovery is the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Confession is one of the great healing sacraments. There we honestly reveal our wounds to Jesus, and He reaches out to touch us and help us understand that we are loved. Jesus is really present to us in this great sacrament through the ministry of the priest. We are telling our sins directly to Jesus and we are being forgiven directly by him. Many people avoid going to confession out of fear or out of a bad experience they may have had in the past. That is understandable. But why carry that burden of shame and fear any longer when we can know real healing and forgiveness by a simple act of honestly confessing our sins? Why continue to feel alone in our grief and anguish when we can lay them at the foot of the cross and know joy again? All this is offered to us through this great sacrament of healing, the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Jesus came to teach us how to live a full and joyful life. He wants us to know real, lasting peace and freedom. We can go to Him as we are, with our weakness, bruises and warts and be confident that He will love us no matter what. All He asks in return is that we show the same love and forgiveness to one another in return. Like Saint Damien did, we are to reach out to the lonely, the sick and the imprisoned to bring them the hope we have discovered in the love of God revealed in Jesus.

Who in our lives could use a little love and compassion? Let us bring those people to Jesus in prayer as we continue this liturgy and ask for the courage to show them the loving face of Christ.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Restoring the Outcast

Lepers are mentioned often in the Bible. However, in the twenty-first century, it is difficult for us to understand what life was like for them in Jesus’ day.  Like tax collectors and Pharisees, we do not run into lepers in our daily lives. Thankfully, advances in medicine have made this horrible disease less frequent and more manageable.

What is leprosy? It is a horrible disease which attacks the whole body leaving ugly open sores on the skin which ooze pus and give off an awful stench. We know today that the disease is not as highly contagious as people in Jesus' day thought. But imagine their reaction seeing a leper. Not only would they have been revolted by the sores and the stench, they would also have been gripped by the fear that they too might catch the disease and spend the rest of their lives as outcasts.

Because of the fear and disgust that lepers inspired, people in the ancient world went to great lengths to keep them as far away as possible. They were not allowed in the villages or to enter public places. Wherever they went they had to shout, "Unclean! Unclean!", to warn people that they were passing by. Add to that the fact that people generally considered leprosy a punishment for sin. And to be afflicted with so horrible a disease, the sin they committed must have been great! So they were looked upon not only with disgust, but with contempt. Even their families would not acknowledge them. Because they were unable to enter the temple to make sin offerings for themselves, they must have felt rejected by God as well.

For lepers there was no hope of ever living any kind of a normal life, of having a family or of worshiping God with the rest of the community.

Then Jesus appears on the scene. It is for this reason that he came - to be hope for the hopeless. The leper in today's gospel would have already heard the stories of Jesus' power to heal and the wonders he was working throughout the town of Capernaum. It was a light of hope in the midst of an otherwise dark existence. Before approaching Jesus, he would have shouted out, "Unclean! Unclean!", as required by the law. Those around Jesus would have quickly run away holding their noses and probably putting their hands over their children's eyes so that they would not be disgusted by the sight. But Jesus is not revolted by the poor man. Rather, he welcomes him. The leper drops to his knees begging Jesus for the gift that will change his life forever, the gift of healing. Because of his faith, Jesus grants his request and sends him on his way to fulfill all the hopes and dreams that such a horrible disease had stolen from him.

We in the twenty-first century would like to think that we are more sophisticated than the people in Jesus' day who treated lepers with such superstition and contempt. But a good, hard look at our society tells us something different. It has become common nowadays to abort a baby that is diagnosed with Downs syndrome or any other birth defect in the womb. We are told that such children are "burdens". Add to that the growing opinion that the elderly, the handicapped, those in comas and the terminally ill should be given a "right to die". We are told that they too are a "burden" and that there is no quality to their lives. What we are really saying is that we do not want to be bothered with having to pay for them or having even to see them. We do not want to be reminded that we too will someday  be old and infirm. For all our technical advances, we have not made much progress in valuing the lives of every human being. In fact, the people of Jesus' day would be shocked and horrified by the way we treat the unborn and the elderly.

How different the gospel message of Jesus is! He came to bring hope for everyone. In Jesus' eyes there is no one so disgusting that he or she is beyond being loved. There is no one so sinful that he or she cannot be forgiven. The healing that Jesus most wants to perform in our midst here today is not so much to take away our suffering and illnesses, but to transform our hearts so that we look at that pain in a new way. God has the power to transform suffering. When we offer any kind of hardship or pain to him,  we become like Jesus who offered his suffering on the cross for the salvation of the world. Instead of causing despair, suffering can actually bring us peace and even joy when we realize that God can use it to bring forgiveness and reconciliation to us and to others. If we are caring for someone who is suffering or if we are suffering ourselves, we need not feel like outcasts or burdens. On the contrary, those who offer their sufferings to God in faith provide more blessings for the world than we can ever know.

Again, it is important to remember that suffering is not good. We should try to ease it whenever possible. But when pain is unavoidable, we can offer it up to Jesus and watch him use it in powerful ways. 

We are here today, each of us, like the lepers in Jesus' day. As beggars and outcasts, we come to him because he is our only hope. Jesus is offering us words that can transform us through the gospel, his body which is broken to heal us, and his blood which is spilled to save us. At this Eucharist, let us offer our suffering, hardships and difficulties along  with the bread and wine on the altar. If we approach Jesus with lively faith, he will work a wonder in our life, and we will leave this place rejoicing and telling of his mighty deeds to everyone we meet. 

Thursday, February 12, 2015


Jesus knew what hard work was all about. For most of his life, he toiled as a carpenter building  and making repairs to homes. When there was not enough carpentry work, he would have hired himself out as a day laborer in the fields harvesting grain and olives. He knew what it was like to have to work under the hot sun. He knew what it was like to have a bad day, to have someone yell at him because they were not happy with his work or to have someone refuse to pay him. There were probably many nights when he came home and wanted to just go straight to bed.

The hard work did not end, however, when he decided to hang up his carpentry belt to preach the Kingdom of God. There were many long days traveling from town to town, preaching to crowds and healing the sick. People were always pressing in on him from all sides sometimes just to get a look at the wonder worker from Galilee and other times to hopefully be cured. As we see in today’s gospel, Jesus got little rest. But he kept pressing forward, despite the difficulties, to do the will of his Heavenly Father.

Of course, his greatest work was that which he accomplished on the cross, dying to save us. It was obviously very difficult, but he endured it all out of love. And because of his great love, he turned what would otherwise have been a great tragedy into a source of salvation and hope for the whole world.

Work is an unavoidable part of the human condition, and all work involves some drudgery as Job tells us in the first reading. There are the sore muscles and fatigue that come from hard manual labor. There is the stress and anxiety of trying to meet deadlines. There is dealing with people who are often never happy no matter what we do. And there is the frustration and feelings of failure that come from looking for work in a challenging economy. Work whether it is in an office, in the home or in the classroom is never easy.

However, as Christians, we look at work as more than a way to earn a living. Through faith we understand that it is a way for us to cooperate with God in transforming the world. God wants to use us and our work to make the world a better place. So all of our work, no matter how menial or insignificant it may seem, is a way of helping to build the Kingdom of God.

Consider this. All of us are wearing clothes made by people we have never met. They got up early in the morning, took their places at their sewing machines and got to work. It may not have occurred to them that they were doing anything meaningful, but because of their work we have clothing to keep us warm. All thanks to people we have never met. The same is true of the cars we drive, the houses we live in and the food we eat. All of those things which are so necessary for our well-being are  the result of someone’s hard work.

The same is true for our work. Whatever we do, no matter how trivial it may seem, it is doing someone an immense amount of good. God is using it to make someone’s life better. We may never see it and we may never be thanked for it, but it is real and we should take pride in it.

In today’s society, it is common for us to separate our faith from our work. It is not always clear to us how our worship on Sunday should transform our work on Monday. However, for believers, all things are transformed by love. Just as by love Jesus transformed the cross into a means of salvation, just so through love we transform our work from mere drudgery into a means of holiness for us.

A cardinal tells the story of a time he was walking through the streets of Rome on his way to the Vatican. A street sweeper greeted him and asked, “Your Excellency, are you on your way to see the Pope?” The cardinal answered, “Yes.” The man then continued, “I’m sure you will be making many important decisions today. But if I sweep these streets with love, it will be equally important in the eyes of God.” And the cardinal replied, “It certainly will be.”

When our work is difficult, when it seems demeaning, when we feel as though we cannot go on, we should offer it all up to God in love. When we feel overwhelmed, when people are pressing us to do more and more, when we are too tired to even think straight, we can give it all to our Heavenly Father and ask Him to help us. By offering it all up for the love of God and for the conversion of sinners, we can transform our work into a means of salvation for ourselves and for the world.

When we bring our love for God into the workplace it will also have a transforming effect on the people we work with. They will notice how we complain less than others, how we avoid gossip and backstabbing and how peaceful we are even under stress. They will wonder what is different about us and ask us about the joy we have. Then we can witness to them about the love of God which changes all things.

Jesus promises that he will make all things work for good for those who will love and follow him. That means that he will use our work, no matter how tedious it may seem, to do good for the world. If we embrace it with love, it can transform us and our world. All we have to do is take our faith to work with us on Monday and let God take care of the rest.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Off and Running

Many people compare their everyday lives to running on a treadmill. They are always busy, always on the go, but never getting anywhere. Such people find themselves getting up in the morning, going to work, coming home to take their children to whatever after-school activities they may have, grabbing supper on the road, and then going to bed only to start the cycle over again the next morning. Others have unfulfilling jobs that leave them drained at the end of the day. The only thing they have to look forward to is the weekend or their next vacation. After years of living on this "treadmill", people begin to question the meaning of their lives and wonder if all the activity is worth it.  

In today's first reading, Job expresses some of the same sentiments. As he puts it, "Life on earth is a drudgery." Remember that Job, in a series of tragedies, lost his wife, his children and all his possessions. In his grief, he couldn't find the strength to pick himself up from the ground. In a near state of shock, he compares his life to that of a slave or hireling who has no share in the profits of his work. These are sentiments we can very easily share, especially during these dark and cold February days.

While Job poses the problem, Jesus provides the solution. In today's gospel, Jesus has had a very long day. The people of Capernaum, hearing that he had the power to heal and cast out demons, were bringing the sick to him while he stayed at the house of Peter's mother-in-law. When everyone had finally left, Jesus slips away by himself to a deserted place to pray. He needed time away from the crowds and the demands of the people to spend time alone with his father.

For Jesus, prayer was a source of strength. All the power to preach the good news, to heal and to cast out demons came from the time he spent praising and adoring his Father in secret. Like all of us, Jesus needed to step aside from his busy, demanding life to take stock of his Father's presence and love.

There was once a woman who found herself in much the same situation we have been describing. She had fallen into a rut. Life seemed to lose its wonder and joy. A friend told her about the power that prayer has to transform our lives and strengthen us. So she began waking up an hour earlier every morning to give it a try.

At first, she would just sit on her couch with a blanket around her not knowing how to begin. Sometimes she would just look out the window at the street light. But with time she began finding that she felt less stressed and less anxious during the day. She began noticing the needs of others around her and would bring their intentions into her daily prayer. Though at first she worried that getting up earlier would leave her with less energy during the day, she actually found that because prayer was revealing to her a deeper sense of purpose, she felt more motivated than ever. And, because she was less stressed, her marriage also improved because she was less irritable around the house and picked fewer fights with her husband. 

If we are going to live lives marked by peace and joy, prayer is vitally important to us. It will bring clarity to our minds when we are confused and calm to our spirits when we are anxious. Prayer is like an incubator cultivating faith, hope and love within our spirit.

The reason most people give for not praying is that they do not have enough time. With such hectic lives, the last thing they want is to add another activity to their day. But what those who make the effort to carve out some time for prayer in their day immediately discover is that, instead of ending up with less time, they have more!  It could be that they feel more energized because of a new sense of purpose. Sometimes prayer gives people a new perspective on life so that they cut out of their schedule activities that are less important. Whatever the reason may be, it demonstrates an important rule of the spiritual life: God cannot be outdone in generosity. If I give God twenty minutes of my time, he is going to give me forty minutes back. Whatever we give to God - whether it be time, money or talent - we get back in return many times over.

Another reason that people are often afraid of prayer is that they think that they don't know how to pray. They don't know what to do during those twenty minutes. Saint Paul knew very well himself how difficult prayer was. In fact, he taught that none of us knows how to pray as we ought. But through our baptism and confirmation, we have each received the gift of the Holy Spirit. That Holy Spirit prays within us and guides us in our prayer. This demonstrates another important rule of the spiritual life: Prayer is not something we do, but something that God does in us. The same God who plants in our hearts a desire to pray will teach us how to pray if we put time into it daily.

We are here today giving God an hour out of our week because we believe something important happens here. We believe that Jesus is speaking to us through the Scriptures we proclaim and giving his very life to us through the gift of his Body and Blood in the Eucharist. We are here today because we believe that our lives are about much more than what we do day in and day out. Our lives are rather about who we are - children of God made in his image and likeness. By making daily prayer along with Sunday Mass the foundation of our lives, we will see ourselves being renewed and transformed daily by God's presence and power. Our lives will be marked, not with monotony or drudgery, but with the joy and peace which come from the Holy Spirit.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Why Are You Here?

Jesus really knew how to draw a crowd. Wherever He went, people would come by the hundreds and  thousands from the surrounding towns to hear Him speak. Everyone who came had a different reason for seeking Him out. Some had heard about Him from their neighbors and wanted to see Him for themselves. Many sick people would seek Him out, sometimes carried in the arms of their loved ones, in hopes that He would cure them. Many wanted to see what miracles He might perform. Others were hungry for the word of God and sought Jesus out because, as today’s gospel tells us, he spoke with authority. Whatever their reason, everyone who encountered Him had the same reaction - amazement. Jesus was unlike anyone they had ever met and He never failed to make a life-changing impression on everyone He came in contact with.

Though it has been two thousand years since He rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, Jesus continues to draw a crowd. On this day, throughout the entire world, over a billion Christians are gathering to worship. Like us, they are listening to His word and are continuing to have their hearts moved by His teaching. Like us, they will have a personal encounter with the Risen Lord through Holy Communion. In parishes all over the globe, Jesus continues to reach out to the lonely, the broken hearted, the sick and the anguished with His life-changing message.

As in Jesus time, there are many different reasons why we gather here today. Some of us are here out of a sense of obligation. Others of us want to make our parents or spouses happy. Many of us are searching for meaning and are looking to Jesus for answers.  Some of us are looking for the life that can only come from receiving the Eucharist.

Whenever we come to Mass - indeed, whenever we pray - we should ask ourselves what it is we are looking for. What is the longing of our heart that only Jesus can satisfy? And what are my expectations for this hour that I will spend gathered with God’s people, listening to His word and receiving His Body and Blood? Do I expect to meet the Risen Jesus here and do I expect my life to be forever changed because of it?

When people came out to see Jesus, they were expecting miracles. In today’s gospel, He expelled a demon from a possessed man. Other times, He opened the eyes of the blind, made the lame walk and even raised the dead back to life. That will probably not happen here today,  but I know that other miracles will take place. During this Mass, someone who is dead inside because of bitterness and sin will be raised to new life by asking Jesus into his or her heart. In this hour, someone who is blind to the needs of his or her neighbors will begin to feel compassion and sympathy for others. Someone who has been tormented by the demons of anxiety or depression will find peace by learning to trust that God will provide. These may not seem like great miracles, but they will make a world of difference to those who are touched by them. We may not be able to see it. Nonetheless, Jesus is here and is working in a powerful if hidden way among us.

Jesus drew crowds for one simple reason. The people whose lives He changed told other people about Him and they came to see for themselves. As today’s gospel tells us, “His fame spread everywhere throughout the whole region of Galilee.” Rather than keep His mighty deeds to themselves, they witnessed to others about what Jesus did for them.

The same is true today. If Jesus has changed your heart, if He has made a difference in your life, then tell someone about it. Do not keep it to yourself. Let others know how your burden has been lifted, how your eyes have been opened, and how your fears have been relieved. It could be that someone in your family or someone you work with is suffering in the same way you did. They cannot find the peace and joy that only comes in Jesus if we keep what He has done for us to ourselves.

In today’s world, we want to be careful when speaking about religion. We do not want to offend people, start arguments or cause hard feelings. However, when we talk about our personal experiences, the conversation takes on a softer tone. If I tell someone that I used to suffer from anxiety but have found peace by spending time every day in prayer, no one will find that offensive. If I tell a coworker that I used to have bitterness in my heart but that ever since I have been going to Mass I have found the power to forgive, how can anyone argue with that? Rather, it just might get our family and friends thinking about how they can have that joy, peace and strength for themselves. They might just pull us aside one day and ask to hear more. That will be our opportunity to point them to Jesus and invite them to find out for themselves what miracles he wants to work in their lives.

Whenever we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, we should expect miracles to take place. All of us are in need of something from Jesus. Let us pray for one another that the Risen Lord will touch all of our hearts with the peace that only He can give. Let us also pray that we will find the opportunity and the courage to witness to others what Jesus has done for us so that His fame will spread throughout our families, schools and places of business. Then, like the people of Jesus’ day, we will leave this holy place amazed at the wonders that God performs in the midst of His people.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Jesus and the Demons

Imagine what the scene would have been like two thousand years ago when Jesus preached at the synagogue in Capernaum. Not only was His message compelling, unlike anything they would have heard before, but signs and wonders were attending His words. Right before their eyes demons were being cast out convulsing and shrieking as they left. We can imagine how shaken up and amazed they would have been. What if such a thing were to happen in the middle of my homily? It would either make you want to come back next week to see what else would happen or make you so afraid that you would never want to come back again. Either way you would never forget it. And we can be sure that those who heard Jesus and witnessed His power never forgot what they saw that day either.

Why did such an event take place? Was Jesus just trying to impress the people and convince them of the truth of His message? To understand today’s passage we have to remember that we are still reading from the beginning of Saint Mark’s gospel. Jesus has been baptized by John and the Holy Spirit has descended upon Him like a dove. After being tempted in the desert, He appears in Galilee preaching the good news that the Kingdom of God is at hand. After gathering His first disciples, He now appears in the synagogue in Capernaum casting out demons who proclaim Him to be the Holy One of God. By this act, Jesus is demonstrating that now that the Kingdom of God has come among them the reign of Satan has come to an end. As Son of God He will undo all the evil that the devil has wrought in the world. By forgiving sinners who come to Him, He will show His power over sin. By healing the lame, the blind and the deaf, He will show His power over illness. By raising the dead, He will show His power over death. However His greatest triumph over the devil will come when He shows total obedience to the Father’s plan, embraces the cross and rises on the third day. With the appearance of Jesus on earth, Satan and his minions are through.

This is an important truth which we need to keep always in mind. The state of today’s world can make it difficult for us to keep our hope alive. With so many people turning away from the path of life we can be tempted to think that we are losing the battle. No matter how bleak the world’s situation may appear we have to always remind ourselves that God has already won the victory in Christ. Though the world seems to have utterly rejected the gospel and though so many live without a thought for the poor and needy, we must remember that nothing happens unless our Heavenly Father permits it. He is working quietly in the hearts of all peoples - believers and unbelievers alike - to shine the light of His Truth. God sees the world in a much different way than we do. What seem like failures to us are successes to God. We know that by looking on the cross which seemed to be the ultimate triumph of sin and death but rather ushered in these centuries of grace in which we now stand. We must take heart then and never give up. The victory is won. We have only to be faithful to God’s word to have that victory play itself out in our lives.

Now it is one thing for us to get depressed when we see the condition our world is in. It is quite another story to see what kind of condition WE are in. We are all sinners. Each of us falls short of the gospel message. We are all struggling with our own inner demons. There are times when we fear that we are making no progress in the spiritual life. We confess the same sins over and over without being able to overcome them. Because of our failures, we can feel like utter hypocrites and guilt can begin to take hold of us. Here again we need to remind ourselves that Jesus has already won the victory over our personal sin and has conquered our sinful human nature. When we feel tempted, when an evil thought enters our mind, that is the time to turn to Jesus and ask Him to give us strength. We cannot do it without His help. And He is always ready to assist us with His grace so that we can know His power over the Evil One and live in freedom.

Now we must also accept that during this earthly life we will never be completely free from sin. Our nature is such that we will fall from time to time. But God’s mercy is great. He is always willing to forgive us. We must also keep in mind that if there is a sin we have been struggling with for many years there may be a reason that God is allowing it. It could be that it is keeping us humble. If we were to totally master our sinful habits it might fill us with pride that could lead to even deadlier sins. Also our weak human nature teaches us to be merciful to others, to have compassion on the needy and to forgive those who offend us. If we were never to fall ourselves, we might become judgmental and harsh to those who are weaken than we are. Finally, our weakness reminds us that we cannot live the Christian life by our own will-power. We are in constant need of God’s help. Our sinful nature makes us turn to Him for consolation and strength. In this way, God can even use our weakness and sinfulness to bring us closer to Him.

So no matter what we are facing we need never lose hope and we need never be afraid. God is in total control. He has won the victory. His power is hidden now, known only to those who have faith, but it will one day be made manifest when Christ comes again. So we continue to struggle,  and sometimes fail, but we hold on to a lively hope that we will one day know the full freedom of the sons and daughters of God.

Monday, February 2, 2015

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.