Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Palm Sunday

Every year of his life, Jesus made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, the commemoration of His people’s freedom from slavery in Egypt. For most of those years, He went unnoticed. He blended in with the crowds who prayed in the temple and offered sacrifice according to the Jewish law.

However, today things are different. Jesus enters triumphantly into the Holy City. Rather than walking through the gates of the city, He rides a donkey. Rather than join the bustling crowd filing its way through the cobblestone streets, He enters the city as part of a festive parade with crowds chanting His name, laying their cloaks on the street before Him and waving palm branches in celebration.

The crowds gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover that year had a sense that something was about to change. They had the feeling that somehow they were part of an historic occurrence, a once in a lifetime opportunity to witness history in the making. The atmosphere was charged with excitement and anticipation. And Jesus was at the center of it all.

Those crowds could not have known that in only a few short days the man they hailed as Messiah would be executed as a criminal. They could not have known that they would soon turn on Him and demand His crucifixion. Much less could the political and religious leaders who were already planning His death know that, within a week’s time, He would rise from the dead and change the course of history forever. They were all part of an historic event, but they could not yet begin to grasp its meaning for themselves and for the world.

Jesus enters the Holy City of Jerusalem as its King and Messiah. But unlike an earthly king, He does not conquer through military power. He does not rally His disciples to attack His opponents or devise a plan to coerce the people to hand power over to Him. Rather He comes as the Suffering Servant described in today’s first reading from the prophet Isaiah. He defeats evil by doing good. He returns a blessing for a curse and forgiveness for injury. He refuses to attack those who arrest Him or to defend Himself against those who torture Him. And by so doing, He changes everything.

We stand here today as we have for just about every year of our lives to commemorate the suffering and death that Jesus underwent to save us from the slavery of sin and death. We remember as Saint Paul tells us in today’s second reading, how He came down to earth that we may be lifted up to Heaven and how He emptied Himself that we may be filled. Jesus suffered it all for you and for me. Why? Simply because He loves us and He wants us to know His Heavenly Father’s love for us. We must also realize that it was because of our sin that He died on the cross. If we were to leave this place and continue living sinful lives, we would be no better than the crowds who so shortly turned on Jesus after welcoming Him with such fanfare.

We stand here today in a society that is increasingly hostile to the message of Jesus. It is a world that fails to value the dignity and sacredness of human life. It is a world that treats fertility as a curse and pregnancy as a disease rather than as a participation in God’s creative power.  It is a world that ingratiates the powerful and enriches the wealthy and that tells the poor that their lack of resources is their own fault. It is a world that ridicules and persecutes those who follow Jesus.

It is to this world torn by selfishness, hatred and ignorance that we are called to bring Jesus’ message. Like Jesus, we do not change the world through military power or political influence. We do it with the witness of our lives, by acting as He did. We do it through marriages that are truly loving. We do it by sacrificing our pleasures to feed the poor and help those in need. Very often, it means putting up with insults and ridicule because we do not share the values of our classmates or coworkers. Only by forgiving those who injure us and blessing those who curse us as Jesus did can we convince others about the sacredness of every human life and the love of God.

It is not easy. We cannot do it without God’s help. So I would encourage all of you to make the effort this week to attend all the Holy Week services for Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil. As we recall all that Jesus did to save us we will be strengthened to not only change the way we live but to proclaim to others that we are truly free only through the love of God. Then Jesus the King and Messiah will be welcome in our world once again.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Here Comes Your King, Meek and Humble

Over the past few decades, what has come to be called the "Prosperity Gospel" has gained popularity among televangelists. Anyone who has ever watched programs featuring Joel Osteen or Creflo Dollar will have heard various forms of it. The Prosperity Gospel states that following Christ should result in increased financial success for the believer as well as improved health and well-being. For those who follow such a doctrine, religion is a way to win friends and influence people. The Word of God becomes a means to reach our goals and fulfill our potential.

Now there is no doubt that Jesus wants us to be happy. He came to give us an abundant life. And there's no doubt that a life of faith gives us the discipline which can also translate into success in our relationships and other endeavors. However, there are many problems with interpreting Christianity as a program for material prosperity or psychological well-being. First and foremost, it is not the example that Jesus left for us. He did not come to earth to fill himself with wealth, but to empty himself for us. He did not come to claim places of honor for himself, but to take the lowest place. If Jesus' primary concern was his well-being, he would never have accepted the humiliation of the cross, and we would never have been forgiven our sins.

In today's second reading, Saint Paul tells us that we should follow the example of Christ. Biblical scholars tell us that he is quoting from an ancient hymn celebrating the humility of Jesus. Unlike Adam who, in the garden of Eden, tasted the fruit so that he could be like God, Jesus did not cling to his equality to God, but willingly took on our human flesh. Being the Son of God, he could have been born into the family of a powerful king or a wealthy landowner, but rather he chose to be born to peasants of humble means. Though he was the most powerful man to ever walk the earth, he chose not to use that power to enrich himself but to enrich us. And he did not use that power to save himself from the shame of the cross, but willingly gave himself up to death to save us. Why did he endure all this? So that God the Father would glorify him. As Saint Paul writes, because of what he suffered "God highly exalted him and gave him the name which is above all other names."  Jesus was not after the glory that the world gives. Rather, he was after something greater, a glory that could only come from God. And the only way to reach that glory was to suffer the humiliation of the cross.

Paul's message to us is that if Jesus is humble and puts our needs before his own, then we must do the same. As we contemplate his death for our sins, we must ask ourselves whether we are too concerned with living a prosperous and comfortable life to pick up our own cross and follow Jesus. And as we hold in our hands these palm branches symbolic of the coming of our Savior, we must reflect whether we have welcomed him in the needy, in the poor and in the sorrowful whom we meet everyday. Whose needs are we called upon to help God meet? Whom are we ignoring in our everyday life who could use a friendly smile or a helping hand. Those people are Jesus who comes into our midst in the disguise of the distraught.

If we have learned anything during the financial crisis of the past year, it is that the security that money promises to give us is an illusion. God wants to offer us something more permanent than riches, power or popularity. He wants to give us his very life. He wants to give us his love.

Each of us has a need to be loved. And we each want to be loved for the person we are, not for what we have. God is no different from us in that respect. He does not want us to love him because he gives us things. He wants to be loved because he is our Creator and our Father. He wants to be loved because he is love itself. This is the mystery of the cross. That God has nothing greater to give than his very self. And he wants to offer us nothing less than his life. What good is gold or silver in comparison to the knowledge of the love of God?

On this Palm Sunday, we commemorate Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He comes as a king to take the throne of David. But he is no earthly king. He does not enter on a muscular steed, but on a lowly donkey. It is not a well equipped army that escorts him through the gates of the royal city but a band of peasants. And he does not enter the city to take it by force but to surrender himself to a sentence of death. Jesus is not at all what we would expect from someone who claims to be the Son of God and Savior of the World. If we are to be his followers then we cannot live only for our own comfort and well-being but for his glory. But if we do take up our cross and follow him, we will know a joy and a peace which no one can ever take from us. And we will have treasure in heaven more glorious than we could ever hope for or imagine.

(image by Marisol Sousa) 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Holy Week Mysteries of the Rosary

1. The Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem
Mt 21: 1-10; Lk 19: 29-40; Jn 12: 12-19; Mk 11:1 - 11

2. The Anointing at Bethany
Jn 12: 13-25; Mk 12: 15-18; Mt 21: 12-17; Lk 19:45-38

3. The Cleansing of the Temple
Mk 12: 15-18; Jn 2: 13-25; Mt 21: 12-17; Lk 19: 45-48

4. The Washing of the Feet
Jn 13: 1-17

5. The Agony in the Garden
Mt 26: 36-46; Mk 14: 32-42; Lk 22: 39-46

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Jesus Saves

Arnold had hit rock bottom. For years he had abused drugs and alcohol and it had ruined his life. Over the years he lost many friends who could no longer stand to be around him. He lost his job after showing up drunk to work. Though his wife had stood by him trying to get him help, she finally could take no more and left him. The final straw, however, was when he was caught by the police with possession of drugs. Knowing he would be facing jail time, he pulled over to the side of the road to commit suicide. However, as he stopped his car and opened the bottle of pills he planned to overdose on, he looked up at a telephone pole and saw a poster that read, “Jesus Saves.” Choking back his tears, he prayed, “O Jesus, can you save me?”

That simple prayer changed his life. He threw away the pills and decided to stop running away from his problems. The next day he went to confession for the first time in many years. As he recounted all the bad choices he made and all the people he had hurt, he could feel God’s forgiveness and mercy surround him. For the first time he felt loved by God and trusted that He would see him through. When he was released prison, he went back to school to learn about the addiction that had done some much damage to him. Now he works as a drug counselor helping others recover from addiction. With time he was able to win his wife’s trust back. They were eventually married in the church and had more children.

It all started with a simple prayer. It is a prayer that Arnold repeats first thing every morning on his knees, “Jesus, can you save me?” He begins every day remembering what drugs and alcohol did to him. He realizes that he had to hit rock bottom to build a new life on his Savior, Jesus Christ.

The essence of the Christian life can be found in the words of Jesus which we heard proclaimed in today’s gospel: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” This is Jesus’ response to Andrew and Philip when they tell him that some Greeks want to meet him. It is his response to anyone who wishes to follow him. “If anyone wishes to be my disciple he must deny himself, pick up his cross and follow me.” Jesus does not tell us this because he likes to see us suffer or because He wants to take all the pleasure out of life. Instead He wants us to experience all the joy and peace that comes from living according to His word. He wants us to know the power of His Holy Spirit at work in our lives.  Before we do that, however, we have to leave behind all the sins, the addictions and the selfish attitudes that weigh us down.

In Arnold’s case, he had to hit rock bottom, he had to lose everything that he loved, to realize that he could not get the love and peace he longed for from drugs and alcohol but only from Jesus. He had to be at a point of utter desperation before he could realize that only Jesus could save him. And he has to remind himself everyday that he cannot overcome his addictions without Jesus by getting on his knees and begging for his help.

We may not have made as many bad choices as Arnold did. We may not be as desperate as he was or may not have hit rock bottom yet. But we have the same need for God as he did. We have the same desire for love and joy that only our Heavenly Father can give us. And we have no other way of finding it than in Jesus Christ, our Saviour.

It can begin for us with short, sincere prayers such as, “Jesus, save me.” or, “Jesus, I trust in you.” Another beautiful prayer from Scripture is, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” These types of prayers give our Lord great joy because they come from the heart. They are the prayers we say when we come to realize that only Jesus can help us. Because of the sincerity of these prayers, we can rest assure that He will answer them and show us His power to save.

In today’s first reading, the prophet Jeremiah teaches us that the days are coming when God will write His law in our hearts. This prophecy has been fulfilled by us in Jesus. Through His death and resurrection, we have received the Holy Spirit who now lives in our hearts through faith. So we do not have to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem or climb a mountain to find God. He is living within each of us. He is always with us at the secret core of our being. So we no longer have to rely only on our strength. We can draw on His strength to face whatever it is that is making us afraid, whatever it is that is holding us back from following Him with all our hearts, minds, souls and strength. He wants us to enjoy all the abundant blessings of the life He has given us, and He will help us clear away whatever is holding us back if we will only trust in Him.

To receive those blessings, however, we may have to part with some things that are dear to us. Each of us when we are honest with ourselves and with God, know what those things are. It is never easy but what we must always keep in mind is that our Heavenly Father never asks us to give something up without replacing it with something better. If He asks us to give up our silver it is so that He can give us gold. We see such a wonderful exchange as this symbolized in the Eucharist we are about to receive. We give Him bread and wine, and He gives us His Body and Blood. As the gifts are brought up, let us offer up to Him all the fears, addictions and selfish attitudes that are holding us back from following Him with all our strength. Let us do it with total trust knowing that only in Him can we find the joy and peace our hearts truly desire.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Spiritual and Religious

It is common nowadays for people to describe themselves as "spiritual and not religious." We all have friends who say that about themselves or have seen the phrase written on bumper stickers. Some of us here today might even describe ourselves that way.

But what do people mean when they claim to be "spiritual but not religious"?

Generally, they mean that they have a relationship with God or with a "higher power" without belonging to a church or adhering to any dogmas or creeds. In fact, they claim to have respect for all religions, picking and choosing from each the teachings that suit their lifestyle and the  "god of their understanding". For such people, religion is not a shared, communal reality, but a personal, interior experience.

As with all fallacies, there is a kernel of truth in what these self-described spiritual people believe. Religion is primarily a matter of the heart and of the spirit. Because each of us is created in God's image and likeness, we all carry within ourselves the ability to hear his voice speaking to us through our conscience. Our hearts were made to love God above all things. When we look within, we already find a basic understanding of God and his plan for our lives. God created us to be spiritual.  

We hear this reality described in today's first reading. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God promises the people of Israel that he is about to establish a new covenant with them. That is, he is about to invite them into a new relationship of faithful love with him. Unlike the old covenant which was written on the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments,  the new covenant will be written on their hearts. As Jeremiah describes it, no one will need to be taught the ways of the Lord because God will reveal himself to the heart of each believer. This is what we commonly mean by the word "spiritual" - to have an interior, heart-felt love of God.

However, God is talking about something more than a natural desire or ability to know him. Rather, this personal relationship with him is a gift. It is not something that is ours through birth, but through baptism. God's Spirit who writes this new covenant in our heart, who speaks to our spirit about the ways of truth and love, is given to us through baptism and faith. The Holy Spirit is not something we can receive just through personal reflection or meditation. We receive the Holy Spirit when we become members of a community of faith. We receive the Holy Spirit by practising religion.

Jesus gives us more insight into what it means to be genuinely spiritual in today's gospel. Andrew and Philip approach Jesus to tell him about some Greeks who want to meet him. It is the week of Passover, close to the time when he would suffer and die. His upcoming death is weighing heavily on his heart. His "hour" is approaching, and he takes the opportunity to instruct the disciples and us about what it means to be a true follower. It means having our hearts set on eternal life. And the only way to enter into that heavenly life is to hate our earthly life. The only way to reach the glory of heaven is through death. Jesus say, "Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit." And so the person who loves Jesus is willing to follow him when it is inconvenient, when it is painful and when it is costly. The truly spiritual person who has his or her heart set on the things of heaven will follow Jesus even to the cross. The person with genuine insight into spiritual matters realizes that Jesus cannot be separated from his cross nor can eternal life be separated from death to self.

The words of Jesus are very different from the language we hear from the "spiritual but not religious" crowd. For them, being spiritual is not a way of dying to self but of enriching oneself. It is not a way of glorifying God but of growing in self-esteem and self-fulfillment. It is not a way of seeking the things of heaven but of having a better life on earth. It is not about knowing God as he has revealed himself in Scripture and in Church teaching so that we can humbly serve others but about having secret knowledge that gives one a sense of superiority over others. This so-called "New Age" spirituality is really something very old - trying to achieve the glory of heaven without the shame of the cross.

We shouldn't judge such people. Very often, they are well-meaning and generous. At the same time, we don't want to fall into their error and miss out on the abundance of life that Jesus is offering us. His words are clear to all those who seek him: "If anyone would follow me, he must take up his cross." The deepest desire of our heart is union with God through Jesus. It is natural that we fear being ridiculed by others for practising our religion in a whole-hearted way. It is also natural that we fear what we would have to give up to follow Jesus. But as the Holy Spirit reveals to our hearts more and more the love of God and the truth of the gospel, those fears diminish because we are beginning to taste what our spirits long for and  everything else seems less important by comparison. When we have the real thing, we will not settle for cheap imitations!

We are here today because we are both spiritual and religious. We do not want to deny ourselves the experience of worship with other believers. We want to learn from the words of Scripture and the teaching of the Church. We want to benefit from the wisdom of the believers who have gone before us. We want to encounter Jesus in the Eucharist. This abundance of spiritual riches is ours through baptism and faith. It is a taste of heaven given to us who have decided to pick up our cross and follow Jesus.  

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Jesus, the Son of God

The great Christian writer C. S. Lewis is one of the most influential believers of the last century. His many books including Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain and The Abolition of Man, have helped millions of Christians to understand their faith better in the light of modern challenges.

Because of the wide influence he has enjoyed it can be difficult for us to believe that at one time he was an atheist. Though he was raised as a Christian in the Anglican Communion, he abandoned it during his years as a university student and then as a professor. As happens to so many people, once he became successful he forgot how much he needed God.

Then, one day, he was speaking with a colleague, a history professor whom he admired a great deal,  about the New Testament. His friend shocked him by saying, “You know, it looks as though all the events detailed in the New Testament really happened.” Up to that time, C. S. Lewis considered it all to be a myth like those of the ancient Greeks and Romans. But now he was hearing a highly educated and learned man claiming that it all really happened.

As Lewis thought about what his colleague had said, a question kept coming to his mind. Is Jesus really who He claimed He was? Is He really the Son of God? If He is not the Son of God then He must be a liar or He must be delusional like those with mental illness who say they are Napoleon. But if He really is who He says He is, if He really is the Son of God, then He must be listened to and obeyed. If He really is the Messiah, then one must drop everything to follow Him. And it was right there and then that C. S. Lewis became a believer in Jesus and dedicated His life to helping others come to believe in the Son of God.

That is the question that God poses to all of us here today. Do we believe that Jesus is the Son of God come down from heaven to save the world? Do we believe He is who He says He is?

If we do not believe - if we claim that Jesus was a liar or a lunatic - then coming to Mass is a big waste of time. But if we do believe - if we accept Jesus as Lord and Savior of the World - then coming to Mass is not enough. We have to drop everything and follow Him. We have to learn about every word He spoke because it is the very word of God which teaches us how to live in a way that pleases Him. We have to strive to live according to His word in everything we do. If Jesus is who He says He is, we have to dedicate our whole lives to serving Him.

When we come to understand who Jesus is and when we decide to give our lives over to Him, we call it receiving the gift of faith. Faith as we understand it, is more than a simple belief that God exists. Many people say they believe in God, but few of them live according to His word and the teaching of His Church. Merely believing that God exists cannot save us. As Saint James tells us, even the demons believe that God exists. Rather the faith that saves us is believing that Jesus is the Son of God, that He died to free us from our sins, that He rose from the dead to give us the promise of everlasting life and that He established the Church to pass on this good news of salvation.

How do we know if we have such faith? The only way to really know is to take a hard look at or lives and ask ourselves if what we believe is having an impact in the choices we make and the way we act. The faith that saves us is one that makes a real difference in our lives causing us not only to think differently but to act differently. We will have a commitment to prayer and to receiving the Sacraments. We will have a heart that is sensitive to the needs of the people around us. If we truly believe in Jesus, our lives should be markedly different from that of those who do not believe.

If after examining ourselves it is clear to us that we do not have enough faith - and who of us hear can really say that we do? - we need not be alarmed. Saint Paul teaches us in today’s second reading that faith, first and foremost, is a gift. It is not something we earn. It is not something we have a right to. It is freely given by God. And what is the best way to receive a gift? Simply by asking for it. To receive the gift of faith, all we have to do is ask for it and wait for God to grant it to us. Because He loves us and wants to save us, He will not deny it to us.

We are gathered here today because we have come to believe that Jesus is the Son of God. We have given our lives to him and wish to receive the power to live in the Spirit of His resurrection. We will stand now to profess our faith in One God, in Jesus Christ His Only Son our Lord, and in the Holy Spirit who is Lord and Giver of Life. Let us ask our Heavenly Father that our profession of faith not be empty words we recite but a way of life we commit to with all our hearts, minds, soul and strength proclaiming to all the world with our deeds that Jesus is the Son of God.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Secret Seeker

There is no doubt that Jesus made an impression on everyone he met. Because of the power of his words, some left their jobs and their families to follow him. Others, however, were offended by the special relationship he claimed to have with the Father and turned their backs on him refusing to listen despite the powerful signs he performed. Others were afraid of him. They feared that he would incite the people to rebel against the Roman occupation and create instability in Jerusalem. We will hear in the upcoming weeks how these people would eventually convince the Romans to crucify him.  

There is another class of people, however. There were those who didn't know quite what to make of Jesus. They were moved by the beauty and power of his words. They were amazed by the miracles and signs he performed. Yet they were just not ready to follow him. Such a person was Nicodemus whom we read about in today's gospel.

Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a man with much power and influence. He considered himself an authority on the Jewish Law and a teacher of the people. Like the other Pharisees, he would have felt some responsibility to guard the people from error. And so he would have been especially cautious of Jesus. Nonetheless, he felt drawn by his words. So he visits Jesus at night in secret to see for himself what he is all about.  He is not ready to become a follower, but he is not ready to turn his back on him either.

Jesus welcomes Nicodemus. He does not turn him away because he is skeptical and unsure. He does not tell him to come back when he has more faith. Rather Jesus builds on the faith he already has and challenges him to recognize the gift of salvation and eternal life which he is being offered.

There are two parts to Jesus' message to Nicodemus.

First, he speaks to him about the great love of God. Jesus was sent into the world by the Father, not to condemn it, but to bring eternal life to all those who would believe in him. God's desire is not to find fault with us but to draw us into a relationship of love with him. For this reason, Jesus would be lifted up on the cross as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert to bring forgiveness and healing.

Second, that gift of eternal life is available to anyone who believes in Jesus. Those who believe are the ones who are willing to step out of the darkness of sin and falsehood and into the light of faith. Remember that Nicodemus is visiting Jesus at night, when it's dark, so that no one will see him. Jesus is challenging him to step into the light and not be ashamed to be counted as one of his followers. It will mean leaving behind the prestige and power he has as a leading Pharisee. It will mean being rejected and ridiculed by many of his friends. But, more importantly, if he can find the courage to step into the light, it will mean being a friend with Jesus, seeing his great works, and knowing the Father's love in a way he could not otherwise imagine.

The gospel reading does not tell us how Nicodemus responded. We presume that he slipped away into the night to ponder Jesus' message to him. We won't hear about him again until later in John's gospel when he argues for a fair trail for Jesus and at the crucifixion when he, along with Joseph of Arimathea, helps to place his body in the tomb.

There is a little bit of Nicodemus in each of us. Most of us have an admiration for Jesus and are moved by his words. Yet there is still a part of us that wants to hold back. We are not ready to follow Jesus all the way. We fear what others will say about us if we live our faith wholeheartedly. Or we aren't ready to give up some sinful behaviors to embrace the full message of the gospel. Others of us can't get over the shame we feel about our past life and aren't ready to welcome the Father's promise and gift of forgiveness. Each of us, in some way, prefers to meet Jesus in the dark where our ugly faults and failures can be hidden from sight.
These forty days of Lent are all about stepping out of darkness into light. Through prayer and penance, we are to examine our conscience and bring to God our weakness and sin so that his forgiveness and grace can begin to fill up the emptiness of our spirit. There is still time for those of us who haven't yet gone to confession to do so before Holy Week. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is an important first step away from the darkness. We reveal our sins to a priest so that we can be freed from the burden of shame and embrace God's love and forgiveness. Then we can begin to live again in the joy and peace of God's Spirit.

In today's second reading, Saint Paul reminds us that God is rich in mercy. We need not linger in the shadows of fear and shame because there is a forgiving God who waits for us in the light. It was for this reason that Jesus came - to draw all people to himself. At this Eucharist, Jesus will be lifted up in the form of bread and wine for us to adore and to receive with gratitude and faith. The prayer, "My Lord and my God," will come to our lips as we gaze upon our Savior who is given to us as food. Let us ask that he ignite a fire within us so that we can take the light of his truth and love to those who continue to dwell in darkness. Then we will become what he has called us to be - a light for all the world. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Jesus Gets Angry

Because Jesus is a human being as we are, we can expect to see the full range of human emotions in Him. When His friend Lazarus dies, we see Him weep. As He is about to be arrested in the garden, we see Him torn by anxiety. We see Him experience disappointment as He is betrayed by Judas and denied by Peter. We also see Him rejoice when people come to believe in Him.

And we see Him get angry.

Today’s gospel is one of the most perplexing in all of Scripture. It goes against our image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. We cannot understand how this gentle and humble man could fly into such a rage. How could Jesus who was perfectly sinless, act in such a seeminly violent manner?

A little information about the customs of the time might help us to understand better what made Jesus react as He did.

The Temple in Jerusalem was the center of all Jewish worship in Jesus’ day. It was there that the people offered sacrifices to thank God for some blessed event such as the birth of a child or a fruitful harvest. It was also where they went to ask for forgiveness of their sins. The animals used in those sacrifices were sheep, oxen and doves. Because many of the pilgrims to the Temple were traveling long distances, it was less expensive to buy the animals in Jerusalem than to have to bring them from their native land. Also the animals had to be perfect with no blemish. Imagine bringing an animal all the way to Jerusalem only to find out that, when it is examined at the Temple, it had an imperfection that would keep it from being used as a sacrifice? By buying the animal at the Temple, the pilgrims could be sure that they were without blemish.

As so frequently happens, those who sold animals at the Temple began to take advantage of the people coming to there by overcharging them. They would also bribe those who would examine the animals to make sure that any sheep, oxen or doves brought in from the outside would be deemed unworthy for the sacrifice. Then they would have to buy them from the Temple at the higher price. The same was true of the money changers who offered less in exchange for foreign coins than banks outside of the Temple.

This situation outraged Jesus. Hardworking people who made the sacrifice to come to Jerusalem for the feast to worship God were being taken advantage of by unscrupulous men. And He would stand for it no longer. He would not allow the poor to be exploited for profit or to be kept from worshipping in the Temple. So He did something about it. He put an end to the unjust situation and He called the authorities to task for their corrupt behaviour.

As we reflect on Jesus’ actions, there is a question which we should be asking ourselves. How do we react when we are faced with injustice? What do we do when our brothers and sisters are being taken advantage of? Do we speak up and try to do something about it? Or do we look the other way glad that it is happening to someone else and not to us?

In today’s world there is plenty of violence and injustice. We need only to look at the poor countries of our planet where millions are undernourished while rich countries spend billions of dollars on weight-loss diets. We need only to look at countries where ruthless dictators imprison and torture those who dare to speak up for human rights while those living in democracies barely show up to vote. In so many countries Christians are forbidden from worshiping in public and often killed during their services while we take our freedom to worship and practice our religion for granted. How has such inequality, injustice and intolerance been able to go on for so long? Simply because good people failed to get angry and speak up.

This is important for us to reflect on as we continue our journey through Lent. It is important for us to make sacrifices and practice self-control. But it is more important to help others, to better the lives of our brothers and sisters and to bring relief to those who suffer. God tells us this through the prophet Isaiah: “This is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly.... Setting free the oppressed.... Sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; Clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own.” Are our Lenten sacrifices making someones life better or are they just a way for us to say that we met our religious obligation? Are our penances making us more sensitive to the needs of our neighbor or are they filling us with pride? These are very important questions for us to be asking ourselves during these days because Jesus makes it very clear that we will be judged by how we treat the poor who surround us.

It is natural for us when faced with the world’s problems to feel paralyzed. If politicians cannot fix hunger, poverty and war, what can we do? How can we make a difference? The simple answer is that we must start with the people around us. Who could use my help? Is there a sick person I could be visiting, a neighbor who could use a meal or a schoolmate who could use a friend? If we could just slow down, take our minds off our own problems for a minute and look around us, we would see people crying out for help. Whatever little we are able to do, even if it is just offering a prayer for that person, is much better than nothing. And God promises to multiply our efforts through the power of His Spirit making immense blessing come out of our good deeds.

In our world today there is plenty of anger but little action. Jesus has shown us the way and given us the power to transform the world through love. As He offered Himself to be the perfect sacrifice for sins, so let us offer ourselves to one another to relieve the burden of the oppressed and to bring relief to the suffering. That is the Lenten sacrifice that most pleases our Heavenly  Father. That is the true religion Jesus came to reveal. The world is counting on us to bring them nothing less than Jesus. Let us not keep Him to ourselves but share Him freely with a hurting world.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Under Construction

Saint Francis of Assisi is one of the greatest saints who ever lived. When he first started on the path of holiness, he wasn't sure what God wanted from him. One day, he found an old church that had been abandoned and was falling apart. It was called the Church of San Damiano. He poked through the ruins and found half buried in the dirt a beautifully painted cross. He pulled it from the ground, propped it up against some rocks and began meditating on it. As he entered deeper and deeper into prayer, he heard Jesus speak to him from the cross. "Francis", our Lord said, "rebuild my Church which you see has fallen into ruins." Francis assumed that Jesus was speaking about the church of San Damiano. So he began gathering stones to rebuild the abandoned building. Seeing his efforts, others began to join him. However, soon young Francis came to understand that Jesus did not mean that he wanted him to rebuild the church building made of stones but to build up the Church which is the People of God. And so he gathered together the men who had been helping him and started the Franciscan order dedicated to living Jesus' teaching in the fullest way possible in poverty and joyful witness to the good news. Francis learned from his experience that what Jesus wanted from him was not so much to renovate buildings but to renovate minds and hearts through the power of the gospel.

In today's gospel, we see the temple leaders fall under the same misunderstanding that Saint Francis did. When they asked Jesus what right he had to clear the moneychangers from the temple, he responded with something of a riddle: "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it up in three days." Like Saint Francis of Assisi, the people thought he was talking about the temple building. But Jesus was talking about his body which will rise from the dead three days after he is crucified. Jesus is the new temple. He is the new lamb of sacrifice. His body is the place we worship and the offering we make to God for our sins. Like Francis, Jesus will rebuild the temple, but not with stones. He will rebuild it with people, the people who believe in him, follow him and live as he lived. We are the new temple.

From ancient times, the Church has been referred to as "the Body of Christ". Saint Paul first raises the idea in his letter to the Romans when he writes, "...in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others" (Rom.12:5). What Saint Paul wants us to understand is that, through our baptism, we become interconnected in a way that we cannot see or sense, but that is nonetheless real. Just as all the body suffers when just one part of the body is hurting, so all God's People scattered throughout the world, in some mysterious way, share in each other's joys, pains, struggles and consolations. Because of this mystical union, I am strengthened by the good works that other Christians perform even if I never actually see them do it. At the same time, I am weakened by the sinfulness of others. Just as Jesus taught and Saint Francis learned, we are each parts of a body, the Body of Christ. And so we belong not only to Christ, but also to each other.  

Each of us is called to help Jesus rebuild the Church which is his body. Like the different parts of the body, all of us will have a different role in the Church's mission of preaching the good news. But one thing is true for each and every one of us no matter what our station in life may be. Each of us is called to build up the Church by living a holy life. If the sacrifices, prayers and good works I perform can strengthen the Church, then I must take every opportunity I can find to do good. In the same way, if my sins weaken and demoralize the body of Christ, then I must avoid sin at all costs.

Today's first reading recounts for us the Ten Commandments. God delivered the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel during their 40 years in the desert. They were meant to guide the people as they established themselves in the promised land. By following God's law, it was to be clear that Israel was different from other nations which worshiped many gods and had immoral customs and practices. Instead, Israel would be God's special people, a holy people. We who are inheritors of the promise made to Israel and who believe in the Messiah are also called to be a holy people by following God's commandments. We are called to be different and to shine forth the light of God's word in a world full of darkness.

We are always talking about what it would take to bring more people to the Church and to get them more excited about their faith. Sometimes we think it will take playing livelier music or preaching more compelling sermons. Some people even think the Church should compromise on some of her teachings to make the Christian life seem less demanding. For all that talk, the one thing that each of us could do to draw more people here every week is to live our faith and to be holy. If we do that, people will sit up and notice. They will see that there is something special going on here because of the holiness of our lives. They will see our peace and joy and want it for themselves. The most riveting sermons and the most uplifting music will not draw a single person here if our lives are not beaming with the holiness that comes from Jesus.

We are approaching the midpoint of our Lenten journey. We can start to feel weary as the weeks drag on. But we can always rely on Jesus for strength. The knowledge that we are connected to him through the mystery of the Church which is his body inspires us to draw inspiration and encouragement from him. And we can be encouraged knowing that our good works are somehow bringing strength to others around the world who need it. We are working together to build up the Body of Christ through the power of the Spirit until that day when we will enter the heavenly temple to live with God forever.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

God So Loved the World

It is one of the most well-known and popular verses in all of the New Testament. Fans hold up signs with this verse on posters during sporting events. Athletes write it on their uniforms.

It is from the gospel of John chapter 3 verse 16:
For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whoever
should believe in Him may have eternal life.

Because this verse is so well known, its power and meaning can sometimes be lost on us. So let us listen to it again - God loved you and me so much that He gave His Son to save us. God saw how lost we were and what danger we were in because of our sin. He loved us so much that He refused to leave us in such a state. To rescue us, He sent not only prophets and other people of faith, but He sent His Son. And He sent Him not only to teach us, but ultimately to suffer a cruel death for us. He loved us so much that He did not spare His only Son to save us. It is an awesome thought that the God who created the universe with all its wonders would care so much about you and me who have so often gone astray and betrayed Him. Yet God shows how great His love for us is through Christ Jesus our Lord.

It is important for us to understand exactly what we mean when we say that Jesus is the Son of God. He is not simply a good man who obeyed God and helped others. He is not merely a powerful prophet and wonder-worker. When we call Jesus, “Son of God”, we are saying that He is God. That is what we mean when in the creed we say that Jesus is “consubstantial” with the Father. We are saying that He shares the same nature with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Like them, He existed from all eternity. Along with the Father and the Holy Spirit, He created the world. Whatever we can say about God, we can also say about Jesus.

That is why God the Father proclaims in today’s gospel account of the Transfiguration, “This is my Beloved Son. Listen to Him.” When Jesus speaks, it is God Himself speaking. When Jesus heals, it is God Himself healing. And to bring it up to our day, when we receive the Body of Christ in Communion, we are receiving God Himself.

Therefore, when God gives us His only Son to save us, He is giving Himself. He is giving all that He has to give. He has nothing else left to give us.

In today’s second reading, Saint Paul explains the implications of this beautiful truth for our lives. If God’s love for us is so great, what else will He not do for us? If He would give His Son for us, then can we not trust Him to provide for all our other needs as well? What can be lacking to us when God has already given Himself to us? What do we have to fear when God has already saved us?

Brothers and sisters, it is important for us to reflect on this great truth every day of our lives but especially as we begin this Lenten season. If the love of God can really sink into our hearts, minds and souls then everything else will fall into place. We will live with profound joy knowing that we are surrounded by the presence of God. We will live with abiding confidence knowing that God will see us through whatever may befall us. We will also show loving concern to those we meet as we realize that God also has loved them. Just as Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James and John, so we will be transformed as our knowledge of God’s love penetrates us. Our whole lives will exude and radiate peace. How many lives could we touch and change if we entrusted ourselves totally to His love?

It is important to keep this in mind as we practice our Lenten sacrifices. We do not perform them to punish ourselves or to prove how strong-willed we are. Rather, they are a response to how much God has sacrificed for us. If He could give His only Son up for us, what should we be able to give up to show our love for Him? Like Abraham, we show our devotion to God by being willing to give up everything and anything to serve Him. And by practicing small acts of penance and charity, we will be ready to answer His call and willing to obey.

We gather here once again to celebrate all that God has done for us in Jesus Christ. We come to listen to Him as our Heavenly Father commanded. We come to receive the Body He gave for us on the cross and the Blood He spilled as an offering for our sins. In His love we discover the real meaning of our existence and find the power to live as He commands. We now must go from here to bring that love into a world that is torn by hate and violence. So many in our world do not know that there is a better way. The only way they can ever learn is if we really live the message of love we have received and carry it from this place into our neighborhoods and marketplaces. Then we will see a real transformation brought about by love.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

God Did Not Spare His Only Son

Losing a child is about the worst thing that could ever happen to anyone. It is every parent's worst nightmare. Parents who experience such a tragedy tell us that for many years afterward they continue to struggle with grief, anger and guilt over losing their child. Even when they are able to accept the loss and find some measure of peace, the thought of their child is always on their mind. And tears are never far away.

All of us experience death and loss in our own lives. We will never know why some people suffer more tragedies than others. What we do know is that we have a choice as to how we will react. We can either turn inward and grow bitter. Or we can reach out to help others and find some measure of serenity in our grief.

Today's first reading presents us with a man who is faced with the imminent death of his son. What was going through Abraham's mind when God told him that he was to sacrifice his only son Isaac on Mount Moriah? Was he angry that God would ask so much of him? Did he wonder what good killing the boy could possibly do? If these thoughts were going through his mind, the Scripture does not tell us. Just as shocking as God's request is Abraham's determination to obey God's command. And God rewards Abraham's heroic faith and obedience by sparing his son and declaring that he will be the father of many nations.

We might think that God is cruel for requiring so much of Abraham. But have any of us ever thought that, while God spared Isaac by having Abraham substitute a ram in his place, he did not spare his own Son, Jesus, but gave him up to death for us? What we most fear - the death of a child - is exactly the price God was willing to pay to save us from our sins and to hold out for us the gift of everlasting life. God loved us so much, that he was willing to do the unthinkable to ransom us from the power of death.

It is very tempting for us to think that Jesus' death was not traumatic for God the Father because he knew that Jesus would rise from the dead within a few days. And since God the Father and God the Son are one, they can never be separated, even by death. But the Bible tells us that God has compassion on all his creatures and that he has a special love for the poor and the suffering. If God the Father can be moved by our suffering, how much more was he troubled by the suffering of his Beloved Son? It was no easier for God to experience the death of Jesus than it was for Abraham to think about sacrificing Isaac or for any parent to lose a child. And yet he allowed it to happen out of love for us.

If it is hard for us to relate to what God the Father would have felt at Jesus' crucifixion, we can certainly relate to Jesus' own suffering. Just before he was handed over to the Roman authorities, the Bible tells us that the agony he felt was so intense that he sweat blood. Jesus felt real pain and suffered real torment throughout his crucifixion. The knowledge that he would soon rise from the dead did not make the agony any easier. Jesus' death was no easier than the death of any other person who ever lived. And yet he accepted such a cruel death out of love for us.

In today's second reading, Saint Paul reminds us of the sacrifice that God the Father made for us. And he assures us that if God would go so far as to offer up his Son for us, he will provide us with whatever else we need to grow in faith and holiness. God has shown us how absolutely committed he is to us. God has shown us how deeply he loves us. We need only place our lives in his hands with total trust, like Abraham, that whatever happens, no matter how traumatic or how awful it may seem, God will never leave our side through it all. And, more importantly, God will make some good come from it.  

Every second Sunday of Lent, the Church offers for our reflection the story of Jesus' transfiguration. In the presence of his three closest disciples, Jesus' glory as the Son of God shines through his human nature, and God the Father's voice is heard booming from the heavens: "This is my beloved Son. Listen to him!" We reflect on this story at this point every year during our Lenten journey so that we can be reminded that, when we embrace sacrifice and suffering, the power of God can shine through us. Saint Paul tells us in the letter to the Romans that the sufferings of the present are as nothing compared to the glory which will be ours in Christ. When we accept our suffering with love and trust, we become more like Jesus.  For this reason, we can even rejoice in the trials we face, because faith teaches us that our difficulties are transforming us more and more into the image and likeness of Christ.

At this altar, we will recreate Jesus' sacrifice by offering bread and wine. Can we offer ourselves along with Jesus? Can we join our suffering to that of Jesus on the cross? Can we trust God enough to give him everything we have and are in perfect and absolute trust? If we can, then we will see our lives changed along with the bread and the wine, and we will bring God's love to others in ways we could never have imagined otherwise.