Sunday, May 31, 2015

Living The Mystery

For centuries, the rosary has been one of the most popular forms of prayer for the Christian people. It allows us not only to invoke the powerful intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but the repetition of the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the Glory Be invites us to focus our minds on the mysteries of Jesus' life which we contemplate with each decade. As the rosary becomes more and more a part of our spirituality, the mysteries take on new meaning for us.  We begin to look at our own lives through the lens of the life of Christ. We see in our joys the joyful mysteries of Jesus' life playing themselves out. Our difficulties and suffering are transformed into moments of grace as we see the sorrowful mysteries of the suffering and death of Christ becoming a reality in our own journey. Through this powerful form of prayer, we learn that mysteries are not just doctrines we ponder in our minds with wonder, but realities that we are invited to enter into and live.

Each year we set aside this first Sunday after Pentecost to ponder the great mystery of the Blessed Trinity. We reflect on the nature of our one God who is three persons - Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There have been many attempts to try to explain this doctrine. Saint Patrick used the example of the shamrock which has three leaves but is still one flower. Sometimes the triangle which has three sides but is one shape is used as a symbol of the Blessed Trinity. One of the best examples is that of a family. A mother, a father and a child - though distinct persons - come together in love to form one family, one household. So God is a family, a community of persons marked by self-giving love. The mystery of the Blessed Trinity, in its simplest terms, is another way of describing our God as a God of love.

Like the mysteries of the rosary, the Blessed Trinity is a reality that is not just meant to be pondered but to be entered into and lived. Saint Paul explains how in today's second reading. The third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, lives in our hearts and testifies to us that we are the sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father. God has invited each of us to join the family of love that he is. We have been adopted by God so that we can share in the unconditional, self-giving love which the Father offers to the Son and the Son offers to the Father through the Holy Spirit. The mystery of the Blessed Trinity is not just about the nature of God, but about how we are chosen to become part of the family that God is.

As we meditate on this mystery and enter into it, we cannot help but change. We begin to act like members of the family of God. If we were adopted by a king or a wealthy person it would no doubt change our lives. Because of the power and riches which would be at our disposal, we would no longer be happy with the simple life we lived before. It is just so for us when the reality of our adoption in Christ takes root in our hearts. We no longer settle for the fleeting pleasures this world offers. We no longer live and act like people who have no faith and no hope. Rather the knowledge that we are loved by God and are members of his family causes us to act with a certain dignity and a new purpose. 

Our ancestors in the faith, the Jewish people, understand this reality very well. As Moses describes it for us in the first reading from the book of Deuteronomy, our Jewish sisters and brothers  understand that they have been chosen from all the nations on earth to be a people special to God. They look at their long history through the lens of God's saving power beginning with the covenant with Abraham, through their delivery from slavery in Egypt and into the crossing of the Jordan River into the Promised Land. Because they are a chosen people, they understand that they cannot live the way other nations do. Rather they must live according to the Law which God revealed to them. They must show forth his justice and mercy by caring for those whom society casts asides and by turning their backs on all forms of permissiveness and immorality. Just so we who have been called out of the slavery of sin and given the Spirit of adoption must live according to the gospel message so that our dignity as sons and daughters of God can be shown forth to the whole world.

Because, by its nature, a mystery is impossible to fully explain or understand, ritual is at the heart of what we do as a believing people. Jesus and the apostles understood that if we were to participate fully in the saving mystery of the one God who is three persons, we would need something more than words to nourish our spiritual lives. For that reason, Jesus left us not only his teaching but the sacraments. In today's gospel Jesus commissions the disciples not only to preach the good news but to baptize the nations "in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit."  Through baptism, which is the first of the sacraments, we are adopted as sons and daughters of God. The other sacraments build on this reality. And so participating in the sacraments whenever possible is vitally important if the mystery of God's life is to become real in our own lives.

We bless ourselves "in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." We offer the Mass to the Father, through the Son and in the Holy Spirit. Though we cannot fully explain or understand it, the mystery of the Trinity is woven into our lives as believers. It is nothing more or less than the nature of God whose love is so abundant that he welcomes us to share in his very life. It is an invitation which we first received at our baptism. We strive, with God's help, to respond to that invitation daily by living our lives according to the dignity that is ours as sons and daughters of God. Through the sacraments and prayer, we enter more fully into that mystery which is beyond words. And we live with an active hope that one day we will see God as he is - one God in three persons - and praise him forever.

(this homily originally appeared in Connect! magazine)

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Days of Fire

For the past fifty days we have celebrated and reflected on the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. We have told the stories of his appearances to the apostles and how he finally ascended to heaven to assume his glorious throne. Today, the feast of Pentecost, we bring our Easter celebration to a close by remembering the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles and Mary. On this day the Spirit of God rushed down like a mighty wind upon the room in which they had gathered in prayerful expectation. Then tongues of fire alighted on them signifying that each of them had been touched by God and were now empowered to preach the good news.  We learn what a radical transformation came over them as they spill into the streets proclaiming the wonders of God. They are no longer huddled in fear, hiding from the world. Once touched by God, they are free to proclaim to all those who would hear about the death and resurrection of Jesus.

And so the Church is born by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

This Holy Spirit continues to dwell within us forming us into the People of God and equipping us to bring God's love to the suffering and the needy.

We use many symbols to help us understand who the Holy Spirit is. One of the most powerful of those images is that of fire. It is the reason why we wear red on this feast of the birth of the Church. By depicting the Holy Spirit as fire, the Scriptures are instructing us about the effects that he has on the lives of believers. Like fire, the Holy Spirit transforms us, purifies us and sets us aflame with love of God.

First of all, the Holy Spirit transforms us. Fire changes whatever it touches. Once something is burned, it cannot return to what it was. Just so, once we are sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit through baptism and confirmation, we are forever changed. We cannot undo baptism or confirmation. No matter how hard we may try to reject that gift of faith and grace, it is forever with us. The way we write our names on the cover of a book we love, just so each of us has been marked by God as his special possession. Both the angels and the demons recognize it. Because of it, we can go before God with confidence and bring him our needs knowing that he will recognize us and answer us. And if we look into our hearts and find that we need to change, all we need to do is ask the Holy Spirit to refresh us and there is no doubt we will be forever transformed by his fire.

Secondly, the Holy Spirit purifies us. The way we boil water to kill the bacteria in it, the Holy Spirit's presence in our hearts burns away all that is not of God. As we are consumed by the fire of God's Spirit, our sinful self melts away. The Holy Spirit does this by putting into our hearts a love for God which makes anything that offends him loathsome to us. This image of purifying fire also reminds us that there is some pain involved in the transformation that God wants to accomplish in us. We resist change and are often fond of our sinful habits. But as we surrender to the Holy Spirit's purifying power, we discover the peace, joy and love that emerge once our sin is burned away. Once we taste that freedom, we never want to go back to our former slavery to sin.

Thirdly, the Holy Spirit sets us aflame with love for God. When we have an intense love for someone, we sometimes say we are "on fire" for that person. Or if we want something badly enough, we will say we have a "burning desire" for it. Just so, the Holy Spirit sets us on fire with love for God. Like a fire, that love is intense and all consuming. It is the love that compelled the apostles to put their fears aside and witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is the love which even today inspires people to leave their comfortable lives to serve the poor and needy. It is the love which drove Jesus to hand his life over so that we might be saved. If we are feeling dead inside. If we feel that life has become a drudgery and that there is no purpose in what we are doing, we need to give our lives over to the presence and action of the Holy Spirit. We will find that our hearts are so engulfed with God and his love that there will not be enough hours in the day to proclaim his wonders and sing his praises.

And so with the feast of Pentecost we wrap up our celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus. It reminds us that God's saving work is not finished with the cross and resurrection. Rather God invites each of us to enter into the mystery of Jesus' death and resurrection by making our lives an offering to him. Furthermore, he desires that each of us also share in the joy of bringing his saving word to others. The gift of the Holy Spirit which has forever marked us as God's sons and daughters empowers us to do just that. He is continually at work within us to transform us, purify us and set us on fire with love. It is ours for the asking. But watch out - there is no telling what wonders the Lord will work in our lives.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

With God's Power And On God's Terms

Fifty days ago, we began this Easter season by lighting a fire at the entrance of the church and proclaiming that Jesus is risen from the dead. Now, on this Pentecost Sunday, we celebrate another fire - not a fire that we light, but the fire of God come down from heaven. That fire is the Holy Spirit who came upon the apostles and Mary as tongues of fire and who lives in each of us who believe that Jesus Christ is Lord.

We call Pentecost the “birthday of the Church” because on that day the apostles are transformed from men who were too afraid to leave the upper room to bold proclaimers of the resurrection of Jesus. They went from men still confused about the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection to preachers of His divinity and Lordship. Rather than being paralyzed by fear and doubt, they are driven by conviction and faith to proclaim the good news to all the world. There is no other explanation for this than the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through them.

The feast of Pentecost was celebrated by the Jewish people as the commemoration of the giving of the Ten Commandments through Moses. It was because of this festival that Jews from all over the world had gathered in Jerusalem as we hear in today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. We all know the story of how Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. When he brought the stone tablets written by God down the mountain, he discovered that the people had made a golden calf to worship. Filled with rage, Moses shatters the stone tablets on the ground and commands that all those who participated in the idolatry be rounded up and put to death. It turns out that three thousand people were killed on that day. Though the gift of the Law from the hand of God was a day of celebration, it was also a time to remember how often the people disobeyed the Ten Commandments and broke their covenant with God.

It is no accident that God sent His Holy Spirit upon the apostles on the feast of Pentecost. Rather than write the law on tablets of stone, He would now write them on our hearts. Rather than give us a law we could not obey, He gave us His Spirit which is the power not only to understand what Jesus teaches but to live it out.

I would encourage all of you when you get home after Mass to open your Bibles and read the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles from which today’s first reading is taken. After the account of the descent of the Holy Spirit, we read that Peter addresses the crowd that had gathered on the street below. They are struck to the depths of their soul by his message and ask what they should do. Peter tells them that they must repent of their sins and be baptized so that they also may receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. In verse 41 we read, “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.”  Whereas three thousand people were slaughtered by Moses on that first Pentecost because they rejected the law, three thousand people were saved by the apostles because of the power of the Holy Spirit. The law of the Old Covenant did not offer those who received it the power to live it out. But to those who receive the New Covenant of love, the Holy Spirit is given empowering us to accept and live out the teachings of Jesus.

It has been said that the Christian life is not just difficult, it is impossible. It is impossible to love and forgive our enemies. It is impossible to bless those who curse us and rejoice when others make fun of us for being followers of Jesus. In today’s world, many think it is impossible to live a chaste single life or a faithful married life.  For human beings with our weak wills, all these things are impossible. That is why no other religion besides Christianity proclaims such a radical, all-embracing message of love.

The reason we as baptized members of the Body of Christ do say that it not just possible but mandatory that we live and love as Jesus did is that we have the Spirit of Jesus living within us. We have received the same Spirit by which Jesus cured the sick and raised the dead. We have received the same Spirit that compelled the apostles to preach the good news of Jesus resurrection to all the world even to the point of giving their lives for Christ. We have received the same Spirit that empowered the saints to feed the hungry, care for the sick and teach the gospel message even under the threat of persecution. It is that Spirit that makes it possible for us to love our enemies, to live simpler lives so that we will have more to give to the needy and to love God more than life itself. We can now live the Christian life with joy, not as a burden, because the Spirit of God lives in us.

Very often we fail to live the gospel message because we are trying to live it by our own power or on our own terms. When we sin, we too often just tell ourselves and God that we will try harder next time. Or we pick and choose which teachings we will follow and which teachings we ignore. Both attitudes are a recipe for failure. If we are to live the Christian message in all its fullness and experience the joy and peace it brings, we must resolve to abandon our lives to the work of the Holy Spirit. We must say to Him, “I am no longer in control, Lord. You are.” We must simply tell God that we give up trying to follow Him by our own will power and give Him permission to work in and through us. It is a scary thing to do because we do not like to hand over control of our lives. But once we do, we will see wonders take place just as the apostles did and just as generation after generation of saints who have given up everything to follow Jesus.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Let The Water Fall

Fire. A Dove. A mighty rushing wind.

All these are symbols that Scripture gives us of the Holy Spirit of God. They convey His power, His presence throughout the world and, at the same time, the difficulty in understanding and seeing His mighty work.

In today’s gospel, Jesus provides us with another image of His Holy Spirit. It is the image of water.

Water is essential for human life. Particularly in the harsh desert climate that Jesus lived in,  no one could survive for long without it. In our own day, the first sign of potential  life that scientist look for on other planets is the presence of water. Just so, the Spirit of God is a Spirit of life.

In the book of Genesis, we see the Spirit of God hovering over the waters on the first day of creation bringing form to the void and life out of nothing. When the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will be the mother of Jesus, it is the Holy Spirit who overshadows her to conceive our Saviour in her virgin womb. And on the day of Pentecost, it is the Holy Spirit who rushes in like a mighty wind upon the apostles and Mary gathered in prayer in the upper room to give birth to the Church. That same Holy Spirit gives life to the Church today, pulsing through all the baptized, empowering us to live the good news, to care for those in need and to show love to the abandoned. Like water refreshing a parched and weary traveler, the Holy Spirit brings comfort to all those who believe in Jesus and life to those who call upon His name.

Today’s gospel is set during the Festival of Booths when the Jews commemorate how God provided water for them from the rock while they wandered in the desert. Remember that God had liberated them from slavery in Egypt but the road to freedom ran through a desert. There was little food and no water, and the people began to fear that they would not survive. They began to wonder whether they had made a mistake in trusting God and His servant, Moses. To provide His people with water, God commanded Moses to strike a rock and immediately water began to flow from it for the people to drink. It was a reminder to the people - and to us - that God is near even when He seems far away and that He can provide for all our needs no matter how impossible or dire our circumstances may be.

It is during the greatest day of this festival that Jesus cries out: “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me; Let him drink who believes in me.” He is telling those who heard Him that it is He who gives the living water, that is the Holy Spirit, to all those who believe. Just as God provided water to His people in the desert, so Jesus provides His Holy Spirit to those who live in a desert of selfishness, individualism, poverty and persecution. Unlike water which can only nourish us for a short while, the Spirit of God sustains us always so that we never experience thirst again.

Jesus goes on to say, “Scripture has it: ‘From within him rivers of living water flow.’” We who are baptized and who are the fulfillment of God’s promise, experience the Holy Spirit as a fountain of life within us. Within our heart and soul, the living power of God bubbles up giving us inspiration, encouragement, comfort and peace. Even if we were to be locked away in a dungeon with no light and no contact with the outside world, we would experience the presence of God within us leading us by faith. The refreshing, life-giving water is always flowing within us.

Of course, a river or well is no good unless we go there ourselves to get water. Unless we turn the faucet on, the water stays in the pipes. Just so, if we are to draw on the power of God’s Spirit within us, we must turn to Him in prayer. Prayer connects us with the Spirit and unleashes His life within us. Perhaps a good meditation for us during this week would be to imagine ourselves with a bucket going to a fountain of water. As we try to catch the bubbling water into our bucket, we can imagine all the blessings God wants to shower us with - peace, joy, love, happiness and whatever it is we may need at the moment. We can imagine ourselves being cleansed and refreshed at the fountain.

If we were to spend ten to fifteen minutes everyday this week in that prayer, we would notice a big difference in our lives. We would feel centered and focused throughout the day. We would be at peace no matter what difficulties we faced. Whenever we may feel confused or out of sorts, we would develop the habit of looking within ourselves for the strength of God within us. And we would develop trust in the Spirit to lead us in all circumstances. In short, through the power of daily prayer and the Holy Spirit within us, we would be transformed daily into the image and likeness of Christ.

Saint Paul assures us that the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness and helps us in our prayer. The Christian life is essentially coming to abandon ourselves through the grace of God to the impulses of the Holy Spirit within us. It takes our whole life to learn how to do it, but it is possible for each of us through baptism and the power of faith. We need only take the time to pray each day, read the Bible and receive Jesus in the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist to make that promise a reality in our lives.

This day, the Feast of Pentecost, we celebrate the gift of God’s Holy Spirit poured out upon all believers. He is the life of God Himself breathed into the soul of all believers, the living water that refreshes us. Let us go to the well always and draw deeply from the depth of His love. Nothing else can provide us with that for which our soul thirsts - God Himself living and active in each of us through faith.

Friday, May 22, 2015

River Of Life

When we are children, we need our parents to watch over us. We haven't learned yet that we'll get burned if we touch the stove or that it's dangerous to run into the street. As we grow older, though, we start learning how to protect ourselves and how to stay out of trouble. The discipline that our parents imposed on us, often against our will, eventually comes to be an almost automatic way of thinking and living for us. We absorb from our parents values and attitudes that will be with us for the rest of our lives. We know how true this is because so often we catch ourselves saying something to our children or grandchildren that our parents used to say to us. We internalize the messages we received from our parents and act on them as we mature.

When Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit as a river of living water which flows from within the person, He is describing much the same reality. When Jesus' Holy Spirit dwells in us, then we have Jesus' values and Jesus' attitudes operating within us. We see things as Jesus sees them. We begin to recognize Jesus in the people we meet. We begin to understand that it is Jesus speaking to us when we read the Bible. Just as we absorb our parents' attitudes and values by the discipline they imposed on us, so Jesus' Word begins to penetrate our hearts and minds through the gift of the Holy Spirit, and we begin to change from within.

How does this all take place? When we come to believe in Jesus, when we grow in knowledge of the Scripture and receive the sacraments, the Holy Spirit begins to work on our minds and hearts so that we grow in the knowledge and love of God. And, as we grow in that knowledge and love, we come to be more like Jesus. Before we know it, we will be surprising ourselves by saying inspirational words and doing kind deeds. Just as we often catch ourselves saying something our parents used to say, we'll catch ourselves being moved by the Spirit to speak words of comfort and encouragement to those we meet.

The next thing that happens as the Holy Spirit takes up residence within us is that the rivers of living water begin to overflow in us. We can no longer keep Jesus and His Word all to ourselves. Like the apostles on Pentecost day, we can no longer contain the joy that loving God gives us, and we have to tell others about it. The Holy Spirit makes us witnesses to His power and love at work in us.

We live in a culture that tells us that religion is something private, something we should keep to ourselves. We typically don't care what our neighbors believe or what religion they belong to, as long as they don't tell us about it. But, a Christian who has really experienced the power and love of the Holy Spirit, can't keep the message to himself or to herself. We can't keep the lid on the rivers of living water bubbling up from within us. And thank goodness for that! Where would we be if the apostles had decided that Jesus' resurrection would be their little secret? Where would we be if those who witnessed Jesus' miracles and heard His words didn't pass the stories along to the next generation of believers? And, what will become of our children and grandchildren if we fail to share with them the power of God's love made manifest in the person of Jesus Christ?

Today's feast, Pentecost, is the celebration of the birthday of the Church. We are the Church because of the Holy Spirit. This Holy Spirit through faith now lives in the hearts of almost two billion women and men who call themselves Christians. There are women in Africa, men in Asia, children in Europe, old ladies in South America and teenagers in Australia who believe and worship just as we do. This didn't all take place over the past 2000 years because the apostles had a good business plan and marketing strategy. It happened because the Holy Spirit worked in a powerfully way giving authority to the words of those who preach and making those who hear ready to give their hearts over in faith. That same Holy Spirit is among us now strengthening me as I preach and touching your hearts as you listen.

The task now falls to us who have been given to drink of this life giving water in the Spirit of Jesus. Will we keep it to ourselves? Or, will we speak about to everyone we meet so that all creation which is groaning and in agony can be transformed by the values and the attitudes of Jesus, our Savior.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

God's Plan Z

Whenever we take on a big project, we have to put some contingency plans in place. If everything works out perfectly, if everyone shows up and does their job, then we can implement Plan A. If, however, someone calls out sick or the computer system is down, we have to settle for Plan B. Plan A is always the best case scenario when everything functions smoothly. Plan B is not as good as Plan A, but will take effect just in case something goes wrong.

Because He is infinitely creative, God has a different way of implementing His big project of salvation. For God, when Plan A fails to work because of human sinfulness and weakness, his Plan B is not an inferior fall back. Rather, Plan B turns out to be even more wondrous than Plan A. In fact, even God's Plan Z is superior to his Plan A. God does not suffer setbacks in the working out of His plan to reconcile all things in Christ.

We see this illustrated in the readings for the Seventh Sunday of Easter. In the first reading from the book of Acts, Peter mentions Judas' betrayal of Jesus. No doubt Jesus' Plan A for Judas was that he, like the other apostles, be a witness to His resurrection and work to spread the Good News to the ends of the earth. But Judas, in his weakness, falls prey to doubt and greed. Then God's Plan B went into effect. Judas would now become instrumental in Jesus' death for the salvation of the world. This by no means makes Judas a hero. Rather, it shows that God's plan is fulfilled despite human sin and weakness.

The whole history of salvation can be understood in this light. At the Easter Vigil, during the Exultet, we rejoice in the "happy fault" of Adam because it sets in motion the plan of salvation in Christ. Without Adam's fall, we would have no need of a savior. God has willed from the beginning that human beings cooperate with Him in the spreading of the kingdom. Our human weakness does not frustrate or hamper God's will. On the contrary, in some mysterious way, it actually advances that will. God maintains control all the while. Jesus made this clear throughout His passion when He let it be known that His life was not being taken from Him, but that He was freely laying it down. Similarly, both Peter in the first reading and Jesus in the gospel state that Judas was "destined" to betray Jesus because His actions had already been mysteriously accounted for in God's saving plan.

This is important for us to keep in mind today. As individuals and as a Church, we will be continually beset by difficulties and challenges. We will fail, and sometimes dramatically to the point of scandal. In the eyes of the world, we are on the brink of collapse and irrelevance. Yet God's plan of salvation is mysteriously working itself out in our lives and in our world. The gospel is being handed on to a new generation of witnesses. Minds and hearts are converted to the truth. The sick and the poor are being comforted. God is dwelling among His people through love. This does not mean that we may grow complacent about our sinfulness or about our Church's constant need for reform. Instead it means that we pray and work with the confidence that God has everything under control.

This is developed even further in the gospel reading. Through his prayer, Jesus gives His disciples a peak into His intimate relationship with the Father. Jesus wants them to know that He has been protecting them and will continue to do so even after He is gone from this world. This text has been called Jesus' "high priestly prayer" because it shows us that He is constantly interceding to the Father on behalf of His people. While we tend to picture Jesus as the one who receives our prayers, we do not often focus on Him as one who prays for us. Yet that is precisely what He does, offering Himself continually to the Father on our behalf. What confidence it should give us to know that the Son of God Himself is supporting us in prayer!

In the course of the prayer, Jesus asks that His disciples be protected from the evil one while they remain in the world. Throughout his gospel, John uses the term "world" to describe all the forces opposed to God and His will. In our day, we would identify these forces as those, among others, who exploit the poor, corrupt the young with a materialistic worldview or promote the objectification of women. In our struggle against evil, we can often feel overwhelmed by their vast influence and resources.  But when we consider the sovereignty of God's will and the power of our Savior's intercession, we realize that no matter how dire it may look, it really is not even a fair fight! Even when we appear to fail, God's kingdom mysteriously advances as we are equipped with the Spirit of Truth. 

And so our approach to this world is not one of hatred or defiant opposition, but love. If God can make good come from our failings and weaknesses, he can also demonstrate His power and sovereignty through those who do not recognize him.

Furthermore, it was for this world that Jesus came, not to condemn it but to save it. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that before we can hope to change people, we must love them; and they must know that we love them. The second reading reminds us that if we have experienced God's love by way of forgiveness and mercy, then we must show love to others. When we love, God dwells in us, and the invisible God is then seen in us. And was that not God's Plan A to begin with - that His image be perfected in us through love?  

(image by Fira Rayne)

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Come, Holy Spirit

These ten days between our celebration of the Ascension of Jesus to heaven and of Pentecost, the day when the Holy Spirit came down upon the apostles and Mary, are days of expectant prayer. We ask God to send his Holy Spirit anew upon his people so that we may be re-energized in our faith and given new power to spread the good news of Jesus' death and resurrection to all the world.

The Holy Spirit is the life-breath of the Church. Through the Holy Spirit we are given the power to follow Jesus' example and live the good news.

Sometimes the Holy Spirit is called the forgotten member of the Trinity. We are very comfortable bringing our prayers and worship to God the Father and to Jesus. But the Holy Spirit is often overlooked although it is through him that we are even able to pray at all.

And so as we spend these days asking God to pour out his Spirit upon us anew, let us look at the readings which the Church offers us this day and ask the question, "Who is the Holy Spirit?" As we reflect on the Scriptures set before us, we see that the Holy Spirit is a Spirit of truth, of unity and of love.

First of all, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth. He reveals to us the truth about God and his love. The Holy Spirit is given to us to speak to our minds and hearts about what God requires of us. 

Today's gospel reading from Saint John shows us Jesus in prayer for his disciples and for those who would believe because of their testimony. At the end of the prayer, he asks that they be consecrated in the truth and says that God's word is truth. The truth about who God is and what his plan of salvation is can be found in his Word, the Bible. We believe that the Bible was written by men, but that they were inspired by the Holy Spirit to such a degree that God can truly be considered its author. Therefore, we find in the Bible a sure pathway to understanding who God is and how much he loves us. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit who dwells in our hearts guides us so that as we read the Bible we are able to grow in our understanding of it and in our ability to apply it to our lives. Spending time in prayer reading the Bible is indispensable to the life of every follower of Jesus if we are to be consecrated in the truth by the Holy Spirit. 

Secondly, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Unity. He gathers together people of different languages, ethnic backgrounds and abilities into one Church which extends itself throughout every century into every nation.

Again, in the gospel reading, Jesus begins his prayer for his disciples by asking that they be one as he is one with the Father and the Holy Spirit. The followers of Jesus are not meant to be a bunch of individuals scattered about the world doing their own thing. Rather we are meant to work together and to worship together. The closer we get to Jesus and the more his Spirit takes up residence in our souls, the closer we become to one another. Nowhere else is this more evident than when the Church gathers to worship on Sunday. All of us here are very different people. We would have no other reason to be gathered here together except for the faith we share in Jesus and in his presence in the Holy Eucharist. What's more, we are not alone. Throughout our country and throughout the world, people are gathering to worship with the same words and reflecting on the same readings we have pondered today. The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Unity, makes this possible.

Finally, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Love. Because he is God, the Holy Spirit is love itself. When the Holy Spirit dwells within us, we come to experience the unconditional love the Father has for us and are empowered to show that love to others.

Today's second reading from the first letter of Saint John teaches us that, when we love, God dwells within us. When we show love, the invisible God who is love itself is then made visible to the world. As Saint John tells us, "No one has ever seen God. Yet, if we love one another, God remains in us, and his love is brought to perfection in us." This love is not merely having warm feelings for others. It is a love that shows itself in action by forgiving those who wrong us, by visiting the sick, by instructing those in error, by witnessing to the power and presence of God in our lives to those who are lost and by putting aside our own comforts to wash the feet of others. It is the love that Jesus showed by offering himself to us on the cross. It is not a love which we can show by our own human power. It is only possible by the Spirit of love who dwells within us.

The Holy Spirit we worship is a Spirit of truth, of unity and of love. We know that we are drawing closer to God when those three characteristics of his Spirit are growing in our lives. So as we approach the feast of Pentecost, let us focus our prayers more on the third person of the Blessed Trinity. Let us bring him our worship and adoration. Let us ask him to make his home within us and reveal to us the truth of God's burning love for us. Let us ask him to set our hearts aflame with love for God and for one another so that we may be renewed as his People and bring the good news to all the world.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Signs And Wonders

John Sullivan’s dream was to become a deacon. That dream, however, was threatened when he developed debilitating back pain. A CAT scan revealed that several of his vertebrae were compressed so tightly that they were creating a bulge. Not only was it creating intense pain for him, but he was faced with the possibility of being paralyzed for the rest of his life. Medically, the only hope he had was to undergo surgery but even that could not guarantee that the pain would go away or that he would ever walk again. He would have to discontinue his studies to become a deacon and give up his dream.

Then, one evening, he was watching a documentary on the life of John Henry Cardinal Newman on the Catholic channel, EWTN. He was an Anglican priest who lived in the nineteenth century who eventually converted to Catholicism. His writings have influenced many important Catholic thinkers including our present pope, Benedict XVI. While watching the program, he decided to turn to Cardinal Newman in prayer and ask for a healing. He prayed,  "Please, Cardinal Newman, intercede with God so that I might go back to classes and be ordained."  

After uttering that prayer, he began to feel almost immediately relief from his pain. He was able to walk again and resume his everyday activities including his diaconate classes. However, about three years later the pain returned and he had to undergo surgery after which he developed severe complications leaving him in even more pain. Once again, he sought the intercession of Cardinal Newman and immediately felt a tingling heat shoot through his body. He got right up out of bed and began walking as if he had never had surgery.

He returned to his doctor who confirmed that there was no medical explanation for his healing. Of course, there was no doubt in John’s mind that he had been healed as a result of Cardinal Newman’s intercession. And so, when Cardinal Newman was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in London, John Sullivan - now a deacon - was invited to participate in the Mass as a witness to the whole world of the healing power of prayer still at work in our world.

As we read in today’s gospel, before Jesus ascended into heaven, He promised His apostles that signs and wonders would accompany their preaching of the gospel. We see His promise confirmed throughout the Acts of the Apostles. Peter and John heal a crippled man at the gate of the Temple. Paul raises back to life a young man who died after falling off a balcony.

However, such miracles are not a thing of the past. As the story of Deacon John Sullivan reminds us, miracles are continuing to take place in our world today. Though Jesus has ascended into heaven, He has promised to remain with us always as we live and preach the good news of His resurrection. We should expect to witness signs and wonders, then, as part of living out our Christian faith.

While physical healings are impressive, the most wondrous miracles of all are those which take place in our heart and in our soul. It is the power to forgive someone who has deeply wounded us. It is the conversion of a heart hardened by despair and disappointment that is finally penetrated by God’s love. It is enemies who settle their differences and become friends. So many of those miracles take place on a daily basis. We may not read about them in the paper or see them on TV but they are no less wondrous than any physical healing.

And while those who receive miraculous healings will eventually get sick again and die, those who receive spiritual healings will keep them through to eternal life. We can expect to see such miracles if we are both living and preaching the good news of Jesus’ resurrection and if the grace of God is pulsing through our lives.

Today we celebrate the feast of the Ascension when Jesus, forty days after His resurrection, ascended to the right hand of God. From heaven He prays for us. We can turn to Him however great our need or however desperate our circumstances are and expect that He will answer us. More importantly, we can take risks in our life of faith and expect that He will support us. If we want to witness signs and wonders then we will have to live our faith courageously. As Mother Angelica, the founder of EWTN, so often says, “If we are not willing to do the ridiculous, then God cannot do the impossible.”

Thursday, May 14, 2015

I Will Return For You

The evangelical preacher, Jack Graham, tells the story of a man who brought his young son and daughter to the beach. While they were jumping around in the waves, a powerful riptide began to drag them out to sea. The father, realizing that he would be able to save only one of them, called out to his daughter, "Honey, listen to me! I'm going to bring your brother to shore. I want you to float on your back like you learned in your swimming lessons. You can do that for a long time. Then Daddy promises he will come and find you." The daughter, her voice trembling, said "Okay, Daddy", and the father fought the riptide to bring his son to shore.

Once on the beach, the father cried frantically for help. Someone offered the use of his boat, and they put out to look for the girl.

The father was sick with worry as he called out his daughter's name over the waves. After about an hour, they found her floating on her back just as her father had told her to do.

Getting her to safety on the boat, the father, overjoyed at finding his daughter, hugged her and said, "I'm so proud of you, honey! You were so brave!"

The daughter, shivering in his arms replied, "Daddy, I just did what you told me to because I knew you would come back for me."

"I just did what you told me because I knew you would come back for me."

The faith and courage this young girl displayed in trusting that her father would come back for her is the same faith and courage we are called to have on this day when we celebrate the ascension of Jesus to his throne in heaven.

First of all, we are to believe that Jesus is coming again. We have not been abandoned by God. We are not left to drift aimlessly through a life devoid of meaning and purpose. Rather we are called to have an active expectation that he will come back for us. As the young men dressed in white tell the apostles after Jesus ascended to heaven, "This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven."

Whether it is at the time of our death or at the end of the world, we will come face to face with our Savior. It will be a time of judgment when the deeds we have done and the intentions of our heart are laid bare in the light of his glory. It will also be a time of mercy when the one who died for us will welcome us into the joy of heaven. No matter how far off it may seem, that expectation must be the driving force of our life. Like the girl in the story, it is what gives us courage as we face our daily difficulties and fears. It helps us to realize that whatever challenges we are facing are only temporary. We know that we have been created for something more than this world can offer. We also know that this world is passing away and that our hearts are set on the kingdom of heaven.

Secondly, while we wait for Jesus to come back for us, we must do what he tells us. God's Word is meant to keep us safe as we make our way through the waves of this life on earth. Just as the girl focused on the instructions her father gave her while she waited for him to rescue her, we are to keep God's commandments in mind, especially the great commandment of love. During the forty days between his resurrection from the dead and his ascension into heaven, Jesus was preparing the apostles for the mission they were to undertake after he would be taken from them. He helped them to understand how the Scriptures foretold that his death would be a ransom for our sins and how he would overcome death. The words of Jesus have been left to us in the Bible and in the teaching of the Church. Also, the Holy Spirit which we received in baptism gives us the power to live that teaching so that we will be kept safe up to the time when Jesus will come back for us.

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. On this feast of the Ascension of our Lord to his throne in heaven, we recall that Jesus will one day come again to make the Father's will done on earth as it is in heaven. When he does come again, we want to be found to be faithful to his word in the power of the Spirit he gave us. Then we can say to him, "I just did what you told me, because I knew you would come back for me."

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Love Is Our Calling

Saint Therese of Lisieux was only a teenager when she entered the convent to dedicate herself to a life of prayer as a religious sister. Like all young girls, she was unsure of her talents and how she should serve God and others. All around her were nuns who had musical talents, who were artists or who were strong leaders and she wondered what her special gift was.

As she prayed and read the Bible she came upon this passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: “Set your desires on the greater gifts. And I will now show you the way which surpasses all others.... If I have not love, then I am nothing.” (1 Cor 12:31 - 13:3). She came to realize that love was her special calling. By loving God and others she could accomplish more for the Kingdom of Heaven than any gift or special talent could.

In her autobiography, The Diary of a Soul, she writes this about her insight:

Then, nearly ecstatic with the supreme joy in my soul, I proclaimed:
O Jesus, my love, at last I have found my calling: my calling is love.
Certainly I have found my proper place in the Church, and you gave
me that very place, my God. In the heart of the Church, my mother, I
will be love....

Love is the supreme calling of all Christians. No matter what our state in life, no matter what resources or talents we have, we are all called to love. Not all of us can preach or teach. Not all of us can feed the poor or visit prisoners. Not all of us can travel to mission countries to convert souls. But all of us can and must love.

Love is the greatest witness of the Christian life. No matter how eloquent our preaching may be, no matter how passionate our defense of the Catholic faith may be, no matter how selfless our service to others may be, it is the love we show in doing all these things that speaks to others about the beauty and truth of the Christian message. It was Jesus’ love more than anything else that drew others to him and it was the love that His first disciples showed for one another that built up the Church after His ascension. In the same way it will be our example of untiring, selfless love that will continue to reform, renew and build up the Church in our day.

When we speak about Christian love we have to be careful. It is something very different from love as it is understood in our world today. Jesus makes that clear in today’s gospel reading. The love that we are called to is not just warm, affectionate feelings for our family members and friends. Rather it is a love that puts the needs of others before our own. It is a love that is willing to sacrifice our own comfort to comfort others. It is a love that is willing to forgive those who hurt us, to give to others even when they take it for granted and to serve those who do not appreciate our efforts.

Jesus tells His disciples and us that He has given us a new commandment, that we should love one another and that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life. It is the example of love He showed by dying on the cross for sinners. It is the example of love He shows daily to us by pouring out blessing upon blessing on us even though we so often take it for granted or reject it by our sins.

The love that Jesus calls us to is not something that is natural for us. We tend only to show love to those who we know will love us back. In our everyday decisions, we put our interests and concerns before those of others. Out of politeness or concern about what people may think, we might lend a hand to others but only if we have free time and if it does not put us out too much.

To love as Jesus commands us to, we need His help. We need grace. That is why Saint John tells us in the second reading that love consists in this - not that we have loved God but that He has loved us. When we realize how great God’s unconditional love is for us, we will begin showing that same love to others. When we realize how much He has forgiven us, it will be impossible for us not to forgive those who hurt us. When we realize that everything we have comes from Him, it will be impossible for us not to share with the needy. And as we grow in our relationship with Jesus, it will be impossible for us not to share the good news of that love.

Imagine if all of us who claim to be followers of Christ really lived the commandment of love He left us. Imagine a world in which no one would go hungry or be cold. Imagine a world in which no one would be lonely. Imagine a world free of revenge, hatred and violence. That is the world that God wants to build through us if only we will let His love truly transform us.

However, we cannot begin to change the world until our hearts are changed. That is why we gather here today - not only to hear a message of love but to experience that love in Jesus who is present to us. He gives us His very Body and Blood to teach us how to give ourselves in service to one another. All our hearts are wounded. We have tried to love others but have been hurt. We have given of ourselves but have been let down. Now fear and shame keep us from opening our heart to God and others. We can find healing by bringing all that pain to God who promises never to reject us. He can take our cold, stony hearts and give us hearts that are capable of loving again. Then our transformation and that of our world can begin.

Monday, May 11, 2015

God's Love Manifested in Jesus

God is known by many titles. Philosophers call God "the Supreme Being" and "the Unmoved Mover." Some know God as Creator, the origin of the universe with all its wonders. Those who are struggling to overcome addictions describe God as a "higher power".

However, we who believe that Jesus is the Son of God know him under a different name. In Jesus, God has revealed himself to be Love.

This love has manifested itself in the person of Jesus. He teaches us that the God we worship is not a distant God who looks on the world from afar. Rather he knows each of us by name. He cares for us and sustains us in being. No matter how many times we reject him or push him away, he continues to shower us with his blessings.

The greatest manifestation of his love, however, is that he sent his Son to die for us. Jesus took upon himself the punishment we deserve for our sins so that we could have an active friendship with this God of love. There is no doubt about the truth of the words we hear in today's gospel when Jesus says: "No one has greater love than this, to lay down ones life for ones friends." And it is in just this way - by laying down his life for us - that Jesus has shown us the greatness of his love stemming from the love of the Father.

Jesus does not stop there, however. He goes on to say that we are to love one another just as he has loved us. It is not enough for us to simply acknowledge or even rejoice in the immense love of God revealed to us in Jesus. We are to imitate that love ourselves by laying down our lives for one another.

While we might think that such a love is too much to ask or impossible for God to expect from us, examples of heroic acts of generosity and forgiveness happen everyday through the grace and power of the Holy Spirit.

One example of just such a love took place several years ago in California.

Two young men decided to have a drag race down a stretch of road. As they careened down the street at a speed well over 100 miles per hour, a woman with her young daughter in the car turned on to the road. Her car was struck head on by one of the young men, and she and her daughter were killed instantly. The young man was also injured in the crash, but recovered within a few days. He was eventually arrested, convicted and sent to prison.

The woman's husband was distraught at the news of the death of his wife and daughter. He was understandably filled with hatred for the young man who so foolishly and needlessly took the lives of the people most important to him.

However, his rage soon began to consume him. He isolated himself from his family and friends and began drinking heavily. At night, he couldn't get to sleep because the image of the wreckage was constantly on his mind. It was all he could do to continue functioning at his work.

Eventually, he began to realize that his anger toward the young man who killed his wife and daughter was eating him up in side and that the only way to get his life back was to find a way to forgive him. He knew that he couldn't forgive him on his own, and so he got down on his knees and begged God to help him.

It wasn't easy, but the man began to experience his heart changing. He even found it within himself to visit the young man in prison. Through it all, he came to see that the person who killed his wife and daughter himself had a family and friends who loved him. He was not just some nameless punk, but a good kid who did a very stupid thing with tragic results. Unbelievably, the man found himself later showing up at the young man's parole hearing to speak on his behalf.

He found that he was given the power by God to not only forgive this man but to actually love him.  

Before we jump to the conclusion that the young man did not deserve to be forgiven or that forgiveness of someone who has hurt us that deeply is too much to ask, let us remember one important fact. It is just such a love which God has revealed to us in Christ. Each of us through our sins is responsible for the death of God's only Son. Yet God has loved and forgiven us nonetheless. We are now called to do the same for each other.

Hopefully it won't take some tragic event like the death of a loved one for us to have the opportunity to show love. We can already show it in smaller ways by going out of our way to give money to a beggar, by listening to a co-worker who is having a rough day or by sitting next to that kid in the cafeteria who nobody likes. Most of the time our witness to the love of Christ will take place in such small ways as these. Nonetheless, the change it will effect both in us and in those we show love to will be great indeed!

Like the man in the story, we cannot show love, generosity and forgiveness even on a small scale without the help of God. That is why we gather here every Sunday - to be reminded of what great love the Father has bestowed on us in Christ and to celebrate that love in the gift of the Eucharist. Then we are empowered to "go in peace to serve God and love one another."