Sunday, January 31, 2016

Love Never Fails

When children first learn about God, they can believe that he created all things and that he is everywhere at the same time. What they have trouble believing is that God knows every single person on earth by name. It is just too much for their little brains to comprehend. And when you tell them that not only does he know everyone who is living now, he knows everyone who ever lived and everyone who will ever live in the future, you might think that their heads would explode. However, as they get over the shock of realizing God's vast knowledge and power, it is a joy to see their eyes open with wonder when it begins to sink in that God knows each one of them personally, by name. They then begin to realize that God not only knows them but loves them.

It is important for us every now and then in prayer to ponder over this simple but profound fact. God knows each of us by name. He knows every detail of our lives. He knew us before we were even born. He knew us in our mother's womb, and he knows us now. Why is he so interested in us when he has a whole universe to watch over? Very simply, because he loves us. His love for us is the one thing that can never change in our lives.

Today's first reading is taken from the beginning of the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah is being called by God to be a prophet at a time of much corruption in Israel. He knows that it is going to be a struggle speaking God's truth to the nation's power brokers. He knows that he will be ridiculed, persecuted and maybe even killed. God does not assure Jeremiah that it will be easy or that people will listen to him. Instead, he tells Jeremiah that he knew him in his mother's womb, and that he will always be with him. That knowledge that God is always by his side will give Jeremiah the courage and strength to speak the truth to the people, to shoulder their ridicule and rejection and to face his own death. His confidence is not in himself. His sense of security does not come from whether or not people like and accept him. Rather he needs nothing else than to know that God loves him and is with him.

In the gospel proclaimed today, Jesus is preaching in his hometown of Nazareth. One would think that it would be the safest place for him to be, among those who have known him since he was a boy. But his words meet with opposition even there. In fact, the people are so incensed by his message that they drag him out to the edge of the town to throw him off the cliff. But Jesus calmly walks away. He knows that God is with him, that it is not his time to suffer and die, and that his Father would not allow a hair on his head to be harmed until the time was right. Any of us would have been devastated to have our friends reject us as Jesus' friends rejected him. Though Jesus was no doubt hurt by them, he was not devastated. The source of his identity and confidence did not come from the esteem of the people of Nazareth. Rather it came from the Father's love for him. Knowing that he could never be separated from that love gave him the courage to labor on preaching the good news even in the face of such hostility.

Where do we place our security? Where do we draw confidence from? If our security and confidence are not based on God's love for us, then they are misplaced. There is nothing else on earth that we can count on as surely as God's love for us. Our money eventually runs out. Our loved ones eventually die and leave us. Our health gets weaker as we age. When all is said and done, it is only God's love that is constant in our lives.

Our society is suffering from an epidemic of anxiety. Our world feels unbalanced, and fear can so easily creep into our minds and hearts. We have placed our confidence in money, relationships, our talents and our health, and realized just how shaky all those foundations can be. When we sense that fear is nipping at our heels, it is time to turn to our Heavenly Father and reaffirm our faith that he is in control of our lives. It is time to put our confidence in his unfailing love. Such an attitude will not solve our problems. But it will give us the confidence to face them and the perspective necessary to not be overwhelmed by them.

Our second reading today is one of the most popular in all the New Testament. It is Saint Paul's song of love. The love which Saint Paul describes, however, is not an emotional love full of drama as we might see on a soap opera. Rather it is the love of Christ displayed in all its glory on the cross. God loved each of us so much that he sent his beloved Son to die for us. If God has loved us so much, he will do all else for us besides. And we can never lose that love. No matter what we may have done in our lives, no matter how far off we may have drifted, God always calls us back to him. We can count on God to forgive us and to put behind us whatever sins we may have committed. The one thing we can count on in life is God's forgiving love.

God knows each of us. He knows every detail of our lives. He knows what we need before we ask. He knows our future, and he knows our past. Why would rely on anything or anyone else when the God who created the universe loves us so passionately and so completely? How could we ever doubt that everything will be okay when God himself is watching over us?

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Jesus' Mission - And Ours

Every successful business or organization begins with a mission statement.

Usually no longer than a paragraph, a mission statement is a summary of the purpose and values of an institution. It crystallizes and gives focus to the organization’s time and resources. Finally, it gives people outside the group an idea of what they are all about.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus proclaims to us His mission statement. Reading from the prophet Isaiah, He declares to those gathered in the synagogue - and to us sitting here today - what He is all about. By reflecting on these words, we can gain deeper insight into the mystery of who Jesus is and what He was sent to do.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.  

First of all, Jesus is the One sent by the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit. His proclamation in the synagogue follows His baptism in the Jordan River when the Holy Spirit came down upon Him. It is by the power of God that He acts. Jesus is no mere activist or do-gooder trying to make the world a better place through convincing arguments and charitable works. His power does not come from His ideas or His organizational skills. Rather it comes from the Spirit of God at work in Him. Therefore He is not just one prophet in a long line of prophets or just one reformer in a long line of reformers. Instead He is THE  prophet. He is THE One sent to bring about the salvation that God had promised.

Secondly, Jesus came not only to preach God’s word but to show His mercy in concrete acts on behalf of the poorest of the poor. The Spirit of God at work in the world through Jesus brings about freedom, healing and forgiveness. We see this play out throughout the gospels. Jesus releases many people from captivity by driving demons out of them. When the woman was caught in adultery and about to be stoned by the Pharisees, He won her freedom and refused to condemn her. Whenever He encountered the blind, the deaf and lepers, He never failed to heal them when approached Him with faith. He forgave the sins of the paralyzed man who was brought down to Him through a roof and promised the thief who was crucified beside Him that He would be with Him in Paradise.

Today’s gospel tells us all we need to know about Jesus. He is the One who in the power of the Holy Spirit brings freedom, healing and forgiveness.
If we hear Jesus’ mission statement in the gospel, then we hear our own mission statement as His followers in today’s second reading:

For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body....
You are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it.

First of all, through baptism, we received the Spirit of God. This is the same Spirit that empowered Jesus to bring freedom, healing and forgiveness to the world. What sets us apart as believers is that we do not try to accomplish good works through our own skills and effort. Rather we do it in the power of the Spirit we received at our baptism. As was the case with Jesus, it is God at work in us making us holy and enabling us to do more good than we could ever do on our own. It is only by abandoning ourselves daily to the Holy Spirit and being obedient to His promptings that we can accomplish more than we could ever hope for or imagine.

Secondly, through baptism we become members of Christ’s body. Now that Jesus has ascended to the right hand of the Father, He accomplishes His work through us. He is the head and we are the body. If Jesus is to bring freedom, healing and forgiveness to the world today, it has to be through us. As Saint Teresa of Avila said so beautifully, “Christ has no hands now but yours.” As is the case with our bodies, every member is important and necessary. We cannot function well without our heart, or our fingers of our kneecaps. So we as a Church cannot be fully who we are unless everyone contributes. If there are people in today’s world who continue to suffer and who are ignorant of Jesus and His saving power the only reason can be that we have failed to help them in the power of God’s Holy Spirit. However, if we give ourselves over to the work of the Spirit, if we step outside our comfort zone to console someone who is hurting, to give a hand to someone who has fallen down or to offer food to a homeless person, God’s power will be released into this hurting world and it will be forever changed.

Jesus continues to bring good news to the poor, to release captives, to give sight to the blind and to proclaim favor from the Lord through us, His body on earth. We can only do it through the strength that He gives us. By offering ourselves to His service no matter how few skills we think we may have, we will witness great things. The smallest good works done with love have infinite potential through His Spirit at work in us. The world needs us. Jesus needs us. What will our answer be?

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Promises, Promises

Everyone makes promises. Politicians promise us everything from affordable health insurance to job security. Products promise to make us more beautiful and to save us money. Partners promise that they will love one another forever. It is not uncommon for people to make promises. Sadly, it is also not uncommon when those promises are not kept. Each of us knows what it is like to have someone back out of a commitment that was made to us. If we are honest, we probably can name more than a few times when we also did not live up to the promises we have made.

God also makes promises. After the fall of Adam and Eve, he promised to send one who would defeat the cunning serpent. After the flood, he promised Noah that he would never destroy the earth again. He promised Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars of the sky. And he promised the people of Israel that he would send a Messiah to save them. Like us, God makes many promises. Unlike us, however, he keeps them all. God is faithful. If he says it, he will do it. There is no other word that is more worthy of our complete trust and confidence than is the word of God.

Today's first reading from the book of Nehemiah is an example of God's faithfulness. The land of Israel had been conquered and ravaged by invaders who carried many of the people off to exile in shackles. For many years. they lived in a foreign land unable to worship in the temple or to live in freedom. Though it seemed impossible, God promised to lead them back to their land and to re-establish them in the city of Jerusalem. The reading we heard was God's fulfillment of his promise. The people have finally been led back to their homeland and are about to rebuild their city. They are overcome with tears of joy as they hear God's word proclaimed in their native land by the priest, Ezra. He reminds them that it is not a day to be sad, but a day to rejoice because God has worked marvels for them. As they rebuild the city, they are to keep in mind how God was faithful to his word, and to remember that they could have confidence that he would continue to be faithful to all that he has said.

Though the Old Testament is full of stories of God's faithfulness to his people, the greatest example of that faithfulness is found in the person of Jesus Christ.

Last week, we heard the story of Jesus' first miracle. In today's reading from the gospel of Luke, we hear Jesus' first sermon. The text he chooses to speak on is from the book of the prophet Isaiah who foretells the coming of the Messiah as one upon whom God's Spirit would rest empowering him to lead captives into freedom, to bring sight to the blind and to proclaim the good news to the poor. In a statement which must have been a shock to those assembled to listen to him, Jesus tells them that he is the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy. He tells them straight out that he is the Messiah. In him, they were to find the fulfillment of all the promises God had made to the people.

Jesus does not only tell them he is the Messiah by his words. When he leaves the synagogue, he goes about performing the mighty works that Isaiah predicted. He heals the blind. He raises the dead. He preaches the good news of the Kingdom of God to the poor and casts out demons. Finally, he shows how great God's love for us is by freeing us from sin by his death on the cross and giving us the hope of everlasting life by rising from the dead. Whatever promises God made to the people of Israel, Jesus fulfilled them beyond anyone's expectation.

God's promises were not only made to the people of Israel nor to the people of Jesus' day. Those promises extend to us who continue to hear the good news proclaimed. God's offer of forgiveness of sins and salvation from evil are extended to us here today. All of us who have accepted Jesus' call to follow him know from first hand experience how faithful God is. We have received the strength he promised to offer us to resist temptation. We have received the peace he promised to give us during tumultuous periods of our life. And we have felt his presence by our side throughout the journey of our lives. We know that God's word is true not only because we have read about his mighty deeds centuries ago, but because we have experienced them for ourselves.

It is now up to us who have experienced the Father's love and mercy to bring them into the world. We have been chosen by the Father to make sure that his promises are kept. It is up to us now to show that God cares for the poor by sharing our food with them. It is up to us to show that God cares for captives by visiting them in prison. It is up to us now to show that God has not forgotten the sick by visiting them in the hospital or in their homes. Saint Theresa wrote that God has no hands now but ours and no feet but ours. Saint Paul makes much the same point in today's second reading when he tells us that we are the Body of Christ bringing not only the good news of the Kingdom of God but the works of Jesus into the lives of those we meet. 

God is using us now to fulfill the promise of salvation he has extended to all people of every generation. It is up to us by the power of his Spirit to make sure that that promise is not an empty one. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

God's Love Affair

God is love.

Throughout history, God has tried to show that He is not just some distant being who lived beyond the clouds but a personal God, a Heavenly Father, who knows us intimately and loves us affectionately.

This love affair of God with the world began with the people of Israel. He chose them among all the nations on earth to be a people all His own. He freed them from slavery in Egypt to show them His power. He gave them His law to show them His wisdom. And, throughout their history, He provided for them. God’s dream was that, through the people of Israel, the whole world would realize that He is a God of love and would come to love Him in return.

To show how deep His passion for us really is, God chose to speak of it in terms of a marriage. There is no higher human expression of love than the faithful commitment of a man and a woman in matrimony. Therefore, God uses the image of marriage to describe His relationship with the people of Israel.

We hear this in today’s first reading from the prophet Isaiah. Israel was undergoing a severe trial. The nation had been devastated by invasions and exile. As is so often the case when disaster strikes, they felt abandoned by God. However, through Isaiah, God communicates to His people that He has not left them and that His love for them is stronger than ever. He promises to save them saying, “As a young man marries a virgin, your Builder shall marry you; and as a bridegroom rejoices in His bride so shall your God rejoice in you.”

This love affair does not end with the people of Israel. Rather it finds its highest expression in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the Son of God who is sent to the world to save us. As Saint John tells us in one of the Bible’s most memorable verses, “God so loved the world that He sent His Son not to condemn the world but to save it.” Jesus came to consummate God’s marriage to His people. What is promised in the Old Testament is fulfilled in the New Testament through the Son of God.

That is why Jesus’ first miracle takes place at a wedding. The miracle at Cana not only reveals His power over nature but echoes God’s desire to enter into a marriage covenant with all His people.

It is also no mistake that Mary is there as well. The whole story takes us back to the first wedding, that of Adam and Eve. Jesus is the new Adam and Mary, the new Eve. Whereas Eve tempts Adam to sin, Mary encourages Jesus to perform a miracle. Whereas the first Eve invited Adam to disobey God, Mary invites the waiters - and us - to obey Jesus telling them, “Do whatever He tells you.” Whereas the first human marriage brought forth sin and suffering into the world, this new marriage of God with His people would bring salvation and healing.

This also explains why Jesus calls Mary, “Woman”. It sounds disrespectful and can make us wonder why Jesus would have spoken so harshly to His Blessed Mother. However, when we understand the connection with marriage, it all makes sense. The first time the word, “woman” appears in the Bible is in the book of Genesis. After Adam and Eve are expelled from the garden of Eden, the Bible tells us that Adam called his wife, “woman”, because she would be the mother of all the living. Therefore Jesus refers to Mary as “woman” because she is the new Eve, the mother of all those who will be saved by Him, the new Adam.

The word, “woman”, also helps us to understand how God would bring about the marriage of God with His people. There is only one other time in Saint John’s gospel that Jesus calls Mary “woman.” It is at the cross when He gives His mother into John’s care saying, “Woman, behold your son.” Again we are taken back to the garden of Eden. Our first sin took place at a tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Now our redemption takes place at another tree, the cross, where Jesus, the new Adam,  is obedient unto death.

On the cross, Jesus consummates the marriage between God and His people. In fact, His last words, “It is finished” are translated in Latin as “Consummatum est” or, “It is consummated.” God show His love for us by sending His only Son to die for our sins. As Jesus will tell His disciples, “Greater love has no man than to give his life for his friends.” If we want to know how much we are loved by God, there is no greater sign than the cross. If we want to know what love means - real, self-sacrificing love - there is no better school than the cross.

What happens after Jesus dies? A Roman soldier takes a spear and thrusts it into His side. Blood and water flow out from the wound. The water represents the waters of baptism and the blood, the blood of the new covenant in the Eucharist. We see here an echo of the miracle of Cana where water was turned to wine. But we also hear an echo of creation. We remember that God took a rib from Adam’s side to create Eve. Well, just as Adam’s bride was created from his side, so God’s new bride, the Church, would be created from Jesus’ pierced side, particularly through the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist.

There are many beautiful images for the Church. Saint Paul calls us the Body of Christ each of us serving as His members. Saint Peter refers to the Church as the temple of Christ built up by living stones. But the most Biblical of images for the Church and the one which is probably closest to the heart of God is the Church as the Bride of Christ. Just as a man is faithful to his wife, so our God is faithful to us. Just as the union between a man and woman is permanent, so God’s love for us can never change. And just as a man and woman become one flesh bringing children into the world, so we become one flesh with Jesus through the sacrament of His Body and Blood which brings new life to all of creation.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

A First In The Life Of Jesus

Firsts are important. A married couple will typically remember the first time they met, their first date and their first Christmas together. A professional athlete will remember his first touchdown or her first goal. Deacons and priests remember their first Masses. These "firsts" are significant events in our lives. They were learning experiences teaching us much about ourselves and our potential. We made choices that would affect the rest of our lives and that would set the direction for our future. Whether it is in our professional life or our personal life, we look back at those "firsts" as pivotal moments.

And so it is natural that Saint John would record for us a first in the life of Jesus - his first miracle at the wedding feast of Cana. Saint John and the other disciples would experience many of Jesus' miracles during the three years they journeyed with him through the towns of Galilee. However they no doubt would look back at this first miracle as a moment when the true person of Jesus and his power became evident to them.

The miracle at the wedding feast of Cana is unique among the others Jesus would perform throughout his ministry. When Jesus worked a wonder, it was typically to heal a blind man or to raise someone from the dead. At Cana, however, something much different is happening. At the beginning, it looks as though he is simply doing a favor for a family friend at his mother's request. But as we reflect upon the events, a deeper meaning begins to reveal itself to us. As it is his first miracle, it sets the tone for the rest of his ministry and gives us insight into who Jesus is and the mission he was sent by the Father to accomplish. 

The first thing we notice about Jesus' miracle is that it takes place during a wedding. Throughout the Old Testament, the prophets used the image of marriage to describe God's relationship with the people of Israel. Through the covenant, God became Israel's husband, and Israel became God's bride. Unlike other nations who saw their gods as tyrants who needed to be appeased, Israel saw their God as a faithful, loving and caring provider. The first reading we heard today from the prophet Isaiah describes in beautiful terms just how tender and loving this relationship of God with his people is: "As a young man marries a virgin, your Builder shall marry you;and as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride so shall your God rejoice in you."

The New Testament will pick up this theme, particularly in the book of Revelation, when it calls the Church, "the Bride of Christ", and describes heaven as a marriage feast between Jesus, the groom, and the Church, his bride. Jesus will also use the image of marriage in many of his parables to describe the Kingdom of God. For both Christians and Jews, the relationship of God with his people is seen in terms of a marriage and heaven as a marriage feast.

So, by choosing to perform his first miracle at a wedding, Jesus was telling us that he had come to consummate this marriage of God with his people. The promise as voiced by Isaiah and so many of the other Old Testament prophets that God would unite himself intimately with his people was being fulfilled in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is the bridegroom who has come to claim his bride, the Church.

The second thing we notice is that Jesus performs the miracle at the request of his mother. It is Mary who notices that the wine is running out and who is concerned that her friends not be embarrassed on the most important day of their lives. It is Mary who talks Jesus into performing this miracle on their behalf. And it is Mary who directs the waiters to follow Jesus' instruction. Just as it is no small thing that Jesus worked his first miracle at a wedding, so it is no small thing that he did so at his mother's request. Jesus listens to his mother. She is a powerful intercessor with her Son. There is no doubt that the disciples would have taken note of this at the time. Though the Bible does not record it for us, there must have been many other times during her life when people approached Mary and asked her to have Jesus come by the house to heal someone who was sick. To this day, many people seek Mary's intercession for their needs before the throne of grace. If we listen to her words, "Do whatever he tells you", we can be sure that she will bring our needs to her Son as well and that he will provide us with whatever we need.

The first miracle at Cana teaches us that Jesus came to unite God and his people in an unbreakable bond of love. Just as Jesus in his first miracle changed water into wine, so at this altar he will turn bread and wine into his body and blood. Every Mass is a marriage feast at which we celebrate the love God showed us by giving his Son over to death for our salvation and raising him from the dead to be our living hope. When the disciples saw the miracle Jesus performed at Cana, they believed in him. Will we believe when we witness the miracle of simple bread and wine becoming the body and blood of our Savior? Can we give ourselves over to him as he has given himself over to us? Can we learn from Mary to do whatever he tells us so that his glory can be revealed in our lives?  

Friday, January 15, 2016

Hi. I'm The Beloved Son. Pleased To Meet You.

We can learn a lot about people by the way they introduce themselves.

After telling us their name, most people will describe what they do for a living or where they work. Younger people might tell us what they want to do when they grow up or what job they are preparing for in college. Because our society places such a high value on productivity and wealth, it is natural that we will identify ourselves with our chosen profession.

Work is important to us. It gives us a sense of accomplishment and meaning. If we make a lot of money or have important positions in our company, it will be a source of pride for us and we will enjoy talking about that with others.

However, if our introduction does not go beyond what we do for a living, chances are that we will never become good friends with the person we are talking to. Most likely, we will have a pleasant conversation and then go our separate ways. We might bump into him or her later on in a store or on the street and say “hello” but it will never go beyond that. They become the kind of people we see from time to time but whose names we can never remember.

Then there are people who introduce themselves and tell us about their relationships. They identify themselves as “Carmen’s son” or “Hughie’s wife”. For them, friendships are important. They connect with the people they meet by finding out what friends or relatives they might have in common. They might say, “You’re from Sussex? Do you know Susan who lives on the main road? I went to school with her.”

Usually these types of introductions lead to conversations which are more meaningful. When we focus on relationships, we tend to share more of ourselves with the people we meet. We gain a deeper insight into the person we are speaking with and feel a deeper connection with them. These conversations lead to more lasting friendships. Rather than share information about one another, we are revealing our values and feelings. Because we feel an instant bond, we make a point of seeing them again. Introductions that begin with our relationships rather than with our employment lead to richer exchanges and deeper connections.

In today’s gospel, God introduces Jesus to us and what He says tells us a lot about who Jesus is. Saint Luke tells us that while Jesus is praying after His baptism, the skies opened and God’s voice thundered from heaven. What does God say about Jesus? He does not introduce Him to us as a carpenter. He does not tell us what His specialty was or what projects He might have worked on. He does not tell us where He went to school or what subject He majored in. He does not even tell us that He is from Nazareth in Galilee. Rather, He introduces Jesus as His Son: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

Jesus based His identity on His relationship with the Heavenly Father. If we were to meet Jesus, He would introduce Himself to us as the Son of God. His one mission in life was to make known to us the love of His Father in heaven. For this reason, He went through all the land proclaiming the Kingdom of God, calling sinners to follow Him and healing the sick. Because He had total trust in His Father’s love, He was able to say “Not my will but yours be done” and hand Himself over to death for our salvation. Jesus did not want to be known simply as a great man, a spiritual leader or even the Messiah.  Rather, He wants to be known as the Son of a good and loving God and He wants us to know this great God as well.

Introducing Jesus as His beloved Son tells us that God is not interested in impressing us with his resume but in being friends with us. God wants a relationships with us. He wants to enter into a conversation with us that is less about what we are doing and more about what type of people we are becoming. He wants us to realize that each one of us is known and loved by Him and that He wants us to know and love Him in return.

God revealed Jesus to the world as His Beloved Son at His baptism. Just so, at our baptism, each one of us became a daughter and son of God. That is our truest, deepest and most lasting identity. We can lose our jobs. Whatever skills we learned at school can become obsolete. Even our relationships end. However, we can never lose our identity as sons and daughters of God. Even when we have sinned, our Heavenly Father calls us back home and waits for our return just like the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son.

When we identify ourselves as sons and daughters of God above everything else, so much in our lives changes. We come to understand that we are loved unconditionally. Any doubts we might have about our worth or goodness melt away in the warmth of God’s love. We also live with a sense of purpose and meaning. We realize that God has a plan for our lives and that He leads the way before us. Our level of stress and anxiety diminishes as we come to trust that our Heavenly Father will provide for us. Finally, we have hope that no matter what may happen, our Heavenly Father will make all things turn out for our good.

Jesus is God’s Beloved Son. He is the One sent by the Father to reveal His love for us. God introduces Him to us as His Son because, more than anything else, He wants to have a relationship with us. All love affairs begin with a simple introduction and a “hello”. If God seems distant and prayer seems difficult, perhaps the way to start would be to simply welcome your Heavenly Father into your life with a simple “hello”. He is waiting for you and is eager to introduce Himself to you. The process has already begun at your baptism. All that is left now is to open your heart to the One who wants to be known as your Heavenly Father. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Jesus - The Beloved Son

Who is Jesus?

It is a question people asked throughout His life as they witnessed Him preach, heal the sick and work other wonders. It is a question people have asked through the centuries as they studied the gospels and tried to pattern their lives on His example of self-giving love. Today, it is a question we must ask, especially during this Year of Faith, if we are to follow Him more closely and pass on the good news of salvation to the next generation of believers.

Who is Jesus Christ?

Today’s feast of the Baptism of the Lord and, in particular, the beautiful reading from the gospel of Saint Luke teach us that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God and the Word of God.

First, Jesus is the Messiah. The words “Messiah” and “Christ” both mean “Anointed One”. Throughout their history, the people of Israel longed for their Messiah. He would be the one anointed by God to lead them to freedom. This anointing meant that the Messiah would save them not by His own power, but by the power of God.

In today’s gospel, we read that the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus in the form of a dove. Before all those who were gathered at the banks of the Jordan River, the Heavenly Father was anointing Jesus with His power to be able to preach His word, to give sight to the blind, to open the ears of the deaf, and to bring freedom to captives. Jesus received His anointing by the Holy Spirit to make it clear to all those who witnessed it - and to us today - that He is the Messiah.

What does that mean for us today? It means that we have no other Saviour than Jesus Christ. If we are to find true and lasting freedom, it is only through Him. If we as a nation are to experience true and lasting justice and peace it can only be through Jesus Christ. As Saint Peter declares on Pentecost Day in the Acts of the Apostles, “No other name is given to us in heaven or on earth by which we are to be saved.” This means that in everything we do, whether as individuals, as a Church or as a nation, we must look to Jesus if we are to find the justice, truth, freedom and peace our hearts yearn for.

Secondly, Jesus is the Son of God. After the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus, God’s voice from heaven is heard, “You are my beloved Son.”

When we call Jesus, “Son of God”, we are not saying that He is like God, or that He is very close to God. Rather, we are saying that Jesus IS God. As we say in the Creed, He is God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God. Whatever we can say about God, we can say about Jesus. He is eternal; that is, He has always existed from all eternity. He is All-Powerful. There is nothing He cannot do. And He is All-Knowing. He knows the future and knows our hearts. There is no limit to His power.

For this reason, we do not only revere Jesus as a great man but we worship Him as our God. We bow our heads when we hear His name. We get down on our knees when He appears before us in His sacramental presence in the Eucharist. We pray to Him, entrust our needs to Him and praise Him.

Finally, Jesus is the Word of God. Though Saint Luke does not include this in his version of Jesus’ baptism, we know that after God proclaims Jesus to be His beloved Son, He tells us “Listen to Him”. The Heavenly Father sent His Son to earth and anointed Him with the Holy Spirit to teach us the will of God. He came to teach us how we are to live so as to please God in this life and to spend eternity with Him in Heaven. Because Jesus is the Son of God, whoever hears Jesus hears God Himself. So we can say that everything Jesus said, God said.

In Jesus, God has revealed to us everything we need to be saved. Though Jesus has risen from the dead and ascended into heaven, we can still hear His voice through the Bible. By reading the Bible, we hear God speaking to us. Also, we continue to hear Jesus speak to us through the Church. Jesus told the apostles that, “Whoever hears you, hears me.” and “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Jesus left us the Church so that we could continue to hear His voice through the centuries. The Church helps us to understand what God wants of us especially in the instances when the Bible is silent as is the case with abortion and nuclear war. Jesus made it very clear that when we are obedient to the Church we are being obedient to Him and when we are being disobedient to the Church we are being disobedient to Him.

Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Son of God and the Word of God. We look to Him to save us, we worship Him as Almighty God and we listen to Him as the Word Made Flesh. Just as John the Baptist pointed to Him, so we are to always point Him out to others as the only Saviour of the World. Just as John the Baptist lead others to Him, we are to lead our family and friends to recognize Him as the Messiah our hearts long for. Just as God from heaven declared that He is the beloved Son, so we are to declare to others that Jesus is the God we should follow and obey.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Baptism Of The Lord

Chances are that for most of us Christmas is already a distant memory. We have already taken down the lights from our windows and put away the Christmas tree and its ornaments. We have packed up the manger scene and stored it away for another year. Our children have returned to school and are already tired of playing with the toys they received. Christmas has passed, and we are dealing with the challenges and opportunities a new year brings.

As a Church, however, the birth of our Savior is still fresh on our minds. We continue to celebrate the marvel of God made man and to unpack its meaning for our lives. On the Sunday after Christmas, we celebrated the feast of the Holy Family commemorating the love with which Mary and Joseph cared for Jesus, and we committed ourselves to following their example in our own families. On New Year's Day, seven days after Christmas, we honored Mary under her title as "Mother of God", celebrating God's choice of her as the immaculate mother of our Savior and recognizing that, through faith, she is our mother as well. Last Sunday, we celebrated the Epiphany of the Lord when a star led the Magi from the east to the child Jesus. We learned that Jesus was born not only to be the King of the Jews, but that all people were to be saved through him.

Today we end our celebration of Christmas by remembering the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan River. It marks the end of his hidden years as a carpenter in Nazareth and the beginning of his ministry preaching the good news, healing the sick and gathering around himself disciples and apostles who would be the foundation of the Church. This feast day helps unfold for us more of the mystery of who Jesus is and what his mission was. As Luke tells us, when Jesus was baptized heaven opened up, the Holy Spirit came down upon Him and a voice booming from above declared that he is the Son of God, and that the Father is pleased with him. We can only imagine what the scene was like for those fortunate enough to have witnessed it. God was pointing out to all those who would hear that the Messiah they had been waiting for was now in their midst and that the Holy Spirit was with him to lead all those who would follow him into freedom.

Though the scene is majestic, there is another dimension to this baptism story. Anyone who would have been listening carefully to God's voice from heaven would have heard in his words an echo of the ancient prophecies of Isaiah, in particular, several oracles called the "Servant Songs." One of these prophecies serves as our first reading today. Through the prophet Isaiah God gives a description of the Messiah as one with whom he is pleased and as the one upon whom he has placed his Spirit. This matches exactly the words which are spoken from heaven at Jesus' baptism. And so, God is pointing out to the people that Jesus is the servant whom Isaiah had foretold many centuries earlier.  In another of the servant songs, however, Isaiah prophesies that it would be through his suffering that this servant would bring about the salvation promised by God. We read these prophecies every year during Holy Week. The Messiah is described as a suffering servant who takes on the sins of the people, who is rejected and persecuted. As Isaiah puts it, "By his stripes, we are healed."

Through these words, a little bit more of the mystery of Jesus is revealed. Despite the power of the Holy Spirit which rests upon him, despite the good works he performed among the people and despite the beauty of his message of forgiveness and love, this Savior was destined to be rejected and to suffer a horrible death for our sake.

But Jesus' death is not the end of the story. We gather here two thousand years later because that same Spirit which alighted on Jesus at his baptism raised him from the dead. That same Holy Spirit came upon the apostles and Mary empowering them to pick up where Jesus left off and spread the good news throughout all the nations of the earth. We ourselves are the recipients of the promise made by John the Baptist when he said One was coming who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. Each of us has received that baptism of fire through our own baptism and again in our confirmation. The same Holy Spirit who came down upon Jesus was given to us. We were granted the forgiveness of our sins and the promise that the One who raised the body of Jesus would raise us up to everlasting life. Finally, the same Spirit who ignited a fire in the apostles empowering them to spread the good news of Jesus even in the face of persecution and death has been given to us so that we can live and spread his word not with our puny efforts but with the very power of God. All this is given to us who have believed in the name of Jesus and have been baptized in his Spirit. It is a Spirit that leads us out of fear and slavery to sin into freedom.

And so today we wrap up our celebration of Jesus' birth for another year. However, we commit ourselves once again to keeping the spirit of Christmas alive all year long. We do not do that, however, by keeping our Christmas tree up or singing carols. We do that by living our baptism in the power of the Spirit we have received. We do that by calling others to recognize and accept the gift of salvation offered them in the person of Jesus. We do that by striving to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah to bring freedom to captives , sight to the blind and food to the hungry. We do that by every day giving our lives over to Jesus, our Messiah, and by asking him to work wonders in our lives and in our world.

Friday, January 8, 2016

By The Light Of That Same Star


No manger scene would be complete without the statues of the three kings from the East. Though the Bible does not tell us where they came from or what race they were, we typically portray them as a white, a black and an Asian man. They are meant to represent all the nations and peoples of the world coming forward to worship the newborn King of the Jews who is destined to be the Savior of the World. They represent the plan of God to bring about peace by uniting women and men of every language and race through faith in Jesus Christ. The Magi are the first outside of Israel to be drawn to Christ and to bow down in homage to him who came to save all peoples.

Who were these men and how was it that they came to find Jesus in so obscure a place as a stable in Bethlehem? Scholars tell us that they were most likely from Persia, which is modern-day Iran. They were experts at studying the stars to predict the future and at interpreting dreams. According to their religion, God was a God of light, and they believed they could know him and discern his will by studying the light of the stars. The Scriptures tell us, furthermore, that they were good and sincere men who sought the truth. It was because of their love for the truth that they left their native land and the practice of their religion to follow the star which announced the birth of Jesus. They undertook the dangerous journey through the desert at great personal cost to witness with their own eyes the birth of the King of the Jews and to worship him. Though they were pagans, ignorant of the Scriptures and the God of Israel, their goodness and sincerity was noticed by God, and they were given the great grace of being among the first to see Jesus and believe in him.

In today's gospel reading, however, we meet another man who is not as good and sincere as the Magi. He is King Herod. Like the Magi, he was born a pagan in a land called Idumea. However, he converted to Judaism once he was installed as king of Israel by Caesar. Unlike the other kings of Israel - and unlike Jesus - he was not a descendant of the royal line of David. Therefore, he was an impostor, a puppet of the Roman Empire. Because of this he brutally suppressed and killed anyone whom he perceived to be a threat to his authority. In fact, it was even said that he murdered his own sons. And so, when he learns from the Magi that the real king of the Jews had been born, he is determined to find him and kill him. Herod was following a different star than the one the Magi followed. The Magi were following the star of truth and goodness which led them to Jesus. Herod was following the star of ambition and power which would eventually lead to his destruction. 

Like the Magi, each of us is following a star. There is something that each of us is after that motivates us and focuses our attention and energy. It could be financial security. It could be power and prestige. It could be the well-being of our family and friends. Whatever it is, we must ask ourselves, "Is this star leading me to Jesus?" Is it making me grow in faith, hope and love? Am I a becoming a more generous person because of the goals I have set for my life? Or is the light that I am following actually leading me into darkness, making me more selfish and putting distance between me and my family? Is it making me less attentive to the needs of others? The beginning of a new year is a good time to examine our conscience and to take an honest look at what stars we are following and where they are leading us. There is one thing we can know for certain: if our star is not leading us to Jesus, then it is leading us astray. 

Another important question to ask ourselves is, "Are we stars to others?" Does the way we live our lives lead others to Christ or lead them astray? Are we examples for our family and friends of what it means to know, love and serve God? If people were to follow us, where would we lead them - to Christ or somewhere else? No doubt each of us has someone in our lives who looks up to us for guidance. Are we a light of truth and goodness to those people or are we leading them further into darkness?  

The light of the star which led the Magi to Jesus no longer shines in the night sky. We are the light which announces to the world that Jesus is the Savior of the World. We are the ones who must lead others to the place where he may be found. It is up to us now to repeat the glad tidings that God has come to save us. We are to bring that message to all people - the poor and the rich; the lowly and the mighty; the ignorant and the wise. God wants to gather all people together to bring homage to the newborn King, the Savior of the World, the Messiah. Will we follow the light which leads us not only to Bethlehem but to Calvary? And will we be a light for others along the way? If we heed God's call, we can be assured that the result will be a harvest of peace and justice for all the peoples of the world.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Message Goes Out To All The World

Jesus was Jewish. His mother, Mary, and Joseph were Jewish. Like the Jews of their day, they observed all the commandments of the Old Testament and worshiped in the Temple. In today’s gospel, the magi call Jesus, “The King of the Jews”, and the New Testament affirms that He is the Messiah the Jewish people had long awaited. When Jesus began preaching, all His followers were Jewish including the apostles.

Why, then, are we Christians and not Jews?

This is a good question that young people in particular often ask. Though it would take more than an eight minute sermon to answer it fully, we can discuss it as it relates to the feast we are celebrating today - the Epiphany of the Lord.

The simple answer as to why we are Christians rather than Jews is that we believe in Jesus. Christianity revolves around the person of Jesus Christ. All the rules, practices and teachings that we as Catholics observe center on coming to know, love and serve Him better. Therefore, we are Christians because we believe that Jesus Christ is more than a prophet or wise teacher. We believe that He is God and, most importantly, that we can have a relationship with Him.

The Jews have always been God’s chosen people. From all the nations on the earth, He selected them to be the people who would experience His special care and love. To them alone, He revealed His commandments and worked miracles to bring them to the Promised Land. Why did He do that? So that the other nations would see how good and wise the people of Israel were and come to believe in the one, true God. Our Heavenly Father’s dream was to make Israel a model of his power and love so that other nations would abandon their pagan idols and be drawn into His loving embrace. Through the prophet Isaiah God says in today’s first reading: “Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance.”

In particular, God promised to send a Messiah to the people of Israel. He would be a just king and ruler whose kingdom would never end. Not only would he rule over Israel, but his dominion would extend over the whole world as we hear proclaimed in today’s responsorial psalm: “May he rule from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” Through the Messiah, God’s dream to unite all peoples and nations into one kingdom of peace and justice would be fulfilled.

As Christians, we believe that Jesus Christ is this Messiah. He is the one whom all the prophets of the Old Testament foretold as we read in today’s gospel: “And you, Bethlehem,...from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.” He is the King of the Jews whose birth was heralded by the star. At the same time, He is born to rule over all peoples - Jews and non-Jews alike as Saint Paul teaches us in today’s second reading: “...the Gentiles (that is, non-Jews) are the promise in Christ Jesus…” Jesus is the Messiah who unites people of every race, nation, language and way of life into the one Kingdom of God.

The word “epiphany” means “revelation”. On this feast of the Epiphany of the Lord, we celebrate the revelation of Jesus as Messiah not only for the people of Israel but for all the nations. The Magi, or “Wise Men” are not Jews. Because they do not have the Bible to guide them, they relied on the stars to try to understand God’s will. Nonetheless, they receive the news of Jesus’ birth with great joy. Upon seeing Him, they fall down in worship and offer Him gifts. They recognize that He is the King not only for the Jews but for them as well. And we can believe that when they left Bethlehem they stopped looking for guidance from stars and began to look to Jesus instead for true wisdom and knowledge.

We rejoice today because God offers to us non-Jews all the blessings He first gave to His chosen people. In a real sense, through Jesus, we are made citizens of the new Israel, with all the rights and privileges that go with it. Now, the question is, will we make use of all those rights and privileges? Will we accept Jesus as our Lord and Messiah? Will we live by the light He offers us or will we prefer the dim light of other stars? Will we follow Jesus or choose other masters? The Magi risked everything to follow the star to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem to see for themselves the newborn King of the Jews. Are we willing to leave our comfort zone, to change our attitudes and risk everything to let Jesus rule over our lives?

The word “catholic” means “universal”. We are Catholics because we believe that Jesus’ Kingdom is universal, embracing all people. There is no person no matter what his or her race, religion or language whom God does not love and want to save. It is up to us, now, to take up Israel’s mission of being a light to the nations. We are to live in such a way that others notice our goodness and ask about the God we worship. God’s dream now is to make each of us stars leading others to Jesus so that His Kingdom can conquer the world one heart at a time and so that everyone can come to know the peace that only Jesus, the King of the Jews and Savior of the World, can give.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

We Saw His Star

Before there were global positioning satellites, people had only the stars to guide them to their destinations. Especially through deserts with no landmarks, they learned to rely on the position of the heavenly lights to lead them.

The magi in today’s gospel were men who dedicated their lives to studying the stars. They hoped that by understanding the sky and the movement of the heavenly bodies they would be able to know what the future would hold.

We do not know what discoveries they may have made or if they were able to really predict the future through their science. However, we do know about that their most important discovery - the star announcing the birth of the Christ child.

These brilliant men could have been satisfied with their discovery. They could have congratulated each other for finding the star and then gone on to explore other parts of the sky. However, there was a deeper hunger rumbling within them than the hunger for knowledge. They wanted to not only announce the birth of this child. They wanted to meet Him. They wanted to see Him for themselves. They wanted to bring Him gifts. They desired not only to know about Him but to know Him personally and intimately. It was for this reason that they made the costly and dangerous decision to follow the star.

In today’s world we do not need to follow stars to know where we are going or look up into the sky to tell what the weather will be like. We have maps, GPS’s, cellphones and weather stations to help us. But is it not true that with all our technology, we are more lost than ever? Everything is possible for us, but we do not know what we should do or where we should go? We have so many choices we can make but no idea what or how we should choose. We can feel paralyzed by all the information that is at our fingertips.

Though technology has changed throughout the years, though science offers different explanations for the phenomena we experience, the destination that all of us are called to remains the same. We are called to seek out Jesus. He is the hunger that drove the wise men to leave their comfortable palaces, journey across the desert and go to the humble city of Bethlehem. He is the reason so many people have dedicated their lives to serving others. He is the reason so many people through the centuries have faced death to preach the good news. Jesus is the desire of every human heart. Nothing that this world offers can satisfy the craving within us for His love. Until we understand that each of us is called to seek Him out, then we will wander around lost.

We seek Jesus. However, unlike the wise men who had to travel many miles to find Him, we have Him close at hand. All we need to do is sit silently and ask Him to come into our lives. By reading the Bible for a few minutes every day, we can hear Him speaking to us. Every Sunday - indeed every day - we can receive His Body and Blood so that His very life can flow through us. And we can find Him in the poor and needy whenever we relieve their hunger or comfort them in their sorrow. All these are the stars in today’s world leading us to the Christ child. We do not have to wander about lost in this chaotic world. The Light of the World, Jesus Christ, can be found anywhere and everywhere if we open our eyes in faith to the signs of His presence.

Today’s beautiful feast also teaches us that everyone is meant to have a relationship with Jesus. If you were created by God, then you are called by Him to know, love and serve Jesus. Jesus died to save all people, without distinction. And so, our Heavenly Father wants all people no matter their religion, their race, their education or their social status to know His love made visible in the person of Jesus Christ.

That is where we come in. We who have accepted Jesus into our hearts must now witness to others about His saving power. We must be the star leading others to Jesus. It might not always be by our eloquent words. Perhaps it will be more by our example. Whatever the case may be, we must never fail to give witness to God’s love. There are too many people lost in today’s world for us to keep our faith to ourselves. Just as we would give food to a starving person, we must give our witness of faith to those whose souls are famished for God. We may be the only means that someone has of hearing the good news. How could we refuse to let our light shine with the love and joy of God’s Spirit?

In today’s world, when we look up at the night sky, we often cannot see the stars because of all the artificial light coming from our homes and businesses. Just so, often the good news of Jesus’ love can be drowned out by all the noise in our lives. We can be so blinded by the bright lights of the world that we lose sight of the true Light that enlightens all men and women - Jesus Christ. By seeking Him out daily and striving to know Him, we can ensure that we will not wander about lost. By witnessing to Him to others, we can be assured that when He comes again in glory, we will stand with Him in the Father’s presence forever praising the goodness of our God.