Sunday, February 28, 2016

Who's To Blame?

Does God punish us? Is every bad thing that happens to us retribution for a sin we may have committed? Was the earthquake in Haiti punishment for the practice of voodoo? Did the people who died on 9/11 deserve to because of the injustices the American government has perpetrated? Is every natural disaster and every act of war a direct punishment from God on those who suffer from them?

We might not admit to such sentiments out loud in polite company, but very often we think that way. How many times have we said to ourselves, "good enough", when something unfortunate has happened to someone who has hurt or offended us? And how many times when we have been the victims of violence or misfortune have we wondered what we have done wrong to deserve the hardships we are experiencing.

It is called "blaming the victim." It is a mentality that tries to make sense out of natural disasters or random acts of violence by claiming that those who suffered them somehow deserved it. When we allow ourselves to think that way we are claiming that every misfortune is an act of God's wrath bringing down punishment on evildoers. Such thinking is sinful because it blasphemes God who is merciful, good and all-loving. It also is a sin against charity because we are failing to show compassion to those who are suffering. Finally, it is a sin against justice because it takes the blame away from those who really deserve it.
Jesus never accepted the idea that his Father was a vengeful, punishing God. He rejected the notion that poverty and sickness were signs that a person had sinned. Instead, he touched the leper, healed the blind and brought strength back to the legs of the lame. He came to reveal to us that God does not desire to punish us, but to heal and save us. For this reason, he never treated the sick and the poor as sinners. In fact, he said that the poor, the hungry and those who mourned were blessed in the eyes of his Heavenly Father because it was to just such as these that the Kingdom of God would be given. What's more, he assured us that each of us would be judged by the way we treated those who are less fortunate than ourselves.

In today's gospel reading, Jesus is speaking with his disciples about some tragic events. Some of his own countrymen - fellow Galileans - had been sentenced to death and their blood was then used in a sacrifice to a pagan god. And in Siloam in the city of Jerusalem, eighteen men - all of them sons, husbands and fathers - had been killed when a tower crumbled down on top of them. Jesus asks his disciples whether they deserved such horrible deaths. Were there not worse sinners in Galilee and Jerusalem? Jesus refutes the idea that their tragic deaths were direct punishments from God. But he leaves his disciples - and us - with a stern warning. If we do not reform - if we are not converted from our sinful ways - a far worse punishment awaits us.

What can Jesus be talking about? If God is not going to punish us in this life for our sins, then who else has the power to do so? 

Very simply, Jesus is warning us that sin is its own punishment. By its very nature, sin damages us. It separates us from our Heavenly Father who is our supreme good and the source of our joy. It makes our hearts grow cold and blinds us to the needs of those around us. Sin damages our relationships, our friendships, our marriages and our families. When we make bad choices, we put ourselves in danger of suffering a tragedy which no natural disaster and no act of violence can match - that of eternal separation from God.

Any of us who have turned away from a life of sin know how true Jesus' words are. Many of us wasted years of our lives believing that the only way to happiness was by filling ourselves with the pleasures that this world offers. We compromised our integrity, traded away our self-respect and trampled over the feelings of others thinking it would bring us success and contentment. All it left us with was regrets, emptiness and bitterness. It was not God who had abandoned us, but we who had abandoned God. Finding ourselves so far from him and his love, we wondered if we could ever find our way back. But God is merciful. He helped us to realize that there is nothing we have done that cannot be undone. There is no sin that cannot be forgiven and no wound that he could not heal. His desire was not to punish us, but to have us turn back to him and find joy and peace once again through a personal relationship with him in his Church.

We are midway through our Lenten journey to Easter. We are called by God during these days to turn away from sin and believe in the good news. The good news is that we do not find in Jesus a God who seeks to punish us, but one who was willing to die - to take on the punishment we deserve - so that we could live. Today is a day of decision. Will we look to the world and the gratifications it promises or will we believe God's promise that he is our only and supreme good? Will we live only for ourselves or will we give ourselves in service to the poor, the hungry and the sick? Our merciful God is willing to wait for our answer, but not forever. Let us make the decision today to follow him with our whole hearts. Only then can we begin to experience the joy and peace that he alone can give.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Cutting A Covenant

There is one concept that is the key to understanding the whole Bible. It unlocks the meaning behind all the events from the creation of the world, through the liberation from slavery in Egypt, through the establishment of the Promised Land up to the birth of Jesus. It also is central to our understanding of who we are as a Christian people redeemed in the blood of Christ.

This key concept is “covenant”.

The word, “covenant”, literally means a “treaty” or “alliance”. In the Old Testament world, it had a much deeper meaning than we would give it today. In the ancient Near East, entering into a covenant meant taking two peoples, unrelated by blood, and making them into a family. A covenant created family ties where there previously were none.

What would typically happen is that the king of a small, weak nation would ask the king of a larger, wealthier nation to enter into a covenant. The stronger king would pledge to protect the weaker king as if he were family, the way he would come to the help of a brother, a sister or a cousin. The weaker king would then have to pledge to pay some kind of tribute to the stronger king whether it be camels, horses or gold. This new family relationship would be sealed by a covenant.

In the Old Testament, we see that God understands His relationship to His People in this way. He is the mighty King who choses a weak, enslaved people and brings them into a land flowing with milk and honey. He promises to protect them if they will follow His commandments. They will be a people all His own. Through the covenant, He will create a family tie with Israel. He will be their Father and they will be His sons and daughters.

Today’s first reading recounts for us the covenant that God makes with Abram. For us hearing it in the twenty-first century, it seems strange. But when we understand the concept of covenant, the deeper meaning becomes clearer to us.

God tells Abram to take several animals, to cut them in half and to place the pieces across from each other making a corridor. This was part of the covenant ritual. Traditionally, the people making the covenant would cut animals in half, walk between them and pledge, “If I ever break this covenant, may I also be ripped into pieces.” This was a way of letting each side know how seriously they were taking the promises they were making. By God passing through those animals, He was telling Abram how seriously He was taking the promise that He made to Him to bring him into the promised land and make of him a great nation.

Throughout the Old Testament, God kept His promises to His People. However, time and again, they broke His covenant by worshipping idols and breaking His commandments. Like a good Father, God remained patient with His people promising them that He would make a new covenant with them, a covenant not made in the blood of bulls or goats and not written on tablets of stone, but a covenant that would last forever and would be written on our hearts.

Jesus came to fulfill that promise of a new covenant. It is interesting that, although the concept of covenant figures so greatly in the Old Testament, there is only one time that Jesus uses the word. It is at the Last Supper when He offers the cup of wine saying, “This is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new covenant.” Therefore, this new relationship that God plans to make with His people - with us - is not made through the blood of animals but through the blood of His Son.

Through the blood of Jesus, then, God establishes a new covenant with us. He makes us into His sons and daughters. He calls us to enter into a loving, personal relationship with Him and with all those who also call Him, “Father.” Because He is our Father, we also have a share in His inheritance which is everlasting life. That is why Saint Paul tells us in today’s second reading, “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”

We celebrate and renew that new covenant relationship with God every time we gather at Mass. The Body and Blood of Jesus is the offering that seals this family relationship with God. By His eternal sacrifice, we are cleansed of our sins and strengthened to keep His commandments, to live in the freedom of the sons and daughters of God. Every time we gather here we proclaim to the world that we are God’s chosen people, that He loves us and that we will live according to His word. We also proclaim that we look forward to His coming again in glory to raise us up with Him as Saint Paul teaches us in today’s second reading: “He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body by the power that enables him also to bring all things into subjection to himself.”

God wants a personal relationship with each one of us. He has gone to great lengths to make it possible, even giving His beloved Son over to death. Will you not now say “yes” to Him? Will you not now embrace the friendship He offers us sealed in the blood of His Son? Will you not now listen to His Son as He has commanded us, bringing your life into line with all He teaches us through His Church? Will you give not only your time but also your heart to our Heavenly Father? If you do, you can be assured that He, as a faithful and good Father, will keep His end of the bargain and shower you with graces and blessings beyond what you could ever hope for or imagine.

Monday, February 22, 2016


Wherever Jesus went, a crowd always followed him. People sought Jesus out for many different reasons. Some were ill and in desperate need of healing. Some were curious and wanted to see for themselves the wonder-worker from Nazareth. Still others wanted to find some reason to discredit him and write him off as a false prophet. Whatever the reason for his popularity, one thing is clear - Jesus had a powerful attraction on the people he came in contact with.

At the same time, there were only a few who really knew him. Only a select group shared a personal friendship with Jesus. They were the ones who were not only curious about his message but willing to live out his teaching. They were the ones who were not only interested in witnessing his miracles but who understood those mighty works to be a sign that Jesus was sent by God. They were the ones who were willing to stay behind after the crowds had dispersed. They were the ones willing to follow Jesus to his death in Jerusalem. Because of their faith, Jesus chose them to be the ones who would see him in all his glory both during his earthly life and after his resurrection.

These disciples teach us a very important lesson about what it means to believe in Jesus. Unless we are willing to leave everything behind, we will never understand who Jesus really is. Jesus may be for us a teacher, a good man or an inspirational leader, but we will never know him as our Lord and God unless we give him the number one spot in our lives and our hearts. That is why so many people in Jesus' day even though they heard his words and witnessed his miracles failed to recognize who he was and believe in him. They saw, but they did not understand. They heard, but they did not believe because they were unwilling to change their lives and their way of thinking to make room for the Messiah, the Son of God. Faith makes all the difference between missing out on God's offer of salvation or enjoying a deepening friendship with Jesus Christ.

The first reading from the book of Genesis tells the story of one of the Old Testament's greatest men of faith, Abraham. When God speaks to Abraham, he is a very old man. Yet God promises that he will be the father of a great number of people, more numerous than the stars of the sky. Though it sounded impossible, Abraham put his faith in God's word. He was willing to leave his homeland and travel far away with only God's promise as his guaranty of safety and happiness. Because Abraham believed and was willing to abandon everything, he witnessed God work in powerful ways throughout his life. Without faith, Abraham would have been an old man who would have died in his homeland with no sons to continue his name. But with faith, Abraham became the father of the Jewish faith, and Christians along with Muslims consider him to be their father in faith as well. Faith made all the difference in the life of Abraham.

The gospel reading from Saint Luke is that of the transfiguration of the Jesus. Though the gospel tells us that Jesus' appearance changed, that is not exactly the case. What really happened was that Peter, James and John were witnessing the glory that Jesus already had as Son of God but that was hidden by his human nature. They were given the opportunity to see Jesus in all his glory because they already believed that he was the Son of God. What was normally hidden to their physical vision became visible because of their faith. As with Abraham, because of their faith and their willingness to leave everything behind, the glory of God revealed itself to them.

Over two thousand years since his birth, Jesus still manages to draw a crowd. Historians, sociologists and even atheists continue to be fascinated by the person of Jesus of Nazareth. They pour over the Scriptures in an attempt to understand him better. Sadly, like the religious leaders of Jesus' day, many of them do so to discredit him and his teaching. However, no matter how they scrutinize the New Testament, the real Jesus in all his truth and glory eludes them because they fail to approach him with faith. They read the same words we do and the same stories we do but it fails to convince them because they are not willing to change to live up to the gospel message.

During this season of Lent, we have all committed ourselves to growing deeper in our knowledge of Jesus. If Jesus seems distant to us, if the radiance of his glory seems outside our vision, perhaps we should ask ourselves if there is some activity or bad habit in our life which is not in keeping with his teaching. Is there something in our lives which we need to abandon so that we can follow Jesus more closely? Or is there a teaching of Jesus and his Church which we find difficult to accept and which is keeping us from giving our hearts over more fully to God? If so, now is the time to offer up to God all our shortcomings and sins. Now is the time to profess our faith in the love God has for us and to turn ourselves over to his unfailing mercy. Once we do so, our faith will deepen, and the glory of God's Son will manifest itself in our lives in unmistakable ways.

Each of us has been drawn here today by the person of Jesus Christ. We have placed our faith in him not only by our words but by our actions. Because of our faith, we will witness a great miracle. Jesus will make himself present to us in the form of bread and wine. Just as he appeared in all his glory to Peter, James and John in his transfiguration, he appears now to us. The glory of this sacrament is hidden to all except those who look upon the bread and the wine with faith. Seeing, then, let us believe. Hearing, let us proclaim his marvelous deeds. And receiving him, let us bring the message of his glory to all those we meet.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Question On Everyone's Mind

Are you saved? How do you know that you are saved?

These are questions that other Christians often ask of Catholics. Many of us have probably had these questions directed at us at one time or another by non-Catholic friends or acquaintances.

How should we answer them?

Our second reading from Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans gives us one answer: “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Throughout his writings, Saint Paul stresses that salvation comes through faith. If we believe, we will be saved. It is as simple as that.

Yet, we know that there is more to the story. If all we needed to do was believe, then there would be no need for the Bible, no need for the sacraments and no need for the other practices we engage in as Christians. If all we needed to do was believe, Saint Paul could have put his pen down after writing these words and there would be no need for the apostles and their followers to compose the rest of the New Testament.

In fact, the Bible teaches us that we are not only saved by faith, but that there are several other components involved.

Saint Paul himself in his letter to the Ephesians affirms: “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God (Eph 2:8-19).” Not only by faith are we saved, then, but by grace. Saint Paul here is emphasizing that our salvation is a free gift from God. There is nothing we can do to earn our Heavenly Father’s love. Like the love of a parent, it is freely given. Just so, our salvation is by grace, that is, it is offered to us free of charge by an all-loving God.

But that is not all that the Bible has to tell us about salvation. It is certainly a free gift which we must accept in faith. However, we must also respond by our actions. It is not enough to believe, we must also act on that faith and change our lives accordingly. Saint James tells us in his letter, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?...So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead (James 2: 14,17).” Jesus Himself tells us in Matthew’s gospel: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven (Mt 7:21).” To make the gift of salvation effective in our lives, we must keep the commandments as Jesus tells the rich young man, “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments (Mt 19: 17b).”

Finally, there is still more that the New Testament has to say about salvation. Salvation is, first and foremost, a result of Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection from the dead. The forgiveness of our sins and the sanctification of our souls are a result of the blood Jesus spilled for us. How does that saving work of Christ become applied to us? Through baptism. Therefore, we are saved not only through faith, not only through grace and not only through good works. We are also saved through baptism as Saint Peter teaches us in his first letter: “And baptism, which [Noah’s flood] prefigured, now saves you.”

What has been the point of this tour through the New Testament teaching on salvation? It is that what we believe as Catholics does not come from one verse of the Bible but from the whole Bible. Each passage of the Scriptures needs to be interpreted in light of the rest of the Scriptures. Also, contrary to what many people try to tell us, the teaching of the Catholic Church is solidly founded on the Bible - not just isolated passages from the Bible, but the whole scriptural teaching.

Therefore, if we read a passage from Scripture which appears to contradict the Church’s teaching, there are several possibilities we should keep in mind.

First of all, it could be that we have misunderstood what the meaning of the passage is. The Bible was written several thousands years ago in a language which we do not understand. It is often the case that we, with our twenty-first century mindset, can be confused by it. It is important, then, for us to find a commentary on Scripture or an educated person who can help us understand the passage better.

Secondly, it could be that we have misunderstood what the Church teaches. It is often the case that what we think is Catholic doctrine regarding Mary, divorce and remarriage or any other issue is simply not true. We have either been taught it incorrectly or have never really understood it in the first place. In this case, we can always turn to the Catechism of the Catholic Church to help clarify our understanding of what it is the Church actually teaches.

Therefore, if someone were to ask us, “Are you saved?”, we can assure them that we are saved not only through faith, but through grace, through good works and through baptism. Jesus, Saint Paul, Saint James and Saint Peter affirm this clearly in the New Testament. However, our salvation is not yet assured because we have to strive everyday to put into action the gifts of grace we receive through faith. That is why we need not only the Scriptures but the sacraments, the works of mercy, the rosary and all the other helps along the way. That is also why it is so important that we study and understand our faith so that when others challenge us about our beliefs we can have an answer for them just as Jesus had a quick response to Satan’s temptations.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Struggle Is Real

This past Wednesday, we began this great season of Lent by smudging black ashes in the form of a cross on our foreheads. It was a sign of our weakness and sin. We have failed to live up to our great calling as children of God. At the same time, it was a sign of hope because the God who created us from the dust of the earth can recreate us through the power of the Holy Spirit. And so, recognizing our weakness, we give ourselves over to God's power. We resolve to turn away from sin, believe in the Good News, take up our cross and follow Jesus.

The first thing each of us has to face when we resolve to live by the light of God's word is the reality of temptation. No matter how earnestly we may want to do God's will, the allure of sin is rooted deeply in our souls. We will always be tempted to yield to the world and its poor substitutes for the love, peace and joy that only God can offer.

So, on this first Sunday of Lent, the Church invites us to reflect on Jesus and the temptations he faced during his forty days in the desert. This season of Lent, in fact, is patterned on the forty days Jesus spent in prayer doing battle with the evil one. This gospel passage is a treasure trove of insight for us as we face our own temptations. Jesus teaches us not only how to recognize when we are being tempted, but also how to overcome the many traps the devil tries to lay for us.

The first lesson that Jesus teaches us is that the devil attacks us when we are at our weakest. Though Jesus was in the desert all of forty days, the devil waited until the end of his fast when he was hungry, tired and light-headed to begin his attack on him. That is because the evil one is a coward. He is not willing to face us when we are at our best. Instead he waits until the end of a long day of work when we are tired. He picks on us when we are feeling down on ourselves. It is precisely at those time that we are tempted to lose our patience, lash out at others or even worse. When we are feeling lonely, tired or angry, we have to be most alert because it is then that the allurement of sin will be most strong. At those times, we must turn to God and ask for his strength to conquer temptation. It helps us to remember that the devil is basically a coward and once we call upon God to come to our assistance, he will flee.

And so, the first lesson Jesus teaches us is that the devil waits until we are weak to attack us.

The second lesson that Jesus teaches us is that temptation is strongest in our lives when we forget who we are. It is interesting that Satan begins every temptation by saying to Jesus, "IF you are the Son of God....". He thinks that he can make Jesus forget who he is and why he was sent by the Father. He tries to do the exact same thing to us. Through our baptism, each of us is a daughter and son of God. What the devil wants is for us to forget the dignity we have as children of God. He wants us to trade it in for the empty promises and fleeting pleasures he offers. He wants to put into our minds the idea that we cannot trust God, that he does not have our best interest in mind or that he has abandoned us. It is at these times when we should call to mind our baptism and the promises our parents made for us which we renew each year at Easter to renounce sin and to live in the freedom of the children of God. Once we imagine the waters of baptism pouring over us to cleanse us from sin and call to mind how Jesus suffered and died for us, we will receive the strength necessary to resist any temptation.

And so, the second lesson Jesus teaches us is that when we remember that we are children of God, the devil keeps his distance from us.

Finally, the third lesson Jesus teaches us is that Scripture gives us the power to rebuff Satan's advances. To every temptation the devil proposed, Jesus was able to produce a quote from the Bible to counter it. If we are to be successful in our struggle with sin, we too must have at the tip of our tongue verses from Scripture to set our minds back on the right track. For instance, many people when they are tempted to despair, call to mind the words of Psalm 23: "The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want." Saint Augustine whenever he was tempted by lust, would quote the following verse from the letter to the Romans: "Put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the desires of the flesh." As part of our daily prayer, we too should spend time memorizing our favorite passages from the Bible so that they come to mind when we are weak. When we have the Word of God planted firmly in our mind and on our heart, the devil will flee from us as swiftly as darkness retreats from the light.

And so, the third lesson Jesus teaches us is that by calling Scripture to mind, we will find the strength to defeat any temptation.

During this life, we will always be beset by temptations. But we are given the power by God to overcome them. If we should fall, we know that we can turn to Jesus and find forgiveness and mercy. We read in the letter to the Hebrews that we have a Savior who is able to sympathize with us because he was tempted in every way we that we are though he never sinned. With confidence, then, we can present ourselves to Christ to receive his Body and Blood knowing that we will receive forgiveness for our sins, strength in exchange for our weakness and hope in place of our fear.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Looking For The First Buds Of Spring

Today begins the great season of Lent, forty days of preparation for the celebration of Jesus' resurrection from the dead. We begin this season by gathering on a Wednesday, interrupting our weekly schedules, to acknowledge before God and one another that we are sinners. Our lives have not reflected the joy and love of the good news of Jesus. And so we resolve throughout these forty days, with the help of God's grace, to pray, to fast and to give to the poor as a sign of our desire to change and as a means of strengthening ourselves against temptation.

The word "Lent" comes from an old English word for "springtime". During these days, the long, cold winter is coming to an end and spring with its promise of warmth and new life bursts forth. We will all go into our yards and gardens during these weeks to clear out any leaves left behind from the Fall and clean up all the damage done by winter's cold weather. In the same way, we must each enter the garden of our hearts to clear away the debris left behind by our sinful choices and clean up the damage done in our soul every time we turned away from our Heavenly Father. We are stepping out of the cold winter of sin and turning our lives over to the warmth and light of a new Spring of grace, love and mercy.

It is not only warmer weather which we think about as Spring approaches. The Spring is also a season we typically associate with love. The warmer weather not only brings forth new life in nature, it also stirs our hearts with the desire to give ourselves to another, to find a companion to share the sunny days with. These forty days of Lent are also a time for us to grow in love with God and with our neighbor. It is a time for us to catch a "Spring fever" for Jesus. And so whatever we choose to give up for Lent, whatever good works we resolve to perform, are only worthwhile if they draw us into a closer, more loving relationship with God. We must change not only our behavior, but our hearts. The prophet Joel tells us in the first reading that we are to "rend our hearts, not our garments, and return to the Lord". These forty days will be a success not if we lose a few pounds but if we gain a new heart. The new life which the Springtime of Lent offers will only be real and lasting in our lives if it makes us more compassionate and more sensitive to the needs of our neighbor.

At this point, we have already decided what we are going to give up for Lent. However we must ask ourselves if there is any way that we can make our sacrifice beneficial for someone in need. Traditionally, Christians have taken the money they saved from their Lenten sacrifice whether it be going without coffee or not going out to eat as often and given it to the poor. Others have resolved to give their free time to volunteer work with the needy. Whatever we choose to do, our Lenten fast will be most pleasing in the eyes of our Heavenly Father if it leads to the hungry being fed, the naked being clothed and the sick being cared for. The best Lenten sacrifices are those which not only deprive us of something we enjoy but which at the same time enrich those who are themselves deprived. And hopefully it will lead us to live a simpler life, consuming less of the world's goods, so that we can have more left over to give to the poor. Then the springtime of God's love and justice will not only arise in our hearts but in our world.

God loves us and offers us his friendship in Jesus. No matter how we may have sinned, he is always ready to welcome us back. The great sign of that mercy is the cross upon which Jesus, his Son, gave his life. We draw that cross in ashes on our foreheads to acknowledge to the world that our hope is in the cross of Christ. And we resolve throughout these forty days to practice prayer, fasting and almsgiving as a way of strengthening ourselves to take up our own cross. We also resolve to show God's mercy to a needy world by helping others to carry the cross of poverty, sickness and loneliness. Such is the fast which pleases our Heavenly Father. It is in just such a way that we store up treasure for ourselves in heaven. And it is in just such a way that we can be assured that this Lenten season will be a Springtime of new life for us.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Sign Of The Cross

Church signs have become an art form all their own. Many of us have seen the inspiring and witty words posted in front of houses of worship as we drive around town or visit relatives. They are meant to grab our attention and make us think.

Some clever ones are “Wise men still seek him.” “Sign broken; message inside”. “We are prayer conditioned.” and “Eternity - smoking or non-smoking?”

Another witty one you may have seen is: “If you are looking for a sign, here it is.”

We have gathered here today to mark ourselves with a sign - the sign of the cross in ashes. It is a sign we are all familiar with. But what does that sign mean? Why do we begin every Lent drawing this dramatic symbol on our foreheads?

The sign we will be marked with is a sign of repentance. It means that we see that we need to change, we have not lived up to our baptismal vows and we are begging God to forgive us and help us.

As we look out onto our world, we can probably all agree that something needs to change. We cannot keep going on as we are in a society marred by violence, greed and division. Politicians and pundits are scrambling for a solution. How can we build a culture which values human life, helps the poor and supports real and lasting human development?

As followers of Jesus, we have the answer but it is not a quick fix or easy solution. The answer is conversion. Each of us in our hearts must change. No laws, no government structures, no civil institutions can give us lasting peace and freedom if we are carrying around hatred, greed or malice within us. If anything is going to change, then each of us must change.

If we are looking for a sign that it is time for us to change, we need look no further than the sign of the cross we will be tracing on our foreheads. Now is the time. This season of Lent is the opportunity God is giving us to become people who radiate the joy that comes from knowing His word and putting it into practice. Let us take full advantage of it. As Saint Paul tells us in today’s second reading: “[W]e appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain... Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”

The sign of the cross we draw on our foreheads, however, is not magic. It has no power to change us. It is an outward symbol of a real conversion that must take place within us. By the time we go to bed tonight, these ashes will have worn off. They will no longer be visible. But what about our innermost self? Will that be changed for the better? Will we have a renewed purpose to follow Jesus, to keep His teaching, no matter what the cost? That will be the true test of whether this sign of ashes will have any meaning or produce any real effect in our lives.

By signing ourselves with ashes, we are confessing to God and acknowledging to one another that we are sinners. We are acknowledging that it is time for us to change. We cannot continue living as if God did not exist. At the same time, these ashes are not a sign of condemnation but one of hope because the cross we mark ourselves with is also the sign of God’s love. “God so loved the world that He sent His Son not to condemn the world but to save the world.” Jesus came to save us. If we reach out to Him on this day of grace and beg Him to have mercy on us, we will begin to change. He has the power to do it no matter how far gone we may think we are. Most importantly, He desires to do it because He loves us.

Now is the time for us to repent of our sins and to believe in the good news. Now is the time to put away our selfishness and follow Jesus in the power of His Spirit. Now is the time to embrace the cross and its promise of new life. Today is the day to make a new beginning, not looking back on the failures of the past but fixing our eyes on Jesus who calls us to a fuller, more abundant future.

Monday, February 8, 2016

God's Creative Touch

It is the gift of the artist not only to see possibilities but to bring them into reality. A Michelangelo sees the young David in a flawed block of marble and chisels away until we can see him as well. With what at first sound like random notes, the great composers string together melodies which stir our spirits. They are a reflection of the genius of our Creator. God not only sees in us possibilities we could never imagine, but he labors to bring that potential to fulfillment. We may see ourselves as flawed, but God sees our beauty and chisels away until others can see it as well. We may see the events of our lives as random, but God directs those events to lead us to sanctification and to inspire others.

When Jesus first meets him, Simon is a fisherman like any other tending his nets on the shore of the Lake of Tiberias. The day began as a waste since he had no catch to take to market after a night of labor. Then Jesus chooses his boat to be the one from which he will proclaim the word of God to the pressing crowd. Though Luke does not record Jesus' words for us, they were no doubt powerful enough to effect a change in Simon Peter. He is willing to obey Jesus and put out into the deep water for another go at a catch even though he knows it is too late in the day and even though his previous efforts met with nothing but futility. The miraculous catch of fish shakes Simon Peter to his core overwhelming him with fear and shame. He saw himself as a sinner and a failed fisherman. But Jesus somehow saw a man of faith cowering in that bow, a man willing to leave everything to follow him. He saw in him a leader who was able to convince his partners James and John to do the same. Jesus saw a greatness in Simon Peter that no one else could see and that no one else could bring out. And, as unlikely as it seemed at the time, it was upon the rock of this simple fisherman's faith that he would build his Church.

When Jesus first met Paul, he was hurrying on to Damascus, "still breathing murderous threats", to persecute the followers of Christ. He was full of a rageful purpose to bring to an end this new way which he saw as a threat to his people. It seemed as though nothing could stop him. The disciples knew him to be a murderer and an enemy. But Jesus saw in him one who would proclaim the good news to the Gentiles. Paul saw himself as the least of the apostles because he had persecuted the Church. But no one besides Jesus himself has been as influential in shaping the Christianity we live today. Jesus saw greatness in Paul and so appeared to him in all his risen glory to enlist him in the effort of spreading the gospel. 

We could go on and on giving examples throughout the Scriptures of the prophet Isaiah, of Mary, the virgin of Nazareth, of Mary Magdalene who stood at the foot of the cross and was the first witness to the resurrection, and of the poor widow who gave her last pennies to the temple treasury. They are all women and men who seemed unremarkable in the view of the world but who were called to greatness through faith. Scripture does not present them to us as examples of what ordinary folk can do if they just "set their mind to it". Rather they are models of the marvels God can accomplish with humble believers who are willing to entrust their lives to him. They illustrate the ability of God to see and bring out in us more than we could ever hope for or imagine.

In every instance, it begins with the encounter with Jesus. Meeting Jesus was all it took to change the course of ones life. Those who left everything to follow him heard his teaching, saw firsthand his miracles and shared a friendship with him both before and after his resurrection that is unique and unrepeatable. They are privileged witnesses to everything Jesus did and said. However that does not mean that we cannot encounter Christ and be changed by him. On the contrary, every time we read the Scriptures and celebrate the sacraments Christ makes himself present to us in the Holy Spirit in a  life-changing way. It is different from how Peter, Paul and Martha experienced Jesus, but real nonetheless. Just ask Saint Francis, Mother Theresa of Calcutta and countless others who have been called to witness to Christ many centuries after his resurrection.

We also know that the transformation that the Holy Spirit works in our lives is not instantaneous. Just as it took Michelangelo many blows of the hammer to sculpt his famous statue of David, it will take many encounters with Christ and much letting go on our part to effect our conversion. There will be times when we feel as if we are making no progress and other times when we think we are going backwards. It will often not be given to us to see where the road leads or enjoy the finished product. But I suspect that the forging forward in hope toward the unseen promise is part of the transformation itself. 

There is much comfort in knowing that God is not done with us yet. We are his handiwork, each of us a masterpiece on which he is willing to spend his time and energy. God never fails to find something beautiful in us and never grows weary of endeavoring to draw it out. We need only allow him to stop us in the middle of our journey, let him into our boat and invite him into our daily work. Then the adventure can begin.  

Sunday, February 7, 2016

A Religious Experience

“Have any of you ever had a religious experience?” the teacher asked the class.

Confused, the children looked at each other wondering what she could have meant. Seeing their reaction, the teacher asked again, “Have any of you ever had a religious experience?”

Again, all she received was blank stares. So she went on to explain. “Having a  religious experience does not just mean seeing visions or hearing heavenly voices. We also have a religious experience when we pray, when we receive Communion or  when we feel a sense of God’s closeness to us.”

So she asked the class again, “Have any of you ever had a religious experience?” This time every hand shot up.

When we hear the words, “religious experience” do we think it means only having Mary appear to us or having a so-called “out of body” experience? Or do we understand, as the teacher tried to explain to the students, that whenever we approach God with humble faith and seek Him out with sincerity we have a religious experience? Most especially, do we understand that whenever we receive a sacrament whether it be Baptism, Communion or the Sacrament of Penance we are having a real encounter with the living God?

We have all experienced moments when we have felt especially close to God, moments when we really felt His presence in a way that filled us with peace and joy. We did not see a vision or hear a voice, but we knew in our hearts that God was really there by our side. There are other times when we knew God was directing us whether by putting an idea into our minds or bringing new clarity to our thinking. These are also religious experiences, real encounters with our Heavenly Father.

However, it is natural for us to ask, is what I am experiencing really God or are they just figments of my imagination? Is it really God’s voice I am hearing or is it wishful thinking to believe that I have been in His presence?

Today’s readings can help us to understand how we can answer those questions. Both Isaiah and Peter have real, life-changing religious experiences in the first reading and in the gospel. Though they are very different in terms of the way God appeared to both of them, they have some similarities that are important for us to understand if we are to come to a knowledge of God’s real presence in our lives.

First of all, a real encounter with God produces awe. When Isaiah sees God enthroned in the temple and angels crying out, his first instinct is to feel ashamed. Saint Peter too when he witnesses the miraculous catch of fish falls to his knees at the feet of Jesus. They realize that they are witnessing something that is literally “out of this world” and it gives them the sense of just how little they are. In the light of God’s holiness and glory, they feel acutely just how sinful they are.

Saint John of the Cross explained this phenomenon using the example of a pane of glass. When it is dark outside, a window looks clear. However, when the sun rises and light streams through the window, we start to see its imperfections. We see smudges, fingerprints and dust that are hidden when it is nighttime. Just so, when we start to turn to God, all our imperfections and sins become clearer to us in the light of His truth and goodness.

Therefore, any real encounter with God should give us not only an appreciation for His glory but a sober realization that we are small and sinful people. So if our religious practices, our attendance at Mass or our contributions to the parish are filling us with pride or if they are leading us to judge others who are not appearing to contribute as much then they are not real encounters with Jesus. On the other hand, if our prayer is leading us to a new understanding of our weakness, if our reading of Scripture points out for us where in our lives we need the grace of conversion, and if a real desire is welling within our hearts to live as Jesus lived, then we can be sure that it is God’s voice we have heard and His presence we have felt.

Finally, a real religious experience should leave us with a sense of mission, with something that we need to do to serve our Heavenly Father. In the first reading, Isaiah hears God call out from the throne, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?’. Isaiah readily responds, “Here I am. Send me!” In the gospel, Jesus tells Peter not to be afraid, that now he would be a fisher of men. The same is true for so many saints down the ages. Their religious experiences left them with a desire to serve others. When Saint Francis has the vision of Jesus on the cross, he hears him say, “Go, rebuild my church.” When Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta makes her private vow to never say no to Jesus, she receives the call to serve the poorest of the poor.

The same should be true of us. When we truly experience the presence of God, it makes us want to serve Him. Just as not every religious experience is as dramatic as the ones Isaiah and Saint Peter encountered, so every call to serve God is not as radical as those received by Saint Francis and Blessed Mother Teresa. For most us all, it will be a simple mission to love others, to pray or to forgive. It may be an idea that pops into our head about a way we can put our talents to God’s service. Or it could be a desire to join a parish or diocesan ministry. Whatever it may be, if it is really our Heavenly Father whom we are experiencing, it will result in some concrete action.

God is seeking all of us out. He wants us to be assured of His love and to commit ourselves to living our baptism by serving others. We need only give Him some quiet time every day so that He can reveal Himself to us. If in that time we have a deeper sense of His glory, a humbler opinion of ourselves and a hunger to meet the needs of our neighbors, we know that we have been touched by Him and can never be the same.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Nazareth - Jesus' Native Place

Have you ever noticed that priests are rarely assigned to the parishes they grew up in? There is a good reason for that. If the parish is filled with people who knew the priest when he was young, they might find it harder to look upon him as a leader. It might be difficult to take what he has to say seriously because they knew him as a mischievous youngster. Also the parishioners would find it harder confessing their sins to him in the Sacrament of Reconciliation or bringing their problems to him if they see him as no different from themselves. When we think we know someone very well, it is difficult to see him or her in another light. The better we think we know them, the harder it is for us to be inspired or surprised by them.

Jesus knew this very well. In today’s gospel, he returns to His hometown, Nazareth. Up to this point, He had been preaching throughout the Galilee area and had established a reputation as a powerful healer. When He returns to Nazareth, the townsfolk are anxious to see what has become of their hometown boy. In Jesus’ time, Nazareth was a very small town of a few hundred people. Everyone knew each other very well. There were no secrets among them. So when Jesus arrives, they are impressed by His words of wisdom but cannot get passed their memories of him. They think they know everything there is to know about Him but are unaware of just how wrong they are. It is clear to us when they ask, “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?” that they have no idea that He is in fact the Son of God. And because of their lack of faith - their inability to get past what they think they know - Jesus is unable to perform any miracles for them.

How does Jesus react? Does He tell them that He understands the difficulty they are experiencing in accepting Him? Does he reassure them that it is natural not to believe that a hometown boy could perform miracles? On the contrary, He rebukes them sternly for their stubbornness. He lets them know in no uncertain terms that they are missing out on a great work of God and that they will be judged for it. We know how strong Jesus’ criticism of them is by their reaction. They immediately seize Him and take Him to the edge of town to throw Him off a cliff. “How dare He speak to us like that!” , they must have thought. “Who does He think He is?” The sad part is that, because of their preconceived notions, they missed out on the opportunity to be healed, to have their sins forgiven and to draw closer to their Heavenly Father.

Today’s gospel reading provides a stern warning for us, especially for many of us who are lifelong Catholics and think we know all there is to know about our faith. Because we attend Mass every Sunday and follow all the rules, we can be deceived into believing that we are already doing enough. We can think that there is nothing more for us to learn, nothing more that is required of us. We have already heard it all. If we think that way, then God has a big surprise for us.

Have you ever had the experience of someone asking you a question about your faith? Maybe you have had a Protestant friend ask you why Catholics pray to Mary or a child ask  you how God can be three persons but still one God? Then have you had the experience of not being able to explain what you believe? It is at such moments that we appreciate just how rich our faith is and how much there is to learn. We can never exhaust all there is to know about God, the Church, the Bible, the Sacraments and all the great treasures of our faith. Even our Holy Father, the Pope, spends time every day in study trying to gain a deeper understanding of the mysteries of God. If He is still hungry to learn more, then we certainly should make an effort to study our faith.

A good place to start would be reading the Bible. Just a few minutes everyday going through the Old Testament prophets, the gospels or the letters of Saint Paul can broaden our understanding of the mysteries of salvation. Another important book to have is the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Just about any question we might have regarding what the Church teaches can be found there. There are also many websites that provide helpful information about our faith. The more we learn, the hungrier we will be to understand even more and the deeper our faith will grow.

Our second reading today gives us insight into the best way to keep our faith fresh and new for us. It is by cultivating love. We can never allow ourselves to forget that the Catholic faith is not primarily a matter of attending Mass and following rules. First and foremost, it is a matter of love. All the rules are meant to teach us what it means to love God and one another as Jesus commanded us. Love is an ongoing adventure. We never reach a point in our lives when we have loved enough. Rather love is a day to day commitment to reach out to the poor, to put the needs of others before our own and to strive to see the face of Christ in everyone we meet. Dedicating ourselves to loving God and others daily we ensure that we will not miss out on all the beautiful gifts our Heavenly Father wishes to pour out upon us.

No matter where we are on our faith journey, it can be tempting for us to think we have heard it all and know everything we need to know. The good news can easily sound like old news to us. However, by committing ourselves to growing in our understanding of what Jesus teaches and by focusing on love we can keep the message of Christ ever fresh in our hearts. In this way, we will always be open to the way Jesus visits us today with new graces and deeper insights. Unlike the villagers of Nazareth who could not put faith in Him, we will be able to receive all the gifts of knowledge, healing and power that Jesus brings to us.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Presentation Of The Lord

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

Where people typically say they give up on reading the Bible this way is in the book of Leviticus. It is the third book of the Bible and contains many chapters which go on and on describing in detail how temple rituals are to be performed including how animals are to be sacrificed, what vestments the priests are to wear and how those participating in the rituals must purify themselves before taking part. There are also strict dietary laws and rules about observing the Sabbath.

To us in the twenty-first century, these rules seem arcane and legalistic. What possible spiritual benefit could anyone gain from observing them? However, we must keep in mind that these laws are a part of God’s word. Though we no longer follow many of  them today, they served an important role in shaping the life and faith of the Jewish people. For instance, the meticulous rituals taught the Israelites that God is holy, that He is the one God, greater than all the other gods of the pagans. The sacrifice of animals taught them that God is the Creator and that all life belongs to Him. By following the rules of ritual purity, God’s People learned that they must respect Him and approach Him with humility. Finally the dietary laws and Sabbath rules helped the Jewish people hold on to their religious identity when they were forced to live among pagan peoples. Therefore, the Jewish people did not look upon these many laws as a heavy burden but as a blessing given them by God. They were taken very seriously by all Jews including Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the apostles.

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

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

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

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

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

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