Wednesday, March 30, 2016

First Buds Of New Life

We catch small glimpses of it in our daily lives.

After winter has spent its fury, freezing us with its cold breath and hammering us with snow, the spring refreshes us with warm weather and the fragrance of budding trees.

After we have suffered through sickness and feared for the worst, we make it through the treatments and begin to feel healthy again. Our strength is renewed and our hope is revived.

After many hours in the classroom and many late nights studying and writing reports, we finally make it to the day of graduation. All the work up to that point has finally paid off. We receive our diploma, celebrate with our families and look forward to the next chapter in our lives.

In our personal lives, we set goals for ourselves whether to get in shape, land a promotion at work or finally master a musical instrument. We make all the sacrifices necessary to meet our lofty ambitions. It can mean many hours of thankless work. Then the day comes when we have finally reached the goal we set for ourselves. We look back with satisfaction at all that we have achieved and realize that, though it was not easy, it was certainly worth the effort.

All these examples bear out the truth that, if we can persevere through hardships whether it be in nature, in our bodies or in our personal and professional lives, we can be assured that better days lie ahead. It is the hope without which none of us can continue to live, that the best is yet to come.

All these examples, however, are only the smallest shadow of the great feast we celebrate today - the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. The truth we celebrate today is fathoms deeper than the saying, “no pain, no gain.” It is more than just a recognition of the natural consequences of hard work and perseverance. Rather, it speaks to us of the power and mercy of God.

When Jesus suffered and died on the cross, He was doing more than leaving us an example of bearing with suffering and persecution. Rather on the cross He was taking upon Himself the ancient enemies of humanity - suffering, sin and death. He was doing battle with all the evils we face in life and putting them to death. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is God’s great act of power and mercy.

How do we experience His Resurrection in our lives today?

First of all, we experience the Resurrection in our lives by the forgiveness of our sins. Saint Peter teaches us in today’s first reading that “...everyone who believes in [Jesus] has forgiveness of sins through His name.” All of us have experienced the shame, discouragement and suffering that come with sin. We have made bad choices and brought pain into the lives of others. With the Resurrection of Jesus, there is hope for us. We can be forgiven. He has taken upon Himself all our sinfulness. We can put our weakness, sin and guilt into His hands and be assured that He will erase it from our conscience through the blood He spilled for us on the cross and the new life He holds out to us in His Resurrection. Jesus, risen from the dead, has conquered sin and offers all of us who turn to Him with real sorrow in our hearts the gift of forgiveness.

Secondly, we experience the Resurrection in our lives through hope in everlasting life. As believers in Christ, we need no longer fear death. It is not the last word on our lives. Rather, because Jesus conquered death, we can be assured of everlasting life if we believe in Him and follow His commandments. Death now is the means by which we enter the inheritance that is ours as sons and daughters of God.

Finally, we experience the Resurrection in our lives through the good works we perform for others. It is natural for us to put ourselves and our needs before others. We fear that if we do not watch out for ourselves, no one else will. However, through the power of Jesus’ Resurrection, we receive power to overcome our selfishness and pride. As we ponder all that He did to save us, we cannot but be filled with the love of God. And that love energizes us to serve others through works of mercy. We put aside our own needs trusting that God will meet them for us and so are open to the work of the Spirit within us calling us to feed the hungry, to visit prisoners and to pray for the needy. All this is a result of the new life that flows into our hearts because of Jesus’ victory over sin.

Today is a day to celebrate Jesus’ victory over sin and death. But it is also a time for us to reflect on how His victory has made a difference in our lives. Are we living with less guilt because of the confidence that we have been forgiven? Are we living with less fear knowing that death has been conquered by Christ? Are we doing more to serve our neighbor motivated by the love that God has shown us? If we are not experiencing these fruits of the Resurrection in our lives, then today is the day to ask God to start working mightily in our lives. He has gone to all this trouble - dying on the cross and rising from the dead - that we can be assured that He will also go to the trouble of making this work a reality in our lives. All we need to do is approach God with humble faith and sincerity, and He will take care of the rest.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Easter Mysteries Of The Rosary

Traditionally, there are three groupings of mysteries for praying the Rosary: the Joyous Mysteries, the Sorrowful Mysteries and the Glorious Mysteries. In his Apostolic Letter, The Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Pope John Paul II added the Luminous Mysteries. And, recently, I discovered mysteries surrounding the life of Saint Joseph. The Rosary can help us to ponder any mysteries of the Christian life, not just those which are widely known and practiced. Therefore, to add some life and variety to my own prayer, I have developed a set of mysteries based on  Jesus’ appearances after the Resurrection. Hopefully you will find them as helpful in deepening your own sense of awe and wonder at Christ’s victory over death as I have.

1) The appearance to Mary Magdalen (Jn. 20: 11-18)
2) The appearance to the disciples (Jn 20: 19-23 & Lk.24: 36-49)
3) The appearance to Thomas (Jn.20: 24-29)
4) The appearance on the road to Emmaus (Lk.24: 13-35)
5) The appearance at the Sea of Galilee (Jn. 21: 1-23)

Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Joy Of This Easter Morn

There was a girl whose favorite movie was based on the life of Christ. Almost every afternoon, she would ask her grandmother to sit on the couch with her to watch it. During the scene of the crucifixion her eyes would well with tears as the soldiers nailed Jesus to the cross. However, after Jesus had died and was placed in the tomb, she would turn to her grandmother with a broad smile and say, "Here comes the good part!"

Over the past week we have remembered the tragic events surrounding the death of Jesus - how he was condemned by his own people and put through a torturous death. However, today, Easter Sunday, we come to the "good part" of the story because death would not have the last word. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus has shaken off the shackles of death and achieved for us the reward of everlasting life.

The word "gospel" means "good news". From the earliest days of our faith, the story of Jesus has been called the "good news" because it ends with his victory over death in the Resurrection. Today's first reading from the Acts of the Apostles offers us one of the first Christian sermons ever preached. It is given by Peter at the house of a Roman centurion named Cornelius. And what is his sermon about? The resurrection of Jesus from the dead. More than anything else, believing that Jesus rose from the dead is what defined someone as a Christian.

Is the resurrection just an event that took place over two thousand years ago, or does it continue to have meaning for our lives today? How does his victory over sin and death change our lives today in the twenty-first century?

Again, it is today's first reading that gives us a clue. Unfortunately, we have read only a part of Saint Peter's sermon. If we were to read the whole passage, we would discover that, when he is done preaching, the people are so moved that the Holy Spirit descends upon them and then they are all baptized by Peter. The message is clear. It is through our baptism that the new life of the Risen Lord takes hold of our heart.

Saint Paul picks up this theme in the second reading from the letter to the Colossians. Through our baptism, we have been raised with Christ. We must now set our hearts on the things of heaven. What does that mean? It means that everlasting life is not something we reach only after death. Rather, through baptism, we are already enjoying the gift of eternal life. It will come to its fullness in us when we enter heaven, but it is a reality that is already at work in us in a hidden way through the work of the Holy Spirit.

Whenever we choose forgiveness over bitterness and belief over doubt, the new life of heaven is at work within us. Whenever we stand up for the rights of others rather than remain silent and whenever we face our difficulties with confidence that God will see us through them, the Risen Lord is alive and active in our hearts. Whenever we give of our time and money to benefit others and whenever we bring comfort to those who are suffering, the Kingdom of God is gaining another victory over despair. We must bring the Risen Lord who is alive in our hearts into the lives of everyone we meet by our words and example so that God's victory over sin and death can continue to extend itself throughout our world.

One of the Church's great saints, Saint Augustine, wrote: "We are a resurrection people and 'Alleluia' is our song!" This Easter day is the highlight of our year as Christians because the good news is centered on and revolves around the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Even so, our lives as believers must also center on and revolve around the eternal life that is ours through the sacrament of Baptism. Whether we were baptized as infants or later in life, it was the defining moment of our lives because if forever marked us and set us aside as children of God. Furthermore, it infused our soul with the Holy Spirit who is the very life of our risen Savior.

At this Mass, we will renew the vows of our Baptism. We will recommit ourselves to living the new life of faith in the resurrection through the power of the Holy Spirit. We will vow to extend God's victory over sin and death by taking up the battle against the forces in our culture which promote immorality and which undermine the dignity of every human person. And we will join with believers throughout the world in proclaiming with our lips and with our lives: Jesus Christ is Risen! Alleluia!

Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Resurrection Changed Everything

The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead changed everything.

We see it clearly in His disciples. After the trauma of seeing Jesus brutally tortured and killed, they feared for their own lives. They had left everything to follow Him, and now they were unsure what to do. They felt abandoned, disappointed and scared.

Then the women discover that His tomb is empty. What could have happened? Could it be true that He was raised from the dead as He said He would be? The doubt, the fear and the disappointment melt away at first with their confusion over just what happened and then when He appears to them. The Risen Jesus revealed to them that all He had suffered was part of God’s plan to conquer death and bring salvation to the world.

Everything changed also for the Roman authorities and religious leaders in Jerusalem. They had hoped that by putting Jesus to death, the people’s hopes for liberation would be crushed and His disciples would be scattered. However, it turned out that nothing could be farther from the truth. With Jesus’ resurrection, even more people were converted to the gospel message and were baptized. Belief in Jesus spread throughout the Roman empire. And with time, even the Emperor would profess faith in the gospel and establish Christianity throughout the empire. The resurrection of Jesus Christ changed everything not only for His disciples but it changed the course of world history.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ has changed everything for us as well who gather here today some two thousand years later with candles, incense, songs and stories to celebrate His victory over the grave. With a lively faith, we join in the song of joy because the cross was not the last chapter of the Jesus story. Though we have not seen Him, we profess our faith that He is truly risen and still alive among us. We proclaim that He is in our midst even now.

As Christian believers, the resurrection is not just a story about a past event. It is a reality that is still present to us. It is not just a story about something that happened to somebody else. It is a story that we are involved in. It is a force which is at work with the potential of changing our hearts, bringing people together and transforming society through faith and hope.

It is at work among us when we experience the forgiveness of our sins through the Sacrament of Confession. It is present to us when we find the courage within ourselves to stand up for the truth or to defend the weak. We experience Jesus alive among us when we face the hardships of life with patience knowing that God can make good come from any circumstances no matter how desperate. It is at work when enemies become friends, when the hardest heart learns compassion and when peace takes root where there had been conflict. All this is made possible by the continuing presence of our Risen Lord within us and within our world. It changes everything.

We gather here today not only because we believe it but because we want to share it with others. Just as at the beginning of our liturgy today, the darkened church was flooded with light when each of us lit his or her candle from the fire of the Easter candle, so we must bring that light out from this place into a world that is still ruled by darkness, sin and death. We must bring it to the young person who sees no purpose in her life. We must bring it to the addict who yearns for freedom from the slavery of addiction. We must bring it to the intellectuals who are so full of pride because of their learning that they cannot acknowledge the God who is the source of all truth. We must bring it to the sick and suffering so that they can know that they are not alone and so that they can unite their suffering to Jesus on the cross and know its transforming power. It is now up to us, as it was up to the women who found the empty tomb and the apostles who witnessed the Risen Lord, to go out into the world and proclaim that He is alive!

Friday, March 25, 2016

Good Friday

The following anonymous poem sums up well the spirit of today’s liturgy:

I drove by a hitchhiker on the road. I had a lot of good reasons not to pick him up. First of all, I'd be late for my appointment. Secondly, I feared for my safety. How could I be sure he wouldn't rob, beat or even kill me? I had a lot of good reasons to keep on driving.

While I was walking down the street, a homeless man asked me for change. I had a lot of good reasons for not giving him any. How did I know he wouldn't go spend it on booze and drugs? And, wouldn't I be enabling him to stay dependent on charity rather than lift himself out of poverty through hard work? So, I politely claimed to have no change and kept on walking.

Jesus had a lot of good reasons not to die for me. I am selfish, insincere and ungrateful. I've spent most of my life not paying attention to Him. He had a lot of good reasons to let the cup of suffering pass Him by. However, out of love, He stretched His arms out on the cross and gave His life that I might live.

Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice for me. How can I now drive or walk past my neighbors when they need me? How can I not, out of love, do for others what Jesus so generously did for me?

When we consider with what love Jesus accepted death and that He did it for our sake, we can do nothing but stand in awe at the foot of the cross. What tremendous love Jesus showed to endure the torments, the ridicule and the humiliation of His death on the cross. How was He able to endure it all? He was able to endure it because of His love. It was because of His love for you and me that He accepted His Heavenly Father’s will and refused to let the cup of suffering pass Him by.

Human history has never witnessed such a display of love. We may marvel at it. We may question how such love is possible. But we cannot just look the other way. None of us can be indifferent before such brutality.  As we stand in the shadow of the cross, we must make a decision. Will we follow the way of love that Jesus marked out for us, or will we go our own way? Will we practice love marked by suffering or follow the path of pleasure instead?

There is a reason that, even after the resurrection, we Catholics continue to portray Christ on the cross. It is because Jesus is still suffering. It is true that He eventually died and rose again. But He continues to suffer in the least among us. As He tells us in the gospel of Matthew, “Whatever you do for the least of my brothers and sisters, you do for me.” And so, when we drive past the man hitchhiking on the highway, we are driving past Jesus. When we ignore the homeless person on the street, we are ignoring Jesus. Our Lord is still suffering and still dying. Today He looks to us to bring Him some comfort, to wipe the blood off His face as Veronica did and to help Him carry His cross as Simon of Cyrene did. What will our answer be? Can we fail to comfort our Lord suffering in the poorest among us when He did not fail to suffer for us? Can we refuse companionship for the lonely or bread for the hungry when He did not refuse to offer us forgiveness in our sinfulness and hope in our despair?

As ghastly and as demanding as the cross is, we do not need to run from it. As horrible as it may appear to us, it is our hope of salvation. We must embrace it and cling to it as our only hope. We must practice the way of love it teaches us so that we can turn our selfish and materialistic society around. It all begins with following the way of the cross which is the path of freedom, justice and peace.

We can never forget, even as we reflect on all that Jesus suffered to save us, that the cross is just the path, it is not the destination. We must always keep our eyes fixed on the resurrection, the eternal life which is ours once we have died to sin, selfishness, greed and hatred. Jesus made that possible for us, as well, leading the way. So, even as we embrace the cross, we hold our heads up high knowing that the resurrected life is about to dawn on us. This faith gives us confidence to work for a just world, to lift up the disenfranchised and ease the burden of the poor without growing weary or discouraged. Jesus has assured us of the victory if we surrender to Him and follow Him through the dark night into the glorious day.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

A Pledge Of Eternal Love

We are gathering this evening the way Christians have for two thousand years.

Most likely, each of us began coming to Mass with our parents. They were our first catechists, teaching us to genuflect in front of the tabernacle, to keep quiet while in church and to bow our heads in prayer when the priest lifted up the Body and Blood of Jesus. Most likely, they learned from their parents. Each generation passed on to the next the importance of gathering every Sunday and on holy days to listen to the Scriptures being proclaimed and to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. If we were to go back through each generation no matter what our ethnic background, no matter where our family originally came from, it would all lead to one place - the upper room where Jesus celebrated the Last Supper with His disciples.

It was on that night that Jesus took bread, said the blessing, broke the bread and gave it to his disciples saying, “This is my body which will be given up for you.” In the same way He took the chalice with wine and, again giving thanks, He gave it to His disciples saying, “Take this all of you and drink from it. This is the chalice of my blood. The blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in memory of me.”

For two thousand years, we have prayed these words handed on to us from Jesus at the Last Supper. They have been prayed in many different languages - Aramaic, Greek, Latin, Spanish, German, Swahili, and Arabic, just to name a few. They have been prayed in many places - in homes, in underground catacombs, in grand basilicas, in soccer stadiums, in prisons and in concentration camps. They have been prayed by the rich and the poor, by the powerful and the oppressed, by the proud and by the humble, by sinners and by saints. They have been prayed when the Church was being persecuted and when the Church was in peace. No matter what the language, no matter what the place of worship, no matter what the circumstances, the followers of Jesus have faithfully passed on His words and the sacrament of His love as he asked. “Do this in memory of me.”

It seems such a simple thing for us to gather for an hour as we do every Sunday and on holy days such as today. Most people hardly seem to notice when we do gather. But the history behind it is staggering. To make it possible for us to be here this evening worshipping freely, it took the sacrifice of millions of women and men. It took the willingness of millions of men who gave up the possibility of marriage and a career to be ordained priests so that the Eucharist could be celebrated. It took millions of bishops who insisted on preserving faithfully what Jesus handed on to us. It took millions of women who brought the Eucharist to the sick and the homebound. It required millions of martyrs who preferred to die than to deny their belief that Jesus is really present in the Holy Eucharist. What seems so simple and easy for us today required the shedding of much blood and the efforts of many good and holy women and men.
Not least of all, it required the love of Jesus Christ our Lord, who gave Himself up for us on the cross to free us from sin and to offer us the gift of eternal life.

Therefore, as we gather around this altar to remember all that Jesus did to save us, what should our attitude be? If all those who sacrificed to make this liturgy possible for us were to see us now, what would they think? Are we reverent enough? Have we come here out of love for God rather than out of a sense of obligation? Is our heart in what we say and do here tonight or are we just repeating the prayers out of rote memory? Most importantly, are we willing to sacrifice to ensure that our children and their children will also be able to worship and practice their faith freely?

What we receive tonight is the greatest gift that God has ever blessed the world with. It is a gift that Jesus gave to the apostles and that the apostles handed on to their followers up to our present day. It is the Body and Blood of Jesus. We believe with all our hearts that it is not just a symbol of His presence among us, but it is His real presence here and now. We do not come together here to simply remember what He did for us but to relive it, to bring it into our lives today and to receive all the graces that He has to give us.

This great Sacrament, this great mystery, this great love is here  in our midst. We receive it from the hands of our Lord and pledge to pass it on until He comes again in glory.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

A Savior To Admire And Imitate

When we hear the stories of great women and men of the past, there are two reactions we can have.

First, we feel admiration for all they were able to accomplish. Whether it is the story of a general who achieved a great military victory or an artist who excelled at painting, we marvel at all the difficulties they faced and obstacles they had to overcome. What sets great people apart is not only their success but the courage and perseverance they display in achieving it. Hearing their stories, we cannot help but take it all in with wide-eyed amazement.

Second, not only would we feel admiration for such people but we often feel inspired by them. We cannot help but ask ourselves what we would do if faced with the same situations. Would we remain motivated and resolute despite the opposition? Or would we take the path of least resistance, settling for something less than we dreamed of achieving? When we hear what others were able to overcome and accomplish, it can motivate us to dream bigger and work harder. We not only admire them but seek to imitate them. In the process, our lives are changed.

Today, we gather to hear the story of the greatest man who ever lived - Jesus Christ. And we marvel at the greatest love story ever told - how this same Jesus Christ, though innocent, suffered and died out of love for sinful humanity. It can also be considered the greatest adventure story ever - how God came down to earth to rescue a people who were lost.

Our first reaction is admiration at how much courage Jesus showed in being condemned unjustly, tortured and, ultimately killed. We can admire the stamina he showed in carrying the cross through the streets of Jerusalem even after having lost so much blood and enduring three hours of agony on the cross. We can marvel at His uncanny serenity through it all, facing the betrayal and abandonment by His friends without rage or bitterness.

However, it is clear that we cannot stop at mere admiration. We cannot simply applaud Jesus for all He did to save us and leave it at that. It is clear that we are meant to imitate the humility and love that our Saviour showed throughout His passion and death. This story must not only impress but inspire us. Hearing the story of Jesus, our lives must be forever changed.

Considering all that Jesus endured and suffered we might say to ourselves, “How could I ever begin to imitate Him?” While few of us will be called to give our lives as Jesus did, there are small steps we can take every day to imitate His love and mercy in the face of so much cruelty and suffering.

The first way we can imitate Jesus is to bear wrongs patiently. When someone insults us or hurts our feelings, our first instinct is to fight back. It is natural to want to defend and vindicate ourselves. However, this can so often lead to more conflict and resentment. Jesus left us with a different example. When He was being falsely accused, He remained silent. Rather than point the finger at others, He was content to let the truth speak for itself confident that God would vindicate Him.

It takes a great deal of humility to not return insult for insult or injury for injury. Our pride often compels us to set the record straight and to let others know they can’t mess with us. However, the great saints teach us that we should be happy when we are misunderstood, overlooked and criticized because it is then that we are most like Jesus. And, when we are like Jesus in His suffering, then we can begin to know that power that flows from His Resurrection.

The second way we can imitate Jesus is by forgiving others willingly. On the cross, Jesus said: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He was able to look beyond His own pain to take pity on the ignorance of those who were putting Him to death. Just so, we must look beyond our own feelings of hurt to the ignorance of those who harm us. What struggles in their own lives are causing them to act the way they do? What bitterness in their hearts is causing them to lash out as they do? By imitating Jesus and being quick to forgive, we can bring healing and peace to others rather than more conflict and division.

The world tells us that security and peace come through power and violence. However, Jesus tells us something quite different. It is through patient suffering and forgiveness that our enemies are conquered. Until each of us begins to imitate His example, our world will never know lasting peace and security. We know that Jesus’ death is not the end of the story. His Resurrection victory will not only show the world that He is the Savior but inspire countless people through the centuries to follow His example of mercy and love. Because of it, the history of the world was changed. Our lives can also be changed by it if we are willing to bear wrongs patiently and forgive others willingly as He did.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Palm Sunday Of The Lord's Passion

The Bible is often called “The Greatest Story Ever Told” because it describes for us the love of God as it unfolds throughout history. There is no greater love and so there can be no greater story.

Today, as we proclaim the great story of Jesus’ suffering and death, we cannot help but feel stunned and maybe even overwhelmed when we understand that he underwent these torments for you and for me. Jesus was not just a victim of circumstances. He was not in the wrong place at the wrong time. Rather He accepted the torturous death on the cross out of love for us, to take on Himself the punishment we all deserved for our sins.

Like any great story, the story of Jesus’ suffering and death is filled with characters with whom we can both sympathize and identify.

We might be able to identify with Saint Peter who promised Jesus He would be by His side until the end but, when the time for action came, he could only deny knowing His master and run and hide. How many times have we promised to be faithful but lacked the courage to follow through?

Simon of Cyrene is another compelling figure. He is pulled out of the crowd by the centurions and forced to help Jesus carry His cross. How many times when faced with suffering have we felt that we were unfairly singled out?

When we pray the stations of the cross, we might identify with Veronica who wiped Jesus’ face or the women who wept for Him as He walked by. Because we love Jesus, we do not want to see Him suffer. However much we may want to comfort Him, we feel powerless to stop the insanity going on around us.

Then there are Mary, the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Saint John who are with Jesus at the foot of the cross. They love Jesus and will not leave His side. However, they too are powerless to save Him and can do nothing but weep and pray.

No matter whom we may identify with when we read the gospel, there is one character who symbolizes all of us. It is Barabbas.

The gospels tell us that Barabbas is an insurrectionist. He led a revolt against the Romans which resulted in at least one death. Today, we would probably call him a terrorist. He was scheduled to be put to death, to suffer all the tortures to which Jesus was also condemned. However, because of Jesus, he is set free. Our Lord is executed in his place.

Each one of us is Barabbas. Because of our sins - no matter how great or how small - we deserve to be separated from God forever. There is nothing we could ever do to make up for the offense that our sins have caused to our Heavenly Father who is infinitely good and loving. There was no hope for us. However, as He did for Barabbas, Jesus came to free us by taking upon Himself the condemnation that we deserved. Because He was sinless, because He, like the Father, was infinitely good and loving, He could pay the debt that we could never hope to pay. He could make up in His flesh for the sins which we could never hope to make up for. We have been set free from condemnation and given the hope of eternal life in heaven through the death of Jesus.

Like any great story, in the gospel we are left wondering what happened to the characters we have read about. Did his encounter with Jesus change Simon of Cyrene? Did he eventually become a follower of Jesus and the apostles? How about Veronica? Did she walk through Jerusalem showing everyone the veil with the image of Jesus’ face on it?

We are also left to wonder what happened to Barabbas. What did he do with his new found freedom? Did he go back to plotting against the Roman authorities? Or did he change his life? Did he renounce the violence of his past and use his new freedom to follow the path of love that Jesus taught?

We can never know the answer. However, we can and should ask ourselves the same questions. What are we doing with the freedom we have through Jesus’ death? Are we making use of the power unleashed by His passion to stop sinning? Are we imitating Christ’s love for us by loving our neighbor as well? Has our encounter with Jesus through this proclamation of His passion and death changed us?

These are questions to reflect upon as we join the story of our lives to the Greatest Story Ever Told. As we begin this Holy Week, we should ask Jesus to give us a deeper appreciation of what He suffered for us and to reveal to us how we can make better use of the freedom He has won for us. Finally we should ask for the courage to make the message known to others, even when it means rejection and ridicule. When we do so - when we are faithful to Him - we are giving Jesus the consolation of knowing that all He suffered for us was not in vain. We are letting Him know that it is making a real difference in our lives.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Caught In The Act

It is a scene which plays itself out every day on our city streets. Men and women have lost everything because of their addictions to drugs and alcohol.

Who knows how it all started. At first, they may have been introduced to it by friends at a party. Afraid of feeling left out or wanting to impress others, they try it. For a brief moment, they like the feeling of euphoria it gives them. They enjoy being liberated from their fears and inhibitions, if only for a short while. Though they may have regretted it the next day, their friends tell them how funny they were and so they put aside their shame, enjoying the feeling of acceptance.

However, soon the drugs and alcohol go from being only something they did on the weekend to something they do almost every night. Before long they are doing it not just for fun but to get through the day. It becomes more than a habit. It becomes a need - a hard, driving need that becomes more important than anything else in their lives. They are unable to work and so lose their livelihood. Their families can no longer support their behavior and so they lose their homes. Because they are no longer the life of the party but an embarrassment, their friends abandon them.

Soon they have nowhere else left to go except the streets. They are alone. Although the drugs and alcohol promised to bring them friendships, love and inner peace, they have brought them only loneliness, rejection and destitution.

It is also a story that played itself out on the streets of Jerusalem. The young woman wanted nothing more than love and attention. She reveled in the gifts her lover would give her and thrilled to hear him tell her how beautiful she was. It felt good to be noticed, to feel appreciated and wanted. Though she knew it was wrong to commit adultery and that the consequences of being caught were severe, she wanted to please her lover. The attraction was so strong that she did not believe she could resist it.

We all know what happens next. She is caught by the scribes and Pharisees and dragged to the feet of Jesus. Her lover abandons her. By giving herself to him, she had hoped to find love and acceptance. However, all she received was rejection, scorn and condemnation. Shame and guilt were the least of her worries. Instead she feared for her life since it was very likely that the self-righteous crowd would stone her to death. She chose sin looking for love and found nothing but rejection.

In contrast, it is at the feet of Jesus that this woman finds the love and mercy her heart had so desperately longed for. He saves her from the crowd that threatens to stone her. He picks her up from the dirt, wipes away her tears and sends her home with the warning, “Go and sin no more.” What she was unable to find by sinning she found in Jesus who restores her dignity and affirms her unique value as a daughter of God.

This story does not just take place on the streets of our cities or in the streets of Jerusalem. It also takes place in our lives, in our homes and in our hearts. We may not be addicted to drugs and alcohol. We may not be committing adultery. However, in many ways both large and small we choose sin over God’s love. We fall prey to the false promises of love, pleasure and inner peace that sin offers us. And in the process, we lose touch with our Heavenly Father who is the source of all love. Sin hurts and offends God because it is a rejection of His love. It hurts and offends Jesus who died on the cross to set us free. And it grieves the Holy Spirit who offers us the grace to rise above temptation. Whenever we sin, we are like the drug addict in the street or the woman in the gospel. Though we are seeking love, we will find rejection. Though we are seeking inner peace, we will find only torment. And though we are seeking pleasure, we will find only despair.

However, that does not need to be the end of the story. We can always turn to Jesus to find forgiveness. When we sin, our first instinct is to want to hide from God because we feel ashamed. However, we should fly to Him because He is forgiving.

Consider the woman in the gospel. Is it not ironic that, if she had never been caught sinning, she might never have met Jesus? She might have heard Him preach or seen Him passing by. She may have heard the stories of the miracles He performed. But she probably would never have come face to face with Him. She might have thought He was a moving speaker or a mighty healer. But, without being dragged to Him by the scribes and Pharisees, she would never have experienced how gentle and merciful He was. Because of her weakness, she came to know Jesus more personally than would otherwise be possible.

The same is true for us. We may read the Bible, listen to sermons or hear others tell the story of how Jesus changed their lives. But it is not until we come to Jesus on our knees, weeping over our sins and seeking relief from our burden of guilt that we come to know in a personal, heartfelt way just how merciful and loving He is. If we can come to Jesus with humility and sorrow, then our weakness will bring us closer to Him. We will understand that God is not a harsh judge who wants to condemn us but a loving father who is eager to welcome us home. Furthermore, we will come to understand that the only way to find the love and serenity we desire in the depths of our being is in the warm embrace of our Heavenly Father.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Saint Of Mercy

With two world wars and numerous other violent conflicts, the twentieth century was the bloodiest in all human history. So it is no surprise that it was also the bloodiest century for the Church. In fact, more people were put to death because of their faith in the last century than in all the previous centuries of Christianity combined.

One of those martyrs of the twentieth century was Saint Maximilian Kolbe.

He was born in Poland in 1894 and ordained a priest in 1918. After several missionary trips to Japan, he returned to his native Poland at the time of the German invasion and occupation. He worked tirelessly to give shelter to refugees and to help Jews escape the Nazi persecution. However, he was caught by the Gestapo and sent to the notorious concentration camp, Auschwitz, in 1941.

While there, a prisoner had escaped from the camp. The guards rounded up ten men and sentenced them to be starved to death in punishment for the successful escape. However, Father Kolbe, knowing that one of the men had a family, offered to take his place. The guards agreed, and he was sent into the cell with the other men. All the while, he prayed and sang songs to encourage the men to stay strong. He and three other men were able to hold out for three weeks. However, the guards, unwilling to wait any longer for him to die, gave Father Kolbe a lethal injection of carbolic acid. He died in August of 1941 in the place of another man.

When he was canonized a saint of the Catholic Church, the man whose life he saved was at the Mass. Pope John Paul II said of Saint Maximilian Kolbe in his sermon, "By laying down his life for a brother, He made himself like Christ." 

What Saint Maximilian Kolbe did by taking the place of a man condemned to die is exactly what Jesus has done for each one of us. Because each of us has sinned and offended God, we deserve death and eternal punishment. However, because of his great love for us, God sent his only Son, Jesus, to die in our place. Jesus was innocent, yet he stepped forward to suffer a humiliating death so that the punishment for sin would fall on him and not on us. Because Jesus has died for us, we can be assured that we will find mercy and forgiveness from God despite the sins we have committed.

The fullness of the love and mercy which Jesus came to bring is on display in today's gospel reading. A woman who had been caught in adultery is dragged before Jesus. The penalty for her sin is that she be stoned to death. We can only imagine the shame and fear she felt. However, while the crowd stands in judgement over her, Jesus takes another posture. He stoops down. He brings himself down to her level. He refuses to stand in judgement of her. It was not to condemn sinners that Jesus came, but to bring them the Father's love and mercy. And so he scatters the crowd with his famous words, "Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone." 

It is interesting that the gospel begins by telling us that Jesus had just spent the night praying on the Mount of Olives. If the name sounds familiar, it is because it is the same place where Jesus will experience his agony in the garden. As Jesus sees the woman dragged to him, he probably cannot help but think that soon this same crowd would be dragging him to judgment before Pontius Pilate. He probably cannot help but think that soon he will be made to stand beaten and humiliated before this same crowd as they shout out, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" Jesus knows all too well how bloodthirsty a crowd can be. He refuses to condemn the adulterous woman, no matter how grave her sin. Instead, he offers to die in her place by accepting the tortures of the cross. She can walk away free, because he has taken upon himself the punishment for her sin.

We can very often feel shame and guilt like the adulterous woman. However, the crowd that condemns us is not always other people who have dragged us out and pointed fingers at us. Rather, the crowd is most often voices within us that criticize and accuse us. They are messages we have internalized over the years from parents, teachers and our peers. Those voices tell us that we are not good enough, that we can never be truly holy because of the sins of our past. They tell us that we do not deserve to be forgiven and do not deserve to be loved. They tell us that we are so broken that not even God can fix us. Those voices try to isolate us from God and convince us that we can never have the joy, peace and freedom he promises to those who love him.

When the voices of the crowd and the stones of their condemnation are bearing down on us, we need to fly to Jesus. He alone can dispel all those negative messages and replace them with the good news of God's love and forgiveness. When we have sinned, it is not the time for us to avoid Jesus but to run to him and beg for his mercy. We can count on him to take our shame away and give us his peace, to take away our guilt and replace it with his joy, and to take away our despair and give us the hope that can only be found in him. We need not fear because he has taken on himself the punishment which we deserve. The one who gave his life to save us will spare nothing in order to restore our friendship with him. We can count on him to treat us with kindness and mercy no matter how shameful our sins may be.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Chasing An Illusion

Today, the Church offers for our reflection one of the most beautiful and moving readings not only of the Bible but of all world literature. So many universal themes are treated in the Parable of the Prodigal Son such as sibling rivalry, loss and redemption that anyone reading it should find a message in it.

However, because this passage from the gospel of Saint Luke is so well known, we can be tempted to think that we have already heard its powerful message of redemption. There is a danger in our believing that there is nothing new for us to learn from it. But that could not be further from the truth. The reason this parable has changed so many hearts and inspired so many lives is the depth and richness of the narrative. No matter how many times we read it or hear it proclaimed, there is a facet of it that can still move us. We need to approach this beautiful parable of Jesus with fresh eyes to draw out the message that God has for us today.

Of all the themes we could dive into today, let us meditate on what this parable tells us about what sin is and the damaging effect it has on us.

Sin, first of all, is an utter rejection of God. When we break the commandments, we are telling God that we no longer want Him to be our Father. We want to live on our own terms and set our own rules. Like the son in the parable, we are happy to collect our inheritance but will no longer live on the farm. We act like ungrateful, spoiled children when we take advantage of all that God has given us, but fail to show Him any gratitude, respect or love. Ultimately, like the father in the parable, we break God’s heart when we sin.

This is an important truth that we should meditate on daily. Through baptism, we are daughters and sons of God. We are known and loved by our Heavenly Father as His dear children. All that we have and all that we are are His free gift to us. There is nothing He is not able to provide us if we ask. The more this truth becomes a reality in our lives, the deeper it sinks into our soul, the less likely we will be to reject our Heavenly Father by choosing sin over grace. We will be motivated to do good and avoid evil not out of fear or guilt but out of love.

Secondly, this parable teaches us that sin is the desire for an illusion. It is a cheap substitute for God’s gifts. The son in the parable did not all of a sudden one day decide to leave his father’s house. There were probably many mornings while working in the fields that he looked out over the fence surrounding his father’s property and thought about how much better life would be in the big city. He may have heard stories about what was going on outside the walls of the farm and wished he could experience the excitement for himself. Over the years, he had built up in his mind a fantasy of what that city must be like until he got to the point that the reality of life on his father’s farm was no longer bearable. He could no longer appreciate all that his father had given him. He had to have more. Unfortunately, it does not take long for him to find out that, once his money was all gone, there was nothing more the big city could give him.

All temptation is nothing more than the devil offering us a counterfeit for what God has already given us. Satan promises us freedom, pleasure and excitement but only delivers shame and heartache. We become vulnerable to temptation when, like the son in the parable, we think that there must be something better in life than we can find in the Church or in our families. When we sin, we tell God that what He has given us is not good enough, that He is holding out on us. Ultimately, we exchange our Heavenly Father’s gifts for a fantasy that never comes true.

Thirdly, when we sin, we lose our dignity. We see this happen in dramatic fashion in today’s parable. In a short amount of time, the son goes from being heir to an estate to working on a pig farm. In fact, he is so hungry that he is ready to jump into the trough alongside the swine. Though he suffered no want in his father’s house, he was utterly penniless once he left. Though he was looked up to as a son in his father’s estate, he was now looked down upon as an unskilled worker in someone else’s farm. He left his father’s house to find adventure, but lost everything in the process including his sense of self-worth.

Sin strips us of our dignity. We become so addicted to the pleasure that it promises us that we are willing to squander anything for one more fix. As we fall deeper and deeper into its clutches, we lose ourselves. It depletes our resources, weakens us physically and weighs us down with shame. In the end, sin has nothing to give us. It is like a parasite that can only take and take and take until we have nothing left to give.

If this parable has much to teach us about sin, it also has much to teach us about God’s forgiving love. When the son returns to the father’s house, he is not greeted by condemnation but by joy. The father runs out to meet the son and, before he can even say how sorry he is, he is given new clothes and treated to a party. All that he lost - his home, his inheritance, his dignity and his relationship with his father - are now restored to him. Sin had impoverished him, but his father was able to enrich him again.

Thanks be to God, it is the same for us. No matter what we have done, no matter how we have offended God, He is always ready to welcome us home. The past is wiped away and replaced with a future filled with hope. As Saint Paul tells us in the second reading, “Whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.” It is never too late for us to go home. We never need to fear that there is only condemnation waiting for us there. We never need to shy away from God thinking that there is no way He would be able to accept and forgive us. The words of Jesus tell us otherwise. “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Let us turn to Him now and experience for ourselves the love, dignity and true freedom that we already have as His sons and daughters.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Life In The Father's House

Jesus never gave a title to his most famous parable which we hear proclaimed today. It has come to be known as "The Prodigal Son" because of how thoroughly the son wastes his father's inheritance. Many scholars, however, have suggested that the parable should be called, "The Forgiving Father" because Jesus goes to such lengths to describe how joyful the father was upon seeing his son home and how ready he was to welcome and forgive him.

However, most of us listening to this parable today will most readily identify not with the prodigal son nor with his forgiving father but with the other son who stayed behind. We can feel his disappointment and anger when he learns that his brother has come home and that, instead of getting scolded or being made to pay the money he squandered back, his father is actually throwing a party for him. We feel the hurt in his voice when he says, "For years I have slaved for you, and you have never given me so much as a kid goat to celebrate with my friends." He reminds us of ourselves at times when we felt overlooked and unappreciated despite our best efforts. If it were up to us, the parable would not be titled "The Prodigal Son", nor "The Forgiving Father" but rather, "The Forgotten Son."

Most likely, Jesus intended the overlooked son to be at the center of his parable of mercy. However, he might have described him as "The Unforgiving Son" or "The Ungrateful Son." 

Let's remember why Jesus told the parable in the first place. The Pharisees had been grumbling that Jesus spent his time with tax collectors and prostitutes - not only speaking with them, but going into their homes and eating with them. He did what no good and pious Jew of his day would ever dream of doing - making friends with those who broke the laws of their ancestors. 

Now, the Pharisees of Jesus' day were very good and sincere people. They prayed and fasted much more than the law required them to do. They set up synagogues so that those who could not travel to Jerusalem would have a place to worship. They gave generously to the poor. In their minds, they were the epitome of what a good Jew should be just as the son in the parable believed himself to be the kind of son his father wanted. 

However, Jesus was a curiosity to them. He spoke with authority and worked miracles giving sight to the blind and raising the dead. But, at the same time, he ate with public sinners. In their minds, if he were truly a prophet or the Son of God, he would know to avoid the company of tax collectors and prostitutes. Also, he would be telling the Pharisees how good they were and would be holding them up as an example for the people to follow. Instead, he criticized the religious leaders, frequented the homes of sinners and invited fishermen to be his disciples.

The Pharisees were truly good people. However, their religious observance filled them with pride. It gave them a sense of entitlement and superiority. It made them judgemental. They forgot that they too were sinners who were forgiven because of God's mercy. Because of this, they were unable to forgive and show mercy to sinners. They were the ungrateful and unforgiving sons who would miss out on the celebration because they could not share their father's joy that the prodigal son had finally returned home.

We find ourselves about one month into our Lenten observance. Some of us have been able to keep our Lenten sacrifice up without falling. Some of us may have cheated a little here and there but are doing our best to keep it up. Still others of us have given up on it all together. The success of our Lenten sacrifices, however, is not in showing how disciplined and determined we can be. It is not an exercise of will power. Rather, the success of our Lenten observance will be the effect it has on our hearts. Are our prayers, fasting and sacrifices making us more loving and more forgiving? Are our hearts growing in compassion for others? Are we recognizing the face of Christ in everyone we meet, especially those who are difficult to love? If so, then our Lenten practice is having a good effect in our lives.

If, on the other hand, our success at staying away from sweets for forty straight days is making us grow in pride and causing us to be judgmental of others, then we have not learned the lesson of God's mercy. What God wants more than perfect discipline and perfect obedience is perfect love. Whenever we feel a sense of superiority or a judgmental spirit coming upon us, we must fly to God and ask him for the gift of humility so that we can grow in the knowledge of his mercy. Otherwise, we will find ourselves out in the cold, like the unforgiving son who did what his father asked of him but who never really knew how good, forgiving and merciful he was.

Jesus suffered and died for each one of us. There is no one who is so good that Jesus did not have to die for him or her. We are all in the same situation - sinners who have no other hope except in the mercy of God. Today, Jesus continues to welcome sinners and eat with them. We are those sinners, and we gather around this table to receive his body and blood. It is a celebration of mercy and forgiveness that has gone on for centuries. It is a celebration which is repeated in heaven whenever people repent of their sinful ways. With the knowledge that we are truly unworthy but loved nonetheless, let us go from this place to put into practice the tender mercy of our Heavenly Father.